Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

16. Trotsky organizes the October insurrection

WITH the Bolshevik Central Committee dithering over preparations for the armed insurrection, and Lenin in hiding, Trotsky come to play the role of the organiser of the insurrection. The Minutes of the central committee show that the most important questions – the Military Revolutionary Committee, control of the garrison, the relation between the insurrection and the coming Congress of Soviets – were not discussed in advance by the Central Committee, and did not issue from its intervention, but were worked out only by the executive of the Petrograd Soviet led by Trotsky.

A possible factor in Trotsky’s acting largely independently of the central committee was the still strongly held suspicion of the new recruit by the old Bolsheviks. Trotsky’s prominence in the party was undisputed; but one need but to scan the minutes of the central committee to glimpse the feelings below the surface. As already noted, early in May Lenin tried unsuccessfully to convince his colleagues to appoint Trotsky to the editorship of Pravda. As late as 4 August – with Trotsky in prison, and after he had been elected to the central committee with a very high vote – the central committee still refused, by eleven votes to ten, to elect Trotsky to the editorial board of the Bolshevik press. [1] This was rectified on 6 September, when, two days after his release, he first appeared at the central committee, and he was elected to the editorial board unopposed. [2]

For the mass of the workers and soldiers, Trotsky come to be synonymous with Bolshevism, but to the old party workers of the underground, Lenin’s professional revolutionaries, with their esprit de corps, Trotsky was an outsider. The resentment towards the new recruit was destined to play a significant role in later years – after Lenin’s disappearance from the scene.

While in public Trotsky was by far the most prominent representative of Bolshevism, in the central committee, if one follows its minutes, his behaviour is highly circumspect; his usual élan is missing in the debate on the coming insurrection. The preparations for October, in fact, hardly get an echo in the central committee minutes.

Lenin was the architect of the Bolshevik Party, the great instrument of the revolution. He also directed the party throughout the period and months between April and October, and won the argument for the seizure of power. It was Lenin who spoke to the party members, and through them to the masses. But it was Trotsky, the brilliant orator and writer, who inspired the masses directly to great enthusiasm and courage. Until mid-September Trotsky had played a secondary role to Lenin. Now, as organiser of the insurrection, he come uniquely into his own. To the masses Trotsky symbolised the very essence and aspirations of Bolshevism, even more than Lenin, who withdrew from the public eye.

Jacques Sadoul, a member of the French military mission to Russia, who became a Communist and volunteered for the Red Army, wrote at the time: ‘Trotsky dominated the insurrection, being its soul of steel, while Lenin remains rather its theoretician.’ [3]

Trotsky approached the insurrection from his vantage point as president of the Petrograd Soviet. He agreed with Lenin on the urgency of carrying out the insurrection, but he disagreed over the method, especially over the idea that the party should stage it in its own name. Since the agitation of the Bolshevik Party was under the slogan ‘All power to the Soviets’, he argued that the strategy of the insurrection should appear to all as a direct culmination of this agitation, It should therefore be timed to coincide or slightly precede the Congress of Soviets, into whose hands the insurgents should hand over the power. Further, the insurrection should be conducted in the name of the Soviet of Petrograd, and through its machinery.

Marx wrote that insurrection was an art, and Trotsky demonstrated in September and October 1917 that he was the greatest artist in this field.

Every step Trotsky undertook was aimed to convince the workers and soldiers that it fitted the needs of the Petrograd Soviet, that defence of the Soviet from attack by the Provisional Government constituted at the same time an offensive against that same government. This meant progressive encroachment on the power of the Provisional Government in the name of defence from counter-revolution, and this should serve as preparation for the final blow – the overturning of the government.

As a first step, Trotsky argued in a resolution to the Petrograd Soviet:

In order to unite and co-ordinate the action of all the Soviets in the struggle with the advancing danger, and in order to decide problems of organisation of the revolutionary power, the immediate calling of a congress of the soviets is necessary.

He commented years later on this resolution:

Thus a resolution on self-defence brings us right up to the necessity of overthrowing the government. The agitation will be conducted on this political keynote from now straight on to the moment of insurrection. [4]

Trotsky expands further on this point:

In co-ordinating the revolutionary efforts of the workers and soldiers of the whole country, giving them a single goal, giving them unity of aim and a single date for action, the slogan of the Soviet Congress, at the same time made it possible to screen the semi-conspirative, semi-public preparation of an insurrection with continual appeals to the legal representation of the workers, soldiers and peasants. Having thus promoted the assembling of forces for the revolution, the Congress of Soviets was afterward to sanction its results and give the new government a form irreproachable in the eyes of the people. [5]

On 23 September the Petrograd Soviet elected Trotsky as its president. Sukhanov writes:

Now he became the chairman of the Petersburg Soviet; there was a hurricane of applause when he appeared. Everything had changed! Since the April Days the Soviet had gone against the revolution and been the mainstay of the bourgeoisie. For a whole half-year it had served as bulwark – against the people’s movement and their wrath. It had been the Praetorian Guard of the Star Chamber, at the disposal of Kerensky and Tseretelli. Now it was once again a revolutionary army, inseparable from the popular masses of Petersburg. It was now Trotsky’s guard, ready at a sign from him to storm the Coalition, the Winter Palace and all the citadels of the bourgeoisie. The Soviet, reunited with the masses, had once again recovered its enormous energies. [6]

On behalf of the new Soviet leadership, Trotsky sounded the first summons to the second revolution. At the session of 25 September the Soviet passed this resolution by an enormous majority:

The new government will go down in the history of the revolution as the government of the civil war.

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies declares: ‘We, the workers and the garrison of Petersburg, refuse to support the government of bourgeois autocracy and counter-revolutionary violence. We express the firm conviction that the new government will meet with a single response from the entire revolutionary democracy: “Resign!”‘ Relying on this unanimous voice of the authentic democracy, the All-Russian Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies will create a genuinely revolutionary government. [7]

Commenting on this resolution years later in his history of the revolution, Trotsky aptly wrote:

The enemy tried to see in this resolution a mere ritual vote of non-confidence. In reality it was a programme of revolution. Exactly a month was required for its realisation. [8]

The rise of the Military Revolutionary Committee

The Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet was an extension of the Committee for the Struggle Against Counter-Revolution, formed during the Kornilov coup. Sukhanov tells the story:

... the Right Menshevik Weinstein had proposed, in the name of his fraction, that a special ‘committee for the struggle against the counter-revolution’ be formed ... what should this special committee do? Its initiators were not quite clear about that. In any case it must give every kind of technical aid to the official organs of government in the struggle against Kornilov.

The Menshevik resolution was of course passed. Later the new body received the name of Military Revolutionary Committee. It was this institution that bore the whole brunt of the struggle against the Kornilov campaign. [9]

Trotsky seized upon the Menshevik proposal for the ‘committee for the struggle against the counter-revolution.’ He used the Military Revolutionary Committee brilliantly to encroach more and more on the power of the Provisional Government under the guise of defence from counter-revolution.

On 6 October a rumour concerning a counter-revolutionary conspiracy reached the Soldiers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet – that the government was preparing to flee from Petrograd, and intended to abandon the heart of the revolution to the approaching Germans. Rodzianko, the ex-president of the Duma, went so far as to state publicly that he would rejoice if the German army re-established law and order in Petrograd. Trotsky immediately acted upon the rumour, moving the following resolution at the Soldiers’ Section of the Petrograd Soviet:

If the Provisional Government is incapable of defending Petrograd, then it ought either to conclude peace or to make room for another government. The transfer of the government to Moscow would be a disastrous retreat from a responsible battle position. [10]

The resolution was carried unanimously, and was to have far-reaching consequences, as the Soldiers’ Section of the Soviet, which had long been a moderating counterweight to the militancy of the workers, now moved solidly behind Trotsky.

Trotsky continued this line of argument, the next day, as we have seen, berating the Pre-Parliament with the bourgeoisie’s counter-revolutionary policy of the surrender of the revolutionary capital to German troops.

On 11 October the Commander of the Northern front, General Cheremissov, reported to the war minister a demand of the army committees that the exhausted units at the front be replaced by fresher Petrograd units from the rear. In reply the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet instructed the Military Revolutionary Committee:

To get in touch with the Northern front and with the headquarters of the Petrograd district, with Centrobalt and the regional Soviet of Finland, in order to ascertain the military situation and take the necessary measures: to take a census of the personal composition of the garrison of Petrograd and its environs, also of the ammunition and military supplies; to take measures for the preservation of discipline in the soldier and worker masses. [11]

Trotsky commented aptly on this:

The formulae were all-inclusive and at the same time ambiguous: they almost all balanced on a fine line between defence of the capital and armed insurrection. However, these two tasks, heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in actual fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defence of Petrograd. [12]

On the same day a Congress of the Soviets of the Northern Region was held in Petrograd. Speaking to the Congress Trotsky declared:

Our government can run away from Petrograd, but the revolutionary people will never leave Petrograd; they will defend it to the end ... Now the General Staff puts forward a plan to evacuate two-thirds of the garrison from Petrograd. This is a problem facing us. The Soviet ‘authorities’ have decided to support the General Staff ... On the eve of the Kornilov conspiracy [the military authorities] also issued an order to evacuate the troops, and then they argued it was necessitated by strategic reasons.

There is only one way out – it is necessary to transfer power into the hands of the All-Russian Soviet of Workers and Soldiers’ Deputies. [13]

Trotsky then moved the following resolution:

The nation can be saved only by the immediate transfer of all power into the hands of the organs of the revolution – the Soviets of Workers’ Soldiers’ and Peasants’ Deputies – at the centre and in the provinces ... The hour has arrived when only a decisive and unanimous action of all the Soviets can save the country, by solving the question of the central power. [14]

This was overwhelmingly carried. Two years after these events, Trotsky wrote in an article on the October Revolution:

As soon as the order for the removal of the troops was communicated by headquarters to the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet ... it became clear that this question in its further development would have decisive political significance. [15]

Elsewhere he wrote:

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 the transfer of the Petrograd garrison; created the Revolutionary Military Committee (16 October); 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 Revolutionary Military Committee and under the slogan of preparing the defence of the Second Soviet Congress, which would decide the ultimate fate of the state power ... The insurrection of 25 October was only supplementary in character. [16]

This act of defiance over the issue of the transfer of the garrison from Petrograd also demonstrated the hegemony of the proletariat over the peasantry – one of the key themes of the Theory of the Permanent Revolution. Usually it is difficult to organise the atomised peasantry; but the war organised them in an army of many millions. The hegemony of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies over the garrison was a demonstration of the proletarian leadership of the peasantry. The defence of the Petrograd garrison from attack directed by the Kerensky government, the prevention of its transfer to the front, was a key feature in the strategy of the Soviet and the Military Revolutionary Committee.

The same theme of the alliance of workers and peasants was emphasised by Trotsky in his report to the conference of factory committees on 10 October on the need for economic aid by the industrial proletariat to the peasantry. He declared: ‘We must explain to the village that all attempts of the workers to help the peasants by supplying the village with agricultural implements will be impossible until workers’ control of organised production is established.’ [17] The conference issued a manifesto to the peasantry in this sense, the central theme of which was that the proletariat felt itself to be a special class and a leader of the people.

On 12 October the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet declared:

A Military Revolutionary Committee is being formed by the Petersburg Executive Committee and is its organ. It is composed of: the praesidiums of the plenum and of the Soldiers’ Section of the Soviet, representatives of the Central Committee of the Fleet, the Railwaymen’s Union, the Union of Post Office and Telegraph Employees, the factory committees, the trade unions, representatives of the party military organisations, the military section of the central executive committee, and the workers’ militia, as well as individuals whose presence is thought necessary. The Military Revolutionary Committee’s first tasks are the allocation of combat and auxiliary forces, necessary for the defence of the capital and not subject to evacuation; then the registration of the personal composition of the garrison of Petersburg and its suburbs, and also the registration of supply sources; the elaboration of a working plan for the defence of the city; measures of protection against pogroms and desertions; the maintenance of revolutionary discipline amongst the working class and soldiery. [18]

On 13 October Trotsky issued a radio message: To All, To All, To All, calling on all Soviets and the army to send delegates to the coming Second Congress of Soviets.

On the same day the executive committee of the Petrograd Soviet made public the creation under its supervision of a special department of the Red Guard. Four years alter the event, Trotsky, in an evening devoted to recollections of the October revolution, told the following story:

The arms situation was as follows. The prime source of weapons was the Sestroretsky factory. When a delegation of workers come and said that they needed weapons, I said: ‘You know that the arsenal is not in our hands.’ They replied: ‘We have been to the Sestroretsky factory’ ‘Well, what happened?’ ‘They said that if the Soviet issued an order, they would deliver.’ This was the first test. I issued an order for five thousand rifles, and they received them the same day. [19]

Encroaching on the Provisional Government

On 16 October, when the Bolshevik resolution on the Military Revolutionary Committee was discussed in the Petrograd Soviet, a Menshevik spokesman complained:

‘The Bolsheviks won’t answer the straight question whether or not they are preparing a coup. This is either cowardice or lack of confidence in their own strength.’ (Laughter in the audience). ‘But the projected Military Revolutionary Committee is nothing but a revolutionary staff for the seizure of power ... We have many local reports that the masses are out of sympathy with a coup. There is a “Provisional Military Committee” attached to the Central Executive Committee, whose object is real co-operation in the defence of the Northern front. The Petersburg Soviet ought to send its representatives there and reject the proposal for a military revolutionary committee.’

Trotsky got up. In this gathering his task was not especially difficult.

‘The Menshevik representative is preoccupied with whether the Bolsheviks are preparing an armed demonstration. In whose name has he asked this question: in the name of Kerensky, the counter-intelligence, the Secret Police, or some other body?’ [20]

Trotsky did not deny that the Bolsheviks were preparing for a seizure of power. ‘We make no secret of that’ but at present, he said, ‘that is not the question.’

On 18 October Trotsky moved the following declaration in the name of the Petrograd Soviet:

Lately all the press had been full of reports, rumours and articles about a coming initiative which is an event sometimes attributed to the Bolsheviks and sometimes attributed to the Petrograd Soviet.

The decisions of the Petrograd Soviet are published for general information. The Soviet is an elected institution, every member of which is responsible to the workers and soldiers who elected him. The revolutionary parliament of the proletariat and the revolutionary garrison cannot keep its decisions secret from the workers and soldiers.

We are not concealing anything. I declare in the name of the Soviet: we have not been planning any kind of armed initiative. However, if the course of events forced the soviet to take an initiative, workers and soldiers would respond as one man to its initiative ...

It has been stated further, that I have signed an order for 5,000 rifles from the Sestroretsky factory. Yes, I signed the order because of a decision already adopted in the days of the Kornilov revolt so as to arm the workers’ militia. And the Petrograd Soviet will continue to organise and to arm the proletarian guard.

We are in conflict with the government and it may take on a very acute form. This is a question of the withdrawal of troops. You can see how the bourgeois press is trying to create around the Petrograd soldiers and workers an atmosphere of enmity and suspicion and to evoke hatred at the front for Petrograd soldiers.

The Congress of Soviets is another thorny question. Governmental circles know our point of view as regards the role of the Congress of Soviets. The bourgeoisie knows that the Petrograd Soviet will propose to the congress that it should take power into its own hands, propose a democratic peace to the belligerent people and give land to the peasants. They are trying to disarm Petrograd, by withdrawing its revolutionary guard. They are hastening, before the congress opens, to arm and to station, at different points, all those who are loyal to them, in order that they may put in motion all their forces, to bring to nothing the representations of the workers, soldiers and peasants. Just as an artillery bombardment prepares an attack against the army, so the present campaign of lies and calumny is preparing an armed assault on the Congress of Soviets.

We must be on our guard. We have entered upon a period of most acute struggle. One must constantly expect an attack by counter-revolutionaries.

However, at the first attempt by them to disrupt the Congress of Soviets, at the first attempt to attack, we shall answer with a counter-attack which will be merciless and which we shall carry through to its conclusion. [21]

Years later Trotsky could write correctly that in this speech the complete definition of the intended insurrection was given: ‘... the announcement of a decisive political offensive was made under the formulae of military defence.’ [22]

The resistance to the Provisional Government’s attempt to remove units of the garrison from Petrograd solved the key issue of the insurrection: winning the soldiers to the side of the revolution. Usually this is done through mass strikes, demonstrations, street encounters, battles at the barricades. The unique thing about the October insurrection was that the winning of the troops preceded the insurrection, and happened without the mass actions of workers as a prologue.

In those days, Sukhanov writes, Trotsky dominated the scene:

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. [23]

Challenging the Provisional Government

On the night of 21 October the Military Revolutionary Committee sent a group of representatives to General Staff Headquarters to assert formally the committee’s claim to authority over garrison units. General Polkovnikov retorted that the garrison was his responsibility. When the Military Revolutionary Committee delegates returned to Smolny, Trotsky drafted for endorsement by the garrison conference and circulation to all units later in the day what has to be one of the most crucial documents of the October revolution: a formal declaration that amounted to a categorical repudiation of the Provisional Government’s authority over the garrison troops.

The following message was sent to the garrison on 22 October:

At its meeting on 21 October, the revolutionary garrison of Petrograd rallied to the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies as its leading organ.

Despite that fact, headquarters of the Petrograd military district on the night of October 22 has not recognised the Military Revolutionary Committee, refusing to work with the representative of the soldiers’ section of the Soviet.

Thereby, headquarters has broken with the revolutionary garrison, and the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

Having broken with the organised garrison of the capital, headquarters is a direct armed instrument of the counter-revolutionary forces.

The Military Revolutionary Committee disclaims all responsibility for the actions of headquarters of the Petrograd military district.

Soldiers of Petrograd!

1. The defence of revolutionary order against counter-revolutionary attempts falls upon you, under the leadership of the Military Revolutionary Committee.

2. No directives to the garrison are valid unless signed by the Military Revolutionary Committee.

3. All directives for today – (Petrograd Soviet Day) – retain their full force.

4. On all soldiers of the garrison is imposed the duty of vigilance, steadfastness and strict discipline.

5. The revolution is in danger. Long live the revolutionary garrison!

[signed] The Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet
of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. [24]

Sukhanov comments on this declaration: ‘Now this was definitely an insurrectionary act.’ [25]

On 21 October Trotsky conveyed the above instruction to the congress of the garrison, and this body adopted the following resolution drafted by Trotsky:

Endorsing all political decisions of the Petrograd Soviet, the garrison declares:

The time for words has passed. The country is on the brink of disaster. The army demands peace, the peasants demand land, the workers demand employment and bread. The coalition government is against the people, an instrument in the hands of the people’s enemies. The time for words has passed. The All-Russian Congress of Soviets must take power in its hands and guarantee to the people peace, land and bread.

The safety of the revolution and the people demands it. All power to the Soviets!

Immediate armistice on all fronts!

Land to the peasants!

Honest summoning of the Constituent Assembly at the appointed date!

The Petrograd garrison solemnly promises to put at the disposal of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets all its forces to the last man, to fight for these demands.

Rely on us, authorised representatives of the soldiers, workers and peasants. We are at our posts, ready to conquer or die. [26]

Not satisfied with its formal denial of the rumour of an insurrection, the Soviet openly designated Sunday 22 October – the half-year anniversary of the February revolution – as the day for a peaceful review of its forces, not in the form of street demonstrations, but of meetings in the factories, barracks and all major institutions of the city. With the obvious aim of provocation, a call in the name of some unknown Cossacks invited citizens to take part in a religious procession, ‘in memory of the delivery of Moscow from the enemy in 1812’. Trotsky made a brilliant move, appealing to the Cossack units:

Brother Cossacks!

The Petrograd Soviet addresses you as follows:

Attempts are being made to incite you, Cossacks, against us, the workers and soldiers. This work of Cain is done by our common enemies – nobles, bankers, landlords, former bureaucrats, and servants of the Tsar. They always maintain their power by setting the people against each other, inciting the soldiers against the workers. And now they are instigating the Cossacks against the soldiers.

By what means do they achieve their purpose? Through abuse and calumny, of course. Cossacks, soldiers, sailors, workers, and peasants are all brothers; are all alike in that they have to work hard, are poor, are living from hand to mouth, and are suffering from the same war which has taken everything from them.

Who wants this war? Who started it? Certainly not the Cossacks or the soldiers, not the workers or the peasants! It is the generals and the bankers, the Tsars, and the landlords who want the war! Upon it they build their power, their might, and their riches ...

The people want peace. The soldiers and workers of every country are thirsting for peace. The Petrograd Soviet demands of the bourgeoisie and the generals: ‘Get out of the way, you tyrants! Let the power pass into the hands of the people, and the people will at once conclude an honest peace!’

Are we not right, Comrade Cossacks? We have no doubt that you will say yes. But it is just for this reason that we are hated by the rich, the profiteers, the princes, the nobles and the generals, including your own Cossack generals. They are ready at any moment to destroy the Petrograd Soviet, to strangle the revolution and to enchain the people as in the days of the Tsar. To accomplish this they spread lies about us.

... They tell you that the Soviet intends to start an insurrection on 22 October to enter a fight with you and to prepare a massacre. Those who tell you this are scamps and traitors. You may tell them so! For 22 October the Soviet is arranging peaceful gatherings ... where workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants may come together and listen to speeches about peace and war and the welfare of the people. You too are invited to attend these peaceful meetings. You will be cordially welcomed, Brother Cossacks!

Let those of you who are still in doubt come to Smolny where the Soviet is located. You will find there many soldiers and Cossacks who will explain to you what the Soviet stands for and by what means it attains its ends. Was it not for just that very purpose of enabling you to discuss freely your needs and to take your destinies into your own hands that the people overthrew the Tsar? You too, Cossacks, should remove from your eyes the cover by which the enemies of the toiling Cossacks, the Kaledins, Bardizhis, and Karaulovs, are trying to blindfold you ...

[signed] The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies [27]

One Cossack regiment after another announced that they would not take part in the religious procession, so the procession was cancelled.

On ‘Soviet Day’, the Bolsheviks’ most popular orators, among them Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Volodarsky and Raskolnikov spoke at mass rallies, in factories and public meeting halls throughout the capital. Sukhanov describes one such meeting addressed by Trotsky:

I remember that at length and with extraordinary power he drew a picture (difficult through its simplicity) of the suffering of the trenches ...

The Soviet regime was not only called upon to put an end to the suffering of the trenches. It would give land and heal the internal disorder. Once again the recipes against hunger were repeated: a soldier, a sailor, and a working girl, who would requisition bread from those who had it and distribute it gratis to the cities and front. But Trotsky went even further on this decisive ‘Day of the Petersburg Soviet’.

‘The Soviet Government will give everything the country contains to the poor and the men in the trenches. You, bourgeois, have got two fur caps! – give one of them to the soldier who’s freezing in the trenches. Have you got warm boots? Stay at home. The worker needs your boots ...’

... All round me was a mood bordering on ecstasy. It seemed as though the crowd, spontaneously and of its own accord, would break into some religious hymn. Trotsky formulated a brief and general resolution, or pronounced some general formula like ‘we will defend the worker-peasant cause to the last drop of our blood.’

Who was – for? The crowd of thousands, as one man, raised their hands. I saw the raised hands and burning eyes of men, women. youths, soldiers, peasants, and – typically, lower middle-class faces ...

Trotsky went on speaking. The innumerable crowd went on holding their hands up. Trotsky rapped out the words: ‘Let this vote of yours be your vow – with all your strength and at any sacrifice to support the Soviet that has taken on itself the glorious burden of bringing to a conclusion the victory of the revolution and of giving land, bread, and peace!’

The vast crowd was holding up its hands. It agreed. It vowed. [28]

Every hour the stranglehold of the Petrograd Soviet on the Provisional Government became tighter. However, on 23 October a serious setback occurred for the Military Revolutionary Committee: the strategically crucial Peter and Paul Fortress and the adjoining Kronverk Arsenal, a central storehouse of arms and ammunition, refused to recognise the commissar assigned to it by the Military Revolutionary Committee and threatened to arrest him. To take the fortress by force was very risky. Trotsky found a daring solution. Sukhanov writes:

It was necessary to take the Peter-Paul quickly, before the government stopped debating and started doing something to protect itself. Two methods were proposed for taking over the fortress. Antonov proposed to bring in a reliable battalion of the Pavlovskys immediately and disarm the garrison of the fortress. But in the first place this involved a risk; secondly, it was essentially an act of war, after which it would be necessary to attack at once and liquidate the government. Trotsky had another proposal, namely, that he, Trotsky, go to the fortress, hold a meeting there, and capture not the body but the spirit of the garrison. In the first place there would be no risk in that, secondly it might be that even after this the government would go on living in Nirvana and allow Smolny to extend its authority further and further without let or hindrance.

No sooner said than done. Trotsky set off at once, together with Lashevich. Their harangues were enthusiastically received. The garrison, almost unanimously, passed a resolution about the Soviet regime and its own readiness to rise up, weapons in hand, against the bourgeois government. A Smolny commissar was installed in the fortress, under the protection of the garrison, and refused to recognise the Commandant. A hundred thousand extra rifles were in the hands of the Bolsheviks. [29]

Control of the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose cannons overlooked the Winter Palace, was a victory of immense importance.

The Military Revolutionary Committee continued its encroachment on the power of the Provisional Government, without firing a shot. Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution summed up this policy thus:

The committee is crowding out the government with the pressure of the masses, with the weight of the garrison. It is taking all it can without a battle. It is advancing its positions without firing, integrating and reinforcing its army on the march. It is measuring with its own pressure the resisting power of the enemy, not taking its eyes off him for a second. Each new step forward changes the disposition of forces to the advantage of Smolny. The workers and the garrison are growing up to the insurrection. Who is to be first to issue the call to arms will become known in the course of this offensive, this crowding out. It is now only a question of hours. If at the last moment the government finds the courage, or the despair, to give the signal for battle, responsibility for this will lie upon the Winter Palace. But the initiative just the same will have been taken by Smolny. Its declaration of 23 October had meant the overthrow of the power before the government itself was overthrown. The Military Revolutionary Committee was tying up the arms and legs of the enemy regime before striking him on the head. It was possible to apply this tactic of ‘peaceful penetration’, to break the bones of the enemy legally and hypnotically paralyse the remnants of his will, only because of the indubitable superiority of forces on the side of the committee and because they were increasing hour by hour. [30]

Still, on the 23rd, the talk was not about insurrection, but about the ‘defence of the coming Congress of Soviets’. 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 further activities of the Military Revolutionary Committee. And this happened on 24 October.

The government decided to instigate legal proceedings against the Military Revolutionary Committee, to shut down the Bolshevik paper for advocating insurrection, and to summon reliable military detachments from the environs and the front.

And so the government fell into the trap. The district commander, General Polkovnikov, sent a squad of soldiers to close down the Bolshevik printing press. Trotsky reacted sharply:

Two revolutionary papers, Rabochi Put and Soldat, have been closed by the conspiratorial headquarters. The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies cannot tolerate suppression of the free word. For the people fighting off the attack of pogromists there must be assurance of an honest press. [31]

Trotsky ordered two of the best organised, most revolutionary units of the garrison – the Litovsky Regiment and the Sixth Engineer Battalion – to take charge of reopening the Bolshevik printing press and ensure its security. Years later he recounted:

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. [32]

Trotsky convened an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet and reported the steps taken by the Military Revolutionary Committee regarding the Bolshevik press. Even now Trotsky did not drop the defensive stance. He reminded the Soviet that the Military Revolutionary Committee had arisen ‘not as an instrument of insurrection, but on the basis of revolutionary self-defence.’ The committee did not allow Kerensky to remove the revolutionary troops from Petrograd, and it had taken under its protection the workers’ press.

Is this an insurrection? We have a semi-government in which the people do not trust, and which has no confidence in itself, because it is internally dead. This semi-government only awaits the sweep of history’s broom that will clear the space for a real power of the revolutionary people ... Tomorrow the Congress of Soviets opens. It is the task of the garrison and of the proletariat to put at its disposal the power they have gathered, a power on which any governmental provocation will founder ... If the sham government makes a reckless attempt to revive its own corpse, the popular masses will strike a decisive counter-blow, and the blow will be the more powerful the stronger the attack. If the government tries to use the 24 or 48 hours still left to it in order to stab the revolution, then we declare that the vanguard of the revolution will answer blow with blow, iron with steel. [33]

On 24 October the cruiser Aurora addressed a question to Smolny: Shall we go to sea or remain in the Neva?

The very same sailors, [writes Trotsky], who had guarded the Winter Palace against Kornilov in August were now burning to settle accounts with Kerensky. The government order was promptly countermanded by the committee, and the crew received Order No. 1218: ‘In case of an attack on the Petrograd garrison by the counter-revolutionary forces, the cruiser Aurora is to protect herself with tugs, steam-boats and cutters.’ The cruiser enthusiastically carried out this order for which it had only been waiting. The Aurora in the Neva meant not only an excellent fighting unit in the service of the insurrection, but a radio station ready for use. Invaluable advantage! The sailor Kurkov has remembered: ‘We got word from Trotsky to broadcast ...that the counter-revolution had taken the offensive.’ [34]

An attempt to suppress the papers, a resolution to prosecute the Military Revolutionary Committee, an order removing commissars, the cutting-out of Smolny’s telephones – these pinpricks were just sufficient to convict the government of preparing a counter-revolutionary coup d’état. Although an insurrection can win only on the offensive, it develops better, the more it looks like self-defence. A piece of official sealing-wax on the door of the Bolshevik editorial-rooms – as a military measure that is not much. But what a superb signal for battle! Telephonograms to all districts and units of the garrison announce the event. ‘The enemy of the people took the offensive during the night. The Military Revolutionary Committee is leading the resistance to the assault of the conspirators.’ The conspirators – these were the institutions of the official government. [35]

On 24 October the Military Revolutionary Committee issued this appeal:

To the people of Petrograd:

For the information of workers, soldiers and all citizens of Petrograd we declare:

In the interests of the defence of the revolution and its conquests against attacks by the counter-revolution, commissars have been appointed by us in military units and at strategic points in the capital and its environs. Orders and instructions which are being distributed to these points are to be carried out only with the sanction of our authorised commissars. Commissars, as representatives of the Soviet, are inviolable. Opposition to commissars is opposition to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The Soviet has taken all measures to protect revolutionary order against attacks by counter-revolutionaries and thugs. All citizens are invited to give every form of support to our commissars. In the event of disturbances arising one should turn to the commissars of the Military Revolutionary Committee in the nearest military unit.

[signed] Military Revolutionary Committee [36]

Sticking to Soviet legality

Trotsky persevered in carrying out the insurrection in the name of the Soviet, not the party. History has shown he was correct. 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 they will do so if summoned by the party. Thus it was a matter of great importance which institution was to call for the insurrection.

At an enlarged meeting of the Petrograd Bolshevik party on 15 October, with many activists present, Nevsky, representing the Military Organisation of the party, stated: ‘The whole garrison will come out at the call of the Soviet’.

Ravich (Moscow District): ‘The masses will rise only at the call of the Soviet, but very few will respond to the call of our party.’

A comrade from the Obukhov factory: ‘The factory will no doubt respond to the call of the Petrograd Soviet.’

Spokesmen of the trade unions: ‘The masses might respond to the call of the Soviet.’ [37]

An enlarged meeting of the central committee on 16 October, including, besides central committee members, the executive commission of the Petersburg committee, the Military Organisation, the Petrograd Soviet, the leaders of the Bolsheviks in the trade unions, the factory committees, the Petrograd area committee and the railwaymen, heard similar views.

Speaker from Moscow district: ‘A reckless mood, will come out if the Soviet calls, but not the party.’

Speaker from Neva district: ‘The mood has swung sharply in our favour. Everyone will follow the Soviet.’

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.’ [38]

On 17 October Smilga made it clear that he opposed any action before the meeting of the Congress of Soviets. He said that ‘without the knowledge of the Congress and before the Congress there can be no uprising of any sort.’ [39]

Trotsky commented on these discussions:

The very fact that agitators and organisers in estimating the state of mind of the masses always alluded to the distinction between the Soviet and the party, shows what great significance this question had from the standpoint of the summons to insurrection. [40]

What would have happened if the insurrection had been called by the party? It would have had great disadvantages. Trotsky writes:

In those millions upon whom the party legitimately counted it is necessary to distinguish three layers, one which was already with the Bolsheviks on all conditions; another, more numerous, which supported the Bolsheviks insofar as they acted through the Soviets; a third which followed the Soviets in spite of the fact that they were dominated by the Bolsheviks ...

The party set the Soviets in motion, 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. [41]

Smooth passage to victory

The smooth passage of the October revolution in Petrograd is clear from the fact that only ten people died during it (as against 1,315 who lost their lives in the February revolution). This was largely the result of Trotsky’s superlative grasp of what Marx and Engels called ‘the art of insurrection’. In his History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky elaborates on this art:

The co-ordination of the mass insurrection with the conspiracy, the subordination of the conspiracy to the insurrection, the organisation of the insurrection through the conspiracy, constitutes that complex and responsible department of revolutionary politics which Marx and Engels called ‘the art of insurrection’. It presupposes a correct general leadership of the masses, a flexible orientation in changing conditions, a thought-out plan of attack, cautiousness in technical preparation, and a daring blow. [42]

Above all, the insurrection was a brilliant success because Trotsky imbued the mass of the workers and soldiers with courage and energy through his far-sightedness, firm, confident and decisive leadership.

The fact that on the day of the insurrection the resistance of the government was reduced to defending the Winter Palace demonstrates how successful Trotsky’s direction of the preparation and the carrying out of the final insurrection had been. Sukhanov described the insurrection:

... no resistance was shown. Beginning at two 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 centres of the city rather resembled a changing of the guard. The weaker defence force of cadets retired; and the strengthened defence force, of guards, took its place ... the decisive operations that had begun were quite bloodless; not one casualty was recorded. The city was absolutely calm. Both the centre 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. [43]

Sukhanov could quite rightly refer to the ‘meticulously executed October insurrection’. [44] ‘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.’ [45]

Victor Serge, in his moving account of the revolution, writes:

The revolution did, indeed, go off in proletarian style – with organisation. That is why, in Petrograd, it won so easily and completely ... The rational element of co-ordination, the superb organisation 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-organised movements which have been so numerous in the history of the proletariat. [46]

Even Stalin had to admit the crucial role of Trotsky in the October insurrection, in an article that is of course missing in his Works. In The Role of the Most Eminent Party leaders written on 6 November 1918, Stalin wrote:

All the work of practical organisation 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. [47]

The establishment of Soviet power

Opening the session of the Petrograd Soviet of 25 October, Trotsky stated:

In the name of the Military Revolutionary Committee I declare that the Provisional Government has ceased to exist. (Applause) Some ministers have been arrested. (Hurrah!) The others will be arrested in a few days or a few hours. (Applause)

The revolutionary garrison, which is at the disposal of the Military Revolutionary Committee, has dispersed the Pre-Parliament. (Stormy applause. Cries of ‘Long live the Military Revolutionary Committee!’)

We were told that the insurrection of the garrison would promote a pogrom and drown the revolution in torrents of blood. Up to now no blood was spilt. We don’t know of a single casualty. I don’t know of any other example in history of a revolutionary movement involving such gigantic masses that was carried through without bloodshed ...

The Winter Palace has not yet been taken, but its fate will be settled in the course of the next few minutes.

At the present time, we, the Soviet of Soldiers’, Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies, are going to undertake an experiment unique in history, the establishment of a government that will have no other aim than the satisfaction of the needs of the soldiers, workers and peasants.

The state must be an instrument of the masses in the struggle for them breaking from all slavery ...

It is essential to establish control over production. The peasants, workers and soldiers must feel that the national economy is their economy.

This is the basic principle of the establishment of the authority.

The introduction of universal labour service is one of the immediate tasks of genuine revolutionary power. [48]

Then Trotsky moved the Report on the overthrow of the Provisional Government:

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies welcomes the victorious revolution of the proletariat and the garrison of Petrograd, and especially underlines the solidarity, organisation, discipline and the complete unanimity which the masses showed in this uprising as remarkable for its bloodlessness and for its success.

The Soviet, expressing its unshakeable conviction that the proletarian and peasant government, which, as the Soviet Government, will be created by the revolution and which will provide support for the urban proletariat from the whole mass of the poorest peasantry, that this government will resolutely march towards socialism, the one and only means of saving the country from the unprecedented disasters and horrors of the war.

The new proletarian and peasant government will propose immediately a just democratic peace to all the belligerent peoples.

It will abolish immediately the landlords’ ownership of land and will hand it over to the peasants. It will create workers’ control over the production and distribution of goods, it will establish social control over banks, as well as simultaneously merging them into one state enterprise. The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies calls on all the workers and peasants of Russia to support selflessly, with all their strength, the proletarian and peasant revolution. The Soviet expresses its conviction, that the urban workers, in alliance with the poorest peasants, will display inflexible discipline, necessary for the victory of socialism. The Soviet is certain that the proletariat in western European countries will aid us to carry the cause of socialism through to a complete and lasting victory. [49]

Sukhanov records:

Then Trotsky introduced Lenin to the meeting and gave him the floor for a speech on the Soviet regime. Lenin was given a tumultuous ovation ...

The oppressed masses [Lenin said] themselves will form a government. The old state apparatus will be destroyed root and branch and a new administrative apparatus will be created in the form of the Soviet organisations. Now begins a new era in the history of Russia, and this third Russian revolution must finally lead to the victory of Socialism. One of our routine tasks is to end the war at once. But in order to end this war, closely bound up with the present capitalist order, it is clear to everyone that our capitalism itself must be conquered. In this task we shall be helped by the world-wide working-class movement which has already begun to develop in Italy, Germany and England.

Within Russia an enormous section of the peasantry has said: Enough playing around with the capitalists; we will go with the workers. We shall win the peasants’ trust with a single decree which will annihilate landed property. We shall institute a genuine workers’ control of industry. We have the strength of a mass organisation that will triumph over everything and bring the proletariat to the world revolution. In Russia we must set to work at once on the construction of a proletarian Socialist State. Long live the worldwide Socialist revolution! [50]

Trotsky, together with Lenin, led the Russian proletariat to the conquest of power, provided leadership to the workers’ state, and to an international whose immediate task was to lead workers’ revolution worldwide.


1. CC Minutes, page 11.

2. CC Minutes, page 29.

3. J. Sadoul, Notes sur la Révolution Bolchevique (Paris 1919), page 76.

4. Trotsky, History, page 931.

5. Trotsky, History, pages 938-9.

6. Sukhanov, page 528.

7. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 1, page 318.

8. Trotsky, History, page 847.

9. Sukhanov, page 504.

10. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 1, page 321.

11. Trotsky, History, pages 944-5.

12. Trotsky, History, page 945.

13. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 5-6.

14. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 13.

15. Trotsky, History, page, pages 943-4.

16. Trotsky, The Lessons of October, in The Challenge of the Left Opposition 1923-25, pages 240-1.

17. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 4.

18. Sukhanov, pages 560-1.

19. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 93.

20. Sukhanov, pages 561-2.

21. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 31-3; M. McCawley (editor) The Russian Revolution and the Soviet State 1917-1921: Documents (London 1988), pages 119-21.

22. Trotsky, History, page 957.

23. Sukhanov, page 578.

24. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 37-8; Lovell (editor), Leon Trotsky Speaks, pages 67-8.

25. Sukhanov, page 592.

26. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 37.

27. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 38-40; Gankin and Fisher, pages 80-1.

28. Sukhanov, pages 584-5.

29. Sukhanov, pages 595-6.

30. Trotsky, History, pages 969-70.

31. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 51.

32. Trotsky, History, pages 1054-5.

33. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 51-3.

34. Trotsky, History, pages 1055-6.

35. Trotsky, History, page 1055.

36. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, page 45; McCawley, pages 121-2.

37. P.F. Kudelli (editor), Pervii legalnyi Peterburgskii komitet bolshevikov v 1917 g (Moscow-Leningrad 1927), pages 310-16.

38. CC Minutes, pages 95-109.

39. Mawdsley, page 110.

40. Trotsky, History, page 1129.

41. Trotsky, History, pages 1127 and 1180.

42. Trotsky, History, page 1019.

43. Sukhanov, pages 620-1.

44. Sukhanov, page 47.

45. M. Liebman, The Russian Revolution (London 1970), pages 285-6.

46. Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution (London 1972) pages 68-9.

47. Pravda, 6 November 1918.

48. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 55-7.

49. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 3, book 2, pages 58-9; McCawley, pages 124-5.

50. Sukhanov, pages 628-9.

Last updated on 18 July 2009