1917: The Socialist Revolution

Andrew Rothstein



On 8 April 1917, after a week in Russia, Lenin’s trusted comrade Alexandra Kollontai wrote to him and his wife:i

“The people are still intoxicated by the great act. I say the people, because it is not the working class which holds front place but a diffuse and motley mass dressed in soldiers’ greatcoats. At present it is the soldier who dictates the mood, the soldier too who is creating a peculiar atmosphere in which the greatness of the vividly expressed democratic liberties, the awakening of consciousness of equal rights for all citizens and complete failure to understand the complexity of the moment, are all mixed up together. Amidst the feverish activity and striving to build something new, different from the past, there is too loud a sound of triumph already attained, as though the cause has been won completely. Not only is the ‘internal enemy’ underestimated – biding his time, and of course far from finished off – but undoubtedly our people, and particularly the Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, lack the resolution and political judgement for carrying on what has begun, consolidating power in the hands of democracy. ‘We are already in power’ – that is the complacently mistaken mood of the majority in the Soviet. And of course this intoxication with successes achieved is taken advantage of by the Guchkovii Government, bowing hypocritically before the will and decision of the Soviet in minor details, but naturally in the main – and particularly on the question of the war – keeping the ‘reins’ in its own hands.”

“We want an End to this War”

“Particularly on the question of the war”: yet on this very question there lurked a deep and decisive division between the vast majority of those in soldiers’ greatcoats and the representatives of capitalism who dominated the first Provisional Government. The soldiers were determined that the slaughter in the war with Germany should end. That they had suffered, in all probability, well over 3 million killed already, was the British military attaché’s estimate: and he did not conceal the terrifying figures of the Russian Army’s lack of weapons, compared with that of their allies – one heavy gun to 984 yards, compared with the British 13 and the French 10 per 914 yards.iii “When they came and told us about the revolution, all the soldiers said, ‘Thank God, perhaps there will soon be peace’,” said a soldier delegate Ostromoukhov (not a Bolshevik) at the first conference of Soviets in April. He had always followed the speeches of the socialists in the Duma, because they had never talked about war to a victorious conclusion. “My comrades told me, when they were sending me to this conference, that I should tell comrade Chkheidze (the Menshevik leader) and everyone that we are ready to lay down our lives for this liberty; but all the same, comrades, we want an end to this war.”iv

In fact, British representatives with the Russian Army knew perfectly well that, on the showing of officers whom they knew, a Russian offensive was now “out of the question”!v This did not prevent them, and the ambassador under whom they worked, from exercising every kind of pressure on the ‘Guchkov’ Provisional Government to launch such an offensive.

Capitalists and Landlords

In the background for the moment, for the great mass of those demonstrating their joy in endless demonstrations to the Petrograd Soviet at the Taurida Palace – Kollontai in her letter speaks of “schoolboys and laundresses, caretakers and cab drivers” going there – was the fact that Russia was still in the hands of great capitalists and landowners.

The big banks still controlled 50% of the share capital of the iron and steel industry, 60% of coalmining, 80% of electrical engineering. When the workers introduced the 8-hour day on their own initiative, sanctioned later by the Soviets, and began pressing for wage increases, employers freely answered by lockouts: between March and October 1917, about 1,000 industrial establishments were closed down in this way. The cost of living went on rising; and, while evasion of tax obligations by the capitalists was well known, the workers were heavily burdened by indirect taxes and the constant fall in the purchasing power of the rouble.

A few tens of thousands of great landowners owned over 360 million acres, while more than 13½ million poor and middle peasants had under 330 million acres between them (a third of them with no implements and no horse).vi French ambassador Paléologue noted in his diary on March 20, after tea with a group of nobles, that their one fear was “division of the land”: one of them alone possessed 700,000 acres in Volhynia, in the south-west. But they hoped that only Crown and Church lands – about 220 million acres – would be taken, and that this would satisfy the peasantry.vii


At dinner the previous evening, with another group of nobles, the ambassador had been assured that the workers – at most, he was told, 1,200,000 out of 178 million – “won't always be our masters”, and that the Black Hundredsviii would still have their part to play.ix Similarly, Professor S G Svatikov, who was sent round the Russian embassies abroad to see how the ending of espionage against political exiles was proceeding, reported that the Russian diplomats, “profoundly hating the revolution, use every effort to discredit not only democracy, but the Provisional Government itself.”x But for the time being these and similar supporters of the old order had to restrain themselves.

However, Prince Lvov’s Provisional Government (in which there was only one professed socialist, Kerensky) only had to proclaim that it was acting on behalf of democracy, and in the name of liberty, for it to continue in all essentials upholding capitalism, whose representatives occupied nearly all its ministerial posts. The most influential among them were ‘Octobrists’ – bourgeois landowners in the main, or their spokesmen, with War Minister Guchkov as their leader – and ‘Cadets’ (Constitutional Democrats) – chiefly professors and lawyers who hoped for capitalism prosperous and expanding in Russia (and outside it, to Constantinople and Asia Minor).

Among the latter Milyukov, the Foreign Minister, was outstanding. He told Paléologue on March 17, “We are not responsible to the Duma.” “You hold your powers from the Revolution?” replied Paléologue. “No, we received them, we inherited them, from the Grand Duke Michael, who transferred them to us.”xi And while Milyukov and his colleagues had enough sense to keep this ‘constitutional theory’ to themselves, in practice they acted as though it were in force.

Old State Preserved

While dismissing from their public office the great landowners who held the post of Tsarist governors and vice-governors of provinces, they replaced them on March 17 with the corresponding officers of the provincial Zemstvos – who, although now named “Commissars of the Provisional Government”, with extremely wide powers, did not thereby cease to be the “presidents of the nobility” of their province.xii

All the Tsarist public prosecutors were maintained in office – and the archives of the gendarmerie and the secret police were transferred to their care.xiii The Law Committee of the Provisional Government refused to submit legislation which would (a) guarantee equal rights for women in the future Constituent Assembly, (b) allow children to be freed from religious instruction in schools, and (c) allow government employees leave of absence to attend provincial congresses of Soviets, trade unions, etc. It insisted (May 30) that the Tsar and his family would retain full electoral rights, and that (in its draft land decree of July 25-27) the landowners’ estates must remain their private property.”xiv

It is not surprising that by the summer the Provisional Government had begun sending punitive expeditions into the countryside to suppress peasant ‘disturbances’ (seizures of land and stock); or that it did not even proclaim Russia a Republic until September 14, after a rebellion by the would-be military dictator General Kornilov had been defeated by the workers, sailors and soldiers.

Foreign Policy Continued

Most striking, however, was its stubborn effort to continue the Tsar’s foreign policy. Morgan Philips Price, correspondent in Russia of the Manchester Guardian, found no revolution in the Russian Foreign Office. He wrote:xv

“The same old Tsarist plans of conquest were being run by officials who had exchanged the watchword ‘aristocratic privilege’ for ‘middle class efficiency’.”

The memoirs of the British and French ambassadors and their subordinates, and the apologies of Kerensky and his agents, give an unanswerable picture of this aspect of the Provisional Government’s policy, of the unyielding pressure exerted on it by its Allies – and of the difficulties which this constantly produced, right up to the end.xvi Some account of the main stages in the struggle will be found later.

Without the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries who controlled the Petrograd Soviet, the bourgeoisie would have been powerless: of this both were convinced. On March 22 Guchkov had replied to General Alexeyev, Chief of the General Staff, who had complained of excessive concessions to the Petrograd Soviet:

"The Provisional Government does not dispose of any real authority. Its orders are carried out only to the extent permitted by the Soviet, which controls the most important elements of real power, as the troops, railways, posts and telegraphs are in its hands. One can say frankly that the Provisional Government exists only so long as this is tolerated by the Soviet.”xvii

Alexeyev accordingly, two days later, sent a confidential circular to all commanders of fronts and armies, instructing them that any orders from the government could come only by agreement with the Soviet, which alone had “real power”.xviii


In the Petrograd Soviet the overwhelming majority of deputies were non-Bolsheviks (the Bolsheviks numbered 65 out of over 2,500 at the end of March and 100 a month later); it should not be supposed, however, that most of those who called themselves Mensheviks or Socialist-Revolutionaries really had any knowledge of socialism. At first, writes Philips Price, only active revolutionaries from among the workers and soldiers could be found there:

"Gradually however other grades of the proletariat began to be drawn into the Soviet system: the small handicraft worker, the half-proletarian peasant, the shop-assistant, the bank clerk type etc. These imperfectly organised and politically undeveloped proletarian groups allowed themselves to be dominated by persons not strictly of their class …. These social elements, from the first days of the March Revolution, began to cluster round the Menshevik wing.”

Earlier he had been struck by the even more marked process in the Moscow Soviet (where, by May, the Bolsheviks had 143 deputies out of 625). He commented on
“the large number of officers, advocates, middle-class politicians and even small Government officials who were elected …. Anyone of the free professions and anyone with a university education, who was not known to be a Monarchist, could get into the Socialist-Revolutionary Party. The Menshevik group and the Socialist-Revolutionary Party were literally filled in those days with people who in reality had nothing in common with socialism and the Revolution, and these people acquired a great influence over the provincial Soviets.”xix

A recent a fully-documented account, based on vast original research into provincial archives, newspapers, etc, confirms this situation.xx

Thus the Soviets in their first months faithfully reflected that very mixed-up state of mind of the masses which Alexandra Kollontai described in the letter to Lenin. But of course their leaders, the Mensheviks and Socialist-Revolutionaries, had much more definite views of their own. The essence of these was that the job of the bourgeoisie was to govern, and to develop capitalism further, while the job of socialists was to ‘supervise’ the Government and prevent the people going to ‘extremes’.

Contradictory Policies

The mixed-up condition of political immaturity in the classes which in reality had power at their command led, nevertheless, to problems for their leaders. Contradictory policies had to be adopted which sometimes played directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie, but sometimes forced the latter to make concessions.

Thus, at its very first meeting on March 15, the Provisional Government decided to allow Nicholas II and his family to leave Russia. Next day the EC of the Petrograd Soviet, on the contrary, demanded their arrest. On March 17 Nicholas decided he would go to England, and on March 19 the Government asked for British agreement. But when Kerensky announced the decision at the Moscow Soviet on the 20th, there was an uproar; and on the 21st, at the reiterated demand of the Petrograd Soviet, the ex-Tsar and his wife were arrested. That same day, the British War Cabinet resolved that it would be glad to see the Tsar out of Russia, “but they doubt if Great Britain is the right place”xxi – and Sir George Buchanan, the ambassador in Petrograd, was told of this.

Fearing direct defiance of the Soviet, Milyukov now informed Buchanan that the plan to send Nicholas abroad had only been postponed; but when the ambassador began pressing for the earliest possible departure of Nicholas and his family, the Provisional Government had to ask him (April 3) not to embarrass them, as rumours about plans to get the Romanovs away were still circulating.xxii Finally, on April 13, Lloyd George told the War Cabinet that there was strong hostility to Nicholas II here “in certain working class circles”, and the South of France would be “a better place” for him. The British ambassador was to be asked his opinion of this – and thereafter the question was dropped.xxiii The workers and soldiers had won.

The War Continued

When it came to the question of continuation of the war, however – and particularly of war aims – the majority in the Petrograd Soviet (and, after the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets in July, in the Central Executive Committee (CEC) elected there) played a more subtle game, constantly finishing up on the side of the Provisional Government. On March 19 the latter issued manifestos to the civil population and the Army, proclaiming its determination to carry on the war “to a victorious conclusion” (the previous day its representative in London Nabokov had been informed by Foreign Secretary Balfour that this was an essential condition for recognition; and earlier still, on March 17, a group of British Labour leaders had cabled Kerensky and Chkheidze in the same sense).xxiv

Furthermore, on March 24 Milyukov as Foreign Minister informed the ambassadors of the Allies that Russia stood for firm observance of the treaties between them, ie of the undertakings to dismember the German, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empires in one another’s favour. The treaties were still secret, but an Allied Note to President Wilson in January had already been described by the British Socialist Party – like other revolutionary socialist parties – as “a programme of conquest” displaying “aggressive ends”. On March 27 the Petrograd Soviet also had its say: it issued a manifesto to the peoples of the world calling, on the one hand, for an international struggle of the peoples against the “annexationist strivings of the governments of all countries”, yet proclaiming, on the other hand, that “the Russian revolution would not retreat before the bayonets of conquerors and would not allow itself to be crushed by external military force.”

After the annexationist manifesto of the Provisional Government, this was merely a high-sounding acceptance of continuation of the war (Lenin called it, a month later, “nothing but idle, innocent and pious wishes of the petty bourgeois”xxv).

Taking the cue from this lead, the Provisional Government on April 9 published a new declaration of war aims, saying that it wanted no violent seizure of foreign territories, only “a stable peace on the basis of self-determination of peoples” and would “fully observe its obligation to its Allies”. Three days later a preliminary All-Russian Conference of Soviets, at which Bolshevik speakers had criticised the declaration, rejected their resolution, and once more endorsed the Provisional Government’s statement, by 325 votes to 57 with 20 abstentions.

The Mensheviks

Thus in fact the Menshevik leaders of the Soviet tied the Russian people not only to the policy of the Provisional Government, but to the war aims of Britain, France and Italy.

Their peculiar services to the latter were brought out most clearly by the contrast with the very cold reception given by the Soviets in Petrograd, Moscow and at the front to delegations sent to Russia by the French Socialist and British Labour leaders, when they spoke too brutally and openly of carrying on until the destruction of the enemy empires.

We learn from its minutesxxvi that the British War Cabinet was at great pains to secure a suitably composed delegation with “a reliable Russian Socialist being attached as interpreter”, and even favoured “the addition of a more academic Socialist of the type of Mr Hyndman”. But the presence with the ultra-jingo delegates – O’Grady, Will Thorne and Sanders – of the renegade Alexinsky in the capacity of ‘reliable Socialist’ was too much even for the ‘moderates’ in the Soviet; the delegates were castigated everywhere by the rank and file for not demanding democratic peace aims of their own governments. And it must have been poor consolation for them to be described as “three fine fellows” by General Knox, and “simply admirable” by Professor Bernard Pares, attached to the Russian GHQ.xxvii


In earlier articles,xxviii it was shown how the Bolshevik groups in the largest Petrograd factories and in the armed forces had led the way in the great struggles from 1916 onwards and in the five historic days which brought down Tsardom – only to be submerged, so it seemed, in the resultant great flood which Kollontai described in the letter quoted above, and which Lenin defined as the “gigantic petty-bourgeois wave”,xxix swamping even sections of the workers with petty-bourgeois ideas on politics. Yet from the first the Bolshevik Party had begun its distinctive struggle in the new conditions, swimming against the stream; and on April 16 it received a powerful reinforcement by the return of Lenin.

Everywhere the Bolsheviks began reconstituting their organisation as a legal party, directly Tsardom fell: Party groups in the factories, travelling organisers (‘agents’) of the Central Committee, the “Russian Bureau” of the Central Committee (A G Shlyapnikov, P A Zalutsky and V M Molotov) all emerged from illegality, soon reinforced by old members released from prison, Russian exile or emigration abroad. Pravda resumed publication on March 18, and other Bolshevik papers began to appear elsewhere. The Party membership was about 24,000: over 60% workers, just over 25% “office workers” – most of these professional revolutionaries who had been working underground – and over 7% peasants.

There were about 2,000 in Petrograd, 600 in Moscow, 500 in the Urals, the rest in other main industrial centres like the Volga towns, the Donetsk coalfield or Kharkov. A certain number of organisations formed in the first weeks of legality in remoter areas like the Caucasus, Siberia or Central Asia, totalling perhaps 14% of the Party, included Mensheviks as well – though a small minority of the latter, as a

Lenin’s Line

Lenin, who had fought all through the war for a clean break with every kind of socialist grouping supporting it – or tolerating alliance with such ‘social-patriots’ – had foreseen its continuation. His first letter to Alexandra Kollontai in Stockholm, written in Zurich on March 16, underlined:

“Of course, we shall continue to be against defence of the fatherland, against the imperialist slaughter controlled by Shingaryovxxxi + Kerensky and Co. … Definitely …agitation and struggle with the object of an international proletarian revolution and the conquest of power by the ‘Soviets of Workers’ Deputies’.”xxxii

He immediately began working out with Zinoviev the draft of more extended points (they did not see the light until 1924); but in a letter to Kollontai, who had cabled asking for his “directives”, Lenin wrote on March 17 that

“In my opinion, the main thing now, is not to let oneself get entangled in stupid ‘unification’ attempts with the social-patriots (or, more dangerous still, with waverers like the Organising Committee,xxxiii Trotsky and Co).”xxxiv

Evidently fearing that the letter would not (in wartime conditions) reach Kollontai in time, Lenin on March 19 sent a third message – a cable “To Bolsheviks leaving for Russia”.xxxv It ran:

“Our tactics: no trust in and no support for the new government; Kerensky is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee, immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council, no rapprochement with other parties. Telegraph this to Petrograd.”

Then, in a series of Letters from Afar (March 20 – April 8),xxxvi Lenin developed these points in the shape of articles. Only the first of the letters was printed in Pravda (March 21, 22 [and abbreviated –Ed]): but it emphasised that against the new government, representing “the new class which has risen to political power in Russia, the class of capitalist landlords and bourgeoisie which has long been ruling our country economically”, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies represented “the interests of all the entire mass of the poor section of the population, ie of nine-tenths of the population” – and was “the embryo of a workers’ government”.xxxvii

On March 17, the Russian Bureau of the CC, in its first public statement after the overthrow of Tsardom, called the Provisional Government “in essence counter-revolutionary”, and said there could be no agreements with it. But it put forward instead the idea of “a provisional revolutionary government of a democratic character (the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry)” – without reference to the role of the Soviets. This left unchallenged the possibility of the Soviets themselves becoming the mainstay of the government by majority decisions, as in fact they did – under cover of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary plea that they were ‘exercising pressure’ on the government.

A number of Party meetings of workers went on record, indeed, demanding that the Soviets should take over power. But the insufficiently clear resolutions of the Russian Bureau for a time did make possible in turn the view that ‘pressure’ on the Provisional Government was a practicable policy, or that unity with at least Left Mensheviks was permissible; not to speak of some expressions of what Lenin called “revolutionary defencism”xxxviii – notably by Kamenev, who in an article in Pravda said Russian soldiers must “answer bullet with bullet, and shell with shell”.

The April Theses

However, the great majority of the Party were obviously ill at ease in face of such views, and this became clear at once directly Lenin returned on April 16 and read his famous April Theses the following day (published in Pravda on the 20th). It should be said that the Bolsheviks had issued the call for organising legal trade unions on a national scale, and hundreds of thousands were being enrolled by the end of March. They had also called for the election of all-in factory committees, which began at great speed, outstripping at first the formation of trade unions – principally in connection with the struggle for an 8-hour day. With this went the formation (mainly on the Bolsheviks’ initiative) of armed workers’ militias,xxxix soon numbering tens of thousands in all industrial centres. Thus the Bolshevik Party was well able to judge what at any rate the most active sections of the working class were thinking, by the time Lenin returned.

The details of his April Theses, and of the article which accompanied them, must be studied elsewhere. The outstanding features were that:xl

the war remained capitalist and predatory until power had been taken by the proletariat and poorest peasantry;

power was in the hands of the capitalists because of the insufficient class-consciousness of the proletariat, which trusted the capitalist Provisional Government;

there should be no support of the latter, only exposure;

the Party, recognising that it was in a minority in most Soviets, should patiently explain to the workers the need for all power to be transferred to those bodies;

Russia should become a republic of Soviets; and

though a number of sweeping political, administrative and economic measures ought to be taken – including confiscation of all landowners’ estates and nationalisation of all land – the aim for the present must be, not the introduction of socialism, but “only to bring social production and the distribution of products under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies.”

This programme of theory and practice for the immediate future was treated as madness, if not worse, by the Bolsheviks’ rivals in the Soviets. But within three weeks it had won practical unanimity in the Party. After a series of meetings in the wards of Petrograd, a Petrograd City Conference – now representing 15,000 members – approved it by 33 to 6 with 2 abstentions. Other regional organisations did the same by even bigger majorities. At Kiev the district committee had rejected the theses, but a city aggregate meeting reversed the decision.xli The 7th All-Russian Party Conference on 7-12 May 1917 (the 6th Conference had had to be held abroad, in Prague, in January 1912) adopted by immense majorities the main resolutions based on Lenin’s theses – on the war and “revolutionary defencism”, by 126 to 0 with 7 abstentions; on the Provisional Government, by 122 to 3 with 8 abstentions; and on the agrarian question, by 122 to 0 with 11 abstentions.xlii

By this time the Party had grown to 80,000 members – 16,000 in Petrograd, 7,000 in Moscow, nearly 15,000 in the Urals, 5,000 in the Donetsk coalfield. Moreover, there were about 6,000 members in the armed forces.xliii


By this time, too, the working class and the mass of the peasants and soldiers had begun the long process of testing out in real life the pledges of the two sides. What was unique in history was the reflection of the tests, and their results, in the Soviets, by far the most sensitive and representative organ of opinion which the mass of the people have ever possessed anywhere in modern times. It is quite impossible to give more than a summary in this article. Mr Philips Price’s My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, together with the new [1966 –Ed] History of the October Revolution from the Institute of History of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, are still the best general accounts in English, although there is much valuable material in the History of the Civil War in the USSR published in the 1930s.xliv When A M Andreyev’s book, The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on the Eve of the October Revolution, appears in English [1971 –Ed], it will be a valuable addition to basic knowledge for the British working class public.

The succession of crises which involved the Provisional Government and the classes supporting it, the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leadership of the Soviets and the classes supporting them, and the Bolshevik Party with its growing backing from the most class-conscious elements among the industrial workers, the soldiers and the poor peasantry, makes the most convenient framework of events.

The April Crisis and its Consequences

In the second half of March and the first fortnight of April large forces regarded as reliable – two corps and seven separate divisions – were quietly transferred to the Northern front nearest to Petrograd. The forces of reaction were becoming anxious at the fraternisation at the front and growing peace moods in the rear. Paléologue noted in his diary on April 1 that when Kornilov (commanding the Petrograd garrison) held a review that day on the square before the Winter Palace, the soldiers marched under banners calling for ‘Land and Liberty!’, ‘The Land for the People!’, ‘Hail the Socialist Republic!’ – and very few marked ‘War to Victory!’xlv

On May Day, while the workers and soldiers of Petrograd were marching in a huge demonstration at the call of the Petrograd Soviet, with banners calling for ‘peace and brotherhood of the peoples’, ‘no annexations or indemnities’, Foreign Minister Milyukov, protesting loyalty to “existing obligations”, sent a Note to the Allies reaffirming the aim of “war to decisive victory”, and insisting on a peace with “guarantees and sanctions”.

Publication of the Note on May 3 brought out soldiers and sailors in big protest demonstrations, later supported by thousands of workers at the call of the Bolshevik Party, demanding Milyukov’s resignation. There were scuffles in the city centre, with students, military cadets and businessmen shouting support for the Provisional Government. At a private meeting with leaders of the Provisional Government in Guchkov’s house, Kornilov offered to disperse the demonstrations by military force – but the ministers hesitated, wisely as it turned out.

Strikes and demonstrations continued the whole of the next day, in the course of which several people were shot; and Kornilov telephoned an artillery school ordering two batteries to be brought out on the Palace Square. The soldiers and officers there unanimously refused to carry out the order, and sent to the Soviet to discover whether Kornilov had its approval. Two hours later the general cancelled his order. There were also great demonstrations in Moscow, Kharkov, Minsk and other cities.xlvi Meanwhile the Petrograd Soviet leaders, while exhorting revolutionary and military and naval units to keep calm and refrain from sending units to Petrograd unless requested by the Soviet, extracted from the government an “explanation” to the effect that the Note did not mean annexations when it talked of obligations and guarantees. By 34 votes to 19 the EC of the Petrograd Soviet decided to accept the “explanation” – and this decision was endorsed by the full Soviet the same evening.

Kornilov resigned, and a government crisis began, with a proposal by Kerensky on May 9, that a coalition be formed. After several days of negotiation – it was during these days that the 7th Conference of the Bolshevik Party was held – the EC of the Petrograd Soviet on May 14 decided by 44 to 19, with 2 abstentions, to take part in a coalition (the minority demanded that the Soviets should take power). Guchkov had already resigned on the 12th, now Milyukov too resigned. Finally, at midnight on May 17, after prolonged haggling over posts, a coalition of 10 capitalist and 6 socialist ministers was formed, with Prince Lvov still as President. The full meeting of the Soviet on May 18 endorsed the decision – as did most Soviets throughout the country.

It was only logical that the British War Cabinet decided on May 23 to recall Sir George Buchanan and to send its Labour member Arthur Henderson to Petrograd – temporarily at first, permanently if he wished – so that he could “exercise a powerful influence on the democratic elements which now predominate in Russia”.xlvii

The Conflict Sharpens

At the beginning of May the Bolsheviks had won majorities in the Soviets of the principal working class districts of Petrograd. In the next few weeks, they substantially increased their representation in both the Petrograd and the Moscow Soviets. On June 13 the workers’ section of the Petrograd Soviet voted a Bolshevik resolution for the first time: it called for power to be transferred to the Soviets. By June 1 the Bolshevik representation in the Moscow Soviet had gone up from 143 to 205 members out of 625. In the textile centres of Ivanovo-Voznesensk and Kostroma they won majorities. At Yekaterinburg, the main city of the Urals, they won 95 seats out of 160 in the workers’ section of the Soviet; they became the largest party in the workers’ section at Saratov and Syzran, the big Volga ports; and they won half the seats in the Tsaritsyn Soviet. In all the big cities, during these weeks, Bolshevik representation in the Soviets increased substantially. At the first Congress of Soviets in the Urals (June 22-27) they had an absolute majority. They also substantially increased their representation in the soldiers’ sections of many Soviets.xlviii

These changes were not isolated. The Party’s concentration of its day-to-day work in the factories, stimulating the formation and activity of factory committees, began to produce great results. At the first Petrograd Conference of factory committees (June 12-16), where 367 factories were represented, the Bolsheviks won 75% of the votes on all main questions; and similar results were achieved in factory committees’ conferences in Moscow and elsewhere. The Bolsheviks had been pioneers in calling for the massive formation of trade unions – and at the 3rd All-Russian Conference of Trade Unions, representing close on 1½ million workers (July 4-11), they had 73 delegates out of 211xlix – although on most questions they gathered 83 to 85 votes. Again, in local council (town Duma) elections – the first in Russian history – they won hundreds of thousands of votes.

An outstanding event was the great demonstration in Petrograd on July 1. Originally the Bolshevik Central Committee had called a demonstration for June 23, in order to give a peaceful outlet to rising anger among the soldiers at the open propaganda for ‘war to victory’ of all kinds of officers’ organisations and of a Cossack Congress, while Kerensky, as the new War Minister, was restoring draconian powers to officers in the Army.

At the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets, which had opened on June 16 – and where the Bolsheviks had 107 delegates out of over 900 – the Menshevik leader Chkheidze on the 22nd raised a panic outcry about the Bolsheviks plotting to seize power, and secured first the prohibition of all demonstrations for three days, and then the holding of an ‘official’ demonstration on July 1. Half a million workers and soldiers took part – and the overwhelming majority of the banners bore such slogans as ‘Out with the 10 Capitalist Ministers!’, ‘Down with Counter-Revolution!’, ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ Many similar demonstrations were held in other cities.

The counter-revolutionaries and their ‘socialist’ allies were now determined to cut short any further advances by the Bolsheviks. The Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders had been forced by mass distrust of the Provisional Government’s war aims to call for an International Socialist Conference in Stockholm, which should discuss how to end the war by a democratic peace. But the opposition of the Allied Governments to any of their real socialists taking part, supported from behind the scenes by the Provisional Government, had soon demonstrated (as Lenin had publicly forecast) that the whole idea was only a diversion on the part of the opportunist Soviet leaders – although it had had the unexpected effect (for them) of incensing the Russian workers still more against the Allies.l More radical measures had to be sought – and they were found in a renewed offensive by the Russian Army on the south-western front (against the Austrians).

Renewed War Offensive

For months Russian ministers and officials, both in Petrograd and in London, had been complaining of delays in contracted deliveries of guns and munitions by their Allies. It was well known that many divisions had refused to fight, and that, on the front selected for the attack, many divisions were short of But there was a political advantage to be gained, and the ground for this was being thoroughly prepared.

On June 12 Buchanan had cabled home that the new Foreign Minister, Tereshchenko, had said that the “extremists” would again try to produce disorders, but that this time the government was thoroughly prepared. A few days before, the same minister had said that the government intended to “settle accounts” with the Petrograd garrison, using Cossacks for the purpose. In cables to Russian representatives abroad, during the third week of June, Tereshchenko indicated that the Provisional Government was now only waiting for “excesses” to have a pretext for suppressing the Bolsheviks.lii It came without any excesses.

The offensive soon broke down – and Bolshevik propaganda was blamed, although in fact, at the cost of 60,000 soldiers killed or wounded in the attack, more prisoners were captured in one day than had been taken by the British Army in a whole month. The Germans transferred nine divisions from western fronts to stem the offensive. But in order to make certain of an atmosphere of crisis, the four Cadet ministers resigned (July 15), nominally because the Government had agreed to autonomy for Ukraine. Great demonstrations of soldiers and workers began in Petrograd immediately, the same day, and rapidly grew to such dimensions – calling for all power to the Soviets – that the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party itself was obliged to try to turn it into peaceful channels, fearing a premature rising. This was the opportunity the Provisional Government had been waiting for.


In the early morning of July 17 the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary majority of the CEC of the Soviets issued a manifesto denouncing the demonstrations as “treachery to the revolutionary army” and “undermining the power of the people”. Later, Cossacks were sent to attack the demonstrators, who were also subjected to machine-gun fire. On July 18, units brought from the front surrounded the Peter and Paul Fortress and occupied the Bolshevik Party’s headquarters. In all, 56 people were killed and 150 wounded during the day. On the 18th also, the Pravda printing office was raided and its machinery broken up by military cadets, while ‘revelations’ about Lenin being a German spy were published in the bourgeois press, and the Party leadership decided he must go into hiding.

With the endorsement of the Government’s action by the opportunist leaders (July 19), repressions began on a large scale. Numbers of Bolsheviks were arrested, and warrants issued for the arrest of Lenin and others. The Bolshevik newspapers were suppressed, workers’ and soldiers’ meetings prohibited, whole military units disbanded and peasant leaders arrested. On July 21 Prince Lvov resigned and the Provisional Government appointed Kerensky Prime Minister;liii the next day the Soviet CEC proclaimed his Cabinet a “Government of Salvation of the Revolution”, and Kerensky in turn on the 24th conferred on Kornilov, now commander of the south-western front, unlimited power to use “whatever measures he may choose” to restore discipline – including the death penalty and field court-martial.

Second Coalition Government

The bourgeoisie did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation. Approached by Kerensky to reenter the Government, the Cadets said they would only do so if all social and political reforms were postponed until the Constituent Assembly, organisations and committees deprived of the right to interfere in state and military affairs, and a struggle carried on against “anti-State” elements – as well, of course, as “full unity with the Allies”. Their demands were accepted – and as earnest, the Government began sending out punitive expeditions against peasants seizing the land, dissolved the Finnish Diet which had declared for sovereign independence, and appointed Kornilov Commander-in-Chief. On August 6 a new government – the second coalition, once again with a majority of bourgeois ministers – was announced. The CEC of the Soviets had approved its formation beforehand, though by a much smaller majority than before – 147 to 46, with 42 abstentions and a number of Bolsheviks absent, under arrest like Kamenev, Kollontai and Lunacharsky, or in hiding. The new Government at once announced that it would continue the war “to a worthy end” (August 7).

The bourgeoisie now had the bit between its teeth. Kornilov (August 14) ordered the disbanding of no fewer than 59 ‘unreliable’ infantry divisions – nearly one-third of the total – and the formation of 33 ‘reliable’ shock units. At a triumphant Congress of Industrialists and Merchants (August 16), the leading manufacturer Ryabushinsky said that, in order to put things right, “what is needed is the bony hand of hunger and poverty” – a remark echoed by Tereshchenko, as recorded by General Knox, when he explained that now the economic situation would right itself:

“The workmen, after starving a little and perhaps burning a factory or two, would consent to accept wages that their employers could afford to pay.”liv

Nevertheless the capitalists were now not content to leave this alluring prospect to chance. All their press and military spokesmen began pressing for a dictatorship. The Council of the Cossack League showed the way: in an ultimatum to Kerensky (August 19) it demanded that Kornilov’s appointment as Commander-in-Chief should be made permanent. Next day the Officers’ Union followed suit. The press was reporting mass arrests of members of soldiers’ committees, and prohibition of an All-Russian Army Congress. Elections to the Constituent Assembly, twice postponed, were on August 22 postponed once again for three months. As though to set the stage for the coming of a real ‘strong man’ at last, the Provisional Government on August 13 had called a “State Conference” in Moscow – far from the unruly Petrograd workers and soldiers – for the 25th. It was to be a huge affair, with at least half of its 2,500 participants from bourgeois organisations, and most of the rest reliably ‘moderate’.

The Underground Movement

But unknown to businessmen, capitalist politicians and reactionary generals, the tide had already begun to turn – underground. At the 6th Congress of the Bolshevik Party, held in secret on August 8-16, Volodarsky was able to report on behalf of Petrograd that membership there had actually gone up since the ‘July Days’, from 33,500 to 36,000. Others could tell the same. Total Party membership was now about 240,000 – three times the figure in May. During the Congress – in which Lenin had to participate “from afar”, receiving daily reports, seeing draft resolutions and sending notes – the Moscow Area Conference of Factory Committees declared for all power to the Soviets, and a general strike took place in Helsinki. Numerous Soviets, even if not a majority, had passed resolutions declaring their solidarity with the Petrograd The Central Committee of the Baltic Fleet (August 13), after temporary disorganisations by the arrests, had renewed its decision that no orders, other than operational, were to be obeyed without its endorsement.lvi During the Congress itself resolutions of greetings which had been adopted by mass meetings in factories were received. Most important, however, were the main political decisions arrived at.

These were that state power had now passed into the hands of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, supported by the military clique, ie that the period of dual power was over. The Soviets were “decomposing because they had not taken power themselves in good time”. Hence the slogan of transfer of power to the Soviets, as a peaceful development of the revolution, was now out of date. Only the revolutionary liquidation of the bourgeois dictatorship by the proletariat, supported by the poorest peasantry, lay ahead – and for this the Party must prepare the proletariat, avoiding premature battle. In the course of discussion, the Congress rejected opinions that this prospect involved dependence on revolution in Western countries. Every other resolution of the Congress breathed, in one form or another, the spirit of these principal decisions.lvii

The Congress had, within a very few days, superb evidence that its profound optimism was justified. The Party’s Central Committee on August 21 denounced the State Conference as the organ of a counter-revolutionary plot, and on the 23rd one of the ward Soviets of Moscow – Zamoskvoretsky – decided by 186 to 89 to call for a general strike on the opening day. The trade unions of Moscow supported the call. In spite of a resolution condemning the strike adopted by a small majority at a joint meeting of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviets of Moscow, 150 factories with over 400,000 workers stopped on August 25. In spite of the subsequent bellicose speeches of the generals at the State Conference – Kornilov, Kaledin and Alexeyev – and the support given to them by the Menshevik leaders, the event had an immense repercussion throughout the country, expressed by innumerable resolutions of factory meetings and trade unions. In the Petrograd City Council elections on September 2, the Bolsheviks with 61 seats were second only to the Socialist-Revolutionaries (75), and had more than all the rest put together.


Cables from British military representatives in Russia gave the War Cabinet advance information that their Russian friends were preparing a big stroke. Kornilov believed the government too weak, “and he was contemplating vigorous political action” (August 20); the Cossack Union and the Officers’ League represented the views of “a large section of the best elements in the army” (August 21). General Knox, back in London, told the Cabinet on September 7:

“Kornilov was a strong character, an honest patriot, and the best man in sight. He had the support of the Cossacks. … He [Knox] had no faith in Kerensky …. Kerensky was afraid of shedding blood. … A force of 10,000 loyalists would be enough to subdue Petrograd – the main source of disorder – for the Russians were cowards.”lviii

Once again a reverse at the front – the entry of the Germans into Riga, in circumstances which suggested that the Russian High Command had planned the whole affair – and an outburst of abuse of the Bolsheviks in the capitalist press, were used as a pretext. Kerensky sent his deputy War Minister, Savinkov, to GHQ with a request that Kornilov should send reliable troops to Petrograd; at the same time, four of the most revolutionary regiments were ordered out of the capital (September 5 and 6), and Proletarii – substitute for Pravda – was closed down (September 7).

But Kornilov decided to act on his own. He decreed (September 8) the formation of a “Petrograd Army”, and ordered General Krymov to move on the city with the 3rd Corps, occupy it, disarm pro-Bolshevik units and the Red Guards and dissolve the Soviets. He sent orders to Kerensky to dissolve the Provisional Government and yield full power to himself. He issued a manifesto “to the Russian people” announcing that he was taking over supreme power. At the same time, measures similar to those in Petrograd were to be taken by a Cossack regiment, supported by military cadets, in Moscow. The Cadet ministers once more resigned. The ‘strong character’ had acted at last.

So far as Kerensky and the leaders of the Soviet CEC were concerned, Kornilov’s calculations were not far out. They spent the next 24 hours in discussing how to manage the situation – Kerensky was appointed head of a ‘Directory’ of five – without breaking with the bourgeoisie. But on the morning of September 9 the Bolshevik group in the Petrograd Soviet called a meeting of its own and the Socialist-Revolutionaries’ military organisations with delegates of the ward Soviets and factory committees, which led to the formation the same evening, with participation of the CEC and all Soviet parties – including the Bolsheviks and soldiers and sailors from the Kronstadt naval base – of a “People’s Committee for fighting Counter-Revolution”.

This included 7 or 8 Bolsheviks out of 30. But it gave an immense impetus from above to the furious preparations which had begun during the day, from below – on a direct appeal from the leading Bolshevik organisations. It also led to the formation of similar all-in committees in 100 towns and many provinces throughout Russia, in which a united front of the socialist organisations existed for the first time. Kerensky was now emboldened to proclaim Kornilov a traitor.

Kornilov Fiasco

The real preparations in Petrograd, however, were at the factory, street and barracks level. Red Guards units were called out, and new units formed and armed in large numbers. Workers’ committees immediately took charge in arms and munitions works. Trenches were dug and barbed wire entanglements were put up all round the city. An inter-ward committee of the capital’s ward Soviets (controlled by the Bolsheviks since July) became the effective staff of all these and many other defensive measures. The trade unions played an active part. Within three days nearly 40,000 Red Guards, reinforced by over 20,000 sailors and soldiers, were at their posts, in and around Petrograd, supported by artillery.

But the measures taken were not only defensive – and the real weakness of the bourgeoisie’s ‘strong man’ was speedily revealed. Railwaymen at all the junctions round the capital had taken the necessary steps to halt the advance of Krymov’s troops – and this was followed up by the ‘agitators’ from Petrograd. And one after another, the ‘reliable’ Cossack units themselves, on hearing why they had been sent to Petrograd, refused to go any further; one division arrested its officers and handed them over to the local Soviet. Similar action stopped the movement of troops from other fronts at many big junctions, and numerous generals were arrested by local Soviets. Many officers at Helsinki who had declared for Kornilov were killed by the sailors, and Krymov committed suicide.

The fiasco was complete. Above all, it revealed to the masses, in a few days of concentrated political experience, what the policy of Kerensky and his colleagues in the Soviet CEC was leading to, and where the strength and hopes of the revolution really lay – in the working class led by the Bolsheviks. On September 14 the Provisional Government belatedly proclaimed that Russia was now a Republic – but this gesture could not save it from the lessons taught by the Kornilov rebellion.

These lessons bore fruit quite quickly. On September 13 the Petrograd Soviet – many of its anti-Bolshevik deputies recalled by their electors and replaced by Bolsheviks – for the first time adopted a Bolshevik motion calling for all power to the Soviets. On the 15th the Moscow Soviet decided to maintain the Red Guards at full strength, and on the 18th it followed the example of the Petrograd Soviet. Both in the next few days sacked their old Presidiums and elected Bolsheviks and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. Kiev, Tver and many other Soviets took the same step. A West Siberian Congress of Soviets (September 19-23) produced a Bolshevik majority.lix Army Committees and regimental committees on the Northern and Western Fronts, garrisons in the rear, brought the support of millions of soldiers for the Bolshevik demand. Scores of insurrections and other ‘disturbances’ in the country areas, and formal seizures of power by the Soviets in Central Asia, showed that the peasants, too, were catching up. Both the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary Parties, on September 13 and 14, decided against further coalition with the Cadets – and on the 14th the Bolsheviks in the CEC offered to support a Soviet Government formed by those parties on a programme of immediate democratic reforms (but they refused).

The “Democratic Conference”

Most significant events – though not widely noticed at that time – occurred at the “Democratic Conference”, another medley of all kinds of organisations, which had been engineered by the leaders of the Soviet CEC as a substitute for the 2nd Congress of Soviets due to assemble in September. It was really used by Kerensky as a screen for yet more bargaining with the bourgeoisie. At the Conference (September 27-October 5) there was for the first time a split in the Menshevik delegation, 75 opposing any new coalition and 65 supporting it; and there were also divisions among the Socialist-Revolutionary delegates.

But more significant still was what happened in the delegation from trade unions and trades councils at the Democratic Conference. At the Trade Union Conference in July, there had been a small anti-Bolshevik majority, and the Central Council elected there had been composed accordingly. It was under its auspices that the delegation was sent. But by 73 to 8 the union delegates – now representing nearly 1,900,000 workers – and by 139 to 32 the whole delegation, voted against a coalition and for the Soviets taking power. As a result, Grinevich, the Menshevik chairman of the Central Council, resigned.lx


From now on, the initiative was firmly in the hands of the revolutionary working class. Kerensky could still send punitive expeditions to Tashkent, Taganrog, Saratov and into the countryside to suppress what was becoming a peasant insurrection. Lenin was still in hiding, and several Bolsheviks were still in jail. On October 8 Kerensky formed his third – and last – coalition. He could still make speeches at the “Pre-Parliament”, or “Council of the Republic”, set up by the capitalist and opportunist majority of the Democratic Conference. The Provisional Government was still able to make political gestures, like issuing a writ for the Finnish Diet to assemble (October 13) – a fortnight after it had assembled without official permission – or dissolving the old Tsarist Duma and State Council (October 19) – months after even right-wing majorities in the Soviets had been demanding this.

But these events were not what the eyes of all Russia were fixed on.lxi On October 6, yielding at last to the pressure of the Soviets all over the country, the Soviet CEC decided to call the Congress of Soviets for November 2: it was symbolic that the decision was made on the day that a nationwide railway strike began, after Kerensky had prohibited it the day before. On October 8, the Petrograd Soviet elected a new Executive Committee with a Bolshevik majority, and Trotsky as chairman. In elections for the ward Soviets in Moscow, the Bolsheviks won more seats (350) than the Cadets, SRs and Mensheviks combined (319). At the end of September (25-27) Lenin had written his now famous letters to the leading Bolshevik Party organisations, The Bolsheviks Must Assume Powerlxii and Marxism and Insurrection,lxiii insisting that all the conditions now existed for organising the armed overthrow of the Provisional Government and the establishment of Soviet power. Then they were followed up by a letter To the Central Committee, the Moscow and Petrograd Committees and the Bolshevik Members of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets (October 14)lxiv and an article Advice of an Onlooker (October 21)lxv – driving in the same point.

Ripe for Insurrection

Then, on October 23, came the historic meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee which voted by 10 to 2 to accept Lenin’s resolution that the time for insurrection was “fully ripe”, and that all Party organisations should begin to work accordingly, and elected a Political Bureau to guide the work. On the 26th, the EC of the Petrograd Soviet decided (only two Mensheviks voting against) to set up a Military Revolutionary Committee, to safeguard the revolution against further Kornilov-type adventures. The soldiers’ section of the Soviet worked out the details; and on the 29th the full meeting of the Petrograd Soviet adopted the plan by an overwhelming majority.

Meanwhile, Congresses of Soviets all over the country were passing resolutions denouncing the Provisional Government and demanding the transfer of power to the Soviets. On October 29, Lenin reported on the situation at an extended meeting of the Central Committee, with representatives of the main Party organisations concerned present. By 19 votes to 2, with 4 abstentions, the resolution of the 23rd was endorsed, and a group of 5 leading Bolsheviks was chosen – all of them, in point of fact, either deputies of the Petrograd Soviet or members of the Soviet CEC – to be incorporated in the Military Revolutionary Committee and thus strengthen its work.

Two days later Zinoviev and Kamenev, the dissenting members, published a notorious disclaimer in Maxim Gorky’s paper, provoking a vigorous denunciation of them by Lenin as “strikebreakers”. But even this unparalleled act could no longer affect the issue, as it turned out – so isolated was the counter-revolutionary camp by now. Members of the Bolshevik Central Committee were on mission in all the main centres organising the Party forces in the Soviets, the army, the factories, the Red Guards etc for the insurrection. In Petrograd, on November 2, the Military Revolutionary Committee held its first plenary meeting, appointed commissars to all military units and key organisations, sent out agitators and issued an appeal to the Cossacks. The next day it elected a Bureau, composed of three Bolsheviks – Podvoisky, Antonov and Sadovsky – and two Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, Lazimir and Sukharkov. It is their signatures, either as chairman (mostly Lazimir or Podvoisky) or as secretary (mostly Antonov), which figure most frequently in the hundreds of orders, credentials, passes etc collected and recently [1967 –Ed] published in three massive volumes.lxvi

The Bureau worked out, in the greatest possible detail, the necessary plans for concentrating the Red Guards, soldiers and sailors, taking control of key buildings, bridges etc, securing arms and distributing them, and so forth – as well as calling up the cruiser Aurora and four destroyers from Kronstadt into the heart of the city.

The bourgeois press freely discussed the imminence of insurrection and the Provisional Government moved large numbers of troops, not only to the vicinity of Petrograd, but to a number of other cities. The Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leaders of the Soviet CEC did what they could, not only by denouncing the Bolsheviks, but also (on October 30) by postponing the Congress of Soviets to November 7, and by urging delegates who had arrived to go home. Trotsky, who had already given signs of pinning faith exclusively to the Congress, spoke at a private meeting of Bolshevik delegates on November 6 in favour of taking no decision about power until the Congress opened – but this had no effect, except to produce another vigorous blast from Lenin, in a letter the same evening, crying that “to delay the uprising would be fatal”.lxvii He arrived in disguise the same night, immediately beginning to work in the MRC.

The Die Cast

For the great die had been cast. Early on November 6, by government orders, military cadets had raided the Party print shop and broken up the type there; the government had ordered the arrest of the MRC and the raising of the bridges connecting the city centre with the working class districts; it had brought about 2,000 troops to the Winter Palace, and instructed all units of the garrison to be confined to barracks. But within an hour the MRC had sent soldiers who had cleared out the cadets, and thereafter sent out far and wide its orders to “stand to”. The revolutionary forces began taking action in the course of the day, and by the evening the whole city was in their hands – without any bloodshed. Neither Cossacks nor the specially summoned troops offered any resistance – nor could such forces as had been told to go to Petrograd get anywhere near the capital. By the morning of November 7 the Provisional Government was physically isolated in the Winter Palace – and the historic proclamation, in the name of the MRC and written by Lenin, “To the Citizens of Russia” was being placarded all over the city, announcing that

“The Provisional Government has been deposed. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies – the Military Revolutionary Committee, which heads the Petrograd proletariat and the garrison.”lxviii

The same afternoon, Lenin spoke at a meeting of the Petrograd Soviet, and in the evening he attended the opening of the 2nd Congress of Soviets. There was a preliminary attempt by the ‘old gang’ to hold up proceedings – during which the blank shot from the Aurora, heralding the storming of the Winter Palace was heard – but all in vain. The Congress elected a mainly Bolshevik and Left SR Presidium, and at 3 am on November 8 heard that the Winter Palace had been taken and the Provisional Government arrested. It proclaimed that all power was now in the hands of the Soviets.

On November 7 and 8 it adopted the Decree on Peace, the Decree on the Land and the list of a Provisional Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, headed by Lenin; and it elected a new Central Executive Committee of 62 Bolsheviks, 29 Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, and 10 members of other parties.


No article can replace the full study of such a momentous subject, even in the books already available to the English-speaking reader; and therefore to attempt full conclusions would be pretentious. But some reflections seem to impose themselves – all the more after fifty years during which the grandeur of the events of 1917 has not been dimmed for those who study them (least of all for those who were their contemporaries).

1. The October Revolution was the work literally of millions of working people – unlike every previous transfer of power from one class to another.

2. The workers, soldiers, sailors and even peasants of Russia had experienced and tested out for themselves the pretensions and the falseness of all the parties on whom they had pinned their hopes when they overthrew the Tsar.

3. In gaining this experience and profiting by it, the industrial working class had been in the lead all the way – justifying the conclusions which Marx, Engels and Lenin had drawn from the insurrection of the Paris workers in 1848, the Paris Commune of 1871 and the first Russian Revolution of 1905.

4. It was in the changeover of the Soviets from opportunist class-collaborationist leadership to that of the revolutionary Social Democrats (Bolsheviks), in the freest possible conditions that any working class on earth has ever enjoyed (not excluding the British), that the truly popular nature of this gigantic upheaval manifested itself.

5. Far, therefore, from the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin being the small gang of fanatics and conspirators who fastened their will on the Russian masses (the legend which began to be spread by the lying hacks of the capitalist class on 7 November 1917, and continues in this and all other capitalist countries to the present day) the Bolsheviks both voiced and led the people in a truly “open conspiracy”lxix.

6. Equally lying is the legend that the weakness of the other side lay in Kerensky’s ‘unwillingness to shed blood’; or his ‘weakness’, or that of the Russian capitalists whom he was backing; or his failure to have Lenin shot, as one egregious ignoramus proclaimed in the British press only recently. All concerned did their damnedest to drown the revolution in torrents of blood – ‘strong men’ and ‘politicians’ alike – and they all failed because their own forces would not support them.

7. The revolution in this respect was particularly a defeat for capitalist Russia’s ‘glorious Allies’ – the ruling classes of Britain and France – as their own ambassadors and other representatives admitted afterwards, by showing how they were constantly egging on Kerensky and the generals to violence (only scant justice could be done in this article to the vivid material now available in War Cabinet records).

8. The revolution was a triumph for the resolute loyalty to Marxist principles, of the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin – both in their refusal to be diverted from their aim on finding themselves in a small minority, and in their determination at all times to find common language and aspirations with the widest mass of their fellow citizens (even including, when they could, those from whom they differed profoundly in politics).

In these respects, as in others, the great October Revolution is not something alien from the British working class or British history: it has invaluable lessons for all those who strive to learn from the class struggles of the British workers, from the fight against exploitation in our own history.

 Originally published in Marxism Today, November 1967, pp 327-340. Reproduced here with minor editing and additional citations and endnotes.

Notes and References

i Kollontai had just returned from Norway, one of the first revolutionary emigrants to get back. The letter, reproduced in the Soviet journal Novy Mir (New World) in April 1967, is [as of 1967 –Ed] in the Central Party Archives at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

ii Big businessman. War Minister in the first Provisional Government, led by Prince Lvov.

iii A Knox, With the Russian Army 1914-1917, Vol II, Hutchinson & Co, London, 1921, pp 542, 545, 547.

iv Quoted in M N Pokrovsky, ed, Outlines of the History of the October Revolution, Vol II (in Russian), Moscow, 1927, pp 149-50, and in N Avdeyev, The Revolution of 1917: Chronicle of Events (in Russian), [either Vol I or Vol II –Ed], Moscow/Petrograd, 1923, pp 145-146.

v General Knox reported thus to the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff (War Cabinet Minutes, 18 April 1917). He was supported by Lt Col Blair, assistant military attaché, on 20 April (Cabinet papers, GT760). The conflict over Order No 1 to the Petrograd garrison, from the Petrograd Soviet, establishing the rights of the Russian soldier, was mentioned in my article in the July 1967 Marxism Today [republished in CR84 –Ed]. I am obliged to the Public Record Office for help in consulting these minutes and papers, which are Crown copyright, and indexed under numbers CAB 23/2, 23/3, and 23/4 and (the papers) GT....

vi V Nizhnikov, Economic Background of the October Revolution (in Russian), in Voprosy Ekonomiki (Economic Questions), No 5, 1957.

vii M Paléologue, La Russie des Tsars pendant la Grande Guerre, Vol 3, Plon-Nourrit et cie, Paris, 1922, p 257.

viii A Russian ultra-nationalist movement in the early 20th century, a staunch supporter of the Tsar –Ed.

ix Paléologue, op cit,, p 255.

x This extract, from Vol 5 of the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published in 1918, is quoted by A V Ignatiev, Russian-British Relations on the Eve of the October Revolution (in Russian), 1966, p 152.

xi Paléologue, op cit, p 245.

xii Russian Year Book, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1913, p 12.

xiii Pokrovsky, op cit, p 130.

xiv E A Skripylev, An Institution Hostile to the October Revolution (in Russian), in the journal Sovetskoye Gosudarstvo i Pravo (Soviet Government and Law), No 5, 1967.

xv M Philips Price, My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, G Allen & Unwin,1921, p 19 – a book still of abiding value on its subject [reprinted by Hyperion, 1981 –Ed].

xvi An extremely valuable and unjustly hushed-up study of this, in English, is by an American R D Warth, The Allies and the Russian Revolution, Cambridge University Press, 1954. The work by Ignatiev, op cit, uses additional material from the archives of the old Foreign Ministry.

xvii Pokrovsky, op cit, p 134.

xviii Quoted by A M Andreyev, The Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on the Eve of the October Revolution, Progress, 1971, p 86 [actually, the passage is very similar to the quotation for which the preceding cvitation is given –Ed].

xix Philips Price, op cit, pp 17-18, 24-25.

xx Andreyev, op cit.

xxi War Cabinet Minute 100.

xxii Avdeyev, op cit, pp 72, 78-9; Ignatiev, op cit, pp 173-4.

xxiii War Cabinet Minute 118.

xxiv From War Cabinet Minute 98 we learn that (i) this had been proposed by the British ambassador in Petrograd, (ii) Arthur Henderson had submitted a draft, on behalf of the Labour leaders, and (iii) it was the War Cabinet which decided it should be sent.

xxv V I Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution (Draft Platform for the Proletarian Party), in Collected Works (LCW), Vol 24, p 67.

xxvi War Cabinet Minute 107 of 28 March 1917.

xxvii Knox, op cit, p 616; and War Cabinet Papers GT749.

xxviii A Rothstein, 1917: The Overthrow of Tsardom. Part 1 in CR83, Spring 2017, pp 2-10; Part 2 in CR84, Summer 2017, pp 2-11.

xxix Lenin, op cit, p 62.

xxx V Anikeyev, Some Questions of Party Building before October (in Russian), in Kommunist, No 7, 1967.

xxxi A leading Cadet.

xxxii LCW, Vol 35, pp 295-6.

xxxiii The internationalist wing of the Mensheviks.

xxxiv LCW, Vol 35, p 298.

xxxv LCW, Vol 23, p 292.

xxxvi LCW, Vol 23, pp 295-342.

xxxvii Ibid, pp 303-4.

xxxviii V I Lenin, in The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution, in LCW, Vol 24, p 21.

xxxix Some details are given in P N Sobolev, ed, Institute of History of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, History of the October Revolution, Progress, Moscow, 1966.

xl Lenin, The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution, op cit, pp 19-26. The article was first published in Britain – with Lenin’s explanatory Letter on Tactics (LCW, Vol 24, pp 42-54) – by the British Socialist Party in January 1920, under the title of Towards Soviets.

xli S Knyazev and D Kukin, V I Lenin’s ‘April Theses’, in Kommunist, No 6, 1967.

xlii Petrograd City and All-Russian Conferences of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) in April 1917 (in Russian), 1925.

xliii Minutes of the 6th Congress of the RSDLP (Bolsheviks) (in Russian), 1919, p 56.

xliv History of the Civil War in the USSR. Vol 1: The Prelude to the Great Proletarian Revolution From the beginning of the War to the beginning of October 1917, J Stalin, M Gorky, S Kirov, V Voroshilov and A Zhdanov, eds, Lawrence & Wishart, 1937. Vol 2: The Great Proletarian Revolution October-November 1917, G F Alexandrovsky et al, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1946.

xlv Paléologue, op cit, p 280.

xlvi There is a very full account of the great upheaval which the events in Petrograd produced all over the country, as far away as the big cities of Central Siberia, in I I Mintz, The First Government Crisis, April 1917, in Voprosy Istorii (Questions of History), No 1, 1967.

xlvii War Cabinet Minute 144.

xlviii I owe these details to Andreyev’s work, op cit, pp 154-168.

xlix V Vladimirova, The Revolution of 1917: Chronicle of Events, Vol III, 1923, p 97.

l The story has been told, with new [1967 –Ed] documents showing the British War Cabinet’s manoeuvres in the matter, by R Page Arnot in his book The Impact of the Russian Revolution in Britain, Lawrence & Wishart, 1967 [to be republished by Manifesto Press –Ed].

li War Cabinet Minutes 155, 160, 169 provide details.

lii Krasny Arkhiv (Revolutionary Archive), 1927, No 1, pp 22-3.

liii On this day the ex-Tsar entered in his diary, “This man is really in the right place at this moment: the more power he has, the better.”

liv Knox, op cit, p 674.

lv Andreyev, op cit, p 194, has established that these numbered 32 out of 82 whose attitude was recorded.

lvi Ibid, pp 198-9.

lvii It was at this Congress that the small group of Social Democrats who had completely broken away from the Mensheviks (the ‘Mezhraiontsy’) were admitted to the Party. Among them was Trotsky, although as recently as May, at the Conference of this group, he had rejected unconditional entry into the Bolshevik Party (which he had combated for many years). He was nevertheless elected to the new Central Committee.

lviii War Cabinet Minutes 221, 223, 229.

lix Y V Ivanov, Building Soviets in Siberia, 1917, in Sovetskoye Gosudarstvo i Pravo, No 7, 1967.

lx D Antoshkin, The Trade Union Movement in Russia (in Russian), 1925, p 253; A M Pankratova, ed, History of the Trade Union Movement in the USSR (in Russian), 1955, p 31; Izvestia, 20 September, 1917.

lxi Here John Reed’s immortal Ten Days That Shook the World begins to add its vivid picture to the accounts of Philips Price, op cit, and Sobolev, ed, op cit.

lxii LCW, Vol 26, pp 19-21.

lxiii Ibid, pp 22-27.

lxiv Ibid, pp 140-1.

lxv Ibid, pp 179-181.

lxvi In view of subsequent legends, it should be noted that Trotsky, although chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, was only one of 82 members of the MRC, was not a member of the Bureau, and never was its chairman. The MRC functioned as a working committee, all its members carrying out what jobs were necessary as they were available. This also included Trotsky.

lxvii V I Lenin, Letter to Central Committee Members, 24 October (6 November) 1917, in LCW, Vol 26, pp 234-5. Lenin does not refer specifically to Trotsky –Ed.

lxviii LCW, Vol 26, p 236.

lxix The title of a book by H G Wells –Ed.