Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume One: The Overthrow of Tzarism

Chapter 17
The “April Days”

On the 23rd of March the United States entered the war. On that day Petrograd was burying the victims of the February revolution. The funeral procession – in its mood a procession triumphant with the joy of life – was a mighty concluding chord in the symphony of the five days. Everybody went to the funeral: both those who had fought side by side with the victims, and those who had held them back from battle, very likely also those who killed them – and above all, those who had stood aside from the fighting. Along with workers, soldiers, and the small city people here were students, ministers, ambassadors, the solid bourgeois, journalists, orators, leaders of all the parties. The red coffins carried on the shoulders of workers and soldiers streamed in from the workers’ districts to Mars Field. When the coffins were lowered into the grave there sounded from Peter and Paul fortress the first funeral salute, startling the innumerable masses of the people. That cannon had a new sound: our cannon, our salute. The Vyborg section carried fifty-one red coffins. That was only a part of the victims it was proud of. In the procession of the Vyborg workers, the most compact of all, numerous Bolshevik banners were to be seen, but they floated peacefully beside other banners. On Mars Field itself there stood only the members of the government, of the Soviet, and the State Duma – already dead but stubbornly evading its own funeral. All day long no less than 800,000 people filed past the grave with bands and banners. And although, according to preliminary reckonings by the highest military authorities, a human mass of that size could not possibly pass a given point without the most appalling chaos and fatal whirlpools, nevertheless the demonstration was carried out in complete order – a thing to be observed generally in revolutionary processions, dominated as they are by a satisfying consciousness of a great deed achieved, combined with a hope that everything will grow better and better in the future. It was only this feeling that kept order, for organisation was still weak, inexperienced and unconfident of itself. The very fact of the funeral was, it would seem, a sufficient refutation of the myth of a bloodless revolution. But nevertheless the mood prevailing at the funeral recreated, to some extent the atmosphere of those first days when the legend was born.

Twenty-five days later – during which time the soviets had gained much experience and self-confidence – occurred the May 1 celebration. (May 1 according to the Western calendar – April 18 old style.) All the cities of Russia were drowned in meetings and demonstrations. Not only the industrial enterprises, but the state, city and rural public institutions were closed. In Moghilev, the headquarters of the General Staff, the Cavaliers of St. George marched at the head of the procession. The members of the staff – unremoved czarist generals – marched under May 1 banners. The holiday of proletarian anti-militarism blended with revolution-tinted manifestations of patriotism. The different strata of the population contributed their own quality to the holiday, but all flowed together into a whole, very loosely held together and partly false, but on the whole majestic. In both capitals and in the industrial centres the workers dominated the celebration, and amid them the strong nuclei of Bolshevism stood out distinctly with banners, placards, speeches and shouts. Across the immense facade of the Mariinsky Palace, the refuge of the Provisional Government, was stretched a bold red streamer with the words: “Long Live the Third International!” The authorities, not yet rid of their administrative shyness, could not make up their mind to remove this disagreeable and alarming streamer. Everybody, it seemed, was celebrating. So far as it could, the army at the front celebrated. News came of meetings, speeches, banners and revolutionary songs in the trenches, and there were responses from the German side.

The war had not yet come to an end; on the contrary it had only widened its circle. A whole continent had recently – on the very day of the funeral of the martyrs – joined the war and given it a new scope. Yet meanwhile throughout Russia, side by side with soldiers, war-prisoners were taking part in the processions under the same banners, sometimes singing the same song in different languages. In this immeasurable rejoicing, obliterating like a spring flood the delineations of classes, parties and ideas, that common demonstration of Russian soldiers with Austro-German war-prisoners was a vivid hope-giving fact which made it possible to believe that the revolution, in spite of all, did carry within itself the foundation of a better world.

Like the March funeral, the 1st of May celebration passed off without clashes or casualties as an “all-national festival.” However, an attentive ear might have caught already among the ranks of the workers and soldiers impatient and even threatening notes. It was becoming harder and harder to live. Prices had risen alarmingly; the workers were demanding a minimum wage; the bosses were resisting; the number of conflicts in the factories was continually growing; the food situation was getting worse; bread rations were being cut down; cereal cards had been introduced; dissatisfaction in the garrison had grown. The district staff, making ready to bridle the soldiers, was removing the more revolutionary units from Petrograd. At a general assembly of the garrison on April 17 the soldiers, sensing these hostile designs, had raised the question of putting a stop to the removal of troops. That demand will continue to arise in the future, taking a more and more decisive form with every new crisis of the revolution. But the root of all evils was the war, of which no end was to be seen. When will the revolution bring peace? What are Kerensky and Tseretelli waiting for? The masses were listening more and more attentively to the Bolsheviks, glancing at them obliquely, waitingly, some with half-hostility, others already with trust. Underneath the triumphal discipline of the demonstration the mood was tense. There was ferment in the masses.

However, nobody – not even the authors of the streamer on the Mariinsky Palace – imagined that the very next two or three days would ruthlessly tear off the envelope of national unity from the revolution. The menacing event whose inevitability many foresaw, but which no one expected so soon, was suddenly upon them. The stimulus was given by the foreign policy of the Provisional Government, i.e., the problem of war. No other than Miliukov touched the match to the fuse.

The history of that match and fuse is as follows: On the day of America’s entry into the war, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Provisional Government, greatly encouraged, developed his programme before the journalists: seizure of Constantinople, seizure of Armenia, division of Austria and Turkey, seizure of Northern Persia, and over and above all this, the right of nations to self-determination. “In all his speeches” – thus the historian Miliukov explains Miliukov the minister – “he decisively emphasised the pacifist aims of the war of liberation, but always presented them in close union with the national problems and interests of Russia.” This interview disquieted the listeners, “When will the foreign policy of the Provisional Government cleanse itself of hypocrisy?” stormed the Menshevik paper. “Why does not the Provisional Government demand from the Allied governments an open and decisive renunciation of annexations?” What these people considered hypocrisy, was the frank language of the predatory. In a pacifist disguise of such appetites they were quite ready to see a liberation from all hypocrisy. Frightened by the stirring of the democracy, Kerensky hastened to announce through the press bureau: “Miliukov’s programme is merely his personal opinion.” That the author of this personal opinion happened to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs was, if you please, a mere accident.

Tseretelli, who had a talent for solving every question with a commonplace, began to insist on the necessity of a governmental announcement that for Russia the war was exclusively one of defence. The resistance of Miliukov and to some extent of Guchkov was broken, and on March 27 the government gave birth to a declaration to the effect that “the goal of free Russia is not domination over other peoples, nor depriving them of their national heritage, nor violent seizure of alien territory,” but “nevertheless complete observance of the obligations undertaken to our Allies.” Thus the kings and the prophets of the two-power system proclaimed their intention to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven in union with patricides and adulterers, Those gentlemen, besides everything else that they lacked, lacked a sense of humour. That declaration of March 27 was welcomed not only by the entire Compromisers’ press, but even by the Pravda of Kamenev and Stalin, which said in its leading editorial four days before Lenin’s arrival: “The Provisional Government has clearly and definitely announced before the whole people that the aim of Russia is not the domination of other nations,” etc., etc. The English press immediately and with satisfaction interpreted Russia’s renunciation of annexations as her renunciation of Constantinople, by no means intending of course to extend this formula of renunciation to herself. The Russian ambassador in London sounded the alarm, and demanded an explanation from Moscow to the effect that “the principle of peace without annexations is to be applied by Russia not unconditionally, but in so far as it does not oppose our vital interests.” But that, of course, was exactly the formula of Miliukov: “We promise not to rob anybody whom we don’t need to.” Paris, in contrast to London, not only supported Miliukov but urged him on, suggesting through Paléologue the necessity of a more vigorous policy toward the Soviet.

The French Premier, Ribot, out of patience with the terrible red tape at Petrograd, asked London and Rome “Whether they did not consider it necessary to demand of the Provisional Government that they put an end to all equivocation.” London answered that it would be wise “to give the French and English socialists, who had been sent to Russia, time to influence their colleagues.”

The sending of allied socialists into Russia had been undertaken on the initiative of the Russian Staff – that is, the old czarist generals. “We counted upon him,” wrote Ribot of Albert Thomas, “to give a certain firmness to the decisions of the Provisional Government.” Miliukov complained, however, that Thomas associated too closely with the leaders of the Soviet. Ribot answered that Thomas “is sincerely striving” to support the point of view of Miliukov, but nevertheless promised to urge his ambassador to a more active support.

The declaration of March 27, although totally empty, disquieted the Allies, who saw in it a concession to the Soviet. From London came threats of a loss of faith “in the military power of Russia.” Paléologue complained of “the timidity and indefiniteness” of the declaration. But that was just what Miliukov needed. In the hope of help from the Allies, Miliukov had embarked on a big game, far exceeding his resources. His fundamental idea was to use the war against the revolution, and the first task upon this road was to demoralise the democracy. But the Compromisers had begun just in the first days of April to reveal an increasing nervousness and fussiness upon questions of foreign policy, for upon these questions the lower classes were unceasingly pressing them. The government needed a loan. But the masses, with all their defensism, were ready to defend a peace loan but not a war loan. It was necessary to give them at least a peep at the prospect of peace.

Developing his policy of salvation by commonplaces, Tseretelli proposed that they demand from the Provisional Government that it despatch a note to the Allies similar to the domestic declaration of March 27. In return for this, the Executive Committee would undertake to carry through the Soviet a vote for the “Liberty Loan.” Miliukov agreed to the exchange – the note for the loan – but decided to make a double use of the bargain. Under the guise of interpreting the declaration, his note disavowed it. It urged that the peace-loving phrases of the government should not give anyone “the slightest reason to think that the revolution which had occurred entailed a weakening of the rôle of Russia in the common struggle of the Allies. Quite the contrary – the universal desire to carry the world war through to a decisive victory had only been strengthened.” The note further expressed confidence that the victors “will find a means to attain those guarantees and sanctions, which are necessary for the prevention of new bloody conflicts in the future.” That word about “guarantees and sanctions,” introduced at the insistence of Thomas, meant nothing less in the thieves’ jargon of diplomacy, especially French, than annexations and indemnities. On the day of the May 1 celebration Miliukov telegraphed his note, composed at the dictation of Allied diplomats, to the governments of the Entente. And only after this was it sent to the Executive Committee, and simultaneously to the newspapers. The government had ignored the Contact Commission, and the leaders of the Executive Committee found themselves in the position of everyday citizens. Even had the Compromisers found in the note nothing they had not heard from Miliukov before, they could not help seeing in this a premeditated hostile act. The note disarmed them before the masses, and demanded from them a direct choice between Bolshevism and imperialism. Was not this in fact Miliukov's purpose? Everything points in that direction, and suggests indeed that his design went even farther. Already in March Miliukov had been trying with all his might to resurrect that ill-fated plan for the seizure of the Dardanelles by a Russian raid, and had carried on many conversations with General Alexeiev, urging him to carry out the operation – which would in Miliukov’s calculations place the democracy with its protest against annexations before an accomplished fact. Miliukov’s note of April 18 was a similar raid upon the ill-defended coastlines of the democracy, The two acts – military and political – supplemented each other, and in case of success would have justified each other. Generally speaking, one does not condemn a victor. But Miliukov was not destined to be a victor. Two to three hundred thousand troops were needed for the raid, and the plan fell through because of a mere detail: the refusal of the soldiers. They agreed to defend the revolution, but not to take the offensive, Miliukov’s attempt upon the Dardanelles came to nothing, and that broke down all his further plans. But it must be confessed that they were not badly worked out – provided he won.

On April 17 there took place in Petrograd the patriotic nightmare demonstration of the war invalids. An enormous number of wounded from the hospitals of the capital, legless, armless, bandaged, advanced upon the Tauride Palace. Those who could not walk were carried in automobile trucks. The banners read: “War to the end.” That was a demonstration of despair from the human stumps of the imperialist war, wishing that the revolution should not acknowledge that their sacrifice had been in vain. But the Kadet Party stood behind the demonstration, or rather Miliukov stood behind it, getting ready his great blow for the following day.

At a special night session of the 19th, the Executive Committee discussed the note sent the day before to the Allied governments. “After the first reading.” relates Stankevich, “it was unanimously and without debate acknowledged by all that this was not at all what the Committee had expected.” But responsibility for the note had been assumed by the government as a whole, including Kerensky. Consequently, it was necessary first of all to save the government. Tseretelli began to “decode” the note, which had never been coded, and to discover in it more and more merits. Skobelev profoundly reasoned that in general it is impossible to demand “a complete coincidence of the aims of the democracy with that of the government.” The wise men harried themselves until dawn, but found no solution. They dispersed in the morning only to meet again after a few hours. Apparently they were counting upon time to heal all wounds.

In the morning the note appeared in all the papers. Rech commented upon it in a spirit of carefully prepared provocation. The Socialist Press expressed itself with great excitement. The Menshevik Rabochaia Gazeta, not yet having succeeded like Tseretelli and Skobelev in freeing itself from the vapours of the night’s indignation, wrote that the Provisional Government had published “a document which is a mockery of the democracy,” and demanded from the Soviet decisive measures “to prevent its disastrous consequences.” The growing pressure of the Bolsheviks was very clearly felt in those phrases.

The Executive Committee resumed its sitting, but only in order once more to convince itself of its incapacity to arrive at a solution. It resolved to summon a special plenary session of the Soviet “for purposes of information” – in reality for the purpose of feeling out the amount of dissatisfaction in the lower ranks, and to gain time for its own vacillations. In the meantime all kinds of contact sessions were suggested with the aim of bringing the whole agitation to nothing.

But amid all this ritual diddling of the double sovereignty, a third power unexpectedly intervened. The masses came out with arms in their hands. Among the bayonets of the soldiers glimmered the letters on a streamer: “Down with Miliukov!” On other streamers Guchkov figured in the same way. In these indignant processions it was hard to recognise the demonstrators of May 1.

Historians call this movement “spontaneous” in the conditional sense that no party took the initiative in it. The immediate summons to the streets was given by a certain Linde, who therewith inscribed his name in the history of the revolution. “Scholar, mathematician, philosopher,” Linde was a non-party man – for the revolution with all his heart and earnestly desirous that it should fulfil its promise. Miliukov’s note and the comments of Rech had aroused him. “Taking counsel with no one,” says his biographer, “he acted at once, went straight to the Finland regiment, assembled its committee and proposed that they march immediately as a whole regiment to the Mariinsky Palace ... Linde’s proposal was accepted, and at three o’clock in the afternoon a significant demonstration of the Finlanders was marching through the streets of Petrograd with challenging placards.” After the Finland regiment came the soldiers of the 180th Reserve, the Moscow regiment, the Pavlovsky, the Keksgolmsky, the sailors of the 2nd Baltic fleet. The commotion spread to the workers' district; work stopped and whole factories came out into the streets after the soldiers.

“The majority of the soldiers did not know why they had come,” affirms Miliukov, as though he had asked them. “Besides the troops, boy workers took part in the demonstration, loudly (!) proclaiming that they were paid ten to fifteen roubles for doing it.” The source of this money is also clear: “The idea of removing the two ministers (Miliukov and Guchkov) was directly inspired from Germany.” Miliukov offered this profound explanation not in the heat of the April struggle, but three years after the October events had abundantly demonstrated to him that nobody had to pay a high wage for the people’s hatred of Miliukov.

The unexpected sharpness of the April demonstration is explained by the directness of the mass reaction to deceit from above. “Until the government achieves peace, it is necessary to be on our guard.” That was spoken without enthusiasm, but with conviction. It had been assumed that, up above, everything was being done to bring peace. The Bolsheviks, to be sure, were asserting that the government wanted the war prolonged for the sake of robberies. But could that be possible? How about Kerensky? We have known the Soviet leaders since February. They were the first to come to us in the barracks. They are for peace. Moreover, Lenin came straight from Berlin, whereas Tseretelli was at hard labour. We must be patient ... Meanwhile the progressive factories and regiments were more and more firmly adopting the Bolshevik slogans of a peace policy: publication of the secret treaties; break with the plans of conquest of the Entente; open proposal of immediate peace to all warring countries. The note of April 18 fell among these complex and wavering moods. How can this be? They are not for peace up there after all, but for the old war aims? All our patience and waiting for nothing? Down with ... but down with whom? Can the Bolsheviks be right? Hardly. But what about this note? It means that somebody is selling our hides, all right, to the czar’s allies. From a simple comparison of the press of the Kadets and the Compromisers, it could be read that Miliukov, betraying the general confidence, was intending to carry on a policy of conquest in company with Lloyd George and Ribot. And yet Kerensky had declared that the attempt upon Constantinople was “the personal opinion of Miliukov.” ... That was how this movement flared up.

But it was not homogeneous. Certain hot-headed elements among the revolutionists greatly overestimated the volume and political maturity of the movement, because it had broken out so sharply and suddenly. The Bolsheviks developed an energetic campaign among the troops and in the factories. They supplemented the demand to “remove Miliukov,” which was, so to speak, a programme-minimum of the movement, with placards against the Provisional Government as a whole. But different elements understood this differently: some as slogans of propaganda, others as the task of the day. The slogan carried into the streets by the armed soldiers and sailors: “Down with the Provisional Government!” inevitably introduced into the demonstration a strain of armed insurrection. Considerable groups of workers and soldiers were quite ready to shake down the Provisional Government right then and there. They made an attempt to enter the Mariinsky Palace, occupy its exits, and arrest the ministers. Skobelev was delegated to rescue the ministers, and he fulfilled his mission the more successfully in that the Mariinsky Palace happened to be unoccupied.

In consequence of Guchkov’s illness, the government had met that day in his private apartment. But it was not the accident which saved the ministers from arrest; they were not seriously threatened. That army of 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers, which had come into the streets for a struggle with the prolongers of the war, was plenty enough to do away with a far solider government than that headed by Prince Lvov, but the demonstrators had not set themselves this goal. All they really intended was to show their fist at the window, so that these high gentlemen should cease sharpening their teeth for Constantinople and get busy as they should about the question of peace. In this way the soldiers hoped to help Kerensky and Tseretelli against Miliukov.

General Kornilov attended that sitting of the government, reported the armed demonstrations which were taking place, and declared that as the commander of the troops of the Petrograd military district he had at his disposition sufficient forces, to put down the disturbance with a mailed fist: he merely awaited the command. Kolchak, who happened accidentally to be present, related afterwards, at the trial which preceded his execution, that Prince Lvov and Kerensky spoke against the, attempt to put down the demonstration with military force. Miliukov did not express himself directly, but summed up the situation by saying that the honourable ministers might of course reason as they wished, but their decision would not prevent their removal to prison. There is no doubt whatever that Kornilov was acting in agreement with the Kadet centre.

The Compromise leaders had no difficulty in persuading the soldier demonstrators to withdraw from the square before the Mariinsky Palace, and even go back to their barracks. The commotion which had overflowed the city, however, did not recede to its banks. Crowds gathered, meetings assembled, they wrangled at street corners, the crowds in the tramways divided into partisans and opponents of Miliukov. On the Nevsky and adjoining streets, bourgeois orators waged an agitation against Lenin – sent from Germany to overthrow the great patriot Miliukov. In the suburbs and workers’ districts the Bolsheviks tried to extend the indignation aroused against the note and its author to the government as a whole.

At seven in the evening the plenum of the Soviet assembled. The leaders did not know what to say to that audience, quivering with tense passion. Cheidze explained to them at great length that after the session there was to be a meeting with the Provisional Government. Chernov tried to scare them with the approach of civil war. Feodorov, the metal worker, a member of the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, replied that the civil war was already here, that what the soviets ought to do was to rely upon it and seize the power in their hands. “Those were new and at that time terrible words,” writes Sukhanov. “They hit the very centre of the prevailing mood and received a response such as the Bolsheviks had never met in the Soviet before, and did not meet for a long time after.”

The pivot of the conference, however, was an unexpected speech by Kerensky’s favourite, the liberal socialist, Stankevich: “Comrades,” he asked, “why should we take any ‘action’ at all? Against whom marshal our forces? The sole power that exists is you and the masses which stand behind you ... Look there! It is now five minutes to seven.” – (Stankevich pointed his finger to the clock on the wall, and the whole assembly turned in that direction) – “Resolve that the Provisional Government does not exist, that it has resigned. We will communicate this by telephone, and in five minutes it will surrender its authority. Why all this talk about violence, demonstrations, civil war?” Loud applause. Elated shouts. The orator wanted to frighten the soviets with an extreme inference from the existing situation, but frightened himself with the effect of his own speech. That unexpected truth about the power of the Soviet lifted the assembly above the wretched pottering of its leaders, whose main occupation was to prevent the Soviet from arriving at any decision. “Who will take the place of the government?” An orator replied to the applause. “We? But our hands tremble ...” That was an incomparable characterisation of the compromisers – high and mighty leaders with trembling hands.

Prime Minister Lvov, as though to supplement Stankevich from the other side, made the next day the following announcement: “Up till now the Provisional Government has received unwavering support from the ruling organ of the Soviet. For the last two weeks ... the government has been under suspicion. In these circumstances ... it is best for the Provisional Government to withdraw.” We see again what was the real constitution of the February revolution!

The meeting of the Executive Committee with the Provisional Government took place in the Mariinsky Palace. Prince Lvov in an introductory speech regretted the campaign undertaken by the socialist circles against the government, and half offendedly, half threateningly, spoke of resignation. The ministers described in turn the difficulties which they had assisted with all their might to accumulate. Miliukov, turning his back to all this “contact” oratory, spoke from the balcony to a Kadet demonstration. “Seeing those placards with the inscription ‘Down with Miliukov!’ ... I did not fear for Miliukov, I feared for Russia.” Thus the historian Miliukov reports the modest words which the minister Miliukov pronounced before the crowds assembled in the square. Tseretelli demanded from the government a new note. Chernov found a brilliant solution, proposing that Miliukov go over to the Ministry of Public Education. Constantinople as a topic in geography would at any rate be less dangerous than as a topic in diplomacy. Miliukov, however, categorically refused both to return to science, and to write a new note. The leaders of the Soviet did not need much persuasion, and agreed to an “explanation” of the old note. It remained to find a few phrases whose falsity should be sufficiently oiled over with democraticness, and the situation might be considered saved – and with it Miliukov’s portfolio.

But the restless third power would not be quiet. The 21st of April brought a new wave of commotion, more powerful than yesterday’s. Today the Petrograd Committee of the Bolsheviks had called for the demonstration. In spite of the counter-agitation of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, immense masses of workers advanced to the centre from the Vyborg side, and later too from other districts. The Executive Committee sent to meet the demonstrators their most authoritative pacifiers with Cheidze at the head. But the workers firmly intended to speak their word – and they had a word to speak. A well-known liberal journalist described in Rech this demonstration of workers on the Nevsky: “About a hundred armed men marched in front; after them solid phalanxes of unarmed men and women, a thousand strong. Living chains on both sides. Songs. Their faces amazed me. All those thousands had but one face, the stunned ecstatic face of the early Christian monks. Implacable, pitiless, ready for murder, inquisition and death.” The liberal journalist had looked the workers, revolution in the eye and felt for a second its intense determination. How little those phalanxes resembled Miliukov’s “boy-workers” hired by Ludendorff at fifteen roubles a day!

Today as yesterday the demonstrators did not come out to overthrow the government, although a majority of them, we may guess, had already seriously thought about this problem, and a part were ready even today to carry the demonstration far beyond the bounds of the majority mood. Cheidze asked the demonstration to turn round and go back to its districts. But the leaders sternly answered that the workers themselves knew what to do. This was a new note – and Cheidze would have to get used to it in the course of the next few weeks.

While the Compromisers were persuading and hushing up, the Kadets were challenging and inflaming. In spite of the fact that Kornilov had not yesterday been authorised to employ firearms, he not only had not abandoned the plan, but on the contrary was all this day from early morning getting ready to oppose the demonstrators with cavalry and artillery. Firmly counting on the boldness of the generals, the Kadets had issued a special handbill summoning their partisans to the streets, clearly intending to carry matters to the point of a decisive conflict. Although failing of his raid on the Dardanelles coastline, Miliukov continued his general offensive, with Kornilov in the capacity of advance guard and the Entente as heavy reserves. The note despatched behind the back of the Soviet, and the editorial in Rech, were to serve the liberal Chancellor of the February revolution in the rôle of the Ems despatch. “All who stand for Russia and her freedom must unite round the Provisional Government and support it.” Thus read the appeal of the Kadet Central Committee, inviting all good citizens into the street for the struggle against the advocates of immediate peace.

The Nevsky, the chief artery of the bourgeoisie, was converted into a solid Kadet meeting. A considerable demonstration headed by the members of the Kadet Central Committee marched to the Mariinsky Palace. Everywhere could be seen brand-new placards, fresh from the sign-painters: “Full Confidence to the Provisional Government!” “Long Live Miliukov!” The ministers looked like guests of honour. They had their own “people”, and this the more noticeably since emissaries of the Soviet were doing their utmost to help them, dispersing revolutionary meetings, steering workers’ and soldiers’ demonstrations toward the suburbs, and restraining the barracks and factories from going out. Under the flag of defence of the government, the first open and broad mobilisation of counter-revolutionary forces took place. In the centre of the town appeared trucks with armed officers, cadets and students. The Cavaliers of St. George were sent out. The gilded youth organised a mock trial on the Nevsky, establishing on the spot the existence both of Leninists and of “German spies.” There were skirmishes and casualties. The first bloody encounter began, according to reports, with an attempt of officers to snatch from the workers a banner with a slogan against the Provisional Government. The encounters became more and more fierce; shots were interchanged, and towards afternoon they became almost continuous. Nobody knew exactly who was shooting or why, but there were already victims of this disorderly shooting, partly malicious, partly the result of panic. The temperature was reaching red heat.

No, that day was not in the least like a manifestation of national unity. Two worlds stood face to face. The patriotic columns called into the streets against the workers and soldiers by the Kadet Party consisted exclusively of the bourgeois layers of the population – officers, officials, intelligentsia. Two human floods – one for Constantinople, one for Peace – had issued from different parts of the town. Different in social composition, not a bit similar in external appearance, and with hostile inscriptions on their placards, as they clashed together they brought into play fists, clubs, and even firearms.

The unexpected news reached the Executive Committee that Kornilov was moving cannon into the Palace Square. Was this independent initiative on the part of the commander? The character and further career of Kornilov testify that somebody was always leading that brave general by the nose – a function fulfilled on this occasion by the Kadet leaders. It was only because they counted on the interference of Kornilov, and in order to make this interference necessary, that they had summoned their masses into the street. One of the younger historians has correctly remarked that Kornilov’s attempt to draw away the military schools to Palace Square coincided, not with the moment of real or pretended necessity to defend the Mariinsky Palace from a hostile crowd, but with the moment of highest pitch of the Kadet manifestation.

The Miliukov-Kornilov plan went to pieces, however, and very ignominiously. However naïve the leaders of the Executive Committee may have been, they could not fail to understand that their own heads were in question. Even before the first news of bloody encounters on the Nevsky, the Executive Committee had sent to all the military units of Petersburg and its environs telegraphic instructions not to leave the barracks without orders from the Soviet – not one detachment to the streets of the capital. Now, when the intentions of Kornilov became evident, the Executive Committee, contradicting all its solemn declarations, put both hands to the helm, not only demanding of the commander that he immediately send back the troops, but also commissioning Skobelev and Filipovsky to send back those which had come out in the name of the Soviet. “Except upon a summons from the Executive Committee in these alarming days, do not come out on the streets with arms in your hands. To the Executive Committee alone belongs the right to command you.” Thereafter every order for the despatch of troops had, besides the customary formalities, to be issued on an official paper of the Soviet and countersigned by no less than two persons authorised for this purpose. It seemed that the Soviet had unequivocally interpreted Kornilov’s act as an attempt on the part of the counter-revolution to create a civil war. But, although by its order it reduced to nothing the commandership of the district, the Executive Committee never thought of removing Kornilov himself. How could one think of violating the prerogatives of the government? “Their hands trembled.” The young régime was wrapped up in fictions like a patient in pillows and compresses. From the point of view of the correlation of forces, most instructive is the fact that not only the Military units, but also the officers’ schools, even before receiving the order of Cheidze, refused to go out without the sanction of the Soviet. These unpleasantnesses, not foreseen by the Kadets, dropping upon them one after another, were inevitable consequences of the fact that the Russian bourgeoisie up to the time of the national revolution had been an anti-national class. That could be concealed for a short time by the dual power, but could not be corrected.

The April crisis apparently was coming to nothing. The Executive Committee had succeeded in holding back the masses on the threshold of the dual power. On its side, the grateful government explained that by “guarantees” and “sanctions” was to be understood world courts, limitation of armaments and all admirable things. The Executive Committee hastily seized upon these terminological concessions, and by a majority of 34 against 19 voted the matter adjusted. In order to quiet their alarmed ranks, the majority also adopted the following resolution: Our control of the activities of the Provisional Government must be strengthened; without previously informing the Executive Committee no important political steps must be taken; the diplomatic personnel must be radically changed. The double sovereignty which had existed in fact was thus translated into the juridical language of a constitution. But this changed nothing in the nature of things. The left wing could not even secure from the compromising majority the resignation of Miliukov. Everything must remain as before. Over the Provisional Government hung the far more effective control of the Entente, which the Executive Committee did not dare to touch.

On the evening of the 21st the Petrograd Soviet cast up its balance. Tseretelli reported on the fresh victory of the wise leadership, which had put an end to all false interpretations of the note of March 27. Kamenev, in the name of the Bolsheviks, proposed the formation of a purely soviet government. Kollantai, a popular revolutionist who had come over during the war from the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks, proposed a referendum throughout all the districts of Petrograd and its environs on the desirability of this provisional government or another. But these proposals hardly entered into the consciousness of the Soviet: the question, it seemed, was adjusted. The solacing resolution of the Executive Committee was adopted by an enormous majority against 18. To be sure, a majority of the Bolshevik deputies were then still in their factories, on the streets, or attending demonstrations. But nevertheless it remains indubitable that in the central mass of the Soviet there was not any move to the side of the Bolsheviks.

The Soviet directed all to refrain for two days from any street demonstrations. This resolution was adopted unanimously. Nobody had a shadow of doubt that all would submit to the decision. And as a fact the workers, the soldiers, the bourgeois youth, the Vyborg side, the Nevsky Prospect – no one at all dared to disobey the order of the Soviet. Tranquillity was attained without any forcible measures whatever. The Soviet had only to feel itself master of the situation and it would have been so in fact.

Into the editorial offices of the left papers in those days poured many scores of factory and regimental resolutions demanding the immediate resignation of Miliukov, and sometimes of the whole Provisional Government. And not only Petrograd surged up. In Moscow too the workers abandoned the shops, and the soldiers issued from the barracks, filling the streets with stormy protests. Telegrams poured in to the Executive Committee from scores of local soviets, opposing the policy of Miliukov and promising full support to the Soviet. The same voices came from the front. But all was to remain as before.

“During April 21,” asserted Miliukov later, “a mood favourable to the government again took possession of the streets.” He evidently had in mind those streets which he had an opportunity to view from the balcony after the majority of the workers and soldiers had gone home. As an actual fact, the government had been completely shown up. There was no serious force behind it. We have just heard this from the lips of Stankevich and Prince Lvov himself. What did Kornilov’s assurance that he had sufficient forces to put down the rebels mean? Nothing whatever except the extreme light-mindedness of the respected general. This light-mindedness will reach its highest bloom in August, when the conspirator Kornilov will deploy against Petrograd a non-existent army. The trouble was that Kornilov was still trying to judge the troops by the commanding staff. The officers, a majority of them, were indubitably with him – that is, they were ready, under the pretext of defending the Provisional Government, to smash the ribs of the Soviet. The soldiers stood for the Soviet, being very much farther to the left than the Soviet itself. But inasmuch as the Soviet stood for the Provisional Government, it happened that Kornilov was able to bring out in its defence Soviet soldiers commanded by reactionary officers. Thanks to the two-power régime, they were all playing hide and seek with one another. However, the leaders of the Soviet had hardly issued the command to the troops not to leave their barracks, when Kornilov found himself hanging in the air along with the whole Provisional Government.

And yet the government did not fall. The masses who had made the attack were totally unready to carry it through, to the end. The Compromise leaders were thus still able to try to turn back the February régime to its original position. Having forgotten, or desiring to make others forget, that the Executive Committee had been openly compelled in opposition to the “legally constituted” authorities to lay its hands on the army, the Izvestia of the Soviet complained on April 22: “The Soviet did not aspire to seize the power in its own hands, but nevertheless upon many banners carried by the partisans of the Soviet there were inscriptions demanding the overthrow of the government and the transfer of all power to the Soviet.” ... Is it not indeed exasperating that the workers and soldiers had tried to tempt the Compromisers with power – that is, had seriously imagined these gentlemen capable of making a revolutionary use of it?

No, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks did not want the power. As we saw, the Bolshevik resolution demanding the transfer of power to the soviets, mustered in the Petrograd Soviet an insignificant number of votes. In Moscow the vote of “no confidence” in the Provisional Government, introduced by the Bolsheviks on April 22, mustered only 74 votes out of many hundreds. To be sure the Helsingfors Soviet, notwithstanding its domination by Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, adopted on that same day an extraordinarily bold resolution for those times, offering the Petrograd Soviet its armed assistance in removing the “imperialist Provisional Government.” But that resolution, adopted under direct pressure from the sailors, was an exception. By an overwhelming majority, the Soviet deputies, representing those masses who had been but yesterday so near to an armed insurrection against the Provisional Government, stood pat on the two-power system. What does this signify?

This crying contradiction between the decisiveness of the mass offensive and the half-heartedness of its political reflection was not accidental. In a revolutionary epoch the oppressed masses turn more easily and quickly to direct action, than they learn to give their desires and demands a formal expression through their own representatives. The more abstract the system of representation, the more it lags behind the rhythm of those events which determine the activity of the masses. A Soviet representation, the least abstract of all, has immeasurable advantages in revolutionary conditions: it is sufficient to remember that the democratic Dumas, elected according to their own regulations of April 17, hampered by nothing and by nobody, proved absolutely powerless to compete with the soviets. But with all the advantages of their organic connection with the factories and regiments-that is, with the active masses-the soviets are nevertheless representative organs, and are therefore not free from the qualifications and distortions of parliamentarism. The contradiction inherent in representation, even of the soviet form, lies in the fact that it is on the one necessary to the action of the masses, but on the other easily becomes a conservative obstacle to it. The practical way out of this contradiction is to renew the representation continually. But this operation, nowhere very simple, must in a revolution be the result of direct action and therefore lag behind such action. At any rate, on the day after the April semi-insurrection, or more accurately, quarter-insurrection – the semi-insurrection will occur in July – the same deputies were sitting in the Soviet as on the day before. Arriving once more in their accustomed seats they voted for the motions of their accustomed leaders.

But this by no means signifies that the April storm had passed without effect on the Soviet, on the entire February system, and still more on the masses themselves. That giant interference of the workers and soldiers in political events, although not yet carried through to the end, altered the political scene, gave impulse to the general movement of the revolution, accelerated inevitable regroupings, and forced the parlour and backstage politicians to forget their plans of yesterday and adapt their action to new sets of circumstances.

When the Compromisers had liquidated this flare-up of civil war, and thought that everything was coming back to its old position, the government crisis was only just beginning. The liberals did not want to rule any longer without a direct participation of socialists in the government. The socialists on their part, forced by the logic of the two-power system to agree to this condition, demanded an unequivocal repudiation of the Dardanelles programme, and this inevitably led to the downfall of Miliukov. On May 2, Miliukov found himself compelled to leave the ranks of the government. The slogan of the demonstration of April 20 was thus realised in the space of twelve days, and against the will of the Soviet leaders.

But delays and procrastinations succeeded only in accentuating more strongly the impotence of the rulers. Miliukov, attempting with the aid of his general to make a sharp break in the correlation of forces, had popped out of the government with a noise like a cork. The smashing general found himself obliged to resign. The ministers did not look a bit like guests of honour any more. The government implored the Soviet to agree to a coalition. All this because the masses were pressing on the long end of the lever.

This does not mean, however, that the Compromising parties were coming nearer to the workers and soldiers. On the contrary, the April events by suggesting what unexpected surprises lay hidden in the masses, impelled the democratic leaders still further toward the right, toward a closer union with the bourgeoisie. From that time on the patriotic course definitely predominates. The majority of the Executive Committee becomes more united. Formless radicals like Sukhanov, Steklov, etc., who had but recently inspired the policies of the Soviet, and had made attempts to save something at least of the traditions of socialism, are pushed aside. Tseretelli takes a firm, conservative and patriotic position, an accommodation of Miliukov’s policies to the representative organ of the labouring masses.

The conduct of the Bolshevik Party during the April days was not uniform. Events had caught the party unprepared. The internal crisis was just being wound up, and busy preparations were going on for the party conference. Impressed by the keen excitement in the workers’ districts some Bolsheviks expressed themselves in favour of overthrowing the Provisional Government. The Petrograd Committee, which on March 5 had been still passing resolutions of qualified confidence in the Provisional Government, wavered. It was decided to hold a demonstration on the 21st, though its purpose was still insufficiently defined. A part of the Petrograd Committee were bringing the workers and soldiers into the streets with the intention not very clear, to be sure – of attempting, so to speak incidentally, to overthrow the Provisional Government. Individual left elements standing outside the party acted in the same direction. There was apparently also an anarchist element – not numerous but bustling. The military quarters were approached by individual persons demanding armoured cars or general reinforcements, now for the arrest of the Provisional Government, now for street fighting with the enemy. An armoured car division close to the Bolsheviks declared, however, that they would give no machines to anyone except by order of the Executive Committee.

The Kadets did their best to place the blame for the bloody encounters on the Bolsheviks. But a special committee of the Soviet established beyond a doubt that the shooting had started, not in the streets, but from doorways and windows. The newspapers published an announcement from the Public Prosecutor: “The shooting was done by the scum of the population for the purpose of arousing disorders and disturbances – always useful to the criminal elements.”

The hostility of the ruling Soviet parties to the Bolsheviks had not yet reached that intensity which two months later, in July, completely eclipsed both reason and conscience. The Department of Justice, although it had kept its old staff, was standing at attention before the revolution, and in April had not yet permitted itself to apply to the extreme left the methods of the czar’s secret service. Along this line too Miliukov’s attack was repelled without difficulty.

The party Central Committee pulled up on the left wing Bolsheviks, and declared on April 21 that they considered the Soviet’s veto of demonstrations perfectly in order, and to be submitted to unconditionally. “The motto ‘Down with the Government’ is incorrect at present,” stated the resolution of the Central Committee, “because without a solid (that is, conscious and organised) majority of the people on the side of the proletariat, such a motto is either an empty phrase, or leads to attempts of an adventurous character.” This resolution declared the task of the moment to be criticism, propaganda, and winning of the majority in the soviets, as the groundwork for capturing the power. In this their opponents saw either the retreat of frightened leaders, or a sly manoeuvre. We already know the fundamental position of Lenin on the question of power; he was now teaching the party to apply the “April theses” on the basis of actual experience.

Three weeks before this, Kamenev had declared that he was “happy” to vote with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries for a joint resolution on the Provisional Government, and Stalin had been developing his theory of a division of labour between Kadets and Bolsheviks. How far those days and those theories were gone into the past! Only after the lesson of the April days, Stalin at last came out against the theory of benevolent “control” over the Provisional Government, cautiously retreating from his own previous position. But this manoeuvre passed unnoticed.

In what consisted the element of adventurism in the policy of certain parts of the party? asked Lenin at a conference which opened right after the menacing days. It consisted in the attempt to employ violence where there was not yet, or no longer any place for revolutionary violence. “You can overthrow one who is known to the people as a tyrant; but there are no tyrants now; the cannon and rifles are in the hands of the soldiers, not the capitalists. The capitalists are not prevailing with violence but deceit, and you can’t talk now about violence – its mere nonsense ... We gave the slogan of peaceful demonstration. We wanted only to make a peaceful reconnoitre of the enemy’s strength, not to give battle. But the Petrograd Committee aimed a wee bit too far to the left ... Along with the correct slogan, ‘Long Live the Soviets!’ they gave a wrong one, ‘Down with the Provisional Government.’ A moment of action is no time to aim ‘a wee bit too far to the left.’ We look upon that as the greatest crime, disorganisation.”

What lies underneath the dramatic events of a revolution? Shifts in the correlation of class forces. What causes these shifts? For the most part oscillations of the intermediary classes, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie, the army. There is a gigantic amplitude of oscillation between Kadet imperialism and Bolshevism. These oscillations go simultaneously in two opposite directions. The political representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, their chiefs, the compromising leaders, gravitate farther and farther to the right, toward the bourgeoisie. The oppressed masses, on the other hand, will each time take a sharper and more daring swing to the left. In protesting against the adventurism shown by the leaders of the Petrograd organisation, Lenin made this exception: if the intermediate masses had swung toward our side seriously, deeply, steadily, we would not have hesitated one minute to oust the government from the Mariinsky Palace. But this has not yet happened. The April crisis, bursting into the street, was “not the first and not the last swing of the petty bourgeois and semi-proletarian masses.” Our task is still for the time being to “patiently explain” – to prepare the next swing of the masses to our side, a deeper and more conscious one.

As for the proletariat, its movement to the side of the Bolsheviks assumed during April a clearly expressed character. Workers came to the party committees asking how to transfer their names from the Menshevik Party to the Bolshevik. At the factories they began insistently to question the deputies about foreign policy, the war, the two-power system, the food question; and as a result of these examinations Menshevik and Social Revolutionary delegates were more and more frequently replaced by Bolsheviks. The sharp turn began in the district soviets, as these were closer to the factories. In the soviets of the Vyborg side, Vasiliev Island, Narva district, the Bolsheviks seemed suddenly and unexpectedly to find themselves toward the end of April in a majority. This was a fact of the greatest significance, but the Executive Committee leaders, busy with high politics, looked with disdain upon the fussing of the Bolsheviks in the workers’ districts. However, the districts began to press on the centre more and more perceptibly. In the factories, without orders from the Petrograd Committee, an energetic and successful campaign was carried on for the re-election of representatives to the municipal soviet of workers’ deputies. Sukhanov estimates that at the beginning of May the Bolsheviks had behind them a third of the Petrograd proletariat. Not less, certainly – and the most active third besides. The March formlessness had disappeared; political lines were sharpening; the “fantastic” theses of Lenin were taking flesh in the Petrograd workers’ districts.

Every step forward of the revolution was evoked or compelled by direct intervention of the masses – in most cases utterly unexpected by the Soviet parties. After the February uprising, when the workers and soldiers overthrew the monarchy without anyone’s permission, the leaders of the Executive Committee considered the rôle of the masses fulfilled. But they were fatally wrong. The masses had no intention of getting off the stage. Already in the beginning of March, during the campaign for the eight-hour day, the workers wrested this concession from capital in spite of the efforts of Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to hold them back. The Soviet was forced to record a victory obtained without it and against it. The April demonstration was a second correction of the same kind. Every mass action, regardless of its immediate aim, is a warning addressed to the leadership. This warning is at first mild in character, but becomes more and more resolute. By July it had become a threat. In October we have the final act.

In all critical moments the masses intervene “spontaneously” – in other words, obeying only their own inferences drawn from political experience, and their as yet officially unrecognised leaders. Assimilating this or that premise from the talk of agitators, the masses on their own volition translate its conclusions into the language of action. The Bolsheviks, as a party, were not yet leading the campaign for the eight-hour day. The Bolsheviks did not summon the masses to the April demonstration. The Bolsheviks will not call the armed masses into the street at the beginning of July. Only in October will the party finally fall in step and march out at the head of the masses, not for a demonstration but for a revolution.

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Last updated on: 1 February 2018