Duncan Hallas

October 1917

(July 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 102, October 1987.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

This month marks the 70th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Here we print a speech on the October Revolution given by Duncan Hallas at Marxism 87.

THE FEBRUARY revolution effectively put people into power who believed that abolishing Tsarism was enough. Although they led the Soviets they wanted the newly established bourgeois Provisional Government to exercise power.

But from April to July 1917 this changed in some of the major industrial centres of Russia, and in particular in Petrograd. There was a growing hostility amongst broad layers of workers against this government. Many of these workers had not previously been involved in any kind of political activity.

In fact a situation of so called “dual power” existed. On the one hand we have the ministers headed by Prince Lvov, the head of the Provisional “Revolutionary” Government, and on the other we have the Soviets, particularly the Petrograd Soviet which has effective power in reality.

Such a situation cannot last indefinitely. Although it can last for some time it is inherently unstable. Either the bourgeois government must re-establish power, re-establish the bourgeois state, or it will be overthrown.

This period saw revolts by significant layers of the most militant workers, culminating in the July Days in Petrograd. The Bolshevik Party at this time found themselves in an exceedingly difficult situation. Their leadership was well to the right of the workers who launched the armed demonstrations in July.

It is true they had called for demonstrations, but they also called for restraint. They found themselves in a situation where the vanguard of the working class in Petrograd, supported by very large masses of workers, wanted to dismiss the Provisional Government and establish soviet power, workers’ power.

Certainly, as the left wing inside the Bolshevik Party said, they could have taken power in July with little difficulty in Petrograd. But the state of development in the rest of the country Was far behind this. It would be, as Lenin said, another Paris Commune. Not in its good sense of workers taking power but in its bad sense, isolated from the rest of the country, smashed, a blood bath, the workers’ movement set back thirty years.

The Bolsheviks were able, because they did by now have the decisive influence amongst industrial workers in Petrograd, (although not yet decisive influence amongst the masses of the soldiers) to curb the demonstration. This retreat was necessary. But any retreat has to be paid for and of course after the July Days the regime – gaining in confidence, drawing support from the more backward parts of the country – launched a massive attack against the left.

All the forces of reaction who had kept their heads down re-emerged. They had been hiding, pretending to be Social Revolutionaries, in many cases taking out party cards when it looked as though the revolution was on. Now came the month of the great slander. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were accused of being German agents. Lenin had to flee into hiding as the party seriously feared that he would be murdered. Trotsky was arrested.

Bolsheviks were persecuted, arrested and some murdered. This weakened the position of the party in Petrograd. Weakened it, but didn’t destroy it. It didn’t destroy it because the real base of the Bolshevik Party lay in the factories and in particular amongst the metal workers, the most important industry in Petrograd. There the terror was not possible.

Nevertheless this enormous reaction did drastically reduce the influence of the party. After all Trotsky, the most prominent spokesman in the Petrograd Soviet, was in prison. Others were either in hiding, gone to Finland as Lenin was forced to do, or were completely isolated.

WHO WAS leading this witch hunt against the Bolsheviks? Basically it was the leaders of the Mensheviks and the SRs who controlled the majority in the soviet. In this period the Provisional Government actually collapsed. Prince Lvov sought refuge in Sweden.

The leaders of the SRs and the Mensheviks were compelled to become ministers. They didn’t want to, but they were forced to. They were led by Kerensky, a provincial lawyer who had an accidental connection with the working class. Before the revolution he had defended a few people accused of political offences.

This non-aligned nonentity came to the top because he was pushed up by the leaders of the Menshevik Party and the SRs. Their belief was that this was a bourgeois revolution, in no case was the working class the leadership. Actually they had argued in no case should they enter the government, they should remain an opposition party pushing the bourgeoisie forward.

But in the summer they did enter the government on the basis that the principal representatives of Russian capital, politically organised in the Cadet Party, should take power. In other words they mortgaged themselves completely.

As a result the anti-Bolshevik witch hunt went much further than its Menshevik and SR sponsors had intended. Because, after all, the Tsarist right, the generals who were still senior bureaucrats, could not tolerate the Petrograd Soviet still controlled by the Mensheviks. We’ve got to get rid of the lot of them, they said, they too are reds, or at the very least, wets soft on the reds – away with them.

Consequently a military conspiracy was organised. The man who was its nominal head, Kornilov, had just been appointed, by Kerensky, as commander in chief of the Russian army. He was not an upstart, he was a Pinochet not an Ollie North.

Behind Kornilov all the forces of reaction rallied. Elements of the Provisional Government, including Kerensky, privately hoped for his victory. They thought a military dictatorship would restore order in the army, put an end to land seizure by the peasants, discipline the workers, and above all get rid of the Bolsheviks.

But this presented a problem for the SRs and the Mensheviks. Under a Kornilov as under a Hitler, they too would go into the concentration camps. Therefore, faced with the threat of Kornilov at the end of August, elements of the SR-Menshevik block began to hesitate.

On the initiative of their left wing the Military Revolutionary Committee was established by the soviet to prevent a right wing coup. So we had a fantastic position with some of the leading members of SRs and Mensheviks secretly in league with Kornilov, whilst other leading members of the same parties were in the soviet or in the Military Revolutionary Committee. This led to a deal with the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks quite rightly said yes, we will be part of a united front, Kornilov is the real enemy. However, as Lenin explicitly said, we do not support Kerensky, simply we find ourselves fighting on the same side against Kornilov. The Bolsheviks demanded that the leaders of the soviet must arm the workers. Reluctantly, as Kornilov got nearer and nearer, they grudgingly started to do so.

Once the process had started however it grew very difficult to stop. By and large the Petrograd garrison was dominated by SR thinking and so was quite politically backward. Nevertheless it could not stop at Kornilov. Consequently an irreversible process was set in motion. Irreversible on one condition, that Kornilov was defeated. It is an indication of the depth of the revolutionary crisis that Kornilov was defeated without even fighting.

A CENTRAL characteristic of any real revolution is that millions who normally are passive, are thrown into activity for the first time in their lives and their ideas radicalised. Amongst those transformed in Russia in 1917 were the soldiers that Kornilov was relying on. When it came to it they would not fight.

They weren’t Bolsheviks, they were mostly under SR influence, mostly peasant conscripts. However, they did agree with the Bolshevik slogan – Peace, Land, Bread. These seemed very good ideas, especially Peace, out of the war, out of the army and back to the land.

Kornilov’s forces then melted away. Does that mean that his challenge was not a serious one? Far from it. They would not have melted away but for the massive, military as well as political, opposition which depended at its heart on the Bolshevik agitation in Petrograd.

After the retreat in July reluctantly ordered by the party, there had been this massive swing to the right even in Petrograd. But after the attempted coup and after the connivance of various ministers with Kornilov became obvious there was a massive swing to the left.

The Bolshevik Party experienced a mass influx of actual members and more important than that, its slogans began to get majority votes in the major Soviets. What did they do in these circumstances? Was the argument that they should come to power?

No, they reverted under Lenin’s urgings to the argument they had put in March and were still putting even in July. They said let the leaders of the majority parties in the Soviets take power, down with the ten capitalist ministers, down with the Provisional Government, for a government based on workers and soldiers’ councils.

They promised loyal opposition and undertook not to resort to force against such a government even though they might disagree with it on a whole number of issues.

What were their reasons? They recognised that it was peculiarly important, especially in a revolutionary situation, where there are rapid shifts in the consciousness of masses of people, to demonstrate yet again, that the leaders of the SRs and the Mensheviks were corrupt.

The SR and Menshevik leadership had clung to the Liberals and the capitalists. They had always argued yes, land to the peasants, but comrades we can’t do it yet. We have to have unity. We have to have these liberals and, unfortunately, the capitalist landowners. You have to wait for the constituent assembly which will be called some day and will solve all your problems.

ON 31 AUGUST the Petrograd Soviet overturned its executive, carrying the Bolshevik resolution (ie the soviet majority parties must take power). Then, when the executive staged a walk out off the platform, fresh elections took place, which for the first time gave the Bolshevik Party a substantial majority in the Petrograd Soviet.

Many delegates changed to Bolshevik, but perhaps most significantly delegates from the regiments who had previously voted solidly with the SRs now defected in large numbers and voted for the Bolshevik position.

Five days later the Moscow Soviet went the same way, then Kiev, Kazan the old Tartar capital, Baku centre of the oil fields, and a whole number of others. The Soviets in these places, all of which had been dominated by the SR-Menshevik bloc, adopted the Bolshevik position and in most cases voted out their previous leaderships.

Still more significant, on 10 September, there was a national congress of all the Finnish Soviets. By an overwhelming majority the Bolshevik position was carried. Two days later, the Federated All Units Soviet of the Baltic fleet held a congress against the wishes of the leadership who had been trying to stall it for days.

There were 731 delegates. The defenders of the Provisional Government could obtain precisely 42 votes. The rest went Bolshevik or left SR.

PROFOUND leadership problems opened up in the Bolshevik Party. Lenin had been in Finland and then underground in Petrograd. He was still unable to appear openly, or so he feared. Nevertheless he wrote a series of indignant letters to the central committee arguing strongly that the Bolsheviks must change their position.

The position up to then had been to press the majority parties in the Soviets to take power. Now Lenin argued that the present task must be preparation for an armed rising in Petrograd and Moscow, the overthrow of the government by force and the seizure of power.

By this time it was clear that the tensions built into the dual power situation were becoming intolerable. The Provisional Government had lost all authority, the Soviets were shifting rapidly, the most important ones had already gone over to the Bolsheviks, and even in those where they didn’t have a formal majority actually they could carry their position.

Therefore the insurrection produced a crisis in the party. Firstly the right wing led by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, argued the time is not right. They said there is a deepening process of radicalisation, by encouraging it, by continuing with the present line, we will be the immense majority. In particular we will win the constituent assembly. Therefore out with Lenin’s proposition. On 16 September the central committee voted not only to reject Lenin’s proposition but to burn his letter in case it could be used against them in future by the state.

Lenin persisted. In fact the majority on the central committee was itself divided. There were two sorts of people who voted against Lenin’s proposition. The right wing of Kamenev, Zinoviev and Stalin, and on the other hand, Trotsky, president of the Petrograd Soviet, Sverdlov who was national secretary of the party and, although he was less resolute, Bukharin who was the principle leader in Moscow.

They said there is no question that the time is right for insurrection. The perspective of indefinite radicalisation is rubbish. Why? Because the economy is falling to pieces, because in the most advanced centres, including Petrograd, it is not true that the most militant layers of workers are becoming more confident. They are becoming sceptical. We must act now or we will miss the time.

Up to this point they were in complete agreement with Lenin. However Trotsky argued that a call by the party, which was what Lenin was arguing for, was a non-starter. Here Trotsky and Sverdlov had a big advantage over Lenin in that they were much better placed to sense what was the real mood in Petrograd. Lenin was still in hiding so could not gauge the feeling the same way.

Trotsky said the masses will rise in defence of the soviet, they will not rise on the call of the Bolsheviks. There had been a number of conferences in Petrograd and various other places, and the general sense of the better people – the ones who had wanted a revolution and who had not got cold feet – was that the time was right but it wouldn’t work on a party call.

At the same time as this the conservative elements were at work in the Bolshevik Party. A whole layer of senior party people were opposed to the insurrection. There were two kinds of opposition, the Zinoviev kind who simply said they were against it, and then the other kind that you’ll find in any organisation. Ah yes, some said, there’s a lot in what you say but the time is not right, we don’t have enough members etc., etc. The combined weight of these was very considerable.

As a result, on 8 October, Kamenev and Zinoviev published an article in a non-party paper denouncing insurrection in terms that made it absolutely clear that this was what they thought the Bolshevik Party was heading for.

LENIN WAS furious. He denounced them as strike breakers and demanded their expulsion from the party. Kamenev and Zinoviev offered to resign from the central committee. Their resignations were accepted by five votes to three but only because they voted for their own resignations while the vote to expel them was unanimously rejected. With these two gone from the central committee Lenin now had the majority.

At a meeting of the Central Committee on 10 October which lasted for ten hours the decision was taken, in principle, for the insurrection. It was also at this meeting that a long, sharp and inconclusive argument between Lenin and Trotsky took place over the party or soviet question. Lenin did not immediately accept Trotsky’s position. It was only a few days later that the penny finally dropped when Trotsky used his position as president of the Petrograd soviet to re-establish the Military Revolutionary Committee which had faded away after Kornilov had disappeared.

He argued that it should defend the Soviets against the conspiracies of Kerensky and the Kornilov sympathisers. The objective was defensive.

On this basis it was possible to carry overwhelming support in the soviet. This majority support was very important in terms of the 150,000 soldiers in and around Petrograd whose allegiance could be guaranteed with such a proposition.

And of course it was not a dishonest argument because with dual power increasingly becoming more unstable there had to be another attempt from the right if the left faltered. In fact the Bolsheviks were hoping for a reaction from the right and eventually they got it.

Just five days before the insurrection the soviet leaders at Trotsky’s prompting said, in future none of the military orders of the government’s commanders will be obeyed unless they are countersigned by an authorised representative of the Military Revolutionary Committee. It was a direct and provocative challenge to the government. Trotsky calculated that they could carry-this and they did. It was in this period that Lenin shifted his position.

Eventually the Provisional Government screwed up its courage, summoning for the third time what it hoped were reliable units from the north west front and elsewhere, and set a date, the 24th of October, on which they would smash the Military Revolutionary Committee and the Petrograd Soviet.

The government had a number of units at its command. One subsequently unreliable infantry formation, the officer cadet schools – even a volunteer company from the women’s battalion. They had a force which was a nothing if confronted with the weight of the Petrograd garrison but which if confronted with relatively small forces was quite sufficient to inflict substantial damage.

On the basis of this they issued arrest warrants to all the members of the Military Revolutionary Committee. Trotsky was its president too. Another order was to suppress the Bolshevik press. They made plans, although they were still hesitating on the night of the 24th, to arrest the executive of the soviet itself, the majority of whom were now Bolsheviks.

NO ONE can tell whether they would have summoned up the courage or not to carry this through because of course this was precisely the provocation that the Bolsheviks required. Tactically Trotsky was extremely sharp in this period. As soon as the orders to arrest were issued the agitators were out. No orders to be obeyed.

But that wasn’t all. The plans of the revolutionary committee which the military units, the Red Guards, the regulars and conscripts accepted were issued simultaneously. They were worked out in great detail and with great precision.

They were that at two o’clock in the morning workers’ parties, with wherever possible a contingent of armed workers or sailors, should occupy all railway stations, all power stations, communication buildings, ammunition dumps, supply dumps, telephone exchanges, the state banks and every big printing works – the presses were of course very important.

They already had the main railway stations and the rest they took over in the small hours of the morning, before dawn. They then moved out to those centres of resistance, the places where the Provisional Government still had forces.

By ten o’clock they were able to announce that the Provisional Government had been overthrown. There was no resistance in Petrograd. There had been no casualties. However there was one centre of resistance. The Winter Palace was still held by a small number of units which not only the Provisional Government but also the revolutionary committee thought would obey orders.

Therefore the attack on it had been delayed to avoid substantial casualties. In fact the only recorded casualties throughout October in Petrograd were due to accidents, there were no casualties actually caused by action. Lenin had argued before that the regime was as rotten now as the Tsarist regime had been on the eve of the Five Days revolution. He underestimated its degree of rottenness.

After all, the five days saw a lot of serious fighting and a lot of casualties. The Kerensky regime went down without a shot, except for the Winter Palace. The Palace was not actually taken until late into the evening.

Both the Red Guard units and regular units from the garrison had surrounded it. The officer cadets inside the palace were blasting away. They had lots of ammunition, and they were using it as inexperienced soldiers do, but there were very few casualties.

Then, after hesitation from the Military Revolutionary Committee, they brought the cannon up to bear. They fired, first off three blank rounds in order to convince the people inside, we can reduce this to a heap of rubble.

The Palace still didn’t surrender. It was necessary to fire live ammunition. After this the pro-government garrison melted away. Kerensky disappeared.

REMEMBER all this had been done not in the name of the Bolshevik Party but in the name of the Petrograd Soviet. Before all this happened it had been decided that there should be a second national congress of Soviets. This had been called for much earlier, but had always been blocked by SR and Menshevik leaderships because they knew that things were moving against them and were afraid to call a congress.

But, when the Bolsheviks began to get majorities in more and more important Soviets, it became impossible for the SRs to maintain their position.

So they delayed until the end of October, as long as possible. By 25 October the Provisional Government no longer existed. On the following day the congress voted in a Bolshevik majority with a very substantial SR minority as well as some Mensheviks – it was fully representative, in that sense, of political parties. This congress took the following decisions.

Although they didn’t have the power to deliver this last demand, in making the call they had a profound effect in all the belligerent countries, not least in Germany.

REVIEWING the events of 1917 we can say that without the Bolshevik Party the October Revolution would not have taken place, that is quite certain. The February Revolution might well have taken place, if not in February then some other time.

We can see how the masses moved for the first time into activity in their millions, looking first to the softest, the broadest, the nicest alternatives. That is to say the organisations, the SRs and the Mensheviks, which involved the least ideological transformation on their part. These organisations, the Russian Labourites if you want, were determined above all to come to agreements with the bourgeoisie.

They not only would never lead a revolution but would seek to ride the course of events in order to establish bourgeois power. The Bolshevik Party was different.

It had about 4,000 members active at the beginning of March 1917 in the whole of Russia. It had been a much bigger organisation in 1905-6. It had also had a much bigger influence in 1912-14 so the figures are misleadingly small.

In the course of the months between March and October its membership grew to more than 250,000. Even given the inaccuracy of the figures it’s obvious that masses flooded into the party.

Therefore it was not a “pure, selected few” party. It was not the case that everyone in the party would have understood the labour theory of value, for example. But in another sense it was a political selection, because the party stood consistently for the notion of the working class in power.

It was the one party that was consistently persecuted as the party on the extreme left. To join such a party when it is in opposition is itself an act of political selection. Moreover it is not at all the case that the old members of the Bolshevik Party were superior in every case to the new members. The growth of a party in a revolutionary period is itself a convulsive contradictory process.

But we must remember that without that old cadre there would have been no Bolshevik Party. Lenin coming back to the Finland Station by himself or with a handful of people, as Trotsky had, would have had no significant effect on the course of events.

That Bolshevik cadre built from 1902 onwards, in good times and in bad (and some of the bad times were incomparably worse than those we now experience) was a necessary precondition for the October Revolution.

What does it mean for the Socialist Workers Party today?

We don’t know, no one can guarantee, when there will be a crisis of such dimensions, not simply a slump, but a crisis which creates a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation.

The one thing we can predict with absolute certainty, is that in the course of struggle, when opportunities and chances arise the party is essential. Our political opponents, the reformists of various kinds, will not die. By a process of radicalisation they too will grow, we should not deceive ourselves about that.

Their policies, regardless of the rhetoric of their leadership, will be fatal to the prospects of working class advancement. The seizure of power is impossible unless a revolutionary party has been built in advance which has at least three things.

We have to do these things now because if we wait for a revolutionary situation it will be too late.

Last updated on 7.3.2012