Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

12. May and June 1917

Trotsky returns to the Petrograd Soviet

The following five chapters cover Trotsky’s political activity between his return to Russia in May and the October revolution. To work on the period one cannot but borrow heavily from Trotsky’s monumental History of the Russian Revolution. This work is an outstanding achievement. No other revolution was as fortunate as the Russian in having a historian of genius as one of its key leaders. In Trotsky’s History the revolution is superbly analysed and described as an event in which the oppressed millions, who for centuries have been kept down, get up off their knees and speak out. The changes in the consciousness of workers, peasants and soldiers under the feverish conditions of the struggle are vividly depicted.

In the case of Trotsky and the Bolshevik revolution, it is impossible to separate the biographical from the historical, but we shall have to restrict ourselves to a schematic description of the bare bones of the historic events as a background to Trotsky’s activity, influencing him and influenced by him.

When Trotsky arrived at Beloostrov, the station on the Finnish border, he was welcomed by a delegation of his own group, the Mezhraiontsy, and the representatives of the central committee of the Bolsheviks. No one was there from the Mensheviks. Trotsky writes:

We were given a tremendous welcome at the Finnish terminal in Petrograd. Uritsky and Fyodorov made speeches, and I answered with a plea for the necessity of preparing a second revolution – our own. And when they suddenly lifted me into the air, I thought of Halifax, where I had had the same experience; but this time the arms were those of friends. [1]

Straight from the station Trotsky went to the meeting of the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet. This was the very day the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries joined the coalition government. Kerensky became minister of war and the navy, Skobelev minister of labour, Tseretelli minister of posts and telegraphs, Pereverzev minister of justice, and Peshekhonov minister of supply.

Chkheidze, chairman of the Soviet and former associate of Trotsky, but more recently attacked by Trotsky in Novy Mir, could not be enthusiastic about the newcomer. Nikolai Sukhanov, the left-wing Menshevik and author of Notes on the Revolution, invaluable memoirs which are the most honest and vivacious description of the great events by an eye-witness, describes the welcome Trotsky got at the Soviet:

Chkheidze, behaving differently from the way he behaved with his ‘friends’, ignored Trotsky’s appearance and didn’t propose a welcome to the distinguished revolutionary, who had, moreover, just returned from imprisonment. But Trotsky had already been pointed out, and the hall resounded with cries of: ‘Trotsky! We want Comrade Trotsky!’

It was the famous orator’s first appearance on a revolutionary tribune. He was warmly greeted. And, with characteristic brilliance, he made his first speech – on the Russian Revolution and its influence in Europe and overseas. He spoke of proletarian solidarity and the international struggle for peace; but he also touched on the coalition. In mild and cautious terms, not characteristic of him, he pointed out the practical fruitlessness and erroneousness in principle of the step that had now been taken. He called the coalition a capture of the Soviet by the bourgeoisie ...

Trotsky was visibly disturbed at this debut under the neutral gaze of an unknown crowd and to the accompaniment of the hostile exclamations of a couple of dozen ‘social-traitors’. From, the outset he did not expect any sympathy ...

The socialist ministers argued against him. Peshekhonov and Tseretelli were livid. Skobelev, demonic, pronounced his sacramental formula about a hot-blooded heart and a cold-blooded mind. As for Kerensky – he, of course, had not turned up at all. [2]

Sukhanov commented:

Although Trotsky did not belong to the Bolshevik party, rumours were already going around to the effect that he was worse than Lenin. [3]

This is a newspaper report of Trotsky’s first speech to the Soviet:

News of the Russian revolution found us in New York ... It has opened a new epoch, an epoch of blood and iron, not in a war of nations, but in a war of the oppressed classes against the domineering classes. (Tumultuous applause) ... The Russian revolution is the prologue to the world revolution. But I cannot conceal that I do not agree with everything. I regard it as dangerous to join the ministry. I do not believe that the ministry can perform miracles. We had, before, a dual government, due to the opposing points of view of two classes. The coalition government will not remove opposition, but will merely transfer it to the ministry. But the revolution will not perish because of the coalition government. We should, however, keep three precepts in mind: 1. Trust not the bourgeoisie. 2. Control our own leaders. 3. Have confidence in our own revolutionary strength.

What do we recommend? I think that the next step should be the handing over all power to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. Only with the authority in one hand can Russia be saved. Long live the Russian revolution as the prologue to the world revolution. (Applause). [4]

‘All power to the Soviets; no support to the Provisional Government’, these were words practically identical with those Lenin had used in the preceding month.

The attitude of the Bolsheviks to Trotsky was warm. Trotsky remembers:

The Bolsheviks moved that I be elected to the executive committee on the strength of my having been chairman of the Soviet in 1905. This threw the committee into confusion. The Mensheviks and the Populists began whispering to one another. They had then an overwhelming majority in all the revolutionary institutions. Finally it was decided to include me in an advisory capacity. [5]

The Mezhraiontsy

Trotsky was associated with the Mezhraiontsy group. This organisation had existed in Petrograd since 1913, and kept itself independent from both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. In 1915 it succeeded in establishing a precarious contact with Trotsky and the editors of Nashe Slavo. At that time it had some 60-80 members. [6] Up to the February revolution the membership ‘never went beyond some 150’. [7] It published leaflets and a small four-page newspaper, Vpered (Forward), of which sixteen issues appeared. In their politics the Mezhraiontsy were very close to the Bolsheviks, as Shliapnikov says:

In the sphere of policy they fully accepted our attitude to the war, even including civil war, and the tactics of the working class in it. This did not prevent them, however, from dreaming of unity with those against whom they, daily and hourly, conducted agitation, and from whom they in every way sought to dissociate themselves. [8]

The slogans of the Mezhraiontsy included ‘Long Live the Third International!’ and ‘Long live the United Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party!’ [9]

However small the group, it took some quite impressive initiatives. Mezhraiontsy women played a significant role in initiating International Women’s Day with an anti-war demonstration. [10] They issued a leaflet stating:

The government is to blame [for all the suffering of the people]! It started the war and cannot end it. The government is ruining the country and causing us to go hungry. The capitalists are to blame! The war brings them profits. It is high time to cry out to them: ‘Enough!’ ‘Down with the criminal government and its whole gang of robbers and murderers. Long live peace!’ [11]

Even before the Petrograd Soviet was formed, on 27 February, the Mezhraiontsy called for the establishment of the Soviet. They urged the people not to give power to the bourgeoisie but to form a provisional revolutionary government:

The place of the Tsarist government is being taken over by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. It must be created by the representatives of the proletariat and the army. Comrades! Immediately undertake elections to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The army is already conducting elections of their representatives. Tomorrow the Provisional Revolutionary Government will finally be formed. [12]

It was the Mezhraiontsy who first issued, on 1 March 1917, a leaflet calling for the election of all officers in the army:

Elect your own platoon commanders, company commanders and regiment commanders, elect company committees for taking charge of food supplies. All the officers must be under the control of these company committees. Accept only those officers whom you know to be friends of the people ... Soldiers! Now that you have revolted and won, former enemies will come to you along with your friends – officers who tall themselves your friends. Soldiers! The tail of a fox is more to be feared than the tooth of a wolf. [13]

The Social Revolutionary and Menshevik leaders in the Soviet were so infuriated by this leaflet that they issued a general denunciation of it in their daily paper Izvestiia on 3 March. [14] However, the revolutionary mood among the troops was such that the compromisers did not feel it was possible simply to preserve the old disciplinary set-up. The result was a compromise, Order No.1:

In all companies, battalions, regiments, parks, batteries, squadrons, in the special services of the various military administrations, and on the vessels of the navy, committees from the elected representatives of the lower ranks of the above-mentioned military units shall be chosen immediately ...

... In all its political actions, the military branch is subordinated to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and to its own committees.

... The orders of the Military Commission of the State Duma shall be executed only in such cases as do not conflict with the orders and resolutions of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

... All kinds of arms, such as rifles, machine guns, armoured automobilies and others, must be kept at the disposal and under the control of the company and battalion committees, and in no case should they be turned over to officers, even at their demand.

... In the ranks and during the performance of the duties of the service, soldiers must observe the strictest military discipline, but outside the service and the ranks, in the political, general civic, and private life, soldiers cannot in any way be deprived of those rights that all citizens enjoy. In particular, standing at attention and compulsory saluting, when not on duty, is abolished. [15]

This Order formalised and extended dual power inside the army. It was rightly described by Trotsky as ‘the single worthy document of the February revolution’, [16] and by Sukhanov as ‘practically the sole independently created political act of the Soviet Plenum throughout the revolution’. [17]

If anything, the Mezhraiontsy were in these days to the left of the Bolsheviks. In February 1917 the Mezhraiontsy called for workers and soldiers to ‘take power into their own hands!’ Negotiations for merger with the Bolsheviks were in progress, and according to Shliapnikov, a complete merger had almost been reached:

In the middle of March the question was settled positively, and only the appearance within our party of differences with the comrades returning from Siberia and the jump to the side of defencism of our Pravda prevented a merger then. [18]

Shliapnikov refers to the role of Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov who returned to Petrograd from Siberia on 12 March 1917 and took control of the editing of Pravda. This led to a massive swing of the paper to the right. The new editors announced that the Bolsheviks would decisively support the Provisional Government ‘insofar as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution’ – forgetting that the only important agent of counter-revolution at the time was that same Provisional Government. The new editors also declared a change of policy towards the war. As Kamenev wrote:

When an army stands against an army, the most absurd policy would be to propose that one of them lay down its arms and go home. This policy would not be a policy of peace but a policy of slavery, a policy which the free people would reject with indignation. No, the free people will stand firmly at their posts, will reply bullet for bullet and shell for shell. This is unavoidable. [19]

The Mezhraiontsy had in their ranks a number of very talented writers and orators. Besides Trotsky there was Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, Ioffe, Volodarsky and other future leaders of the October revolution. But when Trotsky come to Russia the Mezhraiontsy were still only a small group, not really a party – probably with 300 members. (The number of Bolsheviks in April 1917 in Petrograd alone was 16,000.) In the face of the stupendous events of the revolution, it was obvious that only a mass revolutionary party would fit the requirements.

Trotsky still hesitates about joining the Bolsheviks

But still Trotsky baulked at joining the Bolsheviks. As already mentioned, Trotsky’s political line in Novy Mir was the same as Lenin’s in his Letters from Afar and April Theses. When Trotsky met Kamenev in May 1917, Kamenev said in reply to Trotsky’s words that he had no differences with Lenin: ‘I should think not – in view of the April Theses ...’ And Trotsky comments: ‘...not only Kamenev, but dozens of others ... considered Lenin’s position “Trotskyist” and not Bolshevik at all.’ [20] So it was inevitable that Trotsky, notwithstanding the squabbling of the past, would join the Bolsheviks.

On 10 May Lenin, accompanied by Zinoviev and Kamenev, held a meeting with the Mezhraiontsy leaders and offered them a seat on the editorial board of Pravda and on the organising committee of the forthcoming party congress. According to notes taken by Lenin at the time, Trotsky replied that he was in agreement ‘insofar as Bolshevism internationalises itself’ but added: ‘The Bolsheviks de-bolshevised themselves, and I cannot call myself a Bolshevik. It is impossible to demand of us a recognition of Bolshevism. It is undesirable to stick to old labels.’ They ought to fuse into a new party with a new name at a joint congress of the organisations. [21]

This was too much for Lenin. Petty personal grudges played no role with him. After all, even prior to the meeting of 10 May he proposed to the Bolshevik Central Committee that Trotsky be invited to edit Pravda (a proposal rejected by the central committee). [22] But to deny the Bolshevik party’s past – that was not on.

Trotsky comes to Lenin

However, Trotsky had no alternative but to accept Bolshevism. Trotsky was a brilliant general commanding a tiny squad of soldiers, while Lenin was the recognised leader of a great party. To lead the revolution what was needed was a party which had members in every factory, every army unit, able to win the minds and hearts of workers and soldiers. As an individual Trotsky could make his words heard; but only a mass, well-disciplined party could transform words into deeds. When in July the Mezhraiontsy joined the Bolsheviks, they brought with them 4,000 members, while the Bolsheviks had about 200,000. [23]

In fact a couple of days after his meeting with Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev on 10 May, Trotsky come to the conclusion that the Mezhraiontsy should join the Bolsheviks. The fact that it took until July to accomplish the fusion was because Trotsky had to convince the other members of the group who for years had kept away from the Bolsheviks.

Between May and the October revolution, Trotsky became captivated by the strategic genius of Lenin. Trotsky could write in retrospect, and in all honesty: ‘Trotsky come to Lenin as to a teacher whose power and significance he understood later than many others, but perhaps more fully than they.’ [24] He described Lenin as ‘the greatest revolutionary of our century’. [25]

Raskolnikov, the leader of the Kronstadt sailors who was in close contact with Trotsky from the time of his arrival in Russia, and afterwards spent several weeks side by side with him in prison, wrote in his memoirs:

Trotsky’s attitude to Vladimir Ilyich [Lenin] was one of enormous esteem. He placed him higher than any contemporary he had met with, either in Russia or abroad.

In the tone in which Trotsky spoke of Lenin you felt the devotion of a disciple. In those times Lenin had behind him thirty years’ service to the proletariat, and Trotsky twenty. The echoes of their disagreements during the pre-war period were completely gone. No difference existed between the tactical line of Lenin and Trotsky. Their rapprochement, already noticeable during the war, was completely and unquestionably determined, from the moment of the return of Lev Davidovich [Trotsky] to Russia. After his very first speeches, all of us old Leninists felt that he was ours. [26]

The same theme is repeated by Lunacharsky, who collaborated with Trotsky for many years:

After Trotsky’s merger with the Bolsheviks, it was only in his attitude to Lenin that Trotsky always showed – and continues to show – a tactful pliancy which is touching. With the modesty of all truly great men he acknowledges Lenin’s primacy. [27]

In his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky’s admiration of Lenin shines through:

Lenin became the unqualified leader of the most revolutionary party in the world’s history, because his thought and will were equal to the demands of the gigantic revolutionary possibilities of the country and the epoch. Others fell short by an inch or two, and often more. [28]

Besides the factories, barracks, villages, the front and the Soviets, the revolution had another laboratory: the brain of Lenin. [29]

The art of revolutionary leadership in its most critical moments consists nine-tenths in knowing how to sense the mood of the masses ... An unexcelled ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s great power. [30]

Lenin ... was filled with deep realism and an infallible feeling for the masses. [31]

The party press did not exaggerate success, did not distort the correlation of forces, did not try to win by shouting. The school of Lenin was a school of revolutionary realism. [32]

... the ever-lasting preoccupation of Lenin: to express with the utmost simplicity that which on the one hand flowed from the objective conditions, and on the other formulated the subjective experience of the masses. [33]

His [Lenin’s] simple and deep generalisation ... could so lastingly insert themselves into the consciousness of the masses, his clear sayings caught up from the people and handed back to them ... [34]

... the fundamental traits of Lenin as a statesman [were] boldness of conception and meticulous carefulness in its fulfilment. [35]

During the June Days, the July Days, the persecution that followed, and the Kornilov coup, Trotsky supported Lenin to the hilt. He was in complete agreement with the strategy and tactics Lenin adopted, and again and again drew the same conclusion independently. In the preparation for the Bolsheviks’ taking of power, Lenin found himself quite often in a minority on the central committee, but had his staunchest supporter in Trotsky.

There was largely a division of labour between Lenin and Trotsky. While Lenin, even before going into hiding on 6 July, rarely appeared at the Soviet, and was largely engrossed in directing the party, Trotsky, almost from the moment of his arrival in Russia, was a constant speechmaker, and soon established himself as the most outstanding speaker of the Soviet.

Sukhanov describes Trotsky’s prominence at this time in these words: ‘Trotsky, like Lenin, was a monumental partner in the monumental game, and in Lenin’s own party, after himself, there was nothing for a very, very, very long time. [36]

Trotsky and Kronstadt

Practically immediately after returning to Russia Trotsky had to act as a representative of the Bolsheviks. This happened around Kronstadt.

The 80,000 Baltic sailors played a role in the 1917 revolution out of all proportion to their numbers, and those at Kronstadt, an island naval fortress 20 miles from the capital, were their vanguard. The population of Kronstadt in February 1917 was 82,000, made up of 20,000 soldiers, 12,000 sailors and 50,000 civilians. [37] Of the latter, 17,000 were employed in the shipyards, the huge dry-docks, the steamship plant, the arsenal, the chemical laboratories, and other factories. [38] The class differences in the Tsarist navy were far sharper than in the army. In the infantry the proportion of factory workers was tiny – 3 per cent in 1913. In the navy, because of its mechanisation, 53.5 per cent of all sailors were proletarian (of whom 30.8 per cent were factory workers), 9.3 per cent semi-proletarian, and only 24.9 per cent peasants. [39] While 84 per cent of the naval ratings were literate and 10 per cent semi-literate, comparable figures for the infantry were 49 per cent and 23 per cent. [40] Among the officers of the navy, 93 per cent were from the gentry. [41] The fact that sailors and officers lived in close contact sharpened the antagonism.

When the February revolution took place, the anger of the sailors in Kronstadt expressed itself in bloody attacks on the officers unparalleled in the army. Some 24 naval officers and probably 10-15 naval NCOs were killed, and 162 officers and NCOs arrested; others fled for their lives. [42] Thus ‘the officer corps had been effectively liquidated.’ [43] ‘One witness later recalled that here it was a case of “October in February” – in other words, power changed hands eight months earlier than in the rest of Russia.’ [44]

The influence of the Bolsheviks rose very swiftly in Kronstadt. While on 10 March there were few Bolsheviks in the Kronstadt Soviet (only 4.1 per cent of all deputies), on 5 May Bolsheviks made up 31.2 per cent of the deputies. [45] While the Bolsheviks had virtually no members in Kronstadt in February, by late April it had 3,000 members. [46]

As one historian put it:

... there was no dual power in Kronstadt, for the Soviet and its executive committee reigned supreme and brooked no interference, not even from the provisional government.

As for its relations with Petrograd, like the vast majority of Soviets, the Kronstadt Soviet regarded itself from the start as ‘under the authority of the Petrograd Soviet’. [47]

The Kronstadters were very impatient indeed, and became far more radical than the rest of the country in the first two weeks after the February revolution. On 18 April, when the news spread that foreign minister Miliukov had sent a note to the Allies supporting ‘War till Victory’, the Kronstadt Soviet, which rejected a Bolshevik resolution condemning the government, found itself isolated in the town. Large crowds gathered outside the Bolshevik headquarters, at mass meetings in factories and barracks, and passed a Bolshevik resolution which called for ‘the overthrow of the Provisional Government and the transfer of all power to the Soviets’. [48] One of the large street meetings, numbering some 20,000 people, was addressed by a Bolshevik member of the Soviet executive committee, S.C. Roshal, who called for the overthrow of the government. [49] The executive committee of the Kronstadt Soviet then expelled Roshal for indiscipline. Immediately the Bolsheviks began a campaign for the re-election of the Soviets, which proved very successful. Elections were held, and the Bolsheviks, who had been the smallest party in the Soviet, became the largest.

Unfortunately, the Kronstadt Bolsheviks’ campaign for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government was contrary to the policy of the central committee, and was condemned in a central committee resolution of 22 April. [50] (This resolution was not aimed only at the Kronstadt committee. The Helsingfors committee, and even some Petrograd Bolsheviks had also put forward the same slogan.)

However the Kronstadt Committee of the Bolsheviks rejected the central committee reprimand. On 5 May the new Kronstadt Soviet assembled. On 13 May the new executive committee of the Soviet decided to formalise the fact that the Soviet was the sole power on the island, and issued a draft resolution to this effect. On 14 May Trotsky addressed the Kronstadt Soviet. He called for all power to the Soviets, and described the coalition government as ‘the politics of lies’; he approved the executive committee resolution, saying,

You yourselves have drafted a resolution about taking power into your hands! Don’t you agree that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and what is good for Kronstadt is also good for any other town?

It is you who stand in the front line, while the others have fallen behind. It is up to you to call on them to adopt your standpoint. What you have to say is: we are standing firm as a rock, and you too must stand firm, take power into your own hands and demand that the central power of Russia be transferred to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. [51]

On 16 May the Kronstadt Soviet decided that it would break off all relations with the Provisional Government:

The sole power in the town of Kronstadt is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, which in all questions of state order will enter into direct relations with the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of Petrograd. [52]

Straight afterwards the government commissar V.N. Pepeliaev resigned. The Provisional Government and the Soviet of Petrograd condemned the Kronstadters. The Congress of Peasants’ Soviets voted overwhelmingly to threaten to cut off food supplies to Kronstadt. On 18 May a member of the Bolshevik Central Committee come to Kronstadt demanding to know what was going on. Raskolnikov and Roshal were summoned to Petrograd, where they were reprimanded by Lenin. [53]

The events in Kronstadt threatened the Bolshevik party’s whole strategy of ‘patiently explaining’, winning the majority of the proletariat to its policies. The dilemma facing Kronstadt was explained by Raskolnikov thus:

The ... task facing us was, on the one hand, not to let ourselves be forced to our knees, that is, to avoid suffering the disgrace of surrender, and, on the other hand, not to give the Provisional Government any excuse to utilise the given conflict for an armed onslaught on Kronstadt. Vladimir Ilyich’s prognosis proved to be absolutely correct. The Provisional Government did indeed try to force us to our knees. We had not long to wait for the first sign of this development. [54]

Trotsky went to Kronstadt where he addressed the Soviet. He aimed to strengthen the Kronstadt position in principle, while yielding upon the practical issue. He won the day, as Raskolnikov describes:

When he arrived at Kronstadt, Comrade Trotsky at once summoned an extraordinary meeting of the Kronstadt Executive Committee. His proposal that we issue a manifesto explaining in a concrete way our attitude on all the disputed questions was adopted unanimously. He sketched out a draft of the manifesto there and then.

Next day the manifesto was approved by the Soviet, and a meeting was held in Anchor Square at which I read out the text which had been adopted by the Kronstadt Executive Committee. By a show of hands the entire meeting unanimously voted its acceptance of the manifesto. It was quickly reproduced by our party printing press in an enormous number of copies, distributed among the proletariat and garrison of Kronstadt and sent out to Petrograd and the provinces. [55]

On 27 May the Petrograd Soviet brought the Kronstadters to trial. Tseretelli acted as chief prosecutor. He denounced Kronstadt as ‘a hotbed of anarchy and a disgrace to the revolution’ whose destruction it was now preparing; he then moved a resolution which condemned it for ‘secession from the revolutionary democracy’ and castigated the Soviet for its ‘utter inability’ to stand up to ‘those anarchist elements which it had itself fostered’ and for disgracing the revolution by incarcerating hundreds of prisoners ‘in the worst Tsarist dungeons’, without specific accusation and proper trial, in an act of ‘unbecoming vengeance and reprisal’. Finally, he reminded the Kronstadters of the exceptional privileges they enjoyed regarding food supplies and demanded that they ‘immediately and unconditionally execute all instructions of the provisional government, which issued them in the interests of the revolution and the external security of the country’. This resolution was to be broadcast to all Kronstadt forts and garrisons and to all naval crews of the Baltic Fleet and all other Soviets. [56]

Appearing for the defence, Trotsky argued that the excesses of Kronstadt were caused by the appointment by the government of discredited and hated men as commissars for the island:

Our socialist ministers refuse to fight against the danger of Black Hundreds. Yet should reaction rise and should a counter-revolutionary general try to throw a noose around the neck of the revolution, your Black Hundred commissars will soap the rope for all of us, while the Kronstadt sailors will come and fight and die with us. [57]

This phrase was prophetic. It was quoted later when the sailors of Kronstadt did defend the revolution against General Kornilov’s coup.

The result of the May events in Kronstadt was two-fold. It hardened the hostility of Kronstadt towards the Provisional Government and established the nation-wide reputation of Kronstadt.

The Mass Orator

At that time Trotsky established a platform in the Modern Circus in Petrograd where almost every night he addressed enormous crowds. Trotsky remembers:

The mass meetings in the Modern Circus were for me quite special. My opponents likewise considered them so, but in a different light. They regarded the Circus as my particular fortress, and never even attempted to speak in it. But whenever I attacked the conciliationists in the Soviet, I was interrupted by bitter shouts: ‘This is not your Modern Circus.’ It became quite a refrain.

I usually spoke in the Circus in the evening, sometimes quite late at night. My audience was composed of workers, soldiers, hard-working mothers, street urchins – the oppressed under-dogs of the capital. Every square inch was filled, every human body compressed to its limit. Young boys sat on their fathers’ shoulders, infants were at their mothers’ breasts. No-one spoke. The balconies threatened to fall under the excessive weight of human bodies. I made my way to the platform through a narrow human trench, sometimes I was borne overhead. The air, intense with breathing and waiting, fairly exploded with shouts and with the passionate yells peculiar to the Modern Circus. Above and around me was a press of elbows, chests and heads. I spoke from out of a warm cavern of human bodies; whenever I stretched out my hands I would touch someone, and a grateful movement in response would give me to understand that I was not to worry about it, not to break off my speech, but keep on. No speaker, no matter how exhausted, could resist the electric tension of that impassioned human throng. They wanted to know, to understand, to find their way. At times it seemed as if I felt, with my lips, the stern inquisitiveness of this crowd that had become merged into a single whole. Then all the arguments and words thought out in advance would break and recede under the imperative pressure of sympathy, and other words, other arguments, utterly unexpected by the orator, but needed by these people, would emerge in full array from my subconsciousness.

The crowd lifted Trotsky emotionally. He became its medium. The interaction between the speaker and his audience was the lifeblood of his oratory:

On such occasions I felt as if I were listening to the speaker from the outside, trying to keep pace with his ideas, afraid that, like a somnambulist, he might fall off the edge of the roof at the sound of my conscious reasoning.

Such was the Modern Circus. It had its own contours, fiery, tender, and frenzied. The infants were peacefully sucking the breasts from which approving or threatening shouts were coming. The whole crowd was like that, like infants clinging with their dry lips to the nipples of the revolution. But this infant matured quickly. [58]

What a magnificent description!

Trotsky’s first speech at the All-Russian Congress of Soviets

On 3 June the first All-Russian Congress of the Soviets assembled in Petrograd and continued in session until the 24th. The Social Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks dominated the congress, having about five-sixths of all the votes. Of the 822 delegates with voting rights, the Social Revolutionaries accounted for 285, the Mensheviks for 248, and the Bolsheviks for 105. The Mezhraiontsy had ten delegates, and they supported the Bolsheviks solidly throughout the congress. In addition there were some 180 delegates who supported various groups or had allegiance to none. The congress revealed a clear split: between the representatives of the army, the peasantry and the provinces on the one hand, which supported the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and the working-class suburbs which supported the Bolsheviks.

On the eve of the congress Trotsky delivered a speech in which he explained that the war was imperialist in nature, even if carried by the Provisional Government, and that the only way to peace was by the seizure of power by the proletariat:

I consider it necessary, first of all, to insist on the class character of the war now being waged.

The war now being waged is an imperialist war, and democracy must conduct the bitterest fight against this imperialist war. After all, the Russian revolution has in no way changed its imperialist character. As before, the whole state apparatus lies in the hands of the bourgeoisie, permeated throughout with imperialist ambitions. If the bourgeoisie remains in power, it will apply all its efforts to achieving its imperialist goals.

Thus, the present war is imperialistic. The tactics of the Petrograd Soviet and its efforts to create an efficient army are therefore only playing into the hands of the ruling bourgeoisie.

Its pressure on the Allied governments is absurd. It is answered by one slap on the face after another. The occupation of Albania by Italy, the coercion of Greece by England and France, testify to this. And I assert that a separate peace will be a consequence of the policy which the Provisional Government is pursuing with the support of the majority of the Petrograd Soviet.

What is now happening in the army, i.e., fraternisation or actual truces, is a spontaneous occurrence, a product of the revolution, and no effort on the part of the Soviet to create an efficient army will create fighting efficiency, since spontaneity cannot be stopped.

And the international conference, is it going to liquidate the war – the war of the imperialists? I will answer you: no – this is self-deception, this is an illusion. Only a European revolution, only a ruthless fight on the part of all the proletariat against their bourgeois and imperialist governments will end the war. And this revolutionary ferment is growing day by day throughout Europe.

And only by the seizure of power will the proletariat once and for all ensure itself against imperialism. [59]

On 4 June Lenin spoke at the congress on the attitude towards the Provisional Government. He argued that Prince Lvov and the Cadets had a negligible following, that the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks represented the overwhelming majority of the nation. ‘... in Russia there is no group, no class, that would resist the power of the Soviets’. [60] So why should they consent to be the servants of the Cadets? Why do they not form their own government?

On the same day, 4 June, Trotsky’s speech followed similar arguments to Lenin’s. Trotsky, like Lenin, argued against the coalition government. He called on the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to break with the bourgeois parties. It was hopeless, he argued, to turn the government into a chamber of conciliation between social classes: ‘A chamber of conciliation cannot exercise power in a revolutionary epoch.’ However Trotsky expressed his views in a much more conciliationary vein towards the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries than did Lenin.

Trotsky referred to the speech of the Menshevik minister of food supply, Peshekhonov, in which the latter argued that the economic difficulties facing the country were caused by the decline in labour productivity, and that labour discipline and sacrifices were the only way to overcome the crisis. Trotsky’s speech made friendly reference to Peshekhonov, which brought him applause from the majority benches:

I have listened to Peshekhonov’s speech with enormous interest, since it is always possible to learn from one’s theoretical opponents. What should come next is the collaboration of the minister of labour and industry, but Konovalov [the Cadet minister] has left, after sabotaging the organisation of industry. For three weeks a replacement has been looked for, but cannot be found. Put twelve Peshekhonovs in power, and that would already be an enormous step forward. (Applause) Find another Peshekhonov to replace Konovalov. (Applause)

You see that I am not proceeding from factional considerations, but only from the point of view of efficiency ... Comrades, I am not hoping to convince you today, for this would be too bold a hope. What I would like to achieve today is to make you aware that if we oppose you, we do so not from any hostile ... motive of a selfish faction, but because, together with you, we are suffering all the pangs and agonies of the revolution. We see solutions different from those you see, and we are fully convinced that while you are consolidating the present of the revolution, we prepare its future for you. (Loud applause) [61] [1*]

The call for a government of ‘twelve Peshekhonovs’ was basically the same as that of Lenin for ousting the ten bourgeois ministers from the government. But Trotsky’s tone was very different from that of Lenin.

On 4 June a declaration that Trotsky submitted concerning Kerensky’s preparations for an offensive at the front was read to the congress by the Bolsheviks. A few days later, in a speech to the congress Trotsky denounced the planned military offensive: the army was incapable of further fighting. The offensive would end in disaster:

Luckily for the whole of Russian history our revolutionary army has done away with the old outlook of the Russian army, the outlook of the locust ... when hundreds of thousands used to die passively ... I say: Yes, this historic period which we have just left behind us will be cursed! What we now value is not elemental, unconscious heroism of the mass, but heroism which refracts itself through every individual consciousness ...

The army of the French revolution had consciously responded to calls for an offensive, but this could not apply to the Russian army today:

No such purpose that would rally the army exists now. You won’t be able to hide with any sophisms the fact that every thinking soldier puts before himself the question, in the name of what goals is he going on the offensive? Or to say it more precisely, to say it in a more objective form, every thinking soldier says to himself: from these five drops of blood that I shed today, will there be one shed in the interests of the Russian revolution, but four for the French bourgeoisie and English imperialists? (Applause) This, comrades, is the whole essence of the thing. If only Russia cut her ties with imperialism, if only the old ruling classes were overthrown and a new democratic government established by the Soviets, then we should be able to summon all the European peoples and tell them that now a citadel of revolution has risen on the map of Europe. [62]

The June Days

Between the middle of May and the middle of June the increasing government agitation for a military offensive added to the threat to transfer military units from Petrograd to the front, inflamed the troops in the capital. Giving vent to the fury, the 9 June issue of Pravda published an appeal for a demonstration the following day, with the slogans:

Down with the Tsarist Duma!

Down with the State Council!

Down with the ten capitalist ministers!

All power to the All-Russian Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies!

Re-examine the ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Soldiers’! Abolish the ‘orders’ against soldiers and sailors!

Down with anarchy in industry and the lockout capitalists! Hail the control and organisation of industry!

Time to end the war! Let the Soviet of Deputies declare just conditions of peace!

Neither a separate peace with Wilhelm, nor secret treaties with the French and English capitalists!

Bread, peace, liberty! [63]

On hearing of the Bolshevik plan for a demonstration, the Executive Committee of the Soviet immediately issued a call prohibiting it:

There must not be a single company, a single regiment, a single group of workers on the street. [There must not be] a single demonstration today. A great struggle still lies ahead of us. [64]

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky wanted to defy the ban. They knew they had to ‘patiently explain’ to the masses until they won the majority. While a retreat was inevitable, the question was how to organise it without demoralising their own supporters. How to keep the revolutionary spirit while restricting the action. Lenin drafted the statement to explain the decision of the Bolsheviks to cancel the demonstration, but he was not satisfied with it, so Trotsky submitted another text that fitted the needs, and this was read out at the congress. The retreat under pressure from the Executive of the Soviet was done in a very defiant way:

We hold that the unique institution known as the Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies is the nearest approach to a popular body expressing the will of the majority of the people to a revolutionary parliament.

On principle we have been, and are, in favour of all power passing into the hands of such a body, despite the fact that at present it is in the hands of the defencist Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionaries, who are hostile to the party of the proletariat.

The fact that the position of the Soviets is internally contradictory, shaky and unstable, and powerless in regard to the counter-revolution, is due to their tolerating a pest of counter- revolution – the ten bourgeois ministers – and to their not breaking with Anglo-French imperialist capital. The shakiness of their position accounts for the nervousness of the present majority of the Soviets, and their touchiness towards those who point out this shakiness.

We refuse to co-ordinate our struggle against the counter-revolution with the ‘struggle’ of the defencist and ministeralist parties.

We cannot recognise the decisions of the Soviets as proper decisions taken by a proper government as long as there remain the ten bourgeois, counter-revolutionary ministers who are part and parcel of the Miliukov spirit and the Miliukov class. But even if the Soviets seized all power (which we want and would always support), and even if they became an omnipotent revolutionary parliament, we would not submit to decisions that restrain our freedom of propaganda, for instance, prohibiting leaflets at the front or in the rear, banning peaceful demonstrations, and so on. In that event we prefer to become an illegal, officially persecuted party, rather than give up our Marxist, internationalist principles. We shall act similarly if the Congress of Soviets sees fit to brand us before the entire population of Russia as ‘enemies of the people’, or as ‘enemies of the revolution’.

We regard only one of the motives given for banning the demonstration for three days as conditionally valid, namely, that concealed counter-revolutionaries lying in wait wanted to take advantage of the demonstration. If the facts underlying this motive are correct, and if the names of the counter-revolutionaries are known to the entire Soviet (as they are known to us privately from the verbal information given by Lieber and others on the executive committee), then these counter-revolutionaries should be immediately proclaimed enemies of the people and arrested, and their followers and helpers tried in court.

As long as the Soviet does not take such measures, even its valid motive is only conditionally valid, or altogether invalid. [65]

On 10 June Petrograd remained calm. On the evening of 12 June, during the same session at which the Bolsheviks were censured for their plan to demonstrate two days earlier, the Menshevik leaders Dan, Bogdanov and Khinchuk moved a resolution for a demonstration on 18 June, hoping by this to show mass support for the policies of the Congress of Soviets. All garrison military units were ordered to take part without arms, and even provincial Soviets were directed to organise similar demonstrations in the other major Russian cities on the same day. When it came to it, the demonstration in Petrograd on 18 June was massive. About 400,000 people participated: ‘it was on a magnificent scale. All worker and soldier Petersburg took part in it’, Sukhanov writes:

But what was the political character of the demonstration? ‘Bolsheviks again’, I remarked, looking at the slogans, ‘and behind them is another Bolshevik column’.

‘Apparently the next one too,’ I went on calculating, watching the banners advancing towards me and the endless rows going towards Michael Castle a long way down the Sadovoy. ‘All power to the soviets!’ ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers!’ ‘Peace for the hovels, war for the palaces!’

In this sturdy and weighty way, worker-peasant Petersburg, the vanguard of the Russian and world revolution, expressed its will. The situation was absolutely unambiguous. Here and there the chain of Bolshevik flags and columns was interspersed with specifically Social Revolutionary and official Soviet slogans. But they were submerged in the mass; they seemed to be exceptions, intentionally confirming the rule. Again and again, like the unchanging summons of the very depths of the revolutionary capital, like fate itself, like the fatal Birnam Wood, there advanced towards us: ‘All power to the Soviets!’ ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers!’ ...

I remembered the purblind Tseretelli’s fervour of the night before. Here was the duel in the open arena! Here was the honest, legal review of forces in an official Soviet demonstration! [66]

‘Judging by the placards and slogans of the demonstrators,’ reported Gorky’s paper, ‘the Sunday demonstration revealed the complete triumph of Bolshevism among the Petersburg proletariat.’ [67]

On the same day mass demonstrations took place all over Russia: in Moscow, Kiev, Minsk, Reval, Riga, Kharkov, Helsingfors and many other towns. [68]


1*. In the report on this speech in Trotsky’s Sochineniia, the friendly references to the Mensheviks have been retouched.


1. Trotsky, My Life, page 287.

2. N.N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917: A personal record (London 1955), page 340.

3. Trotsky, History, page 377.

4. Izvestia, 7 May 1917; F. Golder (editor), Documents of Russian History (New York 1927), pages 357-8.

5. Trotsky, My Life, page 288.

6. Partiia bolshevikov v gody mirovoi imperiaiisticheskoi voinii 1914-17 (Moscow 1963), page 235.

7. Shliapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, page 164.

8. Shliapnikov, On the Eve of 1917, page 202.

9. I. Iurenev, Mezhraionka 1911-1917, in Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, number 2, 1924.

10. E.N. Burdzhalev, Russia’s Second Revolution: The February Uprising in Petrograd (Bloomingon and Indianapolis 1987), pages 104-5.

11. Shliapnikov, The February Revolution in Documents, in Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, number 1 (13), 1923, page 283.

12. Quoted in Burdzhalev, Vtoraia russkaia revoliutsiia: vosstanie v Petrograde (Moscow 1967), page 211.

13. R.P. Browder and A.P. Kerensky (editors), The Russian Provisional Government 1917: Documents (Stanford 1961), volume 2, page 845.

14. Browder and Kerensky, volume 2, pages 849-50.

15. Browder and Kerensky, volume 2, pages 848-9.

16. Trotsky, History, page 291.

17. Sukhanov, page 114.

18. Shliapnikov, Semnadtsaty god (Moscow 1925), volume 2, page 173.

19. Pravda, 15 March 1917; Browder and Kerensky, volume 2, page 868.

20. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-29 (New York 1981), page 61.

21. Leninski Sbornik, volume 4 (Moscow 1930), pages 301-3.

22. Krasnaia Letopis, number 3, 1923.

23. Shestoi Sezd RSDRP (bolshevikov) (Moscow 1958), page 36.

24. Trotsky, History, page 814.

25. Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1928-29, page 246.

26. Quoted in Trotsky, History, page 814.

27. Lunacharsky, page 66.

28. Trotsky, History, pages 337-8.

29. Trotsky, History, page 975.

30. Trotsky, History, page 138.

31. Trotsky, History, page 324.

32. Trotsky, History, page 810.

33. Trotsky, History, page 819.

34. Trotsky, History, page 925.

35. Trotsky, History, page 308.

36. Sukhanov, page 406.

37. I .Getzler, Kronstadt 1917-1921 (Cambridge 1983), page 1.

38. Getzler, Kronstadt, page 11.

39. E. Mawdsley, The Russian Revolution and the Baltic Fleet (London 1978), page 159.

40. Mawdsley, page 7.

41. Mawdsley, pages 5-6.

42. Mawdsley, page 14.

43. Mawdsley, page 17.

44. Mawdsley, page 21.

45. Mawdsley, page 164.

46. Mawdsley, page 34.

47. Getzler, Kronstadt, pages 35-6.

48. Sedmaia (Aprelskaia) Vserossiiskaia konferentsiia RSDRP (Moscow 1958), page 355.

49. V.V. Kutuzov (editor), Velikaia oktiabroskaia sotsialisticheskaia revoliutsiia – Khronika Sobytii (Moscow 1957), volume 2, page 45.

50. KPSS v borba za pobedu sotsialisticheskoi revoliutsii v period dvoevlastii – 4 iulia 1917 g Sbornik dokumnetov (Moscow 1957), pages 62-3.

51. Getzler, Kronstadt, page 73.

52. Kutuzov, volume 2, page 84.

53. Krasnaia Letopis, number 1 (10), 1924, page 47

54. F.F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917 (London 1982), page 96.

55. Raskolnikov, page 104.

56. Getzler, Kronstadt, pages 97-8.

57. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 1, page 52.

58. Trotsky, My Life, pages 295-6.

59. Izvestia, 3 June 1917; Browder and Kerensky, volume 2, page 119.

60. Lenin, Works, volume 25, page 23.

61. Pervii Vserossiiskii sezd sovetov (Moscow 1930), pages 142-9.

62. Pervii Vserossiiskii sezd sovetov, pages 353-6.

63. Browder and Kerensky, volume 3, pages 1312-13.

64. Browder and Kerensky, volume 3, page 1314.

65. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 1, page 137. The Stalinist editors of Lenin’s Works plagiarised this statement by Trotsky, attributing it to Lenin; see Lenin, Works, volume 25, pages 77-8.

66. Sukhanov, pages 416-17.

67. Quoted in Trotsky, History, page 463.

68. A.L Sidorov and others, Vilikaia Oktiabrskaia sotsialistichekaia revoliutsiia: Dokumenty i materialy (Moscow 1957), volume 3, pages 541-51.

Last updated on 18 July 2009