Documents in: Bahasa Indonesia Deutsch Español Français Italiano Japanese Polski Português Russian Chinese Tagalog
International Communist League
Home Spartacist, theoretical and documentary repository of the ICL, incorporating Women & Revolution Workers Vanguard, biweekly organ of the Spartacist League/U.S. Periodicals and directory of the sections of the ICL ICL Declaration of Principles in multiple languages Other literature of the ICL ICL events

Subscribe to Workers Vanguard

View archives

Printable version of this article

Workers Vanguard No. 875

1 September 2006

The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the February Revolution to the July Days

Part Two

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below, edited for publication, the second and concluding part of a class given by comrade T. Marlow as part of a series of educationals on Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution (1932), which was held in January of this year as a Spartacist League young cadre school. The first part appears in WV No. 874, 4 August.

During the February Revolution and the subsequent month, Lenin was still in exile in Switzerland, desperately trying to find a way to get to Russia. During March, the attitude of the Bolshevik leaders in Russia came very close to the position of the Mensheviks. On March 15, Pravda, then edited by Stalin, Kamenev and Muranov, carried an article which declared:

“Our slogan is not the empty cry ‘Down with war!’ which means the disorganization of the revolutionary army and of the army that is becoming ever more revolutionary. Our slogan is bring pressure [!] to bear on the Provisional Government so as to compel it to make, without fail, openly and before the eyes of world democracy [!], an attempt [!] to induce [!] all the warring countries to initiate immediate negotiations to end the world war. Till then let everyone [!] remain at his post [!].” [Trotsky’s emphases]

—Leon Trotsky, Lessons of October (1924)

This article was wholly in the spirit of the “revolutionary” defensism of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs)—i.e., the Russian Revolution had achieved the main task of overthrowing the monarchy, and the “revolution” and its “free people” had to defend themselves against the German Kaiser. What this really meant was that the war aims of the Russian bourgeoisie would continue, now under the cover of “democracy” rather than the Romanov eagle. This defensism stood in stark contrast to the position of revolutionary defeatism advocated by Lenin and the Bolsheviks during WWI. In opposition to the Mensheviks and the social-democratic leaders throughout Europe who either outright supported their own imperialist ruling class, or begged the imperialists for a just peace, Lenin maintained that the working class had no side in the interimperialist war and that the only road to peace was for the working class of each of the belligerent nations to turn the imperialist war into a civil war to overthrow the capitalist rulers.

A measure of how far the Bolsheviks had gone toward conciliating the Mensheviks following the February Revolution was that, as Trotsky notes in his History, in some of the provinces the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had entered into united organizations. In fact, party leaders such as Stalin were advocating fusion with the Mensheviks at the beginning of the April party conference. As you should recognize, Lenin had his work cut out for him.

Lenin had made many key positions clear in his “Letters from Afar” of March. He was explicit that any conciliation of defensism vis-à-vis the imperialist war was a split question. In his History, Trotsky cites a March letter from Lenin: “Our party would disgrace itself forever, kill itself politically, if it took part in such deceit…. I would choose an immediate split with no matter whom in our party, rather than surrender to social patriotism….” In any case, the speech Lenin gave upon his arrival in Petrograd on April 3 on the socialist character of the Russian Revolution should have been less of a surprise to the Bolsheviks than it apparently was.

Lenin’s Fight to Rearm the Party

On April 4, Lenin presented the brilliant theses now known as the “April Theses.” In the space of only a few pages, Lenin reasserted the strategic aims of the Bolsheviks, from which they had been sliding, and promulgated a whole new tactical orientation for the party. This included the abandonment of old slogans, such as the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” in favor of a direct struggle for proletarian power in Russia. In doing so, Lenin repudiated in practice the faulty formula of a two-class dictatorship, arriving at essentially the same conception of the Russian Revolution as Trotsky had outlined as early as 1905 and which became known as the theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky understood that the completion of the democratic revolution in backward Russia was conceivable only as the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry, and that the seizure of power by the working class in Russia would place on the order of the day not only the democratic, but also the socialist tasks. This would give a powerful impetus to international socialist revolution, which was necessary for the development of socialism in Russia. [For further background on the Mensheviks’, the Bolsheviks’ and Trotsky’s conceptions of the Russian Revolution, see: “The Russian Revolution of 1905,” WV No. 872, 9 June.]

Lenin’s April Theses also called for the construction of a new, revolutionary Third International. The need for a new international and a break with the social-chauvinists, including the wavering centrist elements that followed German social-democratic leader Karl Kautsky, had been a demand by Lenin since the beginning of the imperialist war.

There was no small opposition to Lenin—he had to wage a fight to win over the party, at times even threatening to go outside the Central Committee and appeal directly to the ranks. In short, that posed a faction fight and a split. It is notable that when the April Theses were published in Pravda on April 7, not a single member of the Central Committee would cosign Lenin’s article. In fact, the editors of Pravda wrote: “As for the general scheme of Comrade Lenin, it seems to us unacceptable in that it starts from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is ended, and counts upon an immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). The seriousness of the situation within the party was well summarized by Trotsky:

“The central organ of the party thus openly announced before the working class and its enemies a split with the generally recognised leader of the party upon the central question of the revolution for which the Bolshevik ranks had been getting ready during a long period of years. That alone is sufficient to show the depth of the April crisis in the party, due to the clash of two irreconcilable lines of thought and action. Until it surmounted this crisis the revolution could not go forward.”

Bourgeois-Democratic or Socialist Revolution?

The “Old Bolsheviks,” including Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, seemed to believe that the old slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” had been realized in some amalgam of the Provisional Government and the soviets—later, in October of 1917, Zinoviev and Kamenev, in opposition to the Central Committee vote for armed insurrection, would explicitly proclaim that: “The Constituent Assembly plus the soviets—that is that combined type of state institution towards which we are going” (quoted in Lessons of October). That would have been the death of the Russian Revolution.

Before the convocation of the all-Russian conference of the Bolshevik Party on April 24, events in Petrograd strongly underlined that Lenin’s reorientation of the party was correct and overdue. Perhaps as a slap in the face to the soviets, on April 18, Miliukov, leader of the Kadets and at that point the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government, made public a letter reaffirming Russia’s commitment to the imperialist war. On the Western calendar this occurred on May 1—the international workers holiday. On that day in Petrograd there were peaceful and celebratory demonstrations. Miliukov’s letter provoked deep outrage among the masses of Petrograd, and on April 20, as Trotsky describes in his History: “The masses came out with arms in their hands. Among the bayonets of the soldiers glimmered the letters on a streamer: ‘Down with Miliukov!’” Trotsky goes on to note: “The slogan carried into the streets by the armed soldiers and sailors: ‘Down with the Provisional Government!’ inevitably introduced into the demonstration a strain of armed insurrection.”

This was a far cry from the almost festive demonstration of only a month before when 800,000 came out for the funeral of the martyrs of the February Revolution. The April 20 demonstration was not to be the last time that the Petrograd masses came out, arms in hand, with the evident intent to seize state power but without the leadership to carry the struggle to victory. That leadership would only be in place in October.

So the Bolshevik conference convened alongside a serious revolutionary manifestation of the Petrograd workers—and this was keenly felt by the Bolshevik workers inside the plants and in the lower-level soviets. Lenin was above all an astute politician! As Trotsky relates in Lessons of October:

“This manner of formulating the question is most highly significant. Lenin, after the experience of the reconnoiter, withdrew the slogan of the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. But he did not withdraw it for any set period of time—for so many weeks or months —but strictly in dependence upon how quickly the revolt of the masses against the conciliationists would grow…. He based himself exclusively on the idea that the masses were not at the moment capable of overthrowing the Provisional Government and that, therefore, everything possible had to be done to enable the working class to overthrow the Provisional Government on the morrow.

“The whole of the April Party Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of power in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (anybody and everybody) to complete the democratic revolution? Unfortunately, the report of the April Conference remains unpublished to this very day, though there is scarcely another congress in the history of our party that had such an exceptional and immediate bearing on the destiny of our revolution as the conference of April 1917.

“Lenin’s position was this: an irreconcilable struggle against defensism and its supporters; the capture of the soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets; a revolutionary peace policy and a program of socialist revolution at home and of international revolution abroad.”

The First Coalition Government and the June Congress of Soviets

Prior to April, and with the exception of Kerensky, who had joined the Provisional Government as Minister of Justice in March, the Compromiser (SR and Menshevik) leadership of the Soviets had tried to give up the power of the soviets without openly joining the bourgeois government. In early May, the first coalition government was formed. Kerensky (who had joined the SRs after the February Revolution) became the Minister of War. Mensheviks and SRs also took on ministerial posts in the Provisional Government. This was a political betrayal of the mass base of the soviets, but it flowed harmoniously with the basic politics of the Compromisers. As Trotsky relates in Lessons of October:

“As a matter of fact, the Mensheviks had for many years tapped away like so many woodpeckers at the idea that the coming revolution must be bourgeois; that the government of a bourgeois revolution could only perform bourgeois tasks; that the social democracy could not take upon itself the tasks of bourgeois democracy and must remain an opposition while ‘pushing the bourgeoisie to the left.’ This theme was developed with a particularly boring profundity by Martynov. With the inception of the bourgeois revolution in 1917, the Mensheviks soon found themselves on the staff of the government. Out of their entire ‘principled’ position there remained only one political conclusion, namely, that the proletariat dare not seize power.”

On May 1, the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet voted to enter the coalition government. As a gesture to the masses, Miliukov was forced to resign as foreign minister the next day. (In his History, Trotsky notes one proposal by an SR leader to defuse the crisis precipitated by Miliukov’s note: “Chernov found a brilliant solution, proposing that Miliukov go over to the Ministry of Public Education. Constantinople as a topic in geography would at any rate be less dangerous than as a topic in diplomacy.”) Miliukov’s resignation was just a sop to the masses, since the government continued to carry out the policies of the bourgeoisie, especially with regard to the war.

On June 3, the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets opened. To give an idea of the masses represented by the soviets, Trotsky writes in his History that “The right to a vote was accorded to soviets containing not less than 25,000 men. Soviets containing from 10,000 to 25,000 had a voice.” But it was not the factories and barracks who were in control, but rather the Compromisers who entered the first coalition government in May. One of the “achievements” of this Congress was to give formal approval to a new offensive against the German forces. This ill-fated plan, issued by Kerensky, was in fact the Russian bourgeoisie’s partial payment to the Entente for the massive loans from Britain and France. It is doubtful that any member of the Russian bourgeoisie thought this military attack could succeed. As Trotsky relates in his History:

“The American journalist, John Reed, who knew how to see and hear, and who has left an immortal book of chronicler’s notes of the days of the October Revolution, testifies without hesitation that a considerable part of the possessing classes of Russia preferred a German victory to the triumph of the revolution, and did not hesitate to say so openly. ‘One evening I spent at the house of a Moscow merchant,’ says Reed, among other examples. ‘During tea we asked eleven people at the table whether they preferred “Wilhelm or the Bolsheviks.” The vote was ten to one for Wilhelm’.”

This would not be the first time in history that the bourgeoisie became defeatist—just look at the Paris Commune. In the aftermath of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, the workers took power in Paris to defend the city. Thiers and all the great French patriots then began to beg for Bismarck, their enemy of yesterday, to intervene. With the assistance of the Prussians, the bourgeois French army was allowed to first bombard, and then enter, Paris. In the repression that followed, tens of thousands of Communards and workers were either executed on the spot or imprisoned. And note that the crushing of the Commune of 1871 was not so far distant in time in 1917—it’s less than the span of time separating us today from the end of World War II.

A Shift in the Balance of Forces

The Bolsheviks issued a call for a demonstration in June while the Congress of Soviets was in session. This was not intended to be a call for an insurrection, although the impetus came from the Bolshevik military organization. No matter, that’s how the Mensheviks and SRs took it, because they knew that the Petrograd masses were shifting to the Bolsheviks. They used their position at the head of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet to pass a resolution prohibiting any demonstrations for three days. Delegates were sent from the Congress of Soviets to the working-class districts—as Trotsky put it, “If the mountain was not allowed to come to the prophet, the prophet at least went to the mountain.”

Not wishing a direct assault against the Soviet, the Bolsheviks stood down. But as Trotsky notes, the emissaries of the Mensheviks and SRs were met with disdain and hostility. One example from the History: “The workers of the Putilov factory agreed to paste up the declaration of the congress against the demonstration only after they learned from Pravda that it did not contradict the resolution of the Bolsheviks.” This reaction was comparatively mild. Elsewhere, the Bolsheviks’ decision was not so easily accepted:

“The masses submitted to the decision of the Bolsheviks, but not without protest and indignation. In certain factories they adopted resolutions of censure of the Central Committee. The more fiery members of the party in the sections tore up their membership cards. That was a serious warning.”

The Mensheviks and SRs were out for blood—shades of things to come in just a few weeks. On June 10, the Menshevik paper declared: “It is time to brand the Leninists as traitors and betrayers of the revolution” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). The next day, the Menshevik leader Tseretelli demanded that the Bolsheviks be disarmed. What he really meant was disarming the workers. As Trotsky summarized: “In other words, that classic moment of the revolution had arrived when the bourgeois democracy, upon the demand of the reaction, undertakes to disarm the workers who had guaranteed the revolutionary victory.” Trotsky later notes: “To carry the Compromise policy through to a successful end—that is, to the establishment of a parliamentary rule of the bourgeoisie—demanded the disarming of the workers and soldiers.”

The Mensheviks decided on a public show of force in a demonstration on June 18. The march was to replicate the peaceful parade in March to honor the martyrs of February. At that time, some 800,000 had turned out. This time, half that number marched, but the vast majority were from the factories and barracks. In his History, Trotsky describes the procession:

“The first Bolshevik slogans were met half-laughingly—Tseretelli had so confidently thrown down his challenge the day before. But these same slogans were repeated again and again. ‘Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists!’ ‘Down with the Offensive’ ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ The ironical smiles froze, and then gradually disappeared. Bolshevik banners floated everywhere. The delegates stopped counting the uncomfortable totals. The triumph of the Bolsheviks was too obvious.... One of the factories carried a placard: ‘The right to Life is Higher than the rights of Private Property.’ This slogan had not been suggested by the party.”

Trotsky went on to note: “The demonstration of June 18 made an enormous impression on its own participants. The masses saw that the Bolsheviks had become a power, and the vacillating were drawn to them.” The contradiction between the growing strength of the Bolsheviks and the decline of the authority of the Menshevik/SR leadership of the Soviet would condition the entire period leading up to the October Revolution.

The July Days

It is interesting to note that in the period from February through June, the Bolsheviks had undergone a virtually uninterrupted growth of influence in the working class and also among the Petrograd garrison. Revolutions rarely occur with such a seamless transition, and Russia in 1917 was no exception. The forces of counterrevolution were far from dead, and the ruling class wanted revenge for the humiliation of the June demonstration.

The June 18 demonstration showed clearly that at the base in the factories and some of the garrisons of Petrograd, the Bolsheviks had become the majority, or close to it. It was far from clear that the same situation applied in the provinces or on the front. The full impact of the offensive ordered by Kerensky on June 16—a fully predictable debacle—had yet to become known. But in Petrograd, the masses had reached the boiling point. Everything was in collapse, including transport, food and fuel. The February Revolution was sparked by a mass desire both to be rid of the Romanov dynasty and to put an end to the war—but several months later the murderous war was still raging.

The July 3-5 events were a semi-insurrection. Rejecting attempts by Bolshevik orators to contain the July 3 demonstration, soldiers marching in their regiments shouted “Down! Down!” As Trotsky relates in the History: “Such cries the Bolshevik balcony had never yet heard from the soldiers; it was an alarming sign. Behind the regiments the factories began to march up: ‘All power to the Soviets!’ ‘Down with the ten minister capitalists!’ Those had been the banners of June 18th, but now they were hedged with bayonets.” The Bolsheviks had tried to restrain the masses, but were unable to do so. Trotsky noted: “The Central Committee was oftener and oftener compelled to send agitators to the troops and the factories to restrain them from untimely action. With an embarrassed shake of the head, the Vyborg Bolsheviks would complain to their friends: ‘We have to play the part of the fire hose’.”

The insurrectionary sentiment of the workers and soldiers was captured by Trotsky in his descriptions of their military preparations: “On the morning of July 3, several thousand machine-gunners, after breaking up a meeting of the company and regimental committees of their regiment, elected a chairman of their own and demanded immediate consideration of the question of an armed manifestation.” Trotsky continues:

“In the yard of the barracks a no less feverish work was going on. They were giving out rifles to the soldiers who did not possess them, giving bombs to some, installing three machine-guns with operators on each motor truck supplied by the factories. The regiment was to go into the street in full military array….

“The longest struggle took place at the Putilov Factory. At about two in the afternoon a rumour went round that a delegation had come from the machine-gun unit, and was calling a meeting. About ten thousand men assembled. To shouts of encouragement, the machine-gunners told how they had received an order to go to the front on the 4th of July, but they had decided ‘to go not to the German front, against the German proletariat, but against their own capitalist ministers’.”

Raskolnikov, a naval officer and a Bolshevik, desperately phoned the party headquarters for advice, since the Kronstadt sailors were determined to go out arms in hand. After initially opposing the demonstration, the Bolshevik leadership acquiesced. Rather than leaving the masses leaderless, the Bolsheviks went into battle with the demonstrators to provide leadership for an orderly retreat.

The July Days represent the last gasp of the February Revolution, and a foretaste of October. All the contending classes were put on notice, and the counterrevolution did not shrink from battle. While the demonstrations of July 3 and 4 showed the power of the armed workers and soldiers, they did not attempt a seizure of state power. The Compromiser leadership of the Soviets railed against the masses who had come out for “All Power to the Soviets!” Trotsky writes:

“The Compromisers were waiting for reliable regiments. ‘A revolutionary people is in the streets,’ cried [the Menshevik] Dan, ‘but that people is engaged in a counter-revolutionary work.’ Dan was supported by Abramovich, one of the leaders of the Jewish Bund, a conservative pedant whose every instinct had been outraged by the revolution.”

Among the “reliable” troops the government and the Soviet leaders counted on were the Cossacks; in August, Kerensky would appeal to the Cossack general Kornilov to send a cavalry corps to Petrograd.

The wave of the semi-insurrection broke, in some cases with clashes with government troops. The revolutionary wave was quickly replaced by a counterrevolutionary campaign to drive the Bolsheviks underground. Trotsky was jailed; Lenin went into hiding. Lenin understood the importance of preserving the Bolshevik central cadre. Since 1914, Lenin had understood that the Social Democrats who supported “their” bourgeoisies in the war were agents of the class enemy rather than comrades gone astray. This prescient understanding was reinforced in the positive in October 1917 in Russia and tragically in the negative with the murders of Liebknecht and Luxemburg during the counterrevolutionary terror unleashed by the German Social Democrats following the Spartacus uprising in Berlin in January 1919.

The July Days illustrate with the clarity of a lightning strike the instability of the dual power which issued from the February Revolution. Either the bourgeoisie with its servile Menshevik and SR agents would liquidate the soviets in favor of some bourgeois parliament—in fact a rubber stamp for a military dictatorship—or the workers would seize the state power. The latter could occur via the soviets, or perhaps through the factory committees of the organized workers—Lenin remained flexible about the organizational form, particularly when the soviets under the leadership of the Mensheviks and SRs were more obstacles than assistants to the proletarian revolution.

The repression of the Bolsheviks following the July Days was short-lived. The party rebounded, as the workers and soldiers returned to its banners and leadership. This would be starkly shown when the bourgeoisie placed all their hopes in the Cossack general Kornilov in August. That gamble they lost. Kornilov’s coup failed, and it took a party with the determination to realize its revolutionary program in life to both repulse Kornilov and provide proletarian leadership to the agrarian revolt in the summer. That also involved internal party struggle. The great events of late 1917 are known to us not as the October Evolution but the October Revolution. The difference is qualitative, and indicates the divide between reformism of all stripes and Bolshevism, i.e., revolutionary Marxism.


Workers Vanguard No. 875

WV 875

1 September 2006


Lebanon: Down With UN Intervention! Israel Out Now!

U.S. Out of Iraq, Afghanistan! Hands Off Iran!

For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!


Join PDC Contingent—Oakland, September 15!

For Class-Struggle Defense to Free Mumia Now!

There Is No Justice in the Capitalist Courts!


Chicago Police Torture Machine

Racist Cops Let Off


Defend Canadian Public Workers Union!

Defend the Palestinians!

Zionist Backlash Over "Boycott Israel" Call




Bolshevism and the Spanish Civil War

(Quote of the Week)


Bush, the Democrats and the London "Terror" Scare

(Editorial Note)


Defend Chinese Deformed Workers State!

For Proletarian Political Revolution!

China's "Market Reforms": A Trotskyist Analysis

Part Two


The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the February Revolution to the July Days

Part Two

(Young Spartacus pages)


South Africa

Permanent Revolution vs. "Two-Stage" Stalinist Betrayal


Join the Spartacus Youth Club!

Ten Point Program