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
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
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
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
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
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
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 reparations.
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
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
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
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 Party.
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 his depth."
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 Kronstadt sailors.
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
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
"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. Petersburg.
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 in