Russian socialists and their relationship to the war played a
key role in setting the stage for revolution in Russia. Lenin,
the leader of the radical Bolsheviks, was an outlaw and actually
lived in Galicia and Switzerland at the beginning of World War
I. He carried on a lively debate with the more moderate wing of
the Russian Social Democrats called Mensheviks. The key issue
was the relationship of revolution to war. Unlike the other
socialist, Lenin actually was in favor of war at this time,
because he thought it would weaken capitalism and prepare the
ground for revolution. But in two key votes on this issue within
the party he lost.
At Zimmerwald in September 1915 the decision against Lenin was
23 to 7 within the leadership. Lenin denounced the victors as
"social patriots" and "social pacifists" - terms which today
have none of the derogatory ring of the time. At Kienthal in
April 1916 the decision was much the same. Most of the European
workers disavowed Lenin and socialist leaders said he was
fanatical, romantic, and sectarian. Lenin, in turn called the
socialists hopelessly bourgeois.
The Bolshevik Duma deputies, meanwhile, are arrested and
indicted for treason. They are then sent off to Siberia,
including Sverdlov, Ordjonikidze, and Stalin. In 1913 Stalin had
been arrested for the sixth time - so this was the seventh time
for him. The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks in St.
Petersburg was disbanded by the police in 1912. It reorganized
itself in the summer of 1916 under the leadership of Shliapnikov,
assisted by Molotov and Stalin.
Lenin, still in Switzerland, writes Imperialism, The Highest
Stage of Capitalism. In this opus he extends the exploitation of
class to that of an entire people. Yet, despite all this, Lenin
is very skeptical about revolutionary situation in the early
years of the war.#As far as tsarist Russia and the War is
concerned, the outcome of two early battles tells the whole
story. The Battle of Tannenberg and the Battle of Masurian Lakes
ends Russian enthusiasm for war and conquest. The collapse of
the Russian front weakened the whole political structure beyond
repair The Brusilov Offensive during the summer of 1916 ends up
being a Pyrrhic victory. By November 1916 the Duma is ready to
accuse the government of "high treason." But the tsar refused to
yield to the liberals and thus sealed his fate.
Demonstrations in St. Petersburg soon broke out and started the
slide to revolution. St. Petersburg garrison troops proved to be
unreliable in quelling these demonstrations. The other important
factor was the Duma, Russia's parliament. On March 11 the Duma
ignored the tsar's order to dissolve itself, while fires in the
city broke out that very night. Meanwhile, the men of the
Volhynian guard regiment, elite oft he elite, proceeded to
murder their officers. The Duma, meeting in the Taurida Palace,
made it clear that they represented the people of Russia whole
will was being ignored.
On March 12 the Duma elected an Executive Committee which
assumed dictatorial powers on behalf of the Duma - something
like that. Most of its members were from the Progressive block.
So it is clear that the revolution, now in full gear, was made
by the parliament.
Also on March 12 the revolutionary instinct of the mob was
released. Prisons were opened and the prisoners mingled with the
demonstrators. Street fights developed with the troops and the
police sent in to suppress them. Members of the cabinet were
"arrested" by the insurgents.
Also on the same day, the third force in this game, the
Executive Committee of Soldiers and Workers Deputies is founded.
It is modeled on the one created in the Revolution of 1905 by
Leon Trotsky. The Executive Committee was led by Chkheidze, a
Menshevik. This Committee literally occupied the Duma and
presumed to address the Russian people from that vantage point.
But the Duma's own Executive Committee still retained the
political initiative. The Left in the Duma Committee at this
time was represented by Chkheidze and Alexander Kerensky.
Only two days later, on March 14, the Czarist Regime is
overthrown in St. Petersburg while an uprising in Moscow is also
successful. The Duma Committee then sent a delegation to see the
tsar in Pskov and force him to abdicate - which he does on the
following day, March 15. Grand duke Michael had refused the
crown unless the will of a constituent assembly was heard. This,
in effect, sealed the fate of the House of Romanov. On March 22,
1917, Nicholas II was arrested at army headquarters and
imprisoned at Tsarkoe Selo, the famous royal palace in the
countryside. He and his whole family were killed at
Ekaterinenburg in the Urals in July 1918
The Provisional Government and the Soviets
The Provisional Government which replaced the tsar grew out of
the Executive Committee of the Duma. Thus Russia became a de
facto Republic. A partial cabinet was created with Prince Lvov
as Prime Minister. Paul Miliukov became Foreign Minister and
Alexander Kerensky the Minister of Justice, representing left-
wing liberals. The general aim of this government is clear
enough: to make a political revolution, not a social revolution.
Yet social reform if not social revolution was necessary in the
existing conditions of agrarian unrest and dissatisfaction of
the industrial proletariat.
On March 15 civil liberties are proclaimed and the promise of
convening a constituent assembly is made. Political prisoners
are amnestied and returned from Siberia. The police is replaced
with a people's militia. Elections are postponed until the
Constituent Assembly can meet. Its meeting is postponed until
the fall. This is a tragic mistake. The authority of the
government is severely limited by the Soviet, which is in direct
competition with he government.
If there was any doubt about this, it soon vanished when the
Soviet issued the famous "Order No. 1." This was a clarion call
for soldiers councils to be established in every military unit
and for the election of officers by the troops. All of this
resulted in catastrophic confusion within the army, since armies
in general can hardly function as democratic institutions
especially in times of war.
At this time the Social Revolutionaries dominated the Soviet
since they represent the peasants, Russia's clear majority. Next
in importance are the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, in that
order. Members had been elected in factories, workshops, and
military barracks. There were a total of 2,500 representatives:
one worker for each 1000 workers and one soldier for each
company. Soviets on this pattern were soon formed in many cities
and rural areas. The nobility, upper middle class and the
educated classes were deliberately excluded. No time limit was
set on the soviets jurisdiction, although they had a lot of
moral authority since they were associated with being close to
the electorate and because the executive and legislative
functions had been blurred. This gave them unusual power.
In St. Petersburg a Central Executive Committee of the Soviets
was formed. It contained mostly leaders of socialist parties
headed by a presidium.
Provisional Government and the Allies
The big problem for the Provisional Government was the war. In
the Provisional Government the moderates wanted a continuation
of the war. The Bolsheviks, outside the Provisional Government,
called for immediate peace "without annexations and
reparations." The Soviets were uncertain what policy to adopt:
they realized that the people were tired of war but did not want
to risk a complete military collapse.
The Allies, of course, were are sympathetic to the Provisional
Government, largely because of its stand on continuation of the
war. The U.S.A. was the first government to recognize the
Provisional Government on March 22, 1917. The English, French
and Italians soon followed suit. The Allies clearly see the
necessity of tying down as many German divisions in the East as
possible, so this is a strategic move. But they also suggest the
broadening of the Lvov government.
Meanwhile, controversy between the Provisional Government and
the Leftists soon comes into the open. On March 31 Miliukov
promised that Russia would fight on. On April 9 the Soviets once
more call for peace. The Provisional Government, somewhat
belatedly on April 21, responds to charges of pursuing a
"militaristic and imperialistic" foreign policy by also
declaring itself in favor of peace without annexations and
Miliukov was thus discredited, since he continued to call for
continuation of war and when he sent a note to the Allies on May
1 to this effect a storm broke loose. There soon were
demonstrations demanding the resignation of Miliukov. So, the
Provisional Government was forced to reorganizes on May 18. The
Foreign Minister Miliukov and War Minister Guchkov both were
forced to resign.
Prince Lvov's second government included, for the first time,
Alexander Kerensky as Minister of War and the Navy and it also
included other socialists. The Miliukov note of May to the
Allies is withdrawn, but the government supported the demand for
peace without annexations and reparations and also called for
self-determination of nations. It was quite logical, therefore
that the treaties of 1914 and 1915, which made demands for the
annexation of territories, were canceled as well as Russia's
demand for the straits.
The Kerensky Offensive
Quickly emerging as the new leader, Alexander Kerensky's
announced two goals: offensive against the Central Powers and
democratic reorganization of the military command. Kerensky's
"Declaration of Soldiers Rights" on May 22 included the
appointment of commissars in the army to handle soldiers
councils, but the councils issued orders contradicting the
commanders and thus undermined the officer corps. Defeatist
literature was distributed on a massive scale by radical
socialists and Bolshevik agents and fraternization with the
enemy hit the military ranks hard.
Kerensky then visited the front and tried to rouse the soldiers
to fight on, actually launching an offensive in July 1917. A
breach in the Austrian lines is actually made to everyone's
surprise, but the Germans launched a counter-offensive which
stopped the Russians cold. Now whole Russian regiments begin to
mutiny. General Kornilov, coming out of nowhere, demanded harsh
military discipline. In desperation he was made
commander-in-chief on July 30, but it was too late - the people
turned their eyes on the Bolsheviks now.
Since March confusion reigned in the Bolshevik Party. Party
policy was directed by a temporary bureau of the Central
Committee composed of Molotov, Shliapnikov and Zalutsky, all of
whom were self-educated workers. All three were surprised by the
March revolution. So the party has split into a Left wing and a
Right wing. The temporary bureau belonged to the Left wing but
Pravda, the party newspaper, meanwhile carried on active
propaganda against the extension of the war, attacked the
Mensheviks as traitors, and called for "resignation of the
provisional government and all power to the soviets." The Right
wing led by Kamenev supported the government of Prince Lvov and
wanted to heal the split with the Mensheviks.
Joseph Stalin, who with Kamenev returned from exile on March 25,
was a senior member of the Central Committee founded in 1912.
Without asking anyone's permission, he went into action by
closing down the temporary bureau and taking control of Pravda,
which had been more conciliatory to the Provisional Government.
Lenin, from exile in Switzerland, sent a letter criticizing this
particular action by Stalin. A Party Conference was then held on
April 10 to straighten things out. The assumption was that they
should be satisfied with the democratic results of the liberal
revolution and postpone the socialist demands until later.
The moderate Bolsheviks at this time supported the Provisional
Government while radical Bolsheviks insisted that the revolution
must be anti-capitalist and not only anti-feudal. Stalin
maneuvered between the two groups trying to prevent an open
split. At this crucial moment, on April 16 Lenin returned from
Switzerland in a sealed train as a hostage of the German High
Command. This changed everything.
Lenin received a triumphal welcome at the Finland Station,
although we know since the downfall of Communism that this
welcome was artificially manufactured at the last moment.
Chkheidze welcomed him in the name of the Soviets, but Lenin
ignored him and addressed the people assembled to meet him.
There were cheers not so much for the triumphant Russian
revolution but the coming world revolution - or so at least
official propaganda would have it.
On April 17 there was a Joint Meeting of the Bolsheviks and the
Mensheviks at the Taurida Palace. Lenin announced his so-called
April Thesis. This includes demands for a breach with the
Provisional Government; the refusal to cooperate with the
moderate socialists; an attack on Pravda and its current line
defined by Stalin; and a demand that they win over the masses
and work for a majority in the Soviets. The Soviets were then
completely dominated by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary
But the heart of Lenin's April Thesis was extremely
revolutionary: He demanded the liquidation of the standing army;
liquidation of the police; liquidation of the bureaucracy;
socialization of the banks; control by the workers of production
and distribution of goods; and finally the division of the land
among the peasants. In the context of Russia this last one was
clearly the most revolutionary.
An one observer, Sukhanov, said: "I shall never forget the
speech...which broke like lightening over the assembly and shook
and confused not only me...it seemed as if all the elements had
been let loose, as if the demon of destruction was rising from
But Lenin had a hard time convincing his party comrades to
accept his thesis. The St. Petersburg party conference gave him
only a majority of 20 out of 35 votes. At the All Russian Party
Conference in May there were excited debates: Lenin proposed to
break with the International Workers Movement and found a new
international. It was turned down. He also proposed to rename
the party as the Communist Party of Russia. This was also turned
down. But the conference did support his stand on the right of
self-determination, even the right to secede. There was a
compromise on cooperation with the other leftist parties and the
relationship to the Soviets. By the time it was all over, the
majority of the Party was in Lenin's hand. Only Kamenev,
Zinoviev, and Bukharin oppose him consistently. On the final
resolutions he got 71 votes for, 39 against and 8 abstentions.
It is clear that Lenin knew how to arouse the anarchistic
instincts of the masses, how to mobilize the masses. The
momentum was to be continued until the world revolution came.
But the masses needed the direction and guardianship of an elite
party. This was the view which Lenin imposed on the party and
eventually saddled on Russia for 75 years.
Bolshevik Tactics in the Spring of 1917
The Bolsheviks soon elected a new Central Committee. The party
now had 76,000 members, double what it in February. Stalin wrote
a little pamphlet called "Land for the Peasants". This in
essence told the peasants to "form a committee and take the
land!" Trotsky returned a month after Lenin did and seeing how
the wind was blowing joined the Bolshevik party.
A new coalition government was formed which included Mensheviks
and Social Revolutionaries. So the battle with the soviets came
to an end. The soviets had lost ground among the urban masses in
any case. Lenin continued to cry for "All power to the Soviets!"
This, however, in the new situation, became a risky ploy.
At the All Russian Congress of Soviets on June 16 the breakdown
of delegates had ominous signs for Lenin. The Social
Revolutionaries produced 285 delegates; the Mensheviks 248
delegates; and the Bolsheviks merely 105 delegates. Yet during
street demonstrations most of the placards carried Bolshevik
slogans. So, go figure! Lenin must have believed that in time he
would conquer the soviets from within.
The July Uprising
This was one of Lenin major miscalculations. He thought the time
was ripe for a Bolshevik coup. But the masses were not yet ready
for anything as radical as he had to offer. The uprising only
brought out a few radicals besides the active Bolsheviks. It was
easily crushed by the forces of the Provisional Government.
Kerensky still had the muscle. Several Bolsheviks were arrested
and Lenin went into temporary hiding to bide his time and
recalculate the possibilities of the situation. It was not easy
for him to get out of town. He had to hide and masquerade as a
peasant to get across the border into Finland.
The general situation was quickly deteriorating. Peasants,
notorious for their lethargic impassivity, became strangely
impatient. It appeared that they had been affected by the
propaganda of the Social Revolutionaries and the Bolsheviks. In
retrospect it is easy to say that he failure to find an
immediate answer to the land hunger of the peasants was the
Provisional Government's biggest mistake. In industry too the
Provisional Government had no constructive program to determine
action. Production dropped to 30-49% of the pre-revolutionary
level. A suggestion was made to turn the factories over to
government control. Instead what actually happened was that the
workers took over most of the factories themselves, but did not
have the managerial skills to run them effectively.
Prices rose and the currency became devalued. Then emergency
currency was issued, known derisively as the "Kerensky bills".
This meant that the government had embarked on a path of
deliberate inflation. Kerensky then called for a National
Political Conference to jack up his tottering prestige. A
certain General Kornilov was applauded at the conference and
this led him to think he had real power. So the naive general
laid down the conditions for his support of the Provisional
Government: no interference in military questions and
re-establishment of military discipline.
The question in most peoples' minds was: "What does Kornilov's
really want?" Even now the details of Kornilov's coup attempt
are difficult to interpret, but it is certain that Kerensky
wanted to settle accounts with the Bolsheviks. To do this he
asked Kornilov to send troops to the capital. Kornilov thought
together with Kerensky he could re-establish order. That much we
can safely assume. But did he seek military dictatorship?
Probably not. He wanted to make the government more independent
of the Soviets and more amenable to influence by the military.
Kornilov was led to believe Kerensky wanted him to establish a
temporary dictatorship with Kerensky given a prominent place in
the new government. When Kerensky discovered Kornilov's
misconceptions he asked Kornilov to resign and come to St.
Petersburg immediately. Kornilov then decided to act and began
to move his Third Cavalry Division on the capital. Kerensky
replied by a levee en masse in the capital. All the left-wing
parties and factions cooperated, including the notorious
Most important, the key railroad unions cooperated with Kerensky
by pulling up tracks re-directing trains. Thus the attack is
stopped. Kornilov and his staff were summarily arrested. It is
clear that Kornilov was obviously not a born dictator. Kerensky
now felt that he was the victor. In this he was gravely mistaken
- as events would demonstrate. Lenin was in exile and Kornilov
was in jail, however, and so Kerensky officially declared Russia
to be a republic. It was a serious self-deception: the
Bolsheviks alone profited from the situation. The Allies at this
point grew impatient with Kerensky.
The October Revolution
The liberals loose confidence in Kerensky after the Kornilov
coup attempt as well. So Kerensky drew closer to the radicals
but the rest of his cabinet turned to the right. The Bolsheviks
cried conspiracy to establish monarchist dictatorship, but it
was not true. Yet, the Bolsheviks did get a majority in the
soviet for the first time - more than 50% in the September
elections. They had had only 10% in July. Strangely enough,
Trotsky was released from jail at this time only to become
president of St. Petersburg Soviet. He was supported by the
Bolsheviks and the left wing of the Social Revolutionary party.
"All power to Soviets" had a totally different meaning now. So
Trotsky's efforts are aimed at a new revolution hidden in the
slogan. Lenin wanted to make revolution NOW. Trotsky wanted to
couple it with the meeting of the All Russian Soviet. Under the
lawful cloak of a broadly elected, popular-representative body,
the Soviets, the conspiracy could be planned and prepared with a
degree of carefulness which made Lenin's plan for a spontaneous
coup by the Party appear to be an irresponsible adventure.
Trotsky knew how to maneuver in the complicated alignment of
power in the triangle of Provisional Government, Soviets, and
Bolshevik Party. The Soviets assumed the right to decide on
troop movement in St. Petersburg area without anyone being able
to challenge their illegal actions. On October 26 the Soviets
established a Military Revolutionary Committee with Leon Trotsky
Thus Trotsky became the chief of the general staff of the
Bolshevik insurrection. All threads of the conspiracy were now
in Trotsky's hand. The Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party
still debated fundamental questions endlessly while Trotsky took
concrete action. Lenin tried to persuade Kamenev and Zenoviev
who wanted to wait until the meeting of the Constituent Assembly
took place. Ominously, on October 20 Trotsky and the Bolsheviks
left Kerensky's Preliminary Parliament. The new Bolshevik
slogans were "Petrograd is in danger", "Revolution is in
danger", "People are in danger"!
On October 21 Lenin returned secretly to the city to participate
in the Central Committee meeting of October 23. This was a
historic meeting of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik
Party. Only 12 people were present and accounted for. Ten of
them voted for immediate revolution, thus completely isolating
the two democratic holdouts, Kamenev and Zenoviev. A new
Politburo is elected, including Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,
Sokolnikov, Bubnov, Kamenev, Zenoviev. (Kamenev and Zenoviev
resign a few days later).
The All Russian Soviet Congress was supposed to meet on November
2, but the Menshevik majority decided to postpone to November 7,
which enormously helped the Bolsheviks. They had a week to
prepare the insurrection. The Insurrection proper took place on
the evening of November 6. St. Petersburg regiments voted to
take orders only from Trotsky as the representative of the
Military Revolutionary Committee (November 3). This is the first
step in the mutiny. On November 5 the Military Revolutionary
Committee appointed commissars for all military units around St.
The government delivered a counter-stroke on November 6 by
occupying the newspaper offices of the Bolsheviks, but this
merely gave Trotsky a pretext to strike the first blow. The
revolution began without a shot. Insurgent troops occupied all
bridges, railroad stations, post offices and other public
buildings. The Winter Palace, seat of the Provisional
Government, was taken without much trouble. The cruiser Aurora
in Neva river simply bombarded the Winter Palace, as the
insurgents fought against a few ensigns and a battalion of
women. This was all the government could get to defend itself.
During the night of November 7-8 the government capitulated.
Late in the evening of November 6 the Soviet Congress met as
planned. Though the Bolsheviks did not have a absolute majority,
they could rely on the support of the left wing Social
Revolutionaries. The sessions had hardly begun when the right
wing Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks declared that the
Congress could not continue to meet under the threat of arms
which the bombardment of the Winter Palace had just signaled. As
a protest against the insurrection they left the hall. In so
doing they surrendered the field to the Bolsheviks.
With triumphant scorn Trotsky could now reject all cooperation
with the moderate Socialists; "Your role is played out," he
shouted. "Go where you belong from now on--into the rubbish-can
of history." At this point the left wing Mensheviks under Martov
had no choice but to leave the Congress too. The Bolsheviks now
had an absolute majority and could sanction what had happened.
The rising in St. Petersburg had succeeded. The Bolsheviks were