Leon Trotsky

The Lessons of October

Chapter 5
The July Days; the Kornilov Episode;
the Democratic Conference
and the Pre-Parliament

The decisions of the April Conference gave the party a correct principled orientation but they did not liquidate the disagreements among the party leaders. On the contrary, with the march of events, these disagreements assume more concrete forms, and reach their sharpest expression during the most decisive moment of the revolution – in the October days.

The attempt to organize a demonstration on June 10 (on Lenin’s initiative) was denounced as an adventure by the very same comrades who had been dissatisfied with the character of the April demonstration. The demonstration of June 10 did not take place because it was proscribed by the Congress of Soviets. But on June 18 the party avenged itself. The general demonstration at Petrograd, which the conciliators had rather imprudently initiated, took place almost wholly under Bolshevik slogans. Nevertheless, the government sought to have its own way. It lightmindedly ordered the idiotic offensive at the front. The moment was decisive. Lenin kept warning the party against imprudent steps. On June 21, he wrote in Pravda: “Comrades, a demonstrative act at this juncture would be inexpedient. We are now compelled to live through an entirely new stage in our revolution.” But the July days impended – an important landmark on the road of revolution, as well as on the road of the internal party disagreements.

In the July movement, the decisive moment came with the spontaneous onslaught by the Petrograd masses. It is indubitable that in July Lenin was weighing in his mind questions like these: Has the time come? Has the mood of the masses outgrown the soviet superstructure? Are we running the risk of becoming hypnotized by soviet legality, and of lagging behind the mood of the masses, and of being severed from them? It is very probable that isolated and purely military operations during the July days were initiated by comrades who honestly believed that they were not diverging from Lenin’s estimate of the situation. Lenin afterwards said: “We did a great many foolish things in July.” But the gist of the July days was that we made another, a new and much more extensive reconnoiter on a new and higher stage of the movement. We had to make a retreat, under onerous conditions. The party, to the extent that it was preparing for the insurrection and the seizure of power, considered – as did Lenin – that the July demonstration was only an episode in which we had to pay dearly for an exploration of our own strength and the enemy’s, but which could not alter the main line of our activity. On the other hand, the comrades who were opposed to the policy aimed at the seizure of power were bound to see a pernicious adventure in the July episode. The mobilization of the right-wing elements in the party became increasingly intensive; their criticism became more outspoken. There was also a corresponding change in the tone of rebuttal. Lenin wrote:

“All this whining, all these arguments to the effect that we ‘should not have’ participated (in the attempt to lend a ‘peaceable and organized’ character to the perfectly legitimate popular discontent and indignation!!), are either sheer apostasy, if coming from Bolsheviks, or the usual expression of the usual cowed and confused state of the petty bourgeoisie.” [CW Vol.25, Constitutional Illusions (July 26, 1917), p.204].

The use of the word “apostasy” at such a time sheds a tragic light upon the disagreements. As the events unfolded, this ominous word appeared more and more often.

The opportunist attitude toward the question of power and the question of war determined, of course, a corresponding attitude toward the International. The rights made an attempt to draw the party into the Stockholm Conference [1] of the social patriots. Lenin wrote on August 16:

“The speech made by Comrade Kamenev on August 6 in the Central Executive Committee on the Stockholm Conference cannot but meet with reproof from all Bolsheviks who are faithful to their Party and principles.”

And further on, in reference to certain statements alleging that a great revolutionary banner was being unfurled over Stockholm, Lenin said:

“This is a meaningless declamation in the spirit of Chernov and Tseretelli. [2] It is a blatant untruth. In actual fact, it is not the revolutionary banner that is beginning to wave over Stockholm, but the banner of deals, agreements, amnesty for the social imperialists, and negotiations among bankers for dividing up annexed territory” [CW Vol.25, Kamenev’s Speech in the Central Executive Committee on the Stockholm Conference (August 16, 1917), pp.240-41].

The road to Stockholm was, in effect, the road to the Second International, just as taking part in the Pre-Parliament was the road to the bourgeois republic. Lenin was for the boycott of the Stockholm Conference, just as later he was for the boycott of the Pre-Parliament. In the very heat of the struggle he did not for a single moment forget the tasks of creating a new Communist International.

As early as April 10, Lenin came forward with a proposal to change the name of the party. All objections against the new name he characterized as follows:

“It is an argument of routinism, an argument of inertia, an argument of stagnation. –... It is time to cast off the soiled shirt and to put on clean linen.” [CW, Vol.24, Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution – a Draft Program for the Proletarian Party (April 10, 1917), p.88]

Nevertheless, the opposition of the party leaders was so strong that a whole year had to pass by – in the course of which all of Russia cast off the filthy garments of bourgeois domination – before the party could make up its mind to take a new name, returning to the tradition of Marx and Engels. This incident of renaming the party serves as a symbolic expression of Lenin’s role throughout the whole of 1917: during the sharpest turning point in history, he was all the while waging an intense struggle within the party against the day that had passed in the name of the day to come. And the opposition, belonging to the day that had passed, marching under the banner of “tradition,” became at times aggravated to the extreme.

The Kornilov events [3], which created an abrupt shift in the situation in our favor, acted to soften the differences temporarily; they were softened but not eliminated. In the right wing, a tendency manifested itself during those days to draw closer to the soviet majority on the basis of defending the revolution and, in part, the fatherland. Lenin’s reaction to this was expressed in his letter to the Central Committee at the beginning of September.

“It is my conviction that those who become unprincipled are people who ... [4] slide into defencism or (like other Bolsheviks) into a bloc with the SRs, into supporting the Provisional Government. Their attitude is absolutely wrong and unprincipled. We shall become defencists only after the transfer of power to the proletariat ... Even now we must not support Kerensky’s government. This is unprincipled. We may be asked: aren’t we going to fight against Kornilov? Of course we must! But this is not the same thing; there is a dividing line here, which is being stepped over by some Bolsheviks who fall into compromise and allow themselves to be carried away by the course of events.” [CW, Vol.25, To the Central Committee of the RSDLP (August 30, 1917), pp.285-86]

The next stage in the evolution of divergent views was the Democratic Conference (September 14-22) and the Pre-Parliament that followed it (October 7). [5] The task of the Mensheviks and the SRs consisted in entangling the Bolsheviks in soviet legality and afterwards painlessly transforming the latter into bourgeois parliamentary legality. The rights were ready to welcome this. We are already acquainted with their manner of portraying the future development of the revolution: the soviets would gradually surrender their functions to corresponding institutions – to the Dumas, the Zemstvos, the trade unions, and finally to the Constituent Assembly – and would automatically vanish from the scene. Through the channel of the Pre-Parliament, the political awareness of the masses was to be directed away from the soviets as “temporary” and dying institutions, to the Constituent Assembly as the crowning work of the democratic revolution. Meanwhile, the Bolsheviks were already in the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets; our influence in the army grew, not from day to day, but from hour to hour. It was no longer a question of prognosis or perspective; it was literally a question of how we were to act the next day.

The conduct of the completely drained conciliationist parties at the Democratic Conference was the incarnation of petty vileness. Yet the proposal which we introduced to abandon the Democratic Conference demonstratively, leaving it to its doom, met with decisive opposition on the part of the right elements of the fraction who were still influential at the top. The clash on this question was a prelude to the struggle over the question of boycotting the Pre-Parliament. On September 24, i.e., after the Democratic Conference, Lenin wrote:

“The Bolsheviks should have walked out of the meeting in protest and not allowed themselves to be caught by the conference trap set to divert the people’s attention from serious questions.” [CW, Vol.26, Heroes of Fraud and the Mistakes of the Bolsheviks (September 22, 1917), p.48]

The discussion in the Bolshevik fraction at the Democratic Conference over the question of boycotting the Pre-Parliament had an exceptional importance despite the comparatively narrow scope of the issue itself. As a matter of fact, it was the most extensive and, on the surface, most successful attempt on the part of the rights to turn the party onto the path of “completing the democratic revolution.” Apparently no minutes of these discussions were taken; in any case, no record has remained; to my knowledge even the secretary’s notes have not been located as yet. The editors of this volume found a few scanty documents among my own papers. Comrade Kamenev expounded a line of argument which, later on, was developed in a sharper and more defined form and embodied in the well – known letter of Kamenev and Zinoviev (dated October 11) to the party organizations. The most principled formulation of the question was made by Nogin: the boycott of the Pre-Parliament is a summons to an insurrection, i.e., to a repetition of the July days. Other comrades based themselves on general considerations of social democratic parliamentary tactics. No one would dare – so they said in substance – propose that we boycott the Parliament; nevertheless, a proposal is made that we boycott an identical institution merely because it is called a Pre-Parliament.

The basic conception of the rights was as follows: the revolution must inevitably lead from the soviets to the establishment of bourgeois parliamentarism; the “Pre-Parliament” forms a natural link in this process; therefore, it is folly to refuse to take part in the Pre-Parliament in view of our readiness to occupy the left benches in the Parliament itself. It was necessary to complete the democratic revolution and “prepare” for the socialist revolution. How were we to prepare? By passing through the school of bourgeois parliamentarism; because, you see, the advanced country shows the backward country the image of its own future. The downfall of the tsarist monarchy is viewed as revolutionary – and so it was – but the conquest of power by the proletariat is conceived in a parliamentary way, on the basis of a completely accomplished democracy. Many long years of a democratic regime must elapse in the interval between the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution. The struggle for our participation in the Pre-Parliament was the struggle for the “Europeanization” of the working class movement, for directing it as quickly as possible into the channel of a democratic “struggle for power,” i.e., into the channel of social democracy. Our fraction in the Democratic Conference, numbering over a hundred individuals, did not differ greatly, especially during those days, from a party congress. The majority of the fraction expressed itself in favor of participating in the Pre-Parliament. This fact was itself sufficient cause for alarm; and from that moment Lenin did sound the alarm unceasingly.

While the Democratic Conference was in session, Lenin wrote:

“It would be a big mistake, sheer parliamentary cretinism on our part, if we were to regard the Democratic Conference as a parliament; for even if it were to proclaim itself a permanent and sovereign parliament of the revolution, it would nevertheless decide nothing. The power of decision lies outside it in the working-class quarters of Petrograd and Moscow.” [CW, Vol.26 Marxism and Insurrection – a Letter to the Central Committee of the RSDLP (September 13 and 14, 1917), p.25).

Lenin’s appraisal of the importance of participation or nonparticipation in the Pre-Parliament can be gathered from many of his declarations and particularly from his letter of September 29 to the Central Committee, in which he speaks of “such glaring errors on the part of the Bolsheviks as the shameful decision to participate in the Pre-Parliament.” [CW, Vol.26, The Crisis Has Matured (September 29, 1917), p.84] For him this decision was an expression of the same democratic illusions and petty-bourgeois vacillations against which he had fought, developing and perfecting in the course of that struggle his conception of the proletarian revolution.

It is not true that many years must elapse between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions. It is not true that the school of parliamentarism is the one and only, or the main, or the compulsory training school for the conquest of power. It is not true that the road to power runs necessarily through bourgeois democracy. These are all naked abstractions, doctrinaire patterns, and they play only one political role, namely, to bind the proletarian vanguard hand and foot, and by means of the “democratic” state machinery turn it into an oppositionist political shadow of the bourgeoisie, bearing the name of social democracy. The policy of the proletariat must not be guided by schoolboy patterns but in accordance with the real flux of the class struggle. Our task is not to go to the Pre-Parliament but to organize the insurrection and seize power. The rest will follow. Lenin even proposed to call an emergency party congress, advancing as a platform the boycott of the Pre-Parliament. Henceforth all his letters and articles hammer at a single point: we must go, not into the Pre-Parliament to act as a “revolutionary” tail of the conciliators, but out into the streets – to struggle for power!

Next Chapter


1. The Scandinavian socialist parties called an international peace conference in summer 1917 and invited the executive committee of the soviets. The Mensheviks and SRs accepted. Of the Bolsheviks, Kamenev supported the idea but Lenin argued that the conference was a political manoeuvre by the German government, working through the German socialists who were part of the wartime coalition, to feel out advantageous peace terms. The Bolsheviks April Conference rejected the invitation.

2. Chernov and Tseretelli were ministers in the Provisional Government.

3. General Kornilov, appointed commander-in-chief by the Provisional Government, attempted a coup in September 1917.

4. Trotsky’s own note adds: “From the construction of the latter part of the sentence, it is clear that a reference to certain names has been omitted here.” The 1966 edition of Lenin’s Collected Works reads “(like Volodarsky)”.

5. Both the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament were attempts by the Mensheviks to set up an alternative to the soviets, where their support was fading.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007