Workers Vanguard No. 879

27 October 2006


The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the Kornilov Coup to the October Revolution

Part Two

(Young Spartacus pages)

We print below, edited for publication, the second and concluding 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 first part appears in WV No. 877, 29 September.

Let me speak about the war again. In his History, Trotsky said sharply of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda, which was rejecting revolutionary defeatism in March: “‘Defeatism’ was not invented by a hostile press under the protection of a censorship, it was proclaimed by Lenin in the formula: ‘The defeat of Russia is the lesser evil.’ The appearance of the first revolutionary regiment, and even the overthrow of the monarchy, did not alter the imperialist character of the war.” From February to October, the Bolsheviks began to wield the peace demand more directly because the proletarian seizure of power, the necessary precondition for realizing that demand, was now on the agenda. Lenin never repudiated his scathing pre-1917 polemics against the social pacifists, like Kautsky, or those who conciliated them, like Trotsky at that time. These polemics were crucial to winning Trotsky to Bolshevism and genuine revolutionary internationalism. For Lenin, any demands for peace were now inseparable from the impending socialist revolution and the seizure of power.

Lenin gave an instructive talk on 14 May of 1917 appropriately titled “War and Revolution.” He starts out talking about the need to understand the “class character of the war,” i.e., what the war is waged for and what classes staged and directed it. He said:

“We Marxists do not belong to that category of people who are unqualified opponents of all war. We say: our aim is to achieve a socialist system of society…. But in the war to win that socialist system of society we are bound to encounter conditions under which the class struggle within each given nation may come up against a war between the different nations, a war conditioned by this very class struggle. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility of revolutionary wars.”

Lenin ridicules the declarations of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary (SR) compromisers for “peace without annexations” when they have ministers in the Provisional Government that is telling the army to take the offensive. He goes on to say:

“The Russian revolution has not altered the war, but it has created organizations which exist in no other country…. We have all over Russia a network of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies. Here is a revolution which has not said its last word yet. Here is a revolution which Western Europe, under similar conditions, has not known. Here are organizations of those classes which really have no need for annexations….”

Lenin is talking about dual power here. In ending this article he says:

“Nothing but a workers’ revolution in several countries can defeat this war. The war is not a game, it is an appalling thing taking toll of millions of lives, and it is not to be ended easily.

“The soldiers at the front cannot tear the front away from the rest of the state and settle things their own way. The soldiers at the front are a part of the country. So long as the country is at war the front will suffer along with the rest…. Whether you will get a speedy peace or not depends on how the revolution will develop.”

In this article and in many others you see Lenin’s internationalism: “When power passes to the Soviets the capitalists will come out against us. Japan, France, Britain—the governments of all countries will be against us. The capitalists will be against, but the workers will be for us. That will be the end of the war which the capitalists started.” You also see him taking the situation of dual power into account and actually planning for what will happen after the Soviets seize power. There are a lot of articles where he ridicules the idea that peace conferences and peace resolutions can end interimperialist war and states that only the proletarian seizure of power can do that. Although the Bolsheviks certainly supported mass fraternization at the front, which Lenin called an “instinctive” response, the soldiers had to understand that this would not end the war.

I recommend the book Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 by the Bolshevik sailors’ leader F.F. Raskolnikov. It is a very lively and readable account of revolutionary Kronstadt and Bolshevik work in the army and navy. Trotsky talks about how sailors from Kronstadt toured the country with special mandates from the Kronstadt Soviet granting them free transport and the right to vote in, speak at and even convene local committee meetings. Raskolnikov describes one of the tours he went on to different ships in the active navy “which at that time had still not emerged from under the influence of ‘compromiser’ sentiments.” In one place he unmasked a former editor of a “Black Hundreds” [pogromist] publication who had become the deputy chairman of a soviet as an SR. In another he spoke, somewhat nervously, to a ship’s crew that had only a few months back passed a resolution calling for “war to the end,” but was welcomed enthusiastically as he denounced the war, the government and the coalition with the bourgeoisie. On another ship a rightist officer threw his comrade off the deck. Elsewhere he spoke to a group of Bolshevik-minded Estonians through an interpreter. It is fun reading.

The Fall of Riga and “Defensism”

In Volume One of The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky says of the liberal bourgeoisie: “In external appearance the war policy of liberalism remained aggressive-patriotic, annexationist, irreconcilable. In reality it was self-contradictory, treacherous, and rapidly becoming defeatist.” Since the liberal bourgeoisie didn’t think it could use the February Revolution to advance the war, they planned “to use the war against the revolution.” Trotsky noted, “The concern of the moment was not to secure advantageous international conditions for bourgeois Russia, but to save the bourgeois regime itself, even at the price of Russia’s further enfeeblement.”

On August 20, German forces occupied the key Russian seaport of Riga. Baltic sailors had been fighting to protect the approaches to Petrograd, in their words, “not in the name of the treaties of our rulers with the allies…but in the name of the defense of the approaches to the hearth-fire of the revolution, Petrograd.” Trotsky calls this “the deep contradiction in their position as vanguards of a revolution and involuntary participants in an imperialist war.” These events tested the Bolsheviks’ internationalism. They did not for a minute intend to share with the ruling groups the responsibility, before the Russian people and the workers of the world, for the war.

Fearing that defensive moods would turn into a defensist policy, Lenin wrote: “We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat…. Neither the capture of Riga nor the capture of Petrograd will make us defencists.” Writing from prison, Trotsky said: “The fall of Riga is a cruel blow. The fall of Petersburg would be a misfortune. But the fall of the international policy of the Russian proletariat would be ruinous.” In the first week of October, fears about a German attack on Petrograd again mounted sharply.

The Provisional Government began actively to plan to abandon Petrograd and set up the government in Moscow. Rabinowitch [The Bolsheviks Come to Power (1976)] says cautiously that “there is no direct evidence that the Provisional Government ever seriously entertained the idea of surrendering Petrograd to the Germans without a fight,” but he is at least honest enough to say why everybody thought exactly that. Rodzianko, the former head of the State Duma, said: “Petrograd appears threatened…. I say, to hell with Petrograd…. People fear our central institutions in Petrograd will be destroyed. To this, let me say that I should be glad if these institutions are destroyed because they have brought Russia nothing but grief.” The workers and peasants, especially after Rodzianko’s blunt confession, had no doubt that the government was getting ready to send them to school under German general Ludendorff. This echoes the “patriotism” of the French bourgeoisie in 1871, who begged Bismarck to come in and crush the Paris Commune.

Lenin was calling for insurrection now, not least because revolutionary Petrograd with its majority Bolshevik Soviet was being directly threatened with a bloodbath by German imperialism; a conspiracy was entered into by the Kerensky government and the Anglo-French imperialists to surrender Petrograd to the Germans, and in this way to suppress the revolution. Lenin called for the overthrow of the Kerensky government and the substitution of a workers’ and peasants’ government “to open the road to peace, to save Petrograd and the revolution, and to give the land to the peasants and power to the Soviets.” The shift in Bolshevik propagandistic emphasis led Lenin to remark in 1918 that “we were defeatists at the time of the tsar, but at the time of Tsereteli and Chernov we were not defeatists.” The Bolsheviks never abandoned a defeatist posture toward the Russian bourgeois government—they simply varied the tactical application because of the class war then raging in Russia.

The Revolutionary Crisis Matures

The Bolsheviks as an organization had to decide to proceed with the revolution. All but one of the copies of the letter that I referred to before, titled “The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power,” were burned by the majority of the Central Committee, who had been trying to keep Lenin’s appeals from getting into the hands of the worker-Bolsheviks. Lenin, still in hiding, was raging and writing to everybody: Smilga who was a party leftist and president of the Regional Committee of the Soviets, Krupskaya in Petrograd who read his letters out to the Vyborg District Committee. By the time Lenin wrote “The Crisis Has Matured” on September 29, he was tendering his resignation from the Central Committee to free his hands to go to the party membership. One worker from the Vyborg District Committee said: “We got a letter from Ilych for delivery to the Central Committee…. We read the letter and gasped. It seems that Lenin had long ago put before the Central Committee the question of insurrection. We raised a row. We began to bring pressure on them.”

Early in October—and now over the head of the Bolshevik Central Committee—Lenin wrote directly to the Petrograd and Moscow Committees: “Delay is criminal. To wait for the Congress of Soviets would be…a disgraceful game of formalities, and a betrayal of the revolution.” He noted that the masses could just as easily become disillusioned with the Bolsheviks as they had with other parties, if the Bolsheviks failed to act. As laid out in Trotsky’s Lessons of October, the basic position of the rightists in the party, led by Zinoviev and Kamenev, was that the party would be risking everything in an armed insurrection, the outcome of which was extremely dubious, when they could be winning “a third and even more of the seats in the Constituent Assembly.” This purely parliamentary, social-democratic course was thinly camouflaged by their assertion that, of course, the soviets were important and that dual power would continue for an unlimited length of time. No, that was not possible; there would have been another Kornilov or perhaps he would have returned.

Of course, if Kamenev and Zinoviev’s policy had won, we would be hearing today about the massive forces arrayed against the revolution and how it was impossible anyhow. Like so many defeats, from Germany and China in the 1920s to Spain in the 1930s, which occurred because of the lack of a vanguard party with a hardened revolutionary leadership, had the Bolsheviks failed to lead the October Revolution the defeat would all be blamed on the objective situation and the backwardness of the masses. This is what I call the Stalinist theory of the crisis of followers, where they say, “We tried to lead you, but you wouldn’t follow.”

The first showdown in the Bolshevik leadership over the insurrection was the famous meeting on October 10 where the insurrection was voted up ten votes to two—Zinoviev and Kamenev voted against. The resolution, as is typical of Lenin, starts with the international situation, that is, the ripening of world revolution; the insurrection in Russia is regarded only as a link in the general chain. The idea of having socialism in one country was not in anyone’s mind then, even Stalin’s.

Rabinowitch tells a funny story about the October 10 meeting:

“This was to be Lenin’s first direct confrontation with the Central Committee since his return from Finland; it had been carefully organized by Sverdlov at Lenin’s behest. By an ironic twist of fate the gathering was to be held in the apartment of the left Menshevik Sukhanov, that unsurpassed chronicler of the revolution who had somehow managed to turn up at almost every important political meeting in Petrograd since the February revolution. But on this occasion Sukhanov was not in attendance. His wife, Galina Flakserman, a Bolshevik activist since 1905…once had offered Sverdlov the use of the Sukhanov flat, should the need arise…. For her part, Flakserman insured that her meddlesome husband would remain away on this historic night. ‘The weather is wretched, and you must promise not to try to make it all the way back home tonight,’ she had counseled solicitously as he departed for work early that morning.”

Talk about a strained personal relationship!

The resolution of October 10 was immensely important. It promptly put the genuine advocates of insurrection on the firm ground of the party majority. The workers were arming, drilling, setting up the Red Guards. Workers at the weapons factories were funneling weapons directly to the workers. But the October 10 meeting certainly did not eliminate the differences in the leadership. There was another meeting on October 16, where Lenin again argued for insurrection and Kamenev and Zinoviev again voted against it. The next day, Kamenev and Zinoviev submitted a public statement to Maxim Gorky’s newspaper opposing the insurrection, which was published on October 18. Lenin called them strikebreakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. This didn’t happen because the insurrection intervened. Stalin tried to paper over the differences in the Bolshevik newspaper, alibiing Kamenev and Zinoviev, keeping his options open in case the insurrection failed.

The Party, the Soviets and the Conquest of Power

Kamenev and Zinoviev’s differences with Lenin were principled questions: seize state power or not. You can’t get more fundamental than that. Trotsky had tactical differences with Lenin: should the insurrection be run through the soviet or directly through the party? Trotsky speaks about the importance of soviet legality to the masses, and the usefulness of appearing to be defending the soviets. But Trotsky had no naive hopes that the Congress of Soviets itself could settle the question of power. You can see in Trotsky’s chapter “The Art of Insurrection” that by 1917 he had finally understood Lenin on the party question. He wrote: “In order to conquer the power, the proletariat needs more than a spontaneous insurrection. It needs a suitable organization, it needs a plan; it needs a conspiracy. Such is the Leninist view of this question.” He goes on:

“The organization by means of which the proletariat can both overthrow the old power and replace it, is the soviets….

“However, the soviets by themselves do not settle the question. They may serve different goals according to the program and leadership. The soviets receive their program from the party…. The problem of conquering the power can be solved only by a definite combination of party with soviets—or with other mass organizations more or less equivalent to soviets.”

The government was planning to send the Petrograd garrison to the front. There was total uproar and refusal from the Petrograd regiments. It was at this point in early October that the Menshevik and SR compromisers put up a resolution in the Petrograd Soviet, which had a Bolshevik majority. Rabinowitch describes this:

“The Menshevik Mark Broido put before the deputies a joint Menshevik-SR resolution which, while calling on garrison soldiers to begin preparations for movement to the front, at the same time sought to calm them by providing for the creation of a special committee to evaluate defense needs and to prepare military defense plans that would inspire popular confidence. At bottom, the intent of the resolution was to facilitate cooperation between the Petrograd Soviet and the government in the interest of the war effort.”

Boy, were they surprised when the Bolsheviks eagerly seized on this proposal, resulting in the formation of the Military Revolutionary Committee that organized the insurrection! In an interesting passage in the History, Trotsky writes:

“The formulae were all-inclusive and at the same time ambiguous: they almost all balanced on a fine line between defense of the capital and armed insurrection. However, these two tasks, heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in actual fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defense of Petrograd. The element of defense-camouflage was not therefore violently dragged in, but flowed to some extent from the conditions preceding the insurrection.”

The Military Revolutionary Committee had a Left SR as its formal head, but proceeded in a Bolshevik fashion with Trotsky as its principal political leader. Basically, in what one might call a “cold insurrection,” the Bolshevik-led Soviet took control of the armed bodies of men out of the hands of the Provisional Government. By October 13, the Soldiers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet voted to transfer military authority from Headquarters to the Military Revolutionary Committee. In other words, the Soviet now had the state power in all but name. By October 21 or 22 the Military Revolutionary Committee told the military high command bluntly that they were not in charge any more. Rabinowitch says that’s insurrection right there. The troops were ready, the Red Guards were ready.

On October 24, Kerensky fairly stupidly provided the spark by trying to shut down the Bolshevik newspaper. The Military Revolutionary Committee sent in a detachment to reopen the newspaper and began seizing government institutions and communication centers. Lenin was still worried. He wrote:

“I am writing these lines on the evening of the 24th….

“With all my might I urge comrades to realise that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of Soviets), but exclusively by peoples, by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people….

“Who must take power?

“That is not important at present. Let the Revolutionary Military Committee do it, or ‘some other institution’….”

Lenin became so agitated that he went in disguise to the Bolshevik headquarters at Smolny, where the Petrograd Soviet was located, to see what was happening. Even a day later, they still hadn’t taken the Winter Palace (where the Provisional Government was based) due to a very over-elaborate plan. One Bolshevik remembered that Lenin “paced around a small room at Smolny like a lion in a cage. He needed the Winter Palace at any cost: it remained the last gate on the road to workers’ power. V. I. scolded...he screamed…he was ready to shoot us.” Kerensky escaped in the safety of a diplomatic vehicle flying the American flag. You will be interested to know that Kerensky eventually wound up here in the U.S., home to gusanos of all varieties, at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. There he wrote and lectured about how to fight communism—something which he hadn’t done too well at in life.

The Birth of the Soviet Workers State

When the Second Congress of the Soviets opened, the cruiser Aurora was still firing on the Winter Palace. In response to the uprising and seizure of power, now openly proclaimed by the Military Revolutionary Committee, the Mensheviks and SRs walked out of the congress, some proclaiming that they were going with the majority of the City Duma deputies to the Winter Palace to die with the Provisional Government. They left deluged by shouts of “lackeys of the bourgeoisie” and “good riddance.” Only the Left SRs and a few remnants of left menshevism stayed. The compromisers wanted nothing to do with the workers state. Always up for a coalition with the bourgeoisie, they wanted no coalition with the Bolsheviks.

Lenin got up and opened his speech with the famous sentence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The three-point agenda was end the war, give land to the peasants and establish a socialist dictatorship. The peace decree promised an end to secret diplomacy and proposed to the governments and peoples of the warring countries immediate negotiations to secure a democratic peace without annexations and without indemnities. The land decree, borrowed in its essentials from the agrarian program of the Left SRs, abolished private property in land and provided for the transfer of all private and church estates to land committees and soviets of peasants’ deputies for distribution to the peasantry according to need. A new revolutionary government of People’s Commissars, at first made up exclusively of Bolsheviks, was appointed, which over the next period proceeded with nationalizing the banks, restarting industry and laying the foundations of the new soviet state.

Very importantly, they worked on convening the Third (Communist) International as the necessary instrumentality to achieve world socialist revolution. They fought with all possible means and determination to spread the revolution to the advanced industrial countries of Europe. Read Victor G.’s revealing letter to WV (see “On Lenin’s Address to the Petrograd Soviet,” WV No. 861, 6 January) about how the account of Lenin’s speech to the Petrograd Soviet that appears in the Collected Works is at variance with other newspaper accounts of the time that highlighted Lenin’s points on the international extension of the revolution.

The Spectre of “Democratic” Counterrevolution

Let me touch briefly on two final debates: the question of a broad socialist coalition and the Constituent Assembly. On the first question, historian Rabinowitch echoes people like Sukhanov, who at the time thought it was terrible that the Bolsheviks didn’t invite into the government the compromiser parties: the Mensheviks and the Right SRs. Not surprisingly, arguments in favor of forming a government in coalition with the Menshevik and SR compromisers were advanced within the Bolshevik Party by Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had opposed the insurrection in the first place, as well as by some others. Sukhanov bemoans the fact that by walking out of the congress the Mensheviks and the Menshevik-Internationalists “gave the Bolsheviks with our own hands a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses, and of the revolution.”

In principle the Bolsheviks were not opposed to a coalition. They agreed to a coalition with any party if it would accept soviet constitutionalism, which meant accepting the reality of the October insurrection and the fact that the soviets had a Bolshevik majority and they would therefore form the majority of the government. But that was a big “if.” At least Rabinowitch is honest enough to tell you what the problem with this was: not only had the Mensheviks and SRs walked out of the soviet but:

“Initially fierce resistance to the Bolshevik regime coalesced around the so-called All-Russian Committee for the Salvation of the Country and the Revolution organized on October 26, primarily by the Mensheviks and SRs in the Petrograd City Duma….

“Leaders of the Committee for Salvation also drew up plans to coordinate an uprising in Petrograd with the entry into the capital of Krasnov’s cossacks, expected momentarily.”

They were unsuccessful, of course, but they certainly didn’t waste a minute before organizing counterrevolution, not one minute. Let me state as a general rule, it is a bad idea to seek a coalition with those who are actively trying to overthrow the workers state and kill you all.

Trotsky states that what was in question here was “the liquidation of October—no more, no less” by diverting the revolution back into the channel of a bourgeois regime. Since the Bolshevik opposition had gone public with this, Lenin finally denounced them publicly as waverers and doubters: “Shame on all the faint-hearted…on all those who allowed themselves to be intimidated by the bourgeoisie or who have succumbed to the outcries of their direct and indirect supporters!” These conciliators backed down, especially as it became clear that there was no one to form a coalition with. The most acute party crisis had been overcome. A couple of Left SRs finally did join the government—at least until the Soviet government signed the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

Finally, I want to address the Constituent Assembly. I was reassured to find out that a new youth comrade in the Bay Area who wanted to talk about the Constituent Assembly wasn’t worried about why the Bolsheviks dispersed it. He wanted to know why they ever called for it! A better impulse, I think. We wrote a good article on constituent assemblies titled “Why a Revolutionary Constituent Assembly?” (WV No. 221, 15 December 1978). It makes the point that in backward countries under autocratic or military bonapartist rule, the struggle for a sovereign constituent assembly based on universal suffrage can in certain circumstances be key in uniting the toiling masses behind the proletarian vanguard. It was based on such an understanding that the Bolsheviks fought throughout the spring and summer of 1917 for elections to a constituent assembly at a time when the government refused to hold them out of fear that this would lead to a peasant uprising. This stage had passed with the workers seizing state power, but the Bolsheviks didn’t simply call off the elections to the Constituent Assembly because a pro-soviet majority might well have emerged in the wake of the peasant land seizures. That would have been useful in reinforcing the authority of the soviets among the peasants in the upcoming civil war.

However, this was not to be. Between the old election lists and the way parliamentary elections gave the petty-bourgeoisie the overwhelming weight of the vote, the SRs, Kadets and Mensheviks won the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly. It was a retrograde force and could become a focus for bourgeois restorationist forces. So the Bolsheviks wisely demanded that the Constituent Assembly recognize the victorious soviet power as its first act. Only when they refused to do so did the Soviet Executive Committee decree the dissolution of the assembly. The dissolution of the Constituent Assembly closes this chapter of the history of the Russian Revolution and the history of the Bolshevik Party. The differences revolved around the fundamental questions: should we struggle for power, can we assume power? Through struggle, internal and external, they resolved both these questions in the affirmative.

In conclusion, the October Revolution remains our compass. It demonstrates how a revolutionary party can win the working masses away from the reformist class traitors and lead them to power. To quote Trotsky: “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.”