A new edition of Trotsky’s classic is being published by Haymarket Books this year. Here we present the second of a two-part series outlining the main features of Trotsky’s work. The first article, which appeared in ISR 58, took us from the February Revolution, which brought down the tsarist autocracy and -created dual power between the workers’ councils (soviets) and a capitalist provisional government (still committed to participation in the world war and opposed to land reform and workers’ control), to the June demonstrations that proved the Bolsheviks had won over a majority of workers in Petrograd to their slogan “All Power to the Soviets.”
It would be an obvious mistake to identify the strength of the Bolshevik party with the strength of the soviets led by it. The latter was much greater than the former. However, without the former it would have been mere impotence. There is nothing mysterious in this. The relations between the party and the Soviet grew out of the disaccord inevitable in a revolutionary epoch between the colossal political influence of Bolshevism and its narrow organizational grasp. A lever correctly applied makes the human arm capable of lifting a weight many times exceeding its living force, but without the living arm the lever is nothing but a dead stick. —Leon Trotsky
DURING THE months from June to October 1917, Russia was characterized by growing polarization, aggression from the Right, a rejuvenation of the soviets, and fusion of the Bolshevik Party with the soviets. The Bolsheviks saw their star rise as masses of men and women came into open conflict with the moderate “March socialists”—Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries (SR)—in workplaces, barracks, and fields. As these parties of compromise sharply declined, the bourgeoisie grew tired of their reliance on the moderate socialists to sell the masses their agenda of profit and war, and made their attempt at counterrevolution.
The Bolsheviks captured the leadership of the movement as it radicalized not just by rallying the masses around the most decisive slogans, but also by steering a course through the political turmoil that pursuing those slogans produced. The second and third volumes of Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution captures this process of interpenetration of the party and the working class and soldiers.
While the mere influence of revolutionary ideas and some scattered militants within the rebelling mass were able to overthrow the monarchy in February, the tasks of October required a far more centralized operation for a simple reason: February’s struggle involved elemental revolutionary force to overthrow a hated regime but brought another minority to power, while October erected workers’ self rule, which necessitated far deeper and broader organization across the entire class. Necessary for this were both soviets and a cadre of revolutionaries, united in a party, implanted throughout the class, fully aware of the historic implications of their actions.
Yet, as Trotsky makes clear, the party was not a united monolith as the Stalinist mythmakers would have it. Lenin’s rearming of the party in April did not win over the entire party; there were still those in the party for whom the idea of a second, socialist revolution, led by the Bolsheviks and against the will of the moderate socialist parties, was still anathema. The real motion of the party was not dictated by a solitary figure (not even Lenin), or clique, but was compelled forward through a series of internal crises that played out through the conflicting—and complementary—layers of the party cadres. The dialectical progress of the party is visible in Trotsky’s version precisely because the hesitations, mistakes, and debates are not hidden, but explored in their depth and complexity.
A further insult heaped on the theoretical injuries dealt to Stalinism throughout Trotsky’s work is the phenomenal role played by Trotsky himself in the course of events—a reality that Stalin’s falsifiers later wrote out of Russian history. Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet in September, became the chair of the Military Revolutionary Committee that organized the October insurrection, and was the Bolshevik’s most charismatic orator, called upon in repeated crises to swing a neutral battalion to the side of revolution or to refute the Compromisers’ slanderous attacks. With Lenin in hiding for July, August, and September, Trotsky emerged as the central figure in the run-up to the insurrection. Firmly asserting his own role, however, doesn’t detract from the centrality he ascribes to Lenin: “Besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the soviets, the revolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin.”1 It is absolutely clear from Trotsky’s account of the intense polemics against the conservative “old Bolsheviks” that without Lenin, the party would not have taken the decisive action on October 25, 1917.
As the spring wore on, the hopes placed in the new powers, both the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky and the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet under the leadership of the Menshevik and SR leaders, wore thin. The June offensive, orchestrated to appease Russia’s allies in the war in hopes of receiving a “Liberty Loan,” was an unqualified disaster. Characterizing the impact of the offensive, Trotsky wrote, “The coalition government violated in June the de facto armistice that had been established on the front, throwing the troops into an offensive. By this act the February regime, already characterized by the declining trust of the masses in the Compromisers, dealt itself a fatal blow. The period opened of direct preparation for a second revolution.”2
The economic crisis continued unabated, and the national debt—fueled by the war—was approaching the value of Russia’s total wealth, at 70 billion rubles. The increasingly valueless paper currency churned out by the state printing presses were named “kerenkies”; both “the bourgeois and the worker, each in his own way, embodied in that name a slight note of disgust.”3 Factory owners were deliberately closing down shops as a systematic campaign of sabotage, resulting in a decline of metal production by 40 percent and textile output by 20 percent. In the cities the shadow of famine loomed closer, convincing the participants in the February uprising that the “future contained no glimmer of hope. This was not what the workers had expected from the revolution.”4
The months of hardship under a “socialist” regime of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were taking their toll politically. While up above the Compromisers vacillated between their promises to the oppressed classes and their commitment to the bourgeoisie, the tide below was turning steadily against them. The evidence was accumulating against the parties of compromise, who dominated the soviet but refused to assert soviet power against the bourgeoisie and military ruling classes. Bitterness deepened where it already existed and spread into new arenas. The Compromisers’ insistence on joining the bourgeois parties in the Provisional Government opened a deepening rift. The July Days would decisively sever many from the apron strings of compromise.
“[Menshevik Minister of the Interior Irakli] Tseretelli, following Kerensky,” writes Trostky,
had become not only an alien, but a hated figure to the majority of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. On the fringes of the revolution was a growing influence of the anarchists…But even more disciplined layers of workers—even broad circles of the party—were beginning to lose patience or at least to listen to those who has lost it. The manifestation of June 18 had revealed to everybody that the government was without support. “Why don’t they get busy up there?” the soldiers and workers would ask, having in mind not only the compromise leaders but also the governing bodies of the Bolsheviks.5
Anxious over the immanent possibility of being sent to the front, armed, and “inclined to overestimate the independent power of a rifle,”6 the soldiers tended to be more impatient than the workers. The oil of the soldiers’ urgency ran into the sparks of the workers’ movement, already ignited by the ongoing explosion of prices and sabotage by the bosses.
By the final days of June the demand for an immediate transfer of power to the soviets was on the lips of sailors, soldiers and workers. It was a rallying cry for an end of dual power in favor of a soviet government. The Bolsheviks, weighing the relatively great weight of Petrograd against the rest of the empire and front, cautioned against a premature uprising, which would be isolated and squashed, thereby setting back the prospects for revolution for the foreseeable future. The Bolshevik’s paper, Pravda, came out against an uprising: “On the 21st of June, Lenin appealed in Pravda to the Petrograd workers and soldiers to wait until events should bring over the heavy reserves to the side of Petrograd. ‘We understand the excitement of the Petersburg workers, but we say to them: Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient.’”7
Tension was only increased when the government attempted to move machine gunners out of the capital, and in response, resolutions were passed throughout the barracks, including in previously passive regiments, calling for the removal, and sometimes arrest, of the ministers. Almost simultaneously, four Kadet ministers, representing the party of the liberal bourgeoisie, withdrew from the Coalition Provisional Government; the Compromisers, they indicated, had not done enough to restrain the masses. The Kadets thought it better to leave the Compromisers holding the bag of a failed offensive and collapsing economy; they “considered it expedient to leave their left allies face to face with defeat, and with the Bolsheviks.”8 Perhaps faced with an armed uprising, the Kadets reasoned, the Compromisers would once and for all cease wavering and smash the workers and soldiers.
On the other side of the equation, leaning as sharply to the left as the Kadets were yanking to the right, the machine gunners on the morning of July 3 decided to take decisive action, electing a provisional revolutionary committee (eclipsing the soviet-affiliated committee) and ignoring the agitators sent from the Bolsheviks who attempted to lower the temperature. The roiled-up ranks “had no intention of breaking with the Soviet; on the contrary, they wanted the Soviet to seize the power. Still less did the masses intend to break with the Bolshevik Party. But they did feel the party was irresolute. They wanted to get their shoulder under it—shake a fist at the Executive Committee, give the Bolsheviks a little shove.”9
Under the leadership of the machine gunners and their newly formed committees, workers and soldiers poured into the streets, arms in hand, completely grinding Petrograd to a halt. The two targets of the march were the Tauride Palace, home of the Compromisers and their crumpling government; and the abandoned residence of court ballerina Kshesinskaia, now used as the headquarters of the Bolshevik Party.
Earlier in the afternoon an expanded Petrograd Committee of the party had been meeting, agreeing that an armed manifestation was premature and laying out the necessity to compel the machine gunners to submit to the advice of the party. Lenin argued that an armed demonstration was impossible at this time “unless we want a new revolution.” But their verbal forces of compulsion were no match for the wave of rebellion crashing on their doorstep. Trotsky describes the scene:
At eight o’clock in the evening, the Machine Gun Regiment, and soon after it the Moscow Regiment, came up to the palace of Kshesinskaia. Popular Bolsheviks—Nevsky, Lashevich, Podvoisky—speaking from the balcony, tried to send the regiments home. They were answered from below: Doloi! Doloi! 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 demonstration had become a mighty fact. What was to be done? Could the Bolsheviks possibly stand aside?10
With the “mighty fact” of the demonstration thronging their gates, the Bolshevik leaders reconsidered. They joined the procession with the aim of guiding the movement to a peaceful—albeit heavily armed—march on the Tauride Palace, where delegates from the procession could present their demands to the Soviet Executive Committee.
The Executive Committee immediately declared the march an “insurrection,” feeling itself as much under attack as the Provisional Government they so dearly sought to screen from the angry masses. Trotsky chides them:
It would be difficult, even with malice aforethought, to devise a more viscous satire upon the Compromisers. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were demanding the transfer of power to the soviets. Cheidze, standing at the head of the soviet system and thus the logical candidate for premier, was hunting for armed forces to employ against the demonstrators. This colossal movement in favor of power to the democracy, was denounced by the democratic leaders as an attack upon the democracy by an armed gang.11
Simultaneously in another part of the Tauride Palace, the workers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet was meeting in full session for the first time in weeks, and the impact of months of betrayal was making itself felt. The Bolsheviks now held almost two-thirds of the seats. Lev Kamenev, speaking for the Bolsheviks, argued that though the party did not call out the demonstration, “once the masses have come out, our place is among them.” He then moved a resolution, backed by Trotsky, that a committee of twenty-five be elected to lead the movement. In response, the minority parties of compromise walked out. From this moment on the Petrograd Soviet would become the leading center of revolutionary activity.
The clash between the demonstrators and the Executive Committee came to an anti-climax when the delegates of the procession forced their admission into a joint session of the Executives. The ministers declared the movement for soviet power to be counterrevolutionary. Tseretelli argued, “To go out into the streets with the demand ‘All Power to the Soviets’—is that to support the soviets?.… Such a manifestation is not along the road of revolution, but of counter-revolution.”12 It became starkly clear that the obstacle on the road to revolution were the people sitting in the driver’s seat, and they had no intention of putting their foot to the pedal.
As in February, “The masses spent their night casting the balance of the day’s struggle. But now they did this with the aid of a complicated system of organizations—factory, party, and regimental—which conferred continually. In the districts it was considered self-evident that the movement could not stop half way.”13 The Bolsheviks again debated whether to attempt to end the movement, by calling for no demonstration the next day. When they encountered thousands of Putilov workers and their families marching outside Tauride and camping overnight on the cobbles, the Bolsheviks finally decided to call out the masses the following day, urging the protest to be peaceful.
Lenin, who came from Finland where he was resting from an illness, appeared on the demand of the throngs around Kshenskaia palace and made a short speech calling for firmness and self-restraint. Again the protestors approached Tauride, but now better armed and with a clearer demand for the transfer of power to the soviets. They were joined now by the sailors of Kronstadt—the island fortress guarding Petrograd. Socialist Revolutionary minister Chernov was sent out to speak, but he faced nothing but hostility. Trotsky quotes Miliukov relating “how ‘a husky worker, shaking his fist in the face of the minister, shouted furiously: “Take the power, you son-of-a-bitch, when they give it to you.”’ Even though nothing more than an anecdote, this expresses with crude accuracy the essence of the July situation.”14 In fact, the Kronstadt sailors were so unimpressed with the minister’s performance, they attempted to arrest him on the spot and probably would have lynched him if Trotsky hadn’t been fetched from within the palace to negotiate his release.
The night finished with no concessions from the Compromisers and scattered street fighting with right-wing patriots and anti-Semites. In the bourgeois district around the Nevsky Prospect, police and provocateurs fired at the protestors from windows and rooftops. Writes Trotsky, “They were attempting—and not without success—by firing on the demonstrators to spread panic and produce clashes between the different military units participating. When the houses from which shots came were searched, machine gun nests were found, and sometimes also the gunners.”
The Bolsheviks decided the time was ripe to call off the demonstration; the “masses ebbed back into the suburbs, and they cherished no intention of renewing the struggle on the following day. They felt that the problem of ‘Power to the Soviets’ was considerably more complicated than had appeared.”15
In the chapter “Could the Bolsheviks Have Seized Power in July?” Trotsky explains the consciousness of the masses that fueled a massive rebellion but could not unravel the question of power.
The workers and soldier felt clearly enough the contrast between their moods and the policy of the Soviet—that is between their today and their yesterday. In coming out for a government of the soviets, they by no means gave their confidence to the compromisist majority in those soviets. But they did not know how to settle with this majority. To overthrow it by violence would have meant to dissolve the soviets instead of giving them the power. Before they could find the path to a change of personal composition of the soviets, the workers and soldiers tried to subject the soviets to their will by the method of direct action.
The executive bodies of the soviets were characterized by an institutional inertia; staffed by the “March socialists,” they did not reflect the radicalization of those who had voted for them. In reality they actively resisted their constituents. But during the July Days, the immense power of the radical masses could be felt and the impotence of the Compromisers was apparent to all. In that context, should the Bolsheviks have simply seized the power themselves, supplanting the conservative leadership of the soviets? Trotsky answers that, having seized power, they would not have been able to hold it, because even in Petrograd, the workers “still had not broken the February umbilical chord attaching it to the Compromisers. Many still cherished the illusion that everything could be obtained by words and demonstrations—by frightening the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries you could get them to carry out a common policy with the Bolsheviks. Even the advanced sections of the class had no clear idea by which roads it was possible to arrive at the power.”16
The rest of the country and the front, moreover, were not as intensely disillusioned as the capital. The offensive would not fully collapse until July 6, and the full scale of the disaster would take time to seep into popular consciousness. The ability of the capital to hold out in the face of counterrevolution would be heavily influenced by the support, or lack of support, of the provinces and the depth of disaffection within the military.
Unlike the demonstrations in April, which forced the most hated Kadet, Miliukov, out of the government, after the July Days Lenin was forced into hiding in Finland. Trotsky explains that it reflected a process of polarization in which the petty-bourgeois democrats were driven toward the bourgeoisie:
The more the workers and soldiers closed up around the Bolsheviks, the more resolutely were the Compromisers compelled to support the bourgeoisie. In April the leaders of the Executive Committee, worrying about their own influence, could still come one step to meet the masses and throw Miliukov overboard—supplying him, to be sure, with a reliable life-belt. In July the Compromisers joined the bourgeoisie and the officers in raiding the Bolsheviks. The change in the correlation of forces was thus caused this time, too, by a shift of the least stable of political forces, the petty bourgeois democracy—its abrupt shift to the side of the bourgeois counter-revolution.17
Month of reaction
The shift on the part of the Compromisers led to a fanatical witch hunt against the Bolsheviks. “The demand for slanders against the Bolsheviks,” Trotsky writes, “reached such intensity that a supply could not fail to turn up.”18 Documents and testimonies were “found” that “proved” Lenin to be a paid German agent. The logic of the attack on the Bolshevik-led July demonstrations as “counterrevolutionary” erupted into an attempt to liquidate the party. The first target was the mansion where the Bolsheviks had established their headquarters, which they were forced at gunpoint to vacate. On July 13 the Executive Committee banned the Bolshevik Party. The printing presses of the party were smashed and publication of the party papers became erratic, and a formal investigation of the Bolsheviks was initiated, including a call for the arrest of its key leaders. The Ministry of Justice issued indictments for treason against Lenin, Zinoviev, Kollontai, and other Bolshevik leaders. Trotsky and Lunacharsky were arrested.
The official campaign of slander opened up a wide space for gangs of rightist thugs to attack and beat Bolsheviks and other radicals. A young Bolshevik worker, Voinov, was murdered in the street while distributing leaflets. While the reaction raged in the capital and Lenin fled the pogrom atmosphere, the moderate leaders such as Tseretelli admitted under pressure that there was no truth to the accusations that Lenin was in cahoots with the Germans. But they did nothing to quell the right-wing backlash for which they had opened the gates.
Many Bolsheviks, including Lenin himself, initially overestimated the strength of the counterrevolution; but the reaction proved to have a fleeting character. The actions of the Compromisers, as they again sought the allegiance within the government of the bourgeoisie by attacking workers and peasants, caused another reversal. Just as a wave, flowing back on itself for a moment pauses in balance, the oppressed classes paused in the face of the right-wing onslaught, but would return with greater energy, crashing into the forces of reaction with irresistible momentum.
Counterrevolution lifts its head
While the Compromisers made amends with the Kadets, they also realized that their power in the last instance relied on the soviets. Trotsky writes they were “torn between the necessity of reviving their half-friendship with the bourgeoisie, and the need of softening the hostility of the masses. Tacking became for them a form of existence. Their zigzags became a feverish tossing to and fro, but the fundamental line kept swinging to the right.”19
The Provisional Government was reorganized again in early July; with the Kadets out, it now was fully dominated by ministers from the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. Instead of being the “realization of the slogan of the June Days, ‘Down with the ten minister capitalists,’” it was “only an exposure of its inadequacy. The minister-democrats took the power only in order to bring back the minister-capitalists.”20 They immediately opened negotiations with the Kadets, who threw down a package of ultimatums: “independence” of the Provisional Government from the soviets; reinstating the death penalty at the front; abolition of soldiers’ committees.
The Kadets and upper military brass used the leverage of the worsening situation at the front to push their demands. A favorite of the Kadets, General Lavr Kornilov was promoted to commander of the armed forces; he declared his own demands, including imposition of the death penalty in the rear as well. His program for “salvation” upon receiving the command consisted of militarization of factories and railroads, complete destruction of all soldiers’ organization within the military, and bringing the disobedient Petrograd garrison under the direct command of headquarters, thus robbing the soviet of any influence.
Kornilov was dull-witted and brutal: “Without waiting for the legal introduction of the death penalty, Kornilov here gave orders to shoot deserters and set up their corpses on the road with an inscription, threatened the peasants with severe penalties for violating the proprietary rights of the landlords, created shock battalions, and on every appropriate occasion, shook his fist at Petrograd.”21 His comrade in arms, General Alexeiev described him as a “man with a lion’s heart and the brain of a sheep.”22 The desire of the upper classes for a savior against encroaching workers’ power was an open secret; in Kornilov these sectors invested all their dreams of liquidating the Bolsheviks as well as the soviets.
In order to impress upon the population the newly forged “national unity,” Kerensky organized a state conference for August 12–14 in Moscow, which was notable for its over-representation of the rich and ruling classes. It was also notable for the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the “partners”—Kornilov and Kerensky—against each other. Both wanted “order,” but the democrats nursed their illusions of a bourgeois republic while the Kadet/military bloc sharpened their knives for a full civil war against all vestiges of the revolution. The contradictions inherent in the situation were ripening; the cleavages of society were expressed within the very body meant to bridge the gap.
Soldiers and workers saw the state conference for what it was: a direct threat to soviet power. In response, the trade unions and local soviets of Moscow called a general strike, organizing without the support of the compromise-dominated citywide Moscow Soviet. The strike plunged Moscow into darkness when the electrical workers downed the city’s lights—a fitting symbol of the relation between the power of those gathered at the conference and those out on the street. The strike’s overwhelming success surprised even the Bolsheviks who were central to promoting the action, and it reflected their impressive rebound after five weeks of harassment. The new Bolshevik paper, The Proletarian, snarled at the conference attendees, “From Petrograd you went to Moscow—where will you go from there?”23
Kornilov’s (and Kerensky’s) plot
Kornilov and his clique had chosen August 27 as the day for a decisive blow against the capital. The pretext was to be a Bolshevik “insurrection,” goaded into existence through the imposition of martial law in the capital and if necessary by provocateurs posing as Bolsheviks. Kerensky was fully party to it. Trotsky explains:
The events, the documents, the testimony of the participants, and finally the confession of Kerensky himself, unanimously bear witness that the Minister-President, without the knowledge of a part of his own government, behind the back of the soviets which had given him the power, in secrecy from the party of which he considered himself a member, had entered into agreement with the highest generals of the army for a radical change in the state régime with the help of armed forces.24
Under the pretext of protecting the capital following the capture of nearby Riga by German troops, three “loyal” divisions were moved closer to Petrograd to set the stage for Kornilov’s coup. In the early morning hours of August 28, troops began their march on Petrograd, and reports filtered into the Executive Committee, terrifying the democrats through the day. The fateful moment had arrived for which Kerensky had schemed, though now he acted shocked at what he had unleashed.
Gripped with fear upon realizing that Kornilov fully intended to install himself as dictator and to wipe out not only the soviets and all the parties associated with them, but also the Provisional Government, Kerensky did an abrupt about-face. He dismissed Kornilov and ordered his troops to halt—both orders Kornilov promptly ignored. Kerensky, now completely isolated, had no forces of his own, no loyal masses he could call upon in his defense; but luckily for Kerensky, Kornilov had even fewer.
The Bolsheviks understood that while Kerensky was poisoning the revolution, Kornilov had put a gun to its head. The more immediate threat had to be dealt with before the revolution could deal with the slower acting threat. During the defense of Petrograd, sailors came to Trotsky, who was still in prison as a result of the July Days, and ask him what they should do. “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov,” advised Trotsky. “Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.”25
Despite the bluster about needing only “a couple of loyal battalions” to wipe out the nest of Bolshevism in the capital—which became the grumbled anthem of the declining upper classes—the counterrevolutionary offensive melted away as it approached Petrograd. Even Kornilov himself seemed to doubt the chances of success and stayed a safe distance in a military installation outside the capital. Trotsky quotes conservative French journalist Claude Anet: Asking Kornilov why he “did not go to Petrograd at the decisive moment, the chief of the conspiracy answered: ‘I was sick. I had a serious attack of malaria, and was not in possession of my usual energy.’”26
The failure of the coup arose from its complete isolation in Russian society; the arrogance of Kornilov’s clique led them to believe that the oppressed needed only to feel the whip from a strong hand to abandon the revolution. “On the contrary,” Trotsky writes, “the masses were as if only awaiting a blow of the whip in order to show what sources of energy and self-sacrifice were to be found in their depths. This mistake in estimating the mood of the masses brought all their other calculations to the dust.”27
Not everyone was miscalculating the mood. The Bolsheviks, having made an amazing rebound after several weeks of persecution,
had foreseen and forewarned, and they were the first to appear at their posts…At a night session of the Military Organization of the Bolsheviks, participated in by delegates of numerous military detachments, it was decided to demand the arrest of all conspirators, to arm the workers, to supply them with soldier instructors, to guarantee the defense of the capital from below, and at the same time to prepare for the creation of a revolutionary government of workers and soldiers.28
While counterrevolutionaries were plotting, a new soviet body was formed, the Committee of Struggle against Counter-Revolution, made up of representatives from the three soviet parties, the trade unions, and from the Bolshevik-dominated Petrograd Soviet. Trotsky describes it, quoting the omni-present Menshevik Sukhanov:
“Notwithstanding the fact that they were in a minority,” writes Sukhanov, “it was quite clear that in the [Committee of Struggle against Counter-Revolution] the leadership belonged to the Bolsheviks.” He explains this as follows: “If the committee wanted to act seriously, it was compelled to act in a revolutionary manner,” and for revolutionary action “only the Bolsheviks had genuine resources,” for the masses were with them. Intensity in the struggle has everywhere and always brought forth the more active and bolder elements. This automatic selection inevitably elevated the Bolsheviks, strengthened their influence, concentrated the initiative in their hands, giving them de facto leadership even in those organizations where they were in a minority. The nearer you came to the district, to the factory, to the barrack, the more complete and indubitable was the leadership of the Bolsheviks…A tie was formed from below, from the shop, leading through the districts, to the Central Committee of the party.29
The character of the defense of Petrograd was a brilliant illustration of both the political and organization maturation of the workers and soldiers since February. The soviets, which had atrophied under the pressure of the Compromisers, burst back to life, with the local levels assuming new powers and leaping to take initiatives. The factory committees and unions also asserted their powers: “railroad workers tore up and barricaded the tracks in order to hold back Kornilov’s army…The postal and telegraph clerks began to hold up and send to the Committee [for Struggle against Counter-Revolution] telegrams and orders from headquarters, or copies of them. The generals had been accustomed during the years of war to think of transport and communications as technical questions. They found out now that these were political questions.”30
The generals also learned that those troops they believed to be loyal were more often simply uninformed of their goals. They mistook the soldiers’ hatred of Kerensky for indifference over the fate of the government. Trotsky explains: “The resistance to the rebels grew out of the very road beds, out of the stones, out of the air.”31 Soldiers and railroad workers fraternized, and even the Cossacks refused to move against Petrograd.
The universal nature of the sabotage and agitation was an indubitable expression of the allegiance the masses had to the revolution—and a desire to deepen it. Kerensky’s attempt to embrace the right against “left anarchism” ironically did decrease the “anarchism” of the Left but by reenergizing it and weaving greater bonds of organization. The Left would be more unified, homogenous, and effective from this moment on, because it was more closely wedded to the Bolshevik Party—both in political outlook and through the multiple party organizations.
The soviets returned to their stature of the spring. Lenin, who after July had briefly considered dropping the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” because they had become so atrophied under moderate control, now wrote,
Let those of little faith learn from this example. Shame on those who say, “We have no machine with which to replace that old one which gravitates inexorably to the defense of the bourgeoisie.” For we have a machine. And that is the soviets. Do not fear the initiative and independence of the masses. Trust the revolutionary organizations of the masses, and you will see in all spheres of the state life that same power, majesty and unconquerable will of the workers and peasants, which they have shown in their solidarity and enthusiasm against Kornilovism.32
In the weeks that separated the July defeat of the workers from August’s smashing of the counterrevolution, the Bolsheviks had undergone a tremendous rebound. The industrialists of Petrograd took the persecution of the Bolsheviks as a green light to undermine workers’ power through sabotage—flooding mines, smashing machines, hoarding materials, and disabling locomotives were all attested to by workers struggling to keep the capital working. In many factories and barracks the Bolsheviks found themselves, albeit only for a couple of weeks, isolated and shunned. While in the major cities—especially in the best-organized shops and industries—the mood was declining, among the more backward sections and in the provinces, new waves of struggle were emerging—including among workplaces dominated by women—that fed new energy into the movement overall.
The suppression of the Bolsheviks in reality only lasted about three or four weeks. The offensive from the bosses, the attempts at disarming the working class and re-imposing discipline in the army, and the swift shift to the right by the government brought forth a reaction from workers and soldiers that drew the working class closer to the Bolsheviks. The leftward moving consciousness lacked the visible explosiveness of July, but below the surface the resolve to fight through to the end was increasing. Conflicts between local soviets and non-soviet bodies, and upper and local soviets (as in the Moscow strike), became bitter. The complexion of the soviets changed as well; by early September the Bolsheviks had won majorities in both the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, and even in soviets where they were numerically still weak in delegate strength, Bolshevik slogans carried the day. On September 1 the Petrograd Soviet voted for the creation of a government of workers and peasants, with solid backing from the rank and file of the compromisist factions.
In the midst of an increased polarization, the compromise parties organized a “Democratic Conference” in order to restabilize a center and bring the Kadets into their project of creating a national representative bourgeois government. The representation at the conference was apportioned by the Compromisers to assure their desired outcome. This “Pre-Parliament,” as it was called, would be the last attempt the petty bourgeoisie would get at creating a “democracy”—which existed for the explicit purpose of eliminating the Bolsheviks. But as Miliukov pondered, “The fatal question presented itself: Is it not too late to declare war on the Bolsheviks?” Trotsky answers:
And indeed it actually was too late. On the day the new government was formed, with six bourgeois and ten semi-socialist ministers, the Petrograd Soviet completed the formation of a new Executive Committee, consisting of thirteen Bolsheviks, six Social Revolutionaries and three Mensheviks. The Soviet greeted the governmental coalition with a resolution introduced by its new president, Trotsky. “The new government...will go into the history of the revolution as the civil war government...The news of the formation of the government will be met by the whole revolutionary democracy with one answer: Resign! Relying upon this unanimous voice of the authentic democracy, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets will create a genuinely revolutionary government.” The enemy tried to see in this resolution a mere ritual vote of non-confidence. In reality it was a program of revolution. Exactly a month was required for its realization.33
Two other tributaries of revolutionary energy
Outside of the cities and away from the front, the gigantic engine of the rural upheaval began to run hotter. The February promise of land to the peasants was betrayed and diluted at every turn; in response, local land committees formed to take matters into their own hands. Up until July the self-activity of the peasants was tamped down by visits from government spokespeople who told them to “wait for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly,” an event they deliberately kept postponing. After the July defeat in the capital, the government was more confident to send cavalry into the countryside to “persuade” angry peasants not to confiscate land by force of arms.
The party of the peasants, the Socialist Revolutionaries, was dominated by the upper layers of the peasantry who “got tangled up in a coalition”34 and were beholden to a government rife with landowners and the bankers to whom they owed billions of rubles. The Socialist Revolutionaries “went to pieces, therefore, not on the Utopian character of their socialism, but on their democratic inconsistency. It might have taken years to test out their Utopianism. Their betrayal of agrarian democracy became clear in a few months. Under a government of Social Revolutionaries the peasants had to take the road of insurrection in order to carry out the Social Revolutionary program.”35 One historian cited by Trotsky counted 4,954 agrarian conflicts against landlords between February and October.
The scorched-earth tactics of ancient peasant rebellions—razing the manor house, killing the resistant lords, ousting clerical parasites, setting fire to landlords’ forests, and plundering granaries—was largely independent of the urban movement for the first months of the revolution. But the initiatives of workers in the cities to contact family in the provinces and of deserting soldiers returning home brought both political and organizational advances to the rural upheaval. The name of Lenin and the program of the Bolsheviks became common knowledge.
The fusion of the two revolutionary currents—proletarian and peasant—proved irresistible. Trotsky writes:
The 17th, 18th and 19th centuries of Russian history climbed up on the shoulders of the 20th, and bent it to the ground. The weakness of this belated bourgeois revolution was manifested in the fact that the peasant war did not urge the bourgeois revolutionists forward, but threw them back conclusively into the camp of reaction. Tseretelli, the hard-labor convict of yesterday, defended the estates of the landlords against anarchy! The peasant revolution, thus rejected by the bourgeoisie, joined hands with the industrial proletariat. In this way the 20th century not only got free of those past centuries hanging upon it, but climbed up on their shoulders to a new historic level. In order that the peasant might clear and fence his land, the worker had to stand at the head of the state: that is the simplest formula for the October revolution.36
In addition to Russia’s late development retarding the alleviation of the suffering of millions of peasants, Russia was also a powder keg of oppressed national minorities, conquered and annexed over centuries. Within Russia’s imperial borders, 57 percent of the population was non-Russian. Instead of capitalist development in Russia integrating the multi-ethnic society, it codified ethnic and national distinctions, creating specific oppressions to keep the nationalities divided.
With the coming of the February Revolution, the hope for liberation for the second-class citizens of Russia was similarly raised and dashed by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who used the claim of “unity” to deny long-denied national rights:
The compromisist democracy merely translated traditions of the czarist national policy into the language of libertarian rhetoric: it was now a question of defending the unity of the revolution. But the ruling coalition had also another more pointed argument: wartime expediency. This meant that the aspirations of individual nationalities toward freedom must be portrayed as the work of the Austro-German General Staff. Here too the Kadets played first violin and the Compromisers second.37
The Bolshevik program, formulated primarily by Lenin, embraced the genuine rebellions of the oppressed nationalities as inherently democratic movements that could contribute to the development of the workers’ revolution by helping to shake the ruling class. The Bolsheviks’ recognition of the right of self-determination for oppressed minorities formed the basis for an internationalism between equals, not the false internationalism of the liberals who claimed to be acting against reactionary national divisions in order to continue the exploitation of the empire’s national minorities. Because of the duplicity of the Compromisers, and the fear of rising class struggle driving the bourgeoisie of the subject nations into the arms of Great Russia, the national aspirations of the oppressed flowed into the channel of the October revolution.
Pre-Parliament versus Soviet Congress
The Pre-Parliament, with its lopsided allotment of the most privileged layers of society, convened on October 7. The Bolsheviks, after much internal dissent, walked out, following a fiery speech by Trotsky that denounced the Right’s plan to abandon the capital to a German advance—a transparent attempt to cut out the heart of the revolution and toss it to the wolves. When it came to the survival of their class rule, the Russian ruling class was willing to accept German conquest.
The Pre-Parliament was characterized by total paralysis; the Right, dominated by the Kadets, argued the only way forward was through repression and violence. The “Left” argued that only under the cover of February’s slogans could Russian society restabilize itself and drain the revolution of its energy. The Compromisers wanted the bourgeoisie to rule, but only within the confines of a republic; the bourgeoisie, on the other hand, wanted a military dictatorship to restore bourgeois order. The impasse lasted for days on every issue brought to the floor.
As they fiddled, Russia burned. The situation in the army had taken a decisive turn; in July, the question of the attitude of the front to the uprising had been decisive—in the negative sense. But now, three months later, the front was a beehive of insubordination, fraternization, and rebellion. There too, like the cities and the town, the slogans of Bolshevism caught fire. Trotsky writes,
The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front. The trenches got into connection with the workers and peasants near by in the rear. In the towns along the front there was an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations in which the soldiers and sailors would bring their activity into accord with that of the workers and peasants. It was in this manner that the backward White Russian front was won over to Bolshevism.38
The Bolsheviks gained majorities in one soviet election after another, yet the Central Executive Committee remained the same. Only a Second All Russian Congress of Soviets could rectify this disjuncture; in fact it had been agreed upon in September at the Democratic Conference to meet on October 20. In the face of a growing wave of Bolshevik victories and scores of resolutions declaring the Soviet the sole power in the land, the Compromisers attempted to stall. The Central Executive Committee succeeded in postponing the Congress to the October 25, but the Bolsheviks capitalized on their foot dragging to launch a campaign for the All Russia Congress, which only propelled them further as the representatives of soviet rule.
The question of insurrection
The decisive turn of the Compromisists in the July crisis finally ended any thought that the power could be transferred peacefully to the soviets; an armed insurrection would be needed. Within the party, a debate about the viability of the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” given their depleted state lasted until their sudden return to prominence in the August crisis.39 The role of the local soviets, and their dramatic change in complexion brought them back into the center of Bolshevik strategy, but as the crisis in Russia deepened, the leadership of the Bolshevik Party was divided on the immediate prospects for revolution.
As the Bolsheviks gained momentum across the country in September, Lenin launched a polemic that preparation for armed insurrection, and the need to set a date, was the central task facing the party. He faced a strong current of conservatism, based both from immediate, experiential causes, and deeper, theoretical ones as well. Among comrades who were closest to the heat of the July conflagration, there was a short-lived fear of a premature action that would fully wreck the party. Their fears were overcome by a new set of experiences: rising class anger and deepening identification with the need for a new Soviet Congress under the banner of “All Power to the Soviets.”
But a stronger current against insurrection developed within the highest level of the party and was carried by some of the oldest Bolsheviks on the Central Committee. Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were leaders of the party from the earliest days and two of Lenin’s closest comrades. But in the days approaching the Congress, they violently opposed the notion of an immediate socialist revolution in speeches and party organs (which Trotsky points out were published with no interference by Pravda’s editor, Stalin). In essence, they had not broken from the pre-April formulation: that Russia was only ripe for a bourgeois democracy, not workers’ power.
Lenin blasted the Central Committee from his hideout with letter after letter demanding each time an immediate shift to making an insurrection. The Central Committee was shocked and startled. Trotsky quotes leading Bolshevik theorist Nikolai Bukharin: “The letter (of Lenin) was written with extraordinary force and threatened us with all sorts of punishments. We all gasped. Nobody had yet posed the question so abruptly…At first all were bewildered. Afterwards, having talked it over, we made a decision. Perhaps that was the sole case in the history of our party when the Central Committee decided to burn a letter of Lenin.”40
This was in mid-September, while the Democratic Conference was convened; in fact, Lenin suggested a march on the Conference in order to arrest the government in one fell swoop. The intensity of Lenin’s conviction that the window of opportunity for the insurrection was open, if only for a short time, led him to the most extraordinary measures. On October 8 he resigned from the Central Committee in protest of the suppression and editing of his writings, freeing himself to agitate directly among the ranks of the membership in favor of immediate seizure of power. His resignation was not accepted, but he did reach out to the local leadership of the Bolsheviks; his letters found their way “into the hands of the more reliable party workers of the district locals. Early in October—and now over the heads of the Central Committee—Lenin wrote directly to the Petrograd and Moscow Committees.”41 This had the effect of lighting the fire more directly under the Central Committee. The realization that Lenin had been advocating for insurrection for weeks without the local cadres’ knowledge generated an internal and irresistible pressure that also raised the confidence of a section of the Central Committee to advocate arming for insurrection.
Lenin moved to force a decision in a meeting of the Central Committee on October 10. The meeting lasted ten hours, with twelve of the twenty-one members of the Central Committee present. Ironically, they met in the house of a Bolshevik who was married to the Menshevik chronicler of the revolution, Sukhanov.42 From a debilitated and split central body, the Bolsheviks emerged from this marathon session with a resolution placing preparation for armed insurrection as their key task. The final resolution included an accounting of the simultaneous crises of international bourgeois forces and the Russian military, the peasant revolt, the rallying of the masses to Bolshevik slogans, and the intention of the far right to again take Petrograd. These were the factors, it was resolved, which made immediate action necessary, and favorable.
The debate was not finished; the resolution sharpened the conflict within the leadership, but with this difference: the right wing was now in a minority, and the party swung into practical preparation, though far slower than Lenin liked. Without his continual prodding, the party would have acted far slower than it did. Zinoviev and Kamenev continued to protest and argue—including publishing an attack on the party’s preparations in Maxim Gorky’s newspaper, a deliberate breach of party discipline for which Lenin called them “strike breakers”—and Stalin continued to uncritically publish their articles.
Insurrection and revolution
The Bolsheviks had learned a crucial lesson in the defeats and victories of July and August: the broadest layers of the masses would mobilize behind the defense of the revolution. Therefore, an insurrection would stand the greatest chance of success, and share the greatest degree of support, if it was accomplished in response to an attack on the gains of the revolution. The progression of dual power into open hostility made such an opportunity inevitable.
The Petrograd Soviet moved to create a body within the military that could prepare for the transformation of the struggle from the defensive to the offensive. “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.”43 The Military Revolutionary Committee became the fulcrum of the preparation for an insurrection.
The ground the insurrection would come to be made on was the contested territory of who controlled the Petrograd Garrison. Dual power achieved its greatest friction over the control of the army, as any state power ultimately rests on the real ability to command armed forces. The Right had lost any ground it gained in July and August after the Kornilov debacle; they needed to counter the growing Bolshevization of the army and the fleet. The government hoped to provoke a conflict between the front and the rear by suggesting that revolutionary forces in the city were betraying their brothers at the front out of selfishness, not refusing to fight the war on principle. This strategy dramatically backfired: the soldiers outright refused the notion of preparing for a winter campaign, the workers took their side, and “this drew together the two sections of the Soviet. The regiments began to support most heartily the demand that the workers be armed.”44
In response to a proposal that regiments be transferred to neighboring Reval, the Bolshevik sailor Dybenko, head of Centrobalt (the Baltic Fleet Central Committee), speaking at the soldiers’ section of the soviet, said, “Don’t believe a word of it. We will defend Reval ourselves. Stay here and defend the interests of the revolution.”45 The following vote took up the issue of the newly formed Military Revolutionary Committee, which would effectively become the administrator of the garrison. No orders were to be obeyed that were not countersigned by their authority. The Compromisers had boycotted the creation of the new committee; therefore it was staffed by the Bolsheviks and the break-away Left Social Revolutionaries. In practice, however, it was a Bolshevik body through and through. Trotsky, recently elected president of the Petrograd Soviet, also led the Committee.
In effect, the soldiers’ delegates were voting for an end to dual power in the military, and for the Petrograd Soviet to have sole direction over the regiments stationed in Petrograd through the vehicle of the Military Revolutionary Committee—cutting the legs out from underneath the government and the Executive Committee. The Bolshevik strategy was to amass as much real organizational, governmental strength on the side of the workers and soldiers in advance of an insurrection, thereby bolstering their chances of success.
Summoning the revolution
Lenin had been polemicizing for an armed seizure of power as early as the Democratic Convention in September, and to do so through the party, not through the soviets. He saw the deep conservatism on the party’s own Central Committee and the Compromisers’ influence over the highest soviet bodies while the opportunity for insurrection was growing sharply, and he was deeply concerned that the party might let the window of opportunity pass. He argued the ground must be cleared for the Second Congress to fulfill its mandate to become the sole governing body in Russia; in order for this to happen, the government had to be overthrown before the congress opened.
Lenin’s formulation was “First conquer Kerensky and then summon the Congress.”46 It was an illusion to believe that just because the Bolshevik slogans were the majority, the Compromisers would not attempt at every turn to paralyze and sabotage the Congress, pushing it back toward some coalition with the bourgeoisie. Breaking the Compromisers’ and bourgeoisie’s power outside the soviet was necessary to disarm them inside the soviet. For Lenin, whether the party or a soviet body organized the revolution did not change the outcome. But in the course of October, the soviets moved dramatically to the left in outlook and makeup. The party leadership closest to the masses (including Trotsky himself) argued that the greatest support for immediate action would come if the call to action was issued by the soviet rather than the party. Trotsky wrote of the relationship of the Bolsheviks to the soviets:
The party set the soviets in motion, the soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels—a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme—you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses—omitting the medium-sized wheel of the soviets—would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion.47
Yet, at the same time, Lenin’s constant prodding to get on with the task of insurrection, though his tactical advice was flawed, was absolutely crucial in pushing the party into action. The right-wing minority continued to organize against insurrection up to the last minute, exaggerating the enemies’ strength and downplaying the readiness of the working class for decisive action. In the end, only action could decide who was right. “In revolutionary calculations,” writes Trotsky, “statistics alone are not enough; the co-efficient of living action is also essential.”48
Illusions and final wishes
With the opening of the Congress postponed to the 25th, the Compromisers continued to live in their self-deceiving bubble. Believing they had a shadow of support left, the government decided to move against the Military Revolutionary Committee, to close down the pro-insurrection Bolshevik papers, and to summon “reliable” military detachments to the capital. They backed off from arresting the Military Revolutionary Committee, but it made no difference. The rumor of the government action flew through the streets, awakening revolutionary anger. The Bolshevik press was successfully smashed up and sealed off, but only for a couple of hours. “The seals were torn from the building, the moulds poured again, and the work went on. With a few hours’ delay the newspaper suppressed by the government came out under protection of the troops of a committee which was itself liable to arrest. That was insurrection. That is how it developed.”49
The feeble attacks of the government allowed the Bolshevik-led Military Revolutionary Committee to begin down the road of insurrection. Because conflicts had erupted periodically throughout the whole two-power period, the parties of the Right and Compromise did not at first respond as if to a revolution but simply more shifting of power from foot to foot.
The real insurrection began at two in the morning on October 25. Simultaneously the railroad stations, the lighting plant, the munition and food stores, the water plant, the state bank, the large presses, the telegraph exchange, the post office, and the major bridges were occupied. Trotsky recounts one of many “seizures” which were really more announcements of the coming soviet regime, and welcome announcements at that:
The printing-plant was needed to issue the Bolshevik paper in large format and with a big circulation. The soldiers had already lain down to sleep. The commissar briefly told them the object of his visit. “I hadn’t stopped talking when a shout of ‘Hurrah!’ went up on all sides. The soldiers were jumping out of their bunks and crowding around me in a close circle.” A truck loaded with Semenovtsi approached the printing-plant. The workers of the night-shift quickly assembled in the rotary-press room. The commissar explained why he had come. “And here, as in the barracks, the workers answered with shouts of ‘Hurrah! Long live the Soviets!’” The job was done. In much the same manner the other institutions were seized. It was not necessary to employ force, for there was no resistance. The insurrectionary masses lifted their elbows and pushed out the lords of yesterday.50
The “lord of yesterday,” Kerensky, showed his true colors upon realizing the insurrection was a fact: he fled. “‘It is needless to say,’” Trotsky quotes Kerensky, “‘that the whole street—both passers by and the soldiers—immediately recognized me. I saluted as always, a little carelessly and with an easy smile.’” To which Trotsky comments: “Incomparable picture! Carelessly and smiling—thus the February regime passed into the kingdom of shades.”51
The remnants of the government huddled in the Winter Palace, hopelessly wishing for some salvation as they awaited the inevitable siege of the palace. Trotsky describes their paralysis: “The ministers were sick at heart. There was nothing to talk about, nothing to hope for. The ministers disagreed with each other and with themselves. Some sat still in a kind of stupor, others automatically paced up and down the floor.”52
The twelve-hour siege of the Winter Palace dragged on not because of the strength of the resistance, but a combination of an over-complicated military plan and a sincere desire to not have to use force at all. Constant delays arose as features of the plan didn’t come off and the organizers of the siege waited and waited for surrender. When they eventually bombarded the Winter Palace from the Aurora, most of the shells went over the walls and fell harmlessly on the streets beyond, and many were blanks. The greatest casualties were suffered in street fights with the officers of the military academies, but even here the casualties on both sides numbered in the dozens. The ministers were all peacefully arrested and moved without incident to prison, where most were to be released.
Compared to February, the October insurrection appears to have been both less participatory and to have required far less sacrifice on the part of the masses. These facts are not in opposition with each other; the October revolution was a reflection of the greater political maturity of the class, its deeper organization, its clarity of aims, and the utter helplessness of its opposition.53
The Second All Russian Congress opened its doors on October 25, 1917, “the most democratic of all parliaments in the world’s history. Who knows—perhaps also the most important.”54 The composition of the Congress changed:
The officers’ chevrons, the eye-glasses and neckties of intellectuals to be seen at the first Congress had almost completely disappeared. A grey color prevailed uninterruptedly, in costumes and in faces. All had worn out their clothes during the war. Many of the city workers had provided themselves with soldiers’ coats. The trench delegates were by no means a pretty picture: long unshaven, in old torn trench-coats, with heavy papakhi on their dishevelled hair, often with cotton sticking out through a hole, with coarse weather-beaten faces, heavy cracked hands, fingers yellowed with tobacco, buttons torn off, belts hanging loose, and long unoiled boots wrinkled and rusty. The plebeian nation had for the first time sent up an honest representation made in its own image and not retouched.55
The delegates to the Congress, as had been known advance, were dominated by the Bolsheviks and their allies, the Left Social Revolutionaries. Of the 650 delegates, 390 were Bolsheviks and 159 were Social Revolutionaries, 60 percent of whom were Lefts who represented the peasant uprising calling for soviet power and immediate land redistribution. The Compromisers held less than 25 percent of the seats. Of the seated delegates, 505 were for the immediate transfer of all power to the soviets. Martov, Lenin’s former comrade in the old days before the 1905 revolution, immediately attacked the majority for not reaching out to the “rest of the democracy,” meaning the Compromisers who had blocked with the bourgeois counterrevolution. Trotsky stood and replied:
An insurrection of the popular masses needs no justification. We have tempered and hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. We have openly forged the will of the masses to insurrection, and not conspiracy…Our insurrection has conquered, and now you propose to us: Renounce your victory: make a compromise. With whom? I ask: With whom ought we to make a compromise? With that pitiful handful who just went out?.... Are the millions of workers and peasants represented in this Congress, whom they are ready now as always to turn over for a price to the mercies of the bourgeoisie, are they to enter a compromise with these men? No, a compromise is no good here. To those who have gone out, and to all who made like proposals, we must say, “You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the rubbish-can of history!”56
The remaining fragments of the compromise parties continued to interrupt the will of the millions of people represented by the soviet delegates to declare the Congress illegitimate. Their eruptions, colored by a horror of breaking with the cultured and educated strata of society, were answered by heckling soldiers, “their credentials written all over them in the mud of the trenches.”57
The chapters “The October Insurrection” and “The Congress of the Soviet Dictatorship” are probably the fullest illustration of the brilliant experience of revolution; Trotsky powerfully captures the scope and spirit of the high point of human history. In his depiction of the Congress, Trotsky brings forth the voices with startling clarity and emotion: the shrillness of the defeated petty bourgeois, the anxiety and elation of the workers and soldiers rising up, finding the harnesses of their oppression broken below them—feet firmly on the ground, but tottering with new height.
The proclamation of the soviet power was read out by Anatoli Lunacharsky, and its formulation, its directness and immediacy capture the essence of revolutionary government:
“The authority of the compromisist Central Executive Committee is at an end. The Provisional Government is deposed. The Congress assumes the power...” The soviet government proposes immediate peace. It will transfer the land to the peasant, democratize the army, establish control over production, promptly summon the Constituent Assembly, guarantee the right of nations of Russia to self-determination. “The Congress resolves: That all power in the localities goes over to the soviets.” Every phrase as it is read turns into a salvo of applause.58
The Soviet Congress represented the worker and soldier sections, but the representative of the Peasant Soviet “signed the proclamation ‘with both hands and both feet.’”59 The proclamation carried the vote: all but two votes in favor with twelve abstentions. The following days saw the implementation of these proclamations: freedom of agitation restored at the front, the death penalty ended in the army, land decrees passed, secret treaties published, and the offer of peace negotiations extended to enemy countries. Mutinies became peace negotiations, peasant war became a new land law, and direct action became workplace democracy: that was the nature of soviet rule. It was a legal system based on self-activity, clearing the obstacles for a deeper, more conscious life activity; not born out of resistance to a parasitical, murderous class, but flowing from the deep reservoir of human intelligence and creativity.
Trotsky’s motivation in writing History of the Russian Revolution was to translate the experience of the revolution into both a teaching tool for revolutionaries and a weapon in the battle against Stalinism. He rescues the history from Stalin’s “epigone” historians, who would have us believe the revolution was possible because of the perfection of the Bolshevik party. From this model, there is nothing to learn but the party was right at all important points—a hard model to reproduce. The real history of the Bolsheviks was much more dynamic as the party was propelled forward by the pressures of class struggle and internal ideological and strategic conflicts. “The high temper of the Bolshevik party expressed itself not in an absence of disagreements, waverings, and even quakings, but in the fact that in the most difficult circumstances it gathered itself in good season by means of inner crises, and made good its opportunity to interfere decisively in the course of events.”60
The tragic reality is that Trotsky lost his fight against Stalin, and the caricature of the Bolshevik Party that Stalin helped create is the dominant version people believe. October is mis-remembered as a selfish coup over the heads of a passive population. The challenges posed by the chaos, creativity, ingenuity and intensity of the revolution are largely lost. By preserving the real history of the many reversals and trials of the movement, Trotsky recovers how the Bolsheviks were able to advance through self-correction and transformation, not infallibility.
Trotsky has provided more than an account of the triumphs of one revolution. History of the Russian Revolution is an education on how to think about revolution for those who are working to realize revolution in our lifetimes. “It is easier to theorize about a revolution afterward than absorb it into your flesh and blood before it takes place,”61 Trotsky comments; but thanks to his writing, not impossible.
Epigraph Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2006), 1131 (hereafter, all page numbers refer to this book).
- 513. The Bolshevik Military Revolutionary Committee played a role in the agitation leading to the July demonstration; another indication that the party was not a single monolith, but a seething organization involving many different factions and organizations, not always pulling in the same direction. For an account see the first chapter of Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004).
- For more detailed accounting of this debate, see Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come To Power.
- Sukhanov wrote in response to learning of the trick: “O new jest of the merry muse of history! That high-up and decisive session was held in my apartment, still on the same Karpovka (32, Apartment 31). But all this was without my knowledge…That time special measures were taken to assure my sleeping outside the house: at least my wife made carefully sure of my intention, and gave me friendly and impartial advice—not to tire myself out after my work with the long journey home. In any case the lofty assemblage was completely safe from any invasion from me.” Trotsky comments: “What was more important, it proved safe from invasions from Kerensky’s police.” 994.
- The revolution in Moscow, however, was far more protracted and bloody than in Petrograd.