Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 19
Lenin Calls Up the Insurrection

(Part 1)

With the increasing breakdown in industry, the peasant war spreading, the national movement growing bitter, the army disintegrating, the provisional government becoming more and more paralyzed, and Bolshevik influence gaining massively, the question of state power inevitably became increasingly central and urgent.

As soon as the Bolsheviks gained control of the Soviets of the two capitals, Petrograd and Moscow, Lenin said: “Our hour has come.” But he found it very difficult indeed to persuade the party – and especially its leadership – of the need to seize state power.

In April, June, and July, Lenin’s role was to check the impatient masses. He had to restrain the vanguard of the working class and the soldiers from moving too far ahead too quickly, before the more backward sections had the chance to catch up. Now he had to put his foot on the accelerator.

In August, Lenin prepared for the new stage theoretically; and from the middle of September onwards he stressed more and more forcibly the urgent need to seize state power directly.

The Bolshevik Party Military Organization was particularly cautious and conservative. Having been to the left of Lenin in June and July, and having burnt their fingers badly during the July Days, its leaders now, in September and October, insisted on the absolute necessity of thorough preparation before taking the offensive against the provisional government. [1]

Referring to the situation in his memoirs, Nevsky records that “some comrades felt then that we [the leaders of the Military Organization] were too cautious ... But our experience (especially in the July Days) showed us what an absence of thorough preparation and preponderance of strength means.” [2] And of course the role of the Military Organization was crucial for any move towards taking power.

Lenin found it even harder to convince the top leaders of the party – the Central Committee members. It was as though the April Days had returned – Lenin was again isolated in the Central Committee. Again the committee appears to have been too passive, too compromising in its attitude to the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders, too accommodating towards the provisional government. Admittedly the relentless criticism of Lenin on the one hand and pressure from the rank-and-file workers on the other did force it to change course radically in April. But conservatism and the urge to adapt are not eliminated by a single instance of admitting one’s error. Lenin had to overcome his lieutenants again and again.

Insurrection demands the greatest daring, and the conservatism of leadership therefore appeared in an even more extreme form now than in April. It was no accident that a few days before the October Revolution Lenin found himself obliged to demand the expulsion from the party of two of his closest former collaborators, Zinoviev and Kamenev.

In April, he used the pressure of the workers, whom he believed to be considerably to the left of the party. Now the advanced sections of the proletariat were more cautious. There was a mood of depression among the Petrograd proletariat as a result of having waited so long. The workers began to doubt even the Bolsheviks. Who knew, perhaps they too were not really prepared to go beyond talk? While rearming the party in September and October, Lenin found it very difficult to mobilize mass pressure on the compromising Bolshevik leaders. However, once the battle signal was given, the wariness of the waiting masses disappeared in a flash.

The Bolsheviks Must Assume Power

This was the heading of a letter Lenin wrote sometime between September 12-14. It was addressed both to the Central Committee and to the Petrograd and Moscow Committees of the Bolsheviks, and demonstrates his method of putting pressure on the Central Committee through lower party bodies. “The Bolsheviks, having obtained a majority in the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals, can and must take power into their own hands.”

The Bolsheviks could seize power because

the active majority of revolutionary elements in the two chief cities is large enough to carry the people with it, to overcome the opponent’s resistance, to smash him, and to gain and retain power. For the Bolsheviks, by immediately proposing a democratic peace, by establishing the democratic institutions and liberties which have been mangled and shattered by Kerensky, will form a government which nobody will be able to overthrow. [3]

The task was urgent, although Lenin did not yet in this letter tackle the technicalities of the insurrection – as he was to do in a few days’ time.

We are concerned now not with the “day,” or “moment” of insurrection in the narrow sense of the word. That will be only decided by the common voice of those who are in contact with the workers and soldiers, with the masses:

The point is that now, at the Democratic Conference, our party has virtually its own congress and this congress (whether it wishes to or not) must decide the fate of the revolution:

The point is to make the task clear to the party. The present task must be an armed uprising in Petrograd and Moscow (with its region), the seizing of power and the overthrow of the government. [4]

A day or two later, Lenin wrote another letter to the Central Committee, on Marxism and Insurrection. In it he compared the situation prevailing in mid-September with that during the July Days. His aim was to overcome the inertia of the Bolshevik leadership, which, having bent the stick in one direction in July, was too conservative and timid to change course now.

The Bolsheviks were right not to have taken power in July, but now things were different, Lenin argued. In July

an insurrection on 3-4 July would have been a mistake; we could not have retained power either physically or politically. We could not have retained it physically even though Petrograd was at times in our hands, because at that time our workers and soldiers would not have fought and died for Petrograd. There was not at the time that “savageness,” or fierce hatred both of the Kerenskys and of the Tseretelis and Chernovs. Our people had still not been tempered by the experience of the persecution of the Bolsheviks in which the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks participated.

We could not have retained power politically on 3-4 July because, before the Kornilov revolt, the army and the provinces could and would have marched against Petrograd. [5]

But it was necessary to be both sober and bold. To seize power one must deal seriously with the techniques of insurrection.

To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted, and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point ... Once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution. [6]

Once it is understood that the armed insurrection is the climax of the revolution, which has to relate to the general mass move-nent, its specifically technical aspect must be considered. This demands serious study and application. Lenin gives some technical suggestions for immediate action:

[W]ithout losing a single moment, organize a headquarters of the insurgent detachments, distribute our forces, move the reliable regiments to the most important points, surround the Aleksandrinsky theater, occupy the Peter and Paul fortress, arrest the general staff and the government, and move against the officer cadets and the savage division those detachments which would rather die than allow the enemy to approach the strategic points of the city. We must mobilize the armed workers and call them to fight the last desperate fight, occupy the telegraph and the telephone exchange at once, move our insurrection headquarters to the central telephone exchange and connect it by telephone with all the factories, all the regiments, all the points of armed fighting, etc.

Of course, this is all by way of example, only to illustrate the fact that at the present moment it is impossible to remain loyal to Marxism, to remain loyal to the revolution unless insurrection is treated as an art. [7]

The reference to the need to surround the Aleksandrinsky theater is very revealing. It was there that the Democratic Conference was assembled on September 14-19. Clearly Lenin was aiming at an immediate seizure of power! In all probability, this particular suggestion was intended not so much to convince the Bolshevik leaders about the specific technique to be adopted, as to force them into a radical change of attitude to the question of insurrection; by bending the stick to shake the leadership out of its passivity, lethargy, and willingness to go along with the provisional government. [1*]

How did the Central Committee react to Lenin’s letters? In the committee itself, he found no support whatsoever. In 1921, Bukharin, with characteristic exaggeration, described the episode:

The letter [of Lenin] was written with extraordinary force and threatened us with all sorts of punishments. We all gasped. Nobody had yet posed the question so abruptly ... At first all were bewildered. Afterwards, having talked it over, we made a decision. Perhaps that was the sole case in the history of our party when the Central Committee unanimously decided to burn a letter from Lenin ... Although we believed unconditionally that in Petersburg and Moscow we should succeed in seizing power, we assumed that in the provinces we could not yet hold out, that having seized power and dispersed the Democratic Conference we would not be able to fortify ourselves in the rest of Russia. [9]

Some members of the Central Committee were absolutely opposed to the idea of insurrection; others, like Trotsky, Sverdlov, and Bukharin, thought that the time of the Democratic Conference was the least favorable moment for it; others simply vacillated and preferred to wait. The decision to burn the letter was, in fact, not reached unanimously, but with six votes for, four against, and six abstentions. [10]

The minutes of the Central Committee go on to say:

Comrade Kamenev moved the adoption of the following resolution: After considering Lenin’s letters, the CC rejects the practical proposals they contain, calls on all organizations to follow CC instructions alone and affirms once again that the CC regards any kind of demonstration in the streets as quite impermissible at the present moment. At the same time, the CC makes a request to comrade Lenin to elaborate in a special brochure on the question he raised in his letters of a new assessment of the current situation and the party’s policy.

The resolution is rejected.

In conclusion, this decision is adopted:

CC members in charge of work in the Military Organization and the Petersburg Committee are instructed to take measures to prevent demonstrations of any kind in barracks and factories. [11]

The Party Adapts to Constitutionalism

We have already mentioned that, as the Democratic Conference was drawing to a close, it appointed a permanent Council of the Republic, or pre-parliament, from among its members, which was to represent the nation until the constituent assembly met.

The question of the attitude to be taken to the pre-parliament became a crucial tactical issue for the Bolsheviks. Lenin thought that revolutionaries ought to participate in parliamentary institutions, so long as the immediate overthrow of the regime was not on the agenda. Thus the debate about the pre-parliament in the party was linked with the discussion of the insurrection.

First, Lenin sharply criticized the behavior of the Bolsheviks at the Democratic Conference:

[N]ow I come to the errors of the Bolsheviks. To have confined themselves to ironic applause and exclamations at such a moment was an error ... The Bolsheviks should have walked out of the meeting in protest and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions. The Bolsheviks should have left two or three of their 136 delegates for “liaison work,” that is, to report by telephone the moment the idiotic babbling came to an end and the voting began. They should not have allowed themselves to be kept busy with obvious nonsense for the obvious purpose of deceiving the people with the obvious aim of extinguishing the growing revolution by wasting time on trivial matters.

Ninety-nine percent of the Bolshevik delegation ought to have gone to the factories and barracks; that was the proper place for delegates who had come from all ends of Russia and who ... could see the full depth of the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik rottenness. There, closer to the masses, at hundreds and thousands of meetings and talks, they ought to have discussed the lessons of this farcical conference whose obvious purpose was only to give a respite to the Kornilovite Kerensky and make it easier for him to try new variations of the “ministerial leapfrog” game ... How it happened can be understood – history made a very sharp turn at the time of the Kornilov revolt. The party failed to keep pace with the incredibly fast tempo of history at this turning point. The party allowed itself to be diverted, for the time being, into the trap of a despicable talking-shop ... Parliamentarism should be used, especially in revolutionary times, not to waste valuable time over representatives of what is rotten, but to use the example of what is rotten to teach the masses. [12]

The Bolshevik leadership, unfortunately, did not heed his argument and took a compromising attitude towards the Democratic Conference and the pre-parliament. The minutes of the Central Committee of September 21 reported:

On the subject of the Democratic Conference, it is decided not to withdraw from it but merely to recall members of our party from the Presidium. Where the pre-parliament is concerned, a decision not to go into it was passed by 9 votes to 8. But since the vote was divided almost equally, the final decision was referred to the party meeting being organized right now from the group gathered at the Democratic Conference. Two reports – by comrade Trotsky and comrade Rykov – are planned.

At the meeting, participation in the pre-parliament was approved by 77 votes to 50, a decision which the CC also confirmed. [13]

The next day Lenin wrote an article called From a Publicist’s Diary: The Mistakes of Our Party. In it, he showed that decisions about the tactics of participation or boycott of parliamentary institutions should be reached by way of an analysis of objective class relations, the rise or decline of the revolution, and the relation between extraparliamentary and parliamentary means of struggle.

In October 1905, the Bolsheviks had called for the boycott of the Bulygin Duma. Why was this move correct? “Because it was in accordance with the objective alignment of social forces in their development. It provided the maturing revolution with a slogan for the overthrow of the old order.” [14]

In 1907, the ultra-left Bolsheviks again called for the boycott of the Duma. [15] Why were such tactics wrong?

Because they were based only on the “catchiness” of the boycott slogan and on the revulsion felt towards the brutal reaction of the 3 June “pigsty.” The objective situation, however, was such that ... the revolution was in a state of collapse and declining fast. For the upsurge of the revolution a parliamentary base (even inside a “pigsty”) was of tremendous political importance, since extra-parliamentary means of propaganda, agitation and organization were almost nonexistent or extremely weak. [16]

From the experience of the past, Lenin went on to the immediate issue of the present.

Participation in the pre-parliament is an incorrect tactic, that does not correspond to the objective relations of classes, to the objective conditions of the moment ... We must boycott the pre-parliament. We must leave it and go to the Soviets of Workers,’ Soldiers,’ and Peasants’ Deputies, to the trade unions, to the masses in general. We must call on them to struggle. We must give them a correct and clear slogan: disperse the Bonapartist gang of Kerensky and his fake pre-parliament, with this Tsereteli-Bulygin Duma. [17]

He singled Trotsky out for praise for his sharp opposition to participation in the pre-parliament:

Trotsky was for the boycott. Bravo, Comrade Trotsky!

Boycottism was defeated in the Bolshevik group at the Democratic Conference.

Long live the boycott! [18]

Lenin then continued:

There is not the slightest doubt that at the “top” of our party there are noticeable vacillations that may become ruinous, because the struggle is developing; under certain conditions, at a certain moment, vacillations may ruin the cause ... Not all is well with the “parliamentary” leaders of our party; greater attention must be paid to them, there must be greater workers’ supervision over them; the competency of parliamentary groups must be more clearly defined.

Our Party’s mistake is obvious. The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake, refusal to admit and correct a mistake out of a false sense of shame. [19]

At last, on October 5, the Central Committee bent to Lenin’s will and resolved, with only one voice of dissent (Kamenev), to withdraw from the pre-parliament on its first day. [20] On October 7, Trotsky read out a fighting statement at the pre-parliament which ended with the words:

Petrograd is in danger. The revolution and the people are in danger. The government is intensifying this danger, and the ruling parties are helping it. Only the people can save themselves and the country. We address the people: “Long live an immediate, honest, democratic peace. All power to the Soviets, all land to the people. Long live the constituent assembly.” [21]

Then all the Bolsheviks stood up and walked out of the assembly hall to the accompaniment of shouts of “Go to your German trains!”

That the Bolsheviks’ departure from the pre-parliament meant that they were committing themselves to the goal of insurrection was clear to both their friends and their opponents.

There was only one road for them out of the pre-parliament [wrote Sukhanov] – to the barricades. If they cast away the “electoral ballot,” they must take up the rifle. And that, indeed, is what happened. [22]

The Petrograd Soviet’s report on the Bolshevik withdrawal from the pre-parliament ended with the cry: “Long live the direct and open struggle for revolutionary power in the country!” That was on October 9.

Spurring Smilga On

The urgency of the issue, of the need to take immediate steps towards the seizure of power, was so overwhelming that Lenin left no stone unturned in his efforts to convince, and if need be to circumvent, the Central Committee. Party formalities dwindled in significance under such conditions. This explains the tone of his letter of September 27 to I.T. Smilga, the young chairman of the Regional Committee of the Army, Navy, and Workers of Finland. He wrote:

What are we doing? We are only passing resolutions. We are losing time. We set “dates” (20 October, the Congress of Soviets – is it not ridiculous to put it off so long? Is it not ridiculous to rely on that?).

The Bolsheviks are not conducting regular work to prepare their own military forces for the overthrow of Kerensky. [23]

He called on Smilga to act:

Now about your role. It seems to me we can have completely at our disposal only the troops in Finland and the Baltic fleet and only they can play a serious military role. I think you must make the most of your high position ... give all your attention to the military preparation of the troops in Finland plus the fleet for the impending overthrow of Kerensky. Create a secret committee of absolutely trustworthy military men, discuss matters thoroughly with them, collect (and personally verify) the most precise data on the composition and the location of troops near and in Petrograd, the transfer of the troops from Finland to Petrograd, the movement of the fleet, etc ... It is obvious that we can under no circumstances allow the troops to be moved from Finland. Better do anything, better decide on an uprising, on the seizure of power, later to be transferred to the Congress of Soviets. I read in the papers today that in two weeks the danger of a landing will be nil. Obviously, you have very little time left for preparation. [24]

It seems to me that in order to prepare people’s minds properly we must immediately circulate the following slogan: transfer power now to the Petrograd Soviet which will transfer it to the Congress of Soviets. Why should we tolerate three more weeks of war and Kerensky’s “Kornilovite preparations”? [25]

Smilga was a member of the extreme left wing of the party, and even in July had been inclined to carry the struggle through to the end. Now Lenin entered into a sort of conspiracy with him.

The Crisis is Ripe

Two days after his letter to Smilga, Lenin wrote a document with the above title, which was in the nature of a declaration of war on the Central Committee. To maximize its effectiveness, he sent it not only to Central Committee members, but also to members of the Petrograd Committee, the Moscow Committee, and the Soviets of the capitals.

What, then, is to be done? We must aussprechen was ist, “state the facts,” admit the truth that there is a tendency, or an opinion, in our Central Committee and among the leaders of our party which favors waiting for the Congress of Soviets, and is opposed to taking power immediately, is opposed to an immediate insurrection. That tendency, or opinion, must be overcome.

Otherwise, the Bolsheviks will cover themselves with eternal shame and destroy themselves as a party.

For to miss such a moment and to “wait” for the Congress of Soviets would be utter idiocy, or sheer treachery ... for it would mean losing weeks at a time when weeks and even days decide everything. It would mean faint-heartedly renouncing power, for on 1-2 November it will have become impossible to take power (both politically and technically, since the Cossacks would be mobilized for the day of the insurrection so foolishly “appointed”). (Note: To “convene” the Congress of Soviets for 20 October in order to decide upon “taking power” – how does that differ from foolishly “appointing” an insurrection? It is possible to take power now, whereas on 20-29 October you will not be given a chance to.)

To “wait” for the Congress of Soviets is idiocy, for the Congress will give nothing, and can give nothing! [26]

He then put forward a plan for a military campaign to seize power.

The Bolsheviks are now guaranteed the success of the insurrection: we can (if we do not “wait” for the Soviet Congress) launch a surprise attack from three points – from Petrograd, from Moscow, and from the Baltic fleet ... [W]e are technically in a position to take power in Moscow (where the start might even be made, so as to catch the enemy unawares). [27]

To increase the pressure he was applying, Lenin went beyond criticizing the leaders of the party. As an expression of protest, he resigned from the Central Committee, explaining why:

In view of the fact that the Central Committee has even left unanswered the persistent demands I have been making for such a policy ever since the beginning of the Democratic Conference, in view of the fact that the central organ is deleting from my articles all references to such glaring errors on the part of the Bolsheviks as the shameful decision to participate in the pre-parliament, the admission of Mensheviks to the Presidium of the Soviet, etc. etc. – I am compelled to regard this as a “subtle” hint at the unwillingness of the Central Committee even to consider this question, a subtle hint that I should keep my mouth shut, and as a proposal for me to retire.

I am compelled to tender my resignation from the Central Committee, which I hereby do, reserving for myself freedom to campaign among the rank and file of the party and at the Party Congress. [28]

The records do not show what happened next. In any event, Lenin did not leave the Central Committee.

A couple of days later, on October 1, he wrote another letter to the Central Committee, the Moscow and Petrograd Committees, and the Bolshevik members of the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets.

Delay is criminal. To wait for the Congress of Soviets would be a childish game of formalities, a disgraceful game of formalities, and a betrayal of the revolution.

The Moscow Soviet should take power into its hands:

Victory in Moscow is guaranteed, and there is no need to fight. Petrograd can wait. The government cannot do anything to save itself; it will surrender. [29]

A few days later, Lenin issued his Theses for the Conference of the Petrograd Organizations, also for a Resolution and Instructions to Those Elected to the Party Congress. The document was written in a tone of furious criticism of the leadership.

Vacillations are to be noted at the top levels of our party, a “fear,” as it were, of the struggle for power, a tendency to substitute resolutions, protests, and congresses for this struggle – To insist on connecting this task with the Congress of Soviets, to subordinate it to this congress, means to be merely playing at insurrection by setting a definite date beforehand, by making it easier for the government to prepare troops, by confusing the masses with the illusion that a “resolution” of the Congress of Soviets can solve a task which only the insurrectionary proletariat is capable of solving by force ... [T]he Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference, and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted by the endless repetition of resolutions and protests. [30]

On October 2, he wrote to the Petrograd City Conference, repeating his plan for armed insurrection – to start from Moscow as a base:

We must appeal to the Moscow comrades, persuade them to seize power in Moscow, declare the Kerensky government deposed, and declare the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in Moscow the provisional government of Russia in order to offer immediate peace and save Russia from the conspiracy. Let the Moscow comrades raise the question of the uprising in Moscow immediately. [31]

Reading this correspondence, one is deeply impressed by the persistence and urgency with which Lenin hammered at one and the same theme: the Bolsheviks must seize state power.

Advice From an Onlooker

How galling it must have been for Lenin to have been away from the field of struggle, to be compelled to live an underground existence, to express himself largely after decisions had already been reached in Petrograd. In an article called Advice of an Onlooker, written on October 8, he addressed the comrades assembling at the Congress of the Northern Soviets and developed Marx’s idea that “insurrection is an art.”

Of the principal rules of this art, Marx noted the following:

1. Never play with insurrection, but when beginning it realize firmly that you must go all the way.

2. Concentrate a great superiority of forces at the decisive point and at the decisive moment, otherwise the enemy, who has the advantage of better preparation and organization, will destroy the insurgents.

3. Once the insurrection has begun, you must act with the greatest determination, and by all means, without fail, take the offensive. “The defensive is the death of every armed rising.”

4. You must try to take the enemy by surprise and seize the moment when his forces are scattered.

5. You must strive for daily successes, however small (one might say hourly, if it is the case of one town), and at all costs retain “moral superiority.”

Marx summed up the lessons of all revolutions in respect to armed uprising in the words of “Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known: de l’audace, de l’audace, encore de l’audace.” [32] [2*]

Lenin then went on to sketch a military plan for the seizure of power. What was needed, he wrote, was

a simultaneous offensive on Petrograd, as sudden and as rapid as possible, which must without fail be carried out from within and from without, from the working-class quarters and from Finland, from Reval, and from Kronstadt, an offensive of the entire navy ... Our three main forces – the fleet, the workers, and the army units must be so combined as to occupy without fail and to hold at any cost: (a) the telephone exchange; (b) the telegraph office; (c) the railway stations; (d) and above all, the bridges.

The most determined elements (our “shock forces” and young workers, as well as the best of the sailors) must be formed into small detachments to occupy all the more important points and to take part everywhere in all important operations, for example: to encircle and cut off Petrograd; to seize it by a combined attack of the sailors, the workers, and the troops – a task which requires art and triple audacity; to form detachments from the best workers, armed with rifles and bombs, for the purpose of attacking and surrounding the enemy’s “centers” (the officers’ schools, the telegraph office, the telephone exchange, etc.).

He ended his letter with these words: “The success of both the Russian and the world revolution depends on two or three days’ fighting.” [33]

One of the members of the Vyborg District Committee, Sveshnikov, remembers:

Ilyich from underground was writing and writing untiringly, and Nadezhda Konstantinovna [Krupskaya] often read these manuscripts to us in the District Committee ... The burning words of the leader would redouble our strength ... I remember as though it were yesterday the bending figure of Nadezhda Konstantinovna in one of the rooms of the district administration, where the typists were working, carefully comparing the copy with the original, and right alongside stood Uncle and Gene demanding a copy each.

”Uncle” and “Gene” were old conspirative pseudonyms for two leaders of the district. “Not long ago,” relates the district worker Naumov, “we got a letter from Ilyich for delivery to the Central Committee ... We read the letter and gasped. It seems that Lenin had long ago put before the Central Committee the question of insurrection. We raised a row. We began to bring pressure on them.” [34]

It signified enormous confidence in the proletariat and the party, as well as serious mistrust of the Central Committee, for Lenin to go over the heads of the latter on his own personal responsibility, from the underground, and begin agitation for an armed insurrection. But he was never one to shirk responsibility and challenge.

However, the Congress of the Northern Soviets, though dominated by the Bolsheviks, did not carry out his bidding. It was convened for October 11, sat for three days, and dispersed, having limited itself to passing the usual general revolutionary resolutions.

At Last the Central Committee Moves

On October 10, the celebrated meeting of the Central Committee took place at which Lenin flatly posed the question of the armed insurrection – and won. Sukhanov wrote,

Oh, the novel jokes of the merry muse of History! This supreme and decisive session took place in my own home, still at the Karpovka. But – without my knowledge.

The Menshevik Sukhanov’s wife was a Bolshevik.

As before I would very often spend the night somewhere near the office or Smolny, that is about eight versts from the Karpovka. This time special steps were taken to have me spend the night away from home: at least my wife knew my intentions exactly and gave me a piece of friendly, disinterested advice – not to inconvenience myself by a further journey after work. In any case, the lofty assemblage had a complete guarantee against my arrival. [35]

Eleven of the twenty-one members of the Central Committee were present (plus one candidate member). Lenin came in wearing a wig and spectacles, and without a beard. It was the first meeting of the Central Committee he had attended since going underground. The session lasted ten hours, until about three o’clock in the morning. It started with an organizational report by Sverdlov, which prepared the ground for Lenin’s resolution:

Representatives who have arrived from armies on the northern front assert that there is something shady going on on that front to do with the withdrawal of troops into the interior.

There is information from Minsk that a new Kornilov-type plot is being prepared there. Because of the character of the garrison, Minsk is surrounded by Cossack units. Some suspicious talks are going on between the headquarters and Supreme Command. Agitators are at work against the Bolsheviks among the Osset and certain other units of the troops. On the front, though, the mood is for the Bolsheviks, they follow them against Kerensky. [36]

Lenin immediately took the offensive:

[S]ince the beginning of September a certain indifference to the question of insurrection has been noticeable. Yet if we are seriously promoting the slogan of a seizure of power by the Soviets, this cannot be allowed. That is why attention should have been given to the technical side of the matter long ago. Now, apparently, considerable time has been lost.

Nonetheless, the question is urgent and the decisive moment is near. The international situation is such that we must take the initiative.

What is being done to surrender as far as the Narva and to surrender Peter makes it even more imperative for us to take decisive action.

The political position is also working impressively in this direction.

On 3-5 July, positive action on our part would have failed because the majority was not behind us. Since then we have gone up in leaps and bounds.

Absenteeism and indifference among the masses can be explained by the fact that the masses are fed up with words and resolutions. The majority is now behind us. Politically, the situation is completely ripe for a transfer of power.

The agrarian movement is going in the same direction, for it is clear that it would need heroic forces to quell this movement. The slogan for all land to be transferred has become the general slogan of the peasants. So the political circumstances are ripe. We have to talk about the technical side. That is the crux of the matter. Yet we, in the wake of the defensists, are inclined to regard the systematic preparation of an insurrection as something akin to a political sin.

It is senseless to wait for the constituent assembly, which will clearly not be on our side, for this means complicating our task. The Regional Congress and the proposal from Minsk must be used as the starting point for decisive action. [37]

Then he moved a resolution:

Recognizing ... that an armed rising is inevitable and that its time has come, the CC suggests that all party organizations be guided by this and approach the discussion and solution of all practical issues from this point of view (the Congress of Northern Region Soviets, the withdrawal of troops from Peter, the action of our people in Moscow and Minsk, etc.). [38]

There were ten votes in favor (nine members of the CC and one candidate) and two (Zinoviev and Kamenev) against.

Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s Dissent

Immediately after the meeting, Zinoviev and Kamenev issued a statement, which they circulated among the members of the Petrograd Committee, the Moscow Committee, the Moscow Regional Committee, and the Regional Finnish Committee, arguing against the Central Committee decision.

We are deeply convinced that to proclaim an armed insurrection now is to put at stake not only the fate of our party but also the fate of the Russian and the international revolution ...

Our party’s chances in the constituent assembly are excellent ... With the right tactics, we can get a third of the seats in the constituent assembly, or even more ...

The constituent assembly cannot by itself, of course, change the real relationship between social forces. But it will prevent this relationship being disguised as at present. There is no getting rid of the Soviets, which have taken root in the life we live. Already the Soviets in practice exercise power in a number of places.

The constituent assembly too, can only rely on the Soviets in its revolutionary work. The constituent assembly plus the Soviets – here is that mixed type of state institution we are going towards ...

We have not forgotten, and still must not forget, that between us and the bourgeoisie stands a huge third camp: the petty bourgeoisie. This camp aligned itself with us in the days of the Kornilov revolt and brought us victory ... There is no doubt that now this camp is far nearer to the bourgeoisie than it is to us ... And it only takes one careless step, some ill-considered move which makes the whole fate of the revolution depend on an immediate insurrection, for the proletarian party to push the petty bourgeoisie into Miliukov’s arms for a long time.

They say: (1) The majority of the people in Russia are already on our side and (2) the majority of the international proletariat is on our side. Alas! Neither one nor the other is true, and that is the whole point.

In Russia, we have the majority of the workers and a considerable section of the soldiers on our side. But all the rest are doubtful. We are all convinced, for example, that if things now get as far as the constituent assembly elections, the peasants will vote in the main for the SRs.

And now we come to the second assertion – that the majority of the international proletariat now supports us. Unfortunately, it is not so ... [I]f we stake everything now and suffer defeat, we shall also be striking a cruel blow at the international proletarian revolution, which is growing extremely slowly but undoubtedly growing all the same. But, so long as the choice depends on us, we can and must confine ourselves now to a defensive position ... In the constituent assembly, we shall be so strong as an opposition party that, with universal suffrage in the country, our opponents will be forced to yield to us at every step, or we shall form a ruling bloc with the left SRs, the non-party peasants, and others which will basically have to promote our program ...

We do not have the right before history, before the international proletariat, before the Russian revolution and the Russian working class to stake the whole future on the card of an armed insurrection now ... at this moment the most harmful thing of all would be to underestimate the enemy’s strength and overestimate our own. The strength of the opposition is greater than it seems. Petrograd is the key and in Petrograd the enemies of the proletarian party have amassed considerable forces: 5,000 junkers magnificently armed, organized, eager (because of their class position) and knowing how to fight, then the headquarters staff, the shock troops, the Cossacks, an important section of the garrison, and a large amount of artillery deployed in a fan round Peter [Petersburg]. Then our opponents, with the help of the TsIK [Executive Committee of the Soviets], will almost certainly try to bring forces from the front.

The workers and soldiers were not in a fighting mood.

Even those who advocate action declare that the mood among the masses of workers and soldiers is far from reminiscent of, say, the feelings before 3 July. If a militant mood for street demonstrations existed deep among the masses of the city’s poor, it would serve as a guarantee that once they had started to act, they would also carry along behind them those very large and important organizations (the railway and post and telegraph unions, etc.) where our party’s influence is weak. But since this mood does not even exist in the factories and barracks, to calculate on it would be to deceive ourselves ...

Under these conditions, it would be a grave historical error to put the question of transferring power into the hands of the proletarian party in the terms: now or never!

No! The party of the proletariat will grow and its program will be made clear ever more widely to the masses. [39]

Lenin’s Slashing Attack

Lenin’s anger knew no bounds. Two of his closest comrades had now emerged as the main opponents of the insurrection. On October 17, he wrote a long and sharp Letter to Comrades:

[S]ince the revolutionary party has no right to tolerate vacillations on such a serious question, and since this pair of comrades, who have scattered their principles to the winds, might cause some confusion, it is necessary to analyze their arguments, to expose their vacillations, and to show how shameful they are. [40]

Zinoviev and Kamenev had said: “We are not strong enough to seize power, and the bourgeoisie is not strong enough to hinder the convening of the constituent assembly.” Lenin retorted sharply:

[T]he confusion of its authors and their fear of the bourgeoisie are expressed in terms of pessimism in respect of the workers and optimism in respect of the bourgeoisie. If the officer cadets and the Cossacks say that they will fight against the Bolsheviks to the last drop of blood, this deserves full credence; if, however, the workers and soldiers at hundreds of meetings express full confidence in the Bolsheviks and affirm their readiness to defend the transfer of power to the Soviets, then it is “timely” to recall that voting is one thing and fighting another.

Lenin dealt with Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s argument that “[t]he Soviets must be a revolver pointed at the head of the government with the demand to convene the constituent assembly and stop all Kornilovite plots.”

This is how far one of the two sad pessimists has gone ... Someone has very pointedly retorted to our pessimist: “Is it a revolver with no cartridges?” ... If, however, it is to be a revolver “with cartridges,” this cannot mean anything but technical preparation for an uprising; the cartridges have to be procured, the revolver has to be loaded – and cartridges alone will not be enough. [41]

Zinoviev and Kamenev wrote: “We are becoming stronger every day. We can enter the constituent assembly as a strong opposition; why should we stake everything?” Lenin retorted:

This is the argument of a philistine who has “read” that the constituent assembly is being called, and who trustingly acquiesces in the most legal, most loyal, most constitutional course.

It is a pity, however, that waiting for the constituent assembly does not solve either the question of famine or the question of surrendering Petrograd. This “trifle” is forgotten by the naive or the confused or those who have allowed themselves to be frightened. The famine will not wait. The peasant uprising did not wait. The war will not wait. The admirals who have disappeared did not wait.

Will the famine agree to wait, because we Bolsheviks proclaim faith in the convocation of the constituent assembly? Will the admirals who have disappeared agree to wait? Will the Maklakovs and Rodziankos agree to stop the lockouts and the sabotaging of grain deliveries, or to denounce the secret treaties with the British and the German imperialists?

This is what the arguments of the heroes of “constitutional illusions” and parliamentary cretinism amount to. The living reality disappears, and what remains is only a paper dealing with the convocation of the constituent assembly; there is nothing left but to hold elections. [42]

Again he quoted Zinoviev and Kamenev: “Were the Kornilovites to start again, we would show them! But why should we take risks and start?” and replied:

History does not repeat itself, but if we turn our backs on it, contemplate the first Kornilov revolt and repeat: “If only the Kornilovites would start” – if we do that, what excellent revolutionary strategy it would be. How much like a waiting game it is! Maybe the Kornilovites will start again at an inopportune time. Isn’t this a “weighty” argument? What kind of an earnest foundation for a proletarian policy is this?

And what if the Kornilovites of the second draft will have learned a thing or two? What if they wait for the hunger riots to begin, for the front to be broken through, for Petrograd to be surrendered, before they begin? What then?

It is proposed that we build the tactics of the proletarian party on the possibility of the Kornilovites’ repeating one of their old errors! ... Here you have the “Marxist” tactics! Wait, ye hungry! Kerensky has promised to convene the constituent assembly. [43]

”As everybody reports, the masses are not in a mood that would drive them into the streets. Among the signs justifying pessimism may be mentioned the greatly increasing circulation of the pogromist and Black Hundred press,” Zinoviev and Kamenev had claimed. Lenin had this to say about the mood of the masses:

[A]nd this is at present the main thing the spineless people forget to add: that “everybody” reports it as a tense and expectant mood; that “everybody” agrees that, called upon by the Soviets for the defense of the Soviets, the workers will rise to a man;

that “everybody” agrees that the workers are greatly dissatisfied with the indecision of the centers concerning the “last decisive struggle,” the inevitability of which they clearly recognize;

that “everybody” unanimously characterizes the mood of the broadest masses as close to desperation and points to the anarchy developing therefrom;

that “everybody” also recognizes that there is among the class-conscious workers a definite unwillingness to go out into the streets only for demonstrations, only for partial struggles, since a general and not a partial struggle is in the air, while the hopelessness of individual strikes, demonstrations, and acts to influence the authorities has been seen and is fully realized.

And so forth.

Zinoviev and Kamenev “conveniently” forget, of course, that a firm party line, its unyielding resolve, is also a mood-creating factor, particularly at the sharpest revolutionary moments. It is sometimes very “convenient” for people to forget that the responsible leaders, by their vacillations and by their readiness to burn their yesterday’s idols, cause the most unbecoming vacillations in the mood of certain strata of the masses. [44]

Those who, in arguing about the mood of the masses, blame the masses for their own personal spinelessness, are in a hopeless position. The masses are divided into those who are consciously biding their time and those who unconsciously are ready to sink into despair; but the masses of the oppressed and the hungry are not spineless. [45]

What is needed for an uprising is ... on the one hand, a conscious, firm, and unswerving resolve on the part of the class-conscious elements to fight to the end; and on the other, a mood of despair among the broad masses who feel that nothing can now be saved by half-measures; that you cannot “influence” anybody; that the hungry will “smash everything, destroy everything, even anarchically,” if the Bolsheviks are not able to lead them in a decisive battle. [46]

Zinoviev and Kamenev had said, “On the other hand, the Marxist party cannot reduce the question of an uprising to that of a military conspiracy.” Lenin accused them of trying to identify insurrection with Blanquism.

Military conspiracy is Blanquism, if it is organized not by a party of a definite class, if its organizers have not analyzed the political moment in general and the international situation in particular, if the party has not on its side the sympathy of the majority of the people, as proved by objective facts, if the development of revolutionary events has not brought about a practical refutation of the conciliatory illusions of the petty bourgeoisie, if the majority of the Soviet-type organs of revolutionary struggle that have been recognized as authoritative or have shown themselves to be such in practice have not been won over, if there has not matured a sentiment in the army (if in wartime) against the government that protracts the unjust war against the will of the whole people, if the slogans of the uprising (like “All power to the Soviets,” “Land to the peasants,” or “Immediate offer of a democratic peace to all the belligerent nations, with an immediate abrogation of all secret treaties and secret diplomacy,” etc.) have not become widely known and popular, if the advanced workers are not sure of the desperate situation of the masses and of the support of the countryside, a support proved by a serious peasant movement or by an uprising against the landowners and the government that defends the landowners, if the country’s economic situation inspires earnest hopes for a favorable solution of the crisis by peaceable and parliamentary means. This is probably enough. [47]

Events were unfortunately to prove that Lenin was right when he wrote about Zinoviev and Kamenev: “[T]he skeptics can always ‘doubt’ and cannot be refuted by anything but experience.” [48]




1*. We have Stalin’s word for the fact that after the revolution Lenin himself acknowledged that the above-mentioned plan for seizure of power was not appropriate. [8]

2*. The words Lenin quotes are from Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany, which was published in instalments in the New York Daily Tribune in 1851 and 1852. It bore Marx’s signature, but in fact was written by Engels.




1. See below for Nevsky’s report on behalf of the Military Organization at the meeting of the Petersburg Committee on October 15, Kudelli, pp.310-12; or Krylenko’s Report to the Central Committee on October 16, Minutes of the Central Committee, p.98.

2. V.I. Nevsky, In October: Brief notes from memory, Katorga i ssylka, nos.11-12 (96-97), 1932, p.36.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.19.

4. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.20.

5. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.24.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.22-23.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.27.

8. I.V. Stalin, Sochineniia, vol.4, Moscow 1947, pp.317-18.

9. N. Bukharin, From the speech of Comrade Bukharin in a commemorative evening in 1921, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, no.10, 1922.

10. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.58.

11. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.58.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.46-48, 50.

13. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.67.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.54.

15. See Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, pp.281-85.

16. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.55.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.56-57.

18. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.57.

19. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.58.

20. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.78.

21. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, p.1729.

22. Sukhanov, p.541.

23. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.69.

24. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.70.

25. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.72.

26. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.82-83.

27. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.83.

28. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.84.

29. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.141.

30. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.143-44.

31. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.146.

32. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.180.

33. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.180-81.

34. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, pp.987-88.

35. Sukhanov, p.556.

36. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.86.

37. Minutes of the Central Committee, pp.86-87.

38. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.88.

39. Minutes of the Central Committee, pp.90-95.

40. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.196.

41. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, pp.199-200.

42. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, pp.202-03.

43. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.203.

44. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.209.

45. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.212.

46. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.210.

47. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, pp.212-13.

48. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.36, p.207.


Last updated on 25.10.2007