Commenting on the many works on the Russian Revolution, China Mieville describes his book as: “… a short introduction for those curious about an astonishing story, eager to be caught up in the revolution’s rhythms. Because here it is precisely as a story that I have tried to tell it.” This captures the purpose but also the vivacity of the book which is like a beautifully written film-script told by invoking the living flesh and blood individuals and life and death events that made 1917 such a world-historic year 100 years ago. Mieville tells the ‘strange story’ well but leaves himself open to criticism that he blames the Bolsheviks for ‘mistakes and crimes’ (such as the ‘one party state’, War Communism, censorship, ‘one-person management’, and Kronstadt). Not as necessary means to an end (desiderata), but the result of ‘weakness’. That these ‘failures and crimes’ were explained at the time as a consequence of the counter-revolution is not properly addressed, leaving the book somewhat lacking as a guide to revolution today. Nonetheless, for those who are wanting an inspiring, page-turning account of the most important event in human history, October is it.
1. No Halfway House
The story begins with a prehistory of the years before 1917 as the struggles against reactionary Tsarism test the various revolutionary currents. In particular, for the Bolsheviks who reject the standard Eurocentric Marxist dogma that after the Tsar would come the rule of Russian capitalists. It is the experience of the 1905 revolution that convinces the Bolsheviks (the majority of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party) to break with the Menshevik (minority) line that the bourgeoisie must lead the fight against the Tsar.
The Bolsheviks, by contrast, contend that in the context of pusillanimous liberalism, the working class itself must lead the revolution, in alliance not with those liberals but with the peasantry, taking power, in what Lenin has called a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.
The book then weaves a story of the development of the revolution, month by month, from the opening February Revolution to the closing October Insurrection. February ends the Tsarist rule as when 100,000s of women and men strike in their factories, joined by mutinous and sailors, to take to the streets demanding ‘bread’ and ‘peace’. “This is not a mutiny, comrade admiral, shouted one sailor. “This is a revolution.” The power vacuum is filled by a desperate scramble in the Duma (Tsarist ‘parliament’) to create a “Provisional Committee” for a Bourgeois Parliament, and by a “Temporary Committee” for a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. Hence the arrival of “dual power” shared by the bourgeoisie in the Provisional Government and the workers in the Soviet!
The revolution can now go nowhere other than forward to victory, or back to defeat. There is no ‘half-way house’. In the months that follow, the struggle for power zig-zags between both classes as the bourgeoisie resist the call for “All Power to the Soviets”. In March, the workers and soldiers have the power but not the leadership to use it effectively. The Bolsheviks are caught off guard. Even Lenin in Switzerland worried he might not live to see the revolution. Workers and soldiers spontaneously demand the formation of a ‘provisional revolutionary government’ along the lines of Lenin’s slogan for a Workers’ Government to carry through the bourgeois revolution.
But the leading Bolsheviks in Russia are not ready for power and prefer that the Soviets support the bourgeois provisional government provided it meets a list of democratic demands. This was the Menshevik position. Soviets would force the Provisional Government to ‘take power’ and go to a Constituent Assembly or bourgeois parliament. Only the soldiers, rejecting the ongoing war, resist handing over their armed power to the bourgeoisie without a fight and demand that the Soviets, not the bourgeoisie, should control the army! Trotsky later refers to this ‘Order No 1 as “a charter of freedom for the revolutionary army”. The Soviets, even the Bolshevik leadership, are lagging behind the revolutionary masses.
The question of the Bolshevik failure of leadership is raised dramatically by Lenin from exile. In early March, he writes a series of “Letters from Afar” proving that despite his absence he was in touch with the masses. These letters re-affirm old positions, most urgently against ‘defence of the fatherland’, as the Provisional Government continues the war. Some Bolsheviks think that the bourgeois republic should defend itself from German imperialism. Lenin points out that ‘revolutionary defencism’ is a crime. Russian imperialism, aligned to French and British imperialism, is engaged in an inter-imperialist war. More ‘shocking’ is Lenin’s total rejection of any support for the bourgeois Government which is on the side of imperialism against the revolutionary masses. The ‘first stage of the revolution will not be its last’. The workers must take power in order to complete the bourgeois revolution. The anti-war mood grows and soldiers are chaffing under the weak Bolshevik policy in the Soviets ‘conciliating’ with the bourgeois-imperialist Provisional Government.
Meanwhile Stalin, Kamenev etc arrive in Petrograd and take-over Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper. On March 15, they condemn the slogan, ‘Down with war’, and argue,
Our slogan is to bring pressure to bear on the Provisional Government so as to compel it to make, without fail, openly and before the eyes of world democracy, and attempt to induce all the warring countries to initiate immediate negotiations to end the world war. Till then let everyone remain at his post.
In case there is any doubt, “post” means, “answering bullet with bullet and shell with shell.”
March ends with another sort of bombshell. Lenin arrives in Petrograd with his famous ‘April Theses’. The Bolshevik ‘old guard’ is lagging behind the revolutionary masses and has to be straightened out. The scenario, of Lenin meeting the welcoming crowds at the Finland Station, is well told. Lenin stuns the conciliating Bolshevik leaders.
What Lenin demanded was continual revolution. He spoke briefly to those present. Scorned ‘watchfulness’ as a position on the Provisional Government. He denounced the Soviet’s ‘revolutionary defencism’ as an instrument of the bourgeoisie. He raged at the lack of Bolshevik ‘discipline’. His comrades listened in stricken silence.
The next day Lenin intervenes at a Bolshevik-Menshevik meeting to discuss unity. He presents his 10-point ‘April Theses’.
Lenin’s April Theses
In summary, Lenin says that:
…for now, the order of the day was to explain the imperative of a struggle to take power from the government, and to replace any parliamentary republic with a ‘Republic of Soviets’.
Mieville vividly describes the reactions all round. Shock, horror, bewilderment, anger, among the leaders, who write off Lenin’s ‘personal opinions’ as ‘anarchism’, ‘schematism’, ‘Blanquism’. They reject Lenin’s new line that the bourgeois revolution can only be completed by going on to the socialist revolution. But when Lenin takes his Theses to the mass meetings of the rank and file workers, soldiers and peasants, his program resonates with the revolutionary masses. They know that the revolution has to be completed, or suffer the counter-revolution. It is socialism or death. Lenin is accused of swallowing Trotsky’s permanent revolution, which, though not mentioned by Mieville, Lenin has defended as far back as 1905.
Between the minimum and the maximum program (of the Social Democrats) a revolutionary continuity is established. It is not a question of a single “blow”, or of a single day or month, but of a whole historical epoch. It would be absurd to try to fix its duration in advance.
The masses are on the march whatever the Bolsheviks say, so Lenin is in fact, marching in step with the masses by fixing the duration of the ‘historical epoch’ in advance, from February to the socialist insurrection. The timing depending on the Bolsheviks winning the majority of workers, soldiers (peasants in uniform) and poor peasants in the Soviet. To prepare for the insurrection the Bolsheviks must gain a majority in the Soviets against the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SR: the big peasant-socialist party). Despite the bankruptcy of the Provisional Government, and the growing anger of the ranks, the Soviets, under their Menshevik and SR majority continue to collaborate with the prime minister, Kerensky. From May to as long as it takes, the task of those who back Lenin, is to prepare for power, by continually checking the balance of forces so as to judge when the time is ripe for the insurrection.
May and June were months when the impatient masses, particularly the soldiers, wanted to flex their arms and stage demonstrations against the Government. In June, responding to pressure from below, the Bolsheviks boycott the Soviet rally for the Constituent Assembly to ‘finish’ the bourgeois revolution. Instead they ‘test the water’ by organizing protests demanding the end of the Provisional Government. The result is as huge rally behind banners calling for “Peace! Land! Bread!”.
Sunday’s demonstration, wrote Gorky’s paper, Novaya zhizn, revealed the complete triumph of Bolshevism among the Petersburg Proletariat.
The Bolsheviks then try to restrain further armed demonstrations which the Soviets vow to squash, until they have won the majority in the soviets.
July brings a more serious test of the balance of dual power. Mass protests and street fighting lead to a clamp-down by the Government. The Bolshevik leadership was in jail (notably Trotsky) or in hiding (Lenin in Finland). From July to September, Lenin along with Trotsky in the leadership, continually assess the balance of power to decide the timing of the insurrection. First, in August, the counter-revolutionary coup of General Kornilov is defeated by the revolutionary masses. September sees Lenin in exile constantly badgering the Bolshevik leadership to boycott the ‘compromisers’ attempts to steer the revolution back to the Constituent Assembly and ‘bourgeois democracy’ – the fateful halfway house. Finally, in October the Bolsheviks win a majority of the Soviets and under the ‘legal’ cover of the impending Second Congress of Soviets on the 20th, plan the insurrection. As Trotsky says in Lessons of October, it is the refusal of the Petrograd Garrison to obey Kerensky’s order to go to the front on the 10th of October that kicks-off the armed insurrection, and sets the scene for the “ultimate fate of state power”.
2. Insurrection builds over weeks, days and hours
Picking up the Mieville’s story in the month October, the pace of the revolution speeds up, and events are counted in weeks, then days, and finally, approaching the 25th and the Second Congress of Soviets, hours. As Trotsky says of that time: events are “measured not by the long yardstick of politics, but the short yardstick of war.” The Bolsheviks always judge events in terms of the impact of class struggle on a revolutionary situation. Events rush forward and come to a climax as they are forced to a head-to-head of the two classes in a fight to the death. Dual power now reaches a stalemate and can only be broken by proletarian revolution or bourgeois counter-revolution.
As the climax builds during October, events are driven by the approaching war and the militancy of the masses, impatient for peace, land and bread. The Bolshevik Central Committee (CC) fails to keep pace with the masses, while the Mensheviks and SRs scheme to draw the Soviets into a Pre-Parliament as a precursor to the Constituent Assembly. Meanwhile, chaos reigned as the Germans threaten Petrograd and the counter-revolution builds. Lenin in hiding, fumes at the inaction. It is time for deeds not words. On September 29 comes what Mieville calls the “bombshell.” Lenin sends a ‘declaration of war’ to the Bolshevik Central Committee and tenders his resignation from the CC.
In view of the fact that the CC has even left unanswered the persistent demands I have been making for such a policy [take power now!] ever since the beginning of the Democratic Conference, in view of the fact that the central organ [Pravda] is deleting from my articles all references to such glaring errors on the part of the Bolsheviks…I am compelled to regard this as a subtle hint that I should keep my mouth shut, and as a proposal for me to retire. I am compelled to tender my resignation from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, reserving for myself freedom to campaign among the rank and file of the party at the Party Congress.
No response. On October 1 Lenin sends another message, this time including the Executives of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. He weighs up the situation. The peasants and workers are rising up, there are mutinies in the German ranks, while growing support for the Bolsheviks gives them a mandate. Therefore, the postponement of the insurrection to the 2nd Congress of Soviets is “positively criminal”. The Moscow and Petrograd committees get the message despite the efforts of the CC. They do not endorse Lenin’s demand for immediate insurrection, though in Petrograd, they agree to take action to strengthen the Bolsheviks military preparations.
While the CC is determined to risk waiting for the 2nd Congress they are being pressured by the Bolshevik ranks to boycott the Pre-parliament as a counter-revolutionary threat to the insurrection. This mass pressure is inflamed on 7 October by the order of Kerensky’s Chief of Staff, General Polkovnikov, to transfer a large part of the Petrograd garrison to the front, now fast approaching the city. That night the Pre-Parliament re-convenes. On the previous day the Bolshevik CC had voted for a boycott. Trotsky stands up to make an “emergency” statement. “Petrograd is in danger, All power to the Soviets. All land to the people!” In the commotion that followed, 53 Bolsheviks rose as one and walked out. That same night, Lenin returned to Petrograd.
Military Revolutionary Committee formed
October 9, the Petrograd Soviet meets. The Menshevik Broido moves to prepare for the garrison to transfer to the front as a compromise with the Provisional Government. Trotsky responds with a damning rejection of compromise. “Down with Kerensky”, for immediate peace and soviet power, calling on the garrison to prepare for battle against both Germans and the Kornilovites. When the motion is put to a packed plenum of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates Trotsky prevails and the Soviet gives its blessing to the formation of the Military Revolutionary Committee to prepare for the insurrection. Mieville says that Trotsky later refers to this decision as the ‘silent’ revolution. But Trotsky is more forthcoming in Lessons of October:
From the moment when we, as the Petrograd Soviet invalidated Kerensky’s order transferring two-thirds of the garrison to the front, we actually entered a state of armed insurrection. Lenin who was not in Petrograd, could not appraise the full significance of this fact. So far as I remember there is no mention of it in all his letters during this period. Yet the outcome of the insurrection of 25 October was at least three-quarters settled, if not more, the moment that we opposed the transfer of the Petrograd garrison; created the MRC (16 October); appointed out own commissars in all army divisions and institutions; and thereby completely isolated not only the general staff of the Petrograd zone, but also the Government. [Italics ours]
As of 9 October, however, the majority of Petrograd Bolsheviks are not persuaded that the insurrection should happen before the 2nd Congress. And the CC is in two minds. The next night, 10th October, the CC meets, and Lenin makes his first appearance in Petrograd since July. He argues passionately for immediate insurrection; the peasants and workers are ready and waiting for the Bolsheviks to lead them; the counter-revolution is imminent. Lenin’s resolution: “recognizing that an armed uprising is inevitable and the time fully ripe, the CC instructs all party organisations to be guided accordingly and to consider and decide all practical questions from this viewpoint”, is passed. But no date for the insurrection is set.
The CC’s decision is communicated to Bolshevik workers and soldiers who enthusiastically back the preparation for insurrection. A full session of the Petrograd Soviet on 16 October is convened to confirm the formation of the MRC. Trotsky defends it against angry charges from the Menshevik Broido, that the MRC was a Bolshevik ruse to seize power. Trotsky declares the MRC is an organ of the Soviet, not the Bolsheviks, created to prepare the defence of the revolution from the counter-revolution. The MRC is confirmed by the Soviet.
But the Bolshevik ranks are not yet convinced that an immediate insurrection would prevail. At a Petrograd Committee meeting of delegates from the city, doubts and fears that the revolutionary ranks were not ready come from the Bolshevik Military Organization – a hotbed of militant soldiers and sailors. The meeting votes down an immediate insurrection 11 to 8. In view of this news, the CC is urgently reconvened on the same day. Again, Lenin demands immediate insurrection; the masses are not unready but waiting; they trust the Bolsheviks and demand action not words! The usual objections were raised, all effectively claiming that the workers are not ready. Lenin did not insist on a timeline, while Zinoviev held out for the 2nd Congress (which had been postponed from the 20th to the 25th). Lenin won, 19 for, 4 abstentions and 2 (Kamenev and Zinoviev) against.
Though Lenin had used the threat to resign from the CC and go to the ranks these were an essential aspect of internal party democracy. When Kamenev tenders his resignation from the CC, unlike Lenin, he does not raise his opposition inside the wider party. He breaks party discipline and publishes the CC decision to prepare for revolution in Gorky’s newspaper the next day (17 October):
At the present the instigation of an armed uprising before and independent of the Soviet Congress would be an impermissible and even fatal step for the proletariat and the revolution.
Lenin reacts angrily: “a shocking, damaging transgression of party discipline” and demanded Kamenev’s resignation. The moderates and right of the party leadership fall into line. Larin and Riazanov attack the CC line as “premature”. Stalin objects to Kamenev’s resignation and resigns himself from the editorial board. All these threats of resignation are ignored or rejected by the CC. Chudnovsky reports that the Bolsheviks have no support base on the Southern Front. A meeting of 200 soldier delegates opposes coming out, as does the Peter and Paul Fortress. Stalin exclaims, “our whole position is contradictory!”
In reality the party leadership is split only over the question of timing; whether the urgency of the revolution is outweighed by the ‘legal’ cover of waiting for the 2nd Congress. The real contradiction is that of antagonistic class interests. Those for insurrection (Bolsheviks and Left SRS) represent the proletariat and the poor peasants whom they know are ready and waiting for the right time. Those who want to delay the insurrection on the basis that the ‘workers are not ready’ do so in the hope of winning support in the Soviet for the Constituent Assembly. They (Mensheviks and SRs) represent the utopia of a bourgeois socialist democracy (half way house).
MRC turns words into action
Lenin finds the way to resolve Stalin’s “contradiction” when, on his return to Petrograd, he realizes that the MRC representing the majority of the Soviet, is actually a front for the Bolshevik CC, and the key to the insurrection. It is taking responsibility for organizing and preparing for the seizure of power. While ‘defending’ Petrograd, it is upping the momentum for an insurrection sooner rather than later. On the 20 October the CC endorses the MRC and instructs “all Bolshevik organisations [to] become part of the revolutionary center organized by the Soviet.”
On 21st October, Trotsky opens the MRC Garrison conference. He wins support for a declaration calling on the 2nd Congress to ‘take power’. The Don Cossacks cancel the next day’s procession to commemorate the 105thanniversary of the liberation of Moscow from Napoleon’s occupation and declare that they would oppose the ‘counter-revolution’. At midnight, a MRC delegation meets Polkovnikov and asserts its right to veto Headquarters orders. He refuses – “we won’t recognize your Commissars”. In the early hours of the 2nd the garrison acclaims a MRC resolution to take full responsibility for the defence of Petrograd. “Long live the Garrison!”
Next day, the 22nd, is Petrograd Soviet Day. At mass meetings throughout the city, Bolshevik speakers rally support. Sukhanov reports that Trotsky’s speech: “Petrograd is in danger, workers and soldiers must defend the city”, generates a “mood bordering on ecstasy.” Meanwhile, the counter-revolution is also building. Polkovnikov orders troops from the Northern front to the city. Kerensky goes for the kill demanding that the MRC reverses its declaration of power “Long Live the Garrison” or face suppression.
23rd October. The MRC appoints its Commissars and declares a veto over all military orders. MRC delegates go to Peter and Paul to win its support. A debate between the Commander, SRs and Mensheviks vs the Bolsheviks goes on from 12 noon to 8pm, changing venues to the Modern Circus, the scene of Trotsky’s most famous 1905 speeches. Finally, a vote is taken on the dance floor; for the MRC move to the left; those against, move to the right. Overwhelming victory! Or is it? Are the soldiers too far ahead of the Soviet leadership and even the ‘moderate’ Bolsheviks who are holding out against jumping immediately from the bourgeois to the socialist revolution? Later that night a pre-congress meeting of Petrograd delegates to the 2nd Congress endorses the MRC role in defence of the Congress. But Menshevik and other delegates demand that the MRC withdraw its “veto” of Headquarters orders, or, be derecognized by the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet! The MRC “reverses its declaration” of veto power!! But these are only words, roll on the action.
Early hours of 24th October. As Mieville puts it: “The MRC had blinked. Kerensky struck.” But a “strange army” of cadets, members of the Women’s Death Battalion, horse artillery, assorted Cossacks, bicycle units and war wounded, is was the best he can offer. The Bolsheviks are aroused from sleep by Trotsky’s call to arms, “Kerensky is on the offensive!” The CC decides to answer attack with counter-attack. The pretext is the clownish smashing of the Bolshevik press by the ‘strange army’ (along with two right-wing presses!) which Trotsky seizes on to justify an armed response “because the Soviet…cannot tolerate suppression of the free word”. But this is a counter-demonstration only, proportionate to Kerensky’s panic jab. Later that day, Trotsky, speaking to the Bolshevik delegates gathering for the 2nd Congress, re-affirms that there will be no insurrection ahead of the Congress, for there is no need to arrest the Government when it is falling itself. “This is defence, comrades. This is defence.”
Meanwhile, Kerensky’s collapsing regime retreats to the Winter Palace. It is surrounded by the guns of the revolution waiting for the order to fire. On the afternoon of the 24th, Headquarters orders all bridges closed except for the Palace Bridge. But by the evening two of the main bridges are back in the hands of the revolution, along with the telegraph office. Yet just down the road on the Nevsky Prospect, middle class burghers promenade unaware a new world in birth. The dual power is wobbling. Lenin is still pushing hard to tip the balance toward immediate revolution. “We must not wait! We may lose everything! …The Government is tottering. It must be given the death blow at all costs.” In whose name? “Let the MRC do it”, he writes in an urgent message.
But the MRC, though controlled by the Bolsheviks, is a Soviet institution and that is not yet controlled by the Bolsheviks. The question of insurrection can be solved only by force of arms on the streets. The Mensheviks and SRs in the moribund Pre-Parliament try to compromise with Kerensky. A ‘Committee of Public Safety’ is formed to remove Kerensky and move toward the CA. At the same time the Left SRs and Bolsheviks are in the streets taking power in easy steps and meeting little resistance. The Pre-parliament’s compromising words dissolve like hot air when armed sailors from Helsingfors take the Telegraph Agency. Then around 9 pm the Pavlovsky Regiment barricades the Troitsky Bridge, and the MRC Commissar in charge, Osvald Dennis incredulously ignores the MRC command to pull down the barricade.
Lenin can stand it no longer. He takes off for the Smolny to play an active part in the revolution. He enters around midnight disguised in a wig with his face bandaged, both of which he has to remove before being recognized. But words still try to smother actions in the Soviet. In the All-Russian Executive Committee, the Mensheviks take up the Pre-parliament proposal for a Committee of Public Safety route to the CA. The Left SRs and the Menshevik-Internationists push for a Soviet Government comprising a socialist coalition (themselves). But now the Reds are also on the move. The urgency of events and Lenin’s constant demands, are forcing the MRC onto the offensive.
Around 2 am, MRC Commissar Dennis is ordered to reinforce the barricade he has refused to remove, and extend that barricade to the grounds of the Winter Palace. MRC Commissar Faerman leads a party to take the electric power station and cut-off supply to Government buildings. Commissar Kadlubovsky’s squad take the post office. The Sixth Engineers take the Nikolaevsky Station behind the Winter Palace. At 3.30 am the cruiser Aurora appears in the Neva near the Nikolaevsky Bridge just south of the Palace. The Garrison is on alert and more armed Reds are heading for Petrograd from Kronstadt and Finland.
Dawn on the 25th. Revolutionary guards meet no resistance in taking the Engineers’ Palace, the Petrograd State Bank, the main telephone exchange, and in freeing prisoners from the jails. Later that morning the Kronstadt revolutionary sailors set off in a squadron of destroyers and patrol boats decked with the banners of revolution. In the Smolny Lenin hastily drafts a proclamation in the name of the MRC:
To the Citizens of Russia. The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the Military Revolutionary Committee, which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison. The cause for which the people have struggled – the immediate proposal of a democratic peace, the elimination of the landlord estates, workers’ control over production, the creation of a soviet government – the triumph of this cause has been assured. Long live the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ revolution!
11 am. As the proclamation is being pasted up all over the city, Kerensky devoid of any military backing, wangles a US embassy car to flee the city.
Mid-day. The Pre-parliament, beloved by the compromisers as the road to the CA, is put out of its misery by revolutionary guards who enter the Mariinsky Palace and order the deputies out onto the street. The Kronstadt forces arrive and the Admiralty and its high command is stormed. By noon the deadline set for taking the Winter Palace is passed. The next deadline 2pm, the scheduled opening of the 2nd Congress is also missed. But the delegates already assembled demand to know what is being done in the Soviet’s name.
At 2.35 pm Trotsky opens an emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet: “On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists”. Big cheers. More cheers when Lenin appears briefly: “Long live the world socialist revolution!” he exclaims before departing.
The dual power situation has been resolved, but for the task of tidying-up the Ministers of the Kerensky Government. More useless deadlines come and go – 3,4, 6pm. Lenin sends off a barrage of notes to the MRC demanding they finish the job. Without waiting for the order, at 6.15pm, Commissar Blagonravov of the Peter and Paul fortress delivers an ultimatum to the Winter Palace. He gives them 20 mins to surrender or suffer shelling from the Fortress and the Aurora. It turns out that the Peter and Paul guns are deemed unworkable. By 8pm most of the troops defending the Winter Palace are fading away and journalists, like John Reed, and all and sundry, can enter the Palace at will. It is not until 9.40pm that Blagonravov organizes a signal to the Aurora to fire. A resounding blank sets off a long boom.
The Congress delegates will not suffer further delays. Around 11pm the Second Congress of Soviets is officially opened in the Assembly Hall of the Smolny. While the revolution is being decided on the streets by Red Guards, the Congress continues its class war within. Of a total of 670 delegates, 300 are Bolsheviks; 193 SRs (most of which are Left SRs); 68 Mensheviks and 14 Menshevik-Internationalists. Without the left SRs the Bolsheviks do not have a majority. The Menshevik Dan speaking for the outgoing presidium, immediately attacks the insurrection in the name of the Soviet. A new presidium reflecting the new composition of delegates is elected. 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Left SRs. The Mensheviks refuse to take up their 3 positions. The 1 M-I position is left empty -pending events. Then from offstage another boom sounds, this time from Peter and Paul, starting a barrage of live shells and the “endgame” at the Winter Palace.
At the Smolny the Soviet indulges in some theatre of the absurd. Against the sound of gunfire, the Menshevik-Internationalist Martov, calls for a ‘ceasefire’ and a ‘cross-party, united, socialist, government! Who will be in this ‘cross-party’ popular-front SUG? Mensheviks and SRs only? Then the Left SRs and Bolsheviks endorse Martov’s motion. Why not, if victory is imminent, merely waiting on the arrest of the Govt Ministers? The victory of the revolution will determine who is in the Soviet Government. Support for the motion is unanimous. Then as the guns boom on, reality intrudes upon the theatre.
The Duma [parliament] is split between the pro-Government Kadets, Mensheviks, and Right SRs marching to defend the Winter Palace, and the Bolsheviks and Left SRs marching to join the Soviet. In the Smolny the Mensheviks in the Congress arouse themselves.
A criminal political venture has been going on behind the back of the All-Russian Congress … The Mensheviks and SRs repudiate all that is going on here, and stubbornly resist all attempts to seize the government.
When they hear of the Duma decision from the arriving Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and SRs call for the Soviet to join the march to the Winter Palace. The left mocks and condemns them. They then act on their words and leave the Soviet and the fate of the SUG to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs. Now there is a true Soviet majority of workers, soldiers and poor peasants.
Then Martov (leader of the M-I) who has stayed behind, criticizes the Bolsheviks for anticipating the vote of Congress and moves again for his half-way house SUG. Trotsky responds:
A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy. We hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petersburg workers and soldiers. We openly forged the will of the masses for and insurrection, and not a conspiracy. The masses of the people followed our banner and our insurrection was victorious. And now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with who ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups which have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented by this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: into the dustbin of history!
Martov, amid overwhelming applause and cheering, utters a curse, “one day you will understand the crime in which you are taking part”, and leaves in search of his dustbin. The Left SRs are not yet ready to join the other SRs in their dustbin. But when they try to revive Martov’s ‘compromise’ proposal arguing that the Bolsheviks do not represent the majority of the peasantry nor the army, they come up against the Bolshevik majority in the Soviet. The Bolshevik reply is brief and pointed: how do you compromise with those who walked out of the Soviet?
2am, 26th October. The Winter Palace, the dustbin of Tsarism and now of the Provisional Government, falls over itself. The Bolshevik Antonov leads the MRC Red Guards to arrest the remaining few members of the Kerensky cabinet, then escorts them to the safety of confinement in the Peter and Paul. The news reaches the Soviet at 3am. An anti-climax, compounded by the continued comic opera of the semi-exiled M-I’s reviving their pathetic demand for a SUG to include the ‘compromisers’. The fitting finale of the Second Congress is being orchestrated by Lenin from elsewhere in the Smolny. He drafts a resolution declaring victory to the Revolutionary Government:
“To all Workers and Peasants”. The revolution will deliver peace, land, bread and national self-determination. But not unless all attempts at armed counter-revolution are defeated. “Soldiers, Workers, Employees! The fate of the revolution and democratic peace is in your hands!” At 5am the resolution becomes the ‘will’ of the Soviet and the dawn breaks to welcome a new Government, the first workers’ state, and a new society. Yet all remain precarious until the counter-revolution is defeated.
3. Epilogue: After October
The October insurrection was not the end of the story but the beginning. For Lenin the insurrection was the easy part; building socialism was the hard task. At the victorious Second Congress, late on the 26th, Lenin declares: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” The first steps are to nationalize the land and stop the war. “But” says Mieville:
the war is not ended, and the order that will be constructed is anything but socialist. Instead the months and years that follow will see the revolution embattled, assailed, isolated, ossified, broken. We know where this is going: purges, gulags, starvation, mass murder. October is still ground zero for arguments about fundamental, radical social change. Its degradation was not a given, was not written in the stars.
Mieville doesn’t go far beyond October to assess the historic impact of the revolution and its fate, other than to rehearse the main reservations about its success.
The story of the hopes, struggles, strains and defeats that follow 1917 has been told begore and will be again. That story, and above all the questions arising from it – the urgencies of change, or how change is possible, of the dangers that will beset it – stretch vastly beyond us. These last pages can only offer a fleeting glance.
Here Mieville’s strength as a story teller comes undone as he rehearses a familiar list of arguments but without a full balance sheet of all the forces that determined the outcome of the revolution. True, ‘lessons’ are beyond the brief of the ‘story’ of October, but since it ventures forth in that direction, we need to critique its shortcomings, to re-affirm the ‘lessons’ we take from October for today.
Did the Bolsheviks hijack the revolution to create a one-party state?
Mieville is concerned about the ‘hard-line’ that the Bolsheviks should form a ‘one-party’ state.
The pro-coalition All-Russian Executive Committee of the Union of Railway Workers demands a government of all socialist groups. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky, both hard-line on the question, attend the resulting conference: those Bolsheviks who do – Kamenev, Zinoviev and Milyutin – agree that a socialist coalition is the best chance for survival.
Why are Lenin and Trotsky “hard-line” on this question? ‘Socialism’ since Marx’s time is not unique to the proletariat. Bourgeois and petty bourgeois ‘socialism’ is not the same as proletarian ‘socialism’. It depends which class benefits from that ‘socialism’. The Bolsheviks were the only party representing the vanguard of the proletariat. The Mensheviks represented moderate workers and petty bourgeois whose internationalism fell well short of a proletarian revolution to overthrow the Provisional Government and stop the war.
Mieville chides the Left Mensheviks for walking out of the Soviets and handing the majority to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs. He says:
The Left Mensheviks, committed anti-war internationalists, have a case to answer, with their walkout in October 1917. Coming straight after the congress voted for coalition, this decision shocked and upset even some of those who went along with it. ‘I was thunderstruck,’ said Sukhanov, of an action he never ceased to regret. ‘No one contested the legality of the congress… [This action] meant a formal break with the masses and the revolution.
Mieville is misleading himself and his readers if he thinks that the Left Mensheviks who stood for a ‘socialist coalition’ in the Constituent Assembly could complete the bourgeois revolution and win peace, land and bread in the face of imperialist war and threat of invasion. At the first test, they could not even fight to defend their majority in the Soviet, and walked out at the critical point, “isolating themselves from the masses and the Revolution”. They wrote themselves off as a revolutionary force. Their better members became Bolsheviks. Their worst became enemies of the revolution.
The closest the Soviet Government came to being a ‘socialist coalition’ was in early 1918. In January the Left SRs (who had split with the Right SRs) joined with the Bolsheviks in the new Soviet Government. This was a socialist coalition of poor peasants, soldiers and workers. Together they closed down the CA dominated by the SRs representing petty bourgeois peasants who opposed the revolution. That is why Lenin asked the Cossacks to close down the CA to test their support for the revolution. Then in March the Left SRs resigned from the government because they opposed signing the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. They wanted to continue the ‘revolutionary war’ to defend the new workers and peasants state.
Why did the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks fall out of this treaty? Representing poor peasants and soldiers, the Left SRs were exposed to the reactionary position of the peasantry in general whose world view was limited to private land ownership. The Left SRs saw fighting Germany as the necessary defence of their national class interests. ‘Peace’, land and bread could only be defended by victory over the imperialist invader. On the other hand, the proletariat (workers who are active in class struggle) and the vanguard Party which represents its universal and historic class interests (a la Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto) do not see the revolution in national isolation. The defence of the new workers state had to be subordinated to the interests of the international proletariat.
For until the world socialist revolution breaks out, until it embraces several countries and is strong enough to overcome international imperialism, it is the direct duty of the socialists who have conquered in one country (especially a backward one) not to accept battle against the giants of imperialism. Their duty is to try to avoid battle, to wait until the conflicts between the imperialists weaken them even more, and bring the revolution in other countries even nearer. Lenin in “Left-wing” Childishness, May, 1918.
The Bolsheviks were divided (what’s new?) with some siding with the Left SRs. Lenin and Trotsky argued for a negotiated peace to stop the destruction of Russians resources needed to build socialism. The ‘revolutionary war’ would lead to the destruction of the revolution. Trotsky argued for peace negotiations to gain time to allow workers and soldiers in the warring imperialist countries to strike and mutiny and make their own revolutions. Critical time was needed to build Bolshevik parties in these countries to win workers from the treacherous social democrats and Kautsky’s centrist United Socialists. Ultimately, the Bolshevik leadership approached the question of peace as reducing the impact of the war on the ability of Soviet Russia to extend the revolution internationally. But in the event this effort fell short of the end of the war by some months and the German invasion of the Ukraine forced the Soviet Government to sign the Treaty on March 3rd.
The civil war followed immediately in May and the Left SRs then turned on the Bolsheviks over peasant resistance to state requisitions to feed the revolution. Was deserting the revolution rather than feeding it justified? In July the Left SRs assassinate several leading Bolsheviks and in August make an attempt on the life of Lenin. There was no prospect of restoring a ‘socialist coalition’ across the clear class line now drawn between those who fought to defend the revolution and those who sided with the counter-revolutionary attack on the Bolsheviks.
At every point where the fate of the revolution is in the balance the Bolsheviks prove themselves able to mobilise the masses to defend the revolution. Those who claim to represent workers but who turn their backs on the revolution cannot then whine that they were ‘hijacked’ by a one-party Bolshevik state.
The question of whether an isolated, backward, soviet Russia could have avoided ‘state capitalism’ is answered by Lenin well before the revolution. Replying to the charges in the Left Communist journal Kommunist in May, 1918, that the Bolsheviks are betraying the revolution by going back to ‘state capitalism’, Lenin writes:
It has not occurred to them [Left Communists] that state capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic … It is not state capitalism that is at war with socialism, but the petty bourgeoisie plus private capitalism fighting together against both state capitalism and socialism. The petty bourgeoisie oppose every kind of state interference, accounting and control, whether it be state capitalist or state socialist. “Left-Wing” Childishness
In order to make the ‘transition’ from capitalism and socialism Russia needs state capitalism to develop the forces of production to prepare for socialism. This requires state ‘interference’ – hiring capitalist owners, appointing ‘one-man’ managers etc to direct production in industry. Then after the failure of the German revolution, it was necessary to ‘retreat’ to the NEP. The peasants dream of becoming rich had to be harnessed to increase productivity on the land to feed the industrial workers who were building socialism. Without ‘peace’ there was no possibility of developing the land – nationalised by the revolution – and providing ‘bread’. Hence ‘war communism’ was part of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ necessary to mobilise the forces of production to defend the revolution. Without it, the new workers and peasants’ state would have been further decimated by war and starved into submission.
Was Russia ready for revolution?
Was the revolution “historically necessary”? Mieville says that by October 1918 the Mensheviks come around to this position. In fact, it was only a few ‘internationalist’ Mensheviks wanting to rejoin the Soviet Government to fight the civil war and influence the outcome. Their object was to increase the pressure on the Bolsheviks from within to steer the revolution back to the bourgeois Constituent Assembly.
Meanwhile, the majority of Mensheviks remained hostile to the Government and sided openly with the imperialist counter-revolution. They claimed that the Bolsheviks had hijacked the bourgeois revolution by excluding all non-Bolshevik parties from the Soviet government. They fought on the side of the Whites in the Civil War 1918-1920. When in 1921 the Kronstadt garrison rebelled against the Bolsheviks and declared for the Constituent Assembly – without the Bolsheviks – they were on the side of the rebels. Clearly, the Mensheviks were hostile to the bourgeois revolution ‘going over’ immediately to socialist revolution (permanent revolution) and sought to replace the Soviet Government with the Constituent Assembly (halfway house).
Did Lenin think the socialist revolution was ‘historically necessary’? Of course. Without Soviet power the bourgeois revolution would have fallen to the counter-revolution. But Mieville states wrongly that: “Lenin startlingly claims as ‘incontrovertible’ that Russia had not been ‘ready for revolution’”.
In fact, Lenin is not referring to ‘revolution’ but ‘socialism’. Lenin is stating that Russia is ready for socialistrevolution, because the bourgeoisie are too weak to overcome the fact that “the objective premises for socialism do not exist in our country”. He actually says:
The development of the productive forces of Russia has not attained the level that makes socialism possible. All the heroes of the Second International, including, of course Sukhanov, beat the drums about this proposition. They keep harping on this incontrovertible proposition in a thousand different keys, and think that it is the decisive criterion of our revolution. (emphasis ours) Our Revolution, 1923.
Here, Lenin is merely repeating the position that the Bolsheviks have held for a decade. The overthrow of the Tsar would bring the bourgeoisie to power, but they would be incapable of completing the bourgeois revolution to create the conditions for socialism. This was the historic task of the proletariat. The Mensheviks refused to accept that the bourgeoisie could not play this role and would inevitably acted as a prop for this counter-revolutionary class. This explains their class-collaboration with the bourgeoisie to ‘push it leftwards’.
The Bolsheviks, however, knew that the bourgeois revolution must be completed by the working class by means of the proletarian revolution (land reform, national self-determination, peace). From as early as 1905, despite other differences, Lenin (uninterrupted revolution) and Trotsky (permanent revolution) understood this continuous revolution to be necessary. How long this transition would take (‘a whole historic epoch’) would be decided by the class struggle under the specific concrete conditions. The proletariat would take over the historic role of the bourgeoisie, and leading the peasantry would set up a ‘democratic dictatorship’. However, after the February revolution, the Bolshevik leadership in Russia, notably Stalin, Kamenev and Zinoviev, interpreted this to mean the proletariat leading the bourgeoisie in a ‘socialist coalition’ in the Provisional Government.
Lenin’s return in April junked any compromise between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie (which also included capitalist peasants). This would be a treacherous popular front with the class enemy that was too weak to rule except in alliance with the Tsarist restorationists and foreign imperialism. It was necessary that the proletariat, leading the poor peasants, would take power from the craven bourgeoisie, declare peace, and force-march the development of state capitalism. April’s slogan “All power to the soviets” became October’s, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”
As if the ‘uninterrupted’ or ‘permanent’ revolution was not part of the Bolshevik program for over a decade, Mieville interprets Lenin’s clear explanation of this necessary act as a subjective adventure in a ‘hopeless situation’.
He [Lenin] wonders pugnaciously, however, whether a people ‘influenced by the hopelessness of the situation’ could be blamed for ‘fling[ing] itself into a struggle that would offer it as least some chance of securing conditions for the further development of civilization that were somewhat unusual’.
Mieville agrees that:
Russia had no choice but to act, on the chance that in so doing they might alter the very parameters of the situation. That things might thereby improve. The party’s shift after Lenin’s death, from that plaintive, embattled sense that there had been little alternative but to strive in imperfect conditions, to the hope of Socialism in One Country, is a baleful result of recasting necessity as virtue.
This interpretation misreads history seriously. The Bolshevik’s program did not leave things to “chance” or “hope”. As Marxists they understood what they were up against and the prospects for success. They were on the side of history against all those who sought to destroy the revolution internally and externally. If they failed to ‘construct the socialist order’, it was not because of anything that the Bolsheviks did, or failed to do, despite many errors and mistakes as Lenin always acknowledged. It was because the enemies of the proletariat in the working class and petty bourgeois conspired with the bourgeoisie and the surviving feudal ruling class to smash the European revolutions that could have rescued the ‘embattled’ Russian Revolution.
Here’s the full passage Mieville cites from Our Revolution above:
But what if the situation, which drew Russia into the imperialist war that involved every more or less influential West-European country and made her a witness of the eve of the revolution maturing or partly already begun in the East, gave rise to circumstances that put Russia and her development in a position which enabled us to achieve precisely that combination of a “peasant war” with the working-class movement suggested in 1856 by no less a Marxist than Marx himself as a possible prospect for Prussia?
What if the complete hopelessness of the situation, by stimulating the efforts of workers and peasants tenfold, offered us the opportunity to create the fundamental requisites of civilization in a different way from that of the West-European countries? Has that altered the basic relations between the basic classes of all the countries that are being, or have been, drawn into the general course of world history?
If a definite level of culture is required for the building of socialism (although nobody can say just what that definite “level of culture” is, for it differs in every West-European country), why cannot we begin by first achieving the prerequisites for that definite level of culture in a revolutionary way, and then, with the aid of the workers’ and peasants’ government and the Soviet system, proceed to overtake other nations? (emphasis ours).
Here Lenin, in replying to the Menshevik Sukhanov, is directing his remarks to all the “petty bourgeois democrats” who are stuck in the old dogma that Russia is “not yet ripe for socialism”. There is nothing ‘plaintive’, or unexpected, about the prospect of having a proletarian revolution in Russia to advance the ‘culture’ of Europe where the revolution has been aborted by the treacherous betrayal of social democracy. It could have been taken directly from Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto where they argue that communists represent both the historic and international interests of the proletariat. If the Bolsheviks were ‘embattled’ this was following an imperialist invasion and occupation of parts of Russia during the civil war which laid waste to large tracts of the country. Meanwhile, the ‘cultured’ European petty bourgeois democrats, and their Russian counterparts, taking advantage of their bourgeois freedoms, did nothing, or actively conspired against the revolution as ‘premature’.
Talking of ‘civilization’ and ‘culture’ Lenin means that capitalism and its culture is the high point of civilization – so far. But this culture is ‘ruling class culture’ which will inevitably destroy the gains of capitalist civilization unless overthrown and replaced by a ‘proletarian culture’. The proletarian culture represents its class interests and is expressed scientifically by the Marxist method – dialectics. Lenin rips into the petty bourgeois democrats. They are ‘faint-hearted pedants’, have failed to understand ‘revolutionary dialectics’, are ‘cowardly reformists’, and cannot understand that the West-European path of development is not the only road to revolution. They refuse to understand that backward countries dominated by the European ruling classes do not have the luxury of realizing socialism unless they declare independence from imperialism and from social-imperialist fake socialists!
You say that civilization is necessary for the building of socialism. Very good. But why could we not first create such prerequisites of civilization in our country as the expulsion of the landowners and the Russian capitalists, and then start moving towards socialism? Where, in what books, have you read that such variations of the customary sequence of events are impermissible or impossible? Napoleon, I think, wrote: “On s’engage et puis…on voit.” Freely rendered this means: “First engage in a serious battle and then see what happens.” Well, we did first engage in a serious battle in October 1917, and then saw such details of development (from the standpoint of world history they were certainly details) as the Brest Peace, New Economic Policy, and so forth. And now there can be no doubt that in the main we have been victorious. (emphasis ours) Our Revolution.
4. Conclusion: October Today
At the time Lenin wrote Our Revolution, in January 1923, the situation was difficult but not ‘hopeless’. Capitalism in its imperialist ‘final stage’ had exhausted its ‘historic mission’ to prepare the way for socialism and was destroying the forces of production including the lives of millions of workers. The war had mobilized armed workers in the struggle to re-partition the world but this had created the objective conditions for proletarian revolution. All that was needed to turn this revolutionary situation into victorious revolution was the class-conscious proletariat and a vanguard party to lead it. The German revolution had been betrayed by social democracy, yet failed ultimately because there was no Bolshevik-type mass party capable of leading it to victory. The result was that the European proletariat was now confronted with a rising fascist movement.
The Russian Revolution had survived the civil war but at a huge cost. The revolutionary proletariat was weakened, Lenin was on his sickbed, and Stalin was moving to concentrate power in the bureaucracy. But there was not the slightest suggestion that Lenin was viewing the situation in Russia as more than a ‘tactical retreat’ (NEP) necessary to construct the socialist order, nor his view of the upwards trajectory of the international revolution. Towards the end of his life, Lenin began to turn to the East for new revolutions that would follow Russia’s lead. In his ‘Last Will and Testament’ he called on Trotsky to remove Stalin and the bureaucracy from power and re-arm the revolution in the cause of international revolution.
Against all his detractors who paint Lenin as an authoritarian, or even ‘dictator’, who substitutes his ‘will’ for that of the proletariat, the party even, Trotsky, in Lessons of October, sums up Lenin’s role in forcing the pace of revolution with his constant interventions, particular the letters from exile he bombards the CC with:
All these letters, every sentence of which was forged on the anvil of revolution, are of exceptional value in that they serve both to characterize Lenin and to provide an estimate of the situation at the time. The basic and all-pervasive thought expressed in them is – anger, protest, and indignation against a fatalistic, temporizing, social democratic, Menshevik attitude to revolution, as if the latter were an endless film … When things have reached the point of armed insurrection, events are to be measured not by the long yardstick of politics, but b6 the short yardstick of war. To lose several weeks, several days, and sometimes a single day, is tantamount under certain conditions to the surrender of the revolution, to capitulation. Had Lenin not sounded the alarm, had there not been all this pressure and criticism on his part, had it not been for his intense and passionate revolutionary mistrust, the party would probably have failed to align its front at the decisive moment, for the opposition among the party leaders was very strong, and the staff plays a major role in all wars, including civil wars. (Our emphasis)
Mieville’s ‘strange story’ is well told, but his interpretation of events is limited by his inclination to attribute “failures and crimes” to the Bolsheviks (and in particular Lenin) who took responsibility for that revolution, rather than those global players who worked to destroy it, and sought to excuse their own marginal or counter-revolutionary role. Yet as we have argued here, the Bolsheviks could not be ‘blamed’ for the ‘one-party’ state without putting bourgeois democracy ahead of proletarian democracy. For that ‘one party’ was the only one that represented the ‘historical’ and ‘international’ interests of the revolutionary class – the proletariat.
The construction of socialism in Russia always depended on a victorious German revolution, betrayed by the petty bourgeois ‘culture’ of social-democracy in league with fascists. ‘State capitalism’ was not a betrayal of the revolution but a Marxist grasp on the reality that a Workers State in a backward country must take advantage of the latest technical developments of capitalist production to create the pre-conditions for socialism. The Bolsheviks were not to blame for the mistakes and shortcomings of the revolution. We put that blame where it belongs, on the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois counter-revolutionaries.
Without the Bolsheviks, and without Lenin, there would have been no socialist revolution. Russia would have become a semi-colony of France and Britain, and there would be no ‘lessons of the October’ to inspire and guide revolutionaries for another century towards the only solution for the survival of civilization, the international socialist revolution. The main lesson that we must take from October, today, is to promote Marxism and build the Bolshevik party and program as our guide in making that global revolution.