Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

The Urban Middle Classes against the Proletariat


After the departure of the Mensheviks and the Right S-Rs, the Second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets noted, in a brief motion, that ‘the exit of the conciliators, far from weakening the Soviets, strengthens them by purging the workers’ and peasants’ power of counter-revolutionary elements’. It is the all-clear, a complete victory. Behind the scenes, negotiations begin with the defeated parties, and with the powerful railwaymen’s union, under Menshevik influence. The ground is cleared for further progress, but there are immense dangers, how immense we shall shortly witness. Speedy action is now needed. The Congress has the initiative. If it hesitates or fools itself, if what it proclaims does not chime in with the masses’ longings, all will be lost tomorrow. The delegates must find the words that can conquer, vote the decrees which will win for the revolution the embittered people of the trenches, the impatient people of the countryside, the people of the cities.

The decree on peace is the first to be passed.

The Workers’ and Peasants’ Government, established by the revolution of 24-5 October, and based on the Soviets, invites all the belligerent nations and their governments to open negotiations without delay for a just and democratic peace ...

The Italians have just been routed at Caporetto; Rumania is being invaded: with the advent of submarine warfare, every ship on the seas is now a hunted prey; German ballistics experts are preparing the long-distance bombardment of Paris; France, Germany, Italy and Austria, bleeding, depopulated, rationed to the bone, are beginning to falter.

The decree defines as just and democratic ‘an immediate peace without annexations (that is, without conquest of foreign territories or forcible adherence of foreign nationalities) and without indemnities’.

The Government declares that it considers none of these conditions of peace as an ultimatum; it is willing to examine any other conditions that may be proposed, insisting only on their prompt discussion by any other belligerent power involved, on the utmost frankness and on the exclusion of all equivocation and secrecy.

The decree pronounces the abolition of all secret diplomacy, and the ‘immediate, unconditional’ cancellation of the secret treaties ‘which have usually served to secure advantages and privileges for the capitalists and landlords of Russia’ or for the Great-Russian nationality. All the belligerent nations are invited to sign an immediate armistice of at Ieast three months. The document ends with an appeal ‘to the workers of the three most advanced countries of mankind, France, Britain and Germany’. It recalls these workers’ services to the cause of progress and Social-ism, and exhorts them to dedicate themselves to the cause of peace and the emancipation of all toilers.

When the vote is taken, the Left S-Rs announce that their party will support the decree even though they do not agree with its terms. Lenin replies to the critics of the decree, some of whom find its language too moderate.

We are being told [he says] that failure to use the terms of an ultimatum means a display of our feebleness. But it is time for us to finish with the old bourgeois sham of phrases about ‘the power of the people’ ...

In the eyes of the bougeoisie, strength is manifested when the masses go blindly to the slaughter. The only government which the bourgeoisie recognize as strong is one which can use all the power of the state machine to push the masses anywhere it pleases. Our conception of strength is different. In our eyes, a government is strong in proportion to the consciousness of the masses. It is strong when these masses know everything, judge everything, accept everything consciously?. [1]

We desire general peace, but do not shrink from revolutionary war. If the German people sees that we are ready to discuss every kind of peace proposal, that will be the spark, the beginning of the German revolution. We are ready to discuss all proposals; that does not mean that we will accept them. That was how Lenin argued. The decree was passed unanimously. ‘The war is over! Faces lit up.’ [2] The Internationale rose from the hall, and then the Farewell to the Dead, plaintive as a crowd’s deep sigh.

We shall analyse the peace policy of the Soviets when we come to our chapter on the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. This first, symbolic act of the revolution meant that from its very first day it possessed an international character. It was a gesture of defiance to the old order; an appeal directed daringly towards the peoples, over the heads of the old society; an appeal that was bound to reach the ears of men in very distant places. Immediate peace, without annexations or indemnities! Compare this with the war aims of the two imperialist coalitions. [3]


Lenin had spent part of the night in drafting the decree on land. This decree alone would make the new authority invincible, by assuring it of the support of millions of peasants. Lenin knew this. On the morning of the 26th, he exclaimed, ‘Let us just have enough time to promulgate this law – after that, just see them try to take it off us!’ In drawing up this crucial draft, Lenin took the wording from the 242 decrees which local peasant Soviets had passed in conformity with the agrarian programme of the Socialist-Revolutionary party. This measure, which the S-Rs had incessantly talked of, the Bolsheviks actually carried out, thereby depriving yesterday’s governing party of the programme which had been the basis of its influence in the countryside. The first clause of the decree is short: ’1. The land-owners’ right of owner-ship over the soil is abolished forthwith, without compensation.’

The estates of the landlords, the land of the monasteries, churches, etc., along with their livestock and other material, become the property of the Peasant Soviets. Revolutionary tribunals are to punish any damage to these goods, which now belong to the nation (this clause was anticipating the possible destruction of equipment or buildings by the dispossessed land-owners). In the implementation of these measures, the lists of peasants’ demands (or decrees) are to serve as a guide, pending the definitive decisions to be made by the Constituent Assembly’.

In expropriating the land-owners, possessors of estates, the decree did not abolish private property in land: the possessions even of the rich peasants were not disputed. The landed proprietor, the descendant of ancient feudal families or a newly enriched bourgeois, was hated equally by the rich, poor and middle peasants, who were all the descendants of serfs. Thus the decree created a united front of the whole of the peasantry around the Soviets. The doctrinaires – for some existed – judged Lenin to be timid, precisely when he was proving that he – and his party – were serious revolutionaries, realists free of routine thinking. This revolution, they said, was surely that of the proletariat. But the abolition of feudal property was the outcome, over virtually the whole of Europe, of the bourgeoisie’s own revolutions. Here was the triumphant proletariat limiting itself to achieving the bourgeois revolution in the countryside. It was doing for the Russian peasants what the Third Estate (French bourgeoisie), soon to be represented by the Jacobins, had achieved in 1789-93 for the French peasant, by giving him property rights and freeing him from subjection. The bourgeois revolution was being achieved, and indeed surpassed by the vigour of the attack against private property. But was not this a breach of the Bolshevik party’s pro-gramme, which advocated the nationalization of the soil? Lenin was blamed for applying the agrarian programme of the S-Rs, not his own.

That is unimportant [he replied]. As a democratic government, we cannot simply ignore the wishes of the popular masses, even if we are in disagreement with them.

Life will show who is in the right. In the development of new forms of government, we must follow the demands of life, and leave complete freedom to the creative activity of the popular masses. The last government tried to solve the agrarian question by agreement with the ancient, immovable bureaucracy of the Tsar. Far from settling the problem, the bureaucracy simply attacked the peasants ... So the peasants want to solve the agrarian question themselves. Let there be no amendments to their plan! Will the peasantry act in the spirit of our programme or in that of the S-Rs? It is of little importance: the main thing is for them to have the firm assurance that there will be no more landlords and that they can set about organizing their own lives. [4]

Unfortunately the only reports of these debates are summaries by the secretaries in charge of the sessions. The stenographers had left the Congress at the same time as the opponents of the Bolsheviks. The decree on land was voted unanimously except for one vote against and eight abstentions.

What advantages did this law bring to the peasantry? In the Ukraine and the regions bordering the Black Sea, the big land-owners possessed about a fifth of all cultivated land. In central Russia the proportion was only about 7.5 per cent (2,916 desyatins, out of the 39,222 desyatins in thirty-six gubernias: a desyatin is about 2.5 acres). But over the whole of Russia, the peasants were burdened with taxes, compulsory duties and debts, which made their income inferior to that of the workers. They now found themselves free of these exactions.


The first Government of the Soviets was established at this same session, after heated debates. The Congress elected a new All-Russian Executive of the Soviets, consisting of 102 members: sixty-two Bolsheviks, twenty Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, some Internationalist Social-Democrats and other groups of less importance. The first Council of People’s Commissars – the term had been suggested by Trotsky to avoid the discredited title of ‘ Ministers’ – was composed solely of Bolsheviks, as follows: Chairman, N. Lenin; Interior, A.I. Rykov; Agriculture, V.P. Milyutin; Labour, A.G. Shlyapnikov; War and Navy, a committee of three (V.A. Antonov-Ovseyenko, N.V. Krylenko, P.E. Dybenko); Commerce and Industry, V.P. Nogin; Education, A.V. Lunacharsky; Finance, I.I. Stepanov-Skvortsev; Foreign Affairs, L.D. Trotsky; Justice, G.I. Oppokov (Lomov); Food, I.A. Teodorovich; Posts and Telegraphs, N.P. Glebov-Avilov; Nationalities, J.V. Dzugashvili (Stalin). No People’s Commissar for Transport and Communications was appointed, doubtless because of the strained relations that existed with the All-Russian Railway Workers’ Committee.

The Left S-Rs, always prone to incessant hesitations, had refused to participate in the government, although invited by the Bolsheviks, who had no wish to govern alone. To govern alone was, in effect, to assume, undivided, all the overwhelming responsibilities of the moment, and to leave open to rivals, to hidden opponents and to waverers, the advantageous role of the opposition. It was a difficult situation for a party which had been denounced for months unanimously by the bourgeois press as a nest of enemy agents, and whose leaders, with high treason charges hanging over their heads, had arrived via Germany in a sealed train ... But the Left S-Rs, who actually would have been precious allies, on account of their representation of the peasantry, wanted a coalition government which would have included every party in the Soviet, in which the Girondin followers of counter-revolution would be given ministerial posts. ’We had no alternative,’ writes Trotsky, ‘but to leave the Left S-Rs to their efforts of persuading their more Right-wing neighbours to rally to the revolution. While they devoted themselves to that hopeless enterprise, we deemed it our duty to assume all responsibility in the name of our party.’ [5]

The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets broke up on the morning of 27 October, after an all-night session. On the same day, while it was dispatching its peace proposals to all the belligerent powers, the Council of People’s Commissars passed a decree abolishing the death penalty.


The insurrection was victorious. The situation still appeared desperate.

Petrograd had food supplies for no more than ten days. None of the government offices was functioning. The new administration had neither premises nor staff. Doubtless, from one hour to the next, the sympathy of the masses would be conveyed to it by delegates from the armies, from regiments, from provincial Soviets and trade unions; but telegrams of condemnation also rained in on Smolny: committees of the army, military head-quarters, Municipal Dumas, provincial administrations, in short, every established body and command post in the land, declared to the ‘usurpers’, the ‘traitors’, the ‘bandits’ who are launching civil war’, that the restoration of order and speedy chastisement was on its way. The newspapers of the bourgeoisie continued to appear, full of sensational revelations on the dark goings-on behind the coup, announcing that regiments were on their way from the front, that Kerensky was now a few kilometres from the capital, at the head of two armoured corps. A new clandestine Provisional Government had been set up, and the socialists of counter-revolution, the Mensheviks and S-Rs, were preparing to take up arms. The Central Telegraph Agency refused to transmit the People’s Commissars’ dispatches and the railwaymen’s executive, which was bitterly opposed to the new government, was sabotaging communications. The news from Moscow was confused: battles in the streets, negotiations, the Whites’ capture of the Kremlin. The opinion of the bourgeoisie, middle classes, press and foreign observers declared that the Bolshevik escapade would not last for long. First it was given a few days to hang on, then a few weeks (and eventually a few months). The very idea that the proletariat could stay in power was preposterous.

On the Nevsky Prospect, the central thoroughfare of Petrograd, a well-dressed throng used to crowd around, discussing the latest news, uttering loud predictions of the restoration of order, sometimes jeering at the Red Guards. [6] Isolated murders of workers and soldiers took place. The Junkers (military cadets) succeeded in taking over the central telephone exchange. On 29 October, the Engineers’ Castle and the Military College, where these Junkers were housed, were surrounded by Red Guards, and armoured cars took up their stations in the approaches. The slender shadows of artillery gun-barrels drooped along the pavements. Summoned to surrender within ten minutes, the Junkers replied with rifle-shots. Their resistance was broken by the first shell, which tore a large gap in the facade of the Military College. Some of the Junkers tried to flee, still resisting; they were massacred.

Why did these sons of the petty-bourgeoisie take up arms? One of the military leaders of the S-Rs wrote at this time to General Krasnov, then marching towards Petrograd: ‘Our forces consist of two to three hundred Junkers, and fifty militants armed with grenades.’ [7] The S-R party, which had at its disposal only these forces, with no proletariat to speak of, had banked on offering support, from inside the city, to the military offensive conducted by Kerensky, Krasnov and the Stavka (General Headquarters) at Mogilev.


We must now consider the forces at the disposal of the head of the Provisional Government’ at his outpost of Gachina, and the forces ranged against him. The troops of the Petrograd garrison, so confident when in the grip of agitation, were now very reluctant to start fighting. Many of their officers had gone into hiding. The rest, with few exceptions, were hostile. When the revolutionary government convoked a meeting of officers, attended by Lenin and Trotsky, not one at first could be found who was willing to accept the supreme command over the Red forces. In the end, Colonel Muraviev volunteered enthusiastically: a talented man, vigorous and ambitious. A member of the Socialist-Revolutionary party, he had taken part here and therein repressions of ‘Bolshevik conspiracies’ in the army, and then had rallied to the Left S-Rs. He was entrusted with the command, with a Committee of Five at his elbow whose duty was to keep an eye on him, relieve him of his functions if necessary, and shoot him at the first sign of treason. He proved to be loyal, passionately energetic, and a good organizer and soldier. With Trotsky he shared the honours for the victory of Pulkovo. (A few months later, the adventurer came out in him: while commander-in-chief on the Czechoslovak front he tried to cross over to the enemy, and when caught blew out his brains.) Other officers joined him, often motivated by their dislike of the Kerensky régime; in their hatred of democracy they chose what was for them the lesser evil. They were useful. Thus an old colonel, Walden by name, was in command of the Red artillery on the heights of Pulkovo which saved Petrograd.

Everything had to be improvised. Sabotage was at work in all the army departments. Cartridges, shells, spare parts for the weapons were hidden; telephone and engineering apparatus had disappeared. The Red Guards and the factories made up all the deficiencies, did all the jobs themselves, from keeping the artillery supplied with ammunition to digging the trenches.

At Petrograd, Podvoisky had just taken over the command from Antonov-Ovseyenko, who was exhausted. He has told the story of how Lenin burst into his office, announcing, ‘The Council of People’s Commissars has appointed me, along with Stalin and Trotsky, to come and help you.’ Actually Lenin had come along to follow operations himself, without telling anyone else. He at once gathered assistants round him and began, apparently with-out realizing it, to give orders. Eventually Podvoisky, unnerved at this, protested at this interference in his duties and asked to be allowed to resign. Lenin then turned threatening: ‘What? What? I’ll have you brought before a party tribunal! We’ll have you shot! I order you to continue your work and let me get on with mine!’

It was only the next day [writes Podvoisky] that I realized, by looking at its results, the effectiveness of Lenin’s work ... and the source of its strength: at the most serious crises, when we were wasting ourselves in dispersed efforts, in him concentration of reasoning, of inner powers and resources, reached its highest peak. [8]

Kerensky had taken refuge among General Krasnov’s Cossacks. In the old army, the Cossacks were the embodiment of reactionary ideas: caste-consciousness had been sedulously fostered among these privileged peasants from their distant regions of the south-east. Krasnov, an ambitious monarchist, who was to become during the civil war one of the leading lights of the counter-revolution, assured them that they would have no difficulty in vanquishing the anarchy that was now instituted at Petrograd. Was not the military rising prepared by the S-Rs about to smooth their path within the capital itself?

The White forces occupied Gachina and Tsarskoye-Seloe, less than twenty kilometres from the capital. Between them and Petro-grad rose the heights of Pulkovo. From the top of these hills, the Red artillery inflicted severe losses on them (between 300 and 500 dead). This was on 30 October. The Cossacks, taken aback by this resistance, demoralized by agitation and surrounded by hostile populations of workers, drew back in disorder. The railway workers got a train going for them, but with such poor enthusiasm that the job took an hour instead of fifteen minutes. The telephone operators refused to transmit Krasnov’s telegrams. [9] This last adventure of the ‘people’s tribune’ Kerensky, ‘head of the Provisional Government, Supreme Commander of the Armies of the Republic’, an impressive orator and mediocre character, had a pitiful finale. Once again, democracy’s tribune managed to escape just in the nick of time as Krasnov, his subordinate who despised him, was about to hand him over to the Bolsheviks to see if he was a coward or ’not’. [10] Krasnov himself was finally handed over by his own Cossacks, who offered no resistance to the Reds’ occupation of the palace at Gachina.

The revolution made the mistake of showing magnanimity to the leader of the Cossack attack. He should have been shot on the spot. [11] At the end of a few days he recovered his liberty, after giving his word of honour never to take up arms again against the revolution. But what value can promises of honour have towards enemies of fatherland and property? He was to go off to put the Don region to fire and the sword.


Nothing is more tragic at this juncture than the moral collapse of the two great parties of democratic socialism. The Socialist-Revolutionaries had carried considerable weight, through their distinguished record and their influence in the countryside, on the intellectuals and middle classes and, not so long ago, among powerful minorities of workers: they had enjoyed every opportunity of taking power without any transgression of the established legality and of governing as Socialists. The country would have followed them. At its Fourth Congress the majority of the party castigated the Central Committee for not having done so. But the S-R leaders, ridden by a fetishism for formal democracy, fearing more than anything else the anarchy of the masses and peasant jacquerie, and dreaming of a parliamentary democracy where their eloquence would have held sway, rejected the arduous Socialist road in favour of collaboration with the liberal bourgeoisie. The S-Rs had exercised a paramount influence within the Kerensky government. Kerensky himself was a member of their party, as was his Minister of Agriculture, Victor Chernov, a verbose theoretician of populist Socialism and the author of a pro-gramme of agrarian reform whose implementation he constantly deferred. In the Soviets, the S-Rs, with Menshevik support, had enjoyed the majority. They had a majority in the Municipal Duma of Moscow and had controlled about half the votes in the Petro-grad Duma. Their leader Avksentiev was Chairman of the Provisional Legislative Council of the new Republic. They appeared to possess powerful teams of men accustomed to action. Their Central Committee, initiating waves of terrorist activity at the word of command, sending hundreds of militants to become heroes and martyrs of the revolution, had in its best days made Tsardom tremble.

The Mensheviks, a minority of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ party who had tussled over twenty years with the Bolsheviks (in factional struggles which were actually contests between revolutionary intransigence and Socialist opportunism), were influential in the industrial centres, among the intelligentsia, in the cooperatives, in the trade union leadership, and in the circles around the late government. They had contributed statesmen as remarkable, for their personal qualities and their revolutionary past, as Chkeidze and Tseretelli, and theoreticians and agitators as gifted as G.V. Plekhanov, the great founder of Russian Social-Democracy, Y. Martov, Dan and Abramovich. But the Mensheviks, with similar hesitations to those of the S-Rs, declared themselves on the side of class collaboration, democracy and the Constituent Assembly, and against ‘anarchy’, ‘premature socialism, Bolshevik hysteria and (even) civil war.

On 26 October, both these Socialist parties took the initiative within the Petrograd Municipal Duma in forming a Committee of Safety for Fatherland and Revolution, to whose membership they admitted three Kadets, representatives of the big bourgeoisie (Nabokov, Countess Panina and one more obscure). The S-Rs’ military branch undertook to arrange the Junkers’ mutiny. Gotz picked a colonel to lead the rising, and Avksentiev signed the order to the military colleges to seize arms and start the fighting. [12] Dyelo Naroda (People’s Cause), the party’s official organ, announced that The President of the Party’s Central Committee and Honorary President of the All-Russian Soviet of Peasants, V.M. Chernov, is now at the head of General Krasnov’s troops.’

Once the Junkers were disarmed, the Committee of Public Safety, the S-R Central Committee, and the two signatories of the order to fight (Avksentiev and a Menshevik) united in repudiating – simply through fear of the consequences and the wish to fight another day – the attempted coup which they themselves had instigated and for which several hundred young men had paid with their lives. [13] The appeal from the Committee of Public Safety, sent out on 27 October, had openly said: ’Arm to resist the mad adventure of the Bolshevik MRC! We call on all troops loyal to the revolution to assemble at the Nikolai Military College and unite around the Committee of Public Safety!’ Not a single army unit responded to this appeal.

After this dishonest escapade, the Girondin conspiracy against the revolution took on a permanent shape. Here the S-Rs, who were more actively inclined than the Mensheviks and more used to illegal work, took the dominant role.

Not that the counter-revolutionary attitude of the Social-Democrats was any less incriminating. In the middle of the fighting they wrote: ‘In the serious crisis which has stricken Petrograd and the nation, the revolution has received a terrible blow: and not a blow in the back from General Kornilov but a blow to the heart from Lenin and Trotsky.’ The conclusion of the document was that ‘in order to avoid civil war’ (!) workers should align themselves with the Committee of Public Safety, i.e. with reaction. On 3 November, nine days after the revolution, a Menshevik, conference was held at Petrograd. The two opposed viewpoints that emerged there were summarized by Abramovich:

The minority says that Bolshevik force must be opposed with the force of bayonets. The majority says that the Bolsheviks have the sympathy of the proletariat and the army, it is an insurrection of sans-culottes, whose suppression would drive the soldiers into the arms of black reaction and anti-semitism and unleash the forces of the Right ... And so, civil war has to be avoided by conciliation.

Dan stated there: ‘In the first few days, we had hoped that the Bolshevik conspiracy could be liquidated by force of arms. The attempt failed ...’ (These are Dan’s actual words.) ‘That is why,’ he went on, ‘we have now taken up the position of conciliation.’ These unsuccessful executioners of the Russian proletariat were now against the civil war since they had not been able to win it! Dan advocated a policy aimed at splitting the Bolsheviks, which would win over ‘the reasonable Bolsheviks’ for a broad democratic front, isolate the others, and finally crush ‘the military-minded faction around Lenin and Trotsky’. The argument of a certain Weinstein deserves to be cited as a model of Socialist jesuitry in the service of reaction: ‘If democracy does not suppress Bolshevism, even with force of arms, others will do it instead. [14] On the vote, the irreconcilable tendency, of all-out struggle against Bolshevism, had the majority.

The men who used this sort of language were not on the party’s Right wing. The Right of Social-Democracy is represented in the ‘national defence’ tendency, whose organ is Edinstvo (Unity, and whose leader is the grand old man George Valentinovich Plekhanov, the Russian equivalent to Guesde. [15] Sick and confined to bed, old Plekhanov receives Jacques Sadoul on 17 October and says to him of the Bolsheviks, ‘We must not only masterbut crush this vermin, drown it in blood. That is the price of Russia’s safety.’

Plekhanov [Sadoul wrote later to Albert Thomas] is convinced that the final struggle is coming soon, in fact passionately desires it, even to the point of hinting – and you know Plekhanov’s democratic scruples – that if the rising does not come spontaneously then it must be provoked.

In Plekhanov’s eyes the ‘Bolshevik bandits’ are a ‘revolting mixture of Utopian idealists, imbeciles, traitors and anarchist provocateurs’. [16] The depth to which old Plekhanov had fallen was low, indeed abysmal. At least, however, there was a ruthless logic in his pursuit of all the implications of his position as a ‘Socialist of national defence’.

Maxim Gorky’s journal Novaya Zhizn (New Life), which at this point took an attitude of neutrality, described the politics of ‘moderate democracy’ (meaning the Socialists principally) in the following terms: ‘its organizations call upon all citizens to refuse to obey the Bolsheviks, to resist the rising actively, to undertake sabotage and the disorganization of food supplies. Their motto is: against the Bolsheviks, all methods are good.’ [17]


‘All methods are good!’ These were not mere words. The counter-revolutionary democrats made wide use of a ruthless weapon, outside the normally understood customs of war: the systematic sabotage of all enterprises serving the general population (food supplies, public services, etc.). From its outset the war of classes broke the conventional mould of what is permissible in war.

When the victorious Reds entered the offices of the Municipal Duma in Moscow, they found nothing but debris. The records had been used to stop up the windows. The cupboards and desks were empty, the typewriters unusable. The municipal employees, 16,000 of them, were out on strike. Their strike against the workers’ revolution was to last four months in a city already, immediately after the insurrection, threatened by famine and epidemics.

In these conditions it was indescribably difficult to get the various departments of the city administration running again. A strike of all the staff without exception, doctors, teachers and engineers; the boycotting of their jobs; the sabotage practised by the new officials, along with the need to pay the manual workers their normal wages (the civilian and military administrations in Moscow employed over two hundred thou-sand of these workers); the need to feed tens of thousands of refugees and maintain the services for water, sewage, tramways, abattoirs, gas, and electricity, at all costs: such was the problem which our workers and militants, very inexperienced in these matters, had to face immediately, with nothing to meet the situation except their own wits. [18]

A number of sections of skilled workers joined the sabotage and the strike, another indication of the role played by the influence of the Socialists of counter-revolution.

The situation at Petrograd was very similar. Here the effects of sabotage can be seen at work in the great departments of State. In the agricultural section of the Ministry of Food, all the officials and staff without exception went on strike, and took the files on current business away with them. The Soviet’s Food Department, a mere handful of militants, occupied the vast, deserted premises. Everything was gone. ‘Kalinin and I,’ writes one comrade, ‘found a few lumps of sugar tucked away in a safe ... We made some tea ... The Ministry of Food had been captured by Schlichter at the head of a Red Guard unit. There was hardly anybody inside it ...

The strike at the State Bank did not begin until 14 November. One militant reports on it:

I found the premises deserted. Obolensky, Pyatakov and Smirnov were meeting in one of the offices, discussing how they could get some money out for the Council of People’s Commissars, who possessed neither paper nor ink. Negotiations went on with some junior staff. There was one lone official who was still at his post ...

After a good many formalities the Bolsheviks eventually got five million roubles turned over to them. V. Bonch-Bruyevich administered this treasure thriftily. [19] In some banks the employees were willing to work but, being afraid of having to answer later for their compliance, begged to be compelled, with Red Guards installed in their offices. The officials at the Treasury were still on duty, keeping watch over the money they had charge of.

At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trotsky found nobody in. A certain Prince Tatishchev, who had been put under arrest, eventually agreed to open the office desks for him. The Commissariat for Foreign Affairs operated from Smolny, without equipment or staff. Trotsky, who was in any case absorbed with military duties, formulated at this point a rather abbreviated definition of foreign policy. ‘I have only undertaken this work,’ he said, ‘so that I shall be able to give more time to the party. My mandate is simple: publish the secret treaties and then shut up shop.’ [20] A number of the documents had disappeared.

At the Ministry of Justice twelve office boys and one functionary were to be found.

Let us close this catalogue. In all the ministries, all the public offices, all the banks, the picture presented was similar, and the funds and the most important files had disappeared.

A shadow government was functioning, presided over by Prokopovich, who had officially taken over the succession from Kerensky, who was said to have ‘resigned’. This clandestine Cabinet directed the strike of officials in concert with a strike committee. The large firms of industry, commerce and banking, such as the Rural Bank of Tula, the Moscow Popular Bank and the Bank of the Caucasus, continued to pay their officials who were out on strike. The former All-Russian Soviet Executive (Menshevik and S-R) used its funds, stolen from the working class, for the same purpose.


‘Miracles of proletarian organization must be achieved.’ [21] This idea of Lenin’s provided the key to the people’s salvation. This many-headed resistance of entire classes could be combated only by the initiative of masses more numerous and more energetic. In this period the policy of the Soviet authority consisted principally in awakening, stimulating, sometimes guiding, but more usually simply of endorsing the initiative of the masses. The People’s Commissariats were ordered, by decree, to work ‘in close contact with the mass organizations of the working men and women, the sailors, the soldiers and the employees’. The decree of 28 October (10 November) allotted the work of local supplies to the municipalities. Another decree the same day urged them to solve the housing crisis by taking their own measures, and gave them the right to requisition, sequestrate and confiscate premises. This decree is characteristic: it both orders and takes initiative, in an area of grave importance, with a serious incursion made against the rights of private property. The decree of 14 November invites the workers to use their own committees to control the production, accounting and financing of the firms they work in. We have already pointed out that in the decree on land the greatest initiative was left in the hands of the rural Soviets.

As there was no central government, the initiative of the masses counted for everything. The Council of People’s Commissars was a very high authority, but one of a moral description. ‘Its first meetings,’ writes Shlyapnikov [22], took place in Lenin’s little office on the second floor of Smolny. At the beginning its staff was very small: V. Bonch-Bruyevich as head of department, and two assistants. I believe that they did not even keep proper minutes of the first few meetings.’

The sessions of the Council were long. There were a large number of practical questions demanding immediate solution. They were discussed with delegations of workers. The council decided that its People’s Commissars would receive a salary equal to the average wage of a skilled worker (500 roubles a month), with an extra 100 a month for each dependent. As the head of this government of revolution, Lenin was concerned to establish its authority. He insisted on the precise observance of formalities, and observed them himself, thus inspiring among his colleagues and, by diffusion, throughout the administration, a feeling of power, trust and respect for the authority he had created. [23]

Some examples of mass initiative may be relevant. The Metal-workers’ Union, whose secretary, Shlyapnikov, had just become People’s Commissar of Labour, provided this department with its first new members of staff. The Central Committee of the Seafarers’ and Bargemen’s Union undertook to organize the new administration of the ports. In many offices and enterprises, the junior staff found itself left in a position of management (which it promptly exercised) through the defection of its superiors. The courts had disappeared, except for a few which the Red Guard had to close down. One team of soldiers proceeded to dissolve the ancient ‘Governmental Senate’, which was composed of eminent members of the legal profession. The justices of the peace, a fairly popular system of justice, stayed in office. There was a constant procession to Smolny of arrested miscreants, functionaries, officers, looters and thieves. On the top floor there was a room crammed with old sheepskins and furnished with a table and two or three chairs, in which sat a ‘Commission of Judicial Inquiry’ which was actually no more than one very overworked party member. It conducted summary investigations and passed sentences of imprisonment in the cellars of this former school for daughters of the nobility. The workers themselves set up tribunals in their own districts. ‘The first of these tribunals was established in the Vyborg area. The public prosecutor and the defence spoke before the public, who took part in the debates. The verdict was taken by vote among the audience. Composed for the most part of workers, the tribunal functioned quite well ...’ [24] At Smolny, a similar tribunal arose out of the ‘Commission of Inquiry’ just mentioned, and its main concern became that of combating banditry. The arrested malefactors were interrogated and tried with-out formalities by all persons present in Room 75.

One day [relates Bonch-Bruyevich] they brought in a gang of coiners who refused to confess. Stared out by forty pairs of eyes, and harried by cross-examinations from the workers, they eventually broke down. One of them fell on his knees and shouted, ‘I can’t stand it any longer, I’ll tell the whole truth ...’ We did not know what to do with these people any more, the Peter-Paul Fortress was jammed full.

Another defendant there was a madman who had stabbed twenty-two people in one of the main thoroughfares of the city.

The problem of criminality, inherited from the old régime, thus became immediately pressing. In the prisons the common-law criminals had a meeting and presented a petition asking that they be given the chance to start a new life. Most of them were released, many of them to return inside in no time. Formal tribunals were not organized until later: these were constituted from delegates to the Petrograd Soviet, each assisted by two workers drawn from the lists of the factory committees.


For a short period the counter-revolution might well have imagined that it had discovered its most murderous weapon, in the form of alcoholism. The frightful plan, conceived in clandestine circles, of drowning the revolution in liquor before going on to drown it in blood, of turning it into a tumult of drunken crowds, now began seriously to be executed. In Petrograd there were cellars richly stocked with wine, and precious stores of fine liqueurs. The idea of looting them would blossom – or more exactly, be implanted – in the breasts of the crowd. Frantic groups would then descend on the cellars of palaces, restaurants and hotels. It was a contagious madness. Picked detachments of Red Guards, sailors and revolutionaries had to be organized for protection against the danger at all costs. The cellars would get flooded by the hundreds of burst barrels, and people came to draw wine from the ventilating shafts. Machine-guns barred the way, but more than once the wine went to the heads of the gunners. Stocks of old wine were hastily smashed up, to let the poison run off quickly into the sewers.

Antonov-Ovseyenko reports [25]:

The problem was particularly serious with the cellars at the Winter Palace. The Preobrazhensky regiment, which had been put in charge of guarding them, got drunk and became quite useless. The Pavlovsky regiment, our sure revolutionary shield, went the same way. Teams of solidiers were sent, picked from various regiments: they too got drunk. The workers’ committees attempted no further resistance. The crowd had to be dispersed by armoured cars, whose crews were soon reeling too. By nightfall it had become a wild orgy. ‘Let’s drink up the Romanovs’ leftovers’, they said gaily in the crowd. Order was restored in the end by sailors fresh from Helsinki, men of iron who had been more used to killing than to drinking. In the suburb of Vassili-Ostrov, the Finland regiment, which was led by anarcho-syndicalist elements, decided to shoot the looters on the spot and blow up the wine-cellars.

These devotees of liberty took no half-measures, and a good job too.

These riots were planned. ‘All methods are good.’ Similar provocations took place all over Russia, and the hand of the enemy could frequently be detected. One of the October revolutionaries who was at the Rumanian front relates the following example: [26]

Alcohol suddenly made its appearance at the front in enormous quantities. Huge tanks full of it arrived, labelled Paraffin or Benzine. The troops, worn down by privation, quickly learned what was inside (and how? – that is a secret known to the corrupt originators of the cargo) and threw themselves, sometimes by whole battalions or regiments, upon this treasure; they would even get to the point of using bayonets or machine-guns to defend their tanks of liquor against others. We saw this happening at Minsk, and further in the rear at Orsha. At Orsha we received a first consignment of seventeen truckloads of alcohol which had been sent from Smolensk, we could not discover by whom, around 15 November. A few days later came a second train with twenty-two trucks labelled Oats, Herrings and Wood, with barrels of wine inside them. We had sent the first convoy back, but the soldiers still looted it on the way, addressing various threats in our direction ... Even some of the members of the Revolutionary Committee yielded to the temptation to drink ... We formed a detachment of seven men, absolutely reliable and well-armed, who worked non-stop from ten in the evening until eleven the following morning in an out-of-the-way spot, smashing up the oaken barrels of the second consignment ...

In Petrograd it became necessary, on 2 December, to institute a special Extraordinary Commission, armed with full powers, to combat this plague. Draconic measures were imposed: several looters of wine-cellars were shot on the spot. In his speech to the Soviet, Trotsky observed:

Vodka is as much a political force as the word. It is the revolutionary word which arouses men for the struggle against their oppressors. If you do not succeed in barring the path to drunken excess, all you will have left in the way of defences will be the armoured cars. Remember this: each day of drunkenness brings the other side closer to victory and us to the old slavery.

The evil was conquered within a week.


During the insurrection itself, at Petrograd, and throughout the street battles in Moscow, negotiations were going on between the Bolsheviks and the parties of ‘Socialist democracy’. The Left S-Rs were insistent in their demand for the formation of a broad Socialist coalition government; as will be seen, this prospect was also favoured by a number of influential Bolsheviks. The negotiations opened under the auspices of the Vikzhel (All-Russian Executive of the Railwaymen’s Union), where the Mensheviks and the Right S-Rs had the majority.

The Vikzhel was a sort of State within the State. On 26 October, when the Council of People’s Commissars had no government machinery yet at its command, the writ of the Vikzhel ruled on all the railways. It was able to halt the transportation of troops and munitions at will, and was not slow to do so. ‘Resolutely opposed to civil war’, it blocked the transport both of Red troops and of White with a feigned impartiality. The negotiations went on at the Petrograd Municipal Duma, which was also the centre for the Committee of Public Safety’s activities. Actually Lenin never took the negotiations seriously for a moment (though they were to preoccupy the enemy), and the majority of his party’s Central Committee concurred with him.

At the beginning, as long as the outcome of the Moscow fighting was uncertain, the Vikzhel, and the democratic organizations grouped around it, proposed drastic conditions: (1) All troops to be placed under the authority of the Municipal Duma; (2) Disarmament of the workers and admission of Kerensky’s forces into the city; (3) Release of all arrested persons; (4) Dissolution of the Military Revolutionary Committee. It was a demand for total capitulation. The victories at Pulkovo and Moscow made the Vikzhel considerably more amenable. Ryazonov [27], who favoured conciliation, put before Vee-Tsik (the All-Russian Executive of Soviets) the new terms offered by the Social-Democrats. A Socialist government would be formed, in which the Bolsheviks would have half the portfolios, notably those of the Interior, Labour and Foreign Affairs; neither Lenin nor Trotsky would be included, in accordance with the previous plans of the Mensheviks. This government would be responsible to a Council of the Nation which would consist of 150 members from the All-Russian Soviet Executive, seventy-five delegates from the Peasant Soviets, eighty delegates from the army and the fleet, forty from the trade unions, and seventy Socialist members of the municipal Duma. A majority (sixty per cent of the seats) was promised to the Bolsheviks.

Acceptance of this proposal would have been a veiled capitulation on the part of the Bolsheviks. Their small majority in an assembly of a semi-parliamentary character would necessarily have been reflected in vacillations of policy; the strength of the minority Socialist opposition and its participation in the government would have led to the sabotage of all revolutionary measures; the consequent mass disillusionment would have weakened the Bolsheviks, while the bourgeoisie and upper middle classes would become alerted to danger. The majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee was astute enough to rely on the unreserved support it had from the mass of the party and the proletariat, and rejected the proposal.

Shortly afterwards a crisis arose in the party’s Central Committee and in the Council of People’s Commissars. We will quote here the Bulletin of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Party (Bolshevik), No.7, for 5 November 1917.

The Vee-Tsik, by 34 votes to 24, passed the resolution of Lenin and Trotsky on freedom of the press. The People’s Commissars Nogin, Rykov, Milyutin, Teodorovich, Ryazanov and Derbyshev resigned. They addressed to the Vee-Tsik and the Council of People’s Commissars the following declaration: ‘We believe that it is necessary to form a Socialist government including all the parties in the Soviet. Only such a government can assure the fruits of the heroic struggles of the working class and the revolutionary army in the October and November days. We believe that a government which is exclusively Bolshevik can maintain power only by political methods of terror. The Council of People’s Commissars is starting on this road: we cannot follow it.’ Shlyapnikov was of the same opinion but did not believe that he should leave his post. Kamenev, Rykov, Milyutin, Zinoviev and Nogin have resigned from the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party.

(Actually Derbyshev and Ryazanov were not on the Council of People’s Commissars; I have quoted the Russian text without amending this error.)

The majority attitude in the Central Committee was given in two documents, of which the first was the address of the majority to the minority, date 3 November:

The present political line of our party is contained in the motion put by Comrade Lenin and adopted yesterday, 2 November, by the Central Committee. This resolution considers as treason to the proletariat any attempt to induce our party to divest itself of the power which has been entrusted to us, on the basis of our programme, by the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, acting in the name of millions of workers, soldiers and peasants.

The minority is told to submit or else get out of the party.

A split would be most unfortunate. But an open and honest split would be infinitely preferable to sabotage within the party, failure to implement our resolutions, disorganization and capitulation ... We do not doubt for one moment that if our differences are placed before the masses, our policy will be supported unreservedly and with sacrifice by the revolutionary workers, soldiers and peasants, and that the vacillating opposition will speedily be condemned to isolation and impotence.

N. Lenin, L. Trotsky, J. Stalin, Y. Sverdlov, M. Uritsky, F. Dzerzhinsky, A. Yoffe, A. Bubnov, V. Sokolnikov, M. Muranov.

The crisis, serious though it was, remained confined to the top leadership of the party and was of short duration. At the All-Russian Soviet Executive Lenin made only a passing reference to it, in a disdainful remark on ‘the departure of a few intellectuals’. He added: ‘Only those who believe in the people, who throw themselves into the crucible of the living creativity of the masses, will maintain power ...

On 7 November, Pravda published an appeal to the masses, whose essential points were as follows:

May all the fainthearts, vacillators and sceptics, who have allowed themselves to be intimidated by the bourgeoisie or by the clamour of its direct or indirect agents, begin to blush. In the masses, there is not a shadow of hesitation .. .

Those who had resigned were roundly denounced as deserters. Pravda, on the same day or the next, published a Letter to the Comrades signed ‘G. Zinoviev’. Zinoviev reported that the Mensheviks and S-Rs had turned down the conditions put by the Soviets, and that in these circumstances he was withdrawing his resignation from the Central Committee; he called on his comrades in the opposition to do the same.

It is our right and our duty fhe declared] to warn the party against mistakes. But we remain with the party. We prefer to make mistakes with millions of workers and soldiers and to die with them, rather than cut ourselves off from history at this decisive hour ... There is not and cannot be any split in our party.

In the whole history of the working-class movement we know of no example of a crisis as serious as this which was so simply and sanely resolved. Once more the great qualities of the Bolshevik party were displayed – its habits of collective thinking, its discipline, its strong morale, its searching exploration of differences, the unimportance of personal pride among its militants, their pro-found attachment to the working class and to organization. The patriotism of the British expresses itself eloquently in the powerful expression: My country right or wrong. The Bolshevik mentality implies a similar patriotism, one of inestimable value in the class war, a patriotism of class and party: better to be wrong with the party of the proletariat than right against it. There is no greater revolutionary wisdom than this. [28]

Those who had advocated a broad Socialist coalition were afraid that the Bolshevik party – which they were doubtless accustomed to conceive of as the most conscious minority of the working class – might find itself, once in authority, isolated from the worker and peasant masses. They did not have a clear picture of the immense influence that the party had acquired since the July days, or of its steadfast ability to develop policies which would conform to the vital interests of all toilers. They feared the prospect of civil war within the ranks of Socialism and democracy, and one cannot deny that this was a legitimate fear for them at that moment; the counter-revolutionary character of Socialist opportunism had not yet been revealed as abundantly as it later was, both in Russia and in Germany. It was perhaps permissible to hope – though in this hope there was a strong dose of dupery – that the Socialist parties would hesitate to side with the counter-revolution, to fire on the ‘riots of the mob’, i.e. the proletariat, and to take up arms against the true Socialists. Evidently this was an under-estimation of the democratic corruption of these parties, their subjection to influence from the bourgeoisie, the reactionary outlook of their leaders, and the special mentality and interests of the lower middle classes which they mainly represented. It was a patent error, particularly after the experience of ‘the Socialism of national defence’, which had been seen lined up on both sides of the battlefield in the service of the generals.

For its own part, the Socialism of counter-revolution, now-familiar with the corridors of power, was perfectly aware of its mission: it refused to compromise with the Bolshevik rising, which it dreamt of meeting, as we have seen, with a bloodbath. Its intransigence was of considerable use to the revolution: it speedily undeceived the few Bolsheviks who were still beset by illusions about the democratic party; it at once defined the situation sharply and accorded definite limits to the possibility of sabotaging the revolution. In Russia the revolution experienced no sabotage from within, had no enemies inside its inmost councils: among its leaders, treason had no ticket of entry. The reverse experience was the lot of the Hungarian proletariat in 1919. A few days before the seizure of power, the Communist party fused with the Social-Democratic party. During the entire period of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Hungary, Social-Democrats in brand-new Communist camouflage occupied the most important posts, with the result that no measure of revolution, or of defence against counter-revolution, was free from sabotage by the Social-Democracy: treason, whether conscious or unconscious, it matters little, was everywhere. Let us-only-recall that, after Bela Kun’s retreat, a Social-Democratic Cabinet was formed which ensured the transition from the proletarian dictatorship to the Horthy régime. That is the mission of the Socialists of counter-revolution: to ensure the transition to the White terror. What Plekhanov dreamed of in Russia, the Social-Democrat Noske managed to achieve in Germany. In the light of these experiences, we can measure today the gravity of the mistake committed by those Bolsheviks who resigned on 4 November. Equally we can see the keen perceptiveness displayed in these days by Lenin, and the majority of the Central Committee who supported him. At this juncture the role of Lenin was similar in influence to the role he had played on the eve of the insurrection, and of equal importance for the success of the revolution. [29]


Other debates had taken place in the All-Russian Soviet Executive, in which the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, who were in-spired by a large-hearted, foggy idealism, took the attitude of a loyal opposition within the young Soviet régime. On 4 November, while the dissident Bolsheviks were resigning, the Left S-Rs, who also favoured a broad Socialist coalition, withdrew their representatives from the leading bodies of the Soviets. The debate on this day is worth noting: in it Lenin had to defend against the Left S-Rs the simplest, plainest revolutionary realism.

The topic under discussion was the freedom of the press, and in particular that of the journal Rech (The Word), the organ of Milyukov and the liberal big bourgeoisie. The bourgeois press was continuing to appear. Their role in the first exchanges of the civil war was one of considerable effect: in one direction they would breathe hatred, combativity, reactionary ideology; in the other, confusion, panic and slander. The problem before the Soviet Executive was that of silencing these journals, which turned out to be a lengthy process. [30] The Left S-Rs’ orator Karelin paraded as a defender of fundamental principles, declaiming that the Bolsheviks were ‘muzzling thought’ and that the civil war was a ‘disgrace’. Lenin retorted to this pitiful rhetoric:

Let us set up a commission to enquire into the dependence of the bourgeois newspapers upon the banks. We would like to know what sort of freedom it is, wouldn’t we, that is allowing these journals to appear: isn’t it the freedom to buy up tons of paper and hire hordes of scribblers? No more talk of this freedom of the press which is the slave of capital!

Lenin proposed a monopoly of advertising in order to deprive the bourgeois papers of their support from this quarter. And he had to reply to the objections of the print-workers, who supported capitalist advertising because it gave them a living.

The Left S-Rs also attacked the Council of People’s Commissars for violating Soviet legality (yes, already) in issuing decrees with-out previous sanction from the All-Russian Soviet Executive. ‘By what right? How arbitrary!’ exclaimed these priceless revolutionaries. Lenin had to explain to them that the new government had not the leisure to spend on such formalities, that the crisis was too serious and no delay was possible. (This was inconceivable to the S-Rs.) Lenin concluded:

Nothing, not one article, not one pound of bread, will escape accounting: for Socialism is, above all, accounting. Socialism is not created by decrees coming from on high. It has nothing in common with official, bureaucratic routinism. Living Socialism is the work of the popular masses themselves.

A Left S-R had said that ‘The West is shamefully silent.’ Lenin replied sharply:

Revolutions are not made at the word of command. Germany is at the same stage we were at, a while before the fall of Tsardom. Discrediting Socialism, are we?.[The S-Rs had said this too, another of their gems.] Come now, really! ... Is not the present government appealing to the masses to create new forms of life? ... We are going to have a republic of labour: he who does not labour, neither shall he eat! [31]

Lenin’s proletarian realism was affirmed in the face of ’revolutionary’ phraseology from the Left S-Rs, who were excellent revolutionists in their sincere desire to serve Socialism, in their courage and honesty but who, like all the radical petty-bourgeois whose most advanced elements they were, were captivated by the fine phrases which form the whole content of the ideology of bourgeois democracy.

Lenin’s invocation of the initiative of the masses is unceasing. Mass spontaneity is conceived by him as the necessary condition of the organized action of the party. On 5 November, he signs an appeal to the people, calling on them to fight against sabotage. The majority of the people is with us, so our victory is assured:

Comrades, workers! Remember that from now on you yourselves are administering the State. Nobody is going to help you if you do not yourselves unite, and take over all state affairs. Rally round your Soviets: make them strong. Get to work, there at the base, without waiting for orders. Institute the strictest revolutionary order, suppress without mercy the anarchic excesses of drunken hooligans, counter-revolutionary Junkers, followers of Kornilov, etc. Institute rigorous control over production and the accounting of products. Arrest and deliver to the tribunal of the revolutionary people whoever dares to raise his hand against the people’s cause ...

The peasants are urged to ‘take full power themselves, on the spot’. [32] Initiative, once again initiative, and always initiative! That is the slogan that Lenin flings to the masses on 5 November, ten days after the victory of the insurrection.


The first days following the revolution are characterized by two outstanding facts:

(1) The middle classes in the towns (for the decree on land satisfies the corresponding classes in the countryside, who will only form a hostile force later) rally in their entirety to the counter-revolution. It is they who provide the counter-revolution’s effectives and shock-brigades. In the street battles of Moscow and Petrograd, as at the heights of Pulkovo, the bourgeoisie is undoubtedly not defended by itself: its own forces consist only of organized mercenaries. Who, then, are its last defenders? The officers, the Cossacks (whom we shall discuss later), the students of the military colleges, the youth of the high schools, the officials, the senior staffs, the technicians, the intellectuals, the Socialists, all of them people of the middling sort, more or less exploited but highly privileged within the system of exploitation and participating in it. The technical intelligence is simultaneously the organizer of production and of exploitation [33]: it is thereby led to identify itself with the system, and to conceive of the capitalist mode of production as the only one possible. The petty-bourgeoisie, educated, comfortable and held in a position of subordinacy by the bourgeoisie, is often threatened with impoverishment, and, consequently tends towards Socialism; it is, however, inclined towards fatal illusions. More cultured than the proletariat, more numerous and advanced in ideology than the bourgeoisie proper, it feels that its vocation is that of running society. Nineteenth-century democratic illusions were born out of this state of mind and have, in their turn, helped to nurture it. The Socialism of the petty-bourgeois is a Socialism of administrators: liberal, confused, individualist, sometimes Utopian, sometimes reactionary. Petty-bourgeois culture is capitalistic, fixated on the defence of the old order and on a mass education which will conform to the interests of the propertied classes. The petty-bourgeois mentality tends, above all in politics, to separate action from the word: the word is conceived as an antagonist to action or as a false substitute for it (compare the ‘ symbolic gestures’ practised by French radicalism). The bravest souls of the Russian middle classes, who sympathized with the revolution long before it became a reality, thought it should be confined to the bourgeois revolution which would open an era of sound reforms. Proletarian revolution appears to them like an invasion of barbarians, a collapse into anarchy, a blasphemy against the idea of revolution itself. This point of view was forcibly expressed by Maxim Gorky in his Untimely Thoughts published by Novaya Zhizn (New Life). The middle classes wanted the bourgeois revolution to inaugurate a democratic re-public in which they would have constituted the administrative classes and where capitalist development would have proceeded unchecked: this conception was particularly firm among the Mensheviks and the S-Rs who at this time were the most conscious ideologists of the petty-bourgeoisie.

The Utopianism of this class was also shocked by the reality of the revolution: the harsh, bloody reality that was so different from the romantic idyll they had often dreamed of. The workers and the soldiers had quite another approach here, accustomed as they were to living among harsh and bloody realities, enduring necessities in all their naked brutality, brought up in the school of repression and imperialist war.

To the enlightened middle classes, the October Revolution seemed like a putsch engineered by a handful of fanatical doctrinaires with the support of a frightful, anarchic movement of uncivilized commoners. Gorky employed these very words. The issue of war and peace wounds their patriotism (for patriotism is above all the emotion of this class, since the proletariat is internationalist and the bourgeoisie has no more than a businessman’s patriotism diluted with the financier’s cosmopolitanism), just as’it wounds the petty-bourgeois revolutionaries’ romanticism: it is the war issue that widens the abyss between the revolution and what was called – falsely – ‘the democracy’. Before the actual events, it was impossible to foresee that the petty-bourgeois democracy would range itself so totally, with the energy of despair, on the side of the counter-revolution, even to the point of following the monarchist generals, looking for a new Galliffet, and proceeding to mass executions of insurgents. Hence the error made by some of the Bolsheviks. The Moscow Military Revolutionary Commit-tee seems, right up to the massacre at the Kremlin, to have nursed the hope that the S-Rs and Mensheviks would not go fundament-ally against the workers’ rising. The minority in the Bolshevik Central Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars believed, erroneously, in a concentration of the Socialist forces: in other words that the Socialist-minded petty-bourgeoisie could be won back to the proletariat.

As a matter of fact, the counter-revolutionary attitude of the middle classes was not rigidly predetermined by their class interests. With hindsight, one can see that submission to the Soviet régime would have held every advantage for them: through their small numerical importance, their failure to act unitedly and the formidable superiority of the proletariat in organization, morale and thought (with its party, its class consciousness and its Marxism), through, finally, the support given to the revolution by the rural petty-bourgeoisie, the urban middle classes were doomed to a cruel defeat, or rather to annihilation. Their resistance, moreover, created a pile of ruins, and devastated the country. Had they been only slightly more aware of the forces that were in motion, they would have saved themselves – and Russia – a host of calamities. Doubtless, the middle classes are not fated always to have this same hostility towards the proletarian revolution: it is more probable that, in the social struggles of the future, the power and the resolution of the working class will incline them towards an attitude of, first, neutrality, then support. In short, they follow, now and in the future, the strongest side, and when they see the working class is the strongest, they will follow that. In Russia in October 1917, the middle class fooled itself: it thought that the victory of the proletariat was impossible. For a long time they clung to this idea, anticipating the fall of Bolshevism in days or weeks. The only people who could believe in the victory of a class which had never triumphed previously in history, with no experience of power, no footing in society, no wealth, no institutions of its own, except for a few combat organizations the only people who could believe this had to be as deeply imbued with the historic mission of the proletariat as the Bolsheviks were: had to be, in a word, revolutionary Marxists. The invalidation of this psychological motive that lay behind the counter-revolutionary attitude of the Russian petty-bourgeoisie is one of the great historical achievements of the October Revolution.


(2) These early days are also marked by the special features taken by the civil war. Here the Reds, still ignorant of the technique of repression, as well as of its actual necessity, and tending towards self-delusion on the nature of the Socialist democracy, are guilty of a deplorable leniency. It is enough to compare the conditions put by the MRC at Moscow, after its victory to the Committee of Public Safety, with those which the White Committee, at a time when it was far from winning, had tried to impose upon the MRC. The Whites massacre the workers in the Arsenal and the Kremlin: the Reds release their mortal enemy, General Krasnov, on parole. The Whites’ conspiracy for the restoration of order is utterly ruthless: but the Reds hesitate over suppressing the reactionary press. Sheer inexperience was one of the main causes of this dangerous leniency on the Reds’ side.

The counter-revolution, on the other hand, finds its commitment instinctively, immediately, and absolutely. The conflagration of the civil war, it is true, takes light only gradually, with assistance from foreign powers; but, already, from 26 October, the struggle was much more savage than that of wars between states. These are, generally speaking, limited by certain laws, and there are rules of war in them. But there are no rules, no Geneva conventions, no customs of chivalry, and no non-belligerents in the war between classes. From the outset, the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie resort to strikes and sabotage in all the public utilities, in all administrations: a weapon quite outside the customs of war. When Belgium and France were invaded, nowhere did the technicians go on strike as the enemy entered their territory. The sabotage consisted of an attempt to engineer famine, that is, to strike at the whole working population, without any distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Equally significant is the use that was made of alcohol. And the entire counter-revolutionary conspiracy laid the groundwork for White terror.

For wars between states are customarily domestic wars within the possessing classes, who enjoy a common class ethic and a common conception of what is right and proper. In certain eras there was even a marked tendency to reduce the art of war to a rather conventional game. The modern art of war dates from the French Revolution, which pitched a nation-in-arms under bourgeois leadership against the professional armies of antiquated monarchies, armies based on forced conscription and the use of mercenaries and commanded by noblemen: the revolution thus immediately liquidated the old, outdated conventions of strategy and tactics. The Europeans depart from the current rules of war only when they are dealing with peoples they believe to be inferior [34]: so too with the wars waged by ruling classes convinced of their right to defend ‘civilization’ against working-class ‘barbarism’; all means are considered permissible. The interests at stake are too great, all conventions are annulled, and ethics (for there is no human ethic, only the ethics of classes and social formations) no longer exert any moderating influence upon the contending forces: the counter-revolution views the rebellious exploited classes as ‘banished from humanity’.

These truths can be seen in all their vividness at the end of the first week of the new Soviet authority. Later, we shall see the massacre of prisoners become a matter of routine in the civil war; and, for a whole period of years, the capitalist States will treat Communist Russia as an outlaw nation.

[1] N. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.26, p.256.

[2] John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World [London, 1967].

[3] The war-aims of the Allies were expressed, through the Versailles treaty, in the dismemberment of Austro-Hungary, the annexation of all the German colonies (2,950,000 square kilometres containing 12,400,000 inhabitants), the annexation of 70,000 square kilometres of German territory (with 6,500,000 inhabitants), and the imposition on Germany of a war-damage reparations payment which was at first fixed at 172,000,000,000 gold francs. The principal war-aims of the Central Powers were: the annexation of the French colonies and of the Briey coal-fields, the annexation (open or concealed) of Belgium, Serbia and Salonika, and territorial expansion in the east (against Poland and the Baltic states). The treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest mirror these aims most precisely.

[4] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol.26, pp.260-61.

[5] L.D. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk [(London, 1918) reprinted in The Essential Trotsky (London, 1963)].

[6] ‘In the Allied and bourgeois circles of Petrograd, hope for the swift crushing of the revolutionaries has been born again.... All long ardently for the triumphal return of Kerensky and Savinkov. From the latter, merciless repression is anticipated.’ Letter from Jacques Sadoul to Albert Thomas, 27 October (9 November) 1917 [Notes sur la Revolution Bolchevique (Paris, 1919)].

[7] From the report of the trial of the Right S-Rs in Moscow in 1922 [given in Pravda for June and July of that year].

[8] N. Podvoisky, The Military Organization of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, in Krasny Arkhiv, Nos.7-8, 1923.

[9] S. A. Piontkovsky, Documents on the History of the October Revolution (Khrestomatiya po Istorii Oktyabrskoi Revoliutsii) (Moscow, 1925).

[10] According to Krasnov’s own testimony.

[11] Krasnov himself, had he proved victorious, would not have hesitated to shoot or hang his enemies. His call to arms on 28 October 1917 announced merciless measures of repression. We shall see later on the kind of acts he perpetrated in the Don territory. At the outset of a revolution, the greatest humanity lies in the utmost rigour: magnanimity costs too much.

[12] A.R. Gotz, one of the leaders and founders of the S-R party, had participated in its terrorist activities in 1906-7 and was a wanted man under the Tsarist régime. He suffered exile in Siberia: became a sponsor first of the Kerensky government, then of armed resistance to the Soviets. He was condemned to death in the Moscow trial of S-Rs in 1922 [but was reprieved; released in 1927, he worked for many years in the State Bank before being liquidated in 1937 in the Great Purge]. N.D. Avksentiev, another prominent leader of the same party, later became a member of the Siberian ‘Directorate’ that was deposed by Kolchak. He went into exile [and died in 1943].

[13] ‘I was incensed. It was a rotten disavowal: Gotz had participated in the preparation of the rising and Avksentiev had signed the order ...’: thus the deposition of the S-R Rakitin-Brown, read out at the S-R trial in Moscow in June 1922. The indictment presented by Krylenko against the defendants, which was widely publicized at the time, is full of overwhelming documentation on all these facts.

[14] Rabochaya Gazeta (Workers’ Gazette), official organ of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour party (Menshevik), for 5 (18) November 1917, cited by Ilya Vardin, The Mensheviks after the October Revolution, in Five Years (Za Pyat Let) (Moscow, 1922). Abramovich and Dan, now emigrés, still sit as representatives of Russian Social-Democracy in the Executive of the Socialist International.

[15] [Jules Guesde (1845-1922) had been an ardent, verbally insurrectionary Socialist and internationalist, and (like Plekhanov) a supporter of a ‘hard’ opposition to Revisionism and opportunism in the Second International. The outbreak of the world war saw him rally to the patriotic cause, and he joined the ‘Cabinet of National Defence’.]

[16] Jacques Sadoul, letter of 18 October, in Notes sur la Revolution Bolchevique, p.47. We are aware of the fact that Plekhanov’s widow, after years of silence, in 1922 issued a partial denial of the account related by J. Sadoul. But our comrade’s notes on the revolution, apart from their other evident general qualities of sincerity and veracity, on this point accord only too fully – unfortunately for Plekhanov’s memory – with the facts and the texts.

[17] Novaya Zhizn, 28 October 1917, cited by A. Anishev in Sketches of the History of the Civil War (Ocherky Istorii Grazhdanskoi Voiny) (Leningrad, 1925).

[18] Aniushkin, Last Days of the Municipal Duma, in N. Ovsyannikov (ed.), Moscow in October 1917 (Moskva v Oktyabre 1917) (Moscow, 1920).

[19] From Bogdanov’s account in the Reminiscences of the Fighters of October, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.10, 1922.

[20] From S. Petrovsky’s account, ibid.

[21] A slogan offered by Lenin (in a very precise sense) ever since March 1917.

[22] In Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.10, 1922.

[23] See L.D. Trotsky, Sur Lenine (Paris, 1926), Chapter 5 (Government Power).

[24] Reminiscences of Kozlovsky and Bonch-Bruyevich, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.10, 1922.

[25] V. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Zapiski o Grazhdanskoi Voine), Vol.1 (Moscow, 1924).

[26] I. Dimitriev, October at Orsha, Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, No.10, 1922.

[27] This is the Marxist historian, D. Ryazanov, who today directs the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. [Ryazanov was arrested after the ’Menshevik Centre’ trial of 1931, and died in deportation in 1938.]

[28] [Serge was to modify this enthusiasm for Bolshevism’s brand of ‘patriotism’: in Memoirs of a Revolutionary (London, 1967, p.245) he recognizes that this very ‘party patriotism’ helped in the intellectual crippling of the Communist oppositions.]

[29] Jacques Sadoul’s Notes sur la Revolution Bolchevique, op. cit., give some interesting sidelights on these events (pp.74-80).

[30] The proletarian dictatorship hesitated for a long time before suppressing the enemy press. Immediately after the insurrection, the only bourgeois papers to be suppressed were those openly advocating armed resistance to ‘the Bolshevik usurper’, ‘bloodthirsty anarchy’ and ‘the coup d’état of the Kaiser’s agents’. It was only in July 1918 that the last organs of the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie were closed down. The legal press of the Mensheviks only disappeared in 1919; the press of the anarchists hostile to the régime, and the Maximalists, appeared down to 1921; that of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, later still. [Serge’s chronology of the suppression of the press is only formally correct: it was, for example, only the press of the pro-Soviet fractions of the Left S-Rs that was allowed to appear. See L. Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy (London, 1955), pp.163, 179-82, 192-3, for a detailed account.]

[31] Collected Works, Vol.26, pp.285, 288, 292.

[32] ibid., p.297.

[33] This pithy formula is offered by L. Kritsman in his remarkable work analysing the phase of ‘War Communism’: The Heroic Period of the Great Russian Revolution (Geroicheskii Period Velikoi Russkoi Revoliutsii) (Moscow, 1925).

[34] The French ravaged Kabylia with fire several times during their conquest of Algeria. We may recall, too, the techniques of warfare and control used by the British in India; the sacking of the Winter Palace in Peking by European troops in 1900; the atrocities of the Italians in Tripolitania, of the French in Indochina and Morocco, of the British in the Sudan. And in no war of modern times were the vanquished treated with such ferocity as those defeated in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Last updated on: 7.2.2009