History of the World Crisis

Lecture 5: 
The Russian Revolution

Translated by Juan R. Fajardo, 1998

(Delivered to the “Gonzales Prada” People’s University,
at the Peruvian Student Federation hall, Lima, on July 13, 1923.)


According to the program for this course on the History of the World Crisis, the subject for tonight’s lecture is the Russian Revolution. The course program assigns the following summary to tonight’s lecture: The Russian Revolution. Kerensky. Lenin. The Peace of Brest-Litovsk. Russia and the Entente before the Revolution. Initial process of creation and consolidation of the Russian institutions.

Before speaking on these topics, I consider a warning to be opportune. The things I am going to say about the Russian Revolution are basic things. That is to say, they are things which, to other audiences, would seem too elementary, too popularized, too often repeated, because those audiences have been abundantly informed about the Russian Revolution, its men, its episodes. In Europe, the Russian Revolution has been of interest, and will continue to be of interest, to people’s unanimous curiosity. In Europe, the Russian Revolution has been, and will continue to be a subject of general study. Innumerable books have been published about the Russian Revolution. The Russian Revolution had occupied a high-priority place in all the European dailies and magazines. The study of this event has not been sectarianly reserved for its partisans, for its propagandists: it has been taken up by all inquisitive men, by all men with any intellectual curiosity.

The European bourgeoisie’s principal organs, the largest presses of European capitalism, have sent correspondents to Russia, in order to inform their audiences about the Russian institutions and about the Revolution’s figures. Naturally, those large dailies have invariably attacked the Russian Revolution, have made use of numerous polemical weapons against it, but their correspondents -- not all, naturally, but many of them -- have spoken with some objectivity about Russian events. They have acted as simple chroniclers of Russia’s situation. Obviously, this has been due, not to benevolence toward the Russian Revolution, but because those large news dailies, in their competition for disputing one another for readers, for disputing clients, have been forced to satisfy the public’s curiosity with some seriousness and some circumspection. The public demanded more or less serious, and more or less circumspect, information about Russia from them, and they -- without lessening their aversion to the Russian Revolution -- had to give the public that more or less serious, and more or less circumspect information.

Correspondents from Associated Press of New York, correspondents from Corrierre della Sera, from the Messagero, and other large Italian presses, correspondents from Theodor Wolf’s large democratic daily, the Berliner Tageblatt, correspondents from the London press, have gone to Russia. Many great contemporary writers have gone as well. One of those has been Wells. I cite him at Random, I point him out because the attention attracted by Wells’ visit to Russia, and by the book which Wells wrote upon returning to England, has been universal, has been very widespread, and, because Wells is -- not even amongst us -- suspected of Bolshevism.

Urged on by the scholarly public’s demand, the large publishing houses of Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, have published compilations of Russian laws and essays about this or that aspect of the Russian Revolution. These books and pamphlets were not the work of Bolshevik propaganda, they were simply an editorial business. The large publishers, the large booksellers, made very good sums of money with those books and pamphlets. That is why they published and distributed them. It could be said that the Russian Revolution was in style. Just as speaking of relativism and Einstein’s theory sounded good, speaking of the Russian Revolution and its leaders sounded good.

This, insofar as the bourgeois public, the amorphous public, is concerned. As far as the proletariat is concerned, curiosity about the Russian Revolution has, naturally, been much greater. In all the proletariat’s tribunes, all its newspapers, all its books, the Russian Revolution has been commented on, studied, and discussed. In the reformist and Social-Democratic sector as much as in the anarchist sector, on the right, as on the left, and in the center, of the proletarian organizations, the Russian Revolution has been incessantly examined and observed.

For these reasons, other audiences a vast knowledge of the Bolshevik Revolution, of the soviet institutions, of the Brest-Litovsk Peace, of these things which I will deal with tonight, and for those audiences my lecture will be too basic, too rudimentary. But I have to keep in mind the position of our public, ill-informed about this and other great European events. The responsibility is not theirs, but of our intellectuals and our scholars, who are, in reality, not any such intellectuals or scholars but caricatures of scholars and caricatures of intellectuals. I will, thus, speak tonight as a journalist. I shall narrate, I shall relay, I shall tell, concisely, basically, without erudition and without literature.

In the last lecture, after having quickly examined Italy’s intervention and the United States’ intervention in the Great War, we got to tsarism, to the preliminaries to the Russian Revolution. We shall now examine the months of the Kerensky government. Kerensky, a conspicuous member of the Social-Revolutionary Party, whom I have already -- perhaps none too amicably -- introduced to you, was the leader of the Russian government during the months which preceded the October Revolution, that is, the Bolshevik Revolution. Kerensky presided over the Social-Revolutionaries’ and the Mensheviks’ coalition government with the Kadets and the Liberals. This coalition government represented the middle groups within Russian public opinion. On the one hand, the monarchists, the reactionaries, the extreme right, and, on the other hand, the Bolsheviks, the Maximalist Revolutionaries, the extreme left, were missing from this coalition.

The absence of the extreme right was something logical, something natural. The extreme right was the overthrown party. It was the royal family’s party. By contrast, the presence within the coalition -- and, hence, in the ministry headed by Kerensky -- of bourgeois elements, of capitalist elements, such as the Liberals and the Kadets, changed the coalition and changed the government into a melding, an amalgam, a heterogeneous, anodyne, colorless conglomeration.

A government of conciliation, a coalition government, is conceived of in another type of situation. But a government of conciliation is not conceived of within a revolutionary situation. By force, a revolutionary government has to be a faction government, a party government, it must represent only the revolutionary nuclei of public opinion; it must not include the intermediate groups, must not include the virtually, tacitly, conservative nuclei. Thus the Kerensky government suffered from an organic defect, from a grave essential vice. It embodied neither the proletariat’s ideals nor the bourgeoisie’s ideals. It lived off of concessions, off of commitments to one side and the other. One day, it gave in to the right; on another, it gave in to the left. I repeat, all this fits within an evolutionist situation. But it does not fit within a situation of civil war, of armed struggle, of violent revolution. From the beginning, the Bolsheviks attacked the coalition government, and demanded the constitution of a proletarian government, of a workers’ government, in short, of a revolutionary government. Well, now, the proletarian, the workers’, groups in Russia were four. Four were the nuclei of revolutionary opinion.

The Mensheviks, in other words, the minimalists, headed by Martov and Chernov, people with some tradition, and collaborationists. The Social-Revolutionaries, to whose ranks Kerensky, Tseretelli, and others, belonged, who found themselves split into two groups: one, on the right, favorable to coalition with the bourgeoisie, and the one on the left, leaning toward the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, or the maximalists, the party of Lenin, of Zinoviev, of Trotsky. And, the anarchists, who -- in the land of Kropotkin and Bakunin -- were, naturally, numerous. The socialists were split into the first three groups: Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries, and Bolsheviks. Because, as is natural, in the period of struggle against tsarism all these proletarian forces had struggled together. There were programmatic differences, but there was community of forces and, above all, of efforts against the absolute autocracy of the Tsars.

What was the position, what was the make-up, which was the strength of each of these proletarian groups? The Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries were dominant in the countryside, amongst the workers of the land. More than of manual workers, their central nuclei were made up of middle-class elements, of men from liberal professions, lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. The Social-Revolutionaries’ left wing did, in fact, bring together many truly proletarian and class-conscious elements, who, for this reason, were attracted by the Bolshevik tactics and tendency, but would not break with the group’s right wing.

The men of the right and the center, such as Kerensky, were those who represented the Social-Revolutionaries. Both parties, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries, were not, therefore, true revolutionary parties. They did not represent socialism’s most dynamic, most class-conscious, most homogeneous sector: the industrial proletariat, the proletariat of the city. The maximalists were weak in the countryside; but they were strong in the city.

Their ranks were built on the basis of truly proletarian elements. In the maximalist high command the intellectual element prevailed; but the mass of members were workers.

The maximalists acted in living, intense, constant, contact with the workers of the factories and mills. They were the party of Petrograd’s and Moscow’s industrial proletariat. The anarchists were also influential amongst the industrial proletariat; but their central foci were intellectual foci. Russia was traditionally the country of the anarchist, nihilist intelligentsia.

Intellectuals, students, predominated in the anarchist nuclei. Of course, anarchists fought the Mensheviks and Kerensky’s Social-Revolutionaries as much as the Bolsheviks did, and, in some instances, in agreement with them.

This was the Russian proletariat’s political landscape under the Kerensky government. In accordance with this summary of the situation, the majority belonged to the coaligned Social-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.

The peasant masses and the middle class was on their side. And, the peasant masses made up the majority in the agricultural nation, in a little-industrialized nation such as Russia. In contrast, the Bolsheviks could count on the most combative, most organized, most effective, elements, on the industrial proletariat, on the workers of the city

On the other hand, the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionaries could not keep up their strength, their predominance among the peasant masses if they did not satisfy two entrenched ideals, two urgent demands of those masses: immediate peace and land distribution.

The Kerensky government lacked the freedom of action for one or the other thing. It lacked freedom of action for immediate peace because the Allied powers, by which it was a fostered and protected, did not allow it to reach a separate agreement with Germany. And it lacked freedom of action to distribute lands to the peasants because its alliance with the Kadets and the liberals, its commitments to the bourgeoisie, it understandings with the land owners inhibited it, coerced it from this daring revolutionary reform.

Thus, Kerensky, in government, did not carry out the policies of the socialist masses whom he represented; he carried out the policies of the Russian bourgeoisie and the Allied powers. This political course made the masses impatient. The masses wanted peace. And peace did not come. The masses wanted the distribution of the lands. And the distribution of the lands did not come, either.

However, the impatience of the peasant masses would not have sufficed to bring down Kerensky if it had, in fact, been the impatience only of the peasant masses instead of being the army’s impatience as well. The war was unpopular in Russia. I have already explained how the tsarist government carried out the war with a mentality of relative war, that is, with a mentality of war of armies and not war of nations; consequently, the tsarist government had not been able to win the people’s adherence to its military endeavor.

The people and the army hoped that for the revolution peace would emerge. Kerensky’s inability to achieve peace roused the army -- which, unlike the other Allied armies, did not perceive the myth of war of Democracy against Autocracy because the Russian war had been directed by the tsarist autocracy -- against his government. The army was tired of war, and deafly demanded peace.

The Bolsheviks aimed their propaganda in a sagaciously popular direction. They demanded immediate peace and they demanded the distribution of lands. And they told the proletariat: “Neither the one nor the other can be done by a government of coalition with the bourgeoisie. We must replace this government with a proletarian government, with a workers’ government, with a government of the parties of the working class. This government must be the Soviets’ government.” And the Bolsheviks’ battle-cry was: “All political power to the Soviets!”

The Soviets existed since the fall of tsarism. The word ‘soviet’ means ‘council’ in Russian. Once the Revolution was victorious, tsarism deposed, the Russian proletariat proceeded to the organization of councils of workers, peasants, and soldiers. The soviets -- the councils of the toilers of the land and the factories grouped into local Soviets. The local Soviets created a national body: the All-Russia Congress of Soviets. The -- soviets thus fully represented the proletariat. In the soviets there were Mensheviks, anarchists, and non-partisan workers.

Kerensky and the Social-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks had not wanted the Soviets to directly and exclusively exercise power. Educated in the school of democracy, respectful of parliamentarianism, they had wanted a ministry of coalition with the bourgeois parties -- parties without a base within the soviets -- to exercise power. The proletariat’s organs were not the government organs. There was in Russia a dual situation. Therefore, the Bolsheviks’ cry, “All political power to the Soviets!,” did not mean “All political power to the Maximalist Party!”.

It simply meant, “All political power to the organized proletariat!” The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets, in which the Social-Revolutionaries prevailed. But, their activity, their dynamism, and their program, were each day winning more followers in the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Soon the Bolsheviks came to be a majority in the soviets of the capital and other industrial centers.

Consequently, Kerensky was not opposed to the Bolsheviks’ coming into government. He was opposed to the government passing into the hands of the proletariat, within whose bodies he still held a majority.

Kerensky and his men proceeded thusly because they feared the revolution, because the idea of the revolution being carried to its extreme consequences, to its final goal, terrified them, and because they understood that the Bolsheviks would end up winning the majority in the soviets -- in part, due to their personal worth and, in part, to their program, which was the program of the masses.

Under the pressure of political events and under the suggestion of the Allied powers, Kerensky’s government committed a fatal adventure: the 18 June offensive against the Austro-Germans. For Kerensky, the military offensive was a risky and dangerous card. But at least it was a transitory diversion of public opinion.

Kerensky’s government wanted to distract popular attention toward the front. The Bolsheviks vigorously impugned the offensive. The Bolsheviks, as I have said, interpreted the public’s desires for peace. Moreover, they thought the military offensive carried two grave dangers for the revolution: if the offensive succeeded -- something improbable, given the army’s conditions -- it would unite the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, it would strengthen them politically and would isolate the revolutionary proletariat; if the offensive failed -- something almost certain -- the offensive would bring about a complete dissolution of the army, a ruinous retreat, the loss of new territories, and disillusionment of the proletariat.

Leon Trotsky defines the Bolsheviks’ position toward the offensive thusly, in his book: From the October Revolution to the Brest-Litovsk Peace.

The offensive, as had been foreseen, had lamentable consequences. The Russian army suffered a hard blow. The masses’ discontent with Kerensky, the longing for immediate peace, were accentuated and spread. The Bolsheviks began a violent campaign of agitation of the proletariat.

The Kerensky government repressed this agitation campaign without remorse. Many Bolsheviks were arrested, others had to flee and hide. In this situation General Kornilov’s reactionary attempt took place. Pushed by the bourgeoisie, which plotted intensely against the Revolution, he rebelled against Kerensky. But his reactionary attempt had no echo amongst the soldiers at the front, who desired peace and, knowing their chauvinist and nationalist mentality, regarded reactionary elements with hostility.

The workers of Petrograd vigorously rose up in defense of the Revolution. Kornilov’s insurrection was completely aborted, but it served to increase the masses’ revolutionary vigilance and, consequently, to strengthen the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks redoubled the cry: “All governmental power to the soviets!”

The Social-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks, in order to calm, to quiet the masses, resorted to a crafty maneuver: they put together a democratic conference, a mixed assembly of the soviets and other autonomous groups, whose composition assured Kerensky a majority. From the democratic conference there emerged a democratic soviet. This democratic soviet, completed with the representatives of the bourgeois parties allied with Kerensky, made itself into a preliminary parliament. This preliminary parliament was to move toward a Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks received fifty seats in the preliminary Parliament, but the Bolsheviks left the preliminary Parliament. They invited the Left Social-Revolutionaries, those who did not share Kerensky’s ideas, to also abandon him. But the Left Social-Revolutionaries did not decide to break with Kerensky and join the Bolsheviks. The situation became ever more agitated. The atmosphere ever more flammable. Let us see how the final spark was lit.

In defense of the Revolution, the Petrograd Soviet had created a Revolutionary Military Committee intended to safeguard the army from reactionary moves such as Kornilov’s. This Revolutionary Military Committee, a fundamentally revolutionary and proletarian grouping, lived in conflict with Kerensky’s High Command. Kerensky conspired against its existence on the grounds that it was not possible for two high commands to function in Petrograd.

The government saw in the Revolutionary Committee the future center of the Bolshevik revolution. It resolved then to take a series of military measures which would assure it military control of Petrograd. It ordered the distancing from Petrograd of troops loyal to the soviet and obedient to the Revolutionary Military Committee, and the calling in of new troops from the front. These dispositions unleashed the Bolshevik revolution.

On 22 October, Kerensky’s High Command invited the garrison corps to each send two delegates to reach an agreement on the moving away of rebellious troops. The garrison corps responded that they would not obey but a resolution from the Petrograd Soviet. It was the explicit declaration of the rebellion.

Some troops, however, were still vacillating. The Bolsheviks carried out, with efficient activity, a quick propaganda campaign to win them to their cause. The Kerensky government called in troops from the front, these troops got in communication with the Bolsheviks, who ordered them to stop their advance. And, the final day arrived.

On 25 October, the Petrograd troops surrounded the Winter Palace, the Kerensky government’s refuge, and Leon Trotsky, in the name of the Revolutionary Military Committee, announced to the Petrograd Soviet that Kerensky’s government had ceased to exist and that from that moment on political powers passed into the hands of the Revolutionary Military Committee, awaiting a decision from the All-Russia Congress of Soviets.

On 26 October, the Congress of Soviets met. Lenin and Zinoviev, persecuted under the Kerensky government, reappeared, greeted with great applause. Lenin presented two proposals: peace, and the distribution of lands to the peasants. The two were instantaneously approved.

The Bolsheviks invited the Left Social-Revolutionaries to collaborate with them in the formation of a new government, but the Social-Revolutionaries, always vacillating and irresolute, demurred from accepting. Then, the Bolshevik Party wholly assumed the responsibility of government. The Congress of Soviets entrusted power to a Soviet of People’s Commissars.

The Bolshevik revolution had days of intense worry and constant threat. The public employees and functionaries sabotaged it. The students of the Military School rebelled. Bolshevik troops repressed this insurrection. Kerensky, who had managed to flee the government palace, threatened Petrograd at the head of General Krasnoff’s Cossacks, but the Bolsheviks overthrew him in Tsarskoe Selo. And Kerensky fled a second time. The Bolsheviks sent messengers to all the provinces, communicating the formation of a new government and the passing of the decrees on peace and land distribution.

The telegraph and the transportation services boycotted and cut off communications. The troops at the front remained loyal to them because they were the party of peace.

There came a period of negotiations between the Soviets and the Entente. The Soviets proposed to the Entente the joint negotiation of peace. These proposals were not considered. The Bolsheviks were forced to approach the Germans separately. The Brest-Litovsk negotiations began. Before and after them, there were conversations between the diplomatic representatives of the allied powers and Russia. But an agreement was impossible. The Allies thought that the Bolsheviks would hardly last in government. The Brest-Litovsk Peace was inevitable.

This, quickly summarized, is the history of the Russian Revolution. I will, at the end of this lecture course, give the history of the Soviet Republic, the explanation of Russian legislation, the study of the Russian institutions, the analysis of Soviet politics. In accordance with the course program -- which, as I have said, groups events with a certain arbitrariness, but allows a better overall understanding -- in the next lecture I shall speak on the German Revolution. We will thus arrive at another substantial episode, another primary chapter, in the history of the world crisis which is the history of the breakdown, and of the decadence or the decline of the proud capitalist civilization.

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