In Smolny on the 25th of October the most democratic of all parliaments in the world’s history was to meet. Who knows – perhaps also the most important.
Having got free of the influence of compromisist intellectuals, the local soviets had sent up for the most part workers and soldiers. The majority of them were people without big names, but who had proved themselves in action and won lasting confidence in their own localities. From the active army it was almost exclusively rank-and-file soldiers who had run the blockade of army committees and headquarters and come here as delegates. A majority of them had begun to live a political life with the revolution. They had been formed by an experience of eight months. They knew little, but knew it well. The outward appearance of the Congress proclaimed its make-up. The officers’ chevrons, the eye-glasses and neckties of intellectuals to be seen at the first Congress had almost completely disappeared. A grey colour prevailed uninterruptedly, in costumes and in faces. All had worn out their clothes during the war. Many of the city workers had provided themselves with soldiers’ coats. The trench delegates were by no means a pretty picture: long unshaven, in old torn trench-coats, with heavy papakhi  on their dishevelled hair, often with cotton sticking out through a hole, with coarse weather-beaten faces, heavy cracked hands, fingers yellowed with tobacco, buttons torn off, belts hanging loose, and long unoiled boots wrinkled and rusty. The plebeian nation had for the first time sent up an honest representation made in its own image and not retouched.
The statistics of this Congress which assembled during the hours of insurrection are very, incomplete. At the moment of opening there were 650 delegates with votes: 390 fell to the lot of the Bolsheviks – by no means all members of the party, but they were of the flesh and blood of the masses, and the masses had no roads left but the Bolshevik road. Many of the delegates who had brought doubts with them were maturing fast in the red-hot atmosphere of Petrograd.
How completely had the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries squandered the political capital of the February revolution At the June Congress of Soviets the Compromisers had a majority of 600 votes out of the whole number of 832 delegates. Now the compromisist opposition of all shades made up less than a quarter of the Congress. The Mensheviks, with the national group adhering to them, amounted to only 80 members – about half of them “Lefts.” Out of 159 Social Revolutionaries – according to other reports 190 – about three-fifths were Lefts, and moreover the Right continued to melt fast during the very sitting of the Congress. Toward the end the total number of delegates, according to several lists, reached 900. Hut this figure, while including a number of advisory members, does not on the other hand include all those with votes. The registration was carried on intermittently; documents have been lost; the information about party affiliations was incomplete. In any case the dominant position of the Bolsheviks in the Congress remains indubitable.
A straw-vote taken among the delegates revealed that 505 soviets stood for the transfer of all power to the soviets; 86 for a government of the “democracy”; 55 for a coalition; 21 for a coalition, but without the Kadets. Although eloquent even in this form, these figures give an exaggerated idea of the remains of the Compromisers’ influence. Those for democracy and coalition were soviets from the more backward districts and least important points.
From early in the morning of the 25th caucuses of the factions were held in Smolny. Only those attended the Bolshevik caucus who were free from fighting duties. The opening of the Congress was delayed: the Bolshevik leaders wanted to finish with the Winter Palace first. But the opposing factions, too, were in no hurry. They themselves had to decide what to do, and that was not easy. Hours passed. Sub-factions were disputing within the factions. The split among the Social Revolutionaries took place after a resolution to withdraw from the Congress had been rejected by 92 votes against 60. It was only late in the evening that the Right and Left Social Revolutionaries began to sit in different rooms. At 8 o’clock the Mensheviks demanded a new delay: they had too many opinions. Night came on. The operations at the Winter Palace were dragging out. But it became impossible to wait longer. It was necessary to say some clear word to the aroused and watchful nation.
The revolution had taught the art of filling space. Delegates, guests, guards, jammed into the commencement hall of the noble maidens, making room for more and more. Warnings of the danger of the floor’s collapsing had no effect, nor did appeals to smoke a little less. All crowded closer and smoked twice as much. John Reed with difficulty fought his way through the noisy crowd around the doors. The hall was not heated, but the air was heavy and hot.
Jamming the entries and the side exits, sitting on all the window sills, the delegates now patiently await the president’s gong. Tseretelli, Cheidze, Chernov – none of them is on the platform. Only leaders of the second rank have come to their funeral. A short man in the uniform of a military doctor opens the session at 10.40 in the evening in the name of the Executive Committee. The Congress, he says, assembles in such “exceptional circumstances” that he, Dan, obeying the directions of the Central Executive Committee, will refrain from making a political speech. His party friends are now indeed under fire in the Winter Palace “while loyally fulfilling their duty as ministers.” The last thing these delegates are expecting is a blessing from the Central Executive Committee. They look up at the platform with hostility. If those people still exist politically, what have they got to do with us and our business?
In the name of the Bolsheviks a Moscow delegate, Avanessov, moves that the præsidium be elected upon a proportional basis: 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Social Revolutionaries, 3 Mensheviks and 1 Internationalist. The Right immediately declines to enter the præsidium. Martov’s group sits tight for the time being; it has not decided. Seven votes go over to the Left Social Revolutionaries. The Congress watches these introductory conflicts with a scowl.
Avanessov announces the Bolshevik candidates for the præsidium: Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin, Skliansky, Krylenko Antonov-Ovseönko, Riazanov, Muranov, Lunacharsky, Kollontai, Stuchka. “The præsidium,” writes Sukhanov, “consisted of the principal Bolshevik leaders and six (in reality seven) Left Social Revolutionaries.” Zinoviev and Kamenev were included in the præsidium as authoritative party names in spite of their active opposition to the insurrection; Rykov and Nogin as representatives of the Moscow Soviet; Lunacharsky and Kollontai as popular agitators of that period; Riazanov as a representative of the trade unions; Muranov as an old worker-Bolshevik who had carried himself courageously during the trial of the deputies of the State Duma; Stuchka as head of the Lettish organisation; Krylenko and Skliansky as representatives of the army; Antonov-Ovseönko as a leader of the Petrograd battles. The absence of Sverdlov’s name is obviously explained by the fact that he himself drew up the list, and in the confusion nobody corrected it. It is characteristic of the party morals of the time that the whole headquarters of the opponents of the insurrection turned up in the præsidium: Zinoviev, Kamenev, Nogin, Rykov, Lunacharsky, Riazanov. Of the Left Social Revolutionaries only the little fragile and courageous Spiridonova, who had served long years at hard labour for assassinating the subduer of the Tombovsk peasants, enjoyed an all-Russian renown. The Left Social Revolutionaries had no other “name.” The Rights, on the other hand, had now little or nothing but names left.
The Congress greeted its præsidium with enthusiasm. While the factions had been assembling and conferring, Lenin with his make-up still on, in wig and big spectacles, was sitting in the passage-way in the company of two or three Bolsheviks. On the way to a meeting of their faction Dan and Skobelev stopped still. Opposite the table where the conspirators were sitting, stared at Lenin, and obviously recognised him. Time, then, to take the make-up off. But Lenin was in no hurry to appear publicly. He preferred to look round a little and gather the threads into his hands while remaining behind the scenes. In his recollections of Lenin published in 1924, Trotsky writes: “The first session of the Second Congress of Soviets was sitting in Smolny. Lenin did not appear here. He remained in one of the rooms of Smolny in which, as I remember, there was for some reason no furniture, or almost none. Later somebody spread blankets on the floor and put two cushions on them, Vladimir Ilych and I took a rest there lying side-by-side. But in just a few minutes I called: ‘Dan is talking and you must answer him.’ Returned after my reply, I again lay down beside Vladimir Ilych, who of course had no thought of going to sleep. Was that indeed possible? Every five or ten minutes somebody would run in from the assembly hall to tell us what was going on.”
The president’s chair is occupied by Kamenev, one of those phlegmatic types designed by nature herself for the office of chairman. There are three questions, he announces, on the order of the day: organisation of a government; war and peace; convocation of the Constituent Assembly. An unusual, dull, alarming rumble breaks into the noise of the meeting from outside. This is Peter and Paul fortress ratifying the order of the day with artillery fire. A high tension current runs through the Congress, which now suddenly feels and realises what it really is: the convention of a civil war.
Lozovsky, an opponent of the insurrection, demanded a report from the Petrograd Soviet. But the Military Revolutionary Committee was a little behind hand. Replying artillery testified that the report was not ready. The insurrection was in full swing. The Bolshevik leaders were continually withdrawing to the rooms of the Military Revolutionary Committee to receive communications or give orders. Echoes of the fighting would burst up through the assembly like tongues of flame. When votes were taken hands would be raised among bristling bayonets. A blue-grey acrid tobacco smoke hid the beautiful white columns and chandeliers.
The verbal battles of the two camps were extraordinarily Impressive against a background of cannon-shots. Martov demanded the floor. The moment when the balance is still oscillating is his moment – this inventive statesman of eternal waverings. With his hoarse tubercular voice Martov makes instant rejoinder to the metallic voice of the guns: “We must put a stop to military action on both sides ... The question of power is beginning to be decided by conspiratorial methods. All the revolutionary parties have been placed before a fail accompli ... A civil war threatens us with an explosion of counter-revolution. A peaceful solution of the crisis can be obtained by creating a government which will be recognised by the whole democracy.” A considerable portion of the Congress applauds. Sukhanov remarks ironically: “Evidently many and many a Bolshevik, not having absorbed the spirit of the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky, would have been glad to take that course.” The Left Social Revolutionaries and a group of United Internationalists support the proposal of peace negotiations. The Right Wing, and perhaps also the close associates of Martov, are confident that the Bolsheviks will reject this proposal. They are wrong. The Bolsheviks send Lunacharsky to the tribune, the most peace-loving, the most velvety of their orators. “The Bolshevik faction,” he says, “has absolutely nothing against Martov’s proposal.” The enemy are astonished. “Lenin and Trotsky in thus giving way a little to their own masses,” comments Sukhanov, “are at the same time cutting the ground from under the Right Wing.” Martov’s proposal is adopted unanimously. “If the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries withdraw now,” runs the comment in Martov’s group, “they will bury themselves.” It is possible to hope, therefore, that the Congress “will take the correct road of creating a united democratic front.” Vain hope! A revolution never moves on diagonals.
The Right Wing immediately violates the just-approved initiation of peace negotiations. The Menshevik Kharash, a delegate from the 12th Army with a captain’s star on his shoulders, makes a statement: “These political hypocrites propose that we decide the question of power. Meanwhile it is being decided behind our backs ... Those blows at the Winter Palace are driving nails in the coffin of the party which has undertaken such an adventure ...” The captain’s challenge is answered by the Congress with a grumble of indignation.
Lieutenant Kuchin, who had spoken at the State Conference in Moscow in the name of the front, tries here also to wield the authority of the army organisations: “This Congress is untimely and even unauthorised.” “In whose name do you speak?” shout the tattered trench-coats, their credentials written all over them in the mud of the trenches. Kuchin carefully enumerates eleven armies. But here this deceives nobody. At the front as at the rear the generals of compromise are without soldiers. The group from the front, continues the Menshevik lieutenant, “declines to assume any responsibility for the consequences of this adventure.” That means a complete break with the revolution. “Henceforth the arena of struggle is transferred to the localities.” That means fusion with the counter-revolution against the soviets. And so the conclusion: “The front group ... withdraws from this Congress”
One after another the representatives of the Right mount the tribune. They have lost the parishes and churches, but they still hold the belfries, and they hasten for the last time to pound the cracking bells. These socialist and democrats, having made a compromise by hook and crook with the imperialist bourgeoisie, today flatly refuse to compromise with the people in revolt. Their political calculations are laid bare. The Bolsheviks will collapse in a few days, they are thinking: We must separate ourselves from them as quickly as possible, even help to overthrow them, and thus to the best of our ability insure ourselves and our future.
In the name of the Right Menshevik faction, Khinchuk, a former president of the Moscow Soviet and a future Soviet ambassador in Berlin, reads a declaration: “The military conspiracy of the Bolsheviks ... will plunge the country into civil dissension, demolish the Constituent Assembly, threaten us with a military catastrophe, and lead to the triumph of the counter-revolution.” The sole way out: “Open negotiations with the Provisional Government for the formation of a power resting on all layers of the democracy.” Having learned nothing, these people propose to the Congress to cross off the insurrection and return to Kerensky. Through the uproar, bellowing, and even hissing, the words of the representative of the Right Social Revolutionaries are hardly distinguishable. The declaration of his party announces “the impossibility of work in collaboration” with the Bolsheviks, and declares the very Congress of Soviets, although convoked and opened by the compromisist Central Executive Committee, to be without authority.
This demonstration of the Right Wing does not cow anybody, but causes alarm and irritation. The majority of the delegates are too sick and tired of these bragging and narrow-minded leaders who fed them first with phrases and then with measures of repression. Can it be that the Dans, Khinchuks and Kuchins still expect to instruct and command us? A Lettish soldier, Peterson, with a tubercular flush on his cheeks and burning hatred in his eyes, denounces Kharash and Kuchin as impostors. “The revolution has had enough gab! We want action! The power should be in our hands. Let the impostors leave the congress – the army is through with them!” This voice tense with passion relieves the mind of the Congress. which has received nothing so far but insults. Other frontline soldiers rush to the support of Peterson. “These Kuchins represent the opinions of little gangs who have been sitting in the army committees since April. The army long ago demanded new elections.” “Those who live in the trenches are impatiently awaiting the transfer of power to the soviets.”
But the Rights still hold the belfries. A representative of the Bund declares that “all that has happened in Petrograd is a misfortune.” and invites the delegates to join the members of the duma who have decided to march unarmed to the Winter Palace in order to die with the government. “Gibes were to be heard in the general uproar,” writes Sukhanov. “some coarse and some poisonous.” The unctuous orator has obviously mistaken his audience. “Enough from you!” “Deserters!” shout the delegates, guests, Red Guards and sentries at the door to the withdrawing delegates. “Join Kornilov!” “Enemies of the people!”
The withdrawal of the Rights did not leave any vacant space. Evidently the rank-and-file delegates had refused to join the officers and junkers for a struggle against the workers and soldiers. Only about 70 delegates – that is, a little more than half of the Right Wing faction – went out. The waverers took their place with the intermediate groups who had decided not to leave the Congress. Whereas before the opening of the Congress the Social Revolutionaries of all tendencies had numbered not over 190 men, during the next few hours the number of Left Social Revolutionaries alone rose to 180. They were joined by all those who had not yet decided to join the Bolsheviks although ready to support them.
The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were quite ready to remain in a Provisional Government or some sort of a Pre-Parliament under any circumstances. Can one after all break with cultured society? But the soviets – that is only the people. The soviets are all right while you can use them to get a compromise with the bourgeoisie, but can one possibly think of tolerating soviets which have suddenly imagined themselves masters of the country? “The Bolsheviks were left alone,” wrote the Social Revolutionary, Zenzinov, subsequently, “and from that moment they began to rely only upon crude physical force.” Moral principle undoubtedly slammed the door along with Dan and Gotz. Moral principle will march in a procession of 300 men with two lanterns to the Winter Palace, only to run into the crude physical force of the Bolsheviks and – back down.
The motion adopted by the Congress in favour of peace negotiations was left hanging in the air. If the Rights had admitted the possibility of compromising with a victorious proletariat, they would have been in no hurry to break with the Congress. Martov could not have failed to understand this. Nevertheless he clung to the idea of a compromise – the thing upon which his whole policy always stands or falls. “We must put a stop to the bloodshed ...” he begins again. “Those are only rumours!” voices call out. “It is not only rumours that we hear,” he answers. “If you come to the windows you will hear cannon-shots.” This is undeniable. When the Congress quiets down, shots are audible without going to the windows.
Martov’s declaration, hostile through and through to the Bolsheviks, and lifeless in its arguments, condemns the revolution as “accomplished by the Bolshevik party alone by the method of a purely military plot,” and demands that the Congress suspend its labours until an agreement has been reached with all the socialists parties. To try to find the resultant of a parallelogram of forces in a revolution is worse than trying to catch your own shadow!
At that moment there appeared in the Congress the Bolshevik faction of the city duma, those who had refused to seek a problematic death under the walls of the Winter Palace. They were led by Joffé, subsequently the first Soviet ambassador at Berlin. The Congress again crowded up, giving its friends a joyful welcome.
But it was necessary to put up a resistance to Martov. This task fell to Trotsky. “Now since the exodus of the Rights,” concedes Sukhanov, “his position is as strong as Martov’s is weak.” The opponents stand side by side in the tribune, hemmed in on all sides by a solid ring of excited delegates. “What has taken place,” says Trotsky, is an insurrection, not a conspiracy. An insurrection of the popular masses needs no justification. We have tempered and hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. We have openly forged the will of the masses to insurrection, and not conspiracy ... Our insurrection has conquered, and now you propose to us: Renounce your victory: make a compromise. With whom? I ask: With whom ought we to make a compromise? With that pitiful handful who just went out? ... Haven’t we seen them through and through. There is no longer anybody In Russia who is for them. Are the millions of workers and peasants represented in this Congress, whom they are ready now as always to turn over for a price to the mercies of the bourgeoisie, are they to enter a compromise with these men? No, a compromise is no good here. To those who have gone out, and to all who made like proposals, we must say, ‘You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your rôle is played out. Go where you belong from now on – into the rubbish-can of history!’”
“Then we will go!” cries Martov without awaiting the vote of the Congress. “Martov in anger and affectation,” regrets Sukhanov. “began to make his way from the tribune towards the door. And I began to gather together my faction for a conference in the form of an emergency session ...” It was not wholly a matter of affectation. The Hamlet of democratic socialism, Martov, would make a step forward when the revolution fell back as in July; but now when the revolution was ready for a tiger’s leap, Martov would fall back. The withdrawal of the Rights had deprived him of the possibility of parliamentary manoeuvring, and that put him instantly out of his element. He hastened to abandon the Congress and break with the insurrection. Sukhanov replied as best he could. The faction split in half: Martov won by 14 votes against 12.
Trotsky introduced a resolution – an act of indictment against the Compromisers: They prepared the ruinous offensive of June 18; they supported the government of treason to the people; they screened the deception of the peasants on the land question; they carried out the disarming of the workers; they were responsible for the purposeless dragging out of the war; they permitted the bourgeoisie to deepen the economic ruin of the country; having lost the confidence of the masses, they resisted the calling of a soviet congress; and finally, finding themselves in a minority, they broke with the soviets.
Here again the order of the day is suspended for a declaration. Really the patience of the Bolshevik præsidium has no bounds. The president of the executive committee of the peasant soviet has come to summon the peasants to abandon this “untimely” congress, and go to the Winter Palace “to die with those who were sent there to do our will.” This summons to die in the ruins of the Winter Palace is getting pretty tiresome in its monotony. A sailor just arrived from the Aurora, ironically announces that there are no ruins, since they are only firing blanks from the cruiser. “Proceed with your business in peace,” he says. The soul of the Congress finds rest in the admirable black-bearded sailor, incarnating the simple and imperious will of the insurrection. Martov with his mosaic of thoughts and feelings belongs to another world. That is why he breaks with the Congress.
Still another special declaration – this time half friendly. “The Right Social Revolutionaries,” says Kamkov, “have gone out, but we, the Lefts, have remained.” The Congress welcomes those who have remained. However, even they consider it necessary to achieve a united revolutionary front, and come out against Trotsky’s sharp resolution shutting the door against a compromise with the moderate democracy.
Here too the Bolsheviks made a concession. Nobody ever saw them before, it seems, in such a yielding mood. No wonder; they are the masters of the situation and they have no need to insist upon the forms of words. Again Lunacharsky takes the tribune. “The weight of the task which has fallen upon us is not subject to any doubt,” he says. A union of all the genuinely revolutionary elements of the democracy is necessary. But have we, the Bolsheviks, taken any steps whatever to repel the other groups? Did we not adopt Martov’s proposal unanimously? For this we have been answered with accusations and threats. Is it not obvious that those who have left the Congress “are ceasing even their compromisist work and openly going over to the camp of the Kornilovists?”
The Bolsheviks did not insist upon an immediate vote on Trotsky’s resolution. They did not want to hinder the attempts to reach an agreement on a soviet basis. The method of teaching by object-lesson can be successfully applied even to the accompaniment of artillery! As before with the adoption of Martov’s proposal, so now the concession of Kamkov only revealed the impotence of these conciliatory labour pains. However, in distinction from the Left Mensheviks, the Left Social Revolutionaries did not quit the Congress: they were feeling too directly the pressure of the villages in revolt.
A mutual feeling-out has taken place. The primary positions have been occupied. There comes a pause in the evolution of the Congress. Shall we adopt the basic decrees and create a soviet government? It is impossible: the old government is still sitting there in the semi-darkness of a chamber in the Winter Palace, the only lamp on the table carefully barricaded with newspapers. Shortly after two o’clock in the morning the præsidium declares a half-hour recess.
The red marshals employed the short delay accorded to them with complete success. A new wind was blowing in the atmosphere of the Congress when its sitting was renewed. Kamenev read from the tribune a telephonogram just received from Antonov. The Winter Palace has been captured by the troops of the Revolutionary Military Committee; with the exception of Kerensky the whole Provisional Government with the dictator Kishkin at its head is under arrest. Although everybody had already learned the news as it passed from mouth to mouth, this official communication crashed in heavier than a cannon salute. The leap over the abyss dividing the revolutionary class from power has been made. Driven out of the Palace of Kshesinskaia in July, the Bolsheviks have now entered the Winter Palace as rulers. There is no other power now in Russia but the power of the soviets. A complex tangle of feelings breaks loose in applause and shouting: triumph, hope, but also anxiety. Then come new and more confident bursts of applause. The deed is done. Even the most favourable correlation of forces contains concealed surprises, but the victory becomes indubitable when the enemy’s staff is made prisoner.
Kamenev impressively reads the list of those arrested. The better known names bring hostile or ironic exclamations from the Congress. Especially bitter is the greeting of Tereshchenko who has guided the foreign destinies of Russia. And Kerensky? Kerensky? It has become known that at ten o’clock this morning he was orating without great success to the garrison of Gatchina. “Where he went from there is not exactly known; rumour says to the front.”
The fellow-travellers of the revolution feel bad. They foresee that now the stride of the Bolsheviks will become more firm. Somebody from the Left Social Revolutionaries objects to the arrest of the socialist ministers. A representative of the United Internationalists offers a warning – “lest the Minister of Agriculture Maslov, turn up in the same cell in which he sat under the monarchy.” He is answered by Trotsky, who was imprisoned during the ministry of Maslov in the same “Kresty” as under Nicholas: “Political arrest is not a matter of vengeance; it is dictated ... by considerations of expediency. The government ... should be indicted and tried, first of all for its indubitable connection with Kornilov ... The socialist ministers will be placed only under house arrest.” It would have been simpler and more accurate to say that the seizure of the old government was dictated by the demands of the still unfinished struggle. It was a question of the political beheading of the hostile camp, and not of punishment for past sins.
But this parliamentary query as to the arrests was immediately crowded out by another infinitely more important episode. The 3rd Bicycle Battalion sent by Kerensky against Petrograd had come over to the side of the revolutionary people! This too favourable news seemed unbelievable, but that was exactly what had happened. This selected military unit, the first to be chosen out from the whole active army, adhered to the insurrection before ever reaching the capital. If there had been a shade of restraint in its joy at the arrest of the ministers, the Congress was now seized with unalloyed and irrepressible rapture.
The Bolshevik commissar of Tsarskoe Selo together with a delegate from the bicycle battalion ascended the tribune. They had both just arrived to make a report to the Congress: “The garrison of Tsarkoe Selo is defending the approaches to Petrograd.” The defensists withdrew from the soviet. “All the work rested upon us alone.” Learning of the approach of the bicycle men, the Soviet of Tsarskoe Selo prepared to resist, but the alarm happily turned out to be false. “Among the bicycle men are no enemies of the Congress of Soviets.” Another battalion will soon arrive at Tsarskoe, and friendly greeting is already in preparation there. The Congress drinks down this report in great gulps.
The representative of the bicycle men is greeted with a storm, a whirlwind, a cyclone. This 3rd Battalion, he reports, was suddenly sent from the South-western front to the North under telegraphic orders “for the defence of Petrograd.” The bicycle men advanced “with eyes blindfolded,” only confusedly guessing what was up. At Peredolsk they ran into an echelon of the 5th Bicycle Battalion, also moving on the capital. At a joint meeting held right there at the station, it became clear that “among all the bicyclists there is not one man to be found who would consent to take action against his brothers.” It was jointly decided not to submit to the government.
“I tell you concretely,” says the bicycle soldier, “we will not give the power to a government at the head of which stand the bourgeoisie and the landlords!” That word “concretely,” introduced by the revolution into the everyday language of the people, sounded fine at this meeting!
How many hours was it since they were threatening the Congress from that same tribune with punishment from the front? Now the front itself had spoken its “concrete” word. Suppose the army committees do sabotage the Congress. Suppose the rank-and-file soldier mass only succeeds in getting its delegates there rather as an exception. Suppose in many regiments and divisions they have not yet learned to distinguish a Bolshevik from a Social Revolutionary. Never mind! The voice from Peredolsk is the authentic, unmistakable, irrefutable voice of the army. From this verdict there is no appeal. The Bolsheviks, and they only, had understood in time that the soldier-cook of the bicycle battalion infinitely better represented the front than all the Kharashes and Kuchins with their wilted credentials. A portentous change occurred here in the mood of the delegates. “They began to feel,” writes Sukhanov, “that things were going to go smoothly and well, that the horrors promised on the Right would not after all be so terrible, and that the leaders might be correct in everything else too.”
The unhappy Mensheviks selected this moment to draw attention to themselves. They had not yet, it seems, withdrawn. They had been considering in their faction what to do. Out of a desire to bring after him the wavering groups, Kapelinsky, who had been appointed to inform the congress of the decision adopted, finally spoke aloud the most candid reason for breaking with the Bolsheviks: “Remember that the troops are riding towards Petrograd; we are threatened with catastrophe.” “What! Are you still here?” – the question was shouted from all corners of the hall. “Why, you went out once!” The Mensheviks moved in a tiny group towards the entrance, accompanied by scornful farewells. “We went out,” grieves Sukhanov, “completely untying the hands of the Bolsheviks, turning over to them the whole arena of the revolution.” It would have made little difference if they had stayed. In any case they went to the bottom. The waves of events closed ruthlessly over their heads.
It was time for the Congress to address a manifesto to the people, but the session continued to consist only of special declarations. Events simply refused to fit into the order of the day. At 5.17 in the morning Krylenko, staggering tired, made his way to the tribune with a telegram in his hand: The 12th Army sends greetings to the Congress and informs it of the creation of a military revolutionary committee which has undertaken to stand guard in the Northern front. Attempts of the government to get armed help have broken against the resistance of the army. The commander-in-chief of the Northern front, General Cheremissov, has submitted to the Committee. The commissar of the Provisional Government, Voitinsky, has resigned, and awaits a substitute. Delegations from the echelons moved against Petrograd have one after another announced to the Military Revolutionary Committee their solidarity ... with the Petrograd garrison. “Pandemonium,” says Reed, “men weeping, embracing each other.”
Lunacharsky at last got a chance to read a proclamation addressed to the workers, soldiers and peasants. But this was not merely a proclamation. By its mere exposition of what had happened and what was proposed, this hastily written document laid down the foundations of a new state structure. “The authority of the compromisist Central Executive Committee is at an end. The Provisional Government is deposed. The Congress assumes the power ...” The Soviet Government proposes immediate peace. It will transfer the land to the peasants democratise the army, establish control over production, promptly summon the Constituent Assembly, guarantee the right of the nations of Russia to self-determination. “The Congress resolves: That all power in the localities goes over to the soviets.” Every phrase as it is read turns into a salvo of applause. “Soldiers! Be on your guard! Railway workers! Stop all echelons sent by Kerensky against Petrograd! ... The fate of the revolution and the fate of the democratic peace is in your hands!”
Hearing the land mentioned, the peasants pricked up their ears. According to its constitution the Congress represented only soviets of workers and soldiers; but there were delegates present from individual peasant soviets. They now demanded that they be mentioned in the document. They were immediately given a right to vote. The representative of the Petrograd peasant soviet signed the proclamation “with both hands and both feet.” A member of Avksentiev’s Executive Committee, Berezin, silent until now, stated that out of 68 peasant soviets replying to a telegraphic questionnaire, one-half had expressed themselves for a Soviet government, the other half for the transfer of power to the Constituent Assembly. If this was the mood of the provincial soviets, half composed of governmental functionaries, could there be any doubt that a future peasant congress would support the Soviet power?
While solidifying the rank-and-file delegates, the proclamation frightened and even repelled some of the fellow-travellers by its irrevocableness. Small factions and remnants again filed through the tribune. For the third time a group of Mensheviks, obviously the most leftward now, broke away from the Congress. They withdrew, it seems, only in order to be in a position to save the Bolsheviks: “Otherwise you will destroy yourselves and us and the revolution.” The president of the Polish Socialist party, Lapinsky, although he remained at the Congress in order to “defend his point of view to the end,” gave essential adherence to the declaration of Martov: “The Bolsheviks will not be able to wield the power which they are assuming.” The United Jewish Workers party abstained from the vote – likewise the United Internationalists. How much, though, did all these “united” amount to altogether? The proclamation was adopted almost unanimously, only two dissenting, with twelve abstaining! The delegates had hardly strength left to applaud.
The session finally came to an end at about six o’clock. A grey and cold autumn morning was dawning over the city. The hot spots of the camp-fires were fading out in the gradually lightening streets. The greying faces of the soldiers and the workers with rifles were concentrated and unusual. If there were astrologers in Petrograd, they must have observed portentous signs in the heavens.
The capital awoke under a new power. The everyday people, the functionaries, the intellectuals, cut off from the arena of events, rushed for the papers early to find out to which shore the wave had tossed during the night. But it was not easy to make out what had happened. To be sure, the papers reported the seizure by conspirators of the Winter Palace and the ministers, but only as a passing episode. Kerensky has gone to headquarters; the fate of the government will be decided by the front. Reports of the Soviet Congress reproduce only the declarations of the Right Wing, enumerate those who withdrew, and expose the impotence of those who remained. The political editorials, written before the seizure of the Winter Palace, exude a cloudless optimism.
The rumours of the street do not wholly coincide with the tone of the newspapers. Whatever you say, the ministers are after all locked up in the fortress. Reinforcements from Kerensky are not yet in sight. Functionaries and officers confer anxiously. Journalists and lawyers ring each other up. Editors try to collect their thoughts. The drawing-room oracles say: “We must surround the usurpers with a blockade of universal contempt.” Storekeepers don’t know whether to do business or refrain. The new authorities give orders to do business. The restaurants open; the tramcars move; the banks languish with evil forebodings; the seismograph of the Stock Exchange describes a convulsive curve. Of course the Bolsheviks will not hold out long, but they may do damage before they tumble.
The reactionary French journalist, Claude Anet, wrote on this day: “The victors are singing a song of victory. And quite rightly too. Among all these blabbers they alone acted ... Today they are reaping the harvest. Bravo! Fine work.” The Mensheviks estimated the situation quite otherwise “Twenty-four hours have passed since the ‘victory’ of the Bolsheviks,” wrote Dan’s paper, “and the historic fates have already begun to take their cruel revenge ... Around them is an emptiness created by themselves ... They are isolated from all ... The entire clerical and technical machinery refuses to serve them ... They are sliding at the very moment of their triumph into the abyss.”
The liberal and compromisist circles, encouraged by the sabotage of the functionaries and their own light-mindedness, believed strangely in their own impunity. They spoke and wrote of the Bolsheviks in the language of the July Days. “Hirelings of Wilhelm” – “the pockets of the Red Guard full of German marks” – “German officers in command of the insurrection.” The new government had to show these people a firm hand before they began to believe in it. The more unbridled papers were detained already on the night of the 26th. Some others were confiscated on the following day. The socialist press for the time being was spared: it was necessary to give the Left Social Revolutionaries, and also some elements of the Bolshevik party, a chance to convince themselves of the groundlessness of the hope for coalition with the official democracy.
The Bolsheviks developed their victory amid sabotage and chaos. A provisional military headquarters, organised during the night, undertook the defence of Petrograd in case of an attack from Kerensky. Military telephone men were sent to the central exchange where a strike had begun. It was proposed to the armies that they create their own military revolutionary committees. Gangs of agitators and organisers, freed by the victory, were sent to the front and to the provinces. The central organ of the party wrote: “The Petrograd Soviet has acted; it is the turn of the other soviets.”
News came during the day which has especially disturbed the soldiers. Kornilov has escaped. As a matter of fact, the lofty captive, who had been living in Bykhov, guarded by Tekintsi, loyal to him, and kept in touch with all events by Kerensky’s headquarters, decided on the 26th that things were taking a serious turn, and without the slightest hindrance from anybody abandoned his pretended prison. The connections between Kerensky and Kornilov were thus again obviously confirmed in the eyes of the masses. The Military Revolutionary Committee summoned the soldiers and the revolutionary officers by telegram to capture both former commanders-in-chief and deliver them in Petrograd.
As had the Tauride Palace in February, so now Smolny became the focal point for all functions of the capital and the state. Here all the ruling institutions had their seat. Here orders were issued and hither people came to get them. Hence a demand went out for weapons, and hither came rifles and revolvers confiscated from the enemy. Arrested people were brought in here from all ends of the city. The injured began to flow in seeking justice. The bourgeois public and its frightened cab-drivers made a great yoke-shaped detour to avoid the Smolny region.
The automobile is a far more genuine sign of present-day sovereignty than the orb and sceptre. Under the régime of dual power the automobiles had been divided between the government, the Central Executive Committee and private owners. Now all confiscated motors were dragged into the camp of the insurrection. The Smolny district looked like a giant military garage. The best of automobiles smoked in those days from the low-grade petrol. Motor-cycles chugged impatiently and threateningly in the semi-darkness. Armoured-cars shrieked their sirens. Smolny seemed like a factory, a railroad and power station of the revolution.
A steady flood of people poured along the sidewalks of the adjoining streets. Bonfires were burning at the outer and inner gates. By their wavering light armed workers and soldiers were belligerently inspecting passes. A number of armoured-cars stood shaking with the action of their own motors in the court. Nothing wanted to stop moving, machines or people. At each entrance stood machine-guns abundantly supplied with cartridge-belts. The endless, weakly lighted, gloomy corridors echoed with the tramping of feet, with exclamations and shouts. The arriving and departing poured up and down the broad staircase. And this solid human lava would be cut through by impatient and imperative individuals. Smolny workers, couriers, commissars, a mandate or an order lifted high in their hand, a rifle on a cord slung over their shoulder, or a portfolio under their arm.
The Military Revolutionary Committee never stopped working for an instant. It received delegates, couriers, volunteer informers, devoted friends, and scoundrels. It sent commissars to all corners of the town, set innumerable seals upon orders and commands and credentials – all this in the midst of intersecting inquiries, urgent communications, the ringing of telephone bells and the rattle of weapons. People utterly exhausted of their force, long without sleep or eating, unshaven, in dirty linen, with inflamed eyes, would shout in hoarse voices, gesticulate fantastically, and if they did not fall half dead on the floor, it seemed only thanks to the surrounding chaos which whirled them about and carried them away again on its unharnessed wings.
Adventurers, crooks, the worst off-scouring of the old régime, would sniff about and try to get a pass to Smolny. Some of them succeeded. They knew some little secret of administration: Who has the key to the diplomatic correspondence, how to write an order on the treasury, where to get gasoline or a typewriter, and especially where the best court wines are kept. They did not all find their cell or bullet immediately.
Never since the creation of the world have so many orders been issued – by word of mouth by pencil, by typewriter, by wire, one following after the other – thousands and myriads of orders, not always issued by those having the right, and rarely to those capable of carrying them out. But just here lay the miracle – that in this crazy whirlpool there turned out to be an inner meaning. People managed to understand each other. The most important and necessary things got done. Replacing the old web of administration, the first threads of the new were strung, The revolution grew in strength.
During that day, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks was at work in Smolny. It was deciding the problem of the new government of Russia. No minutes were kept – or they have not been preserved. Nobody was bothering about future historians, although a lot of trouble was being prepared for them right there. The evening session of the Congress was to create a cabinet of ministers. M-i-n-i-s-t-e-r-s? ’What a sadly compromised word! It stinks of the high bureaucratic career, the crowning of some parliamentary ambition. It was decided to call the government the Soviet of People’s Commissars: that at least had a fresher sound. Since the negotiations for a coalition of the “entire democracy” had come to nothing, the question of the party and personal staff of the government was simplifled. The Left Social Revolutionaries minced and objected. Having just broken with the party of Kerensky, they themselves hardly knew what they wanted to do. The Central Committee adopted the motion of Lenin as the only thinkable one: to form a government of Bolsheviks only.
Martov knocked at the door of this session in the capacity of intercessor for the arrested socialist ministers. Not so long ago he had been interceding with the socialist ministers for the imprisoned Bolsheviks. The wheel had made quite a sizeable turn. Through one of its members sent out to Martov for negotiations – most probably Kamenev – the Central Committee confirmed the statement that the socialist ministers would be transferred to house arrest. Apparently they had been forgotten in the rush of business, or perhaps had themselves declined privileges, adhering even in the Trubetskoy Bastion to the principle of ministerial solidarity.
The Congress opened its session at nine o’clock in the evening. “The picture on the whole was but little different from yesterday – fewer weapons, less of a jam.” Sukhanov, now no longer a delegate, was able to find himself a free seat as one of the public. This session was to decide the questions of peace, land and government. Only three questions: end the war, give the land to the people, establish a socialist dictatorship. Kamenev began with a report of the work done by the præsidium during the day the death penalty at the front introduced by Kerensky abolished; complete freedom of agitation restored; orders given for the liberation of soldiers imprisoned for political convictions, and members of land committees; all the commissars of the Provisional Government removed from office; orders given to arrest and deliver Kerensky and Kornilov. The Congress approved and ratified these measures.
Again some remnants of remnants took the floor, to the impatient disapproval of the hall. One group announced that they were withdrawing “at the moment of the victory of the insurrection and not at the moment of its defeat.” Others bragged of the fact that they had decided to remain. A representative of the Donetz miners urged immediate measures to prevent Kaledin from cutting the north off from coal. Some time must pass, however, before the revolution learns to take measures of such scope. Finally it becomes possible to take up the first point on the order of the day.
Lenin, whom the Congress has not yet seen, is given the floor for a report on peace. His appearance in the tribune evokes a tumultuous greeting. The trench delegates gaze with all their eyes at this mysterious being whom they had been taught to hate and whom they have learned without seeing him to love. “Now Lenin, gripping the edges of the reading-stand, let little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he said simply, ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’”
The minutes of the Congress are not preserved. The Parliamentary stenographers, invited in to record the debates, had abandoned Smolny, along with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. That was one of the first episodes in the campaign of sabotage. The secretarial notes have been lost without a trace in the abyss of events. There remain only the hasty and tendentious newspaper reports, written to the tune of the artillery or the grinding of teeth in the political struggle. Lenin’s speeches have suffered especially. Owing to his swift delivery and the complicated construction of his sentences, they are not easily recorded even in more favourable conditions. That initial statement which John Reed puts in the mouth of Lenin does not appear in any of the newspaper accounts. But it is wholly in the spirit of the orator. Reed could not have made it up. Just in that way Lenin must surely have begun his speech at the Congress of Soviets – simply, without unction, with inflexible confidence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”
But for this it was first of all necessary to end the war. From his exile in Switzerland Lenin had thrown out the slogan: Convert the imperialist war into a civil war. Now it was time to convert the victorious civil war into peace. The speaker began immediately by reading the draft of a declaration to be published by the government still to be elected. The text had not been distributed, technical equipment being still very weak. The congress drank in every word of the document as pronounced.
“The workers’ and peasants’ government created by the revolution of October 24-25, and resting upon the soviets of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies, proposes to all the warring peoples and their governments to open immediate negotiations for a just, democratic peace.” Just conditions exclude annexations and indemnities. By annexations is to be understood the forceful accession of alien peoples or the retention of them against their will, either in Europe or in remote lands over the seas. “Herewith the government declares that it by no means considers the above indicated conditions of peace ultimative – that is, it agrees to examine any other conditions,” demanding only the quickest possible opening of negotiations and the absence of any secrecy in their conduct. On its part the soviet government abolishes secret diplomacy and undertakes to publish the secret treaties concluded before October 25, 1917. Everything in those treaties directed toward the accruing of profit and privilege to the Russian landlords and capitalists, and the oppression of other peoples by the Great Russians, “the government declares unconditionally and immediately annulled.” In order to enter upon negotiations, it is proposed to conclude an immediate armistice, for not less than three months at least. The workers’ and peasants’ government addresses its proposals simultaneously to “the governments and peoples of all warring countries ... especially the conscious workers of the three most advanced countries,” England, France and Germany, confident that it is they who will “help us successfully carry through the business of liberating the toilers and the exploited masses of the population from all slavery and all exploitation.”
Lenin limited himself to brief comments on the text of the declaration. “We cannot ignore the governments, for then the possibility of concluding peace will be delayed ... but we have no right not to appeal at the same time to the people. The people and the governments are everywhere at variance, and we ought to help the people interfere in the matter of war and peace.” “We will, of course, defend in all possible ways our programme of peace without annexations or indemnities” but we ought not to present our conditions in the form of an ultimatum, as that will make it easier for the governments to refuse to negotiate. We will consider also every other proposal. “Consider does not mean that we will accept it.”
The manifesto issued by the Compromisers on March 14 proposed to the workers of other countries to overthrow the bankers in the name of peace; however the Compromisers themselves not only did not demand the overthrow of their own bankers, but entered into league with them. “Now we have overthrown the government of the bankers.” That gives us a right to summon the other peoples to do the same. We have every hope of victory. “It must be remembered that we live not in the depths of Africa, but in Europe where everything can become quickly known.” The guarantee of victory Lenin sees, as always, in converting the national into an international revolution. “The workers’ movement will get the upper hand and lay down the road to peace and socialism.”
The Left Social Revolutionaries sent up a representative to present their adherence to the declaration. Its “spirit and meaning are close and understandable to us.” The United Internationalists were for the declaration, but only on condition that it be issued by a government of the entire democracy. Lapinsky, speaking for the Polish Left Mensheviks, welcomed “the healthy proletarian realism” of the document. Dzerzhinsky for the social democracy of Poland and Lithuania, Stuchka for the social democracy of Latvia, Kapsukass for the Lithuanian social democracy, adhered to the declaration without qualification. The only objection was offered by the Bolshevik, Eremeev, who demanded that the peace conditions be given the character of an ultimatum – otherwise “they may think that we are weak, that we are afraid.”
Lenin decisively, even fiercely, objected to the ultimative presentation of the conditions: In that way, he said, we will only “make it possible for our enemies to conceal the whole truth from the people, to hide the truth behind our irreconcilability.” You say that “our not presenting an ultimatum will show our impotence.” It is time to have done with bourgeois falsities in politics. “We need not be afraid of telling the truth about our weariness ...” The future disagreements of Brest-Litovsk gleam out for a moment already in this episode.
Kamenev asked all who were for the proclamation to raise their delegates’ cards. ’One delegate,” writes Reed, “dared to raise his hand against, but the sudden sharp outburst around him brought it swiftly down.” The appeal to the peoples and governments was adopted unanimously. The deed was done! And it impressed all the participants by its close and immediate magnitude.
Sukhanov, an attentive although also prejudiced observer, noticed more than once at that first session the listlessness of the Congress. Undoubtedly the delegates – like all the people, indeed – were tired of meetings, congresses, speeches, resolutions, tired of the whole business of marking time. They had no confidence that this Congress would be able and know how to carry the thing through to the end. Will not the gigantic size of the task and the insuperable opposition compel them to back down this time too? An influx of confidence had come with the news of the capture of the Winter Palace, and afterward with the coming over of the bicycle men to the insurrection. But both these facts still had to do with the mechanics of insurrection. Only now was its historic meaning becoming clear in action. The victorious insurrection had built under this congress of workers and soldiers an indestructible foundation of power. The delegates were voting this time not for a resolution, not for a proclamation, but for a governmental act of immeasurable significance.
Listen, nations! The revolution offers you peace. It will be accused of violating treaties. But of this it is proud. To break up the leagues of bloody predation is the greatest historic service. The Bolsheviks have dared to do it. They alone have dared. Pride surges up of its own accord. Eyes shine. All are on their feet. No one is smoking now. It seems as though no one breathes. The præsidium, the delegates, the guests, the sentries, join in a hymn of insurrection and brotherhood. “Suddenly, by common impulse,” – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection – “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.” Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!” The words of the song were freed of all qualifications. They fused with the decree of the government, and hence resounded with the force of a direct act. Everyone felt greater and more important in that hour. The heart of the revolution enlarged to the width of the whole world. “We will achieve emancipation. The spirit of independence, of initiative, of daring, those joyous feelings of which the oppressed in ordinary conditions are deprived – the revolution had brought them now ... with our own hand!” The omnipotent hand of those millions who had overthrown the monarchy and the bourgeoisie would now strangle the war. The Red Guard from the Vyborg district, the grey soldier with his scar, the old revolutionist who had served his years at hard labour, the young black-bearded sailor from the Aurora – all vowed to carry through to the end this “last and deciding fight.” “We will build our own new world!” We will build! In that word eagerly spoken from the heart was included already the future years of the civil war and the coming five-year periods of labour and privation. “Who was nothing shall be all!” All If the actualities of the past have often been turned into song, why shall not a song be turned into the actuality of the future? Those trenchcoats no longer seemed the costumes of galley-slaves. The papakhi with their holes and torn cotton took a new aspect above those gleaming eyes. “The race of man shall rise again!” Is it possible to believe that it will not rise from the misery and humiliation, the blood and filth of this war?
“The whole præsidium, with Lenin at its head, stood and sang with excited enraptured faces and shining eyes.” Thus testifies a sceptic, gazing with heavy feelings upon an alien triumph. “How much I wanted to join it,” confesses Sukhanov, “to fuse in one feeling and mood with that mass and its leaders! But I could not.” The last sound of the anthem died away, but the Congress remained standing, a fused human mass enchanted by the greatness of that which they had experienced. And the eyes of many rested on the short, sturdy figure of the man in the tribune with his extraordinary head, his high cheekbones and simple features, altered now by the shaved beard, and with that gaze of his small, slightly Mongol eyes which looked straight through everything. For four months he had been absent. His very name had almost separated itself from any living image. But no. He was not a myth. There he stood among his own – how many now of “his own” – holding the sheets of a message of peace to the peoples of the world in his hand. Even those nearest, those who knew well his place in the party, for the first time fully realised what he meant to the revolution, to the people, to the peoples. It was he who had taught them; it was he who had brought them up. Somebody’s voice from the depth of the hall shouted a word of greeting to the leader. The hall seemed only to have awaited the signal. Long live Lenin! The anxieties endured, the doubts overcome, pride of initiative, triumph of victory, gigantic hopes – all poured out together in one volcanic eruption of gratitude and rapture. The sceptical observer dryly remarks: “Undoubted enthusiasm of mood. They greeted Lenin, shouted hurrah, threw their caps in the air. They sang the Funeral March in memory of the victims of the war – and again applause, shouts, throwing of caps in the air.”
What the Congress experienced during those minutes was experienced on the next day, although less compactly, by the whole country. “It must be said,” writes Stankevich, in his memoirs, “that the bold gesture of the Bolsheviks, their ability to step over the barbed-wire entanglements which had for four years divided us from the neighbouring peoples, created of itself an enormous impression.” Baron Budberg expresses himself more crudely but no less succinctly in his diary: “The new government of Comrade Lenin went off with a decree for immediate peace ... This was now an act of genius for bringing the soldier masses to his side: I saw this in the mood of several regiments which I made the rounds of today; the telegram of Lenin on an immediate three months’ armistice and then peace, created a colossal impression everywhere, and evoked stormy joy. We have now lost the last chance of saving the front.” By saving the front which they had ruined, those men had long ceased to mean anything but saving their own social positions.
If the revolution had had the determination to step over the barbed-wire entanglements in March and April, it might still have soldered the army together for a time – provided the army was at the same time reduced to half or a third its size – and thus created for its foreign policy a position of exceptional force. But the hour of courageous action struck only in October, when to save even a part of the army for even a short period was unthinkable. The new government had to load upon itself the debt, not only for the war of czarism, but also for the spendthrift lightmindedness of the Provisional Government. In this dreadful, and for all other parties hopeless, situation, only Bolshevism could lead the country out on an open road – having uncovered through the October revolution inexhaustible resources of national energy.
Lenin is again in the tribune – this time with the little sheets of a decree on land. He begins with an indictment of the overthrown government and the compromisist parties, who by dragging out the land question have brought the country to a peasant revolt. “Their talk about pogroms and anarchy in the country rings false with cowardly deceit. Where and when have pogroms and anarchy been caused by ‘reasonable measures?’ The draft of the decree has not been multigraphed for distribution. The speaker has the sole rough draft in his hands, and it is written so badly” – Sukhanov remembers – “that Lenin stumbles in the reading, gets mixed up, and finally stops entirely. Somebody from the crowd jammed around the tribune comes to his help. Lenin eagerly yields his place and the undecipherable paper.” These rough spots did not, however, in the eyes of that plebeian parliament diminish by an iota the grandeur of which was taking place.
The essence of the decree is contained in two lines of the first point: “The landlord’s property in the land is annulled immediately and without any indemnity whatever. The landlord, appanage, monastery and church estates with all their goods and chattels are given in charge of the town land committees and county soviets of peasant deputies until the Constituent Assembly. The confiscated property is placed as a national possession under the protection of the local soviets. The land of the rank-and-file peasants and rank-and-file Cossacks is protected against confiscation.” The whole decree does not come to more than thirty lines. It smashes the Gordian knot with a hammer. To the fundamental text certain broader instructions are adjoined, borrowed wholly from the peasants themselves. In Izvestia of the Peasant Soviet there had been printed on August 19 a summary of 242 instructions given by the electors to their representatives at the First Congress of Peasant Deputies. Notwithstanding that it was the Social Revolutionaries who prepared these collated instructions, Lenin did not hesitate to attach the document in its entirety to his decree “for guidance in carrying out the great land transformation.”
The collated instructions read: “The right to private property in the land is annulled for ever.” “The right to use the land is accorded to all citizens ... desiring to cultivate it with their own labour.” “Hired labour is not permitted.” “The use of the land must be equalised – that is, the land is to be divided among the toilers according to local conditions on the basis of standards either of labour or consumption.”
Under a continuation of the bourgeois régime, to say nothing of a coalition with the landlords, these Social Revolutionary instructions remained a lifeless Utopia, where they did not become a conscious lie. Even under the rule of the proletariat, they did not become realisable in all their sections. But the destiny of the instructions radically changed with a change in the attitude toward them of the governmental power. The workers’ state gave the peasants a period in which to try out their self-contradictory programme in action.
“The peasants want to keep their small properties,” wrote Lenin in August, “standardise them on a basis of equality, and periodically re-equalise them. Let them do it. No reasonable socialist will break with the peasant poor on that ground. If the lands are confiscated, that means that the rule of the banks is undermined – if the equipment is confiscated, that means that the rule of capital is undermined. The rest ... with a transfer of political power to the proletariat ... will be suggested by practice.”
A great many people, and not only enemies but friends, have failed to understand this far-sighted, and to a certain extent pedagogical, approach of the Bolshevik Party to the peasantry and its agrarian programme. The equal distribution of the land – objected Rosa Luxembourg for example – has nothing in common with socialism. The Bolsheviks, it goes without saying, had no illusion upon this point. On the contrary, the very construction of the decree bears witness to the critical vigilance of the legislator. Whereas the collated instructions say that all the land, both that of the landlords and the peasants, “is converted into national property,” the basic decree does not commit itself at all as to the new form of property in the land. Even a none too pedantic jurist would be horrified at the fact that the nationalisation of the land, a new social principle of world-historic importance, is inaugurated in the form of a list of instructions adjoined to a basic law. But there was no reactionary slovenliness here. Lenin wanted as little as possible to tie the hands of the party and the soviet power a priori in a still unexplored historic realm. Here again he united unexampled audacity with the greatest caution. It still remained to determine in experience how the peasants themselves would understand the conversion of the land into “the property of the whole people.” Having made so long a dash forward, it was necessary to fortify the positions also in case a retreat should become necessary. The distribution of the landlord’s land among the peasants, while not in itself a guarantee against bourgeois counter-revolution, made impossible in any case a feudal-monarchic restoration.
It would be possible to speak of socialist perspectives only after the establishment and successful preservation of the proletarian power. And this power could preserve itself only by giving determined co-operation to the peasant in carrying out his revolution. If the distribution of the land would strengthen the socialist government politically, it was then wholly justified as an immediate measure. The peasant had to be taken as the revolution found him. Only a new régime could re-educate him – and not at once, but in the course of a generation, with the help of a new technique and a new organisation of industry. The decree together with the instructions meant that the dictatorship of the proletariat assumed an obligation not only to take an attentive attitude toward the interests of the land labourer, but also to be patient of his illusions as a petty proprietor. It was clear in advance that there would be a number of stages and turning-points in the agrarian revolution. The collated instructions were anything but the last word. They represented merely a starting-point which the workers agreed to occupy while helping the peasants to realise their progressive demands, and warning them against false steps.
“We must not ignore,” said Lenin in his speech, “the resolutions of the lower ranks of the people, even though we are not in agreement with them ... We must give full freedom to the creative capacity of the popular masses. The essence of the thing is that the peasantry should have full confidence that there are no more landlords in the country, and let the peasants themselves decide all questions and build their own life.” Opportunism? No. it was revolutionary realism.
Before even the applause was over, a Right Social Revolutionary, Pianykh, arrived from the Peasants’ Executive Committee and took the floor with a furious protest on the subject of the socialist ministers being under arrest. “During the last days,” cried the orator pounding the table as though beside himself, “a thing is on foot which has never happened in any revolution. Our comrades, members of the Executive Committee, Maslov and Salazkin, are locked up in a prison. We demand their immediate release!” “If one hair falls from their heads ...” threatened another messenger in a military coat. To the Congress they both seemed like visitors from another world.
At the moment of the insurrection there were about 800 men in prison in Dvinsk, charged with Bolshevism, in Minsk about 6,000, in Kiev 535 – for the most part soldiers. And how many members of the peasant committees were under lock and key in various parts of the country! Finally a good share of the delegates to this very Congress, beginning with the præsidium, had passed through the prisons of Kerensky since July. No wonder the indignation of the friends of the Provisional Government could not pluck at any heart-strings in this assembly. To complete their bad luck a certain delegate, unknown to anybody, a peasant from Tver, with long hair and a big sheepskin coat, rose in his place, and having bowed politely to all four points of the compass, adjured the Congress in the name of his electors not to hesitate at arresting Avksentiev’s executive committee as a whole: “Those are not peasants’ deputies, but Kadets. ... Their place is in prison.” So they stood facing each other, these two figures: The Social Revolutionary Pianykh, experienced parliamentarian, favourite of ministers, hater of Bolsheviks, and the nameless peasant from Tver who had brought Lenin a hearty salute from his electors. Two social strata, two revolutions: Pianykh was speaking in the name of February, the Tver peasant was fighting for October. The Congress gave the delegate in a sheepskin coat a veritable ovation. The emissaries of the Executive Committee went away swearing.
“The resolution of Lenin is greeted by the Social Revolutionary faction as a triumph of their ideas,” announces Kalegaev, but in view of the extraordinary importance of the question we must take it up in caucus. A Maximalist, representative of the extreme left wing of the disintegrated Social Revolutionary party, demands an immediate vote: “We ought to give honour to a party which on the very first day and without any blabber brings such a measure to life.” Lenin insisted that the intermission should be at any rate as short as possible. “News so important to Russia should be in print by morning. No filibustering!” The decree on land was not only, indeed, the foundation of the new régime, but also a weapon of the revolution, which had still to conquer the country. It is not surprising that Reed records at that moment an imperative shout breaking through the noise of the hall: “Fifteen agitators wanted in room 17 at once! To go to the front!” At one o’clock in the morning a delegate from the Russian troops in Macedonia enters a complaint that the Petersburg governments one after the other have forgotten them. Support for peace and land from the soldiers in Macedonia is assured! Here is a new test of the mood of the army – this time from a far corner of south-eastern Europe. And here Kamenev announces: The Tenth Bicycle Battalion, summoned by the government from the front, entered Petrograd this morning, and like its predecessors has adhered to the Congress of Soviets. The warm applause testifies that no amount of these confirmations of its power will seem excessive to the Congress.
After the adoption, unanimously and without debate, of a resolution declaring it an affair of honour of the local soviets not to permit Jewish or any other pogroms on the part of the criminal element, a vote is taken on the draft of the land law. With one vote opposed and eight abstaining, the congress adopts with a new burst of enthusiasm the decree putting an end to serfdom, the very foundation stone of the old Russian culture. Henceforlh the agrarian revolution is legalised, and therewith the revolution of the proletariat acquires a mighty basis.
A last problem remains: the creation of a government. Kamenev reads a proposal drawn up by the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks. The management of the various branches of the state life is allotted to commissions who are to carry into action the programme announced by the Congress of Soviets “in close union with the mass organisation of working men and women, sailors, soldiers, peasants and clerical employees.” The governmental power is concentrated in the hands of a collegium composed of the presidents of these commissions, to be called the Soviet of People’s Commissars. Control over the activities of the government is vested in the Congress of Soviets and its Central Executive Committee.
Seven members of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party were nominated to the first Council of People’s Commissars: Lenin as head of the government, without portfolio; Rykov as People’s Commissar of the Interior; Miliutin as head of the Department of Agriculture; Nogin as chief of Commerce and Industry; Trotsky as head of the Department of Foreign Affairs; Lomov of Justice; Stalin, president of a Commission on the Affairs of the Nationalities; Military and naval affairs were allotted to a committee consisting of Antonov-Ovseönko, Krylenko and Dybenko; the head of the Commissariat of Labour is to be Shliapnikov; the chief of the Department of Education, Lunacharsky; the heavy and ungrateful task of Minister of Provisions is laid upon Theodorovich; the Posts and Telegraph upon the worker, Glebov; the position of People’s Commissar of Communications is not yet allotted, the door being left open here for an agreement with the organisations of the railroad workers.
All fifteen candidates, four workers and eleven intellectuals have behind them years of imprisonment, exile and emigrant life. Five of them have been imprisoned even under the régime of the democratic republic. The future prime minister had only the day before emerged from the democratic underground. Kamenev and Zinoviev did not enter the Council of People’s Commissars. The former was selected for president of the new Central Executive Committee, the latter for editor of the official organ of the soviets. “As Kamenev read the list of Commissars,” writes Reed, there were “bursts of applause after each name, Lenin’s and Trotsky’s especially.” Sukhanov adds also that of Lunacharsky.
A long speech against the proposed staff of the government was made by a representative of the United Internationalists. Avilov, once a Bolshevik, a littérateur from Gorky’s paper. He conscientiously enumerated the difficulties standing before the revolution in the sphere of domestic and foreign politics. We must “clearly realise ... whither we are going ... Before the new government stand all the old questions: of bread and of peace. If it does not solve these problems it will be overthrown.” There is little grain in the country; it is in the hands of the well-to-do peasants; there is nothing to give in exchange for grain; industry is on the decline; fuel and raw material are lacking. To collect the grain by force is a difficult, long and dangerous task. It is necessary, therefore, to create a government which will have the sympathy not only of the poor but also of the well-to-do peasantry. For this a coalition is necessary.
“It will be still harder to obtain peace.” The governments of the Entente will not answer the proposal of the congress for an immediate armistice. Even without that the Allied ambassadors are planning to leave. The new government will be isolated: its peace initiative will be left hanging in the air. The popular masses of the warring countries are still far from revolution. The consequences may be two: either extermination of the revolution by the troops of the Hohenzollern or a separate peace. The peace terms in both cases can only be the worst possible for Russia. These difficulties can be met only by “a majority of the people.” The unfortunate thing is the split in the democracy: the left half wants to create a purely Bolshevik government in Smolny, and the right half is organising in the city duma a Committee of Public Safety. To save the revolution it is necessary to form a government from both groups.
A representative of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Karelin, spoke to the same effect. It is impossible to carry out the programme adopted without those parties which have withdrawn from the Congress. To be sure “the Bolsheviks are not to blame for their withdrawal.” But the programme of the congress ought to unite the entire democracy. “We do not want to take the road of isolating the Bolsheviks, for we understand that with the fate of the Bolsheviks is bound up the fate of the whole revolution. Their ruin will be the ruin of the revolution. If they, the Left Social Revolutionaries, have nevertheless declined the invitation to enter the government, their purpose is a good one: to keep their hands free for mediation between the Bolsheviks and the parties which have abandoned the Congress. In such mediations ... the Left Social Revolutionaries see their principal task at the present moment.” The Left Social Revolutionaries will support the work of the new government in solving urgent problems. At the same time they vote against the proposed government. – In a word the young party has got mixed up as badly as it knows how.
“Trotsky rose to defend a government of Bolsheviks only,” writes Sukhanov, himself wholly in sympathy with Avilov and having inspired Karelin behind the scenes. “He was very clear, sharp, and in much absolutely right. But he refused to understand in what consisted the centre of the argument of his opponents ...” The centre of the argument consisted of an ideal diagonal. In March they had tried to draw it between the bourgeoisie and the compromisist soviets. Now Sukhanov dreamed of a diagonal between the compromisist democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat. But revolutions do not develop along diagonals.
“They have tried to frighten us more than once with a possible isolation of the Left Wing,” said Trotsky. “Some days back when the question of insurrection was first openly raised, they told us that we were headed for destruction. And in reality if you judged the grouping of forces by the political press, then insurrection threatened us with inevitable ruin. Against us stood not only the counter-revolutionary bands, but also the defensists of all varieties. The Left Social Revolutionaries, only one wing of them courageously worked with us in the Military Revolutionary Committee. The rest occupied a position of watchful neutrality. And nevertheless even with these unfavourable circumstances and when it seemed that we were abandoned by all, the insurrection triumphed ...
“If the real forces were actually against us, how could it happen that we won the victory almost without bloodshed. No, it is not we who are isolated, but the government and the so called democrats. With their wavering, their compromising, they have erased themselves from the ranks of the authentic democracy. Our great superiority as a party lies in the fact that we have formed a coalition with the class forces, creating a union of the workers and poorest peasants.
“Political groupings disappear, but the fundamental interests of the classes remain. That party conquers which is able to feel out and satisfy the fundamental demands of a class ... We pride ourselves upon the coalition of our garrison, chiefly composed of peasants, with the working class. This coalition has been tried by fire. The Petrograd garrison and proletariat went hand in hand into that great struggle which is the classic example in the history of revolutions among all peoples.
“Avilov has spoken of the vast difficulties which stand before us. To remove those difficulties he proposes that we form a coalition. But he makes no attempt to lay bare his formula and tell us what coalition. A coalition of groups, or classes, or simply a coalition of newspapers? ...
“They tell us the split in the democracy is a misunderstanding. When Kerensky is sending shock troops against us, when with the consent of the Central Executive Committee we are deprived of the telephone at the most critical moment of our struggle with the bourgeoisie, when they deal us blow after blow – is it possible to talk of misunderstanding?
“Avilov says to us: There is little bread, we must have a coalition with the defensists. Do you imagine that this coalition will increase the quantity of bread? The problem of bread is the problem of a programme of action. The struggle with economic collapse demands a definite system from below, and not political groupings on top.
“Avilov speaks of a union with the peasantry: But again of what peasantry is he talking? Today and right here, a representative of the peasants of Tver province demanded the arrest of Avksentiev. We must choose between this Tver peasant and Avksentiev who has filled the prisons with members of the peasant committees. A coalition with the kulak elements of the peasantry we firmly reject in the name of a coalition of the working class and the poorer peasant. We are with the Tver peasants against Avksentiev. We are with them to the end and inseparably.
“Whoever now chases the shadow of coalition is totally cutting himself off from life. The Social Revolutionaries will lose support among the masses to the extent that they venture to oppose our party. Every group which opposes the party of the proletariat, with whom the village poor have united, cuts himself off from the revolution.
“Openly and before the face of the whole people we raised the banner of insurrection. The political formula of this insurrection was: All power to the soviets – through the Congress of Soviets. They tell us: You did not await the Congress with your uprising. We thought of waiting, but Kerensky would not wait. The counter-revolutionists were not dreaming. We as a party considered this our task: to make it genuinely possible for the Congress of Soviets to seize the power. If the Congress had been surrounded with junkers, how could it have seized the power? In order to achieve this task, a party was needed which would wrench the power from the hands of the counter-revolution and say to you: ‘Here is the power and you’ve got to take it!’ (Stormy and prolonged applause)
“Notwithstanding that the defensists of all shades stopped at nothing in their struggle against us, we did not throw them out. We proposed to the Congress as a whole to take the power. How utterly you distort the perspective, when after all that has happened you talk from this tribune of our irreconcilability. When a party surrounded with a cloud of gunpowder smoke, comes up to them and says, ‘Let us take the power together!’ they run to the city duma and unite there with open counter-revolutionists! They are traitors to the revolution with whom we will never unite
“‘For the struggle for peace’, says Avilov, ‘we must have a coalition with the Compromisers.’ At the same time he acknowledges that the Allies do not want to make peace ... The Allied imperialists laughed, says Avilov, at the oleomargarine delegate Skobelev. Nevertheless if you form a bloc with the oleomargarine democrats, the cause of peace is assured!
“There are two roads in the struggle for peace. One road is to oppose to the Allied and enemy governments the moral and material force of revolution. The other is a bloc with Skobelev, which means a bloc with Tereshchenko and complete subjection to Allied imperialism. In our proclamation on peace we address ourselves simultaneously to the governments and the peoples. That is purely formal symmetry, Of course we do not think to influence the imperialist governments with our proclamations, although as long as they exist we cannot ignore them. We rest all our hope on the possibility that our revolution will unleash the European revolution. If the revolting peoples of Europe do not crush imperialism, then we will be crushed – that is indubitable. Either the Russian revolution will raise the whirlwind of struggle in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will crush our revolution ...”
“There is a third road,” says a voice from the benches.
“The third road,” answers Trotsky, “is the road of the Central Executive Committee – on the one hand sending delegates to the west European workers, and on the other forming a union with the Kishkins and Konovalovs. That is a road of lies and hypocrisy which we will never enter.
“Of course we do not say that only the day of insurrection of the European workers will be the day that the peace treaty is signed. This also is possible: that the bourgeoisie, frightened by an approaching insurrection of the oppressed, will hasten to make peace. The dates are not set. The concrete forms cannot be foretold. It is important and it is necessary to define the method of struggle, a method identical in principle both in foreign and domestic politics. A union of the oppressed here and everywhere – that is our road.”
The delegates of the Congress, says John Reed, “greeted him with an immense crusading acclaim, kindling to the daring of it, with the thought of championing mankind.” At any rate it could not have entered the minds of any Bolshevik at that time to protest against placing the fate of the Soviet Republic, in an official speech in the name of the Bolshevik Party, in direct dependence upon the development of the international revolution.
The dramatic law of this Congress was that each significant act was concluded or even interrupted, by a short intermission during which a figure from the other camp would suddenly appear upon the stage and voice a protest, or a threat, or present an ultimatum. A representative of the Vikzhel, the executive committee of the railroad workers’ union, now demanded the floor immediately and on the instant. He must needs throw a bomb into the assembly before the vote was taken on the question of power. The speaker – in whose face Reed saw implacable hostility – began with an accusation. His organisation, “the strongest in Russia,” had not been invited to the congress ... “It was the Central Executive Committee that did not invite you,” was shouted at him from all sides. But he continued: And be it known that the original decision of the Vikzhel to support the Congress of Soviets has been revoked. The speaker hastened to read an ultimatum already distributed by telegraph throughout the country: The Vikzhel condemns the seizure of power by one party; the government ought to be responsible before the “entire revolutionary democracy”; until the creation of a democratic government only the Vikzhel will control the railroad lines. The speaker adds that counterrevolutionary troops will not be admitted to Petrograd; but in general the movement of troops will henceforth take place only at the direction of the old Central Executive Committee. In case of repressions directed against the railroad workers, the Vikzhel will deprive Petrograd of food.
The Congress bristled under the blow. The chiefs of the railroad union were trying to converse with the representatives of the people as one government with another! When the workers, soldiers, and peasants take the administration of the state into their hands, the Vikzhel presumes to give commands to the workers, soldiers, and peasants! It wants to change into petty cash the overthrown system of dual power. In thus attempting to rely not upon its numbers, but upon the exceptional significance of railroads in the economy and culture of the country, these democrats of the Vikzhel exposed the whole frailty of the criterion of formal democracy upon the fundamental issues of a social struggle. Truly revolution has a genius for education!
At any rate the moment for this blow was not badly chosen by the Compromisers, The faces of the præsidium were troubled. Fortunately the Vikzhel was by no means unconditional boss on the railroads. In the local districts the railroad workers were members of the city soviets. Even here at the congress the ultimatum of the Vikzhel met resistance. “The whole mass of the railroad workers of our district,” said the delegate from Tashkent, “have expressed themselves in favour of the transfer of power to the soviets.” Another delegate from railroad workers declared the Vikzhel a “political corpse.” That doubtless was exaggerated. Relying upon the rather numerous upper layers of railroad clerks, the Vikzhel had preserved more life force than the other higher-up organisations of the Compromisers. But it belonged indubitably to the same type as the army committees or the Central Executive Committee. Its star was swiftly falling. The workers were everywhere distinguishing themselves from the clerical employees; the lower clerks were opposing themselves to the higher. The impudent ultimatum of the Vikzhel would undoubtedly hasten these processes. No, the station masters can’t hold back the locomotive of the October revolution!
“There can be no questioning the legal rights of this Congress,” declared Kamenev with authority. “The quorum of the Congress was established not by us, but by the old Central Executive Committee ... The Congress is the highest organ of the workers and soldier masses.” A simple return to the order of the day!
The Council of People’s Commissars was ratified by an overwhelming majority. Avilov’s resolution, according to the excessively generous estimate of Sukhanov, got 150 votes, chiefly Left Social Revolutionaries. The Congress then unanimously confirmed the membership of the new Central Executive Committee: out of 101 members – 62 Bolsheviks, 29 Left Social Revolutionaries. The Central Executive Committee was to complete itself in the future with representatives of the peasant soviets and the re-elected army organisations. The factions who had abandoned the Congress were granted the right to send their delegates to the Central Executive Committee on the basis of proportional representation.
The agenda of the Congress was completed! The Soviet government was created. It had its programme. The work could begin. And there was no lack of it. At 5.15 in the morning Kamenev closed the Constituent Congress of the Soviet régime. To the stations! Home! To the front! To the factories and barracks! To the mines and the far-off villages In the decrees of the Soviet, the delegates will carry the leaven of the proletarian revolution to all corners of the country.
On that morning the central organ of the Bolshevik Party, again under the old name Pravda, wrote: “They wanted us to take the power alone, so that we alone should have to contend with the terrible difficulties confronting the country ... So be it! We take the power alone, relying upon the voice of the country and counting upon the friendly help of the European proletariat. But having taken the power, we will deal with the enemies of revolution and its saboteurs with an iron hand. They dreamed of a dictatorship of Kornilov ... We will give them the dictatorship of the proletariat ...”
1. Tall fur hats.
Last updated on: 21.2.2007