Tony Cliff

Lenin 3 – Revolution Besieged

2. The Consolidation of Power

At the Congress of Soviets on 29 October (1 November), the representative of the All-Russian Executive Committee of the Union of Railway Workers (Vikzhel), which contained a majority of Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, declared its opposition to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks; he demanded a government composed of all socialist parties; declared Vikzhel’s intention to keep control of the railways, and threatened that if a coalition government were not constituted it would call a general strike throughout the country.

At this critical moment a number of leading comrades in his own party ranged themselves against Lenin, demanding that the Bolsheviks should relinquish power to a coalition of all socialist parties. Before the October insurrection, the leaders of the right wing of Bolshevism (Zinoviev, Kamenev, Rykov, Nogin, Lunacharsky) had argued that the uprising was premature and would meet defeat. After the victorious insurrection they argued that the Bolsheviks would not be able to retain power unless they entered a coalition with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

At the insistence of the Right Bolsheviks, negotiations were begun with these parties immediately after the insurrection. The parties overthrown by the October insurrection demanded a majority for themselves, and the exclusion from power of Lenin Trotsky, as those responsible for the October ‘adventure’. These conditions amounted to a demand for the Bolsheviks to declare the October revolution null and void, and to excommunicate the inspirer and the organizer of the insurrection. The Right Bolshevik leaders were inclined to accept these demands.

Lenin did not oppose the negotiations with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, on condition that the Bolsheviks were assured a stable majority, and that these parties recognized the Soviet state, the peace decree, the land decree, and so on. He was convinced that nothing would come of the negotiations, and

that they could serve as an important lesson for those who had illusions about the soft option of a coalition government.

At a meeting of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, from which Lenin and Trotsky were absent, it was decided unanimously ‘that the base of the government has to be widened and that some changes in its composition are possible’.

The question of whether to accept the Vikzhel’s ultimatum – including the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from the government was put to the vote. Four voted for: Kamenev, Miliutin, Rykov and Sokolnikov; and seven against: Ioffe, Dzerzhinsky, Vinter, A. Kollontai, Ia. Sverdlov, A. Bubnov, M. Uritsky. [1] The Committee then elected a delegation to attend the conference called by Vikzhel; significantly this consisted of three right-wing Bolsheviks: Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Riazanov.

On 1 (14) November the Bolshevik representative at the negotiations reported that the negotiations were going to a conference of the Central Committee, the Petrograd Committee and representatives of the military organization and the trade unions. Kamenev reported the demand of the Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries and Vikzhel that the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets (TsIK) should be enlarged by the addition of a strong contingent of bourgeois representatives (the municipal councils [dumas] of Petrograd and Moscow), a demand which called into question the Soviet character of the new regime. The other condition, noted above, was the exclusion of Lenin and Trotsky from membership of the government.

The Central Committee split wide open. Trotsky declared:

‘One thing is clear from the report, and that is that the parties which took no part in the insurrection want to grab power from the people who overthrew them. There was no point in organizing the insurrection if we do not get the majority; if the others do not want that, it is obvious they do not want our programme. We must have 75 per cent. It is clear that we cannot give a right of objection, just as we cannot yield on Lenin’s chairmanship; such a concession is completely unacceptable.’

Dzerzhinsky asserted that ‘the delegates did not observe the CC’s instructions. The CC definitely decided that the government must be responsible to the TsIK ... We also stated definitely that we would not allow objections to Lenin and Trotsky. None of this was implemented and I propose an expression of no confidence in the delegation and that they be recalled and others sent.’ The same hard line was taken by Uritsky. He considered that ‘the CC has taken a firm stand on the position of all power to the Soviets and that means there can be no question of supplementation.’

He objected:

to representation from the Dumas and considers that a majority of Bolsheviks in the TsIK is obligatory. This must be established conclusively. The same for ministerial posts; we must have a solid majority ... there is no doubt that we must not yield on either Lenin or Trotsky, for in a certain sense this would be renunciation of our programme; there is no need to insist on the others.

Lenin then stated:

it is time to make an end of vacillation. It is clear that Vikzhel is on the side of the Kaledins and the Kornilovs. There can be no wavering. The majority of the workers, peasants and army are for us. No one here has proved that the rank and file are against us; choose between Kaledin’s agents and the rank and file. We must rely on the masses, and send agitators into the villages.

The right-wingers on the Central Committee, however, were unyielding in their fight for a coalition. Rykov declared: ‘... there is a gap between us ... If we break off [the negotiations] we will lose the groups which are supporting us as well and we will be in no position to keep power. Kamenev conducted the talks absolutely correctly.’

Miliutin raised ‘the question of whether we are going to insist on keeping power exclusively in our own hands ... if we do not get carried away ... it will become clear to us that we cannot sustain a long civil war.’ Riazanov stated that he

went in to these talks as a way out of the position we involuntarily find ourselves in. Even in Peter, power is not in our hands but in the hands of the Soviet, and this has to be faced. If we abandon this course, we will be utterly and hopelessly alone. We made a mistake when we headed the government and insisted on names; if we had not done this, the middle levels of the bureaucracy would have supported us ... If we reject agreement today, we will be without the Left SRs, without anything ... an agreement is unavoidable.

After heated discussion the question, whether to break off the talks or not, was put to the vote. The result was: for breaking off 4; against 10. The intransigent Lenin, Trotsky and Sverdlov found themselves in a minority [2], and the Bolshevik delegates continued their efforts to form a coalition government.

On the same day as this debate in the enlarged Central Committee meeting, a debate on the same subject took place in the Petersburg Committee of the party. Here again Lenin did not mince his words:

now, at such a moment, when we are in power, we are faced with a split. Zinoviev and Kamenev say that we will not seize Power [in the country as a whole]. I am in no mood to listen to this calmly. I view this as treason ... Zinoviev says that we are not the Soviet power. We are, if you please, only the Bolsheviks, left alone since the departure of the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, and so forth and so on. But we are not responsible for that. We have been elected by the Congress of the Soviets ...

As for conciliation, I cannot even speak about that seriously, Trotsky long ago said that unification is impossible. Trotsky understood this, and from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik.

They [Zinoviev, Kamenev and co.] say that we will be unable to maintain our power alone, and so on. But we are not alone. The whole of Europe is before us. We must make the beginning.

Lenin went on to say, ‘Our present slogan is: No compromise, i.e. for a homogeneous Bolshevik government.’ He did not hesitate to use the threat, which he meant seriously, to ‘appeal to the sailors’: ‘If you get the majority, take power in the Central Executive Committee and carry on. But we will go to the sailors.’

Opposing Lenin’s views, Lunacharsky argued that a coalition government was a necessity. He pointed to the sabotage carried out by technical personnel as proof of the need for the Bolsheviks to join a coalition. ‘We cannot manage with our own forces. Famine will break out.’

Similar arguments were used by Nogin. ‘The Socialist Revolutionaries left the Soviets after the revolution; the Mensheviks did likewise. But this means that the Soviets will fall apart. Such a state of affairs in the face of complete chaos in the country will end with the shipwreck of our party in a very brief interval.’

Trotsky came out strongly in support of Lenin’s point of view: against conciliation, against a coalition government with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries.

We have had rather profound differences in our party prior to the insurrection, within the Central Committee as well as in the broad party circles. The same things were said, the same expressions used then as now in arguing against the insurrection as hopeless. The old arguments are now being repeated after the victorious insurrection, this time in favour of a coalition. There will be no technical apparatus, mind you. You lay the colours on thick in order to frighten, in order to hinder the proletariat from utilizing its victory ...

The bourgeoisie is aligned against us by virtue of all its class interests. And what will we achieve against that by taking to the road of conciliation with Vikzhel? ... We are confronted with armed violence which can be overcome only by means of violence on our own part ...

The sum total of what the Chernovs can contribute to our work is: vacillation. But vacillation in the struggle against our enemies will destroy our authority among the masses. What does conciliation with Chernov mean? ... It means an alignment with Chernov. This would be treason. [3]

The Right Bolshevik leaders displayed their differences with Lenin to the outside world. In the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets, Kamenev, the chairman of this body, proposed that the Council of People’s Commissars should resign and be replaced by a coalition government. He was supported by Nogin, a member of the Central Committee of the party and People’s Commissar for Industry and Commerce; Rykov, also a member of the Central Committee and People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs; Miliutin, Member of the Central Committee and People’s Commissar for Agriculture; and Teodorovich, People’s Commissar for Food, as well as by Zinoviev. The Bolshevik conciliators, together with non-Bolshevik members of VTsIK, voted against their own party. This produced a serious crisis in both government and party. The rule that party members in office should follow party instructions was openly flouted.

Lenin was so angry that next day, on 2 (15) November, he moved a resolution at the Central Committee decisively denouncing a coalition government. He achieved a majority for his position only after a long and bitter debate. His resolution was put to the vote a number of times. In the first vote there were 6 for Lenin’s motion and 6 against; the second gave 7 for and 7 against; in a third Lenin emerged as the victor by one vote: 8 for, 7 against. [4]

The next day he got the majority of the Central Committee to issue an ultimatum to the Rightists: ‘we demand a categorical reply in writing to the question: does the majority undertake to submit to party disciple ... If the reply to this question is in the negative or the indeterminate, we will make an immediate appeal to the Moscow Committee, the Bolshevik group in the TsIK, the Petrograd City Conference and to a special party congress.’

If the opposition were not ready to abide by majority decision, let them leave the party. ‘A split would be a very regrettable fact, of course. But an honest and open split now is incomparably better than internal sabotage, the blocking of our own decisions, disorganization and prostration.’

Unrepentant, the opposition reiterated its stand, and declared its decision to resign from the Central Committee. On 4 (17) November a statement by Kamenev, Rykov, Zinoviev and Nogin declared:

We consider that a government [of all Socialist parties] has to be created to avoid further bloodshed and impending starvation, to prevent Kaledin’s men destroying the revolution ... We cannot take responsibility for [the] fatal policy of the CC, pursued contrary to the will of a vast proportion of the proletariat and soldiers, who gave a speedy end to the bloodshed between the different sections of the democracy.

For that reason we relinquish the title of members of the CC so that we can have the right to state our view frankly to the masses of the workers and soldiers and appeal to them to support our call. [5]

The same day four People’s Commissars – Nogin, Rykov, Miliutin and Teodorovich – resigned from the government, and Shliapnikov, People’s Commissar for Labour, declared his political solidarity with them, but did not resign.

However, when it became clear that Lenin and his close colleagues would not vacillate, the opposition collapsed. On 7 (20) November, Zinoviev capitulated and asked to be taken back on to the party’s Central Committee. In words foreshadowing his future more tragic surrenders, Zinoviev appealed to his friends:

we remain attached to the party, we prefer to make mistakes together with millions of workers and soldiers and to die together with them than to step to one side at this decisive, historic moment. [6]

Three weeks later, on 30 November (12 December) similar statements were issued by Rykov, Kamenev, Miliutin and Nogin. Thus a very threatening split in the party at a critical moment of history was averted.

The logic of the class struggle was far too strong to be blocked by the conciliatory attitude of the right-wing Bolsheviks. Not only did Lenin oppose them, but the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders pulled the carpet from beneath them, by putting forward demands more appropriate for victors rather than for the vanquished. On 29 October (11 November),

the SRs and Mensheviks had amplified their position by demanding, (1) that the Red or Workers’ Guard be disarmed, (2) that the garrison be placed under orders of the city council, and (3) that an armistice be declared, offering for their part to secure a pledge that the troops of Kerensky on entering the city would not fire a shot or engage in search and seizure. A socialist government would then be constituted, but without Bolshevik participation. [7]

At the Vikzhel conference on 1 (14) November,

The Mensheviks said that one should talk to the Bolsheviks with guns ... and the Central Committee of the Socialist-Revolutionaries was against an agreement with the Bolsheviks. [8]

One positive outcome of the negotiations was that the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, resentful of the attitude of the Mensheviks and Right Socialist Revolutionaries, decided to join Lenin’s party in the government.


1. The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) August 1917–February 1918 (hereafter referred to as CC Minutes), London 1974, p. 127.

2. ibid., pp. 129–34.

3. L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, New York 1962, pp. 109–22.

4. CC Minutes, op. cit., pp. 136–8, 300.

5. ibid., pp. 139–41.

6. ibid., p. 150.

7. O.H. Radkey, The Sickle under the Hammer, New York 1963, pp. 66–7.

8. Bunyan and Fisher, op. cit., p. 190.

Last updated on 18.9.2012