R. Page Arnot

A Short History of the Russian Revolution

from 1905 to the present day (1937)

Part II
from February 1917 to the present day

Land, Bread, and Peace

1. Peace
THE SLOGANS OF THE REVOLUTION had been “Land, Bread, and Peace.” The peace slogan had been embodied in the Decree on Peace, passed on November 8th. The first Decree of the Soviets was to make their exit from the imperialist war. Immediately after the assumption of power, the Soviet Government issued by wireless their proposals for an armistice on all fronts as a preliminary for a general peace. The Allied Governments, which had refused to recognise the new regime, could give no official or responsible answer. The French and British embassies, however, sent a message to General Dukhonin, Kerensky’s commander-in-chief, who had refused to accept his supersession by the Soviet commander-in-chief Krylenko, informing him that the Allies most strongly objected to any cessation of hostilities, and urging upon him the further prosecution of the war. [1]

The German Government responded, and, after a cessation of hostilities, an armistice was negotiated. The conclusion of the terms of the armistice, which included the fixing of the armies in their respective positions and an interdiction on any transfer of the troops of the Central Empires to the western front, was delayed until a further appeal could be made to the Allies to join in a general armistice, preliminary to a general peace. To this appeal of the Bolsheviks, which could have saved a million lives, no reply of any kind was given. Accordingly, every effort for a general peace having been tried in vain, negotiations began on December 20th, 1917, for a separate peace between Germany and its allies on the one hand, and the Soviets on the other.

The Soviet representatives cabled certain general principles of the proposed peace, which they declared must be a peace without annexations and without indemnities; this was to mean that the position of the High Contracting Parties before the war was to be resumed, except that subject nationalities were to exercise the right of self-determination, and that the individual sufferers from the war were to receive reparations from a common fund, to be contributed to by all the belligerents. Furthermore, all negotiations were to be open and their daily progress was to be published by wireless. On December 25th, 1917, at Brest-Litovsk, these general principles for conclusion of peace were accepted by the Hohenzollern Government of Germany, the Hapsburg Government of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, by Ferdinand of Bulgaria and the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. How far this was a concession to working-class feeling in Central Europe, or how far it was regarded as part of the normal diplomatic bluff and hypocrisy, it is hard to say. Within a few days, however, it became clear that Count Czernin, the Austrian, and Von Kuhlmann, the German, had no intention of regarding these general proposals seriously, and that they intended to grab “the spoils of victory.”

To their surprise, to the astonishment of the rest of the world, the Bolsheviks as stoutly maintained these basic principles, and at once rounded on their enemies, accusing them of personal deceitfulness inspired by a policy of naked imperialism.

The relations between the two sets of negotiators passed rapidly from an attitude of ironical conciliation to one of undisguised aversion. Meantime, a continuous propaganda was carried on by both sides among the troops. But the propaganda of the Bolsheviks was enormously superior in its appeal; it reached the civil population behind the lines; and it was not Von Kühlmann or Kaiser Wilhelm to whom the Bolsheviks addressed their speeches, but the labouring masses of the German Empire and the Austrian Empire. For a time the capitalist diplomats were completely in the dark. They did not realise what was happening. They even seemed to think that the Bolsheviks, being Socialists, were merely intolerable spouters, beings so wrapped up in their own opinions, so lost to a sense of reality, that they could not refrain from agitational speeches in the Council and Chamber. At one time they even thought these speeches were made for home consumption in Russia for the purpose of smoothing the path to the acceptance of the German terms. Suddenly their diplomatic illusions were shattered. The working people of Austria and Germany, penetrated by the proletarian appeal of the Bolsheviks, began to move. A series of enormous strikes broke out in Vienna, in Berlin, and in Hamburg, and all over the country. For three years the workers of Germany and her allies had suffered privation and hardships; but so long as they could be persuaded that their rulers were intent only on defending the fatherland, so long they appeared willing to submit to the unending war.

Brest-Litovsk opened their eyes. With a sudden awakening, the working class of the big cities of Germany and Austria downed tools and the sailors of the German Baltic Fleet broke out in open mutiny. It was not a mere series of economic strikes, but a revolutionary political movement. From the Petrograd Soviet, a wireless message was sent to the Councils of Workers’ Delegates, that had been set up in that month of January 1918 in Berlin and Vienna, as follows:

“Brothers! The news has filtered through to us of your glorious fight against German and universal imperialism. The workers and soldiers of Petrograd have welcomed the news with transports of indescribable enthusiasm. Brothers and companions-in-arms, by your strikes and demonstrations, and the creation of your Council of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegates, you have shown that the Austro-German working class will not allow the hangmen and spoilers to impose a peace of violations and annexations on the Socialist Republic of the Soviets.

“Civil war in Russia is nearing its end in the complete victory of the social revolution. The destined outcome of the peace pourparlers is being decided, not at Brest-Litovsk, but in the streets of Berlin and Vienna and other German and Austrian cities. Brothers, we cordially believe that you will do all that is possible to ensure that the peace pourparlers shall end in pourparlers between the Russian Workmen’s and Peasants’ Government and the German Government of Liebknecht.”

It is, of course, a matter of historical record that Field Marshal Von Hindenburg publicly testified some years later that the revolutionary expectations of the Petrograd Soviet had been falsified by the betrayal of the German anti-war strike movement through the actions of Fritz Ebert and other leading German Social-Democrats.

Thus the Bolsheviks, while carrying on these negotiations, were using the opportunity to foment a revolution in Germany, and by this means to assure the ending of war on all fronts and for mankind as a whole. But Von Kühlmann and Count Czernin were also making use of their opportunities. They were endeavouring to foment a counter-revolutionary defection of the Ukrainian Rada from the Soviet side. The Rada was the parliament of the Ukrainian National Republic, which had been immediately recognised by the Bolsheviks as autonomous, following on their principle of the right of self-determination for nationalities. This Rada, unlike the Soviets, contained representatives of all classes. For this reason, the recognition denied to the Soviet Government had been immediately accorded to the Rada by the Allies, who supplemented recognition with financial support.

The German and Austrian militarists, however, discerned in its composite character a chance to break the solidarity of the opposed front. Just as the Bolsheviks had hoped for the breaking of the Central Empires by a working-class revolution, so their opponents counted on the opposition of the Rada to a Soviet regime proving stronger than the claims of patriotism or the hatred of the foreign enemy. So from the beginning of the negotiations they began to work secretly upon the Rada. On January 11th they had got so far that the Rada plenipotentiaries announced at Brest-Litovsk that the Ukraine had now taken up its international existence as an independent State. By the end of the first week in February, the German and Austrian efforts were finally successful. The Rada accepted the German-Austrian terms and signed a separate peace on February 9th, 1918. The president of the Rada delegation described it as “a democratic peace that is honourable for both sides.” Actually, it amounted to a German suzerainty over the Ukraine.

Then General Hoffmann, thrusting aside the civilian negotiators, announced bluntly that the Hohenzollern and Hapsburg Governments meant to have the spoils of victory, and delivered an ultimatum demanding that the Bolsheviks should sign the treaty, which was one of spoliation, within a few days.

Already, on January 7th, Lenin, who saw that at all costs the revolution must “get a breathing-space,” had presented a thesis to the Central Committee of the Party in which he urged the immediate conclusion of peace with Germany even on the severe terms offered. These terms meant that the Germans would occupy the whole of Poland and Lithuania, Courland and part of Livonia, White Russia and the islands in the Gulf of Riga, besides receiving an indemnity, disguised as the upkeep (that is, the board and lodging) of the Russian prisoners of war.

Trotsky and Bucharin, however, opposed the immediate conclusion of peace. Against Lenin, who wanted an end to the slaughter and a breathing-space for the revolution, they refused to see the realities of the situation. Trotsky and Bucharin had passed from real life to theatre. Finally, when the German imperialists refused to modify their terms, Trotsky proposed the adventurist formula of Neither War nor Peace, and, in spite of Lenin, who described this formula as the scrapping of the revolution, the Central Committee agreed. Lenin said to the Central Committee on January 24th:

“What Trotsky proposed—discontinuance of the war, refusal to sign peace, and the demobilisation of the army—means an international political demonstration. All we will achieve by withdrawing our troops is to surrender the Esthonian Socialist Republic to the Germans. By signing peace . . . we will enable our gains to gather strength. If the Germans begin to advance, we will be forced to sign any kind of peace, and then the peace will, of course, be worse.”

On February 17th, 1918, the Germans declared the armistice at an end and, without waiting for the expiry of the seven days’ notice, resumed the war. The armies of the Kaiser advanced steadily into Russian territory. They met with practically no resistance. Immense military supplies fell into their hands. They occupied the whole of Latvia and Esthonia, almost the whole of White Russia, and a good part of the Ukraine.

Convinced too late of how they had been misled by Trotsky, the Central Committee, through the Soviet Government, wired their readiness to sign the peace terms. But this no longer suited the Germans’ book, and they proposed new peace terms of incredibly greater severity. Not only did they insist on holding the new territory that they had occupied, but demanded that the Soviet troops immediately evacuate the whole of Finland, the whole of the Ukraine, and part of Trans-Caucasia. Certain sections of the Bolsheviks would not sign the new peace terms. Lenin had to struggle almost as never before, and had to take the extreme step of threatening to resign from the Central Committee and the Government if there was any further hesitation in face of this mortal danger to the revolution. The Central Committee accepted. The Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, with a majority of Bolsheviks on it, accepted. On March 2nd, the peace of Brest-Litovsk was signed, and a fortnight later, on March 17th, was ratified by the Third All-Russia Congress of Soviets.

Trotsky, at the Central Committee, had refused to vote either way. Bucharin and Pyatakov continued the struggle begun by Trotsky against the line of Lenin, and mobilised the Moscow Committee of the Party, a number of members of the Central Committee, and a number of People’s Commissars against the decisions of the Central Committee and the Soviet Government. They formed a “Left” Communist fraction; they attacked the leadership of the Party in most outrageous terms, Bucharin calling Lenin a phrase-monger of opportunism. They entered into negotiations with the Left Social-Revolutionaries. For several months they continued a factional struggle on every main policy of the Bolsheviks. In the course of this, they descended into conspiracies, and were preparing to arrest and imprison Lenin, whose place as Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars was to be taken by Pyatakov.

Thus in the first months of the year, and especially in March, April, and May, the enormous difficulties which confronted the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, headed by Lenin, Stalin, and Sverdlov, were further complicated by the fierce factional struggle and conspiracies carried on by the “Left” Communists whose adventurist tactics had been inspired by Trotsky.

On November 7th and 8th the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, on the proposal of Lenin, accepted as their decision, not the Bolshevik land programme, but the land programme of the Social-Revolutionaries, compiled some five months earlier at the First All-Russia Congress of Peasants’ Deputies. This programme of the Social-Revolutionaries had not been carried out by its authors, the Social-Revolutionary Party, who protested that the Bolsheviks had stolen their thunder. This programme was one of dividing up the land, and it was not until a couple of years later that the Bolshevik programme of land nationalisation was carried through, after the peasants had themselves, through their own experience, realised the correctness of the Bolshevik proposals. For the moment, the peasantry were satisfied that the Soviet Government represented their interests.

During November and December, negotiations went on with the Left Social-Revolutionaries, who had entered the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets but were hesitating to enter the Council of People’s Commissars. Before the end of the year several of them took up the posts of People’s Commissars in the Government. Thus the slogan of the revolution, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in alliance with the poorer peasantry, was reflected in the joint representation in the Government of the Bolsheviks and the Left Social-Revolutionaries. But this coalition was not to last long.

The petty-bourgeois revolutionariness of the Left Social-Revolutionaries was not able to stand the strain of Brest-Litovsk. After the signature of the treaty, when the “Left” Communists resigned from their posts, the Left Social-Revolutionaries also resigned from the Council of People’s Commissars. From this moment onwards the Left Social-Revolutionaries endeavoured to break the peace, which represented the necessary breathing-space of the revolution, by reckless attempts to precipitate a renewal of the war with German imperialism. These culminated finally in an attempt to seize power at the end of the first week of July 1918, on the occasion of the Fifth All-Russia Congress of Soviets. Two Social-Revolutionaries assassinated Count Mirbach, the ambassador of the Hohenzollerns, with the object of causing the renewal of war, and, at the same time, seized various strategic positions in Moscow. For the capital had now been moved to Moscow from Petrograd, which was too near to hostile forces. Within forty-eight hours this insurrection had been liquidated. The basis of it had not only been the continuance of the Social-Revolutionary adventurist policy as regards war and peace, but the resistance of the kulaks to the grain requisitions made by the Soviet Government and to the building up of the organisations of poor peasants in the village by the Bolsheviks. For within those eight months a basic change had taken place. The Right Social-Revolutionaries had passed completely over into the camp of open counter-revolution; the Left Social-Revolutionaries, who had previously represented the mass of the peasantry, had now come to represent the kulaks; while the masses of poor peasants now felt their interests were best represented by the Bolsheviks, who also had the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the bulk of the middle peasantry.

From this moment onwards the political form of government in Russia is the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, led by the single party of the Bolsheviks.

Sixty-five years before the October Revolution, Karl Marx, in a letter to his friend, Joseph Weydemeyer, had disclaimed any credit for the discovery of the class struggle, and then added the historic words:

“What I did that was new was to prove:


(2) That the class struggle necessarily leads to the DICTATORSHIP OF THE PROLETARIAT;

(3) That this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the ABOLITION OF ALL CLASSES and to a CLASSLESS SOCIETY.”

The life-work of Lenin up to this point had been to realise the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. For twenty years and more on this subject there has been widespread misrepresentation and not a little downright lying. It has been equated with despotism, autocracy, tyranny, etc., etc. The insistence of Lenin that proletarian dictatorship is a democracy, and that bourgeois democracy is a dictatorship, has been scorned as a paradox, without any attempt to ascertain its meaning. The experiences in this respect of past revolutions (e.g. the Commonwealth period in seventeenth-century Britain) have been ignored. Yet, to use the words of Lenin:

“It was this historical experience of all revolutions, it was this world-historical—economic and political—lesson that Marx confirmed in giving his short, sharp, concise, and striking formula: Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” [2]

For the moment it should be noted that the achievement of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat did not mean immediate Socialism. What had been proposed in the April Theses of Lenin was not immediate Socialism but supervision and control of industry by Workers’ Committees. Consequently, November 7th-8th had meant a complete change in State power by the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, but only tentative though significant changes in the economic basis. The big banks were fused together and nationalised; a monopoly, of foreign trade (which, to be sure, hardly existed at that moment) was established. The first steps were taken for the socialisation of joint stock companies.

The efforts of the new Government were met with sabotage on the part, not only of the capitalists, but of intellectuals, technicians, civil servants, and the middle classes generally. Amongst the Don Cossacks, General Kaledin at once raised a revolt. Similar revolts were started by Generals Krassnov, Dutov, and other Tsarist officers whom the Russian workers, in an access of mistaken clemency, had set free on parole within a few days after the victory of the revolution. By the time the spring was reached, all the accumulated difficulties caused by the war, and by the disorganisation following on the revolution of February, had combined together to make the tasks of the Bolsheviks more difficult. It was at this point, in March-April 1918, immediately “the breathing-space” had been given, that Lenin elaborated the plan of Socialist construction which is known as Lenin’s Economic Plan of Spring 1918, under the title of “The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government.” It began by the statement that, thanks to the peace which had been achieved—notwithstanding its burdensome character and its instability—the Russian Soviet Republic was enabled, for a certain time, to concentrate its efforts on the most important and most difficult aspect of the Socialist revolution, viz. the organisational task. Two quotations from the body of this extraordinarily important programmatic article may serve graphically to show what lay before the revolution as its task, and what was the main obstacle at that moment.

“Introduce,” said Lenin, “accurate and conscientious accounting of money, manage economically, do not be lazy, do not steal, observe the strictest discipline during work—it is precisely such slogans, which were justly scorned by the revolutionary proletariat when the bourgeoisie concealed its rule as an exploiting class by these commandments, that now, after the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, are becoming the immediate and the principal slogans of the moment.”

It is impossible even to summarise the extraordinarily powerful and rich argumentation, with its deep insight into social-economic processes, that appears in this programme. It met with the fiercest opposition from the “Left” Communists, and the reply to them forms the concluding portion of this statement. We quote in full this


“An extraordinarily difficult and dangerous situation in international affairs; the necessity of manœuvring and retreating; a period of waiting for new outbreaks of the revolution which is maturing in the West at a painfully slow pace; within the country a period of slow construction and ruthless ‘tightening up,’ of prolonged and persistent struggle waged by stern, proletarian discipline against the menacing element of petty-bourgeois laxity and anarchy—such, in brief, are the distinguishing features of the special stage of the Socialist revolution we are now living in. Such is the link in the historical chain of events which we must grasp with all our might in order to be able to cope with the tasks that confront us before passing to the next link which is attracting us by its particular brightness, the brightness of the victory of the international proletarian revolution. Try to compare the slogans that arise from the specific conditions of the present stage, viz. manœuvre, retreat, wait, build slowly, ruthlessly tighten up, sternly discipline, smash laxity—with the ordinary everyday concept ‘revolutionary.’ Is it surprising that when certain ‘revolutionaries’ hear this they are filled with noble indignation and begin to ‘thunder’ abuse at us for forgetting the traditions of the October Revolution, for promising with the bourgeois specialists, for promising with the bourgeoisie, for being petty bourgeois, reformists, etc., etc.?

“The misfortune of these sorry ‘revolutionaries’ is that even those who are prompted by the best motives in the world, and are absolutely loyal to the cause of Socialism, fail to understand the particular, and ‘particularly unpleasant,’ state that a backward country, which has been tortured by a reactionary and disastrous war and which began the Socialist revolution long before the more advanced countries, has to pass through; they lack stamina in the difficult moments of a difficult transition. Naturally, it is the ‘Left Socialist-Revolutionaries’ who are acting as an ‘official’ opposition of this kind against our Party. Of course, there are, and always will be, individual exceptions in groups and class types. But social types remain. In the land in which the small-proprietor population greatly predominates over the purely proletarian population, the difference between the proletarian revolutionary and petty-bourgeois revolutionary will inevitably make itself felt, and from time to time will make itself very sharply felt. The petty-bourgeois revolutionary wavers and vacillates at every turn of events; he is an ardent revolutionary in March 1917, and praises ‘coalitions’ in May, hates the Bolsheviks (or laments over their ‘adventurism’) in July, and runs away from them in fear at the end of October, supports them in December, and finally, in March and April 1918, such types, more often than not, turn up their noses contemptuously and say: 738216;I am not one of those who sing hymns to “organic” work, to practicalness and gradualness.’

“The social source of these types is the small master who is driven to frenzy by the horrors of war, the sudden ruin, the unprecedented tortures of starvation and destruction, who hysterically rushes from place to place seeking salvation, places his confidence in the proletariat and supports it at one moment and falls into fits of despair at another. We must clearly understand and fully appreciate the fact that Socialism cannot be built on such a social basis. The only class that can lead the toilers and the exploited masses is the class that unswervingly marches along its path without losing courage and without dropping into despair even at the most difficult, severe, and dangerous crossings. Fits of hysteria are of no use to us. What we need is the steady march of the iron battalions of the proletariat.” [3]



1.  Incidentally, it was on this occasion that Lenin and Stalin went to the microphone, where the former directly addressed the soldiers on all the fronts, informing them of the sabotage by the army officers of the instructions given by the Soviet Government, and called upon the masses of soldiers themselves to see to it that the orders of the Soviet Government were carried out. The whole incident was one of the most remarkable examples of the faith in the masses always exhibited by Lenin and Stalin.

2.  Selected Works, Vol. VII, p. 338. For a full treatment of this subject see also “Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” (1919) and other writings in this same volume.

3.  Lenin’s Selected Works, Vol. VII, pp. 348-50.

Next: III. Intervention and Civil War