Russia 1917: When the people rose

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.

“Common gains, external defeats, and internal dangers, drew together the parties of the ruling classes. The Duma, divided on the eve of the war, achieved in 1915 its patriotic oppositional majority which received the name of ‘Progressive Bloc’. The official aim of this bloc was of course declared to be a ‘satisfaction of the needs created by the war’.”

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:

The Menshevik president of the soviet greeted Lenin: “Comrade Lenin, in the name of the Petrograd soviet and of the whole revolution, we welcome you … But – we think that the principal task is the defence of the revolution”.

“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.

Kornilov is described as having the “heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep”. He was something of a military hero, having escaped a prisoner of war camp, and the Russian media had talked him up. They were desperate for little victories to publish.

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.”

The defeat of the Kornilov coup graphically illustrates how ludicrous is the common image of the Bolsheviks as elitists with little real support among workers. They were the only organisation capable of uniting workers across party lines to defend the revolution.

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”.

Kronstadt soldiers march to the defence of Petrograd, August 1917

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.”