Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 2
The Bolshevik Party
in the Test of the War

Bolshevik Leaders and the War

The patriotic wave that engulfed the Russian people at the outbreak of the war did not leave the Bolshevik leaders untouched. As was pointed out quite rightly by Trotsky: “As a general rule, the confusion was most pervasive and lasted longest among the party’s higher-ups, who came in direct contact with bourgeois opinion.” [1]

When the war issue was discussed in the Duma, both the Menshevik and the Bolshevik deputies refused to meet the government head-on and instead left the session. The result was that the Duma resolution supporting the war effort passed unanimously. The Mensheviks and Bolsheviks then issued a joint declaration that was very equivocal indeed. It is true that it avoided the “false patriotism under which the ruling classes wage their predatory policy,” but at the same time it promised that the proletariat would defend the cultural treasures of the people against all attacks, no matter where they came from, whether from within or from without. [2] In the pretence of “defending culture,” the Menshevik and Bolshevik deputies were assuming a semipatriotic position.

When Lenin’s theses on the war reached Petersburg at the beginning of September 1914, they raised a number of objections among the party leaders, especially to the slogan of “revolutionary defeatism.” The Duma fraction tried to tone down the sharpness of Lenin’s formulations. It was the same story in Moscow and in the provinces. “The war caught the ‘Leninists’ unprepared,” testifies the Moscow okhrana (secret police), “and for a long time ... they could not agree on their attitude toward the war.” The Moscow Bolsheviks wrote in code by way of Stockholm for transmission to Lenin that, notwithstanding all respect for him, his advice to “sell the house” (the slogan of defeatism) had not struck a responsive chord. [3]

The old Bolshevik Baevsky noted that the slogan of defeat of one’s own government raised objections in Russia and that there was a tendency to eliminate the word “defeat” “as a very odious one.” [4] Shliapnikov also recalled that, while the theses on the whole reflected the state of mind of party workers, the question of “defeat” provoked perplexity. [5] Sotsial-Demokrat noted that the Bolshevik organization in Moscow adopted the manifesto with the exception of the paragraph dealing with the defeat of one’s own country. [6] There is other evidence of reluctance to adopt the defeatist point of view by party workers in Russia and outside, not only at the beginning of the war but right up to the revolution of 1917. [7] Baevsky claimed, however, that it was impossible to speak of “anti-defeatism” during the war as a tendency within the party. [8]

In November, the five Bolshevik deputies to the Duma were arrested. In February 1915, together with another five Bolshevik leaders, they were brought to trial. They, and above all their theoretical mentor, Kamenev, went out of their way to repudiate Lenin’s theses. (The only notable exception was the Duma deputy M.K. Muranov.) Kamenev declared that Lenin’s theses decidedly contradicted his own views on the current war. He said that Lenin’s views were rejected both by the Social Democratic deputies and the central institutions, i.e., the Central Committee, whose spokesman Kamenev claimed to be. Another of the Bolsheviks on trial pointed out that Lenin’s theses contradicted the declaration in the name of the Social Democratic fractions that had been read in the Duma on July 27,1914. [9]

Lenin was more than disappointed. And although he felt somewhat inhibited from too sharp an attack on Kamenev and the others immediately after the trial ended with their exile for life to Siberia, he still made his criticism plain:

What, then, has the trial of the Russian Social Democratic Labor group proved?

First of all, it has shown that this advance contingent of revolutionary Social Democracy in Russia failed to display sufficient firmness at the trial ... to attempt to prove one’s solidarity with the social patriot Mr. Yordansky, as Rosenfeld [Kamenev] did, or one’s disagreement with the Central Committee ... is inexcusable from the standpoint of a revolutionary Social Democrat. [10]

Lenin could not ignore the truth, however unpalatable. The party of the revolutionary proletariat was strong enough to openly criticize itself and unequivocally call mistakes and weaknesses by their proper names. [11]

The behavior of the Bolshevik leaders in court, Shliapnikov reported, caused quite serious demoralization in the party ranks:

The deputies’ trial went on in an atmosphere of indecision and wavering. The attitude adopted by the deputies in court was perplexing. One got the impression that the deputies did not comport themselves as would befit the supreme responsible center of the proletariat, but rather as provincial party committees sometimes behave. Many regretted that the comrades’ deputies showed so little firmness, but saw the reason for it in the atmosphere of terror. [12]

In his defense, Kamenev cited the formal truth that Lenin’s theses on the war, published in the name of the Central Committee, had not received the approval of the committee, as meaning that he did not have the right to publish them. [13]

Other sections of the Bolsheviks were also unhappy about Lenin’s line. The Bolshevik colony abroad was very much under the influence of war hysteria. The Committee of Organizations Abroad in Paris, which had served as a center for the Bolshevik groups outside Russia, had disintegrated; two of its members had enlisted in the French army and another had withdrawn, leaving only two active members. In Paris, the Bolshevik group wavered. Although the majority of the group expressed themselves against the war and against volunteering, some of the comrades joined the French army as volunteers. [14] Altogether, out of ninety-four Bolsheviks in France, eleven volunteered for the French army. [15]

The Geneva section of the Bolshevik emigres also voiced their objections to Lenin’s “revolutionary defeatism.” A letter to Lenin by Karpinsky criticized the theses as follows: “The text of paragraph 6 should be changed in order not to give rise to a misinterpretation of this passage: that the Russian Social Democrats wish for the victory of the Germans and the defeat of the Russians.” [16]

Among the prominent party leaders abroad who took up a defensive position was G.M. Krzhizhanovsky, a close comrade of Lenin’s since 1893, who, during the 1905 Revolution, together with Krassin and Bogdanov, had been one of the leaders of the Bolsheviks. Others included CC member I.P. Goldenberg, former Bolshevik Duma deputy G.A. Alexinsky, and Bolshevik writer A.A. Troianovsky.

What was the situation inside Russia? In November 1914, Alexander Shliapnikov traveled to Moscow to find the organization there smashed. Most workers were defensists. Only a few isolated people adhered (not always firmly) to the policy of defeatism. The biggest group of “defeatists” had seven members. They were not yet sure of Lenin’s views. [17] Similarly, the Transcaucasian Social Democrats were sharply divided over their position on the war. In October 1914, N.N. Iakovlev arrived in Baku with the text of Lenin’s theses, calling for Russia’s defeat and the transformation of the world war into a civil war. Although many copies were printed and distributed in both Baku and Tiflis, the organization reached no decision on its attitude to the war. [18]

Even though the Bolshevik organizations in Russia at the beginning of the war were not ready to adopt Lenin’s open position of revolutionary defeatism, only an insignificant number of their members were patriots. From the outset the Bolsheviks developed mass propaganda against the war. Numerous anti-war leaflets had already been issued as early as July 1914 by party committees in different parts of Russia. [19]

After a few months of ideological confusion, more and more Bolshevik groups began to take a clear, anti-war, internationalist position. This political awakening followed a revival of the workers’ movement in the factories, and was both affected by this movement and influenced it in its turn.

Ebb and Flow

The first half of 1914 witnessed a rise in the political strike movement in Russia that approached the level of the 1905 Revolution.

Participants in political strikes [20]






























1914 (first half)


* The figures for 1903 and 1904 refer to all strikes, the economic
undoubtedly predominating.

On the eve of the war itself, the political strike movement in Petersburg was to culminate in the building of barricades. In protest against brutal police suppression of a demonstration of Putilov workers in support of a strike in the Baku oilfield, a strike, as massive and explosive as any that had erupted in 1905, swept Petersburg. By July 7, 110,000 workers had joined the strike. A couple of days later it had engulfed 200,000 workers. Almost all factories in Petersburg were closed, and many thousands of workers took part in protracted battles with Cossacks and police detachments. Workers’ demonstrations, brandishing red flags and singing revolutionary songs, sought to smash their way into the center of the city, but were blocked by Cossacks and mounted police. On July 11, many barricades were built out of telephone and telegraph poles, overturned wagons, and so on. It was not until July 15, four days before the war started, that order was finally restored in the factory district of Petersburg. [21]

Suddenly, with the outbreak of war, the atmosphere changed radically. Patriotic zeal gripped the masses. Buchanan, British ambassador to Petersburg at the time, wrote with enthusiasm in his memoirs of “those wonderful early August days” when “Russia seemed to have been completely transformed.”

Trotsky provided an explanation of the change in the psychology of the masses that turned them towards patriotism.

The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course – what can seem worse ... than “normal” conditions?” [22]

To add to the disarray of the labor movement, a mass arrest of Bolsheviks took place in Petersburg: after the July demonstration the government seized about a thousand Bolsheviks and expelled them from the city. [23] At the same time, thousands of the more unruly factory workers were drafted into the army. Roughly 40 percent of the Petersburg proletariat was mobilized (and the gaps in the ranks of the working class were filled by a new influx of inexperienced workers from the countryside). [24]

The first few months of the war were marked by political stupor in the labor movement. On the tenth anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” that triggered off the revolution in 1905, only fourteen factories came out on strike, with 2,528 workers. On May Day, only 859 workers came out. [25] The whole first half of 1915 was very quiet indeed. But things changed radically in July. It is true that the number of workers on strike was quite small compared with the last few months before the war – 14,490 workers in seventeen factories went on strike for economic reasons; there was not one political strike. [26] However the strikes were extremely bitter. In violent clashes between strikers and police at Kostroma, thirteen workers were killed or wounded; in a similar clash in Ivanovo-Voznesensk there were between twenty and thirty casualties. News of the clashes led to major political strikes in August and September. In August, twenty-seven thousand workers went on strike in Petrograd demanding the withdrawal of Cossack guards from the factories, the release of the five exiled Bolshevik deputies, freedom of the press, etc. Early in September, sixty-four thousand workers came out in Petrograd with political demands. Altogether in 1915, there were 928 strikes, of which 715 were economic, involving 383,587 workers, and 213 were political, involving 155,941 workers. [27]

There was no easing of the struggle in 1916. The commemoration of Bloody Sunday on January 9, 1916, brought fifty-three thousand workers out (85 percent of them in Petrograd). Throughout 1916, and especially in the second half of the year, not only were more and more workers involved in strikes, but the strikes became more and more political in nature. Altogether in 1916, 280,943 workers were involved in political strikes, and 221,136 in economic strikes. A new impetus to the struggle came in January and February 1917. In those two months alone, 256,253 workers were involved in political strikes, and 35,829 in economic strikes, i.e., about 88 percent of all the workers involved were striking for political reasons. [28]

Throughout the war, Petrograd unquestionably held a predominant position in the strike movement. [29]


Political strikes


Economic strikes























Russia (total)







The figures show that 74 percent of all workers involved in political strikes during the war years were in Petrograd, as against 9 percent in Moscow. (One should remember that there were more industrial workers in Moscow than in Petrograd.)

The record of the Petrograd proletariat is especially impressive if one remembers that about 17 percent of the industrial workers were conscripted into the army and that some 40 percent of the proletariat in the capital were new recruits to the class, i.e., they were relatively inexperienced. [30]

Increasing Revolutionary Ferment

One very useful source of information about the rising popular movement against the old regime is the minutes of the Council of Ministers. The discussion at these sessions testifies to the tremendous rise in the revolutionary movement among workers in the second half of 1915. Thus at the session held on August 11, 1915, N.B. Shcherbatov spoke about the serious disorders that had taken place in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where it had been necessary to shoot. The moment was an extraordinarily tense one, as there was no confidence in the garrison. As a result of the shooting, sixteen were killed and more than thirty wounded. The excitement had not died down at all, and he predicted echoes in other factory districts.

Prince E.N. Shakhovskoy, minister of trade and industry, had the most alarming reports from factory inspectors concerning the mood of the workers. Any spark would be sufficient to start a fire. The prime minister (Goremykin) begged the minister of internal affairs (Shcherbatov) to tell them what measures he was taking to check the outrages going on everywhere.

Shcherbatov replied that he was taking all the steps that his duty dictated to him, and that practical possibilities allowed him. He complained that he was expected to fight the growing revolutionary movement without using the troops, because they were regarded as unreliable and might refuse to shoot at the crowd. One could not pacify the whole of Russia with policemen alone, particularly when the ranks of the police were thinning out, not by the day but by the hour, and when the population was being wrought up every day by speeches in the Duma, lies in the newspapers, endless defeats at the front, and rumors about disorders in the rear. [31]

At the session of September 2, 1915 Shakhovskoy said:

Strikes have begun at the Putilov and the metal factories. The superficial excuse: the arrest of the elected representatives to the medical insurance cooperatives. The movement immediately took on a sharp character and was complicated by the submission of political demands. One can expect a further growth of the wave of strikes if one does not adopt anticipatory measures right now ...

[Minister of War] A.A. Polivanov: If there are not going to be radical changes in the general situation, my thoughts about the future are extremely gloomy ... the unrest at the Putilov factory (which sets the tone for the labor movement) is the beginning of a general strike in protest against the adjournment of the Duma. Everyone is expecting extraordinary events to follow the adjournment.

I.L. Goremykin: All this is only intimidation. Nothing will happen.

Prince N.B. Shcherbatov: The Department of Police does not have, by any means, such soothing information as Your High Excellency. The testimony of all agents is unanimous, to the effect that the labor movement will develop to an extent which will threaten the safety of the state. It is on this basis that the Department of Police demanded that the military authorities make a number of arrests ... As for the reason for the labor disorders – which have gone as far as clashes with the police at the Putilov factory – the demands which are presented are: not to adjourn the Duma; to free the five imprisoned deputies of the left faction; to increase wages by fifteen per cent; and so on. All these, of course, are only excuses to cover up the real aim of the underground leaders of the workers – to take advantage of the misfortunes at the front, and of the internal crisis, to attempt a social revolution and to usurp power. [32]

On September 2, 1915, Shcherbatov described the situation in Moscow in very strong terms.

The workers, and the population as a whole, are gripped by some sort of madness and are like gunpowder. An outburst of disorders is possible at any moment. Yet the authorities in Moscow have virtually no forces. There is one reserve battalion of 800 men, of whom only half are available, as 400 are taken up with guard duty in the Kremlin and other places. Then there is a squadron of Cossacks and, finally, two militia units stationed in the outskirts. All of these are far from reliable, and it would be difficult to order them against the crowd. There are no troops at all in the rural part of the county. Both the city and the county police are inadequate, numerically, to the demands that may be made on them. I must also note the presence, in Moscow, of about 30,000 convalescent soldiers. This is a wild band, not recognizing discipline, making scandals, clashing with the police (recently one of the latter was killed by soldiers), freeing prisoners, and so on. Undoubtedly, if there are disorders, this whole horde will be on the side of the crowd. What would you suggest that the Minister of Internal Affairs do under these circumstances? [33]

The armed forces did not remain unaffected by the popular opposition to the regime. Revolutionary ferment was evident among them as early as 1915. Thus the minister of internal affairs, A. Khvostov, in a letter dated November 15, 1915 to the President of the Council of Ministers, I.L. Goremykin, enclosed information, collected by responsible agents, in connection with the unrest that had recently been observed among the various ship’s companies of the Baltic fleet. He felt that it was only natural that revolutionary elements of all shades should exploit the disturbed condition of the Baltic squadron, that they should endeavor to spread discontent among the lower ranks of the army and navy.

Their propaganda was based on the assumption that the war was being waged solely for the benefit of the capitalists, not for the good either of the Russian or of the German people. They suggested to the illiterate soldier that no victory, whichever group of powers might win it, could contribute to the welfare of the people, until the socialists of all countries and all classes of society joined in their struggle against the belligerent governments and forced them to surrender; that the only means of achieving this end lay in the speedy termination of the war, regardless of the result; that strenuous efforts must be made to impede the production of war materials by organizing strikes and popular revolts. [34]

There followed a description of a number of sailors’ insurrections on different ships of the Baltic fleet. To quote only one case out of many:

One cause contributing to this general ferment must be cited: It is the disregard of some of the commanders and senior officers for the men’s comfort and well-being. A story is circulated that on one occasion the sailors were served with cabbage soup containing putrid meat riddled with maggots. This provoked much grumbling and criticism. Similar occurrences gave rise to mutinies on the battleship Imperator Pavel I and on the cruiser Rossia. The sailors, having gathered on the forecastle of the latter ship, began to clamor for better food, more humane treatment, and the dismissal of all officers bearing German names. Rear-Admiral Kourosh appeared, revolver in hand, demanding the surrender of the leaders and the cessation of disorder, threatening in the event of disobedience to shoot every man; but, as on the former occasion, the sailors retorted that this was not 1905; that the sailors had learnt wisdom and could not be frightened as before; that, sooner than allow the admiral to shoot them, they would throw him overboard. [35]

The unrest affected not only the fleet, but also the garrison at Kronstadt, where mass action took place following an insurrection on the battleship Gangut. As a result, ninety-five men were arrested on board and deported to the town of Reval.

A mixed detachment of cruisers and destroyers were detailed to escort the mutineers. But the crew of the Ruric refused to cooperate in conveying their comrades to prison.

According to one description, the disorders on board the Gangut caused great excitement among sailors throughout the Baltic fleet and among the coastguards, and led to much discussion on the need to set free the arrested sailors. All the ships passed resolutions to that effect, which were to be officially presented while in winter quarters, and a general strike was to be declared if these demands were refused. If the accused sailors were brought to court and condemned, then the threatened strike was to take place before the winter, and any repressive measures against the crews were to be met by systematic revolt. Similar propaganda was spreading not only among the lower ranks of the fleet, but also among the land forces of the Kronstadt garrisons, who claimed the right to take part in the joint protests against the naval authorities. [36]

At sessions of the Council of Ministers, more and more complaints were heard about the decline in patriotism. Thus on August 4, 1914, the minister of war, A.A. Polivanov, stated: “I rely on impassable spaces, on impenetrable mud, and on the mercy of St. Nicholas, the patron of Holy Russia.” [37]

He pointed out that their mobilizations were less successful each time. The police could not manage the mass of draft-dodgers. Men were hiding in the woods and in the grainfields. Another minister, Grigorovich, suggested that the Germans were responsible. Shcherbatov felt that the agitators would exploit the issue to stir up unrest and disturbances. He told the Council of Ministers that the agitation was becoming more anti-militaristic in nature, even openly defeatist. Its direct influence could be seen in mass surrenders. [38]

The Bolshevik Organization

On the eve of the outbreak of war, a central role in the organization of the party – especially in Petersburg – was played by the Duma deputies. The Bolshevik Duma deputy from Petersburg, Badaev, wrote: “With the arrest of the [Duma] fraction, the last roots of revolutionary work were torn out, the fundamental and main center of the party in Russia was destroyed.” [39]

The significance of the Bolshevik deputies for the workers’ movement was not lost on the government. As Goremykin said at a meeting of the Council of Ministers on August 26, 1915, the problem for the workers’ leaders was their lack of organization, which had been smashed by the arrest of the five members of the Duma. [40]

The beginning of the war also saw the breakup of the Petersburg Committee of the party, which was deeply infiltrated by police agents. Its members in July 1914 were V. Schmidt, Fedotov, Antipov, Nikolai Logov, Shurkanov, Ignatev, and Levtsky (the last three were police agents). [41]

The okhrana at first confidently believed that the war had destroyed the committee once and for all (although noting that there was evident disaffection among the youth), but they soon noticed that signs of activity were continuing. [42] To begin with, in the second half of 1914, reports indicated that the Petrograd organization had suffered a huge blow. The structure that had been so painstakingly built up had completely collapsed. An okhrana report in December 1914 stated that the district organizations were not functioning normally and that underground party work, in the form of factory circles and insignificant professional groups, occurred from time to time only in certain districts, of which the most lively was Vyborg, where the members were particularly advanced and “conscious” metalworkers. [43]

The police raids did not, however, put an end to the Petrograd organization. A few months after each raid smashed the Petersburg Committee, it rose again as from the ashes. As early as the beginning of 1915 a new committee was operating and started to rally party forces, assuming the leadership of the Bolsheviks in Russia as a whole. The various districts made contact with it and other spheres of work began to pick up (for example, the renewal of the paper Voprosy Strakhovaniya). An article in Sotsial-Demokrat, reporting developments in April 1915, was enthusiastic about the state of affairs, claiming that the committee now covered all the districts of Petersburg with one representative for each two hundred workers: “The workers are very satisfied with the work of the Petersburg Committee. There is a great flow towards the circles, there are not enough leaders, there are links with various cities.” [44]

In July 1915, a conference was held in Oranienbaum. There were fifty people present representing all the Social Democratic factions and the Socialist Revolutionaries. Figures cited at this conference claimed that the Bolsheviks had twelve hundred members in Petrograd, the Mensheviks two hundred and the “Unifiers” (Mezhraiontsy [1*]) sixty to eighty. [45]

By September 1915 more districts were participating. A letter in Sotsial-Demokrat reported that the following on the Petersburg Committee were represented: Vyborg district, Narva district, 1st Gorodskoy district, Neva district, Petersburg district, and Vasileostrov district. Moscow district, and the 2nd Gorodskoy district were in the process of organizing themselves. There were also links between the committee and Kolpino, Sestroretsky, and Peterhoff, all some distance from Petrograd itself. Communications with the provinces also seemed good, and it was being asked to supply directives, literature, and information to cities all over European Russia. [46]

The Petersburg Committee was also the ultimate authority over the Bolshevik organizations that were set up in Kronstadt, Helsingfors, and elsewhere, and on the ships of the Baltic fleet. It provided a centralized underground base for all the individual groups to work through and supplied the sailors with literature and facilities for producing their own materials.

The committee sent several of its members to Moscow in the first months of 1915 to help set up a Moscow organization, prepare for a Bolshevik conference, and establish contacts. Leaflets and literature were also being supplied, mainly to Moscow, though it was hoped that they would be carried further afield.

The printing capabilities of the Petersburg Bolsheviks were impressive. Altogether between the end of July 1914 and the February Revolution, they issued more than 160 leaflets with a total circulation of about 500,000 – i.e., about five leaflets a month, on average, with more than 16,000 copies in all. This was quite an achievement. [47]

Towards November, the okhrana began to retaliate with arrests. However, the party survived them relatively well. In December, more arrests took place. Many committee members were taken and the districts were quite seriously affected, with links breaking down yet again. A base was set up on Vasilevsky Island to try to direct work until a proper center could be reestablished. By the beginning of 1916, signs of recovery were noted by the okhrana. [48] The Bolsheviks, however few in number, certainly had the basic organizational talents needed to keep renewing their committees, whatever the odds.

However, on the eve of May Day, 1916, the Petersburg Committee was again smashed by police raids, of which the okhrana wrote:

[T]he work of the Petersburg Committee was temporarily completely brought to a halt, their contacts were lost but this, as on previous occasions, entailed only new attempts to reestablish party work and to create a new leading kollektiv, and also to equip a new press. [49]

In June 1916, a police agent reported that there were two thousand Bolsheviks in Petrograd. The number continued to increase during July and August, with improved organization in factories and better links between them. The okhrana saw the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks as “highly serious and dangerous to the peace of society and the order of the state.” [50] This fear inspired a series of arrests on the night of July 20, which, once again, did not inflict much long-term damage on the organization. [51]

In October 1916, a detailed letter from the committee to the Central Committee abroad on the state of party work in the capital described how groups were being set up in factories often without any direct help from the Petersburg Committee, and were trying to link up with it. Currently they had links with the following cities: Moscow, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Kharkov, Ekaterinoslav, Nizhnii Novgorod, Sormovo, Samara, Saratov, Tsaritsyn, Perm, Ekaterinburg, Reval, Narva, Tver, and Tula. From this list it was clear that the committee needed to develop and expand its activity. In addition, soldiers and sailors of the local and Finland garrisons had begun to search them out. There was a possibility of setting up permanent links with the front: a few days earlier a soldier had come from there and asked for literature for his position. [52]

Party membership continued to grow slowly but surely, and by the end of 1916, according to Shliapnikov, there were some three thousand members in Petrograd [53] of which five hundred were in Vyborg, the working-class area in which the strongest Bolshevik organization in the capital was emerging, and which was to retain this position until the February Revolution and after.

By and large, the Petersburg Committee acted as the center of the party. For most of the war period, from November 1914 to the autumn of 1915, and again from the spring of 1916 to the autumn of the same year, the party had no Russian Bureau. [54]

Again and again police raids shattered it. Thus several leading party workers were arrested on December 9, 10, 18, and 19, 1916. Then on January 2, 1917 the entire committee was arrested. The reconstructed committee suffered heavy losses again on February 25, three days before the revolution. Again the Vyborg District Committee was pushed to the fore and assumed the leadership in Petrograd.

The Vyborg District Committee always tended to have greater resources than other district organizations because the factories in Vyborg employed a higher percentage of skilled and therefore better-paid workers. The nearness of the Finnish railway and the outer Petrograd suburbs meant that many people who were not allowed into Petrograd could live there, and that duplicators and other materials could be hidden there. Shliapnikov and the Russian Bureau were based in Vyborg mainly for these reasons. [55]

Despite the weakness of the Petersburg Committee, the Bolshevik position was better than that of the other revolutionary tendencies. According to Shliapnikov, only the Bolsheviks actually had any kind of all-Russian organization. Various estimates of party membership for this period have been made. A 1922 census showed that 10,483 members in 1922 had been members before the February Revolution, with 2,028 in Moscow and 817 in Petrograd. However, this takes no account of the many who died in the 1917 Revolution or the civil war, and a second estimate produced a figure of 23,600. [56]

During the war, large army units were stationed in Petrograd garrisons. The committee was concerned to aim its propaganda at the soldiers, despite the severe punishments for treason that this entailed. To handle this aspect of agitation, a military commission was sporadically organized, attached to the Petersburg Committee. This commission gained in significance as the February Revolution approached and the whole question of arming the workers arose. In spring 1915, the committee’s first Military Organization was set up. This established links with certain regiments in the capital, with sailors and troops in Kronstadt, Helsingfors, and Sveaborg, and with troops on the northern front. It was soon destroyed by arrests, however. [57]

The reason for this, it turned out, was that the sensitive job of establishing links with the sailors of the Baltic fleet at the end of 1915 was entrusted to Shurkanov, a police agent. [58] Naturally the okhrana was well informed on Bolshevik work in Kronstadt, including details of names and addresses. So, until after the February Revolution, no meeting took place of the Military Organization under the Petersburg Committee.

Throughout the war, as well as police infiltration and raids, the Bolsheviks in Russia suffered from two further recurrent ailments: (1) lack of intellectuals, and (2) lack of funds. Thus one old Bolshevik described how difficult it was for him to get a leaflet written against the war at the beginning of 1915. In order to write it, he turned to party intellectuals in Moscow, where he worked. He got very little response from them. Many of them supported the war, and a few others were, it seems, too frightened to help. At last he wrote a draft himself, and he and other workers worked very hard on it for a long time, but still some of the phrases did not sound Russian (presumably they were Latvian). So it would probably have read like a German publication. They could not get anyone to edit it for them. None of the intellectuals had a commitment to the contents, which were revolutionary defeatist. Finally the grammatical mistakes had to remain. [59]

A similar complaint came from Saratov. At the end of 1915, nearly every factory in Saratov had a Bolshevik cell of about ten to twenty workers. At first they were happy to be led by the active members, but later they began to demand more competent propagandists. The lack of intellectuals was the ever-present problem. [60]

Again and again Shliapnikov complained bitterly that the intellectuals avoided illegal activity during the war and became involved in the various institutions connected with the war. [61]

Given the great scarcity of intellectuals in the party, the workers’ cadres who came to a revolutionary defeatist position on their own, without help from the party intellectuals, and even without contact with Lenin abroad, were naturally quite proud of their achievement. Thus, for instance, a group of Latvians reached the conclusion that the imperialist war should be turned into civil war without seeing Lenin’s theses, and without having any theoreticians among their number. [62]

To exacerbate the party’s difficulties, the lack of intellectuals was accompanied by severe and frustrating financial problems. Thus we are told by Shliapnikov that when the war broke out, he managed to obtain contacts for supplying literature to Petersburg. However, he was unable to maintain them for lack of money. The Petersburg Committee could not afford the sum of 300-500 rubles a month that was needed. [63] Shliapnikov was very bitter: if he had only had 500 rubles a month, he could have filled Russia with literature. [64]

The bureau could not afford to send anyone to the provinces; they could not keep anyone there for even a month and had to depend on occasional and fortuitous visits. [65] The total income of the Petersburg Committee from May 1 to December 1, 1915 was 2,417.79 rubles [66] – some $435 [2*] for seven months!

Reading the memoirs of participants, one is again and again reminded how far the actual Bolshevik party differed from the image produced by later Stalinist historians and apologetics. It was nothing like a centralized, well-administered, united party. In fact, it was composed of a large number of small groups, some loosely federated, but most of them cut off from each other and from Lenin abroad. Each local committee had to develop an independent ability for political action, an ability that was of momentous importance during the months of the revolution.

The Rising Influence of Bolshevism

The Bolsheviks played a crucial role in the mounting working-class activity during the war. Thus a police report of the time ascribed the change in the mood of the masses to the activities of the “Leninists.” It reported that this agitation, which was strongest in the capital, led to the formation of secret cells in the local factories and works, to the holding of meetings and unauthorized gatherings, and to partial strikes. At the end of August 1915, the workers of the Putilov factory presented the management with a number of economic and political demands. The latter were liberation of the five Bolshevik members of the Duma deported to Siberia in February 1915, universal suffrage, freedom of the press, and an extension of the session of the State Duma. According to the report, these demands were backed up by a go-slow strike. [67]

On the anniversary of the 1905 Revolution, on January 9, 1916, as we mentioned earlier, one hundred thousand workers went on strike in Petersburg. The initiative came from the Vyborg district. There were demonstrations in which the soldiers greeted the demonstrators from lorries with shouts of “Hurrah!” But in general the soldiers were not allowed out of their barracks; the guards there and at the telephone exchanges were reinforced; the soldiers who remained in their barracks told those who went on patrol not to shoot. The demonstrations were repeated the next day, and there was a joint demonstration in the Vyborg district at 6 p.m., with soldiers carrying a red flag. Up to January 9 there had been a total of six hundred arrests in all. [68]

In February a new wave of strikes took place in the Putilov works, followed by a three-day lockout. To the workers’ demand for a 70 percent wage increase were added political slogans, among them: “Down with the Romanov monarchy,” “Down with the war.”

A police report blames the “Leninists” for turning the strikers at the Putilov works away from economic demands to political ones.

It is clear that the reasons for the strike were purely economic and that they would probably have remained so, had the revolutionary element not intervened in this case.

The leading “Leninist” group, which calls itself the “Petersburg Committee of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party” considers all economic action on the part of the working masses untimely at the present moment and opposes the workers’ unorganized attempts to express their discontent with the difficult economic living conditions in individual industrial enterprises. This group remains faithful, however, to the plans and aims of its underground leaders, who are always keen to use large social movements for their purposes. This organization tried to make use of the present strike of the Putilov workers to bring nearer the realization of the ultimate ideals of Social Democracy. [69]

With quite justified pride Lenin and Zinoviev could write in August 1915:

By and large, the working class of Russia has proved immune to chauvinism.

The explanation lies in the revolutionary situation in the country and in the Russian proletariat’s general conditions of life.

The years 1912-14 marked the beginning of a great new revolutionary upswing in Russia. We again witnessed a great strike movement, the like of which the world has never known. The number involved in the mass revolutionary strike in 1913 was, at the very lowest estimate, one and a half million, and in 1914 it rose to over two million, approaching the 1905 level. The first barricade battles took place in St. Petersburg, on the eve of the war.

The underground Russian Social Democratic Labour Party has performed its duty to the International. The banner of internationalism has not wavered in its hands. [70]

War Industry Committees

The Bolsheviks were quite ingenious in carrying out their anti-war political activities. They even made use of legal institutions that they utterly opposed, like the War Industry Committees, to make propaganda and build up their influence and organization.

When the war broke out, the industrialist A.I. Guchkov, member of the Octobrist Party, representing the big bourgeoisie (called “Octobrist” because it based itself on the Tsar’s edict of October 17, 1905 granting Russia a sham constitution) conceived the idea of creating committees to help promote production, especially of war materials. The aim was to get workers’ representatives to collaborate with management. While the Mensheviks were in favor of participation in these committees, the Bolsheviks were against it.

Despite the fear expressed by some ministers that the workers’ leaders would use the opportunity to develop agitation with the pretext of elections [71], full pre-election discussions and campaigning were allowed, though there were probably attempts to limit the numbers at any one meeting. All the left-wing tendencies, whatever their policy, took advantage of the legal gatherings of workers in open meetings, which were the first since the beginning of the war and seem to have been well attended.

The Petersburg Bolsheviks made full use of the meetings and discussions to present in a coherent way their reasons for not wishing to participate in the elections or in any activity of the War Industry Committees. Their activity and propaganda on the issue amounted to a significant campaign, with the production of several leaflets, the public appearance of committee members, and an opportunity to get Bolshevik resolutions passed in many factories. There were not many occasions during the war when the Bolsheviks could present themselves so openly – usually their comments were restricted to leaflets thrust into the hands of workers; the War Industry Committee campaign remained a high spot in their activity and one that they regarded as basically successful.

The elections to the War Industry Committees were held in two stages. In the first, every factory with five hundred workers or more elected a delegate for every one thousand employees. In the second, the delegates selected ten men to represent them in the Central War Industry Committees. The Mensheviks supported participation in both stages of the elections. The Bolsheviks favored taking part in the primary elections but boycotting the second stage. Instead of participating in the second stage, they proposed to proclaim their program.

One of the first moves of the Petersburg Committee was to produce a nakaz, or set of instructions, for adoption at factory meetings. Delegates to the elections to the committees could then be mandated with this nakaz. [72] This was probably a good tactical move, for it gave Bolshevik orators a focal point around which to work and provided a way of uniting opposition and directing negative criticism. The nakaz was duplicated in the form of a leaflet of substantial length and explained in fairly complex terms what the war was about, who benefited from it, and who suffered, stressing that the working class of any country must always remember that “the enemy of every people was in its own country.” [73] The first task in Russia was to establish a democratic republic to sweep away the remains of feudalism and pave the way for socialism. As things were, however, there could be no question of participating in the War Industry Committees. To do so would be no less than a betrayal of the working class.

This nakaz was adopted at the Staryi, Lessner and Erikson factories, among others. [74] Similar resolutions were passed at Novy Lessner, Putilov and other factories, again clearly condemning the war as purely in the interests of the capitalists and reminding the workers of the arrest of their representatives in the Duma. [75]

The first meeting of the electors took place on September 27, 1915. It started at noon and went on until after 1 a.m., with no break for a meal, and proved to be a very turbulent meeting, the tension increasing with every speaker. [76] Out of 218 representatives elected from among more than 250,000 workers, 177 were present. [77] There was obviously a good deal of support for the Bolshevik position. Lenin’s sister Anna wrote to him a few days later that a solid majority of Bolsheviks were present. [78]

The voting figures demonstrated the support the Bolsheviks had managed to enlist and indicated that their previous campaigning must have been quite thorough. The long Petersburg Committee nakaz was adopted in full as a resolution from the meeting, which then voted 95 to 81 against participation in the War Industry Committees. [79]

In the first round, therefore, the Bolsheviks had successfully turned enough delegates against the War Industry Committees to bring the elections to an end. The fact that the workers’ delegates in the capital had rejected the committees was bound to affect elections in other parts of the country. This must have been one of the government’s reasons for holding no pre-election meetings in Moscow and allowing no time for campaigning. In Moscow the elections were carried out without any speeches being made – the committees could not risk a similar debacle.

In Petersburg, however, the Central War Industry Committee was not ready to accept the first election results as final and decided to hold new elections on November 29. The police were much more active in arresting Bolsheviks. No time was allowed for campaigning. No pre-election meetings were held. After the elections, at a meeting with 153 delegates, the Bolsheviks read out their declaration, condemning these second elections as a distortion of the will of the Petersburg workers, and stating once again that the Petersburg proletariat would not participate in any institution aiming to maintain the monarchy with the blood of the workers and peasants. At the end, two-thirds of the delegates left in protest. [3*]

The policy of the Bolsheviks on the War Industry Committees contrasted very sharply with that of the Menshevik leaders. In June 1916, the labor group of the Central War Industries Committee published a statement of its opinions, in which it declared that it was a malignant calumny to accuse the group of secretly harboring defeatist ideas; they would not have entered the War Industry Committees if they had not been partisans of an active war policy. The fact of their taking part in the work of the committees was understood by everyone to mean that the Russian workers had decided to take part in the work of national defense. The labor group in the Moscow committee made a similar statement: “Our country is going through hard times,” they wrote,

... [F]ifteen of our provinces are occupied by the enemy; millions of old men, women, and children are without a roof over their heads, wandering homeless over the country. Many men have been killed by the enemy and their wives are dying of hunger. In these circumstances the working class has risen to defend its country. To supply the army with all its needs, to organize the civil population, to save the economic forces of the nation from disintegration, a great effort is needed and all the nation’s energy must be rallied. Its initiative and capacity for self-help must be given free play. [80]

In Conclusion

History conclusively confirmed Lenin’s statement of March 1915:

About forty thousand workers have been buying Pravda; far more read it. Even if war, prison, Siberia, and hard labor should destroy five or even ten times as many – this section of the workers cannot be annihilated. It is alive. It is imbued with the revolutionary spirit, is anti-chauvinist. It alone stands in the midst of the masses, with deep roots in the latter, as the champion of the internationalism of the toilers, the exploited, and the oppressed. It alone has held its ground in the general debacle. It alone is leading the semi-proletarian elements away from ... social chauvinism ... towards socialism. [81]

The prominent Petrograd Bolshevik trade unionist Pavel Budaev described the situation in March 1916 as being at boiling point. Among the printers, nine enterprises were at a standstill because of a strike. Estonian Social Democratic organizations had made contact with organizations in other towns. Leaflets were appearing in Petrograd all the time, and some had been received from Narva. [82]

We can sum up by saying that the war at first set Bolshevism back, but only to accelerate its growth even more powerfully in the ensuing period, and to prepare it for its final victory.




1*. The Mezhraiontsy were a loose group of anti-war socialists including Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Ioffe and other future leaders of the October Revolution, who were neither Bolsheviks nor Mensheviks when the group formed in 1913.

2*. In the original British edition this sum was converted to £242. [Note by MIA]

3*. Sotsial-Demokrat printed some of the resolutions and declarations adopted and gave the nakaz in full in No.51. If the paper managed to reach other industrial cities these accounts must have been very useful, for workers in the provinces would otherwise know little or nothing of what was happening in the capital. News of the second set of elections did not appear until April 13, 1916 (No.53), in a letter signed A.B. (Shliapnikov).




1. L. Trotsky, Stalin, London 1947, p.168.

2. F.I. Kalinychev, Gosudarstvennaia duma v Rossii: Sbornik dokumen-takh i materialakh, Moscow 1957, pp.595-96.

3. Trotsky, Stalin, p.168.

4. D.A. Baevsky, Ocherki po istorii oktiabrskoi revoliutsii, vol.1, Moscow 1927, p.379.

5. A.G. Shliapnikov, Kanun semnadtsatogo goda, Moscow-Petrograd 1923, vol.1, p.29.

6. Sotsial-Demokrat, no.51, February 29, 1916.

7. Revoliutsionnoe Byloe, no.3, 1924, quoted in Baevsky, p.384.

8. Gankin and Fisher, p.151.

9. T. Dan in J. Martow, Geschichte der russischen Sozialdemokratie, Berlin 1926, p.283.

10. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, p.171.

11. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, p.172.

12. Sbornik Sotsial Demokrata, no.1, October 1916, p.57.

13. Letter by Kamenev written on April 23,1915, quoted in On the correspondence of the Russian Bureau of the CC with abroad in the war years (1914-1916), Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, nos.7-8 (102-3), 1930.

14. Krupskaya, p.247.

15. I.P. Khonianko, In the underground and in emigration 1911-1917, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.4 (16), 1923.

16. Gankin and Fisher, p.148.

17. Shliapnikov, vol.1, pp.10-11.

18. R.G. Suny, The Baku Commune, 1917-1918, Princeton 1972, p.59.

19. See, for instance, O. Chadaev, ed., Bolsheviki v gody imperialistich-eskoi Voiny, 1914-Fevral 1917, Moscow 1939; or N.P. Donii, ed., Bolsheviki Ukrainy v period mezhdu pervoi i vtoroi burshuazno-demokraticheskimi revoliutsiiami, Kiev 1960, pp.554-650.

20. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.56.

21. A. Kiselev, In July 1914, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.7 (30), 1924.

22. Trotsky, My Life, p.233.

23. Sotsial-Demokrat, December 12, 1914.

24. I.P. Leiberov and O.I. Shkaratan, Concerning the social composition of the Petrograd industrial workers in 1917, Voprosy Istorii, no.1, 1961.

25. K. Sidorov, The labour movement in Russia during the years of the imperialist war, in M.N. Pokrovsky, ed., Ocherki po istorii oktiabrskoi revoliutsii, Moscow-Leningrad 1927, vol.1, p.261.

26. Sidorov, in Pokrovsky, p.270.

27. V.L. Meller and A.M. Pankratova, eds., Rabochee dvizhenie v 1917 g., Moscow-Leningrad 1926, p.16.

28. Meller and Pankratova, pp.17, 20.

29. Sidorov, in Pokrovsky, vol.1, p.287.

30. Leiberov and Shkaratan.

31. M. Cherniavsky, ed. and trans., Prologue to Revolution. Notes of A.N. Iakhontov on the secret meetings of the Council of Ministers, 1915, New York 1967, pp.100-01.

32. Cherniavsky, pp.233-34.

33. Cherniavsky, pp.236-37.

34. C.E. Vuillamy and A.L. Hynes, The Red Archives: Russian State Papers and Other Documents Relating to the Years 1915-1918, London 1929, pp.62-63.

35. Vuillamy and Hynes, p.66-67.

36. Vuillamy and Hynes, p.68.

37. Cherniavsky, p.45.

38. Cherniavsky, p.48.

39. A.E. Badaev, Bolsheviki v gosudarstvennoi dume, Leningrad 1939, p.361.

40. Cherniavsky, p.183.

41. Kiselev.

42. M.G. Fleer, ed., Peterburgskii Komitet bolshevikov v gody voiny 1914-17, Leningrad 1927, pp.19-20.

43. Fleer, p.19.

44. Sotstal-Demokrat, no.41, May 1, 1915.

45. Partiia bolshevikov v gody mirovoi imperialisticheskoi voiny 1914-17, Moscow 1963, p.235.

46. Partiia bolshevikov v gody mirovoi imperialisticheskoi voiny 1914-17, p.232.

47. I.P. Leiberov, V.I. Lenin and the Petrograd organization of the Bolsheviks during the First World War (1914-1916), Voprosy Istorii KPSS, no.6, 1960.

48. Fleer, p.409.

49. I.I. Mints, Istoriia Velikogo Oktiabria, Moscow 1967, vol.1, p.259.

50. Fleer, p.91.

51. Fleer, p.91.

52. Petrograd Committee letter to the CC before October 31, 1916. Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v armii a na flote v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny 1914-17, Moscow 1961, pp.218-19.

53. Shliapnikov, vol.1, p.292.

54. Istoriia KPSS, Moscow 1963; Baevsky in Pokrovsky, vol.1, p.458.

55. Shliapnikov, vol.1, p.54.

56. Mints, p.319.

57. Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v armii a na flote v gody pervoi mirovoi voiny 1914-17, p.435.

58. Shliapnikov, vol.2, p.49.

59. M.Ia. Latsis, Underground work in Moscow (1914-1916), Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.10 (45), 1925.

60. Antonov-Saratovskii, Saratov in the Years of the Imperialist War (1914-1916) and Nasha Gazeta, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.4, (16), 1923.

61. Shliapnikov, vol.1, pp.152, 259.

62. K. Pechak, The Social-Democracy of Latvia (Communist Party of Latvia) in the period 1909 to 1915, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.12, 1922.

63. Shliapnikov, vol.1, p.51.

64. Shliapnikov, vol.1, p.74.

65. Shliapnikov, vol.1, p.248.

66. Sbornik Sotsial Demokrata, no.2, p.82.

67. Fleer, p.259.

68. M. Balabanov, Of 1905 k 1917 godu, Moscow-Leningrad 1927, p.411.

69. Fleer, p.262.

70. G. Zinoviev and V.I. Lenin in Socialism and War, Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, p.319.

71. L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, 1890-1918, London 1970, p.183.

72. Mints, vol.1, pp.277-83.

73. Partiia bolshevikov v gody mirovoi imperialisticheskoi voiny 1914-17, p.141.

74. Mints.

75. Shliapnikov, vol.1, pp.99-119, 128-36.

76. Shliapnikov, vol.1, pp.99-119, 128-36.

77. Mints, p.279.

78. Mints, p.279.

79. Gankin and Fisher, p.193.

80. S.O. Zagorsky, State Control of Industry in Russia during the War, New Haven 1928, p.165.

81. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.21, p.176.

82. Krasnaia Letopis, no.7, 1923.


Last updated on 25.10.2007