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Workers Vanguard No. 877

29 September 2006

The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the Kornilov Coup to the October Revolution

Part One

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below, edited for publication, the first part of a class given by comrade Diana Coleman 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 class covering the period from the February Revolution through the July Days, given by comrade T. Marlow, appeared in WV Nos. 874 (4 August) and 875 (1 September).

The first chapter of Trotsky’s Lessons of October (1924) is called “We Must Study the October Revolution,” and the opening line is: “We met with success in the October Revolution, but the October Revolution has met with little success in our press.” Well, we have an even bigger problem in these years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, as our left-wing opponents who cheered capitalist counterrevolution have effectively renounced any claim to the heritage of October, our contacts have never heard of the Russian Revolution, and our own young members have been heard to say, “We are the party of the Russian Revolution—but I don’t know much about it myself.” We can rectify the last part of that, anyhow. So as comrade Marlow told me, he got the bad part where the Bolsheviks are having all this trouble and I got the good part where they win. The two things I have found most useful to read in addition to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution are Lenin’s Collected Works, Volumes 24, 25, and 26, as well as Alexander Rabinowitch. He is an honest guy who, to his own surprise, came to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks actually interacted with the masses and went in for lively debate.

In Lessons of October Trotsky tried to grapple with the underlying political reasons for the failure of the 1923 German Revolution. He compared the German events and the Russian October. Trotsky details the fights that Lenin waged after February of 1917 in order to rearm the party. It was only these fights that made the victory in October possible. In speaking of the differences in the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky says: “The fundamental controversial question around which everything else centered was this: whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.”

Trotsky defined the Bolshevik tendency as, in essence, “such a training, tempering and organization of the proletarian vanguard as enables the latter to seize power, arms in hand” and the social-democratic (Menshevik) tendency as “the acceptance of reformist oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality—i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state.” The struggle between these tendencies makes itself most strongly felt on the eve of revolution. Trotsky further made the point that there is an intimate connection between the question of power and the question of war.

So these are the questions I kept in mind for this class: the seizure of power, the interimperialist war, and, of course, the party, the party and again the party. Miliukov, the leading representative of the Russian bourgeoisie such as it was, recognized the role of the Bolsheviks as a party when he said: “They knew where they were going, and they went in the direction which they had chosen once for all, toward a goal which came nearer and nearer with every new, unsuccessful experiment of compromisism” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). Yes, but it took struggle, external and internal, because, as Trotsky says, the party is a living organism that develops in contradictions. Actually, I think Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is very helpful in understanding dialectical materialism and contradictions.

The Bolsheviks and the World War

In terms of the interimperialist war, the Bolshevik position of revolutionary defeatism was absolutely crucial to bringing off the October Revolution. The political battles Lenin waged from 4 August 1914, when German Social Democratic parliamentary deputies voted in favor of war credits, to his struggle against the centrist elements, led by German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky, that participated in the international antiwar conferences in Zimmerwald and Kienthal were critical. What Lenin hammered on was the imperialist nature of the war and the revolutionary tasks it demanded; that is, to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war against the bourgeoisie and for socialism.

Another key point was that the greatest danger to the proletariat and to the chances of revolution was the centrists with all their phrases about “peace campaigns” and “peace without annexations” and, as Lenin said, their real program: “peace with the social-chauvinists” (see “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” 10 April 1917). So it was the call for a total break with the Second International and for the formation of a Third International that was the most controversial aspect of Lenin’s program.

With Lenin’s return to Petrograd in April of 1917, the Bolsheviks reaffirmed their intransigent opposition to the imperialist war now being waged by the new “democratic” capitalist government in Russia. Lenin denounced “revolutionary” defensism as “the worst enemy of the further progress and success of the Russian revolution.” Certainly the Bolsheviks attempted to find a “bridge” to the defensist sentiments of the masses. Lenin worked hard to patiently explain the Bolshevik position to the working masses (honest defensists, he called them), who in reality had nothing to gain from the imperialist war, contrasting them with the bourgeoisie, intellectuals and social-patriots, who knew quite well that it is impossible to give up annexations without giving up the rule of capital.

However, there was a bigger question at issue here—dual power. The working masses had overthrown the tsar and created the soviets: incipient organs of proletarian state power. So the proletariat had in hand a conquest worth defending. In Russia there was dual power and a class war was raging; the Bolsheviks had to have a tactical approach that took into account the very real possibility of the seizure of state power by the working class.

The Aftermath of the July Days

I’ll take up where comrade Marlow left off. The period following the July Days was what Trotsky called “the month of the great slander.” Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding; Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Kamenev, Raskolnikov (a Bolshevik sailors’ leader and author of Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917) and many others were jailed. In The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976), Alexander Rabinowitch quotes a Left Menshevik who described the streets of Petrograd on July 5 as “a counterrevolutionary orgy” and said that it was one of the saddest days of his life (a very Menshevik comment). Nevertheless, it was the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary (SR) soviet leaders who were leading the charge in the anti-Bolshevik repression. The Bolsheviks were also blamed for the collapse of the military offensive, a ridiculous charge.

The ever-present Sukhanov, a Left Menshevik often quoted by Trotsky in his History, couldn’t understand why Lenin wouldn’t present himself for a government inquiry into who was responsible for the July unrest. There was some sentiment to this effect in the Bolshevik Party too, but a look at the fate of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, who were murdered in the counterrevolutionary terror unleashed by the Social Democratic government in Berlin in 1919, makes clear exactly what Lenin was worried about. However, the repression following the July Days was shallow and temporary. In The Bolsheviks Come to Power, Rabinowitch has a chapter called “The Ineffectiveness of Repression.” He writes: “Kerensky’s flaming hard-line rhetoric notwithstanding, almost none of the major repressive measures adopted by the cabinet during this period either was fully implemented or successfully achieved its objectives.”

Disarming the workers and the Petrograd garrison units loyal to the Bolsheviks wasn’t very successful. Some army personnel were transferred to the front, but contrary to plan, the units were not dissolved. Although many Bolshevik leaders were arrested, many were released during the Kornilov days and none were ever brought to trial because the revolution intervened. In any case, there were still some 32,000 Bolsheviks loose in Petrograd. Raskolnikov says:

“The events of July 3-5 and the campaign of savage repression which followed them thoroughly exposed the counterrevolutionary and anti-democratic position of the bourgeois government of Kerensky. The Mensheviks and SRs, tangled in the nets of the coalition, discredited themselves finally and irreparably.

“But our persecuted Party, surrounded by the aureole of martyrdom, emerged from these trials even better steeled than before, with its influence and the number of its supporters increased to an unprecedented degree.”

Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 (1925)

In his History, Trotsky comments that in October many local Bolshevik leaders would look at the workers they were leading, remember how they held up in July, and assign tasks accordingly. Lenin’s April Theses gave the party a correct, principled orientation, and the July Days and their aftermath steeled the party, but neither of these resolved the disagreements among the party tops, which reached their sharpest expression during the most decisive moment of the revolution—in the days of October.

Kornilov’s Attempted Coup

The Kornilov events signaled an abrupt shift in the situation to the benefit of the Bolsheviks and the working class. Kornilov: the man with the heart of a lion and the brains of a sheep. Kornilov had been a monarchist of the “Black Hundred” (pogromist) type. Eisenstein’s movie October, which is good despite its anti-Trotsky slander, depicts the previously dismantled statue of the tsar repeatedly leaping back into place during the Kornilov insurrection: a quite apt image. Kornilov was a monarchist, but Miliukov, the epitome of the liberal bourgeoisie, wanted some version of the monarchy, too. One thing that interested me in Trotsky’s History was the two successive chapters titled “Kerensky’s Plot” and “Kornilov’s Insurrection.” I guess the first time I read the book I didn’t understand how much Kerensky was plotting with Kornilov. It was clear that, had the Bolsheviks not mobilized the workers, Kerensky would have just sat there paralyzed as Petrograd was invaded as part of a coup plot that Kerensky had originally thought was going to make him dictator. The Bolsheviks and the workers would have been slaughtered.

During the Kornilov events, Trotsky relates how sailors from the revolutionary Kronstadt garrison asked, “Isn’t it time to arrest the government?” Trotsky’s answer was: “No, not yet.... Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.” The fact that the Kronstadt sailors now listened more carefully to the Bolsheviks than in the July Days showed the maturing of the workers’ and soldiers’ political understanding. Trotsky said the same thing in another way when he said that Kerensky and Kornilov were “two variants of one and the same danger…the one chronic and the other acute” and that you had to “ward off the acute danger first, in order afterwards to settle with the chronic one.”

Trotsky makes some thought-provoking remarks when he talks about aspects of bonapartism in the Russian Revolution. He says that Kerensky was not the representative of the soviets in the government like the SR leader Chernov or the Menshevik Tseretelli, but the living tie between the bourgeoisie and the democracy: the “personal incarnation of the Coalition itself.” Kornilov was a different kind of bonapartist.

Meanwhile, Lenin was arguing against the right-wing deviation in the Bolshevik Party, which manifested itself in drawing closer to the Menshevik and SR soviet majority and, in part, to “defense of the fatherland.” Lenin said: “Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise” (“To the Central Committee of the RSDLP,” 30 August 1917).

So here we see military defense of, but not political support to, the Provisional Government. In the same letter, Lenin explained how this was to be used like an effective united front: “We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.” Lenin continues: “It would be wrong to think that we have moved farther away from the task of the proletariat winning power. No. We have come very close to it, not directly, but from the side.” Lenin kept the proletarian seizure of power in mind at all times.

By August 30, the Kornilov insurrection disintegrated: the railroad workers wouldn’t move him, his troops were won over by Bolshevik agitators, workers tore up the train tracks, etc. Throughout this whole period all these right-wingers were always saying, “If only I had one good regiment!” Except that they never did. The Bolsheviks gained greatly from these events. In his 1922 memoir, Sukhanov spoke candidly about the role of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet “Committee for Struggle Against the Counterrevolution” which included SRs, Mensheviks, as well as Bolsheviks:

“At that time theirs [the Bolsheviks’] was the only organization that was large, welded together by elementary discipline, and united with the democratic rank-and-file of the capital. Without them the Military Revolutionary Committee was impotent; without them it could only have passed the time with makeshift proclamations and flabby speeches by orators who had long since lost all authority. With the Bolsheviks, however, the Military Revolutionary Committee had at its disposal the full power of all organized worker-soldier strength, of whatever kind.”

—N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917 (1955)

That’s right: if you want to fight right-wing reaction you need Bolsheviks!

Kornilov’s Defeat and the Rise of Bolshevism

Alexander Rabinowitch, sort of puzzled, says of Kerensky:

“One might have expected that at this point, having suffered so badly at the hands of the right and having witnessed the enormous power of the left, the prime minister would have taken pains to retain the support of the latter. Yet, obsessed more than ever by fear of the extreme left and still intent on somehow strengthening the war effort, Kerensky now behaved almost as if the Kornilov affair had not happened.... Kerensky began laying plans to form an authoritarian government oriented toward law and order—a right-socialist-liberal coalition cabinet in which the influence of the Kadets would be stronger than ever.”

The Bolsheviks Come to Power

Rabinowitch thinks Kerensky was stupid, but what were Kerensky’s choices? Lenin put it clearly when he said, “Kerensky is a Kornilovite; by sheer accident he has had a quarrel with Kornilov himself, but he remains in the most intimate alliance with other Kornilovites” (“Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks,” September 1917). In any case, by this time the masses were fed up not only with Kornilov, the Kadets and Kerensky, coalitionism in general was discredited too.

Everything was shifting to the left, and the situation of the country was getting worse by the minute: famine was threatening, capitalists were deliberately sabotaging industry, soldiers were starving, Riga had been fairly deliberately abandoned to German imperialism and Petrograd was threatened. Even the Menshevik and SR compromisers were saying that a coalition with the Kadets was no longer thinkable. Of course, the Kadets hadn’t changed any, so why had it been thinkable before?

Lenin had withdrawn the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” in the aftermath of the July Days as Bolsheviks were being hounded and jailed, not least by the Menshevik and SR soviet majority. He now began to think it was necessary to look to the factory committees, instead of the soviets, as the organs of workers power. But between September 1 and 3 he wrote “On Compromises.” Seeing the soviets revitalized by the struggle against Kornilov and the Menshevik and SR compromisers at least talking about “no coalition,” he offered this compromise to them:

“The compromise on our part is our return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets and a government of S.R.s and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets.

“Now, and only now, perhaps during only a few days or a week or two, such a government could be set up and consolidated in a perfectly peaceful way….

“The Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realised), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods of fighting for this demand.”

Instead, with new elections to the soviets and full freedom of propaganda the Bolsheviks would peaceably fight for their ideas. Not surprisingly, the Menshevik and SR compromisers made clear that they were not up for this, which was an important lesson for some Bolsheviks and many workers. The slogan “All Power to the Soviets” was again suspended, but in the next few days the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet, and, following that, in a number of other soviets also. The slogan therefore received a new meaning: all power to the Bolshevik soviets. So now the soviets really represented the interests of the working class, as the proletariat was becoming not merely a class in itself, but a class for itself. In this situation the slogan had decisively ceased to be a slogan of peaceful development. The party was launched on the road of armed insurrection through the soviets and in the name of the soviets.

Lenin’s Struggles with the Central Committee

The seizure of power was clearly on the order of the day, or I should say, it should have been on the order of the day. From mid-September onwards, Lenin began pounding away at this: that the Bolsheviks should get on with it and do it! In “The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power,” written between September 12 and 14, Lenin says: “The point is to make the task clear to the Party. The present task must be an armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow (with its region), the seizing of power and the overthrow of the government. We must consider how to agitate for this without expressly saying as much in the press.”

Let me touch on other things before I get into the political debates over the seizure of power. The April Theses called for a break with the centrists of Zimmerwald and the formation of a Third International. This was not accepted at the April Bolshevik Party conference, where Lenin cast the only vote against participation in a projected Zimmerwald antiwar conference in May. In “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” he wrote: “It is not as yet known in Russia that the Zimmerwald majority are nothing but Kautskyites.” Lenin went on: “The Zimmerwald bog can no longer be tolerated. We must not, for the sake of the Zimmerwald ‘Kautskyites,’ continue the semi-alliance with the chauvinist International of the Plekhanovs and Scheidemanns.”

In May the Bolshevik Central Committee passed a motion that they would walk out of Zimmerwald if the Zimmerwaldists called for any discussion with Second International social-patriots. This battle continued; in August Lenin was denouncing Kamenev for speaking out in public in favor of going to a proposed Stockholm antiwar conference, which was to be a nasty mélange of Russian compromisers, Kautskyites and outright social-patriots. This demonstrated that everything Lenin said as to why they should get out of Zimmerwald was true. Trotsky said the road to Stockholm was the road to the Second International. It is important to remember that in the very heat of the struggle, Lenin did not for a single moment forget the task of creating a new Communist International. It wasn’t until after the October Revolution that the Third International was founded.

Let me talk a little about the Democratic Conference, which went on from September 14-22, and the Pre-Parliament that followed on October 7. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the Democratic Conference, since it’s kind of boring. This was a totally rigged conference in which the Mensheviks and SRs saw to it that conservative and outright bourgeois forces were preponderant. Through the channel of the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament, the political awareness of the masses was to be directed away from the soviets, as “temporary” and dying institutions, to the Constituent Assembly and a bourgeois republic. Lenin was still in hiding, chafing at the refusal of the Bolshevik Central Committee to get on with the insurrection. In his spare time he was writing The State and Revolution, which he made Kamenev promise to complete and print if he were to be assassinated.

Just as the Democratic Conference closed, Lenin wrote for the Bolshevik newspaper an article referring to it as a “hideous fraud” and a “pigsty” and comparing it to the Duma (Russian parliament under the tsar). The second part of Lenin’s article took on the errors of the Bolsheviks and argued that when the nature of the conference became clear, the Bolsheviks should have walked out in protest. In a comradely but direct way, the article specifically takes up Kamenev and Zinoviev, their enthusiasm for the conference and their weak speeches. Lenin stated that 99 percent of the Bolshevik delegation should have left the Democratic Conference and gone to the factories and barracks to discuss with the masses the lessons of this farcical conference and the rottenness of the Menshevik and SR compromisers. It is revealing that although Lenin wanted this article, titled “Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks,” to be published in the Bolshevik paper, it was censored by the Editorial Board so that it was only called “Heroes of Fraud,” and all direct criticisms of the Bolsheviks were edited out. We can assume Lenin was furious and worried.

Within a few days, Lenin had concluded that the Bolsheviks never should have gone to the Democratic Conference and was arguing furiously for a boycott of the upcoming Pre-Parliament, as was Trotsky. They were not immediately successful. The majority of the large fraction who had gone to the Democratic Conference was in favor of going to the Pre-Parliament—you have to keep your eye on those parliamentary fractions, something that comrades used to remind me of when I ran for office. Lenin demanded to know: Who was the parliamentary fraction to decide these questions in any case? He was on the warpath, despite the comparatively narrow scope of the question, because it was another attempt by the rightist leaders in the party to turn the party onto the road of “completing the democratic revolution.” In reality the quarrel revived the April disagreements and initiated the disagreements of October. Actually, as comrade George Foster has pointed out, the differences with Kamenev and Stalin went back to 1912.

Toward the Proletarian Conquest of Power

The question was whether the party should accommodate its tasks to the development of a bourgeois republic, or set itself the goal of the conquest of power by the proletariat. The deeper one went into the rank and file of the party, the more members were for the boycott of the Pre-Parliament. The Kiev citywide conference, calling for the boycott, stated: “There is no use wasting time in chattering and spreading illusions” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). Thus, the party promptly corrected its leaders. In the end, the Bolsheviks only went to the Pre-Parliament to denounce the whole thing in a ten-minute-long speech by Trotsky and then walked out.

The Bolshevization of the masses was proceeding apace all over the country, as were the peasant seizures of land—a real peasant war in the countryside. This was a necessary component of the revolution. The Menshevik and SR compromisers were appalled, but consoled themselves with the thought that this was just the ignorant “dark masses.” “Their Bolshevism,” wrote Sukhanov scornfully, “was nothing but hatred for the coalition and longing for land and peace” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). As though this were so little! Hatred for the coalition meant a desire to take power from the bourgeoisie. Land and peace was the colossal program which the peasant and soldier masses intended to carry out under the leadership of the workers.

The agitation for the Second Congress of Soviets was wildly popular with the masses because everyone knew it would have a Bolshevik majority. Consequently, it was unpopular with the Menshevik and SR compromisers, who kept trying to put off the congress. Like any form of representative government, the soviets were not perfect; especially in times of rapid shifts in consciousness they lagged behind the masses. By September you see Lenin writing very specific articles like “The Impending Catastrophe and How To Combat It” in which he lays out the socialist tasks that the proletariat must take on, even with the understanding that Russia was a backward country: nationalization of the banks and workers control of industry. He wrote: “It is impossible…to go forward without advancing towards socialism, without taking steps towards it (steps conditioned and determined by the level of technology and culture: large-scale machine production cannot be ‘introduced’ in peasant agriculture nor abolished in the sugar industry).”



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