Victor Serge 1936

November 7, 1917

Source: La Wallonie, November 7-8, 1936;
Translated: for by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) 2013.

It was nineteen years ago, on November 7, 1917, that on a night of gray fog, sailors and workers wearing cartridge belts over their coats silently assembled in Petrograd on the aristocratic streets near the Winter Palace. The three-century old aristocracy had collapsed a few months earlier. A coalition ministry, to which the final hopes of the Russian bourgeoisie clung, met in the surrounded Palace under the guard of a battalion of women. In its grayness, the life of the city continued: the trams were running only five minutes away; there were people standing on the bridge, fascinated by the appearance in the middle of the river of a cruiser that was turning its cannons on the palace. There were bundles of wood on the streets and fighters in caps warmed themselves around the fires. Everything was being carried out in good order, in silence. Red Guards and sailors grumbled that the order to attack was taking too long to come. Hold off again? Again? Anxious to be done, these hours they thought wasted cost them. Lenin too, who for the past few days had been living sleeplessly in a large room in the Institute of Young Women of the Nobility – the Smolny – had moments of impatience.

“What are they doing?” he grumbled. “The Palace hasn’t been taken yet! Podvoyski should be shot!”

Podvoyski was the comrade charged with leading the operation. He was stalling because, sure of victory, he didn’t want to shed any blood. As the time passed, worry grew among the defenders of the palace. Artillerymen were passing over to the insurrection. Towards evening, when the women’s battalion and a few cadets were holding out alone, the signal for the attack was given. The cannon of the Aurora boomed, but only fired a shell or two. It was enough to fire blanks on a phantom government.

The attack was brief. A few hand-to-hand fights on the marble staircase, paneled doors opened by blows with rifle stocks. The women’s battalion surrendered; the ministers, ashen-faced, escorted by snickering sailors, were taken to the Peter and Paul fortress on the other side of the river through which, for two centuries, so many revolutionaries, thinkers, and socialists had passed. The Congress of Worker’s Councils – the Congress of Soviets – was meeting at the other end of the city. Kamenev, beaming, announced the victory of the people. Trotsky had just said, “The cannons, comrades, doesn’t prevent us from working. On the contrary...” There then mounted to the tribune a stocky, broad-shouldered man of about forty-five, his hair receding, his face smiling and good-natured, who said, simply, opening his hands, “Comrades, we are beginning the socialist revolution.”

Lenin had returned two days before, disguised as a sick man, with his cheeks bandaged, for he had been hiding for several months. He had even lived with Zinoviev for a few days in a hut made of branches on the Gulf of Finland.

Thus began the ten days that, as John Reed said, shook the world. And with them, ten years. And so was turned, by workers, sailors and old socialist militants, a shining page of history. Since then that great date has at times seemed to be hidden from the eyes of the men for whom it has the most meaning. Many defeats, errors, and sorrows, have modified its meaning, and it’s not over yet. History continues along its way, the world is on the march. Men can do nothing but consider the past from the point of view of the present. But there is no definitive judgment of events as long as definitive results haven’t been obtained.

But precisely in this sense the great date of November 7 already allows, even more, already imposes on all those who have faith in the destiny of the working class a definitive judgment on several points.

The essential gain of that day, of those years, is the fact that for the first time in history the workers were able to achieve total victory, sustain it, take control of all the levers of command of society, both the economic and the political, get the machine working, and, under the worst conditions, reorganize, despite unbelievable difficulties, all of production on a collective basis.

This is what remains and will remain; this is what makes the Russian October shine behind us like a flame that nothing can tarnish.

The struggles that followed, the methods employed, the failures, the realizations, the results both grandiose and sometimes tragically disappointing leave the worker’s movement profoundly divided and men of good will dominated by an immense disquiet. The example not to be followed is far too mixed with the example to follow. But it doesn’t matter. Socialist thought is essentially a form a critical thought. It is nourished by all of experience, and its only unsurmountable aversion is its aversion to blindness. And we will stronger for being able to look back on the great date of October 1917 at the very moment when the workers of Madrid are perhaps fighting their battle of the Marne.