Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 14
The Ruling Group and the War

What did the Provisional Government and the Executive Committee intend to do with this war and this army?

First of all it is necessary to understand the policy of the liberal bourgeoisie, since they played the leading rôle. In external appearance the war policy of liberalism remained aggressive-patriotic, annexationist, irreconcilable. In reality it was self-contradictory, treacherous, and rapidly becoming defeatist.

“Even if there had been no revolution,” wrote Rodzianko later, “the war would have been lost just the same, and in all probability a separate peace signed.” Rodzianko’s views were not distinguished by independence, and for that reason ably typify the average opinions of liberally conservative circles. The mutiny of the battalions of the Guard foretold to the possessing classes not victory abroad but defeat at home. The liberals were the less able to deceive themselves about this, because they had foreseen, and to the best of their ability struggled against, this danger. The unexpected revolutionary optimism of Miliukov – declaring the revolution a step towards victory was in reality the last resort of desperation. The question of war and peace had almost ceased for the liberals to be an independent question. They felt that they would not be able to use the revolution for the purposes of war, and so much the more imperative became their other task: to use the war against the revolution.

Problems concerning the international situation of Russia after the war, debts and new loans, the capital market and the sales market, of course still confronted the leaders of the Russian bourgeoisie; but these questions did not directly determine their policy. The concern of the moment was not to secure advantageous international conditions for bourgeois Russia, but to save the bourgeois régime itself, even at the price of Russia’s further enfeeblement. “First we must recover,” said this heavily wounded class. “After that we will put things in order.” But to recover meant to put down the revolution.

To keep up the war hypnosis and the mood of chauvinism was the only possible way the bourgeoisie could maintain their hold upon the masses – especially upon the army – against the so-called “deepeners” of the revolution. The problem was to sell to the people an old war which had been inherited from czarism, with all its former aims and allies, as a new war in defence of the conquests and hopes of the revolution. That would be something of an achievement. But how achieve it? The liberals firmly expected to direct against the revolution that whole organisation of patriotic social opinion which they had been using yesterday against the Rasputin clique. Since they had failed to save the monarchy, the highest court of appeal against the people, so much the more must they hold fast to the Allies. In time of war at any rate, the Entente was a far more powerful court of appeal than their own monarchy could be.

A prolongation of war would justify them in preserving the old military bureaucratic apparatus, postponing the Constituent Assembly, subordinating the revolutionary country to the front – that is, to the commanding staff acting in unison with the liberal bourgeoisie. All domestic questions, especially the agrarian, and all social legislation, were to be postponed until the end of the war – which in turn was to be postponed until a victory in which the liberals did not believe. A war to exhaust the enemy was thus converted into a war to exhaust the revolution. This was not perhaps a completed plan, thought-up in advance and talked over in official meetings. But that was unnecessary. The plan flowed inevitably from the whole preceding policy of liberalism and the situation created by the revolution.

Compelled to choose the path of war, Miliukov could not of course refuse in advance to participate in the division of the booty. The Allied hopes of victory remained very real, and indeed with the entrance of America into the war had grown immensely stronger. To be sure, the Entente was one thing and Russia another. The leaders of the Russian bourgeoisie had learned during the war that, in view of the economic and military weakness of Russia, a victory of the Entente over the Central Empires would also mean a victory over Russia. For whatever might happen, Russia could only come out of the war broken and weakened. But the liberal imperialists quite consciously decided to close their eyes to this prospect. There was really nothing else for them to do. Guchkov frankly stated to his circle that only a miracle could save Russia, and that his programme as War Minister was to hope for a miracle. For domestic purposes Miliukov needed the myth of victory. It does not matter how much he himself believed in it. At any rate, he stubbornly asserted that Constantinople must be ours. In this he acted with his usual cynicism. On the 20th of March this Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs tried to persuade the Allied ambassadors to betray Serbia in order by this means to purchase the treason of Bulgaria to the Central Empires. The French ambassador wrinkled his nose. Miliukov, however, insisted upon the “necessity of abandoning sentimental considerations in this matter “abandoning at the same time that Neo-Slavism which he had been preaching ever since the defeat of the first revolution. Engels was right when he wrote to Bernstein as early as 1882: “What does all this Russian Pan-Slavic charlatanism amount to? The seizure of Constantinople and nothing more.”

The charge of being Germanophile, even of being bribed by the Germans – directed yesterday against a court camarilla – was now directed with venom against the revolution. Bolder, louder, more insolent day by day, this note resounded in the speeches and articles of the Kadet Party. Before capturing the Turkish waters, liberalism was going to dirty the springs and poison the wells of the revolution.

By no means all the liberal leaders took an irreconcilable position, at least immediately after the revolution, on the question of war. Many were still in the pre-revolutionary mood, contemplating the prospect of a separate peace. Certain leading Kadets told about this afterwards with complete frankness. Nabokov, according to his own confession, was already talking with members of the government about a separate peace on the 7th of March. Several members of the Kadet centre tried collectively to demonstrate to their leaders the impossibility of continuing the war. “Miliukov with his usual cold precision explained,” says Baron Nolde, “that the aims of the war must be achieved.” General Alexeiev, at that time drawing near to the Kadet Party, joined his voice with Miliukov’s, asserting that “the army could be revived.” That staff organiser of calamities apparently felt called to revive it.

A good many of the liberals and democrats, a little more naïve, misunderstood Miliukov of course, and thought him a very knight of loyalty to the Allies, the Don Quixote of the Entente. What nonsense! After the Bolsheviks seized the power, Miliukov did not hesitate one second to hurry down to Kiev, then occupied by the Germans, and offer his services to the Hohenzollern government – which, to be sure, was in no hurry to accept them. Miliukov’s immediate goal in this was to secure for the purpose of his struggle with the Bolsheviks that same German gold with whose spectre he had earlier tried to befoul the revolution. Miliukov’s appeal to Germany in 1918 seemed to many liberals just as incomprehensible as his programme of shattering Germany in the first months of 1917. But these were merely two sides of the same medal. In preparing to betray the Allies – as formerly he tried to betray Serbia – Miliukov did not betray himself nor his class. He was pursuing the same policy, and it was not his fault if it didn’t look nice. In feeling out under czarism the path to a separate peace in order to avoid revolution; in demanding war to complete victory in order to stop the February revolution when it came; in seeking an alliance with the Hohenzollerns in order to overthrow the October revolution – in all this Miliukov remained true to the interests of the possessing classes. If he did not succeed in helping them, but only butted his head each time into a new wall, that is merely because his patrons were in a blind alley. What Miliukov especially needed in the first days after the uprising was an enemy attack, a good German crack over the skull for the revolution. Unfortunately for him, March and April were inauspicious from a climatic point of view for large operations on the Russian front. And more important, the Germans, whose own situation was getting more and more difficult, decided after some hesitation to leave the Russian revolution to its own inner course. General Lisingen alone showed some private initiative at the Stokhod, the 20th and 21st of March. His success simultaneously frightened the German, and delighted the Russian governments. The staff, with the same shamelessness with which under the czar it had exaggerated every trivial success, now exaggerated this defeat on the Stokhod. And the liberal press took up the cry. They described examples of weakness, panic, and loss in the Russian troops with the same gusto with which they had formerly described war-prisoners and trophies. The bourgeoisie and the general staff had quite plainly gone over to the defeatist position. But Lisingen was stopped by his superior officers, and the front again stood stock-still in spring mud and expectation.

The device of using the war against the revolution had a chance of success only if the intermediate parties, whom the popular masses followed, agreed to play the part of transmitting mechanism for this liberal policy. Liberalism was not in a position to unite the idea of war with the idea of revolution; only yesterday it had been preaching that a revolution would be ruinous to the war. This task must be turned over to the democrats. But of course the “secret” must not be revealed to them. They must not be initiated into the scheme, but taken with a hook. The best way to take them was through their prejudices, their vanity, their high opinion of their own statesmanlike intelligence, their fear of anarchy, their superstitious bowing down to the bourgeoisie.

In the first days the socialists – for brevity we will use this name for both Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries – did not know what to do with the war. Cheidze heaved a sigh: “We have been talking against war all the time – how can I now advocate continuing the war?” On March 10 the Executive Committee voted to send a greeting to Franz Mehring.  With this little gesture, the left wing tried to quiet its not very active socialist conscience. Upon the war itself the Soviet continued to say nothing. The leaders were afraid they might stir up a conflict with the Provisional Government on this subject, and darken those honeymoon weeks of “contact.” They were no less afraid of a split in their own ranks. They had both defenders of the Fatherland and Zimmerwaldists among them. Each of these groups overestimated their differences. Wide circles of the revolutionary intelligentsia had undergone a deep bourgeois metamorphosis during the war. Patriotism, open or disguised, had united the intelligentsia with the ruling classes, drawing them away from the masses. The banner of Zimmerwald with which the left wing had covered themselves did not bind them to anything much, and it did permit them to keep hidden their patriotic solidarity with the Rasputin clique. But now the Romanov régime was overthrown. Russia had become a democratic country. Her freedom, dancing in all colours, stood out sharply on the background of well-policed Europe with her military dictatorships. “Must we not defend our revolution against the Hohenzollern?” exclaimed both the old and the new patriots at the head of the Executive Committee. Zimmerwaldists of the type of Sukhanov and Steklov diffidently pointed out that the war remained imperialist, that the liberals were insisting that the revolution guarantee the annexations agreed on under the czar. “How can I now advocate continuing the war?” says the worried Cheidze. But since these Zimmerwaldists were themselves the initiators of the transfer of power to the liberals, their objection to the liberal policy merely hung in the air. After some weeks of wavering and obstruction the first part of Miliukov’s plan was, with the help of Tseretelli, decided in a satisfactory manner: these half-hearted democrats calling themselves socialists were hitched up in the war harness, and under the whip of the liberals tried with all their tiny strength to guarantee victory – the victory of the Entente over Russia and of America over Europe!

The chief function of the Compromisers was to short circuit the revolutionary energy of the masses into patriotic wires. They tried on the one hand to revive the fighting capacity of the army – that was difficult. They tried on the other hand to induce the governments of the Entente to renounce their prospective robberies – that was ludicrous. In both efforts they passed from illusion to disappointment, from error to humiliation. Let us note the first signposts on this road.

In the brief hours of his grandeur, Rodzianko succeeded in publishing an order for the immediate return of the soldiers to their barracks, and their subordination to the officers. The indignation this caused in the garrison compelled the Soviet to dedicate one of its first sessions to the question of the future of the soldier. In the heated atmosphere of those hours, in the chaos of those sessions like mass meetings, and at the direct dictation of the soldiers whom the absent leaders could not restrain, there was born the famous Order No.1 – the single worthy document of the February revolution, a charter of the freedom of the revolutionary army. Its bold paragraphs, giving the soldiers an organisational mode of entry to the new highway, declare: that elective committees shall be formed in all military regiments; soldiers’ deputies shall be elected to the Soviet; in all political acts the soldiers shall submit to the Soviet and its committees; weapons shall be in the control of the regimental and battalion committees, and shall “in no case be given up to the officer”; on duty, the severest military discipline – off duty, complete citizens’ rights; saluting off duty and titling of officers, are abolished; uncivil treatment of soldiers is forbidden, and particularly addressing them as thou ... Such were the inferences drawn by the Petrograd soldiers from their participation in the revolution. Could they have been other? Nobody dared to oppose them. During the preparation of this “order” the leaders of the Soviet were distracted by more lofty business – they were conducting negotiations with the liberals. That gave them an alibi later when they had to justify themselves before the bourgeoisie and the commanding staff. Simultaneously with Order No.1, the Executive Committee – having hastily pulled itself together – sent to the printer, by way of antidote, an appeal to the soldiers, which, under the pretext of condemning lynch law for officers, demanded the soldiers’ subordination to the old commanding staff. The typesetters simply refused to set up this document. Its democratic authors were beside themselves with indignation: where are we headed for? It would be a mistake to imagine, however, that the typesetters were longing for bloody reprisals upon officers. The demand for subordination to the czarist commanding staff on the second day after the revolution, seemed to them to be merely opening he door to the counterrevolution. Of course the typesetters exceeded their rights. But they did not feel themselves to be only typesetters. It was a question, in their opinion, of the life of the revolution.

In those first days, when both the soldiers and the workers were intensely excited about the future of the officers who had returned to their troops, the Mezhrayontsi, a Social Democratic organisation close to the Bolsheviks, formulated this sore question with revolutionary audacity. “In order that the aristocrats and officers shall not deceive you,” said their appeal to the soldiers, “choose your own platoon, company and regiment commanders, accept only those officers whom you know to be friends of the people.” And what happened? This proclamation, which adequately met the situation, was immediately confiscated by the Executive Committee, and Cheidze in his speech called it an act of provocateurs. The democrats, you see, were not in the least embarrassed about limiting the freedom of the press when it came to dealing blows to the left. Fortunately their own freedom was sufficiently limited, for the workers and soldiers, although supporting the Executive Committee as their highest organ, at all important moments corrected the policy of the leadership by direct interference. Before two days passed, the Executive Committee was trying by means of Order No.2 to annul the first order, limiting its application to the Petrograd military district. In vain. Order No.1 was indestructible it had not invented anything, but merely affirmed and strengthened what had already come to pass both in the rear and at the front, and was demanding recognition. Even liberal deputies, when face to face with the soldiers, defended themselves against questions and reproaches by referring to Order No.1. But in the sphere of Big Politics, that audacious order became the chief argument of the bourgeoisie against the Soviet. From that time on, the beaten generals discovered in Order No.1 the chief obstacle which had prevented them from crushing the German armies. Its origin was even traced to Germany! The Compromisers never ceased to apologise for what they had done, and bewildered the soldiers by trying to take away with their right hand what their left hand had let slip.

Meanwhile in the Soviet the majority of rank-and-file deputies were already demanding the election of officers. The democrats got excited. Finding no better argument, Sukhanov tried to frighten the deputies with the idea that the bourgeoisie, to whom they had turned over the power, would not go this far. The democrats frankly hid behind Guchkov’s back. In their scheme, the liberals occupied the same place which the monarchy was to have occupied in the scheme of the liberals. “As I was returning from the tribune to my place,” Sukhanov relates, “I ran into a soldier who blocked my path, and shaking his fist in my face, angrily shouted something about ‘gentlemen who have never been in a soldier’s skin.’” After this “excess” our democrat, completely losing his equilibrium, ran to find Kerensky, and only with the latter’s help was “the question somehow smoothed over.” These people did nothing all the time but smooth questions over.

For two weeks they succeeded in pretending that they had not noticed the war. At last, however, a further postponement became impossible. On the 14th of March, the Executive Committee introduced into the Soviet the project of a manifesto written by Sukhanov and addressed to “the people of the whole world.” The liberal press soon named this document – which united the right and left Compromisers – “Order No.1 in the sphere of foreign policy.” But this flattering appraisal was just as false as the document to which it referred. Order No.1 had been the honest answer of the lower ranks themselves to the questions raised before the army by the revolution. The manifesto of March 14 was the treacherous answer of the upper ranks to the questions honestly presented to them by soldiers and workers.

The manifesto of course expressed a desire for peace, and moreover a democratic peace without annexations or indemnities. But long before the February revolution, the Western imperialists had learned to make use of that same phraseology. It was exactly in the name of a durable, honourable, “democratic” peace, that Wilson was getting ready just at that moment to go into the war. The pious Mr. Asquith had given to Parliament a learned classification of annexations, from which it could be unmistakably inferred that all those annexations were to be condemned as immoral which conflicted with the interests of Great Britain. As for French diplomacy, its very essence consisted in giving the most liberating possible aspect to the greediness of the shopkeeper and moneylender. The Soviet document, to which one cannot deny a rather simple sincerity of motive, dropped with fatal perfection into the well-worn rut of official French hypocrisy. The manifesto promised “firmly to defend our own freedom” against foreign militarism. The French social patriots had been occupied with just that business ever since August 1914. “The hour has come for the people to take into their own hands the decision about war and peace,” declares this manifesto, whose authors, in the name of the Russian people, had just turned over the decision of that question to the big bourgeoisie. The workers of Germany and Austria-Hungary were summoned by the manifesto, “to refuse to serve as an instrument of conquest and spoliation in the hands of kings, landlords and bankers!” Those words are the quintessence of a lie – for the leaders of the Soviet had no intention of breaking off their own alliance with the kings of Great Britain and Belgium, with the Emperor of Japan, with the landlords and bankers of their own and all the countries of the Entente. While turning over the leadership of foreign policy to Miliukov, who had been scheming not long before to convert East Prussia into a Russian province, the leaders of the Soviet summoned the German and Austro-Hungarian workers to follow the lead of the Russian revolution. Their theatrical condemnation of slaughter altered nothing: the Pope himself was doing that. With the help of magniloquent phrases directed against the shadows of bankers, landlords and kings, these Compromisers were converting the February revolution into an instrument in the hands of real kings, landlords and bankers. In his telegram of salutation to the Provisional Government, Lloyd George had appraised the revolution as a proof that “the present war is in its foundations a struggle for popular government and freedom.” The manifesto of March 14 associated itself with Lloyd George “in its foundations,” and gave invaluable aid to the war propaganda in America. Miliukov’s paper was a thousand times right when it declared that “the manifesto, although it began with so typical a note of pacifism, developed an ideology essentially common to us and to all our allies.” If the Russian liberals nevertheless at times fiercely attacked the manifesto, and the French censorship would not let it through, that was merely due to a fear of the interpretation which would be given it by revolutionary but still trustful masses. Although written by Zimmerwaldists, the manifesto signalised the victory of the patriotic wing. The local soviets understood the signal. They pronounced the slogan “war against war” unpermissible. Even in the Urals and in Kostroma, where the Bolsheviks were strong, the patriotic manifesto received unanimous approval. No wonder, when in the Petrograd Soviet itself the Bolsheviks offered no resistance to this false document.

After a few weeks it became necessary to make partial payments on bills of exchange. The Provisional Government issued a war loan, of course called “liberty loan.” Tseretelli explained that since the government “as a whole and in general” was fulfilling its obligations, the democracy ought to support the loan. In the Executive Committee the opposition captured more than a third of the votes. But at the plenum of the Soviet (April 22) only 112 votes were cast against the loan out of almost 2,000. From this the conclusion is sometimes drawn that the Executive Committee was further to the left than the Soviet. But that is not true. The Soviet was merely more honest than the Executive Committee: if the war is in defence of the revolution, then you must give money for the war, you must support the loan. The Executive Committee was not more revolutionary, but more evasive. It lived on ambiguities and reservations. It supported the government set up by itself only “as a whole and in general,” and took the responsibility for the war “in so far as.” These petty trickeries are alien to the masses. Soldiers cannot fight “ in so far as,” nor die “as a whole and in general.”

In order to reinforce the victory of statesmanly thinking over wild talk, General Alexeiev – who had been intending on March 5 to shoot all “gangs” of propagandists – was on April 1 officially placed at the head of the armed forces. From then on everything was in order. The inspirer of the czarist foreign policy, Miliukov, was Minister of Foreign Affairs; the leader of the army under the czar, Alexeiev, had become commander-in-chief of the revolution. The succession was fully re-established.

At the same time, however, the Soviet leaders felt compelled by the logic of the situation to unravel the loops of the net they were weaving. The official democracy mortally feared those officers whom they tolerated and supported. They could not help opposing to them their own authority, trying to find support for it among the rank-and-file soldiers and make it as independent of the officers as possible. At the session of March 6, the Executive Committee considered it advisable to install its own commissars in all regiments and in all military institutions. Thus was created a three way bond between the soldier and the Soviet; the regiments sent their representatives to the Soviet; the Executive Committee sent its commissars to the regiments; and finally at the head of each regiment stood an elective committee, constituting a sort of lower nucleus of the Soviet.

One of the principal duties of the commissars was to keep watch over the political reliability of the staff and commanding officers. “The democratic régime outdid in this respect the autocratic,” says Denikin with indignation. And he boasts how cleverly his staff intercepted and handed over to him the cipher-correspondence of the commissars with Petrograd. To watch over monarchists and feudal lords what could be more outrageous! To steal the correspondence of commissars with the government is, of course, a different matter. But however things stood in the field of morals, the internal situation in the ruling apparatus of the army at that time is perfectly clear: each side was afraid of the other and watching the other with hostility; they were united only by their common fear of the soldier. Even the generals and admirals, whatever further hopes and plans they may have had, saw clearly that without a democratic smokescreen things would go badly with them. The resolutions on committees in the fleet were drawn up by Kolchak. He counted on strangling the committees in the future. But since it was impossible for the present to take a single step without them, Kolchak interceded with the staff to get them confirmed. Similarly General Markov, one of the future White chieftains, sent to the ministry early in April a plan for the institution of commissars to keep watch over the loyalty of the commanding staff. Thus the “age-old laws of the army” – that is, the traditions of military bureaucratism – went to pieces like straws under the pressure of the revolution.

The soldiers approached the committees from the opposite angle, and united around them against the commanding staff. And although the committees did defend officers against the soldiers, this was only within certain limits. The situation of an officer who came into conflict with the committee became unbearable. Thus was created the unwritten right of the soldiers to remove the commanders. On the western front by the month of July, according to Denikin, sixty of the old officers ranking from commander of a corps to commander of a regiment, had gone. Similar removals had occurred within the regiments.

At that time a meticulous secretarial work was going on in the War Ministry, in the Executive Committee, in the Contact Sessions, aiming to create “reasonable” relations in the army, raise the authority of the officers, and reduce the army committees to a secondary and mainly economic rôle. But while the high-up leaders were thus cleaning away the shadow of the revolution with the shadow of a broom, the committees were actually developing into a powerful system ascending toward the Petrograd Executive Committee and strengthening its organisational control over the army. The Executive Committee used this control, however, chiefly in order, through the commissars and committees, to drag the army once more into the war. More and more the soldiers found themselves pondering the question: how does it come about that committees elected by us so often say, not what we think, but what our officers want of us?

The trenches arc more and more frequently sending deputies to the capital to find out how things stand. From the beginning of April this movement of the soldiers from the front becomes continual. Every day mass conversations are going on in the Tauride. Arriving soldiers are stirring their heavy brains, trying to find their way among the mysteries of the politics of an Executive Committee which cannot give a clear answer to any single question. The army is ponderously moving over to a Soviet position but only in order the more clearly to convince itself of the bankruptcy of the Soviet leadership.

The liberals, not daring to oppose the Soviet openly, nevertheless tried to carry on a struggle for the control of the army. Chauvinism, of course, must serve as their political bond with the soldiers. The Kadet minister Shingarev, in one of the conferences with the trench delegates, defended the order of Guchkov against “unnecessary indulgence” towards war-prisoners, and spoke of “German ferocity.” His remarks did not meet with the slightest sympathy. The conference decisively expressed itself in favour of relieving the conditions of the prisoners of war. These were the same men whom the liberals had so casually accused of excesses and ferocities. But the grey men from the front had their own criterion. They considered it permissible to take vengeance on an officer for insulting soldiers, but it seemed contemptible to them to avenge on a captive German soldier the real or imagined ferocity of Ludendorff. The Eternal Standards of Morality remained, alas, quite foreign to those rough and lousy muzhiks.

Out of the attempt of the bourgeoisie to get control of the army there arose a contest – which, however, never came to anything – between the liberals and the Compromisers. It was at a congress of delegates from the western front on the 7th-10th of April. This first congress of one of the fronts was to be a decisive political test of the army, and both sides sent to Minsk their best forces. From the Soviet: Tseretelli, Cheidze, Skobelev, Gvozdev. From the bourgeoisie: Rodzianko himself, the Kadet, Demosthenes Rodichev, and others. An intense feeling reigned in the crowded hall of the Minsk theatre, and spread in ripples throughout the town. The reports of the delegates painted a picture of the real state of affairs. Fraternisation was going an along the whole front; the soldiers were taking the initiative more and more boldly; the commanding staff could not even think of repressive measures. What could the liberals say here? Faced by this passionate audience, they at once gave up the idea of opposing their own resolutions to those of the Soviet. They confined themselves to a patriotic note in their speeches; of greeting, and soon erased themselves entirely. The battle was won by the democrats without a struggle. Their task was not to lead the masses against the bourgeoisie, but to hold them back, The slogan of peace – equivocally woven in with war for the defence of the revolution, in the spirit of the manifesto of March 14 – ruled the congress. The Soviet resolution on the war was adopted by 610 votes against 8, with 46 abstaining. The last hope of the liberals, that of opposing the front to the rear, the army to the Soviet, went up in smoke. But the democratic leaders returned from the congress more frightened than inspired by their victory. They had seen the ghosts raised by the revolution and they felt unable to cope with them.

Last Chapter    |    History of the Russian Revolution    |    Next Chapter

return return return return return

Last updated on: 125 December 2014