Tony Cliff

Lenin 2

Chapter 19
Lenin Calls Up the Insurrection

(Part 2)

The Petrograd Leadership Vacillates

On October 15, there was a meeting of the Petrograd Committee together with active leaders of the Bolshevik Party. Throughout the discussion hesitancy and lack of clarity prevailed.

Nevsky: As a representative of the Military Organization, I must call your attention to a number of difficulties confronting us. The Military Organization has suddenly begun to move to the right.

We must distinguish two questions: those of (1) fundamental principles, and (2) their practical realization. With reference to the resolution of the Central Committee [of 10 October], the Military Organization pointed out that this resolution has left unconsidered a number of conditions, namely, that the poor peasants are also taking a part in the revolution. Instead of the village turning away from us it has only begun to come to us. We receive information from numerous places that the Bolsheviks are beginning to become popular. The decisive factor in the revolution is, of course, the working class ... But we must not on that account neglect the spirit of the peasant masses; if we do we shall not win the victory. In quite a number of guberniias ... the peasants say that in case of an insurrection they will not give us any bread. Absolutely nothing has been done to stir up the village. An armed uprising of the proletariat here in Petersburg is a feasible thing. The whole garrison will come out at the call of the Soviet ... But we cannot confine the insurrection to Petersburg. How will Moscow and the provinces react to this? Can the Central Committee give us an assurance that Russia as a whole will support us? We all realize that the moment is ripe. But are we ready? Have we the majority which will guarantee freedom? From the report, it is quite clear that we are not ready, and the question stands thus: If we should come out, we shall find ourselves isolated from the rest of Russia. We have no data concerning the situation on the railroads. And are you sure that the 5th Army will not be sent against us? ...

Neither the military organization nor the Central Committee has this assurance ... The military organization will come out [for us] any time, but I cannot tell what this will accomplish ... The resolution of the Central Committee which raised the question [of insurrection] with such urgency should have considered the other question of the preparedness of the masses. The Petrograd Committee must call the attention of the Central Committee to the necessity of preparing the provinces ...

Kharitonov: ... The joint session of the Petrograd Committee, the Central Committee, the district committee, and the Moscow district [disclosed] that there is a general lack of enthusiasm. In Krasnoe Selo, where we have a large organization of some 5,000 members, only 500 may be expected to come here [Petrograd]; the rest will remain in Krasnoe Selo undecided. Krasnoe Selo is living through a mood of depression. Drunkenness is prevalent even among our comrades. From a military point of view, the sailors are a very poor lot. A good many of them have been sent back from the front because they did not know how to handle arms. As for the post and telegraph employees, we have in our organization from 140 to 150 members – The telegraph operators are mostly Cadets and have very little sympathy with us. At a decisive moment, there may be sufficient force to occupy the telegraph and other important positions.

Slutskaia [woman representative of the Vasilevsky Ostrov district]: Regarding the military situation in our district, I can say that military instruction is being given in the factories and industrial plants. There is not much desire to take part in the insurrection.

Latsis (Vyborg district): A serious concentration of interest in events is observable among the masses. In addition to the district committees a new central organization has grown up from the bottom ... The masses will support us.

Kalinin (Lesnovsky sub-district): We have decided to investigate conditions; as yet the business is badly managed. We have decided to get in contact with the army units. We receive telegrams from Finland and from the front protesting against the uprising of the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, over the head of the army organization, delegates are arriving from the front, and their demands clearly indicate a militant frame of mind. It proves that the army committees are not with us, and that they do not express the wishes of the masses. We have a Red Guard; only 84 rifles.

Naumov (Vyborg district): There is a marked dissatisfaction among the masses ... and a feeling of suppressed indignation in connection with the evacuation [of Petrograd] and the paying off of the workmen.

Menzhinskaia [woman representative of the first city district]: With regard to arms, conditions are very bad. In the committee, there are only 6 rifles, in one factory 100, in another 20. It is difficult to estimate the spirit of the workers.

Pakhemov (second city district): The frame of mind is better than it was on 3 to 5 July. The Red Guard is badly organized. We have 50 rifles, 3,000 cartridges. From 60 to 80 are receiving [military] instruction.

Ravich (Moscow district): In the factories there is a turbulent state of feeling. The masses will rise only at the call of the Soviet, but very few will respond to the call of our party. The organs created during the Kornilov days are still intact ...

Gessen (Narva district): In general, there is no desire to rise. Where our influence is strong, the spirit is cheerful and eager. Among the backward masses there is an indifference to politics. But our party has not lost its authority ... We have several hundred rifles, but there is no concentration point and our military forces are scattered ...

Vinokurov (Neva district): The state of mind is in our favor. The masses are alert. We have no Red Guard.

Comrade from the Obukhov factory: Previously the Obukhov factory stood for the defensists. But now there is a break in our favor. The attendance at our mass meetings is 5-7,000 ... [W]e have 2,000 in the Red Guard, 500 rifles, 1 machine gun, and 1 armored car. We have organized a revolutionary committee. The factory will no doubt respond to the call of the Petrograd Soviet.

Pervukhin (Okhtensky district): There is no desire among the workers to rise. In the factories the Black Hundreds have raised their heads.

Prokhorov (Petersburg district): Where our influence is strong the attitude is one of watchfulness – otherwise the masses are apathetic ... Generally there is a complete disorganization in the district. Even if the Soviet should issue a call for an uprising, certain factories (ours for example) will not respond.

Axelrod (Rozhdestvensky district): The attitude is one of watchfulness. In case of an offensive on the part of the counter-revolution, we shall offer resistance, but to a call to insurrection the workers will hardly respond. There is discouragement due to the paying off of workers in connection with the evacuation of factories. The influence of the anarchists is considerably on the increase.

Porokhovski district: ... Before the Kornilov events the Menshe-viks and the Socialist Revolutionaries predominated. But now the feeling is in our favor ... The committee in the factory is quite ready to lead the masses if there should come a call for the uprising ...

Shlüsselburg district: Our district is small; 200 members in all. But the majority of the masses will go with us. A Red Guard has been organized, but the enlistment is not popular. The workers have taken upon themselves the defense of the factories. The masses will come out at the call of the Soviet.

Railroad section: Dissatisfaction with the provisional government is manifest ... Our propaganda does not go outside the limits of Petersburg. Now we have connections with Moscow ... We have sent 13 comrades into the provinces to establish connections with railroad workers there. Some of them have come back with reports that political conditions are not so good ...

Trade unions: There are no signs of an aggressive spirit among the masses. If there should be an offensive of the counter-revolution, resistance would be offered, but the masses by themselves will not take the offensive. The masses might respond to the call of the Soviet.

Rakhia (Finnish district): The Finns all feel that the sooner the better ...

(A discussion of general principles followed.)

Kalinin: That resolution of the Central Committee is the best it has ever passed. The resolution summons our organization to direct political action. We are confronted with an armed insurrection but our stumbling-block is the practical aspect of the situation. When that insurrection will take place, we cannot say – possibly in a year’s time. [49]

It is interesting to note that the hotheads of the July Days – above all the leaders of the Military Organization, like Nevsky, were very cautious this time. Of the nineteen district representatives at the Petersburg Committee meeting on October 15, only eight felt that the masses were in a “fighting mood,” and ready to act immediately; six viewed the prevailing spirit as indefinite; while five referred explicitly to the lack of any desire to “come out.”

A couple of days later, Lenin sent for the leaders of the Military Organization, to discuss the situation with them. The meeting is described in Podvoisky’s memoirs:

Antonov-Ovseenko declared that while he had no basis for judging the Petrograd garrison, he was sure that the fleet would come out at the first call, but it could hardly arrive at Petrograd in time. Nevsky and Podvoisky indicated that the mood of the troops of the garrison was clearly sympathetic to the uprising, but that nevertheless a certain delay of ten to fifteen days was necessary in order to present this question directly and decisively in each military unit, and to prepare technically for the uprising, the more so since the units that came out in the month of July ... had been partly discharged and partly demoralized, and would come out only if they were sure of a move by other units, while the readiness for a move on the part of other units which had formerly been reactionary had to be tested. The point was also made by Podvoisky that Kerensky could rely on special combined units and other reactionary units from the front that were capable of obstructing the success of the uprising.

Comrade Nevsky indicated that as regards the sailors from Hels-ingfors and elsewhere there could be no doubt but that the movement of the fleet to Petrograd would meet with colossal difficulties, for the uprising would certainly evoke counteraction by the officers and consequently their arrest, and then the sailors taking their place would have a hard time navigating the ships through the minefields and doing battle at Petrograd.

In general, all agreed on the idea of postponing the insurrection a few weeks, believing it necessary to use this time for the most energetic preparations for the uprising in Petrograd, in the provinces, and at the front ...

However, none of these conclusions convinced or shook Vladimir Ilyich in any way. [50]

Only ten days before the insurrection, the leaders of the Bolshevik Military Organization were still prevaricating.

The Central Committee Continues to Waver

On October 16, i.e., nine days before the insurrection, the Central Committee still showed signs of nervousness, hesitation, and vacillation. The minutes of the enlarged meeting of the Central Committee (including as well as Central Committee members, the Executive Commission of the Petersburg Committee, the Military Organization, the Petrograd Soviet, the leaders of the Bolsheviks in the trade unions, the factory committees, the Petrograd Area Committee, and the railway workers) are really astonishing. It is hard to believe that with such leadership the revolution still emerged victorious.

Comrade Boky of the Petrograd Committee ... gives information district by district:

Vasilevskii Island – mood not militant, military preparations being made.

Vyborg district the same but they are preparing for an insurrection; a military council has been formed; if there were action, the masses would be in support. They consider that the initiative ought to come from above.

1st city district – The mood is difficult to assess ...

2nd [city district] – A better mood.

Moscow district – A reckless mood, will come out if the Soviet calls but not the party.

Narva district – Not eager for action but no falling off in the party’s authority ...

Neva district – The mood has swung sharply in our favor. Everyone will follow the Soviet.

Okhten district – Things are bad.

Petersburg district – An expectant mood.

Rozhdestvensk district – Doubt here, too, on whether they will rise ...

Porokhov district – The mood has improved in our favor.

Schlüsselburg – Mood in our favor.

Comrade Krylenko of the Military Bureau announces that they differ sharply in their assessment of the mood. Personal observations of the mood in the regiments indicate that they are ours to a man, but information from comrades working in the districts differs; they say that they would have to be positively stung by something for a rising, that is: the withdrawal of troops. The Bureau believes that morale is falling. Most of the Bureau thinks there is no need to do anything in practice to intensify things, but the minority thinks that it is possible to take the initiative oneself.

Comrade Stepanov of the Area Organization: In Sestroretsk, Kolpino, the workers are arming, the mood is militant and they are preparing for a rising. In Kolpino, an anarchist mood is developing. The atmosphere in Narva is grave because of the dismissals. 3,000 have already been dismissed.

Where the garrisons are concerned, the mood is depressed but Bolshevik influence is very strong (2 machine gun regiments). Work in the regiment in Novyi Peterhoff has fallen off a lot and the regiment is disorganized. Krasnoe Selo – 176th regiment is completely Bolshevik, the 172nd regiment nearly, but apart from that the cavalry is there. Luga – a garrison of 30,000; the Soviet is defensist. A Bolshevik mood and there are elections ahead. In Gdov – the regiment is Bolshevik.

Comrade Boky adds that according to the information he has, matters are not so good in Krasnoe Selo. In Kronstadt, morale has fallen and the local garrison there is no use for anything in a militant sense.

Comrade Volodarsky from the Petrograd Soviet: The general impression is that no one is ready to rush out on the streets but everyone will come if the Soviet calls.

Comrade Ravich confirms this and adds that some have indicated that also at the party’s call.

Shmidt of the trade unions reports:

The mood is one where active demonstrations cannot be expected, especially because of the fear of dismissals ... Comrade Shliapnikov adds that Bolshevik influence predominates in the metal workers’ union but a Bolshevik rising is not popular; rumors of this even produce panic ... Comrade Skrypnik from the factory committees ... states that a craving for practical results has been noted everywhere; resolutions are no longer enough. It is felt that the leaders do not fully reflect the mood of the masses; the former are more conservative; a growth of anarcho-syndicalist influence is noted, particularly in the Narva and Moscow districts.

Miliutin states that,

personally, he believes that we are not ready to strike the first blow. We are unable to depose and arrest the authorities in the immediate future ... Comrade Shotman says the mood was far more pessimistic at the City Conference and in the Petrograd Committee and the Voenka [Bolshevik Military Organization]. He shows that we are unable to take action but must prepare ourselves.

Comrade Lenin argues against Miliutin and Shotman and demonstrates that it is not a matter of armed forces, not a matter of fighting against the troops but of a struggle between one part of the army and another. He sees no pessimism in what has been said here. He shows that the bourgeoisie do not have large forces on their side. The facts show that we have the edge over the enemy. Why is it not possible for the CC to begin? No reason emerges from all the facts.

Then a number of comrades argued that the October 10 resolution should be taken as a matter of general orientation, rather than a directive for immediate action:

Comrade Kalinin does not interpret the resolution as meaning a rising tomorrow but as taking the matter out of the realm of policy into that of strategy and appealing for specific action.

Sokolnikov said:

On the subject of the resolution, there is absolutely no point in interpreting it as an order to act.

If it turns out that events give us a respite then we will, of course, make use of it. It is possible that the congress will be earlier. If the congress adopts all power to the Soviets, it will be necessary then to deal with the question of what to do, appeal to the masses or not ...

Comrade Miliutin: The resolution was not written in the sense it has been given here; it is being interpreted to mean that we should orient ourselves towards an insurrection ... We gained from the fact that there was no insurrection on 3-5 [July] and if there is not one now, it will not be the end of us. The resolution must be for internal consumption.

Comrade Volodarsky: If the resolution is an order then it has already been disobeyed. If the question of an insurrection is put in terms of tomorrow, we must say straight out that we have nothing to do with it. I made speeches daily but I must say that the masses met our appeal with bewilderment; this week, a change has occurred ... A concrete motion: to continue to make technical preparations and to bring the question before the congress, but not to regard the moment as having arrived already.

A much harder line was taken by a number of others present.

Comrade Diadia (Latsis): It is lamentable that the resolution has not been put into effect so far ... I took the floor to amend the assessment given of the mood of the masses. The eagerness with which the masses seize on arms is an indication of how they feel. Our strategy is also strange. When they talk of junkers, I have already said they can be crossed off.

Comrade Skrypnik: If we do not have the strength now, we are not going to have any more later; if we will not retain power now, it will be even worse then ... Now we are talking too much when we should act. The masses are appealing to us and if we do not give them anything, they will regard it as a crime. What is needed is preparation for insurrection and an appeal to the masses.

Krylenko: ... [T]he mood described here is the result of our mistakes. He differs from V.I. [Lenin] on the subject of who will start it and how. He considers it unnecessary to enter into the technical details of the insurrection too much and, on the other hand, also regards it as inadvisable to make a definite date for it. But the issue of withdrawing the troops is crucial, the very moment to give rise to a fight. It will be argued at the Cheremisov conference that it is necessary for the troops to retreat; we shall not be able to make an answer to this but must reply that even if it is necessary, it will not be done because there is no faith in the generals: thus, the offensive against us is already a fact and it can be used. Agitation cannot be diminished and there is no point in worrying about who is to begin since a beginning already exists.

Stalin, elaborating on Krylenko’s words:

The Petrograd Soviet has already taken its stand on the road to insurrection by refusing to sanction the withdrawal of the troops. The navy has already rebelled since it has gone against Kerensky. Comrade Rakhia shows that the masses are consciously preparing for an uprising. If the Petersburg proletariat had been armed, it would have been on the streets already regardless of any CC resolutions. There is no sign of pessimism. There is no need to wait for a counter-revolutionary attack for it already exists. The masses are waiting for slogans and weapons. They will erupt into the streets because famine awaits them. Apparently, our rallying cry is already overdue for there is doubt whether we are going to live up to our exhortations. It is not our task to reconsider but, on the contrary, to reinforce.

Trotsky was not present at the meeting; Zinoviev and Kamenev came out again against the insurrection.

Lenin moved the following resolution:

The meeting unreservedly welcomes and entirely supports the CC resolution, calls on all organizations and all workers and soldiers to make comprehensive and intensive preparations for an armed insurrection and to support the center created for this by the Central Committee and expresses its full confidence that the CC and the Soviet will be timely in indicating the favorable moment and the appropriate methods of attack.

Comrade Lenin’s resolution voted on in principle. In favor 20, against 2, abstained 3.

Zinoviev, obviously relying on the fact that the Bolsheviks from the provinces lagged behind those of Petrograd, moved the following resolution:

While going ahead with the work of reconnaissance and preparation, to consider that any demonstrations in advance of a conference with the Bolshevik section of the Congress of Soviets are inadmissible.

This mild and prevaricating resolution received considerable support – six for, fifteen against, and three abstentions. [51]

A Bombshell

On October 18, Kamenev, in association with Zinoviev, published an article in a non-party paper, Novaia Zhizn, attacking the idea of insurrection.

Not only comrade Zinoviev and I but also a number of comrades with experience in the field consider it would be inadmissible, and fatal for the proletariat and the revolution, for us to initiate an armed insurrection at the present moment, with the prevailing relationship of social forces, independently of and only a few days before a Congress of Soviets ... [I]nsurrection, in Marx’s expression, is an art. And that is just why we believe that it is our duty now, in the present circumstances, to speak out against any attempt to initiate an armed insurrection which would be doomed to defeat and would bring in its train the most disastrous consequences for the party, for the proletariat, for the destiny of the revolution. To stake all this on a rising in the coming days would be an act of despair. And our party is too strong, it has too great a future, to take such desperate steps. [52]

Lenin was beside himself with rage. The same day, he wrote a letter to the Central Committee demanding the expulsion of the two as traitors. The next day he wrote a further letter, elaborating:

No self-respecting party can tolerate strike-breaking and blacklegs in its midst. That is obvious. The more we reflect upon Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s statement in the non-party press, the more self-evident it becomes that their action is strike-breaking in the full sense of the term. [53]

The Executive Committee of a trade union, after a month of deliberation, decides that a strike is inevitable, that the time is ripe, but that the date is to be concealed from the employers. After that, two members of the Executive Committee appeal to the rank and file, disputing the decision, and are defeated. Thereupon these two come out in the press and with a slanderous lie betray the decision of the Executive Committee to the capitalists, thus more than half wrecking the strike, or delaying it to a less favorable time by warning the enemy. Here we have strike-breaking in the full sense of the term.

There can and must be only one answer to that: an immediate decision of the Central Committee:

“The Central Committee, regarding Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s statement in the non-party press as strike-breaking in the full sense of the term, expels both of them from the Party.”

It is not easy for me to write in this way about former close comrades. But I should regard any hesitation in this respect as a crime, for otherwise a party of revolutionaries which does not punish prominent blacklegs would perish. [54]

To add to the confusion, the editors of the official Bolshevik newspaper came out with a statement criticizing “[t]he sharp tone of Comrade Lenin’s article [which] does not change the fact that, fundamentally, we remain of one mind.” The editors at that time were Stalin and Sokolnikov. The Central Committee minutes read: “Comrade Sokolnikov reports that he had no part in the editorial statement on the subject of Kamenev’s letter, etc., and considers this statement a mistake.” [55]

It thus became clear that Stalin alone was responsible for the ambiguous attitude towards Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s blacklegging. All this was happening four days before the insurrection!

When Kamenev offered his resignation from the Central Committee on October 20 [56], Stalin spoke against acceptance, arguing that “our whole position is contradictory”; in other words, he took it on himself to defend confusion and vacillation. Kamenev’s resignation was accepted by five votes to three. By six votes, against Stalin’s opposition, a decision was taken forbidding Kamenev and Zinoviev to carry on a struggle against the policy of the Central Committee. The minutes read: “Comrade Stalin announces that he is leaving the editorial board.” In order not to complicate an already difficult situation, the Central Committee refused to accept Stalin’s resignation. Neither did it accept Lenin’s demand that Zinoviev and Kamenev should be expelled from the party.

Lenin had to go on prodding the party leadership even on the eve of the insurrection, he still did not trust the political courage of the Central Committee. On October 24 – the day the insurrection actually started – he wrote:

I am writing these lines on the evening of the 24th. The situation is critical in the extreme. In fact, it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal ... History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious today (and they certainly will be victorious today), while they risk losing much tomorrow, in fact, they risk losing everything ... The seizure of power is the business of the uprising; its political purpose will become clear after the seizure ... The government is tottering. It must be given the death-blow at all costs. To delay action is fatal. [57]

So Wrong on the Technicalities of the Uprising

While Lenin was proved absolutely correct on the strategic decision – the need for an armed insurrection to seize power – his technical suggestions, the particulars of the plans he drafted, were very defective.

Let us consider the suggestion that the revolution should be started in Moscow. As matters turned out, even after the success of the uprising in Petrograd, the Moscow Bolsheviks found the going extremely difficult. The Moscow insurrection took much longer and entailed far greater sacrifice. It is a fact that after the victory of the Bolsheviks in Petrograd on October 25, it still took eight long days for the Bolsheviks to achieve power in Moscow, through a very bloody battle ... For several reasons, Moscow before October was more difficult to win over to Bolshevism than Petrograd. It was more isolated from the front, it did not have Petrograd’s rebellious soldiers and sailors, it suffered much less from food supply difficulties. The Moscow proletariat was dispersed among smaller factories, compared with the Petrograd giants. [58] The proletariat of Moscow was far less class-conscious than that of Petrograd: up to 40 percent of the Moscow workers had plots of land in the countryside, and 22.8 percent owned farms. (The corresponding figures for Petrograd were 16.5 and 7.8 percent.) [59] In the years during which Bolshevism became a mass workers’ party, 1912-14, Moscow lagged far behind Petersburg. During the war, as we pointed out earlier [60], less than 9 percent of the workers involved in political strikes were in Moscow, whereas 74 percent were in Petrograd.

As late as October 1917, the Socialist Revolutionaries had a mass following among the workers of Moscow, while their influence among the workers of Petrograd was practically non-existent. In addition, both the proletariat and the troops in Petrograd had experienced the baptism of the February Revolution, while in Moscow they had not had to fight for that victory. The revolutionary spirit of the Petrograd garrison was fanned by the threat to transfer regiments to the front. The Moscow garrison was not subjected to this pressure.

Finally, the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd was superior to that in Moscow. The most brilliant leaders of Bolshevism, including Lenin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky, were in Petrograd. The Moscow leadership was split (as was that of Petrograd). Bukharin took the same line as Lenin and Trotsky, while Nogin and Rykov vacillated. It was only on October 25 that a Military Revolutionary Committee was established in Moscow. Thus Lenin’s technical advice about the conduct of the insurrection was not at all sound.

Discarding the plan for a coup in Moscow first, Lenin then, as we have seen, proposed that the rising should begin in Helsingfors, and develop into an offensive from the north against Petrograd. But this was also impractical.

Lenin’s method was basically right. The approach to insurrection as an art must be consistent and concrete. But, having been in hiding and out of touch with the practicalities of the situation, he could not judge it correctly. It is also possible that his emphasis on the strategic decision – his accustomed stick-bending – made it difficult for him to grasp the particulars. Concentrating on the key link, on the strategic choice, and absent from the scene of the struggle, Lenin was almost bound to make serious tactical miscalculations.

An even more important error than the suggestions of starting the uprising in Moscow, or arresting the government during the State Conference, was his view that the uprising should be prepared and carried out through party channels and in the name of the party, and should be sanctioned by the Congress of Soviets only after victory had been achieved.

Soviet Legality

Lenin’s main opponent on this issue was Trotsky, who was equally dedicated to the idea of the insurrection. History has shown that on this issue Trotsky was absolutely right.

The reports of the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee, as well as the Central Committee, repeat the refrain: the troops and the workers will come out if summoned by the Soviets; but it is less certain that they will do so if summoned by the party. The very fact that the local party leaders, organizers, and agitators, in estimating the state of mind of the masses, always alluded to the distinction between the soviet and the party shows that it was a matter of great importance which institution was to call for the insurrection.

The party set the Soviets in motion [Trotsky wrote], the Soviets set in motion the workers, soldiers, and to some extent the peasantry. What was gained in mass was lost in speed. If you represent this conducting apparatus as a system of cog-wheels – a comparison to which Lenin had recourse at another period on another theme – you may say that the impatient attempt to connect the party wheel directly with the gigantic wheel of the masses – omitting the medium-sized wheel of the Soviets – would have given rise to the danger of breaking the teeth of the party wheel, and nevertheless not setting sufficiently large masses in motion. [61]

All the necessary work for the conquest of power – the political as well as the military and technical – went ahead at full speed under the auspices of the Soviets. Trotsky made brilliant use of the set up under the dual power born of the February Revolution to carry out the preparations for October.

Immediately after its establishment, the provisional government gave an undertaking not to disarm and not to remove from Petrograd those army units that had taken part in the February Revolution. The major upheavals of April, June and July, the Kornilov coup and its liquidation repeatedly raised the same question of the subordination of the Petrograd garrison to the Petrograd Soviet. At the beginning of October, the government saw the German threat as an excellent excuse to rid the capital once and for all of the unruly elements in the garrison. [62] On October 5, Kerensky directed Polkovnikov, commander of the Petrograd Military District, to prepare the troops for transfer to the front.

On October 6, a rumor concerning a counter-revolutionary conspiracy was discussed in the Soldiers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet. It was that the government was preparing its flight from Petrograd, and intended to abandon the heart of the revolution to the approaching Germans. Trotsky made a momentous decision when he immediately took advantage of the rumor. In the Bolshevik declaration to the pre-parliament, he painted a grim picture of the deadly danger that now threatened the capital: Kerensky was going to transfer the government to Moscow, was going to evacuate the troops from Petrograd, the city would be abandoned to the German army so as to smother the revolution. [63]

Kerensky’s denial that he had any intention of evacuating Petrograd did not convince the masses. As John Reed put it:

In the relations of a weak government and a rebellious people there comes a time when every act of the authorities exasperates the masses, and every refusal to act excites their contempt ...

The proposal to abandon Petrograd raised a hurricane; Kerensky’s public denial that the government had any such intention was met with hoots of derision. [64]

On October 9, the Petrograd Soviet resolved to establish a Revolutionary Military Committee, to guide the troops in their resistance to the counter-revolutionary plot of the provisional government. On October 13, the committee was set up with Trotsky as president. It constituted the immediate leadership of the garrison as well as the Red Guard. The task of the committee was to establish the size of the garrison needed for the defense of the capital; to keep in touch with the troops on the northern front, the Baltic fleet, the Finnish garrison, etc.; to assess the manpower and the stocks of munitions available; to work out a plan of defense; and to maintain discipline in the civilian population.

On October 21, the Petrograd Soviet provoked a showdown with Polkovnikov.

On 21 October [Izvestiia reported], the Petrograd Soviet recognized the Military Revolutionary Committee as the leading organ of the troops of the capital.

On the night of 22 October, the members of the Military Revolutionary Committee presented themselves at district headquarters and demanded that they be permitted to control the orders of the headquarters with the right to a deciding voice.

Colonel Polkovnikov, the commander of the troops, replied to this demand with an emphatic refusal.

The Petrograd Soviet then called a meeting of representatives of regiments, [to be held] at Smolny Institute. From this meeting, telephoned telegrams were dispatched to all units [stating] that the headquarters has refused to recognize the Military Revolutionary Committee and, by so doing, has severed [relations] with the revolutionary garrison and with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, and has become a direct instrument of the counter-revolutionary forces.

”Soldiers of Petrograd,” the telephoned telegram read, “the protection of the revolutionary order against the counter-revolutionary attacks falls upon you under the leadership of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Any orders to the garrison that are not signed by the Military Revolutionary Committee are not valid. All orders of the Petrograd Soviet for today, the day of the Petrograd Soviet and Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, shall remain in full force. It is the duty of every officer of the garrison to exercize vigilance, self-control, and strict discipline. The revolution is in danger. Long live the revolutionary garrison.”

The Commander of the Military District called a separate meeting, with the participation of representatives of the Central Committee and the commissar attached to the Military District headquarters. Representatives of the Petrograd garrison were called out from the Smolny Institute to attend the same meeting. A delegation, headed by Second Lieutenant Dashkevich, came to the district headquarters. Dashkevich announced that he was authorized by the garrison to inform the district headquarters that henceforth all the orders issued by it must be countersigned by the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. To this, Second Lieutenant Dashkevich added that he had not been authorized to say anything more, and the delegation departed. [65]

Most of the regiments placed themselves under the command of the Revolutionary Military Committee; the Cossacks remained neutral.

Now the only thing needed was to entice the government into an act of open provocation against the revolution, so that a defensive mantle could be thrown over the activities of the Military Revolutionary Committee.

The government fell easily into the trap: on October 24, Colonel Polkovnikov sent a squad of soldiers to close down the printing press of the Bolshevik Party. The Revolutionary Military Committee reacted very sharply, in a declaration stating:

Soldiers! Workers! Citizens!

The enemies of the people have gone over to the offensive during the night. The Kornilovites at headquarters are trying to pull cadets and shock battalions in from the outskirts. The Oranienbaum cadets and the shock troops at Tsarskoe Selo have refused to move. A traitorous blow is being devised against the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The newspapers Rabochi put and Soldat have been closed and the printing plant sealed up. The campaign of the counter-revolutionary plotters is directed against the All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the eve of its opening, against the constituent assembly, against the people. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is standing up to defend the revolution. The Revolutionary Military Committee is leading the resistance to the attack of the plotters. The whole garrison and the whole proletariat of Petrograd are ready to deal a crushing blow to the enemies of the people.

The Revolutionary Military Committee decrees:

1. All regimental, company, and crew committees, together with the commissars of the Soviet, and all revolutionary organizations must meet in constant session, and concentrate in their hands all information about the plans and actions of the plotters.

2. Not a single soldier shall become separated from his unit without the permission of the committee.

3. Two representatives from each unit and five from each district Soviet shall immediately be sent to the Smolny Institute.

4. Report all actions of the plotters immediately to the Smolny Institute.

5. All members of Petrograd Soviet and all delegates to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets are summoned immediately to the Smolny Institute for a special session.

The counter-revolution has raised its criminal head.

All the gains and hopes of the soldiers, workers, and peasants are threatened with great danger. But the forces of the revolution immeasurably surpass the forces of its enemies.

The people’s cause is in firm hands. The plotters will be crushed. No vacillation or doubts. Firmness, steadfastness, perseverance, decisiveness. Long live the revolution! [66]

How easy it was to re-open the Bolshevik printing press closed by order of Colonel Polkovnikov; Trotsky recounts:

A worker and a working-girl from the Bolshevik printing plant ran panting to Smolny and there found Podvoisky and Trotsky. If the committee would give them a guard against the junkers, the workers would bring out the paper. A form was soon found for the first answer to the government offensive. An order was issued to the Litovsky regiment to send a company immediately to the defense of the workers’ press. The messengers from the printing-plant insisted that the 6th battalion of sappers be also ordered out: these were near neighbors and loyal friends. Telephonograms were immediately sent to the two addresses. The Litovtsi and the sappers came out without delay. The seals were torn from the building, the moulds again poured and the work went on. With a few hours’ delay the newspaper suppressed by the government came out under the protection of the troops of a committee which was itself liable to arrest. That was insurrection. That is how it developed. [67]

All in all, the “legality” imparted by soviet involvement played a very important role in the success of the rising. As Trotsky put it years after the event:

From the moment when we, as the Petrograd Soviet, invalidated Kerensky’s order transferring two-thirds of the garrison to the front, we had actually entered a state of armed insurrection ... the outcome of the insurrection of 25 October was at least three-quarters settled, if not more, the moment that we opposed transfer of the Petrograd garrison; created the Military Revolutionary Committee (October 16); appointed our own commissars in all army divisions and institutions, and thereby completely isolated not only the general staff of the Petrograd zone, but also the government. As a matter of fact, we had here an armed insurrection – an armed though bloodless insurrection of the Petrograd regiments against the provisional government – under the leadership of the Military Revolutionary Committee and under the slogan of preparing the defense of the Second Soviet Congress, which would decide the ultimate fate of the state power. [68]

As a result of the way in which the Military Revolutionary Committee planned the insurrection, it was relatively easy to synchronize the seizure of power with the opening of the Second Soviet Congress on October 26. The fact that on the day of the insurrection, October 25, the resistance of the government was reduced to defending the Winter Palace demonstrates how successful Trotsky’s direction of the preparation and carrying out of the final insurrection had been. As Sukhanov describes the insurrection:

[N]o resistance was shown. Beginning at 2 in the morning the stations, bridges, lighting installations, telegraphs, and telegraphic agency were gradually occupied by small forces brought from the barracks. The little groups of cadets could not resist and didn’t think of it. In general, the military operations in the politically important centers of the city rather resembled a changing of the guard. The weaker defense force, of cadets, retired; and a strengthened defense force, of guards, took its place – [T]he decisive operations that had begun were quite bloodless; not one casualty was recorded. The city was absolutely calm. Both the center and the suburbs were sunk in a deep sleep, not suspecting what was going on in the quiet of the cold autumn night ... The operations, gradually developing, went so smoothly that no great forces were required. Out of the garrison of 200,000, scarcely a tenth went into action, probably much fewer. Because of the presence of the workers and sailors, only volunteers could be led out of the barracks. [69]

Sukhanov could quite rightly refer to the “meticulously executed October insurrection.” [70]

”Compared with the classical revolutionary scheme,” wrote one historian, “October was quite unique. There were no great street processions in Petrograd that day, no mass demonstrations, no baton charges – not even a marked rise in popular agitation, and barely any victims.” [71] [3*]

Victor Serge in his moving account of the revolution writes:

The revolution did, indeed, go off in proletarian style – with organization. That is why, in Petrograd, it won so easily and completely ... The rational element of coordination, the superb organization of the rising as a military operation conducted along the rules of the war-making art, is clearly demonstrated here, and forms a striking contrast with the spontaneous or ill organized movements which have been so numerous in the history of the proletariat. [72]

We have already mentioned that Trotsky agreed with Lenin on the urgency of insurrection. But he differed on the method, especially over the idea that the party should stage the insurrection in its own name, and on its own responsibility. History gave a clear verdict on this disagreement.

Trotsky’s scheme implied a certain delay in carrying out the plan of action. Lenin feared any such delay. His attention was focused on the outright opponents of the insurrection in the party leadership – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Nogin, and Rykov. He suspected that any delay would result in concessions to the irresolute, a loss of time through vacillation.

Trotsky was the supreme organizer of the October insurrection. To quote only a few witnesses, Stalin, in an article called The Role of the Most Eminent Party Leaders, written on November 6, 1918, had this to say:

All the work of practical organization of the insurrection was conducted under the immediate leadership of the chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Trotsky. It is possible to declare with certainty that the swift passing of the garrison to the side of the Soviet and the bold execution of the work of the Military Revolutionary Committee, the party owes principally and above all to comrade Trotsky.

A footnote in Lenin’s Collected Works reads:

After the majority in the Petrograd Soviet passed into the hands of the Bolsheviks, [Trotsky] was elected its chairman and in that position organized and led the insurrection of 25 October. [73]

In addition, Sukhanov wrote:

Trotsky, tearing himself away from work on the revolutionary staff, personally rushed from the Obukhovsky plant to the Trubochny, from the Putilov to the Baltic works, from the riding-school to the barracks; he seemed to be speaking at all points simultaneously. His influence, both among the masses and on the staff, was overwhelming. He was the central figure of those days and the principal hero of this remarkable page of history. [74]

Lenin, the Party and the Revolution

Consciousness and planning are bound to play a central role in the proletarian revolution. A revolutionary party is therefore a fundamental, indispensible instrument of the revolution. Nevertheless, the question history puts squarely before us is, How did it happen that the Bolshevik Party and its leadership, in two key turning points in 1917 – the morning after the February Revolution, and the eve of October – so lagged behind the needs of the struggle that they threatened the success of the whole affair?

The Bolshevik Party had great advantages. It had been steeled by its bitter struggle against Tsarism. Its cadres, selected, trained, and tempered, were extremely tough and self-sacrificing. Its politics of independence from the liberals and their hangers-on (from the Mensheviks to the Socialist Revolutionaries) were principled; it had assimilated the experience of 1905, including active participation in the organization of an armed insurrection; its policies were grounded on very firm, broad theoretical foundations, and on serious study of the international experience of the workers’ revolutionary movement from 1848 to 1871 and onwards; its leadership had been selected and tested over years of hard and heroic struggle.

And yet, both in April and in September-October, the party leadership was prey to extreme vacillation. How is this to be explained?

First of all, every party, including the most revolutionary, inevitably produces its own organizational conservatism – without routine there is no stability. Of course, in a revolutionary organization, discipline must be combined with initiative and daring. As Lenin so many times repeated: at every turning point the party faces the danger of clinging to yesterday’s methods, slogans, and actions, which become an impediment to the adoption of the new ones now demanded. Both routinism and initiative are most concentrated in the top leadership of the party.

In addition, even the most revolutionary party is subject to pressure from alien social forces. The main psychological support of the social status quo is the belief of the ruling class, of the petty bourgeoisie, which transmits its influence, and of the workers that the oppressed classes are intrinsically inferior, impotent, and ignorant. To isolate the revolutionary party from bourgeois public opinion, to cut any link with the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeois milieu, to insulate the party from these alien influences was a goal for which Lenin fought all his life. (This incidentally is why he insisted that no party member could work as a journalist on a bourgeois paper.) [75] But no party can free itself completely from the pressure of the petty-bourgeois environment.

The sharpest turning point, at which the pressure of bourgeois disbelief in the potential of the oppressed is also most strongly exerted, is the moment when the revolutionary party has to progress from the work of preparation, of propaganda, agitation, and organization, to the immediate struggle for state power, to the armed insurrection.

A revolutionary party develops over a whole historical period, during which experience convinces its members that on the whole the correlation of class forces is such as to give the capitalist class power over the working class. While the workers may be stronger in individual parts of the battlefield, on the whole they are weaker than their opponents. If this was not the case, the rule of the capitalists would be long past. Any revolutionary party that did not control its impatience over the years in the light of this fact would condemn itself to adventurism and to its own destruction. But the moment comes – and this is the meaning of revolution – when the habit of considering the enemy as stronger becomes the main obstacle on the road to victory. “At this moment, the most harmful thing of all would be to underestimate the enemy’s strength and overestimate our own,” wrote Zinoviev and Kamenev on October 11.

Another serious obstacle hinders the attempt to turn the party sharply towards the insurrection: the state of mind of the proletariat on the eve of the armed uprising. The masses may be waiting, listless, and not ready for spontaneous action. In Russia, the experience of April, June, July, and the Kornilov episode brought the masses to the conclusion that isolated, uncoordinated actions were useless. Between the exuberant mood of early days and the confidence born out of the well-led, relentless struggle of the masses directed by a clear revolutionary leadership, there was a pause, a lull.

Lenin played a crucial role in rearming the Bolsheviks both in April and in September-October, for which he was certainly well qualified.

His genius was first of all rooted in his absolute confidence in the magnificent potential of the proletariat. He identified passionately with the hatreds and hopes of the oppressed.

Secondly, Lenin’s Marxism was neither fatalistic, mechanical, nor voluntaristic. Its basis was materialist dialectics and the principle that the masses discern their own abilities only through action. While a sober assessment of the real class forces is necessary, the revolutionary party itself is one of the key factors in an uncertain situation, especially at a time of revolution. The boldness of the party will give confidence to the workers, while irresolution may lead the masses into passivity and a mood of depression.

Thirdly, Lenin had uncanny intuition. In a period of great changes, the number of unknown factors, not only in the enemy camp, but also in our own, is so great that sober analysis alone will not suffice. An unsurpassed ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s most important gift.

Finally, the years of heroic struggle, and above all the experience of 1905, had trained and tempered Lenin for the battle of 1917. In 1905, he shaped and developed the rules of action for the party and the class in an armed insurrection. He made clear the interrelation between a mass movement and the planned armed insurrection, the necessary balance between political leadership and technical planning. [76]

Now, in 1917, he was ready for the challenge. In the same way as Marx and Engels in the years of dull “normalcy” looked back again and again to 1848 as the point from which to determine the future pattern of the revolutionary workers’ movement, so Lenin in the years after 1905 looked back to 1905. The mass revolutionary struggle of that period was the point of departure for his formulation and reformulation of the strategy and tactics of Bolshevism. As I have written elsewhere:

The 1905 revolution threw into sharp relief not only the relation of the vanguard party to the class, but also that of the party leader to the party. In 1905, Lenin’s leadership of his own faction was on the whole incontestable. But it demanded from him a continuous effort of thought and organization – he had, in a sense, to reaffirm his leadership and reconquer his party every day. On the evidence of 1905 ... one could write instructive chapters on what happened to the leadership of the Leninists without Lenin. If 1905 steeled the Bolsheviks, even more so did it steel Lenin. His ideas, program, and tactics were put to the stiffest test during those days. [77]

In 1917, Lenin managed to rearm the party and to raise it to meet the needs of the day, because he had immense capital to rely on. He had strong support in the party ranks, prepared by the whole history of Bolshevism. Lenin was the founder of the party, and its leader throughout its long, hard struggle. The crucible of October furnished the supreme test of his strategy and of the caliber of his leadership of the party and the class.

Lenin’s character – his confidence in the power of the working class, his direct thinking, and plain speaking – is epitomized in the first words he spoke to the Congress of Soviets on the day after the victorious uprising: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.” [78]




3*. The only casualties in the whole of Petrograd fell during the assault on the Winter Palace; all five came from among the insurrectionists.




49. Kudelli, pp.310-16; J. Bunyan and H.H. Fisher, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1918: Documents and Materials, Stanford 1924, pp.69-74.

50. N.I. Podvoisky, Krasnaia gvardiia v Oktiabrskie dni, Moscow-Leningrad 1927, pp.16-17; R.V. Daniels, Russia, New Jersey 1964, pp.107-08.

51. Minutes of the Central Committee, pp.95-109.

52. Minutes of the Central Committee, pp.121-22.

53. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, p.223.

54. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.226-27.

55. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.112.

56. Minutes of the Central Committee, p.112.

57. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.234-35.

58. G.S. Ignatev, Oktiabr 1917 goda v Moskve, Moscow 1964, p.4.

59. P.V. Volubuev, Proletariat i burzhuaziia Rossii V 1917 godu, Moscow 1964, pp.25-26.

60. See Volubuev, p.28.

61. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, p.1130.

62. Woytinsky, pp.366-68.

63. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, pp.1728-30.

64. Reed, p.36.

65. Browder and Kerensky, vol.3, p.1770.

66. Daniels, pp.121-22.

67. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, pp.1054-55.

68. Trotsky, Lessons of October, New York 1937, p.83.

69. Sukhanov, pp.620-21.

70. Sukhanov, p.47.

71. M. Libman, The Russian Revolution, London 1970, pp.285-86.

72. V. Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, London 1972, pp.68-69.

73. Lenin, Sochineniia, 1st edition, vol.14, p.482.

74. Sukhanov, p.578.

75. Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, p.350.

76. Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, chap.9.

77. Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, p.234.

78. Reed, pp.104-05.


Last updated on 25.10.2007