Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Three: The Triumph of the Soviets

Chapter 40
Withdrawal from the Pre-Parliament and Struggle for the Soviet Congress

Every additional day of war was disintegrating the front, weakening the government, damaging the international position of the country. At the beginning of October the German fleets, both naval and air, developed active operations in the Gulf of Finland. The Baltic sailors fought courageously trying to protect the road to Petrograd. But they, more clearly and profoundly than any other unit of the front, understood the deep contradiction in their position as vanguards of a revolution and involuntary participants in an imperialist war, and through the radio stations on their ships they sent out a cry to the four corners of the horizon for international revolutionary help. “Attacked by superior German forces our fleet will go down in unequal battle. Not one of our ships will decline the fight. The slandered and maligned fleet will do its duty – but not at the command of a miserable Russian Bonaparte, ruling by the long-suffering patience of the revolution ... not in the name of the treaties of our rulers with the Allies, binding in chains the hands of Russian freedom ...” No, but in the name of the defence of the approaches to the hearth-fire of the revolution, Petrograd. “In the hour when the waves of the Baltic are stained with the blood of our brothers, while the waters are closing over their bodies, we raise our voice: ... Oppressed people of the whole world! Lift the banner of revolt!”

These words about battles and victims were not empty. The squadron had lost the ship Slava and retired after fighting. The Germans had captured the Moonsund Archipelago. One more black page in the book of the war had been turned. The government decided to use this new military blow as a pretext for moving the capital. This old idea swam out at every suitable opportunity. It was not that the ruling circles had any particular affection for Moscow, but they hated Petrograd. The monarchist reaction, the liberals, the democracy – all strove in turn to denote the capital, to bring it to its knees, to beat it down. The most extreme patriots were now hating Petrograd with a far more bitter hatred than they felt for Berlin.

The question of evacuating the capital was taken up as a thing to be accomplished in extraordinary haste. Only two weeks were allotted for the transfer of the government together with the Pre-Parliament. It was also decided to evacuate in the briefest possible time the factories working for the defence. The Central Executive Committee as a “private institution” would have to look out for itself.

The Kadet instigators of the plan understood that a mere transfer of the government would not settle their problem, but they counted on afterward capturing the seat of revolutionary infection with hunger, disease and exhaustion. An internal blockade of Petrograd was already in full swing. The factories were being deprived of orders; the supply of fuel had been cut down three-quarters; the Ministry of Provisions was holding up cattle on their way to the capital; freight movements on the Mariinsky Railroad System had been stopped.

The warlike Rodzianko, president of that state Duma which the government had at last dissolved at the beginning of October, spoke quite frankly in the liberal Moscow newspaper Utro Rossii about the military danger threatening the capital. “I say to myself, God help her, God help Petrograd ... A fear was expressed in Petrograd lest the central institutions (that is the soviets, etc.) will be destroyed. To this I answered that I would be very glad if those institutions were destroyed, for they have brought nothing whatever but evil to Russia.” To be sure, with the capture of Petrograd the Baltic fleet also would have been destroyed, but against that too Rodzianko had no complaint: “The ships there are completely depraved.” Thanks to the fact that the Lord Chamberlain could not keep his tongue behind his teeth, the people had this chance to find out the most intimate thoughts of noble and bourgeois Russia.

The Russian chargé d’affaires reported from London that the British naval headquarters, in spite of all urgings, did not consider it possible to relieve the situation of its Ally in the Baltic. It was not the Bolsheviks alone who interpreted this answer to mean that the Allies, in common with the patriotic upper circles of Russia herself, looked only for benefits to the common cause from a German blow at Petrograd. The workers and soldiers had no doubt – especially after Rodzianko’s confession – that the government was consciously getting ready to send them to school to Ludendorff and Hoffmann.

On the 6th of October the soldiers’ section adopted with a unanimity hitherto unknown the resolution introduced by Trotsky: “If the Provisional Government is incapable of defending Petrograd, it must either make peace or give place to another government.” The workers were no less irreconcilable. They considered Petrograd their fortress. Their revolutionary hopes were bound up with her. They did not intend to surrender Petrograd. Frightened by the military danger, the evacuation, the indignation of the soldiers and workers, the excitement of the whole population, the Compromisers, on their side, sounded an alarm: We must not abandon Petrograd to the caprice of fate. Convinced that an attempted evacuation would meet resistance from all sides, the government began to draw back: We were not troubled so much, you know, about our own safety as about the question of a meeting-place for the future Constituent Assembly. But this position, too, they could not maintain. In less than a week the government was compelled to announce that it not only intended to remain in the Winter Palace itself, but proposed as before to convoke the Constituent Assembly in the Tauride Palace. This announcement changed nothing in the military and political situation. But it revealed once more the political power of Petrograd, which considered itself called to put an end to the government of Kerensky, and would not let that government escape from its walls. It was only the Bolsheviks who subsequently dared transfer the capital to Moscow. They carried this out without the slightest difficulty because for them it was really a strategic move. They could not have any political reason for flying from Petrograd.

That contrite declaration about the defence of the capital was made by the government upon the demand of the compromisist majority of a commission of the Council of the Russian Republic or “Pre-Parliament.” This wonderful institution had at last succeeded in getting born. Plekhanov, who loved jokes and knew how to make them, disrespectfully named this impotent and ephemeral Council of the Republic “the little house on chicken’s feet.” Politically this definition is not at all inaccurate. It is only necessary to add that for a little house the Pre-Parliament put up a pretty good front: the magnificent Mariinsky Palace, which had formerly sheltered the State Council of Ministers, was placed at its disposal. The contrast between this elegant palace and Smolny Institute, run-down and saturated with soldier smells, made a great impression upon Sukhanov: “Amid all this magnificence,” he confesses, “one wanted to rest, to forget about labour and struggle, about hunger and war, about ruin and anarchy, about the country and the revolution.” But there was very little time left for rest and forgetfulness.

The so-called “democratic” majority of the Pre-Parliament consisted of 308 men: 120 Social Revolutionaries, among them about 20 Lefts, 60 Mensheviks of various shades, 66 Bolsheviks; after that came the Co-operators, the delegates of the peasant executive committee, etc. The possessing classes were accorded 156 seats, of which the Kadets occupied almost half. Together with the Co-operators, the Cossacks, and the rather conservative members of Kerensky’s Executive Committee, the Right Wing on a number of questions came near being a majority. The distribution of seats in that comfortable little house on chicken’s feet was thus in flagrant contradiction to all decisive expressions of the will of the people that had been made either in city or country. Moreover, in opposition to the dull grey representation to be found in the soviets and elsewhere, the Mariinsky Palace assembled within its walls the “flower of the nation.” Inasmuch as the members of the Pre-Parliament did not depend upon the accidents of elective competition, upon local influences and provincial preferences, each social group and each party sent its most eminent leaders. The personnel was, to quote Sukhanov, “extraordinarily brilliant.” When the Pre-Parliament assembled for its first session, a weight was lifted, says Miliukov, from the hearts of many sceptics: “It will be fine if the Constituent Assembly is no worse than this.” The flower of the nation looked upon itself in the palace mirrors with great satisfaction and neglected to notice that it was incapable of bearing fruit.

In opening this Council of the Republic on October 7, Kerensky did not forgo the opportunity to remark that although the government possessed “all the fullness of power,” it was nevertheless ready to listen to “any genuinely valuable suggestion.” Although absolute, that is to say, the government had not ceased to be cultivated. In the pr├Žsidium, which consisted of five members with Avksentiev as president, one place was offered to the Bolsheviks: it remained unoccupied. The directors of this pitiful and unhappy comedy felt sick at heart. The entire interest of its grey opening on a rainy day was centred upon the forthcoming action of the Bolsheviks. In the couloirs of the Mariinsky Palace, according to Sukhanov, a “sensational rumour” was in the air: “Trotsky has won by a majority of two or three votes ... and the Bolsheviks are going to withdraw at once from the Pre-Parliament.” In reality the decision to withdraw demonstratively from the Mariinsky Palace was adopted on the 5th at a meeting of the Bolshevik faction by all votes except one. So great had been the shift leftward during the preceding two weeks! Only Kamenev remained true to his original position – or rather he alone dared defend it. In a special declaration addressed to the Central Committee, Kamenev candidly described the course adopted as “very dangerous for the party.” The doubt about the intentions of the Bolsheviks caused a certain anxiety in the Pre-Parliament. It was not so much a breakdown of the régime that they feared, as a “scandal” before the eyes of the Allied diplomats, whom the majority had just greeted with an appropriate volley of patriotic applause. Sukhanov relates how they despatched an official personage – Avksentiev himself – to the Bolsheviks to inquire in advance: What is going to happen? “A mere nothing,” answered Trotsky, “a mere nothing, a little shot from a pistol.” After the opening of the session, upon the basis of rules of order taken over from the state Duma, Trotsky was offered ten minutes for a special announcement in the name of the Bolshevik faction. A tense silence reigned in the hall. The declaration began by stating that the government was at present just as irresponsible as it had been before the Democratic Conference, which was supposed to have been convoked for the curbing of Kerensky, and that the representatives of the possessing classes were present in this provisional council in numbers to which they had not the slightest right. If the bourgeois were really preparing for a Constituent Assembly to meet in a month and a half, their leaders would have no reason to defend so fiercely at the present time the irresponsibility of the government even to this doctored representation. “The essence of it all is that the bourgeois classes have decided to quash the Constituent Assembly.” The blow was well aimed, and the Right Wing protested the more noisily. Without departing from the text of the declaration the speaker denounced the industrial, agrarian food policy. It would be impossible to adopt any other policy, even if you set yourself the conscious aim of impelling the masses to insurrection. “The idea of surrendering the revolutionary capital to the German troops ... we accept as a natural link in a general policy designed to promote ... a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.” The protest here turned into a storm. Cries about Berlin, about German gold, about the sealed train – and on this general background, like pieces of broken bottle in the mud, foul-mouthed abuse. Nothing like it was ever heard during the most passionate conflicts in Smolny, dirty and rundown and spat all over by soldiers as it was. “We only have to get into the good society of Mariinsky Palace,” writes Sukhanov, “in order to revive at once that atmosphere of the low-class saloon which prevailed in the state Duma with its restricted franchise.”

Picking his way through these explosions of hatred alternating with moments of hush, the speaker concluded: “No, the Bolshevik faction announce that with this government of treason to the people and with this Council of counter-revolutionary connivance we have nothing whatever in common ... In withdrawing from the provisional council we summon the workers, soldiers and peasants of all Russia to be on their guard, and to be courageous. Petrograd is in danger! The revolution is in danger! The people are in danger! ... We address ourselves to the people. All power to the soviets!” As the orator descended from the tribune the few score of Bolsheviks left the hall accompanied by curses. After their moment of alarm the majority heaved a happy sigh of relief. Only the Bolsheviks went out. The flower of the nation remained at their posts. The Left Wing of the Compromisers bent a little under a blow not directed, it seemed, at themselves. “We, the nearest neighbours of the Bolsheviks,” confesses Sukhanov, “sat there completely appalled by all that had happened.” These Immaculate Knights of the word were sensing the fact that the time for words had passed.

The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tereshchenko, informed the Russian ambassadors about the opening of the Pre-Parliament in a secret telegram: “The first session passed off uneventfully with the exception of a scandal created by the Bolsheviks.” The historic break between the proletariat and the state mechanism of the bourgeoisie was conceived by those people as a mere “scandal.” The bourgeois press did not miss the opportunity to goad the government by references to the resoluteness of the Bolsheviks: The honourable ministers will only then lead the country out of anarchy when they “acquire as much resolution and will to action as is to be found in Comrade Trotsky.” As though it were a question of resolution and the will of individual people and not of the historic destiny of classes! And as though the sorting out of people and characters goes on independently of historic tasks. “They spoke and acted,” wrote Miliukov on the subject of the Bolshevik withdrawal from the Pre-Parliament. “like people feeling a power behind them, knowing that the morrow belonged to them.”

The loss of the Moonsund Islands, the growing danger to Petrograd, and the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Pre-Parliament into the street, compelled the Compromisers to take thought for the further development of the war. After a three-day discussion participated in by the Minister of War and Navy, and the commissars and delegates of the army organisations, the Central Executive Committee came at last to a saving decision: “To insist that representatives of the Russian democracy be admitted to the Paris Conference of the Allies.” After renewed efforts they named Skobelev as delegate. Detailed instructions were drawn up: Peace without annexations or indemnities; neutralisation of straits and canals, including the Suez and Panama Canals – the Compromisers had a wider outlook geographically than politically; abolition of secret diplomacy; gradual disarmament. The Central Executive Committee explained that the aim of its delegate in the Paris Conference was “to bring pressure to bear upon the Allies.” Pressure of Skobelev upon France, Great Britain and the United States! The Kadet paper put a poisonous question! “What will Skobelev do if the Allies unceremoniously reject his conditions? Will he threaten them with another appeal to the people of the whole world?” The Compromisers, alas, had long been blushing for that old appeal of theirs.

While intending to force upon the United States the neutralisation of the Panama Canal, the Central Executive Committee proved incapable in actual fact of bringing pressure to bear even upon the Winter Palace. On the 12th, Kerensky sent Lloyd George a voluminous letter full of gentle reproaches, sorrowful complaints, and fervent promises. The front, he said, is “in better condition than it was last spring.” Of course the defeatist propaganda – thus the Russian premier complains to a Britisher against the Russian Bolsheviks – has hindered the carrying out of all the plans indicated. But there can be no talk of peace. The government knows only one question: “How to continue the war!” It goes without saying that as an earnest of his patriotism Kerensky begged for credits.

Having got rid of the Bolsheviks, the Pre-Parliament also lost no time in taking up the war. On the 10th the debate opened on improving the fighting capacity of the army. The dialogue, which occupied three weary sessions, developed according to one invariable scheme. We must convince the army that it is fighting for peace and democracy, said the Left. We must not convince but compel, answered the Right. You have nothing to compel with; in order to compel you must first at least partially convince, answered the Compromisers. In the matter of convincing the Bolsheviks are stronger than you, answered the Kadets. Both sides were right. But a drowning man is also right when he lets out a yell before going down.

On the 18th came that decisive hour which in the nature of things nothing in the world could alter. The formula of the Social Revolutionaries got 95 votes against 127, with 50 abstaining. The formula of the Right got 135 Votes against 139. Astonishing! There was no majority. Throughout the hall, according to the newspaper accounts, there was general movement and confusion. In spite of its unity of aim, the flower of the nation proved incapable of adopting even a platonic decision upon the most urgent question of the national life. This was no accident. The same thing was being repeated day by day in the commissions and in the plenary sessions upon all other questions. The fragments of opinion could not be put together. All the groups were living on illusive shadings of political thought: thought itself was absent. Maybe it had gone out into the street with the Bolsheviks? ... The blind alley of the Pre-Parliament was the blind alley of the whole régime.

To reconvince the army was difficult, but to compel it was also impossible. To a new shout from Kerensky at the Baltic fleet, which had just been through a battle and lost victims, a congress of the sailors addressed to the Central Executive Committee a demand that they remove from the staff of the Provisional Government “a person who is disgracing and destroying the great revolution with his shameless political chantage.” It was the first time Kerensky had heard such language from the sailors. The Regional Committee of the Army, Fleet and Russian Workers in Finland, functioning as a sovereign power, held up the government freight. Kerensky threatened the Soviet commissars with arrest. The answer was: The Regional Committee tranquilly accepts the challenge of the Provisional Government. Kerensky made no reply. In essence the Baltic fleet was already in a state of insurrection. On the land front, things had not yet gone so far, but they were travelling in the same direction. The food situation was rapidly deteriorating throughout October. The commander-in-chief of the Northern front reported that hunger “is the chief cause of the moral disintegration of the army.” At the same time that the compromisist upper circles on the front were continuing to assert – to be sure, now only behind the backs of the soldiers – that the fighting capacity of the army was improving, the lower ranks, regiment after regiment, were putting forth demands for a publication of the secret treaties and an immediate offer of peace. The commissar of the Western front, Zhdanov, reported during the first days of October: “The mood is extremely alarming, taken in connection with the nearness of cold weather and the deterioration of the food ... The Bolsheviks are scoring a definite success.”

The governmental institutions at the front were hanging in the air. The commissar of the 2nd Army reported that the military courts could not function because the soldier-witnesses refused to appear and testify. “The mutual relations between the commanding staff and the soldiers is embittered. The officers are blamed for dragging out the war.” The hostility of the soldiers to the government and the commanding staff had long ago been transferred also to the army committees, which had not been renewed since the beginning of the revolution. Over the heads of the committees the regiments were sending delegates to Petrograd, to the Soviet, to complain of the intolerable situation in the trenches, where they lived without bread, without clothing, without faith in the war. On the Roumanian front, where the Bolsheviks were very weak, whole regiments were refusing to shoot. “In two or three weeks the soldiers themselves will declare an armistice and lay down their arms.” The delegates from one of the divisions reported: “With the coming of the first snow the soldiers have decided to go home.” The delegates of the 133rd Army Corps made this threat at a plenary session of the Petrograd Soviet: “If there is not a real struggle for peace, the soldiers themselves will take the power and declare an armistice.” The commissar of the 2nd Army reported to the War Minister: “There is no little talk to the effect that with the arrival of cold weather they will abandon their position.”

Fraternising, which had almost stopped since the July days, began again and grew rapidly. Instances not only of the arrest of officers by the soldiers, but of the murder of the more hateful began to multiply. These things were done almost publicly, before the eyes of the soldiers. Nobody interfered: the majority did not want to, the small minority did not dare. The murderer always succeeded in hiding: he was drowned and lost in the soldier mass. One of the generals wrote: “We convulsively grasp at this or that, we pray for some sort of miracle, but the majority of us understand that there is already no hope of salvation.”

Mixing cunning with stupidity, the patriotic papers continued to write about a continuation of the war, about an offensive and about victory. The generals shook their heads; some of them equivocally joined in. “Only completely crazy people,” wrote Baron Budberg, the commander of a corps near Dvinsk, on the 7th of October, “could dream about an offensive at the present time.” The very next day he was compelled to write in the same diary “Startled and appalled to receive orders for an offensive not later than October 20th.” Headquarters, believing in nothing and shrugging its shoulders at everything, was drawing up plans for a new operation. There were not a few generals who saw the last hope of salvation in a repetition on a grand scale of Kornilov’s experiment with Riga: Drag the army into battle and try to bring down a defeat on the head of the revolution.

On the initiative of War Minister Verkhovsky it was decided to transfer the oldest classes into the reserve. The railroad groaned under the burden of these returning soldiers. In the overloaded cars the springs broke and the floors fell through. This did not improve the mood of those left behind. “The trenches are breaking down,” writes Budberg. “The communication trenches are flooded; there is refuse and excrement everywhere ... The soldiers flatly refuse to work at cleaning up the trenches ... It is dreadful to think where this will lead when spring comes and all this begins to rot and decompose.” In a state of embittered inaction the soldiers refused in droves even to undergo preventive inoculation. This too became a form of struggle against the war.

After vain efforts to raise the fighting capacity of the army by decreasing its numbers, Verkhovsky suddenly came to the conclusion that only peace could save the country. At a private conference with the Kadet leaders, whom this young and naïve minister imagined he could bring over to his side, Verkhovsky drew a picture of the material and spiritual collapse of the army: “Any attempt to prolong the war can only bring on a catastrophe.” The Kadets could not understand this. But while the others remained silent Miliukov scornfully shrugged his shoulders: “The honour of Russia,” “loyalty to the Allies.” ... Not believing in one of these words, the leader of the bourgeoisie was stubbornly striving to bury the revolution under the ruins and piles of corpses that would be left by the war. Verkhovsky revealed a certain amount of political audacity. Without informing or warning the government, he appeared on the 20th before the commission of the Pre-Parliament and announced the necessity of an immediate peace with or without the consent of the Allies. He was furiously attacked by all those who agreed with him in private conversations. The patriotic press wrote that the war minister “had jumped on the footboard of Comrade Trotsky’s chariot.” Burtsev hinted at the presence of German gold. Verkhovsky was sent away on a vacation. In heart to heart conversations the patriots were saying: In essence he is right. Budberg had to speak cautiously even in his diary: “From the point of view of keeping our word,” he wrote, “the proposal, of course, is tricky. But from the standpoint of the egoistic interests of Russia, it is perhaps the only one which offers hope of a saving way out.” Incidentally the baron confessed his envy of the German generals to whom “fate has given the good luck to be the authors of victories.” He did not foresee that the turn of the German generals would come next. Those people never foresaw anything, even the cleverest of them. The Bolsheviks foresaw much and that was their strength.

The withdrawal from the Pre-Parliament in the eyes of the people burned the last bridges uniting the party of insurrection with official society. With renewed energy – for the nearness of the goal redoubles one’s strength – the Bolsheviks carried on their agitation, an agitation called demagogism by the enemy because it brought out into the public square what they themselves were hiding in the chancelleries and private offices. The convincingness of this tireless evangel grew out of the fact that the Bolsheviks understood the course of the objective development, subjected their policy to it, were not afraid of the masses, and unconquerably believed in their own truth and their victory. The people never tired of hearing them. The masses felt a need to stand close together. Each wanted to test himself through others, and all tensely and attentively kept observing how one and the same thought would develop in their various minds with its different shades and features. Unnumbered crowds of people stood about the circuses and other big buildings where the more popular Bolsheviks would address them with the last arguments and the last appeals.

The number of leading agitators had greatly decreased by October. First of all Lenin was lacking – both as an agitator and still more as an immediate day-to-day inspiration. His simple and deep generalisations which could so lastingly insert themselves into the consciousness of the masses, his clear sayings caught up from the people and handed back to them, were sadly missed. The first-class agitator Zinoviev was lacking. Having hidden from prosecution under an indictment for “insurrection” in July, he decisively turned against the October insurrection, and thus for the whole critical period withdrew from the field of action. Kamenev, the irreplacable propagandist, the experienced political instructor of the party, condemned the policy of insurrection, did not believe in the victory, saw catastrophes ahead and gloomily retired into the shadows. Sverdlov, by nature an organiser rather than an agitator, appeared often at mass meeting and his even, powerful and tireless bass voice inspired tranquil confidence. Stalin was neither agitator nor orator. He never appeared as a spokesman at party conferences. But did he appear so much as once in the mass meetings of the revolution? In the documents and memoirs no record of it has been preserved.

A brilliant agitation was conducted by Volodarsky, Lashevich, Kollontai, Chudnovsky, and after them by scores of agitators of lesser calibre. People listened with interest and sympathy – and the mature also with a certain condescension – to Lunacharsky, a skilled orator who knew how to present fact and generalisation and pathos and joke, but who did not pretend to lead anybody. He himself needed to be led. In proportion as the revolution approached, Lunacharsky faded rapidly and lost his colourful effects.

Sukhanov says of the president of the Petrograd Soviet[1]: “Tearing himself from the work in revolutionary headquarters he would fly from the Obukhovsky factory to the Trubocheny, from the Putilov to the Baltic shipyards, from the Riding Academy to the barracks, and seemed to be speaking simultaneously in all places. Every Petrograd worker and soldier knew him and heard him personally. His influence – both in the masses and in headquarters – was overwhelming. He was the central figure of those days, and the chief hero of this remarkable page of history.”

But incomparably more effective in that last period before the insurrection was the molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations. Those months of feverish political life had created innumerable cadres in the lower ranks, had educated hundreds and thousands of rough diamonds, who were accustomed to look on politics from below and not above, and for that very reason estimated facts and people with a keenness not always accessible to orators of the academic type. The Petrograd workers stood In the front rank – hereditary proletarians who had produced a race of agitators and organisers of extraordinary revolutionary temper and high political culture, independent in thought, word and action. Carpenters, fitters, blacksmiths, teachers of the unions and factories, each already had around him his school, his pupils, the future builders of the Republic of Soviets. The Baltic sailors, close comrades in arms of the Petrograd workers – to a considerable extent issued from their midst – put forward a brigade of agitators who took by storm the backward regiments, the county towns, the villages of the muzhiks. A generalising formula tossed out in the Cirque Moderne by one of the revolutionary leaders would take flesh and blood in hundreds of thinking heads, and so make the rounds of the whole country.

From the Baltic states, from Poland and Lithuania, thousands of revolutionary workers and soldiers had been evacuated during the retreat of the Russian armies, coming with the industrial enterprises or one by one. All these became agitators against the war and those guilty of it. The Lettish Bolsheviks, torn away from their home soil and wholeheartedly standing on the soil of the revolution, convinced, stubborn, resolute, were carrying on day by day and all day long a mining operation in all parts of the country. Their angular faces, harsh accent, and often their broken Russian phrases, gave special expressiveness to an unceasing summons to insurrection.

The mass would no longer endure in its midst the wavering, the dubious, the neutral. It was striving to get hold of everybody, to attract, to convince, to conquer. The factories joined with the regiments in sending delegates to the front. The trenches got into connection with the workers and peasants near by in the rear. In the towns along the front there was an endless series of meetings, conferences, consultations in which the soldiers and sailors would bring their activity into accord with that of the workers and peasants. It was in this manner that the backward White Russian front was won over to Bolshevism.

In places where the local party leadership was irresolute and disposed to wait, as for example in Kiev, Voronezh, and many other points, the masses not infrequently fell into a passive condition. To justify their policy, the leaders would point to this mood of depression which they themselves had created. On the other hand: “The more resolute and bold was his summons to insurrection,” writes Povolzhsky, one of the Kazan agitators, “the more trustful and hearty would be the attitude of the soldier mass toward the speaker.”

The factories and regiments of Petrograd and Moscow were now more insistently knocking at the wooden gates of the villages. The workers would join together in sending delegates into their native provinces. The regiments would pass resolutions summoning the peasants to support the Bolsheviks. The workers in factories within the cities would make pilgrimages to the surrounding villages, distributing newspapers and laying the foundations of Bolshevik nuclei. From these rounds they would come back bringing in the pupil of their eyes a reflection from the flames of the peasant war.

Bolshevism took possession of the country. The Bolsheviks became an unconquerable power. The people were with them. The city dumas of Kronstadt, Czaritsyn, Kostroma, Shuia, elected on a universal franchise, were wholly in the hands of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks received 52 per cent of the votes at an election to the district dumas of Moscow. In far-off and tranquil Tomsk, as also in the wholly non-industrial Samara, the Bolsheviks dominated in the duma. Out of four members of the Schlusselberg county zemstvo, three were Bolsheviks. In the Ligovsky county zemstvo, the Bolsheviks got 50 per cent, of the votes. It was not so favourable everywhere, but everywhere it was changing in the same direction. The relative weight of the Bolshevik Party was on the rapid rise.

The Bolshevisation of the masses revealed itself far more clearly, however, in the class organisations. The trade unions in the capital comprised over a half million workers. The Mensheviks themselves, who still had the administration of certain unions, felt that they were a relic of past days. No matter what parts of the proletariat might form an organisation, and no matter what its immediate aim might be, it would inevitably arrive at Bolshevik conclusions. And this was no accident: The trade unions, the factory committees, the economic and cultural assemblies of the working class, both permanent and transitory, were compelled by the whole situation, upon every private problem which might arise, to raise one and the same question: Who is the master of the house?

The workers of the artillery factories, being called together in conference to regulate their relations with the administration, decided that they could best regulate them through a Soviet government. This was no longer a mere formula, but a programme of economic salvation. As they approached the power the workers also approached more and more concretely the problems of industry. The artillery conference even established a special centre for the study of methods of transition from munition factories to peaceful production.

The Moscow conference of factory and shop committees declared that the local Soviet should in the future decide all strike conflicts by decree, on its own authority open the plants shut down by the lockouts, and by sending its own delegates to Siberia and the Donetz Basin guarantee coal and grain to the factories. The Petrograd conference of factory and shop committees devoted its attention to the agrarian question, and upon a report by Trotsky drew up a manifesto to the peasants: The proletariat feels itself to be not only a special class, but also the leader of the people.

The All-Russian conference of factory and shop committees, meeting during the second half of October, raised the question of workers’ control to the position of a national problem: “The workers are more interested than the owners in the correct and uninterrupted operation of the plants.” Workers’ control “is in the interest of the whole country and ought to be supported by the revolutionary peasantry and the revolutionary army.” This resolution, opening the door to a new economic order, was adopted by the representatives of all the industrial enterprises of Russia with only five votes opposing and nine abstaining from the vote. The few individual abstainers were old Mensheviks no longer able to follow their own party, but still lacking courage to raise their bands openly for the Bolshevik revolution, Tomorrow they will do it.

The democratic municipal governments, only recently created, were dying away along with the organs of the governmental power. The most important tasks, such as guaranteeing water, light, fuel and food to the cities, were all falling more and more upon the soviets and other workers’ organisations. The factory committee of the lighting station of Petrograd was rushing about the city and the surroundings hunting up at one time coal, at another grease for the turbines, and getting them both through committees of other plants acting in opposition to their owners and the administration.

No, the government of the soviets was not a chimera, an arbitrary construction, an invention of party theoreticians. It grew up irresistibly from below, from the breakdown of industry, the impotence of the possessors, the needs of the masses.

The soviets had in actual fact become a government. For the workers, soldiers and peasants there remained no other road. No time left to argue and speculate about a Soviet government: it had to be realised.

At the first congress of the soviets, in June, it had been decided to call the congress every three months. The Central Executive Committee, however, had not only failed to call the second conference on time, but had shown a disposition not to call it at all, in order to avoid confronting a hostile majority. The chief task of the Democratic Conference had been to crowd out the soviets, replacing them with organs of the “democracy.” But that had not been so easy. The soviets did not intend to make way for anybody.

On September 21, at the close of the Democratic Conference, the Petrograd Soviet raised its voice for the prompt calling of a congress of the soviets. A resolution in this sense was adopted upon the report of Trotsky and a guest from Moscow, Bukharin, formally based on the necessity of getting ready for “a new wave of counter-revolution.” Their plan for a defensive which should lay down the road to the coming offensive relied upon the soviets as the sole organisations capable of making the struggle. The resolution demanded that the soviets strengthen their position among the masses. Where the de facto power is already in their hands, they are in no case to let it slip. The revolutionary committees created in the Kornilov days must remain ready for action. “In order to unite and co-ordinate the action of all the soviets in their struggle with the advancing danger, and in order to decide problems of organisation of the revolutionary power, the immediate calling of a congress of the soviets is necessary.” Thus a resolution on self-defence brings us right up to the necessity of overthrowing the government. The agitation will be conducted on this political keynote from now straight on to the moment of insurrection.

The delegates from the soviets to the Democratic Conference raised the question of a Soviet Congress before the central Executive Committee the next day. The Bolsheviks demanded that the Congress be called within two weeks, and proposed, or rather threatened, to create for this purpose a special body resting on the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. In reality they preferred to have the Congress called by the old Central Executive Committee. This would obviate quarrels about the juridical rights of the congress, and make it possible to overthrow the Compromisers with their own co-operation. The semi-camouflaged threat of the Bolsheviks was effective. Not yet risking a break with Soviet legality, the leaders of the Central Executive Committee declared that they would entrust to nobody the fulfilment of their duties. The Congress was called for October 20 – within less than a month.

The provincial delegates had no more than departed, however, when the leaders of the Central Executive Committee suddenly opened their eyes to the fact that the Congress would be untimely – it would withdraw local party workers from the electoral campaign, and thus do harm to the Constituent Assembly. Their real fear was that the Congress would prove a mighty pretender to the power, but about this they kept a diplomatic silence. On the 26th of September Dan made haste to introduce into the bureau of the Central Executive Committee, without bothering about the necessary preparation, a proposal to postpone the Congress.

With the elementary principles of democracy these patent medicine democrats were least of all concerned. They had just got through quashing the resolution of a Democratic conference, which they themselves had summoned, rejecting a coalition with the Kadets. And now they revealed their sovereign contempt for the soviets, beginning with the Petrograd Soviet upon whose shoulders they had been lifted into their seats. After all, how could they, without abandoning their league with the bourgeoisie, pay any attention to the hopes and demands of those tens of millions of workers, soldiers and peasants who stood for the soviets?

Trotsky answered the proposal of Dan by stating that the Congress would be called just the same, if not constitutionally, then by revolutionary means. The usually so submissive bureau refused this time to follow along the road of a Soviet coup d’état. But this little defeat was far from compelling the conspirators to lay down their arms. On the contrary it seemed to egg them on. Dan found an influential support in the military section of the Central Executive Committee, which decided to “query” the organisations of the front as to whether they should carry out a decision twice adopted by the highest Soviet body. In the interval the compromise press opened a campaign against the Congress. In this the Social Revolutionaries were particularly furious. “Shall a congress be summoned or not?” wrote Dyelo Naroda. “It can have nothing to say in solution of the question of power ... The government of Kerensky will not submit in any case.” To what will it not submit? asked Lenin. “To the power of the soviets, to the power of the workers and peasants, which Dyelo Naroda, in order to keep up with the pogrom-makers and anti-Semites, the monarchists and Kadets, calls the power of Trotsky and Lenin.”

The peasant Executive Committee, in its turn, declared this calling of the Congress “dangerous and undesirable.” A confusion of ill-will thus prevailed in the Soviet upper-circles. Delegates of the compromise parties travelling over the country mobilised the local organisations against a congress which had been officially called by the supreme Soviet body. The official organ of the Central Executive Committee printed from day to day resolutions against the Congress adopted at the bidding of the leading Compromisers, inspired entirely by the old March ghosts – wearing, to be sure, very imposing names. Izvestia buried the soviets in a leading article, declaring them temporary barricades which should be removed as soon as the Constituent Assembly crowns the “edifice of the new structure.”

The Bolsheviks least of all were caught napping by this agitation against the Congress. On the 24th of September the Central Committee of the party, without banking upon any action by the Central Executive Committee, had decided to set in motion from below, through the local soviets and organisations of the front, a campaign for the Congress. The Bolsheviks delegated Sverdlov to sit in the Central Executive Committee’s official commission on the calling – or rather the sabotage – of the Congress. Under his leadership the local organisations of the party were mobilised, and through them also the soviets. On the 27th all the revolutionary institutions of Reval demanded that the Pre-Parliament be immediately dissolved, and a conference of the soviets for the formation of a government immediately called; they moreover solemnly promised to support it “with all the forces and instrumentalities to be found in the fortress.” Many local soviets, beginning with the districts of Moscow, proposed that the function of summoning the Congress be withdrawn from the hands of the disloyal Central Executive Committee. Against the resolutions of the army committees opposing the Congress demands for its convocation flowed in from battalions, regiments, corps and local garrisons. “The Congress of Soviets must seize the power and stop at nothing,” says a mass meeting of soldiers in Kyshtin in the Urals. The soldiers of Novgorod province summoned the peasants to take part in the Congress, and pay no attention to the resolution of the peasants’ Executive Committee. Provincial soviets, county soviets – these, too, in the farthest corners of the country – factories, mines, regiments, dreadnoughts, destroyers, war hospitals, meetings, an automobile detachment in Petrograd, an ambulance squad in Moscow – all were demanding the removal of the government and the transfer of power to the soviets.

Not content with this agitational campaign, the Bolsheviks created an important organisational base by calling a congress of the soviets of the northern region consisting of 150 delegates from 23 points. That was a well-calculated blow! The Central Executive Committee under the leadership of its great masters in small affairs declared this northern congress a private conference. The handful of Menshevik delegates refused to take part in the work of the Congress, remaining only “for purposes of information.” As though that could diminish by a tittle the significance of a congress in which were represented the soviets of Petrograd and its suburbs, Moscow, Kronstadt, Helsingfors, and Reval – that is to say, both capitals, the naval fortresses, the Baltic fleet and the garrisons surrounding Petrograd. The Congress, opened by Antonov – to whom a military tint was being intentionally given – took place under the presidency of Ensign Krylenko, the best agitator of the party at the front, the future Bolshevik commander-in-chief. At the centre of the political report, made by Trotsky, stood the question of the new attempt of the government to remove the revolutionary regiments from Petrograd: The Congress will not permit “the disarming of Petrograd and strangling the Soviet.” The question of the Petrograd garrison is an element in the fundamental problem of power. “The whole people is voting for the Bolsheviks; the people are trusting us and authorising us to seize the power.” The resolution proposed by Trotsky read: “The hour has come when the question of the central government ... can be decided only by a resolute and unanimous coming-out of all the soviets.” This almost undisguised summons to insurrection was adopted by all votes with three abstaining.

Lashevich urged the other soviets to follow Petrograd’s example and get control of the local garrisons. The Lettish delegate, Peterson, promised forty thousand Lettish sharp-shooters for the defence of the Congress of Soviets. This announcement of Peterson, rapturously greeted, was no empty phrase. Only a few days later the Soviet of the Lettish regiments announced:

“Only a popular insurrection ... will make possible the transfer of power to the soviets.” On the 13th the radio stations of the warships broadcast throughout the whole country the summons of the Northern Congress to prepare for an All-Russian Congress of Soviets. “Soldiers, sailors, peasants, workers! It is your duty to overcome all obstacles.”

The Central Committee of the party suggested to the Bolshevik delegates of the Northern Congress that in view of the approaching Congress of the Soviets they should not leave Petrograd. Individual delegates, at the direction of a bureau elected by the Congress, went to the army organisations and the local soviets to make reports – in other words, to prepare the province for insurrection. The Central Executive Committee saw a powerful apparatus grown up beside itself, resting upon Petrograd and Moscow, conversing with the country through the radio stations on the dreadnoughts, and ready at any moment to replace the decrepit supreme Soviet organ in the matter of summoning the Congress. Petty organisational tricks could be of no help to the Compromisers here.

The struggle for and against the Congress gave the last impulse in the localities to the Bolshevisation of the soviets. In a number of backward provinces, Smolensk for example, the Bolsheviks, either alone or together with the Left Social Revolutionaries, got their first majority only during this campaign for the Congress or during the election of delegates to it. Even in the Siberian congress of the soviets the Bolsheviks succeeded in the middle of October in creating with the Left Social Revolutionaries a permanent majority which easily placed its imprint upon the local soviets. On the 15th the Soviet of Kiev, by 159 votes against 28, with 3 abstaining, recognised the coming Congress of Soviets as “the sovereign organ of power.” On the 16th the Congress of Soviets of the north-western region at Minsk – that is, in the centre of the Western front – declared the calling of the Congress unpostponable. On the 18th the Petrograd Soviet held elections for the coming Congress; 443 votes were cast for the Bolshevik list (Trotsky, Kamenev, Volodarsky, Yurenev and Lashevich); for the Social Revolutionaries, 162 – these all Left Social Revolutionaries, tending toward the Bolsheviks; for the Mensheviks 44. Under the presidency of Krestinsky a congress of the soviets of the Urals, where 80 out of the 110 delegates were Bolsheviks, demanded in the name of 223,900 organised workers and soldiers that the Congress of Soviets be called at the appointed date. On the same day, the 19th, an All-Russian conference of factory and shop committees, the most direct and indubitable representation of the proletariat in the whole country, came out for an immediate transfer of power to the soviets. On the 20th Ivanovo-Voznesensk declared all the soviets of the provinces to be “in a state of open and ruthless struggle against the Provisional Government,” and summoned them to solve independently the industrial and administrative problems of their localities. Against this resolution, which meant the overthrow of local governmental authorities, only one voice was raised, with one abstaining. On the 22nd, the Bolshevik press published a new list of 56 organisations demanding a transfer of power to the soviets. These were all composed of the authentic masses of the people, and to a considerable degree armed masses.

This all-powerful muster-roll of the detachments of the coming revolution did not prevent Dan from reporting to the bureau of the Central Executive Committee that out of 917 existing Soviet organisations, only 50 had responded with an agreement to send delegates, and these had done so “without any enthusiasm.” It is easy enough to understand that those few soviets who still considered it necessary to report their feelings to the Central Executive Committee regarded the Congress without enthusiasm. An overwhelming majority of the local soviets and the army committees had simply ignored the Central Executive Committee altogether.

Although they had exposed and compromised themselves with these efforts to sabotage the Congress, the Compromisers did not dare carry the work through to the end. When it became utterly obvious that they could not avoid a congress, they made an abrupt about-face and summoned all the local organisations to elect delegates to the Congress in order not to give the Bolsheviks a majority. Having waked up to the situation too late, however, the Central Executive Committee found itself obliged only two or three days before the appointed date to postpone the Congress to October 25.

Thanks to this last manoeuvre of the Compromisers, the February régime, and bourgeois society along with it, received an unexpected period of grace – from which, however, it was no longer capable of deriving any substantial benefits. The Bolsheviks, moreover, employed these five supplementary days to great advantage. The enemy acknowledged this later on. “The postponement of the coming-out,” says Miliukov, “was made use of by the Bolsheviks, first of all to reinforce their position among the Petrograd workers and soldiers. Trotsky appeared at meetings in the various units of the Petrograd garrison. The mood created by him is exemplified in the fact that in the Semenovsky regiment the members of the Executive Committee appearing after him, Skobelev and Gotz, were not allowed to speak.”

This turning of the Semenovsky regiment, whose name had been written in letters of ill omen in the history of the revolution, had a kind of symbolic significance. In December 1905, it was the Semenovtsi who did the chief work of crushing the insurrection in Moscow. The commander of the regiment, General Min, gave the order: “Take no prisoners.” On the Moscow-Golutvino railroad section the Semenovtsi shot 150 workers and clerks. General Min, flattered by the czar for his heroic deed, was killed in the autumn of 1906 by a Social Revolutionary woman, Konopliannikova. Tangled up in these old traditions the Semenovsky regiment had held its ground longer than the majority of the units of the guard. Its reputation for “reliability” was so strong, that in spite of the doleful failure of Skobelev and Gotz, the government stubbornly continued to count upon the Semenovtsi right up to the day of the insurrection and even after it.

The question of the Congress of the Soviets remained the central political question throughout the five weeks dividing the Democratic Conference from the October insurrection. At the Conference itself the declaration of the Bolsheviks had proclaimed the coming Congress of the Soviets the sovereign organ of the country. “Only such decisions and proposals of the present Conference ... can find their way to realisation as are ratified by the All-Russian Congress of Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Deputies.” The resolution favouring a boycott of the Pre-Parliament, supported by one-half of the members of the Central Committee against the other half, declared: “We place the question of our party’s participation in the Pre-Parliament in direct dependence upon those measures which the All-Russian Congress of Soviets shall take to create a revolutionary government.” This appeal to the Congress of Soviets runs through all the Bolshevik documents of this period almost without exception.

With the peasant war kindling, the national movements growing bitter, the breakdown going deeper, the front disintegrating, the government unravelling, the soviets were becoming the sole support of the creative forces. Every question turned into a question about the power, and the problem of power led straight to the Congress of Soviets. This Congress must give the answer to all questions, among them the question of the Constituent Assembly.

Not one party had yet withdrawn the slogan of the Constituent Assembly, and this included the Bolsheviks. But almost unnoticeably in the course of the events of the revolution, this chief democratic slogan, which had for a decade and a half tinged with its colour the heroic struggle of the masses, had grown pale and faded out, had somehow been ground between millstones, had become an empty shell, a form naked of content, a tradition and not a prospect. There was nothing mysterious in this process. The development of the revolution had reached the point of a direct battle for power between the two basic classes of society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. A Constituent Assembly could give nothing either to the one or the other. The petty bourgeoisie of the town and country could play only an auxiliary and secondary rôle in this conflict. They were in any case incapable of seizing the power themselves. If the preceding months had proved anything, they had proved that. Nevertheless in a Constituent Assembly the petty bourgeoisie might still win – and they actually did win as it turned out – a majority, And to what end? Only to the end of not knowing what to do with it. This reveals the bankruptcy of formal democracy in a deep historic crisis. It reveals the strength of tradition, however, that even on the eve of the last battle neither camp had yet renounced the name of the Constituent Assembly. But as a matter of fact the bourgeoisie had appealed from the Constituent Assembly to Kornilov, and the Bolshevisks to the Congress of Soviets.

It may be confidently assumed that rather wide sections of the people, and even certain small strata of the Bolshevik Party, nourished certain constitutional illusions of their own in regard to the Congress of Soviets – that is, they associated with it the idea of an automatic and painless transfer of power from the hands of the Coalition to the hands of the Soviet. In reality it would be necessary to take the power by force; it was impossible to do this by voting. Only an armed insurrection could decide the question.

However, of all the illusions which accompany as an inevitable premise every great popular movement, even the most realistic, this illusion of a Soviet “parliamentarism” was in all the combined circumstances the least dangerous. The soviets were in reality struggling for the power; they were continually more and more relying upon armed force; they were becoming governments in the localities; they were winning their own congress in a fight. Thus there remained but little place for constitutional illusions, and what few survived were washed away in the process of the struggle.

In co-ordinating the revolutionary efforts of the workers and soldiers of the whole country, giving them a single goal, giving them unity of aim and a single date for action, the slogan of the Soviet Congress, at the same time made it possible to screen the semi-conspirative, semi-public preparation of an insurrection with continual appeals to the legal representation of the workers, soldiers and peasants. Having thus promoted the assembling of forces for the revolution, the Congress of Soviets was afterward to sanction its results and give the new government a form irreproachable in the eyes of the people.


1. Trotsky. – Trans.

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Last updated on: 1 February 2018