The sea of red after IWD created the illusion that Russia was joyously united. But while workers were setting up democratic structures in the soviets and factory committees, the provisional government, made up of former members of the old Tsarist Duma, was essentially the government of the capitalist class and its supporters. As aspiring rulers, the provisional government and its capitalist backers were determined to prove their credentials as war mongers to the Allies, to say nothing of the need to hold sway over the vast empire’s territories, which contributed to their wealth and power. Russia under their rule would fight for their imperialist interests to the death of millions. On the home front, they wanted nothing more than the right to exploit workers, to manage the capitalist economy in their own interests and to modernise the political structures of Russia.
“On the left the social-democrats and Trudoviks did not enter the bloc; on the right the notorious Black Hundred groups. All the other factions of the Duma – the Kadets, the Progressives, three groups of Octobrists, the Centre and a part of the Nationalists, entered the bloc or adhered to it – as also the national groups: Poles, Lithuanians, Mussulmans, Jews, etc.
“In order not to frighten the tsar with the formula of a responsible ministry, the bloc demanded ‘a united government composed of men enjoying the confidence of the country’. The minister of the interior, prince Sherbatov, at that time characterised the bloc as a temporary ‘union called forth by the danger of social revolution’.
“It required no great penetration to realise this. Miliukov, the leader of the Kadets, and thus also of the oppositional bloc, said at a conference of his party: ‘We are treading a volcano … The tension has reached its extreme limit … A carelessly dropped match will be enough to start a terrible conflagration … Whatever the government – whether good or bad – a strong government is needed now more than ever before’.
“The hope that the tsar, under the burden of defeat, would grant concessions, was so great that in the liberal press there appeared in August the slate of a proposed ‘cabinet of confidence’ with the president of the Duma, Rodzianko, as premier (according to another version, the president of the Land Union, prince Lvov, was indicated for that office), Guchkov as minister of the interior, Miliukov, foreign minister, etc.
“A majority of these men who here nominated themselves for a union with the tsar against the revolution, turned up a year later as members of the ‘Revolutionary Government’. History has permitted herself such antics more than once. This time the joke was at least a brief one.”
So there was a stand-off between the institutions of two competing social forces, the capitalists on one side and the workers, soldiers and peasants on the other. Guchkov, the minister of war, admitted to his chief of staff, general Alexeiev, “The government has no real power: the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the soviet. The simple fact is that the provisional government exists only so long as the soviet permits it”. Sukhanov, a member of the left wing of the Mensheviks, the moderate socialists, gives a picture in his memoirs:
“[A] victorious and profoundly democratic revolution … had made the working class the actual masters of the situation, while at the same time leaving untouched both the foundations of the bourgeois order and even the formal authority of the old ruling classes.”
This situation could not last indefinitely – either those living off the work of the vast majority would claw back control, or they would lose their power and the masses would organise a new society. Parasitical classes cannot share power with those they exploit. Both sides would recognise this reality. In his history of 1917, Miliukov, a leading figure of the provisional government, wrote that “the country was divided into two camps between which there could be no essential reconciliation or agreement”. The history of the months from February to October 1917 is about the struggle to resolve this situation of dual power.
When Lenin arrived from exile in early April, he caused a storm among not just his enemies, but also the Bolshevik leadership. The leaders in Russia before April, to the dismay of many of the worker members, supported the continuation of the war “to defend the revolution”, and gave support, albeit critical, to the provisional government. They withheld or censored Lenin’s frantic letters arguing for no support to the government or the war. At the welcome ceremony at the train station, Lenin declared: “We don’t need any government except the soviet of workers’, soldiers’ and farmhands’ deputies!” He didn’t argue that the soviets could take power immediately. At the Petrograd Bolshevik conference of 14 April, he argued:
This “delicious but”, as the left Menshevik Sukhanov called it, led to an appeal to Lenin for unity – which meant unity on the question of continuing the war.
Sukhanov remembered: “Lenin … stood there as though nothing taking place had the slightest connection with him”.
For one thing, he had been presented with a huge bouquet of flowers. Lenin disliked flowers in bouquets, so this only added to his awkward pose. Anyway, turning away from the soviet leaders he made this reply:
“Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers! I … greet you as the vanguard of the worldwide proletarian army … The Russian revolution accomplished by you has prepared the way and opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution!”
Sukhanov summed up the experience, probably from a somewhat dramatised memory:
“Suddenly, before the eyes of all of us, completely swallowed up by the routine drudgery of the revolution, there was presented a bright, blinding, exotic beacon obliterating everything we ‘lived by’.”
Lenin attacked the soviet majority, who were backing the provisional government, as “the same old opportunists, speaking pretty words but in reality betraying the cause of socialism and the worker masses”.
Raskolnikov, a leading Bolshevik among the sailors, later wrote that Lenin placed a Rubicon between the tactics of the leading Bolsheviks yesterday and in the coming weeks.
At the party conference of 24-29 April, three weeks after Lenin’s arrival, it was only a matter of endorsing his thesis that the soviets would have to take power. His position had already been endorsed by district after district.
Ludmilla Stahl, an old Bolshevik, said at the Petrograd conference of 14 April that before Lenin’s return, “We knew only the formulas of 1905. Seeing the independent creative work of the people, we could not teach them … Our comrades could only limit themselves to … parliamentary means, and took no account of the possibility of going further. In accepting the slogans of Lenin we are now doing what life itself suggests to us”.
“The government must be overthrown, but not everybody understands this correctly. So long as the provisional government has the backing of the soviet of workers’ deputies, you cannot ‘simply’ overthrow it. The only way it can and must be overthrown is by winning over the majority of the Soviets.”
This presented them with the difficult task of explaining to workers and soldiers in Petrograd and Moscow that the only way they would get peace, the only way the peasants would get the land and workers the reforms they were fighting for was by transferring power to their soviets. But this was impossible until they had the backing of the countryside and wider layers of workers. In the next months, the workers and soldiers learned a vital lesson about class society and social change: the class divisions cannot be breached; those who exploit and oppress us will not peacefully allow workers to build a decent world. In April, a mass demonstration of workers and soldiers in Petrograd clashed with a pro-war mobilisation. Shots were fired, either in confusion or in anger, perhaps both, and the blood was shed for the first time since the February uprising. The facade of a united nation had been cracked open. Trotsky wrote:
“[T]wo worlds stood face to face. The patriotic columns called into the streets against the workers and soldiers by the Kadet Party consisted exclusively of the bourgeois layers of the population – officers, officials, intelligentsia. Two human floods – one for Constantinople, one for Peace – had issued from different parts of the town. Different in social composition, not a bit similar in external appearance, and with hostile inscriptions on their placards.”
By July, the workers and soldiers, yearning for peace, had witnessed the foreign minister inform the Allies that the revolution had strengthened Russia’s resolve to continue the war. They had seen the provisional government cynically sacrifice tens of thousands of lives in a doomed offensive at the front. And they had watched the slow progress on reforms. In frustration, the most militant in Petrograd staged an armed demonstration. The Bolsheviks, opposed to this premature threat of insurrection, used their authority to carry out a retreat, avoiding a complete rout. Nevertheless, they shouldered the blame for the attempted uprising. The government, backed by all those supporting capitalist rule, including the moderate socialists, told one of the biggest lies of history. They slandered the anti-capitalist Bolsheviks, the party whose only reason for existing was to overthrow all the world’s rulers, as being agents of the German government.
For a few weeks, the Bolsheviks were hounded on all sides, their leadership either in hiding or in jail and their printing presses shut down. However, time was on the Bolsheviks’ side. Their enemies could not be content with a witch hunt against the revolutionaries. They were determined to smash the power of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Any move to do this would clarify the reality of dual power. At the same time as vilifying the Bolsheviks as German agents, the capitalists and generals were preparing to welcome the Germans into Petrograd to help crush the workers’ revolution. John Reed wrote of his experience mixing among these wealthy hypocrites:
“[A] large section of the propertied classes preferred the Germans to the revolution – even to the provisional government – and didn’t hesitate to say so. In the Russian household where I lived, the subject of conversation at the dinner table was almost invariably the coming of the Germans, bringing ‘law and order’.”
A capitalist known as the Russian Rockefeller openly mused in the right wing press that they might not need foreign troops to invade to rescue them from the revolution: “[T]he factories are closing down [mainly because of capitalists’ sabotage], and the Germans are advancing. Starvation and defeat may bring the Russian people to their senses”.
The Kornilov Coup
The turning point came when a reactionary general, Lavr Georgiyevich Kornilov, prepared to stage a military coup. It galvanised masses of people into action, transforming the situation.
He was known as an authoritarian. While the death penalty was still illegal in the army, he had ordered deserting soldiers to be killed and their bodies to be laid across the path as an example. This was the perfect set of qualities to be the next dictator of Petrograd.
He stood for things such as: the slaughter of the most popular members of the soviet; the destruction of all organs of worker and soldier control; and extreme punishment of rebellious war industry workers (all industries at this time), including the death penalty in the railways.
He argued for the wholesale slaughter of political prisoners still locked up after the July Days, especially Trotsky, and including many fine worker revolutionaries. Trotsky would say later that if the workers’ revolution had lost, fascism would have been a Russian word.
Historian David Mandel describes it:
“[T]he news of Kornilov’s march on Petrograd broke on the working class districts on the night of 27-28 August in an atmosphere of pent up rage and frustration … the workers’ response was far from panic. In fact the howl of the factory horns announcing the emergency seemed to dispel in one swoop the sluggish, depressed mood of the preceding two months. There followed a show of enthusiasm, the like of which had not been seen since February.”
The response of the workers of Petrograd is an amazing testament to words written by Lenin:
“[T]he main source that nourishes [revolutionary Marxism] is precisely the spirit of revolt in the worker masses that … breaks through from time to time in desperate outbursts. These outbursts awaken to purposive life the widest strata of workers crushed by need and darkness. They disseminate in them the spirit of a noble hatred of the oppressors and the enemies of freedom.”
Kerensky, an SR liberal lawyer, prime minister from July, attempted to collude with Kornilov to stage a military coup. But he backed away from it when he realised he would be a victim of Kornilov along with the insurrectionary workers and soldiers.
He and all of the moderate socialists who backed his government were too discredited to mobilise the masses to defend the revolution. That task fell to the Bolsheviks, the only organisation in Russia that stood on the basis of clear principle and honesty, the only party dedicated to the victory of the workers, soldiers and peasants.
Semi-legal and persecuted, you might think they would be inclined to stand back and watch the demise of their persecutors. But Lenin was adamant: defend Kerensky, head of the government, from a military coup, but no political support for him. And defeat Kornilov by revolutionary means: arm the working class, mobilise the masses and use their power as workers to thwart this mortal threat to the revolution:
“We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference …
“We must say: now is the time for action; you SR and Menshevik gentlemen have long since worn these phrases threadbare. Now is the time for action; the war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them. (Kerensky is afraid of the masses, afraid of the people.)”
The moderate socialist parties invited the Bolsheviks to tour their agitators – the party that was illegal and shunned only days before by all of them! It was obvious that if there was to be a mobilisation against the counter-revolution, the Bolsheviks would have to lead it.
As Sukhanov observed:
“At that time, [the Bolshevik Party] was the only organisation that was large, welded together by elementary discipline, and united with the democratic rank and file of the capital. Without them the Military Revolutionary Committee was impotent … With the Bolsheviks … the Military Revolutionary Committee had at its disposal all organised worker-soldier strength, of whatever kind.”
They agreed on conditions. The political prisoners were released and the Bolsheviks organised the resistance unhindered.
Under the energetic leadership of the Bolsheviks, the factory committees of Petrograd organised detachments of 40,000 Red Guards. A gunpowder works sent a load of grenades for distribution to workers and the Putilov steel works became a centre of resistance, working 16 hours a day to produce 100 cannons. Unarmed workers formed companies for trench digging, sheet metal fortification and barbed wire fencing. The railroad workers diverted troops from their destinations and sent artillery to the wrong places; workers even tore up some strategically important tracks. Kornilov couldn’t move out of his base because of this. The telegraphers kept the workers informed of Kornilov’s troop movements and held up his communications. Information intended for Kornilov often ended up pasted up as posters around the city for all to read. As Trotsky wrote, “The generals had been accustomed … to think of transport and communications as technical questions. They found out now that these were political questions”. In four days, “The insurrection had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth”.
However, the SRs and Mensheviks continued to participate in the reactionary provisional government. Kerensky, the SR prime minister, appointed himself as Kornilov’s replacement as supreme commander. He issued an order to the army and navy with general Alekseev, former chief of staff under the Tsar and now back in that position: “For the restoration of order I command: the cessation of all political struggle among the troops … The discontinuation immediately of the arbitrary formation of detachments under the pretext of combating counter-revolutionary action”. Only those under his control were permitted to arrest officers under suspicion, a direct attack on the political rights that the soldiers’ committees had established. The uproar was immediate, even Menshevik publications voicing disquiet.
The struggle had taken a giant step forward, but had not reached its destiny. The significance of that step was the light it cast on the situation for the workers and soldiers. As Lenin argued in a different context:
“[T]he great significance of all crises is that they unveil the hidden, cast aside the conventional, the superficial, the petty, sweep away the political rubbish, uncover the secret springs of the true class struggle that is going on.”