Duncan Hallas

All Power to the Soviets 2


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July-August 1976, pp.17-21.
Extended Review Part 2, Part 1 in No.89.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Duncan Hallas on Cliff’s Lenin vol 2

Part 2

Two Roads

The developing revolution is always menaced by danger not only from the right, but from the left as well. The revolution can successfully struggle against reaction and force it out of its position only so long as it is able to remain within the limits which are predetermined by the objective necessity (the state of the productive forces, the level of mentality of the masses of people corresponding to it, etc.). One cannot render a better service to reaction than by disregarding those limits and by making attempts at breaking them.

Lenin arrived in our midst in order to render this service to reaction ... People who call to their aid the best, the most cherished aspirations of the proletariat are coming to the aid of reaction. Basing themselves on those aspirations and on the illusory possibility of putting them into effect, they will arouse against the revolution the backward majority of the population of the country, and thereby pave the sure road to reaction.

An undoubted danger threatens the revolution. Before it is too late, Lenin and his supporters must be given a most decisive rebuff. (Workers’ Gazette, the Menshevik paper, 6.4.1917)

State power in Russia has passed into the hands of a new class, namely the bourgeoisie and landowners who had become bourgeois. To this extent the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia is completed ... The new bourgeois government of Lvov and Co has attempted and begun to negotiate with the Romanovs for the restoration of the monarchy in Russia. Behind a screen of revolutionary phrases, this government is appointing partisans of the old regime to key positions. It is striving to reform the whole machinery of state (the army, the police and the bureaucracy) as little as possible, and has turned it over to the bourgeoisie. The new government has already begun to hinder in every way the revolutionary initiative of mass action and the seizure of power by the people from below, which is the sole guarantee of the real success of the revolution. (Lenin, Tasks of the Proletariat in our Revolution, 28.5.1917)

The February revolution brought the bourgeois government of Prince Lvov to office but it also created a situation of dual power. On the one hand, a weak ‘liberal’ government striving to re-establish the cohesion of the state machine-above all of the army and the police; on the other hand, the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies dominated by the Menshevik-SR bloc which, as Lenin said, has “surrendered and is surrendering its position to the bourgeoisie”. [1]

The provisional government was not strong enough either to suppress the Soviets or to ignore them. It was compelled to lean on the Soviet majority. The Menshevik and SR leaders, in the name of ‘democracy’, gave it their willing support.

“The provisional government has no real power at its disposal,” Guchkov, the Minister of War, wrote to General Alekseev, on 9 March “and its decrees are carried out only to the extent this is permitted by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. The Soviet controls the most important elements of real power, such as the army, the railways, the posts and telegraphs. It is possible to say flatly that the provisional government exists only as long as it is allowed by the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” [2]

First from outside the government and then, from May onwards when they entered into a coalition with the ‘liberals’, from within as well, the Menshevik dominated Soviet majority sought to end the dual power by helping to create a solid bourgeois state. This, in turn, meant the adoption of ever more reactionary policies.

The war must go on. “In taking upon itself the fight for universal peace,” declared the Menshevik leader Tsereteli in June, “the Russian revolution has also to take over the war, begun by other governments, the end of which does not depend on the efforts of the Russian revolution alone.” [3] Of course, these ex-supporters of the Zimmerwald majority spoke of a ‘peace without annexations’, a ‘just peace’, a ‘democratic peace’ and so on. But after the victory of the allies! There could be no question of an immediate peace. The disintegrating Russian army must fight on.

Therefore the authority of the officer corps, the strongest bastion of reaction, pro-Tsarist almost to a man, must be restored. Cliff quotes Engels’ indisputable comment: “Surely, the fact is evident that a disorganised army and a complete breakdown of discipline has been the condition as well as the result of every victorious revolution”. [4] In seeking to reverse this breakdown the Mensheviks and SRs were inevitably undermining the very gains of the February revolution itself. Logically enough, many of them ended up, in the civil war, as ornaments of the puppet ‘governments’ of various white generals.

In the first flush of the February revolution, at a time when the officers had lost all control over their troops, the Petrograd Soviet had been forced to issue Order No.1. This, whilst declaring that “soldiers must observe the strictest military discipline’, also ‘legitimised’ soldiers’ councils in every unit and stated ‘in all its political actions the military branch is subordinated to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies and to its own committees”. [5] Subsequently every effort was made to reverse this dangerous provision, but without lasting success.

The Bolsheviks, after April, called for the election of all officers, subject to recall; for fraternisation with the ‘enemy’ and for peace. There was no middle way. If the power of the officer corps was restored, the counter-revolution would triumph. If the revolution was to go forward, the disintegration of the old army must be completed.

As in this, the central question in every revolution, so in every other field the roads followed by what had once been the two wings of one party steadily diverged: The Mensheviks and their SR allies sought to restore the, authority of the employers in the plants. The Bolsheviks called for workers’ control.

The Menshevik-SR bloc called on the peasants to wait until a Constituent Assembly, whose election they constantly postponed, settled the land question. The Bolsheviks called for the implementation of the original SR programme – the seizure of the land by the peasants themselves.

The Soviet majority demanded that the non-Great Russian peoples (51 per cent of the population of the Empire according to the last Tsarist census) defer their national aspirations until the (non-existent) Constituent Assembly could discuss a measure of autonomy within the framework of the sovereign Russian state. The Bolsheviks called for immediate recognition of national rights, up to and including the right of secession.

Thus, the apparently ‘secondary’ pre-war disagreements between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were proved to be symptoms of the most fundamental of differences. In the night all cats are grey. Under Tsarism the differences could not become fully developed. The Mensheviks, the majority of them at any rate, could even subscribe to the resolution of the Zimmerwald majority denouncing the imperialist war. But that was before they had the opportunity of office in a bourgeois government.

“We Are Not Blanquists”

To become a power the class-conscious workers must win a majority to their side. As long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power. We are not Blanquists, we do not stand for the seizure of power by a minority. (Lenin, The Dual Power, 9.4.1917)

It had been possible for Lenin to win the Bolshevik party away from a position of ‘critical support’ for the provisional government only by mobilising the militant worker-Bolsheviks of Petrograd against the right-inclined leadership of Kamenev and Stalin. Once this was achieved the opposite danger came to the fore. The same militants now tended to head-on clashes with the provisional government, translating Lenin’s “No support for the provisional government” into “Down with the provisional government”, a slogan Lenin had to denounce as “adventurist”.

In May, June and July the party leadership, this time with Lenin included, again stood to the right of what Cliff correctly calls “the most resolute section of the workers and soldiers”. And rightly so. Petrograd was well ahead of the rest of the country and even in Petrograd the Bolsheviks were for some time in a minority in the working class as a whole. The danger was that premature attempts to overthrow the government in the capital would result in the isolation of the most advanced workers and soldiers, their defeat and the strengthening of the forces of reaction, as on 25 November 1975 in Lisbon.

The Bolshevik strategy was reliance on peaceful agitation and propaganda to win the mass of the workers and peasant soldiers and to replace the Menshevik-SR leadership of the Soviets by ‘constitutional’ means. But events cannot he tailored to suit the needs of strategy. All sorts of struggles inevitably broke out and the party had to relate to them, indeed to try to lead them.

This complicated business involved encouraging all the forces tending to disintegrate the bourgeois regime and at the same time restraining risky direct assaults on a government that still enjoyed, via the Soviets, substantial tolerance, if not active support. The masses had to be won for the overthrow of the regime – and that is always impossible without actions – and yet the actions kept within certain limits, the enthusiasts restrained.

Only a party leadership that had earned great authority over a long period, in spite of many mistakes, could pull this off. And then only with difficulty. The cohesion of the party’s leading cadre was indispensable. Lenin sought to strengthen its authority, to reintegrate those, like Kamenev, who had been his opponents only yesterday. A very sharp internal conflict had been essential to re-orient the party in April. A healing of the wounds was now equally essential, the more so as the party was now growing fast. The old cadres, with all their faults, were precious.

Cliff quotes many revealing statistics on this. At the beginning of March the party had 2000 members in Petrograd, at the end of July 36,000. For Moscow the figures are 600 and 15,000, for Kiev, 200 and 4,000, for the textile centre of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, 10 and 5,440. The total membership grew from 23,600 in January to 240,000 at the end of July.

Rapid and uneven growth went hand in hand with huge differences in consciousness between party members in the various centres. “While the Vyborg comrades were striving as early as February for the overthrow of the provisional government, the Bolsheviks in many cities were refusing even to split from the Mensheviks. In many workers’ centres, such as Ekaterinburg, Perm, Tula, Orel, Baku, Kolomna, Yaroslav, Kiev and Vorenezh, the Bolsheviks did not break away from the Mensheviks until the end of May.”

In Minsk, Tiflis, Nizni-Novgorod, Omsk, Tomsk, Odessa, Nikolaev, Kostroma, Sevastopol and Vitebsk, the Bolsheviks split from the Mensheviks only in June. In many other centres they did so only in August or September. 351 party organisations remained joint Bolshevik-Menshevik organisations, in many cases until as late as September. In fact, in some centres the Bolsheviks separated from the Mensheviks only after the October revolution. [6]

Anything less like the ‘monolithic’ or ‘homogeneous’ party of later Stalinist mythology would be hard to find. Or, for that matter, anything less like the 1902 What Is To Be Done? party model. All that survived from Lenin’s formulas of that period was the “stable organisation of leaders ensuring continuity”. [7] Not as the party (the original theory), but rather as a professional leadership inside an extraordinarily uneven and fast-changing organisation. Moreover, this leadership, indispensable as it was, had itself been divided by sharp conflicts in March and April and was to be divided again in October, both before and after the insurrection, just as it had been divided in 1905 and in the years of reaction.

The reality of the mass revolutionary party proved to be much more complex, much less tidy, than anyone’s formulas, Lenin’s included, had anticipated. Yet the essential correctness of both the Leninist political line and the very great organisational flexibility that went with it is demonstrated by the contrast with the fate of the Mensheviks.

A source friendly to them notes:

A few statistics tell the tale. In June the Mensheviks elected 248 delegates to the first Congress of the Soviets, whereas the Bolsheviks managed to elect only 105. But at the second Congress of the Soviets, which met in October, there were only 70 to 80 Menshevik delegates as against 300 Bolsheviks. During the early stages of the revolution the largest Menshevik organisation in Petrograd consisted of 10,000 members; but by October it had virtually ceased to exist. “Membership dues,” so wrote a Menshevik at that time, “were not being paid, the circulation of the Workers’ Gazette declined catastrophically. the last all-city conference did not take place for lack of a quorum ... The withdrawal from the party of groups and individuals is an everyday ocirrence”. [8]

Naturally, these results were only obtainable because the Bolsheviks had a leadership able to manoeuvre. to shift the line, often abruptly, and to carry the ranks with it, not indeed without conflict and friction, but without deviating from its strategic aim.

Already in April there occurred in Petrograd what Trotsky called a “semi-insurrection, or more accurately, quarter insurrection” [9], the ‘April Days’ (20 and 21 April). Sparked off by Foreign Minister Miliukov’s declaration of war aims – which included the annexation of Constantinople, Turkish Armenia, Northern Iran and other territories – and by right-wing manoeuvres including a stage-managed mass patriotic demonstration’ by wounded and convalescent soldiers, these were massive demonstrations in which some 30,000 armed soldiers and sailors took part, joined by large numbers of workers.

Sections of the Petrograd Bolsheviks, including some of the Petrograd Committee, came out with the slogan “Down with the provisional government”. “Considerable groups of workers and soldiers were quite ready to shake down the Provisional Government right then and there. They made an attempt to enter the Mariinsky Palace, occupy its exits and arrest the ministers.” [10]

The Central Committee came out sharply against this ‘25 November’, going so far as to issue a statement calling for unconditional support of the ban on further demonstrations which the Menshevik-SR leadership had pushed through the Petrograd Soviet. Cliff devotes a most instructive chapter to this episode and to its sequel in early June when another tactical retreat by the Bolshevik centre produced a sharp inner party conflict. In fact Cliff’s account and discussion of these events is as superior to Trotsky’s as Trotsky’s account of the culmination of this stage of revolutionary development – the July Days – is superior to Cliffs.

For Trotsky’s power to recreate in the mind of the reader a living mass movement, in all its confusion and its power, is unparalleled. And the armed demonstrations of the 3rd and 4th of July were mass actions on the biggest scale. It was not a question of left wing Bolsheviks trying to force the pace, nor of a minority of advanced workers trying to pull the majority behind them.

The demonstration forbidden by the government and the Executive Committee (of the Soviet – DH) had been a colossal one. On the second day not less than five hundred thousand people participated. [11]

The mass of the Petrograd working class was on the streets. So was the mass of the troops of the garrison. And the soldiers, spurred on by attempts to transfer them to the front in support of another bloody and fuiile offensive, were, if anything, more militant than the workers. The slogans and the banners were entirely Bolshevik in inspiration – “All power to the Soviets”, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers”, “Peace, Bread and Liberty”.

The movement was and could not fail to be, insurrectionary in effect, regardless of intentions. Nor was it peaceful; 29 men were killed and 114 wounded in clashes with officer cadets and Cossack units loyal to the government. There is no doubt at all, given the relationship of forces, that had the Bolshevik party called for the overthrow of the government it would have been overthrown. This was not a 25 November situation.

The party, or at any rate the party centre, for indiscipline was rife during the crisis, took the opposite line. In spite of denunciations of the ‘lack of leadership’, ‘temporising’ and even ‘bankruptcy’ of the central committee from quite prominent Petrograd Bolsheviks, the leadership firmly opposed the overthrow of the government. Lenin, who had been so far to the left of the leadership in March and early April, was especially firm in defence of this ‘rightist’ position. He could, of course, count on the support of the Kamenev wing of the leadership, which carried prudence to the point of pusillanimity, and he won over the others by relentless argument.

Why? Because Moscow lagged behind Petrograd and the provinces lagged behind Moscow – and sometimes far behind. 4 July had the makings of a Paris Commune situation. Petrograd was ripe for proletarian revolution. Russia was not.

Of course, the party could not turn its back on the demonstrations. Unable to prevent them, as the leadership would have preferred, it sought to lead them, and to lead them in the least dangerous direction. Just as Marx, who had opposed the Paris rising in 1871, sprang to the defence of the Commune once it occurred, so Lenin, who had opposed the whole orientation of the Bolshevik left on armed demonstrations at this time, wrote:

Had our party refused to support the 3-4 July mass movement, which burst out spontaneously despite our attempts to prevent it, we should have actually and completely betrayed the proletariat ... [12]

It was a most difficult and dangerous manoeuvre, a manoeuvre that had to be carried out against the opposition of some of the best and most militant party members, but a manoeuvre essential for a leadership that kept a Russian, as opposed to a Petrograd, perspective firmly in view. But it involved heavy costs.

Kornilov and October

Too often it has happened that, when history has taken a sharp turn, even progressive parties have for some time been unable to adapt themselves to the new situation and have repeated slogans which had formerly been correct but had now lost all meaning – lost it as suddenly as the sharp turn in history was sudden ... And the political situation in Russia now, after 4 July, differs radically from the situation between 27 February and 4 July. (Lenin, On Slogans, Mid-July 1917)

The ebb of a mass movement always provides opportunities for the forces of reaction. The Bolshevik success in restraining the July demonstrations from actual insurrection, necessary as it was, opened up the possibility for the provisional government to strike hard at the Bolsheviks.

The ruling class and their Menshevik-SR allies had been provoked and terrified – but their power had not been broken. This is always a most dangerous circumstance. The repression inevitably followed.

Warrants were issued for the arrest of Kamenev, Lenin, Lunacharsky, Trotsky and Zinoviev for treason. The Bolshevik press was closed down by selected reactionary military detachments, which smashed the presses in most cases.

As the reaction gained strength, arrests and intimidation were spread to broader sections. Cliff quotes the Menshevik Voytinsky:

First of all the new government (‘re-constructed’, with Kerensky at its head immediately after 4 July – DH) energetically continued the searches, arrests, disarmings and persecutions of all kinds that had already begun. Self-appointed groups of officers, military cadets, and I think the gilded youth too, rushed to the ‘help’ of the new regime, which was obviously trying to present itself as a ‘strong government’. It was not only the mutinous regiments and battalions that were disarmed; almost more attention was devoted to the working class districts, where the workers’ Red Guard was disarmed. Enormous quantities of arms were collected. Every Bolshevik that could be found was seized and imprisoned. Kerensky and his military friends were definitely trying to wipe them off the face of the earth. [13]

In the army, the death penalty for desertion in the face of the enemy was restored (11 July) – although desertion was by this time a mass phenomenon. A tremendous propaganda campaign was developed ‘exposing’ the Bolshevik leaders, especially Lenin, as ‘German Agents’. A wealth of forged documents was produced for the purpose.

The party was driven back into half-illegality and even some Petrograd Bolshevik organisations wavered in face of the combination of intimidation and the torrent of lies and slander. Outside Petrograd it was worse.

But the repression was not strong enough to inflict a decisive defeat on the working class. It was strong enough to destroy the remaining working class base of Menshevism and to accentuate the split in the SRs, which had already begun, and drive the left SRs close to the Bolsheviks. For what was now the nature of the support for the MenshevikSR ministers and Soviet Executive Councillors? It was, all too clearly, the reactionary officer caste, the middle classes and the unreconstructed monarchist reaction. However, once the Menshevik-SR bloc had lost its popular support, what further use was it to the right?

None, concluded the generals. And so, in mid-August, a military coup was planned to ‘restore order’ and sweep away the whole heritage of the February revolution. General Kornilov delivered his ultimatum to Kerensky – surrender all power to me or face the consequences. Kornilov could count on the support of the British and French governments as well as that of the united forces of Russian reaction. What he could not count upon, as events were to show, was any real will to fight on the part of his troops. They had been ‘infected’, in varying degrees, and, whilst not actually mutinous for the most part, they would not exert themselves against resolute opposition.

That was what they met. Kerensky’s government had encouraged the generals, had intrigued with the generals, but, like President Azana in Madrid in July 1936, Kerensky felt obliged to offer at least formal opposition to a self-appointed military dictator. That was exactly the loop-hole the Bolsheviks needed and they seized the opportunity at once. Unlike the Spanish CP in 1936, pushed into ‘Popular Frontism’ by the needs of Stalin’s diplomacy, they offered no political support whatsoever to the government. What they did do was to call for, organise and carry forward an energetic working class (and peasant soldier) mobilisation against Kornilov. This meant fighting side by side with Kerensky and Co, their persecutors of the day before and the accomplices or half-accomplices of Kornilov, but without subordinating themselves to Kerensky, either politically or militarily.

The response of the working class – and of many soldiers – was such that Kornilov’s march on Petrograd collapsed in four days. And now the situation was transformed again. The Bolsheviks were now in the open again, rapidly gaining mass support, and Kerensky had no reliable force to use against them after Kornilov’s defeat.

Immediately after the July days Lenin had come out in favour of dropping the call for all power to the Soviets (under Menshevik-SR leadership) arguing, in effect, that the dual power no longer existed. At the same time he began to advocate an early attempt at seizure of power by the Bolshevik party. Cliff makes a case for this turn, which is certainly a striking illustration of Lenin’s tactical flexibility, but it is not, in my view, a very convincing case. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that Lenin miscalculated.

In any event Lenin reversed his position again. The day after the collapse of Kornilov’s attempted coup he was offering a “return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets and a government of SRs and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets ... In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian revolution, and provide exceptionally good chances for great strides in the world movement towards peace and the victory of socialism.”[14]

The Menshevik-SR leaders, however, clung to Kerensky and now a real tidal wave to the left swept the land. The repression became impossible to operate. On 31 August the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet and a similar transformation occurred in industrial centre after industrial centre. Moscow soon followed. The Menshevik support melted away and the split in the SRs deepened with the left everywhere gaining ground. The army was more and more radicalised; the authority of the officer corps had been fatally damaged by their support for Kornilov.

The regime was disintegrating. Now was the time to abandon the ‘constitutionalist’ strategy and make political and technical preparations for the insurrection. Lenin, still in hiding, came to this conclusion quicker than most and from mid-September was bombarding the Central Committee with demands for another change of line immediately.

This led to the best known of all pre-October conflicts in the patty. The Central Committee, in its majority, resisted any such change. Some of them entertained the dangerous illusion that the situation would go on becoming more and more favourable without any new initiative on their part, that power would fall into their hands like a ripe apple; some feared the leap in the dark; a few still clung, in their hearts, to the old pre-April perspective.

Cliff fully and graphically describes this conflict and its final resolution in favour of the rising, including the secondary, but still crucial, dispute between Lenin and Trotsky about its method, a dispute which Trotsky won.

Reviewing the first volume of this trilogy (the third volume is still awaited), I wrote: “A manual for revolutionaries, that is what we have here.”This will stand equally for volume two. Like its predecessor it is indispensable reading for everyone seriously concerned with revolutionary politics.

(The first part of this article appeared in IS 89.)




1. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.24, p.39.

2. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 2, p.94.

3. Ascher (Ed.), The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, p.95

4. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.2, p.188.

5. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.2, p.191. My emphasis – DH.

6. Cliff, Lenin, Vol.2, p.149.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.5, p.464.

8. Ascher (Ed.), The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution, p.30.

9. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, p.329.

10. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, p.320.

11. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.2, p.71.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.25, p.312.

13. Cliff, Lenin, Vol. 2, p.273-4.

14. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.2, p.316.


Last updated on 19.10.2006