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Mike Haynes

Was There a Parliamentary Alternative
in Russia in 1917?

(September 1997)

From International Socialism 2:76, September 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Was the Russian Revolution a mistake? Eighty years on the answer would appear to be yes, not simply for the right but for the victims of the Soviet regime and for its erstwhile supporters in the West. The historian Eric Hobsbawm describes October as a ‘freak result of war’. For another penitential ex-Communist it was ‘a mistake of truly historic proportions’. But this view depends on two other arguments. The first is that there was a basic continuity between 1917 and what came later. Far from betraying the revolution, as Trotsky claimed, Stalin and his successors in some sense fulfilled it. When the regimes that were created in Eastern Europe by the Red Army after 1945 collapsed and when the Soviet Union itself collapsed in 1991, they therefore carried away with them the whole of the past back to 1917. The second argument is that there was another choice in 1917 – that the Bolsheviks and their supporters were wrong to take power as they did and they therefore have primary responsibility for what came after.

Since the first argument is extensively treated elsewhere, our concern here will be with the second one – the rewriting of 1917 itself. Our argument is that the Russian Revolution was an attempt to escape from the bloodiest war that capitalism had yet produced, a war which was creating internal crises everywhere, and which in Russia demanded radical solutions. This war, a product of capitalism at its most barbaric, created a polarisation in Russian society. Workers could either go forward or risk being crushed by chaos and counter-revolution in a way that was subsequently to happen many times in the 20th century. In striking out to overthrow capitalism in Russia the Bolsheviks refused to become ‘heroic failures’. Their hope of success, however, depended not only on themselves but on whether the revolution could spread, enabling the Russian Revolution to break out of its isolation. In the event, despite coming close, the hope of a wider revolution was defeated and the revolutionaries in Russia were left isolated. For this isolation the socialist leadership in the West must take primary responsibility for had they taken their opportunities then the result might have been different.

But rather than rehearse familiar arguments to support this analysis, our aim here will be to consider the revolution from another angle and ask why it was that a credible bourgeois democratic alternative could not emerge? Instead of looking at the revolution from the bottom up, from the perspective of the workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors who formed the mass movement, we can explore it from the top down and ask what imperatives led the different sections of the ruling class to act the way they did and what the choices were from their perspective? [1] Only at the end will we return to the agenda of the revolution from below to ask a different question. Why, with clear evidence of support for a soviet-based socialist coalition government without the bourgeoisie, the two other leading socialist parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks (and the Menshevik Internationalists), not only refused to support the Bolsheviks but effectively abandoned many of their own supporters in favour of a fruitless attempt to hold out a hand to Russia’s ruling class over a now unbridgeable gap. While this decision has won them renewed plaudits from those hostile to the Bolsheviks in 1917 we shall argue that it contributed to the very situation they wished to avoid, namely a weakening of the broad front of the popular movement. Contrary to the many historians who see the Bolsheviks as the only dynamic force after October 1917, the policies that emerged in the first months of the revolution must in part be understood in the context of the action and inaction of this part of the left.

Pre-Revolutionary Russia

Within the space of a single article it is impossible to review the complex debate on Russian development before 1914 as well as do justice to 1917 itself. We will therefore content ourselves with making three points about how Russian development should be analysed. Firstly, development in Russia was not an autonomous process. It occurred in the context of the deepening and widening of the capitalist system which increasingly tied Russia to the world economy through economic, social, political and military links.

Secondly, this process of capitalist integration created in Russia, as it created elsewhere, structures of uneven and combined development. Development was uneven in that different areas of the country, sectors of the economy and sections of society developed at different speeds. Some, at times, showed little sign of change or even moved absolutely backwards. But this does not mean that we can simple counterpose the new to the old, the modern to the traditional, the changing to the unchanging. Development was combined in that these forms fed off one another and helped in some ways to mutually reinforce the unevenness of change. A simple but telling example is the link between agriculture and industry. The backward nature of Russian agriculture meant that there was limited demand for agricultural equipment. This held back the development of the Russian agricultural machinery industry in the face of limited demand and foreign competition. Native businessmen in this industry therefore campaigned for protective tariffs and pursued monopolistic practices which kept prices up and so helped to perpetuate the backwardness of the countryside. It was this type of interaction, occurring not only in the economy but across society, that Trotsky was trying to address with his famous concept of ‘uneven and combined development’.

Thirdly, when the revolution came it did so in the midst of a world war that was itself a product of the competitive tensions within the wider capitalist system of which Russia was a leading great power. Unless the war is seen as a product of miscalculation or some autonomous political process then both it and Russia’s part in it must be seen as expressions of the wider contradictory dynamics of capitalism at the start of the 20th century.

Though in one sense these three points might appear straightforward they nevertheless go against the grain of much recent writing on the origins of the revolution in Russia. This has tended to look at Russia’s links to the wider world as an afterthought, is obsessed by the contrasts between the apparent domination of tradition and the few ‘islands’ of modernity, and introduces the war as an external factor or one which emerges detached from any basis in capitalism in general and Russian capitalism in particular. [2]

By themselves, of course, our three arguments present no more than points of departure for a more detailed analysis of Tsarist Russia that we cannot follow through here. In Russia before 1986 it was common to paint a one-sided and gloomy picture of Tsarist development. Now many have gone to the opposite extreme and see it as a golden age. [3] Since we are primarily interested in the way that the contradictions established before 1914 had an impact in 1917 we will simply draw attention to three more empirical observations about the pattern of development.

Firstly, Tsarist Russia was developing and changing – there was considerable absolute progress without which it is impossible to understand how the revolution became possible. Secondly, this growth was not sufficient to close the relative gap that existed between the Russian economy and those of more advanced capitalism. Despite periods of good growth, the long run growth rate of the Russian economy was not high enough to allow it to close the gap. Whereas in 1870 Russian per capita income was roughly 34 percent of the UK level, by 1910 it was 32 percent – a performance markedly inferior to much of the rest of eastern Europe. [4] Thirdly, although the result of the 1905 Revolution was some political and agrarian reform which it has been argued began to move Russia towards a more liberal democratic path, this argument failed to convince people before 1914. ‘No one at the time seriously believed that the autocracy was liberalising,’ says a recent historian. [5] Nor has it convinced those who have looked in detail at the patterns of constitutional change, and change in agriculture and the wider economy.

It does not follow from this, however, that we should then agree with those accounts which place so much stress on the extent to which the class structure reflected the continuing weight of tradition that they reject the idea that Tsarist Russia was capitalist. Instead such historians call it feudal or semi-feudal or, like Richard Pipes, define it as a ‘patrimonial society’ or put it in some other special category – anything which weakens the claim that revolution in 1917 was directed against capitalism. [6]

Such arguments start from two correct observations. The first was well put by the economist and historian Peter Struve, then a Marxist, in the 1890s, that ‘the further to the east one goes in Europe, the weaker in politics, the more cowardly, and the baser becomes the bourgeoisie’. [7] Relative economic backwardness meant that a socially weak bourgeoisie had to contest for power with a strong ‘old order’. The second was that as Russian society advanced much of it did indeed display an outer shell of tradition. In particular society was formally divided into social estates (soslovie) such as those of ‘noble’, ‘merchant’, ‘peasant’ which looked back to society as it existed in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The only national census held in Tsarist Russia used this formal classification, measuring only in a distorted way the real class divisions that were emerging in Russian society at the of the century. [8] Similarly the state administration was divided into uniformed grades, each divided by status, decorations and titles to such an extent that the civil servant obsessed with his position became a stock figure in Russian literature. But we must beware two mistaken developments from these two points.

The first is judging the development of Russia or any other society against some ideal model of ‘bourgeois development’ – an ideal which has never been able to occur anywhere. The bourgeoisie ‘betraying its historical mission’ has become such a staple of liberal and left wing historical writing that this idea has become a real hindrance to understanding. It detracts from analysing what actually happened in favour of speculation about ‘what should have happened’. The second mistake is then to fail to take into account the variety of forms through which the rule of capital can be expressed. Whereas socialism must depend on the political and economic rule of a self conscious working class for it to have any meaning, the rule of capital is founded at the economic level. It operates more or less effectively through a wide variety of social and political structures. The task of historical analysis is therefore to tease out the ways and extent to which this is taking place. [9]

In fact our knowledge of the complex real history of the ruling class is remarkably sketchy. Too often even its broad contours remain vague. Just as there has been a tendency to reduce the working class to the factory workers and miners (the famous 3.5 million of 1917) ignoring those in transport and distribution, building, small scale production, domestic service, agricultural labour, and seasonal work, as well as the families they had, so too the discussion of the ruling class has tended to reduce it to the study of a few groups. Here we can only alert readers to the danger of this as space will force us too to focus on the broad components of class structure.

Much attention has been paid to the way in which the influence of the industrial bourgeoisie was fractured before 1914. [10] A part of Russian industry was owned by foreign capital. In St Petersburg modern banks and engineering firms dependent on state orders had to a degree come to terms with Tsarism. In Moscow and the Central Industrial Region a textile based bourgeoisie was freeing itself of the traditions of the past and speaking with more independence. So too were businessmen in the south who were based around the mining and iron and steel and in the south west around the sugar industry. But although there was some coming together based on the growing concentration of production and distribution, a question mark still hung over the vigour with which the bourgeoisie could influence the process of change. The liberal theorist and politician Miliukov famously said that it was the professional groups in the zemstvo and urban intelligentsia who ‘filled the anaemic body of Russian liberalism with red blood [and] gave it at the same time a more advanced and democratic character’. [11]

But a modern bourgeoisie was becoming more articulate and assertive, especially as the economy boomed in the last years before the war. In the Novoe utro, the journal of the ‘progressive business class’, one of their supporters could say just before the war:

Our New Year’s toast is raised in honour of the bourgeoisie, the Third Estate of contemporary Russia: to this force which is gaining strength and growing mightily, which thanks to the spiritual and material riches inhering in it, has left far behind the degenerating nobility and the bureaucracy which controls the country’s destiny. [12]

We can appreciate this thrust better now as one of the side effects of the collapse of the Soviet regime has been to encourage the publication of studies of Russia’s lost private capitalists and millionaires.

However, three other pressures were drawing the different elements of the ruling class closer together even as they disputed for power. The first was the fear of revolt from below. The 1905 Revolution with its urban demonstrations, strikes, soviets, peasant led uprisings in the countryside, and mutinies in the navy quickly confirmed the worst fears not only of the established order but of many just below the top who would have liked to see power move towards them. They therefore began to see clear limits to how they should construct their struggle against Tsarism. As a result it was commonplace on parts of the left to argue that a future Russian revolution would not simply be a bourgeois revolution – even if few were prepared to go as far as Trotsky in his embryonic formulation of the theory of permanent revolution. Outside Russia too, observers like Karl Kautsky reinforced the view that there was a fatal divide between the popular movement and the forces wanting a more modern capitalist society. In his pamphlet The Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution he argued that:

At the present time the proletariat is no longer a mere appendage and tool of the bourgeoisie, as was the case during bourgeois revolutions, but is an independent class, with independent revolutionary aims. But where the proletariat comes out in this manner, the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class. The Russian bourgeoisie, in so far as it is liberal at all and pursues an independent class policy, undoubtedly hates absolutism, but it hates revolution still more ... And in so far as it wants political freedom it does so mainly because it regards it as the only means of putting an end to revolution. Thus, the bourgeoisie is not one of the driving forces of the present day revolutionary movement in Russia ... The proletariat and the peasantry alone have the firm community of interests during the whole period of the revolutionary struggle. And this is what must serve as the basis of the entire revolutionary tactics of Russian social democracy ... [13]

The second pressure pulling the ruling class together was a sense of its imperial mission within Russia. Great Russians made up only 43 percent of the empire’s population but their leaders ruled over an empire covering around one sixth of the world’s surface. This empire was the result of continual expansion over the centuries. However, in the 19th century pre-capitalist pressures to expand became overlaid by new economic interests and the development of a new sense of Russian ‘national identity’ as part of the ‘nation making process’ that was general in Europe at the time. No less in the constituent parts of the empire intellectuals began to develop programmes of ‘national independence’ which challenged the right of this ruling class to control the destinies of the populations they ruled. This challenge to the destiny of the empire began to bring the old Russia and the new Russia together. In particular those concerned with the economic future of Russia looked to the agriculture of the Ukraine, its coal, iron and steel, the oil of Baku, the cotton of central Asia, while railway and financial interests tied the economy closer together. Liberals were therefore in a dilemma. They opposed the oppressive policies of Tsarism against the national minorities, even to the extent of supporting some autonomy and minority rights, but they cast their arguments within the framework of the continued existence of a greater Russia. [14] Struve, speaking now for conservative liberalism, offered a bridge between the two groups, condemning Ukrainian separatism in particular for the way in which it threatened ‘a gigantic and unprecedented schism of the Russian nation, which, such is my deepest conviction, will result in veritable disaster for the state and for the people’. [15]

The third pressure derived from imperialism in the wider sense of a shared interest in ensuring that Russia maintained its position as a great power. Bismarck had said of Russia, ‘Let her go eastward. There she is a civilising force.’ His hope was that this would reduce tension in Europe and allow the unmolested expansion of German influence in central Europe. But whatever the attraction of exotic internal colonies, Russia’s rulers never had any doubt that Russia’s ‘really vital interests’ were in the west, the arena of the main battles with Germany, and for influence in the Balkans and Straits:

By circumstance, if not by choice, Russia’s rank as a Europe Great Power had come in the half-century that had preceded the downfall of the monarchy to depend primarily on her position and strength in the Balkan peninsula. That fact and not Pan-Slavic ideology or the dream of Constantinople dictated the Russian response in the supreme crisis of July 1914. [16]

We can no more cut imperialism out of Russian policy making than we could for any other great power in this period; it was, as its best historian puts it, ‘an integral part of the political system in imperial Russia’. [17] It was Struve who again set out the modern logic of Russian imperialism in this wider sense. To sustain itself as a world power Russia’s rulers needed external power but this required a powerful and modern internal state. [18] While this led him to argue for reform it also led him to challenge liberalism for being too hostile to the interests of ‘Great Russia’: ‘Russian liberalism will always doom itself to impotence until such time as it acknowledges itself to be Russian and national.’ In the end Struve felt that this union was never achieved but we can argue that the war and February Revolution went a long way towards realising just this link.

Indeed when European war came in 1914 Russia played a key role in the crisis, not only in a diplomatic sense but in the way that its conflict with Germany created part of the underlying tension from which the war emerged. In this case, as Norman Stone puts it, ‘it was, indeed, the economic “take-off” that men had been predicting for Russia, that ... in a sense, caused the First World War since German apprehension of it ... led Germany’s leaders into provoking a preventative war’. [19]

Caught between war and revolution

Everywhere throughout Europe war brought unity between the ruling class and much of the rest of society. In Russia the central committee of the Cadet party announced: ‘Whatever was our relationship to the internal policy of the government, our over-riding duty is to support the one and indivisible fatherland and to preserve its position as one of the great powers, which is now being challenged by the enemy we have. We set aside internal disputes, we will not give them even the slightest cause to hope that our differences will divide us’. [20]

Recent historical research has painted a more positive picture of the performance of the Tsarist armies but this is relative. [21] Everything that can be said about the horrors and strain of war on the Western Front can be said about the Eastern Front and worse. The physical conditions were often more difficult, the trenches shallower on the Russian side, their troops were more badly equipped (lacking not only munitions but even tin hats), the medical backup inadequate, the food supplies worse, and so on. Hindenburg, the German general, recorded how ‘sometimes in our battles with the Russians we had to remove the mounds of enemy corpses from before our trenches in order to get a clear field of fire against fresh assaulting waves.’ On one estimate in the first ten months of the war alone the Russian armies lost 300,000 men a month, dead, wounded or taken prisoner. [22] On average until the ceasefire in late 1917 Russia’s average monthly losses were around 40,000 dead, 120,000 wounded and 60,000 missing or taken prisoner.

The government proved quite unable to create the structure that could sustain this war effort. Into the gap came voluntary organisations headed by liberals but including leading industrial capitalists. The Union of Zemstvos headed by Prince G.E. L’vov played a crucial social role including caring for many of the wounded. Industrial production and war supplies were assisted by the creation of voluntary War Industry Committees. The central organisation was headed by the industrialist A.I. Guchkov; the Moscow organisation by Pavel Riabushinskii, that in Kiev by the sugar industrialist Mikhail Tereshchenko. Then on 25 August 1915 the Cadets and the Octobrists in the Duma joined with other groups to form the Progressive Bloc to bring pressure on the government to improve the war effort through co-operation with it.

The response of the Tsar and the government was to hold these organisations at arms length. As late as the winter of 1916–1917 the Tsar banned a Moscow conference of the zemstva, the role of the War Industries Committees was progressively restricted and on 17 December the Duma was suspended. Even the Tsar’s brother could lament as 1916 developed that at the top ‘there is no real power, not a shadow of any kind of programme, or desire to understand Russia’s actual situation and position in the present troubled days’. [23]

This threw the opposition into a quandary. It is important to understand that although there was a growing belief that the government had to be changed, this was quite different to a commitment to democratisation. In March 1916 Miliukov told the Duma, ‘I know that a revolution in Russia will definitely lead us to defeat. If I were told that organising Russia for victory meant organising for revolution I would say, “better leave her as she is, unorganised, for the duration of the war”.’ But as problems rose it became more difficult to hold this position and Miliukov was forced to make more outspoken attacks. What the leading Cadets wanted was what the newspaper Rech called in November 1916 a ‘dictatorship enjoying the confidence of the public’. [24]

But if the Tsarist government did not respond to the overtures of the opposition how could it be made to change its views? Guchkov expressed the difficulty well: ‘We are almost powerless to struggle with this evil. Our means of struggle is double edged and by encouraging the mood of the popular masses we might put a spark to the fire, the scale of which we can neither foresee or isolate’. [25] Even at the very top Rodzianko, the president of the State Duma, continued to restrain action until the very end. As one recent historian has put it, ‘Their aim was not to conduct a thorough social revolution in Russia but to prevent one from developing. They wanted to restructure the political and economic system to provide more opportunities for enterprise, capital and the market.’ In the end they waited so long that the matter was taken out of their hands. ‘The guilt, if we can speak of the historical guilt of Russian society,’ wrote Guchkov, ‘consists of this, that Russian society in the form of its leading circles has not been sufficiently aware of the need for this overturn and has not taken it into its own hands, but has allowed blind, elemental forces, moving without a definite plan, to complete this painful operation’. [26] But removing the monarchy proved more than a tidy piece of surgery; it redefined the whole political landscape in Russia.

The trauma of the February Revolution

On 23 February 1917 textile workers in Petrograd inaugurated a wave of strikes and demonstrations which grew daily with control slipping from the authorities. On 27 February the first troops in the city began to go over to the demonstrators and this continued on next day until, on 1 March , the majority of the garrison was in revolt. As news arrived at the military headquarters the now isolated Tsar decided to abdicate. But how would a new government emerge and with what mandate?

On 27 February Rodzianko still refused to allow the Duma to officially reconvene but he was prepared to allow an unofficial meeting which, since it was boycotted by the right, effectively became a meeting of the Progressive Bloc. This elected a Provisional Committee under Rodzianko who was quickly displaced by the Cadet leader Miliukov. At the same time the embryo of the Petrograd Soviet was created. For our purposes the detail of the internal conflicts in the Provisional Committee, between it and the Tsar and between it and the soviet, can be left to the side. Suffice it to say that key figures in the Provisional Committee were anxious to create some form of constitutional monarchy but were prevented from achieving this by more radical members of the Committee and the pressure of the soviet. [27] The soviet leadership saw the revolution as a bourgeois revolution and therefore had no desire to rule but they were determined to be rid of the Romanovs and to ensure that the Provisional Committee upheld a more democratic view of the revolution. The result was not only the abdication of the Tsar and his family but the creation of a Provisional government under Prince L’vov, the zemstvo leader, on 1 March with its composition being agreed with the soviet the next day.

The interesting question for us is the nature of the political structure that came out of this February Revolution and to understand this we need to appreciate the extent to which the revolution pulled the political spectrum to the left leaving the idea of ‘bourgeois democracy’ hanging in the air – precisely the scenario that the liberals had feared before 1917. Just how great this movement was can be seen in the symbols of 1917. The red flag flew everywhere, including over the Tauride Palace where both the Provisional government and the Petrograd Soviet met and over the Winter Palace when Kerensky took up residence there. The holidays institutionalised by the Provisional government were often socialist holidays – most notably May Day. The renaming of things began after February as a symbol of the new era. To be associated with the old order was to be disparaged and threatened and this applied as much to the idea of what was ‘bourgeois’ as what was ‘aristocratic’ or ‘Tsarist’. On 22 March Russkoe slovo lamented: ‘Bourgeois. It seems that this word, with its abusive meaning, occupies a position between “scoundrel” and “swine”, and its wide usage is explained, apparently, by its polemical convenience.’

We have therefore a paradox. The Provisional government, trying to stabilise a bourgeois democratic system, had problems in even giving this project its name. One contemporary summed it up as ‘the fashion for socialism’, ‘the general aspirations of a huge number of Russians to declare themselves, no matter what, to be socialists, to the amazement of foreigners.’ The socialist newspaper Vpered in its first issue noted ironically that ‘the yellow street press calls itself non-party socialist. The financial newspapers repaint themselves with the protective colour of ‘realistic socialism’, while the banks try to protect themselves by raising the red banner of revolution over their buildings.’

Alongside the more obvious revolutionary elements, the factory and soldiers committees, the soviets etc., this seismic shift in the political spectrum destabilised political parties and institutions that would normally be the basis of the consolidation of a new order. Even the church was affected. While sections of the hierarchy looked on in horror some turned towards moderate Christian socialism. Still others went further. Vvendenskii, one of the most radical of the clergy, saw no contradiction between Bolshevism and Christianity: ‘The struggle on behalf of the poor is the basic principle of socialism, and it is our own Christian struggle.’ With these views he was elected to the Petrograd Soviet to represent the ‘democratic clergy’. The Orthodox Church even created a special ‘Committee on Bolshevism in the Church’ as it tried to puzzle out how to deal with the phenomenon. [28]

This created an embarrassing political problem for both the Provisional government and for those who later claimed that the October events represented the imposition of an illegitimate government over a legitimate one. What was the basis of legitimacy of the Provisional government? At one level this produced an apparently bizarre discussion of constitutional theory. More widely, it reflected the ambiguous political legitimacy that the Provisional government had both in respect of the mass of the population and the existing institutions of the state. [29] There was general agreement that a proper constitutional basis of power had to derive from a Constituent Assembly which would create the new constitutional and state structure of a democratic Russia. But until the Constituent Assembly met and deliberated, on what basis could the Provisional government claim to legitimately rule?

There were three possible answers. The most dangerous was that given by Miliukov in a moment of frustration when he stood outside the Tauride Palace on 2 March and someone shouted from the crowd, ‘Who elected you?’, his reply was ‘We were chosen by the Russian Revolution’. [30] But if the Provisional government was chosen by the ‘revolution’ then what was to stop the ‘revolution’ getting rid of the Provisional government? Such an idea implicitly thrust the government into the hands of the street, legitimising the role of the soviets and endorsing those leaders who were only too ready to stress the degree to which the Provisional government needed them. Steklov, then editor of the newspaper of the Petrograd Soviet and a member of the Contact Commission set up to liaise between the soviet and the Provisional government, delighted in taunting ministers: ‘You must remember that we have only to wish it, and at once you will no longer exist, since you have no independent importance and authority’. [31]

The second solution was to argue that the authority of the Provisional government derived from the old Tsarist Duma. There were, however, two obvious difficulties with this – the first was that the Duma was elected on a narrow basis, entirely unrepresentative of the country. [32] The second was that the Tsar had prorogued the Duma on 27 February in the midst of the crisis. Technically therefore the Duma was not in session to make any decisions at all. The problem was more than a technical one. In the French Revolution the Third Estate resisted the king and declared itself in permanent session gaining the initial stature to turn the Estates General into a National Assembly in the summer of 1789. In Russia the Duma and its leaders meekly obeyed the Tsar’s ruling, committing ‘suicide’, as Miliukov put it, ‘without protest’. [33]

This left the third possibility, that the Provisional government might claim legitimacy from the Tsar. Yet constitutionally and politically this was no less satisfactory although in a technical sense this is exactly what happened. The best legal minds of the Cadet Party struggled to make sense of this and to give it an appearance of authority. The difficulty was that in abdicating the Tsar should have allowed the throne to pass to his son under a regent. But, fearing for his son’s health and future, he abdicated for him too – something which constitutionally he had no power to do. [34] The throne then ‘passed’ to the Tsar’s brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail, who in turn ‘abdicated’. Mikhail did not want to be thought of as having accepted the title of Emperor even for a moment. But the Cadet constitutionalists prevailed on him to ‘formally’ pass on his ‘authority’ to the Provisional government to give it some sense of legitimacy. Even Kerensky went along with this pretence of a transfer of power, pretentiously telling the Grand Duke that ‘we will carry the precious vessel of your authority to the Constituent Assembly without spilling a single drop’. [35] The constitutional importance of this was, as Nol’de and Nabokov (the two key authors of the constitutional fiction) put it, that the ‘act of 3 March was in essence the only constitution during the period of existence of the Provisional government’. [36]

Yet it remained impossible to bind the February Revolution in these constitutional limits. [37] What was necessary was for the Provisional government to maintain a popular base. One way of doing this was to include representatives from below – this was the attraction of the appointment of Kerensky. Shingarov, defending Kerensky’s appointment to the first Provisional government, argued, ‘we must detach from the revolution one of its leaders ... Of them Kerensky is the only one... Much better to have him with you than against you’. [38] Another was to keep confidence by reform. Russia quickly became, as Lenin happily recognised, the freest country in the world. The Provisional government was a reforming government supporting a Constituent Assembly based on universal suffrage; universal suffrage in local elections implemented in 1917; the abolition of racial and religious discrimination; freedom for religion; freedom of speech and assembly; the right to strike; soldiers to be citizens in uniform. But there were limits to how far it could go. Russia remained a class society in which the political possibilities were structured by the conflicting interests of those at the top and those at the bottom of society. The programme of the Provisional government therefore ‘was a charter of democratic freedoms, not a programme for the transformation of society’. [39] It was the failure to hold the line at such a charter that would lead to Russia being split apart. To see how this happened we need to explore why it was so difficult for liberal democracy to find a mass base in 1917.

The missing base of bourgeois democracy

To understand the difficulties of creating a stable party political system that might be the agency of capitalist rule it is necessary to explore the pattern of party support in 1917 in some detail. One aspect of this was the initial fragmentation of the party structure. This is not unusual in new democracies but it nevertheless complicated the task of creating a stable political base with more than 100 parties contesting for power. [40] But within this mass of organisations there were half a dozen which were significant on a national scale. Three were on the centre right, the Trade Industrialists, the Union of House Owners, and the Cadets. In 1917, however, it was the Cadets who were the main capitalist party. Cadet ideologists had tried to maintain that it was a liberal supra-class party which could speak ‘for Russia’.

Now, in the post-February period, the more conservative Nationalist and Octobrist parties were marginalised by the swing to the left and the Cadets became the home for the centre right. Symptomatic was the decision of the conservative Prince Trubetskoi to join the party after a decade of attacking it for failing to protect the interest of property. Leading figures worked closely with key industrialists like Alexander Konovalov and Mikhail Tereshchenko, with the All Russian Union of Trade and Industry, and with Pavel Riabushinski and Sergei Tretiakov even though some key figures in business continued to dislike the way in which the party looked more positively on state industry and agrarian reform than they did. But the party was increasingly able to draw pro-landlord and pro-business support around it because it was seen as the only viable party for the articulation of the interests of property within the democratic party spectrum.

Within the party the balance of power began to tip away from the left which had been more sympathetic to reform and building links with popular democracy towards a centre right position. ‘The party’, says Rosenberg, ‘was...increasingly regarded by left and right alike as the political core of bourgeois Russia’. The dominance of the centre right was reflected in its capacity to defeat the left by a two to one majority on key issues and then in the effective marginalisation of the more radical Nekrasov and the left. As Kerensky put it, the Cadets now ‘organised all the political and social forces of the country representing the interests of the propertied classes, the high command, the remnants of the old bureaucracy, and even fragments of the aristocracy’. [41]

The debate on what the vote for the Constituent Assembly represented for the left depends crucially on whether the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) vote is seen as support for the right and centre SR position of opposition to revolution or for left SR support for revolution and we will take this up later. Here we are interested in another aspect of the results. Table 1 shows that in the elections for the Constituent Assembly in November 1917 the Cadets and others managed to get only 6–7 percent of the vote with a mere 17 representatives out of 700. This in no sense represented a decline in the party’s influence – in some respects it was as strong, or stronger at this point than it had been earlier precisely because it was now seen as the alternative on the centre right. It had a membership of some 100,000 and the best financial base of the major parties. Moreover it was undoubtedly the best organised national party in conventional terms. During 1917 it had local organisations throughout Russia that could stand its slate in 80 percent of Russian towns. [42] Why then was the Cadet Party and the centre right more generally so weak in terms of the votes it could attract?





of seats

All-Russian Socialist parties

Socialist Revolutionaries





Left Socialist Revolutionaries








Other socialist



All-Russian Non-Socialist parties











Christian (various)


Major Ukrainian Parties and Joint lists

Uk Socialist Revolutionaries





Uk Socialist bloc







Other nationalist








The underlying reason was that Russian business and landed circles had not been able to establish a mass base as they had in the west where they could draw on a growing middle class, a property owning peasantry and a body of working class conservatives to bolster their otherwise small numbers. In the countryside the numbers of landowners, even with their families and hangers on, was small and even if we accept the dubious estimates that there were some 2 million rich peasants and assume that they would be attracted to the centre right that still leaves a very small base. The situation was better in the towns but even here there were problems both in respect of the size of the potential social base and the lack of a tradition of mobilisation of it or indeed a capacity to mobilise it in the direction of the centre right. [44] This problem was then compounded by the radicalising effect of the revolution which pulled the political spectrum even further to the left – for example, in Petrograd even in the Vasilevsky Island district where most of the university was located and where the Cadets hoped to do especially well they managed to mobilise only 18 percent of the vote in the spring local elections.

Indeed the analysis of the general urban electoral performance of Cadets, Trade Industrialists and House Owners shows that everywhere they made up only a minority force. [45] As Rosenberg, the leading historian of the party, puts it, ‘Russia’s first elections of the revolutionary period showed the Cadets with a staggering loss of city influence and prestige in the two strongest areas of past support.’ In Petrograd, whereas they had got 61 percent of the votes for the first Duma after the 1905 revolution, in the May 1917 municipal elections they now got 22 percent. In the Moscow municipal elections they managed only 17 percent compared to 63 percent a decade earlier. ‘Socialists overwhelmed Cadets even in parts of the city that were heavily bourgeois.’ When later local provincial results came through they were just as bad. In Kursk and Samara where they had won every seat in the first Duma they had only 17 and 9 percent of the votes respectively. [46] The pattern of local urban voting reveals what Rosenberg calls ‘a remarkable fact ... the small success of right wing groups in almost all large towns ... in larger centres dumas fell almost entirely under socialist control.’ In fact, as Rosenberg shows, non-socialist party voting was inversely related to the size of town with the Cadets doing rather better in medium sized towns and the Trade Industrialists and House Owners doing better in the backwater towns of provincial Russia which were often no more than administrative and market centres. [47]

At no point in 1917, therefore, could unambiguously pro-capitalist parties have come anywhere near achieving a respectable minority vote in any electoral test. Their dilemma was echoed by Russkaya vedomosti in July: ‘The Cadet organisation has little influence in the present revolutionary moment of our history.’ Yet the Cadets were the driving force of the Provisional government. Thus we can say that the very possibility of the leading bourgeois democratic party surviving depended on its ability to limit democracy for fear that it would be swept away. As Rosenberg put it, ‘With their own limited national constituency, the Cadets themselves could never claim to rule on the basis of representative principles’. [48]

The Constituent Assembly

On 3 March the Provisional government announced the ‘immediate preparation ... on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret ballot’ for a Constituent Assembly ‘which will determine the form of government and the constitution of the country’. [49] But the lack of real commitment to the Constituent Assembly, especially on the right is often vastly underestimated. Even Kerensky from the outset accepted much of the argument for the delay in the Constituent Assembly. [50] But the most powerful resistance came from the Cadets. Despite the Provisional government’s proclamation, the very next day Miliukov told the French ambassador that he was trying to avoid the setting of any precise date for elections. Indeed a significant part of the Cadet leadership hoped that elections might be delayed until the end of the war. Behind the arguments of the Cadets was a twofold fear. The first was party political. Until the summer of 1917 the Cadets were transfixed not by the fear of a pro-Bolshevik vote but a massive pro-Socialist Revolutionary vote in the rural areas so that, as Kochan puts it, ‘it was a matter of political self-preservation for the Cadets to delay the elections.’ From the summer the threat became that of the even more radical Bolsheviks. [51]

This led on to the second fear that with minimal influence the Constituent Assembly would legitimate a radical social revolution in both town and country. Thus to maintain both the role of the party and to stabilise Russia it was necessary to delay the Constituent Assembly as long as possible. Maklakov, one of the founders of the Cadets, told the Duma in May that ‘Russia had received in the revolution more freedom than she could manage’, while the Cadet paper Svobodnyi narod argued that ‘the larger part of the dark masses of people simply are not able to understand the present meaning of freedom.’ To paraphrase Nabokov, instead of the Constituent Assembly being the basis for the creation of order, the creation of order had to be the basis of the Constituent Assembly. [52]

It is not surprising therefore that it took three weeks to announce the commission to decide the election procedures, that it then took two months for it to complete its nomination process only for it then to become bogged down in wrangling over whether the voting age should be 18, 20 or 21; whether deserters could vote; whether members of the Romanov family could vote, and so on. When the Provisional government announced on 14 June that elections would be held on 17 September it did so only as an explicit attempt to draw the teeth of the near half a million strong pro-Bolshevik demonstration in Petrograd on 18 June. Moreover it only did this despite the opposition of the electoral commission under its Cadet leader Kokoshkin. Miliukov and the Cadet leadership inside and outside of the election committee then tried to delay things further. Significantly Kokoshkin was replaced by Nabokov, another Cadet, who would ideally have liked the elections postponed until the end of the war and who had initially threatened, in the face of the September date, that the Cadets might boycott the Constituent Assembly. Success in further delaying the elections came after the July Days when part of the price that Miliukov was able to extract for Cadet participation in the second coalition was the postponement of the elections until 12 November, announced on 9 August (in the midst of the build up toward the failed Kornilov coup). Whether elections would have been held then and with what effect had the revolution not have taken place remains an open question.

The imperatives of war

Every account of 1917 stresses the extent to which the continued strain of war contributed more than anything else to the disintegration of Russian society. Chernov, the SR leader, told the first All-Russian Congress of Soviets that ‘the war is a great pump which sucks out the strength of the country. Here is the danger, and one all the greater because no one knows if the revolution can live through it.’ And looking back Kerensky would say that ‘it was precisely the war, and only the war ... with all its material and psychological consequences, that provoked the collapse of the democratic government’. [53] Why then did the Provisional government not simply cut its losses and leave the war or even try just to hold the front without engaging in serious military action? Was this the great missed opportunity of 1917? [54]

To argue in this way is to misunderstand completely what was at stake in the war effort and why the major part of the Russian ruling class remained committed to it until the bitter end. The Provisional government certainly would have been happy with a general peace but it did not falter in its commitment to the war. In this it had the whole-hearted support of the majority of those with power in Russian society. ‘A separate peace with Germany and Austria was rejected out of hand by every political group ... no matter how one sifts the evidence, a general peace appears to have been out of the question in 1917’. [55] As we have seen, participation in the war in 1914 was a direct expression of Russia’s imperial interests as a great power. This was then accentuated by the impact of the February Revolution which was ‘created by a high enthusiasm of patriotism which flatly refused any thought of the possibility of a separate peace’. [56]

Already early in 1917 the fear was that Russia’s problems were leading to it being marginalised in Allied discussions and therefore credibility needed to be restored by even greater efforts. If the point of the February Revolution was to create a more modern Russia then that had to be a ‘great power’ Russia. There could be and was argument over what this might mean but there was a widespread acceptance that a Russia that withdrew from the war would inevitably have to take second place to whoever won it. The worse case would be a German victory since German capitalism was the immediate threat, but a victory for the Allies without Russia might create as many difficulties in the longer run since it too would imply Russia’s subordination. And lest it be thought that this fear was unfounded we should recall that in 1918 when Russia’s old rulers were in exile but still hoping they might be restored, Clemenceau brutally dismissed their claims for ‘Russian’ influence in any post-war settlement: ‘Russia is a neutral country which has concluded a separate peace with our enemies. The friends of our enemies are our enemies’. [57]

Then there was the fact that the war was begun ostensibly in a ‘Slavonic cause’. Interest in this was heightened by the specific gains that might be made in the Balkans. In theory these were ‘guaranteed’ by the infamous secret treaties signed to carve up the weaker parts of Europe when the Allies won. In particular Russia would gain Constantinople and the Straits, Galicia, Bukovina, Turkish Armenia and parts of Persia. Rodichev told the seventh Congress of the Cadets, ‘Citizens, they say that these are the strivings of Russian imperialism and seizure. No! This is not seizure. It is the foundation of Russian independence.’ This line was echoed by Miliukov, ‘probably the strongest imperialist in the country’, suggested Arthur Ransome. According to Nabokov, Miliukov:

… was absolutely alien and hostile to the idea of peace without annexations and indemnities. He considered that it would be absurd and simply criminal of us to renounce the ‘greatest prize of the war’ (as Grey, the British foreign secretary, called Constantinople and the Straits) ... But, most importantly, he believed that this prize had not actually slipped from our grasp.

These arguments were not aberrations, they reflected what Geyer calls ‘the astonishing fixation which both Russian policy makers and the public showed for this region’. [58]

Pressure too came from the army. Leading officers were especially committed to these imperial ideals: ‘We reject the very idea that a Free Russia should be denied the free access to the Mediterranean which will ensure the economic well-being of the population, and we consider that the sole guarantee of such freedom of access would be either general disarmament, or, in default of that, military control over the Straits by Russia’, said a motion passed at the Congress of Officers in April 1917. [59] But beyond this the generals expected to fight. The aim was to go on the offensive two to three months after February. And if this did not have strategic military justification (and there was widespread belief that it did) then it certainly had justification in terms of morale. Alekseev, commander in chief at the time of the June offensive believed that only an offensive would restore morale. Kerensky echoed this view:

To say to an army in the midst of war that under no circumstances would it be compelled to fight is tantamount to transforming the troops into a meaningless mob, useless, restless, irritable and therefore capable of all sorts of excesses. For this reason, and to preserve the interior of the country from the grave wave of anarchy threatening the front, it was incumbent upon us...to make of it once more an army, ie to bring it back to the psychology of action, or of impending action. [60]

Thirdly there were the wider societal implications of any withdrawal from the war or effective suspension of it. There was concern in the army that peace might encourage further disintegration Even before he resigned as foreign minister, Miliukov told Nabokov, ‘Perhaps it is due to the war that everything here is somehow still holding together, and without the war everything would still collapse’. [61] Finally we should note that internally there was still optimism that the war was still winnable. This was especially the view at the centre of the Cadet Party. ‘Our party’s policy constantly strove to maintain this official optimism,’ wrote Nabokov. [62] American entry in particular strengthened this hope.

Beyond these internal factors was the way that Russia was tied to the wider international war effort of the Allies. In allied capitals the February Revolution was welcomed precisely because it seemed to promise more commitment to the war effort. ‘It must be remembered’ wrote The Times somewhat later, ‘that the Revolution – as a Russian movement – was intended to make the war efficient’. [63] The very fact that Russia might be the means of opening up the question of peace without complete victory provoked consternation. ‘It is difficult to imagine with what keen apprehension and often unconcealed irritation diplomatists in 1917 received our formula of a “democratic peace”,’ wrote Kerensky. [64] ‘If only we can keep them in line until the autumn perhaps some day they will be grateful to us at home,’ wrote the British ambassador of his role in keeping up pressure on the Provisional government. A British Labour and French Socialist delegation was even sent to keep up pressure. There has been much discussion of German subsidies to the Bolsheviks but there was another large, but less talked about, Allied flow of cash into the funds of defencist groups and parties. [65] Behind Allied demands that Russia should continue to play a leading role were both its role in the wider imperialist deals that were part of the war effort and the particular military logic of the time. The infamous June offensive, which crumbled after preliminary success and so helped the wider demoralisation of the army, had originally been planned in 1916 as part of a joint Western and Eastern Front attack on Germany. Indeed the Provisional government boasted to the Allies that it had prevented Russian exit from the war in spring 1917 and that ‘the greatest number of German divisions throughout the war was concentrated on the Russian front during the summer of 1917’. [66] Even as late as September 1917 Allied representatives and ambassadors continued to pressure the Provisional government, prepared to have in the background the threat that credits and loans might be affected if Russia withdrew.

Under pressure from the soviet the Provisional government was forced to make gestures towards a general peace. But it did so with no belief in what it was doing, happy to hide behind the Allies who, as Wade says, destroyed any peace possibilities with little resistance from their own socialists. [67] There were those at the top who did speculate that Russia had to be pulled out of the war but what is interesting is how little hearing they got. [68] Even Kerensky, who could appear quite radical criticising the war as a struggle for world mastery, grew more committed rather than less over time. After the July crisis his biographer notes that ‘never again did he call for a peace without annexations or contributions’. [69] In September and October, when ‘the plight of the troops went from unbearable to the unimaginable’, General Verkhovsky, the minister of war called not for a separate peace but a stronger initiative for a general peace and he was simply sent on sick leave, so wild did those at top still consider this idea. [70]

The battle for landed property

Maintaining Russia as a great imperial power would mean nothing if the ruling class could not retain control of its economic power and in 1917 this meant that the decisive battles were over land and industry. Yet in respect of land, the polarisation was already huge in the spring of 1917. Shingarev, the first Provisional government minister of agriculture, said in May that he was receiving 100 telegrams a day about the arbitrary rule of peasant committees and the threat to private land ownership. In that month too Read notes:

The first major congress representing the popular movement was the national Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies that met in Petrograd in early May. It had 1,115 delegates. Fourteen were Bolsheviks. Almost half were SRs. Its main action was to pass overwhelmingly a resolution on land that declared, ‘The right of private property in land is abolished forever ... Hired labour is not permitted’. [71]

Peasant attitudes are sometimes portrayed as irrational but the resentment of landlordism reflected in motions like this had grown up over the generations and was socialised into each new generation and reinforced by the poverty and oppression of everyday life that so many rural inhabitants experienced. Kirnosov, a peasant deputy in the first Duma, dismissed a landlord defence of property rights with the cutting comment that peasants well understood what was at stake: ‘We know your idea of property; my uncle [a serf] was exchanged for a greyhound.’ Observers in 1917 found the same bitterness when peasants were told to wait for the land: ‘My grandfather, my father and I paid so many taxes for our five dessyatins [13 acres] here, that the land could be quite covered with the money that we gave for it. My father and I were made to pay 36 roubles every year, and to get that money in the old days cost us plenty of sweat and blood’. [72]

Nothing less than the confiscation of the landlords’ land would satisfy the aspirations of the peasantry but this encountered several difficulties. An immediate one was that land redistribution might disrupt the war effort, but behind this were two other problems. One was that the landlords could hardly be expected to be enthusiastic (and they were not simply the aristocracy as the land sales had been going on apace since 1861). [73] The second was that much of the financial system rested on loans that were secured on land so that any confiscation threatened the wider stability of the economy. The Provisional government (and indeed in the past the Cadets) argued that it had nothing in principle against land redistribution provided it was supported by the Constituent Assembly and went through proper channels. However, a different agenda was clearly in place at the top of Russian society. [74] As critics on the left pointed out, the talk of the dangers of land confiscation, turmoil and disturbances in the villages, and financial instability all suggested that what was at stake was not respect for the Constituent Assembly but resistance to the confiscation of land itself. ‘This argument applies in general to the confiscation of land even if it were undertaken by the Constituent Assembly. It is advanced therefore by supporters of landowners and large scale capital who do not want any real change in the countryside, who want to consolidate the influence of the landowners and money lenders’. [75]

It is not surprising then to find Russia’s landowners organising increasingly vigorously throughout 1917 to oppose the revolution. The biggest landowners began to organise a pressure group. In 1905 the All-Russian Union of Landowners had been formed but this had withered with the decline of peasant unrest after 1907. Then in late 1916 there were attempts to create a new union, bringing together those with more than 50 dessyatins, to assist in the war effort. After the February Revolution this union became the organising force for the defence of landowners’ interests, joining with the Cadets to try to resist change in the countryside. District and province meetings were held and in May 1917 some 300 delegates from 31 provinces came together in Moscow for the Constituent Congress of the All-Russian Union of Landowners and Farmers. ‘Your property, your labours and your expenditures are in danger,’ wrote the secretary of the newly formed Council of the Congress. [76] Policies were clarified, not least by the effective alliance with the Cadets, to fight against any attempt to confiscate land worked by those owners who were developing their holdings. On 25 May a draft law was issued banning land sales pending the Constituent Assembly. The union attacked this as a violation of the rights of property, working with the banks who saw the draft law as a threat to the stability of financial markets which was underpinned by existing and potential land sales. As a result, to the dismay of many peasants, the law was effectively dropped. Then in the first week of July the union held its All-Russian Congress with 400 delegates, resolving that if landowners were to ‘fulfil their duty to the motherland and to hand over the harvest to it, then [the government] should categorically forbid land committees to take away land, equipment and livestock and to deprive them of labour’. When Chernov became minister of agriculture the union kept up a constant war of attrition against him. [77] Pressure from the landowners was also increased when the Assembly of Notables met in early August and this fed into the Kornilov revolt at the end of the month. The landowners’ union also intensified the attempt to use the courts to hold back the peasantry.

This brought direct conflict with the peasantry. ‘One can only be struck by the solidarity of [their] community,’ writes Read. The scale of peasant violence is a much debated issue but Read suggests that it may have been kept down due to the belief that finally the Constituent Assembly would deliver the land. [78] But one reflection of the success of the landowners can be seen in military actions the Provisional government was persuaded to take against the peasantry. Between May and June there were only 11, whereas in July and August 39 took place and in September and October there were 105 military actions along with arrests of up to 2,000 land committee members responsible, as the government and local authorities saw it, for going too far. Many of these were small but the rising scale was not lost on observers. Moreover in September they culminated in a major confrontation in Tambov where peasant hostility was such that the local landowners, local government and the national government were forced to compromise and back down, prefiguring the surge of peasant hostility and land redistribution that would follow the October Revolution.

The frontier of control in industry

But if the survival of bourgeois Russia meant the defence of land ownership then it depended even more on the control of industry. If the revolution was no more than a bourgeois revolution what rights and long term future did the factory committees and soviets have? Already in May Miliukov attacked radicalism, asking, ‘What reason is there for continuing the revolution?’ Skobelev, the Menshevik minister of labour, argued similarly at the end of May that ‘we find ourselves in the bourgeois stage of revolution. The transfer of enterprises into the hands of the people would not at the present time assist the revolution’. [79]

In fact the attitude of industrialists changed during 1917 as their position worsened. In the early days of the revolution the initiative in industrial circles passed to businessmen like A.I. Konovalov, a cotton entrepreneur and vice-chairman of the Moscow stock exchange, whose firms, said Miliukov, ‘were famous for the brilliant way in which they handled the labour question’. [80] With some other businessmen from the Moscow region Konovalov had aspired to more modern ‘European’ business and labour practices. This led him into conflict with the Tsarist government and industrialists in the Petrograd area who, he believed, too much favoured workplace and government repression of labour rather than the enlightened self interest of more positive workplace policies. After February he and like minded businessmen had a decisive sway. Pavel Riabushinskii could even describe the first Provisional government as ‘our regime’. [81] In the so called ‘honeymoon period’ of March and early April it looked possible to reconstruct labour relations by recognising unions, conceding the eight hour day and a large wage increase to take account of inflation, and establishing conciliation boards to deal with conflicts. Debates still existed over the wisdom of this programme and some industrialists were unhappy that the government should play a role in what they considered ‘their’ field, but there can be no doubt that there was considerable movement.

But the growing class contradictions of 1917 soon undercut this strategy and employers who, like workers, were organising apace in various associations soon began to swing in a more hostile direction. In opposition to the growing demands from below Konovalov, in Miliukov’s words, ‘preferred to resign on 18 May without even finding a replacement for himself. In vain he was urged to remain at his post ... This was the first answer from the “bourgeois” members of the [first] coalition to the unfeasible part of the coalition’s programme.’ By the summer of 1917 ‘pessimism, suspicion and intransigence had come to dominate the entrepreneurs’ dealings with the Provisional government, with their socialist partners in the cabinet and above all with the workers’. [82]

This was because the employers perceived a threat to stability, their profits and the very existence of their firms. During 1917 the economic crisis continued to develop. [83] Inflation soared as the Provisional government struggled to finance the war but found it difficult to raise taxes or get its loans taken up. Industrial production continued to be squeezed by the war. This helped to perpetuate a vicious circle where peasants were reluctant to sell grain to the towns which were producing little they wanted to buy. Attempts to fix prices and even early examples of grain requisitioning failed to alleviate the difficulties. The strain on transport grew too, further disrupting the distribution of food, raw materials and finished goods. In June 1917 a Conference on Defence Supplies was told that ‘the state of industry is catastrophic’. By August the Ministry of Supplies could say that the ‘country is faced with the grim spectre of famine’. [84]

The situation was made worse by the increasing expectations of workers and the fact that the indecisiveness of local and national government meant that industrialists could no longer confidently trust it as ‘theirs’. This was reinforced by the pattern of strikes which went down immediately after February but rose from April to the July crisis, declining in July but rising prior to the Kornilov coup, falling in early September as the coup was defeated and then rising again in late September to early October 1917. [85]

Much has been made by some social historians of the fact that when the workplace committees spoke of workers’ ‘kontrol’ the Russian term has a weaker meaning than ‘control’ in English, suggesting more the idea of supervision. But if the early demands of the factory committees for ‘kontrol’ were less radical than is sometimes imagined then the growing crisis forced a redefinition. As Smith puts it, ‘The policy of workers’ control of production was first and foremost an attempt by factory committees to stem the tide of industrial chaos’. [86] But to stem the tide the conception of ‘kontrol’ had to move closer and closer to that of ‘control’ in the English sense. [87] From the employers’ point of view this meant that their prerogatives were increasingly challenged as the frontier of control was pushed outwards by the factory committees and workers were radicalised by the crisis. In reply employers tried to draw the line, ‘We are now prepared to rebuff the attack on private property,’ said one. ‘You must defend yourselves by establishing an organisation that will establish unity.’ As Galili puts it, ‘In the post-July period the Moscow industrialists, both those led by Riabushinskii in the All-Russian Commercial-Industrial Union and those headed by Guzhon in the Moscow Society of Factory and Mill Owners, made confrontation their declared aim’. [88]

This switch in position by the most ‘progressive group’ is easily understandable in terms of not only their disappointment with the results of February but also the specific way in which the economic crisis affected them. The core of the early difficulties was in the textile industry of the central industrial region, especially the provinces of Moscow, Vladimir, Riazan, Kaluga and Kostroma. Here shortages of fuel and raw materials immensely complicated the problems of industrialists and caused plants to close. In the March-July period 133 plants shut in these provinces with an average of 530 workers each, making up 68 percent of recorded jobs lost. Overall 8 percent of cotton plants closed with 12 percent of the industry workforce and 30 percent of the silk workforce lost their employment. It was in August-September that the crisis hit the metal working industry harder. Until then only 91 of the plants that had closed had been in this sector with an average size of 120 workers. Now around a third of the 231 plants closing were in metal working with an average of over 300 workers each, making up some 55 percent of the incompletely reported workforce losses. Moreover the spiral was continuing downwards throughout 1917. In the Donets only 80 million poods of coal were mined in October when 52 million poods were needed for the railways alone. Industrial supplies were to be only one third of what was needed. [89]

As we shall see this led sections of the industrialists straight into the arms of Kornilov. Even after his coup failed the pressure remained to fight to push back the frontier of control. This accounts for the way in September that, to the consternation of those on the left who believed that some comprise with capital remained possible, even moderate groups of workers suddenly found themselves under pressure from the employers. [90]

Russia – one and indivisible

As we have seen, the concept of Russia ‘one and indivisible’ was a unifying force in the ruling class before 1914. Some liberals might have thought in terms of a ‘United States of Russia’ or looked admiringly at the supposed integration of the British Empire as alternatives to Tsarist oppression but they shared a concern to maintain the integrity of the Russian state. This was challenged in 1917 by left-leaning nationalist movements but, rather than make generous concessions, liberals tried to hold on to a larger Russia. The Cadet leadership was even prepared to do this though it antagonised its own members in areas like the Ukraine.

The one concession that was quickly made was the acceptance of independence for Poland. However, this was less radical than it appeared since Poland was under enemy occupation and if Germany was defeated and a new Polish state was created it would have to include parts of what were Germany and Austria. This could be to Russia’s advantage, as could the fact that Poland would be a large buffer state in central Europe. Beyond this there was resistance to change even amongst those who ostensibly supported claims for national self determination. Kerensky told the First Congress of Soviets, ‘Today I say only one thing – I recognise the rights of the Ukraine and Finland, but cannot agree to their separation until the Constituent Assembly of the Russian people has sanctioned it ’. [91] This argument was especially provocative in Finland where, when Nicholas abdicated as emperor of Russia he also abdicated as Grand Duke of Finland (a title he held separately). Power should therefore have reverted to the Finnish assembly. Moreover this assembly had, for the time, relatively impeccable democratic credentials, having been elected by universal suffrage. In addition deputies from Finland were not to be elected to the Constituent Assembly making nonsense of the argument for waiting for ‘self determination’.

Nevertheless when the Finnish Sejm voted for autonomy in July 1917 the Provisional government dissolved it. It did not take much to see another agenda at work here. Not the least of the problems was that granting Finnish independence might encourage other national groups to demand the same rights to self determination especially those in the Ukraine. Then it was argued that ‘Russia’s interests’ in the war had to have priority and Finland, where pro-German elements were powerful, might become a base for the enemy close to Petrograd. This was overlaid by the idea that fine words from the Provisional government should be taken at face value and could somehow dissipate the suspicion of Russian motives inculcated by Tsarist oppression, an idea which to the oppressed nationalities looked like great Russian chauvinism dressed up in democratic clothes.

The issue of the Ukraine was even more sensitive because it was so much more central to the idea of ‘Russia’. Moreover in the Constituent Assembly elections in the Ukraine over 70 percent voted for nationalist parties. This radicalisation reflected complex motives, and the conflict between the idea of ‘Russian’, ‘Ukrainian’ and other local identities versus the possibility of more internationalist ideas has recently received much attention. But while Russia’s new rulers were happy to implement some form of autonomy, what mattered above all in Moscow and Petrograd in 1917 was keeping the Ukraine in Russia. It was the Ukrainian issue that broke the first coalition of the Provisional government. On 10 June the Ukrainian Rada proclaimed the autonomy of the Ukraine and called for a national assembly. Members of the Provisional government agreed to recognise the Rada if nationalists reduced their demands until the Constituent Assembly met. But this was too much for the Cadets who saw separatism as German inspired and ‘yet another link in the German plan to break Russia up’. For Miliukov it represented ‘the chopping up of Russia under the slogan of self determination’. It was, as he says in his memoirs, the ‘betrayal of Russia’s interests’. While he recognised the need to make some gesture towards autonomy his attitude is reflected in his language: both the Finns and Ukrainians were ‘striving to take advantage of Russia’s troubles’ but whereas the Finns were ‘cautious and subtle’ the Ukrainian nationalists were ‘fanatics’. [92] As the Cadets left the Provisional government, Kerensky denounced them. ‘On the front, thousands are giving up their lives – and you here, you desert your posts and smash the government.’ But Miliukov and the Cadet leaders well understood both their support for the idea of ‘Russia’ and the politics of July. Once the insurgency of the workers in the capital in early July was defeated they were able to exercise a controlling influence over the new second coalition government whose Cadet ministers were ‘virtually hand-picked by Miliukov’. [93]

This attempt to hold the line against the claims of national self determination continued into the autumn. Even on the eve of October the minister of foreign affairs, Tereshchenko, who reputedly could not even pronounce the word Ukraine, was still denouncing the idea of independence for even the Baltic states as inconsistent with the position of Russia as a great power.

The Kornilov coup

All of these conflicts pointed to a fundamental choice in the summer of 1917 which Miliukov formulated as ‘Lenin or Kornilov’ – the general who attempted a coup. In reality the ‘coup’ that resulted was a disaster, a confused attempt to take power which collapsed without shots being fired in anger. But in the process it destroyed any remaining credit that the government, army high command and the political class had with the mass of the urban population. The hostile reaction to it caused a renewed national surge to the left whose main beneficiary was the Bolshevik Party. Controversy continues to rage over whether it was a coup at all and how serious a threat it presented. George Katkov denounces the idea that a coup was ever intended as a ‘lunatic theory’, a product of Kerensky’s fevered imagination. [94]

Such dismissals fail to engage with the tensions and uncertainties that afflict both left and right alike in revolutionary situations. No less than a revolutionary seizure of power, a coup from the right is a leap in the dark that cannot be meticulously planned. If it works then everything that happened was intended and a tribute to the foresight of the plotters. If it fails then the defence becomes it was never really intended, the coup organisers had misunderstood what was meant and so on. All of this is clearly apparent in the story of the Kornilov coup. Had it worked key sections of the Russian political class were ready to line up behind it as its ‘loyal supporters’. But when it failed they cashed in their insurance policies in an attempt to get themselves off the hook.

The attempted coup was the result of the coming together of two logics. The first was the concern of sections of the officer class in the army to impose order on the troops and to have a government that would support the military. [95] General Kornilov was appointed commander in chief of the Russian armies on 18 July to replace Brusilov who had lost the support of all sides. On the South Western Front Kornilov had adopted ‘an uncompromising stand towards the military committees’ in the army. By late June when the offensive of the Eighth Army brought some success he was convinced that ‘a firm statement from the commander coupled with determined action was necessary to arrest the army’s disintegration’. On the 7–8 July, now commander in chief on the South Western Front, to stop the retreat, he:

… at once demanded that the commanding officers take decisive measures against traitors and renegades, notifying them that I was assuming full responsibility for such action. I ordered that deserters and looters be shot, and that the bodies of those executed be displayed prominently at the roadsides, with appropriate inscriptions attached to them. [96]

Meetings at the front were banned and shock battalions of officer cadets were formed ‘to combat desertion, marauding and violence’. His elevation to commander in chief therefore was a clear political statement by the Provisional government, and Kornilov was just as anxious that they should understand his position. He immediately tried to impose three conditions. Rather than reject them the Provisional government fudged and conceded that he should be responsible to his conscience and the nation (ie not the government); that there should be no interference with his operational orders or appointments; and that measures applied at the front, including the death penalty, should also be applied to the army in the rear. [97] He then moved to try to insist on a more total militarisation of the whole war effort telling a conference at General Headquarters on 30 July, in words he recalled a month later, ‘We must have three armies: one fighting in the trenches, another workers’ army in the rear and another consisting of railwaymen.’ The implementation of this was a task for the Provisional government but ‘such armies should be governed by the same iron discipline as now at present enforced in the armies at the front’. [98]

The second logic arose from the wider class struggle and the coming together of sections of the ruling class around a more determined defence of capitalism. It was defeat of the partial uprising of the July Days in Petrograd that marked the change in climate. L’vov, though forced out of office in favour of Kerensky as prime minister, saw this clearly: ‘It is my firm conviction that our deep breach on the Lenin front has incomparably more importance for Russia than the breach made by the Germans on the South Western Front’. [99] This was reflected in the character of the new second coalition of the Provisional government. In the words of Miliukov, ‘With a slight preponderance of socialists, the actual preponderance in the cabinet unquestionably belonged to the convinced partisans of bourgeois democracy.’ To which Trotsky later famously added his comment that ‘it would be more accurate to say bourgeois property’. [100]

A succession of measures quickly followed as the atmosphere at the top of society grew more hostile to the revolution from below in all its forms. On 8 July the military regulations were tightened; the death penalty reintroduced on 12 July and a major meeting of the government and the generals took place on 16 July. In the countryside a public order decree of 6 July made it an offence to incite attacks on private property, on 8 July the government again insisted that land seizures were not allowable. By mid-July Chernov, the new and ostensibly more left wing minister of agriculture, was trying to define and limit the powers of land committees. In areas at the front under the control of the army, peasant demonstrations were banned. In industry too the turn was clear and by mid-August Skobolev, the Menshevik minister of labour, was trying, under pressure, to reduce the power the factory committees.

On 3 August at the Trade Industrialists Conference in Moscow Riabushinbski had insisted that ‘we ought to say...that the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution, that the bourgeois order which exists at present is inevitable, and since it is inevitable, one must draw the logical conclusion and insist that those who rule the state think in a bourgeois manner and act in a bourgeois manner ...’ This signal was understood not only by the left. For Rech, the Cadet paper, this was ‘an occasion where the bourgeoisie finally strikes back ...’ [101] At the Moscow State Conference (between 12–15 August) Kornilov spoke but, left it to General Denikin to represent what was been called ‘the authentic voice of the Russian generals’, and the polarisation became even clearer. Even the sceptical Katkov is forced to admit that:

One thing that was crystal clear to all present was that a gathering like this could never beget a new parliament, or indeed any other body representative of the whole nation, on which the government could rely. Not even the most innocently worded resolution could now be put to the vote without revealing the chasm that had opened up in Russian society. [102]

But the bourgeoisie was actually split on how to move forward. Already in the spring V.S. Zavoiko, a man with wide business links which stretched from Petrograd to the Baku oil industry, had helped to link together leading Petrograd industrialists and bankers as well as other interested parties like the publisher B.A. Suvorin. Zavoiko also helped to reinforce connections for this group with sections of the army. Related to them was the industrialist A.I. Putilov who established the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia. Their initial aim had been to produce conservative propaganda to limit the revolution and to support right wing candidates for the Constituent Assembly. But as the revolution developed perceptions began to change. The All-Russian Congress of Trade and Industry at the start of August, followed by the State Conference, both held in Moscow, allowed contacts to be developed. The exact story of the plotting and meetings remains disputed but it is clear that the liberal Moscow based businessmen, while growing increasingly hostile to the revolution, still wished to bide their time. This was the direction of Riabushinskii’s infamous speech at the Trade Congress from which the phrase ‘bony hand of hunger’ is often quoted out of context. What he actually said was:

Therefore, gentlemen, we have to wait – this catastrophe, this financial-economic failure, will be inevitable for Russia, if we are not already facing catastrophe, and when it becomes obvious to everybody only then will they feel that they have been taking the wrong road ... We feel that this is inevitable. But unfortunately it is necessary for the bony hand of hunger and poverty to grab the false friends of the people by the throat, the members of the committees and soviets, in order that they should understand this. [103]

However, the Petrograd group was much more active. Deriving from those sections of capital which had developed the closest links with Tsarism (including through military production) they more naturally looked to the army for support after February and now saw in Kornilov a way forward. They were supported in this by wider sections of the upper classes fearing for their future and seeing him as a potential saviour. Individuals wrote to him urging action. ‘Letters’, he said, ‘came flooding in from all over the country describing acts of violence perpetrated against landowners and a complete breakdown in every sector of national life’. [104] The Cadet party began to debate what position it should take. Throughout July and August it had moved further to the right. Although the Cadets were a secular party it was even beginning to make its peace with the Orthodox Church whose leadership were anxious about their future role in Russia. Tyrkova, on the right of the party, told the Cadet leadership on 20 August that the Cadets ‘must support a dictator even more than Kerensky; there is no other way, only through blood.’ Miliukov, said his fellow Cadet Maklakov, treated the possibility of a coup as ‘an accomplished fact’ and therefore the only issue was ‘to find the right attitude to take towards it’. To this end Miliukov was happy to allow Kornilov to believe that he had his active support whereas he was in fact trying to have a foot in both camps in case Kornilov failed. According to General Denikin, Maklakov told him at the time, ‘Tell General Kornilov that we are all of us inciting him to act, Miliukov especially. In fact nobody is going to support General Kornilov – they are all going to watch from the sidelines’. [105]

What was happening was clearly sensed by sections of the popular movement. As Read puts it:

From the ordinary soldiers’ and sailors’ point of view... the new conjuncture was clear. The authorities were on the offensive in the army and navy just as they were in the factories and villages. The period from July to August saw the most concerted effort of the whole revolutionary period to slow down and even control the popular movement. [106]

Tension rose throughout August. On 20 August Riga fell to the Germans and then news arrived that a major munitions supply dump in Kazan had exploded with the loss of a million shells and 12,000 machine guns. The officer class was further antagonised by the news that troops had murdered General Hirschfeld and a prominent political commissar, Linde. What happened next is still surrounded in confusion. Essentially, it appears that at some stage the pretext of a Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd (some officers even had to be dissuaded from creating a riot to simulate this) would be used as the justification for sending troops into the capital. At the last moment Kerensky, having either by his complicity or weakness done nothing to stop the build up to decisive action by Kornilov, saw a chance to denounce him and remove his challenge and, he hoped, restore his declining credibility with the popular base of the revolution. By turning on Kornilov at the key moment he may have unwittingly saved the revolution but his desperate gamble failed not least because no fighting took place to back up his own account of his stand against the general. Instead General Alekseev successfully mediated with Kornilov as his troops faded away under the impact of the denunciation of Kornilov’s actions and the propaganda of the rapidly mobilised workforce of Petrograd. Without the glory of a whiff of ‘grapeshot’ to bolster him Kerensky suddenly found his own actions exposed to the glare of publicity and humiliation. He had temporarily removed a challenge from the army but was himself now in an even weaker position in terms of public support.

Political choices post-Kornilov

A revolutionary crisis, it has been said, is a moment of truth when the divisions in a society are exposed and a political choice stands starkly before the contesting classes. We have already argued that far from the policy of the Provisional government being a series of ‘mistakes’, what happened between February and August reflected the way in which the interests of the ruling class conflicted with those of the popular movement without ‘bourgeois democracy’ offering the possibility of a solution. The Kornilov coup was a response on the part of sections of the ruling class to this dilemma. When it failed, the initiative, at least for the moment, passed to the left but the underlying problems that divided society remained unresolved. Indeed the pressure grew worse in September and October making the political response of the parties concerned the supreme question.

In our understanding of this, however, we encounter something of a paradox. In one sense we are better informed of the dynamics of the popular movement in the final revolutionary crisis than ever before. This is a result of the mass of fine work produced in the West in the last two decades. But much of this work has come from social historians who have been so concerned with the popular movement that they have dangerously devalued the political choices made in late 1917. This has had a number of unfortunate consequences. Two are crucial here. The first is the devaluation of what we can call ‘the party political choice’ – the understanding of the way in which the political, policy and organisational strengths and weaknesses of parties were ruthlessly tested in the crisis. The second devaluation can be seen in the ‘sociologism’ of the analysis of the popular movement (and especially the factory workers) where the swing to support the Bolsheviks is almost presented as a gut response to crisis rather than an expression of a conscious political choice between competing political alternatives.

This failure to build a properly political dimension into the understanding of the crisis has left the analysis of many of these ‘social historians’ of the revolution vulnerable. Faced with the resurgence of a more conservative approach to the revolution many have beaten a hasty retreat rather than refine their work. The result is what we can call a ‘Menshevik’ approach to the ‘moment of truth’ in October. On the left the term Menshevik has so often been used as a term of abuse that we hesitate to use it here lest it be misunderstood as simple pejorative labelling. But the term is the correct one in two senses. Firstly some historians, most notably Vladimir Brovkin, openly identify with the Menshevik case in developing a critique of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Secondly, the wider discussion echoes the basic Menshevik claim that the Bolsheviks took advantage of a temporarily favourable conjunction to take power in such a way that they could not hope to maintain their popular base for more than a short time. They would therefore be forced to rule over it, rather than with it. In some cases this weakness in the understanding of the political in the autumn of 1917 is then reinforced by another historiographical retreat in the form of a lurch towards postmodernism. If political choices are constructed at the level of language and ‘discourse’ then the clarity of the moment of truth at the top is diminished – it is not so much a creation of objective circumstances as the ‘ideological prism’ through which the situation is understood. Equally the swing to the left at the bottom becomes even less an expression of a politicised consciousness and more a response constructed from distorted symbolism and a language of conflict and violence. [107]

In order therefore to conclude our discussion of why ‘bourgeois democracy’ failed in 1917 we must first address the issue of the ‘party political choice’ in the autumn before dealing more briefly with the nature of the choices made in the popular movement.

The crisis intensifies

In the wake of the Kornilov coup the second Provisional government coalition fell apart as Cadet ministers were discredited and resigned. Kerensky desperately tried to form a ‘third coalition’ but the question was now whether the bourgeoisie and the Cadets had not so harmed themselves as to be completely untrustworthy partners. This question was made more pointed still by the fact that although the balance of power had swung to the left nothing else had changed – there was still conflict over democracy, the war, land, the factories and the empire – all splitting Russia apart. Kerensky therefore formed a five man ‘directory’ on 1 September to run the government while a new coalition was put together, which took until 25 September. [108]

The weeks of the directory and then the final month of the third coalition saw the further crumbling of authority of the government which vacillated erratically as it clung to power. Ignoring the argument that no fundamental changes could be made without the Constituent Assembly, Kerensky tried to improve his standing by declaring Russia a republic on 5 September. This outraged the Cadets who argued that he had no authority for the move. The Senate – which had survived from the pre-February days, declared against the move until, on 6 October, Kerensky dissolved it and the old state Duma (which had continued to have meetings since February although without a formal role). [109] On the other hand, the government kept up pressure on the peasants and outraged many on the left by declaring martial law in Tashkent. As September progressed into October Kerensky began to look towards a confrontation believing that he could smash a Bolshevik uprising. He told Nabokov, ‘I would be prepared to offer prayers to produce this uprising ... I have greater forces than necessary. They will be utterly crushed’. [110]

To try to get some base for the government the executives of the urban and rural Congresses of Soviets, in conjunction with Kerensky, called an All-Russian Democratic Conference from 14-22 September. The 1,582 delegates (including 532 SRs, 172 Mensheviks, 136 Bolsheviks and 55 Trudoviks) were immediately paralysed by the question of whether there could be a coalition with the bourgeoisie in general and the Cadets in particular. [111] Before the conference closed it elected the so called Pre-Parliament or Provisional Council of the Republic which eventually met on 7 October. Having helped to call these bodies into existence Kerensky refused to submit the Provisional government to them on the grounds that it was the supreme repository of state power until the Constituent Assembly met and therefore responsible to itself. The Cadets even objected to the title since Russia had not been legally made a republic in their eyes. The same polarisation again emerged. As Galili puts it, ‘Census Russia again seemed bent on a strategy of confrontation’. [112] The Bolsheviks therefore boycotted the Pre-Parliament, followed by the Petrograd Soviet. They also brought considerable pressure on the reluctant Executive of the Soviets to call the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Despite their fears of the composition of such a Second Congress the existing Soviet Executive was forced to agree and on 23 September called the Second Congress for late October.

The confrontation evident at the political level continued also in the economy. Employers were now finding it hard to survive and it is difficult to distinguish between workers being dismissed because of difficulties in maintaining production and those dismissed because employers were getting out while they could. The Provisional government and the Soviet leadership again equivocated in their response. In Petrograd, for example, ‘the Putilovtsy faced the October Revolution with one third of their factory facing redundancy thrust upon them by their own supposed representatives in the Soviet and the Provisional government’. At the Fourth Congress of Factory Committees Skrypnik said ‘We are no longer standing in the ante-chamber of economic collapse; we have entered the zone of collapse itself’. [113]

Petrograd, located in the far north of Russia and dependent on supplies from the centre and the south, felt the crisis in an extreme way. Food was growing scarce. In the first days of October only 30 grain wagons arrived instead of the 500 needed to supply the city. ‘In Petrograd’, said a writer in Rabochii Put’ in mid-October, ‘there is no bread, meat, milk – least of all for the poor classes, for the workers and employees; though there is always sufficient quantity for the well-to-do strata of the population. All these goods are always available to the capitalists.’ Rationing became more widespread; when supplies diminished, rations were cut and even these then proved hard to deliver to the mass of the population.

The government’s response continued to falter and in trying to solve one problem it seemed to accentuate another. Trying to raise the price of grain, said a motion pushed through the Petrograd City Duma:

… is only advantageous to the owners of large grain stores ...; the greatest weight falls with scandalous unfairness on the urban poor and the needy strata of the peasantry. And therefore the City Duma, forced to raise a tax on bread [by putting up prices], disclaims all responsibility for this, placing it wholly on the policy of the Provisional government. [114]

In the popular movement it seemed that only the attempt to organise things from below was holding the line against chaos. ‘The organisation of workers’ control is a manifestation of the same healthy activity in the sphere of industrial production as are party organisations in the sphere of politics, trade unions in employment, co-operatives in the domain of consumption and literary clubs in the sphere of culture,’ said the First All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees, just prior to the revolution in October.

The working class has much more interest in the proper and uninterrupted operation of the factories...than the capitalist class. Workers’ control is a better security in this respect for the interests of modern society, of the whole people, than the arbitrary will of the owners, who are guided only by their selfish desire for material profits or political privileges. Therefore workers’ control is demanded by the proletariat not only in their own interest, but in the interests of the whole country, and should be supported by the revolutionary peasantry as well as the revolutionary army. [115]

At the political level this meant that a new government was needed that would end the compromises of the Provisional government in all its forms. As Leonard Schapiro put it, ‘Any objective and honest student of 1917 in Russia cannot fail to observe the fact that by September or October the majority of the articulate portions of the Russian population had rejected the leadership of the middle class parties, and stood for a soviet government composed of a coalition of all socialist parties represented in the soviets throughout the country’. [116] The question was now how would the left respond?

The Bolshevik response

It is commonplace to accuse the Bolsheviks of being opportunist in October 1917. But this charge fits ill with the evidence of intense debate between 1914 and 1917 on the nature of the crisis and its resolution within the party. If we are able to use hindsight to reformulate the argument that emerged with more sharpness, this does not alter the fact that the shift in ideas was far more impressive than that in any other group, left or right. The explanation for this, though hostile historians are loathe to admit it, is that the Bolshevik Party was both theoretically and politically more flexible than the rest of the left and had to travel less far in terms of its politics in 1917. Thus despite the debates within the Bolshevik Party the effect of the radicalisation in 1917 was to remake the party and drive it towards revolution, a quite different impact from that which it had on the rest of the left.

The starting point for Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and others was that they were living in a new and increasingly integrated world of imperialism in which the capacity for autonomous development was limited by the growing power of advanced capitalist states. These were prepared to supplement economic competition with military competition and, if necessary, war. This created two tendencies which worked to the advantage of socialism. One was a tendency to ever greater state control, what Bukharin called state capitalism, in which the ever growing units of private capital intermeshed with units of state capital and so made democratic socialist control a more realistic possibility. The second was the way the ever growing integration made it possible for workers in a state like Russia to be able to inaugurate what was a process of more general revolution – part of the basis of what Trotsky called permanent revolution. War accentuated these tendencies further. But the daily bloodshed on the Western and Eastern fronts as well as in the ‘sideshows’ also exemplified that the choice could be one between ‘socialism and barbarism’. Even if the war were brought quickly to a close, internal and external conflicts no less barbaric would emerge.

Within Russia the specific crisis had created the most militant working class in the world alongside a peasantry and army whose revolt was also growing by the day. It had also created democratic structures of committees and soviets the like of which the world had not seen before. Within these the Bolsheviks had been pushed to the fore:

We are on the threshold of a world proletarian revolution. And since of all the proletarian internationalists in all countries only we Russian Bolsheviks enjoy a measure of freedom – we have a legal party and a score or so of papers, we have the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals on our side, and we have the support of the majority of the people in a time of revolution – to us the saying, ‘To whom much has been given, of him much shall be required,’ in all justice can and must be applied.

Not to take this chance risked enormous dangers. The unprecedented scale and speed with which the crisis was still developing meant that either the revolution would succeed or the Tsarist empire would collapse in on itself or be held together by a second Kornilov revolt which would not only destroy the Bolsheviks but carry away the other parties of soviet democracy and its very institutions with them. ‘History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now’; ‘It is impossible to stand still in history in general, and in wartime in particular. We must either advance or retreat,’ Lenin kept insisting:

The complete disruption of Russia’s economic life has now reached a point where catastrophe is unavoidable, a catastrophe of such appalling dimensions that a number of essential industries will be brought to a standstill, the farmer will be prevented from conducting farming on the necessary scale, and the railway traffic will be interrupted with a consequent stoppage of grain deliveries to the industrial population and the cities involving millions of people. What is more, the breakdown has already started, and has affected various industries. [117]

These positions were not arrived at automatically. They involved debates that were if anything sharper than those in other left parties. In April the Bolshevik Party was divided, again in July, again in September-October over the issue of taking power and then again and again after October. These debates continued into the 1920s until they were finally crushed by emerging Stalinism. Far from Lenin dominating a monolith as both Stalinist and right wing historical writing in the West suggests, the party in 1917 was suffused with debate. Indeed we can stand the normal argument on its head and say that it was just because the party had both a focus on the popular movement and a vigorous tradition of sharp and serious debates that it was able to generate the clear positions that allowed it to function as well as it did. The contrast with its competitors could not be clearer.

The political failure of the SRs and the Mensheviks

It is possible to have an argument with the Bolshevik analysis but what is striking is the failure of both SR and Menshevik theorists to advance a counter-argument of any depth. Instead they remained stuck in an argument that had not advanced beyond the pre-war days. Both the main groups of SRs and the Mensheviks still operated with the more or less coherent idea that the revolution had to be a bourgeois one. [118] Yet by now they were also arguing that it was no longer possible to work with the bourgeoisie which had opposed the revolution and was looking to civil war. Equally, however, they rejected the idea of a socialist coalition which would include the Bolsheviks since this would alienate the bourgeoisie and risk throwing such a coalition government into the hands of the ‘extremists’. Instead they tried to occupy the middle ground supporting a coalition with the right socialists (with or without Kerensky). This produced a position which was theoretically and politically unworkable and this was clear both to the right and the left, and often to the SR and Menshevik leaderships themselves. One interpretation of this is that the Menshevik and SR leaders were afraid of taking power themselves. Lande later wrote that ‘lacking confidence in their own ability to govern, they found the theory of the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution a reassuring excuse’. [119] But this is too easy. Harding is much nearer the mark when he argues that the problem was not courage but politics and though his comment applies specifically to the Mensheviks it can be extended to the centre of the Socialist Revolutionaries:

None of the prominent theorists of Menshevism attempted to keep pace with, or offer substantial criticism of, the theoretical premisses which Bukharin and Lenin elaborated in the period 1914 to 1917. The Mensheviks remained rooted in the synthesis of 1905 (economic analysis – comparatively low development of Russian capitalism, derivative political practice – the realisation of the democratic revolution). In 1917 they bitterly criticised Lenin’s proposals for an advance to socialist practice but made little or no attempt to confront the theoretical basis from which this was derived. It was they who bucked the argument. [120]

It was Lenin who in 1917 ‘cut the knot’, as Fedor Dan put it. The Menshevik theorists Dan, Martov, etc., failing to cut the knot themselves, floundered between the idea of ‘bourgeois revolution’ and something beyond it; ‘Dan did not appeal to the traditional conception in its pristine purity. Too many holes had been punched in it by the Mensheviks’ own amendments, adjustments, and explanations of 1905 and 1917’. [121] Unable to disentangle themselves in any coherent way from the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ they continued to wriggle on the hook they had created for themselves.

From the right the Cadets hammered away at this inconsistency. By now the party had adopted what Rosenberg calls ‘a fully fledged civil war mentality’ and its leaders were anxious to draw lines. [122] Miliukov insisted that if the left genuinely believed that the revolution was bourgeois and could not go beyond a bourgeois stage then they had to follow the consequences and accept what Sukhanov had argued for after February, namely that they should allow the bourgeoisie ‘to stand at the head of that revolution and carry out their bourgeois affairs’. They argued that a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, over the opposition of the bourgeoisie, on the backs of a socialist coalition, was simply ‘unfeasible’ and the mess the attempt achieved vindicated this view. [123] In the Council of the Republic Nabokov and other Cadets made the same argument immediately insisting that the key issue was order and the fight against Bolshevism. As Nabokov saw it, ‘Our “leftist friends” were incorrigible, and...all our efforts to reach agreement and support for authority in its fight with anarchy and rebellion had almost gone to waste.’ Speaking to Dan and the Mensheviks, Nabokov and the Cadets argued that ‘your present attitude is again the old ambiguous, uncertain, “in so far as” kind of confidence which is no help whatever to the government and does not facilitate its task’. [124]

From the right of the Socialist Revolutionaries, Kerensky and the group around him made the same challenge to the centre of his party and the Mensheviks:

The Bolsheviks, Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries ... are for everything that causes anarchy, refuses to defend the country, or is against unity. Their front is one, and the devastation of Russia moves at a gigantic rate. And the other part of the democracy – the one that sits in session at the Alexandrovsky Theatre – its front united, and what does it intend to do? Does it seriously imagine that it is possible to support the Provisional government...and to continue to seek compromises with ... those who sow discord and hostility throughout the Republic, who repudiate at bottom what it asserts ...

Postresov, who led the right wing of Menshevism, denounced the refusal of a coalition with the bourgeoisie, saying this ‘is worse than Bolshevism. This is absurdity’. [125]

But how could you have a coalition with a bourgeoisie defending its class interests, wishing to see the popular movement suppressed and toying with counter-revolutionary generals? On what terms should support be given to a succession of ‘irresponsible’ governments which had failed to satisfy the popular agenda? Yet the revolution had to be ‘bourgeois democratic’. This produced a series of bizarre theoretical twists. The left had shifted since February from the position of allowing a bourgeois government to carry out bourgeois tasks; to participation of socialists in a bourgeois government to carry out bourgeois tasks; to opposition to a government of the bourgeoisie in favour of a socialist government which would limit itself to bourgeois democratic tasks. To support this it was now argued in the Menshevik Party that the bourgeoisie had failed so the initiative was passing over to a socialist led revolutionary democracy which could carry out the bourgeois revolution with the support of the ‘revolutionary’ petty bourgeoisie. This bizarre idea owed more to a desperate analogy with the French Revolution than a credible assessment of the situation in Russia in 1917 which, for all its weaknesses, one of the biggest industrial powers in the world. [126]

The problem was that the situation had changed but the analysis had not, so that, as Galili argues, whereas between February and July 1917 Menshevik ideas ‘made for several viable alternatives’ the period after July ‘was one of mounting hopelessness for the Mensheviks’. [127] The theoretical twists were complimented by political ones. By late September both the SR and Menshevik parties were formally supporting a ‘democratic coalition’, excluding Cadets, only to find that when Kerensky managed to form the third coalition (in negotiation with leading figures in these parties) it included Cadets and Mensheviks and SRs. Chernov, the most prominent centre SR now under pressure from the left, was outraged when the central committee of the party agreed to endorse the coalition. Amongst the Menshevik leadership an agonised debate took place as they too tried to distance themselves from what the Internationalists called their ‘non-representatives’ in the government while not going so far as to break all connection with it.

As the agonising continued Kerensky kept up the attack from the right in the Council of the Republic:

I believe (Kerensky addressed the Internationalists) that everyone at the present time must decide whether he is on the side of the republic, freedom and democracy, or against these. (Prolonged applause on all benches, with the exception of the Internationalists) And if there are people who believe that the truth is on the other side, then they must manfully take their place in those ranks, and not behave themselves as they do now. (Storm of applause from the right and centre; noise from the left)

’Noise from the left’ but no answer since Kerensky’s taunts again exposed from one side of the polarisation the indecision that the Bolsheviks exposed from the other. In turn Dan, one of the key leaders of the Mensheviks, argued that the Bolsheviks had ‘openly taken advantage of the real dissatisfaction among the broad masses whose needs have not been met’ because of the obstruction ‘by classes whose representatives are sitting on the right side’ but he then returned to the plaintive cry that the government should deliver a solution on peace (while being forced to recognise that the minister of foreign affairs ‘did not say a single word about raising the question of peace negotiations at the Allied Conference’) and land.

The collapse of SR and Menshevik support

With these political problems and inconsistencies it is not surprising to find that while Bolshevik support grew rapidly, support for the SRs and Mensheviks flooded away in the summer and autumn of 1917. The pattern of urban elections shows the Bolsheviks were a small minority but a growing one in provincial Russia throughout 1917. In the larger urban centres, however, they were a major presence. Nationally everyone recognised that their performance in Petrograd and Moscow was the litmus test. Both cities had two elections to their city dumas in 1917 and although turnout fell sharply in the second elections large numbers still voted. Rosenberg, the Western historian who has studied these elections most closely, suggests that absenteeism was as much caused by frustration with the lack of progress as apolitical apathy.



27–29 May

20 August


25 June

24 September









Minor non-socialist






Socialist bloc (mainly SR)
Socialist Revolutionaries







Minor socialist





























In Petrograd the second election took place on 20 August. It shows the recovery in Bolshevik strength after July before the Kornilov coup had occurred (indeed the likely result may have added to the case for action from the right). Table 2 clearly demonstrates the swing to the Bolsheviks away from, especially, the Mensheviks in Petrograd but also to some extent the Socialist Revolutionaries. Analysing the results the journal of the Union of Towns commented that:

The most striking fact of the elections is the colossal strengthening of the Bolsheviks. The mood in the social democratic masses of Petrograd is going to the left. In this connection the Petrograd elections only confirm those facts, already known to us earlier; the ousting of the Mensheviks by the Bolsheviks in the factory committees, in the district party organisations, the conquest of the trade unions by the Bolsheviks, the victories of Bolshevik-Internationalist resolutions [i.e. Bolshevik and left wing Menshevik] over Menshevik ones in the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies. [129]

Coming a month later the Moscow urban elections demonstrated the further radicalism produced by the Kornilov coup and the intensifying crisis. On the one hand, the Cadets’ relative position was strengthened as their absolute vote barely diminished. But on the left the Menshevik vote slumped relatively and fell absolutely from 81,000 to 16,000 – a fall of 80 percent. The Socialist Revolutionary vote collapsed even more spectacularly from 360,000 to 55,000 – an absolute fall of almost 85 percent. The Bolshevik vote by contrast rose from 12 to 51 percent and absolutely from 184,000 to 194,000. By continuing the analysis beyond October to include the results for the Constituent Assembly elections held in the November (based on a massive turnout) this basic pattern can be confirmed.

In the countryside too support was dissolving rapidly for the SRs, ‘while local militants in the uezd and guberniia peasant committees and soviets were still inclined to stick to the party line, the patience of the peasants themselves was running out and direct action coming to the fore ... The chiefs were allowing themselves to be transformed into the main prop of authority at the local level’. [130] Viewed in these terms the Constituent Assembly results were no fluke in being an overwhelming left vote with the Bolsheviks gaining 25 percent and a clear victory in the industrial areas and key fronts in the army – a result all the more impressive if the balance between the right SR and left SR vote is properly understood as we will try to show in a moment.









Left SR


Centre right


Centre right


3 June







25 October








10 January 1918









Thus the better known swing away from the SRs and Mensheviks in the soviets and factory committees was a reflection of a much wider trend clearly apparent in the local government elections in the two biggest cities. Since a discussion of the trend in the committees and soviets can easily be found elsewhere we will here simply draw attention to Table 3 which shows the changing position in the first three All-Russian Congresses of Soviets

Once again the swing to the Bolsheviks is evident. Secondly, the weakening appeal of both the SRs and the Mensheviks is clearly apparent reflecting what Read terms ‘their refusal to go along with their constituents’. [132] Thirdly, we can see that within these parties the centre right weakened, producing a much more even balance with the left in the delegates of the Mensheviks and SRs at the Second Congress. The left SRs formed a separate party after the Second Congress, ensuring their domination of SR support at the Third Congress. Behind these figures lay a complex process of division and weakening in both the SRs and the Mensheviks. If, as we have argued, the revolutionary upsurge remade the Bolshevik Party and pushed it towards revolution, its impact on the SRs and Mensheviks was the opposite – parts of the parties began to split and move towards counter-revolution while the mainstream equivocated before drifting into opposition.

The internal divisions and weakening of the SRs

As we have seen, the Socialist Revolutionaries were the biggest party on the left. Their initial success was based on the combination of an appeal to the towns with socialist demands and an appeal to the peasants based on support for their right to have the land. In the spring of 1917 this enabled the SRs to dwarf other parties with a membership of at least half a million and possibly many more, grouped in 60 province organisations as well as organisations in the army and fleet. By the summer membership may even have gone as high as a million as whole villages and army units joined up.

But the Socialist Revolutionaries were always loosely organised and disparate, divided by the war and then split wide apart in 1917 itself. Although to some extent an oversimplification, three tendencies resulted – a right, centre and left. The right was led by Kerensky, Breshkovskaya and Savinikov grouping politically around the paper Volia naroda. The centre, until the summer the dominant force, was led by Victor Chernov. But from the spring a left Socialist Revolutionary group developed, grouped around the Novy put and Znamya truda journals and led by Spiridonova, Natanson and Kamkov. The growing isolation of the right within the party was reflected in the way in June Kerensky was excluded from the central committee and, after the failure of the Kornilov coup, Savinikov was expelled. From the other side Chernov, removed from his position as minister of agriculture, in part as a concession to property owners, also felt free to attack the Provisional government and the right even more in September 1917.

But the main beneficiaries of this disillusion were not so much the centre as the left Socialist Revolutionaries. In September 1917 they won control of the Petrograd committee of the party and as popular support haemorrhaged the left looked set to gain control of the party as a whole in the autumn. What the left SRs lacked, however, was control of the party apparatus and when October came Chernov and the centre effectively sunk their differences with the right using their control of the party to oppose the taking of power and drive out the left SRs who, though they could not command the leading organs, clearly had a mass of support in the base of the party. When the left SRs decided to stay in the Second Congress of Soviets, the central committee of the party expelled the 79 who remained. Then on 11 November the Extraordinary Congress of Peasant Soviets met in Petrograd with some 195 left SR delegates against around 65 right and centre SRs. Even if there are doubts about particular mandates this shows the massive swing that had taken place.

This Congress too voted to support the revolution and the left SRs formed a party of their own on 24 November, joining the Bolsheviks to create a revolutionary coalition. When the full Second Congress of Peasant Deputies met on 26 November with roughly 350 Left SR delegates against some 300 centre and Right SRs (and around 90 Bolsheviks) Spiridonova, the leader of the Left SRs, defeated Chernov to be elected chair. He immediately took the Right and centre SRs out of the Congress to try to create a parallel body. Far from embodying a superior claim to ‘democracy’, the mainstream leadership of the SRs were only able to act as they did by manipulating their control of the party.

The elections for the Constituent Assembly merely enabled them to take this manipulation a step further. Although historians hostile to the revolution dwell on the fact that the SRs were the largest party, they neglect the absence of evidence that the position espoused by its leadership had real support beyond the top echelons. The SR electoral list had been drawn up before the full impact of the polarisation to the left outside and within the party. The list therefore gave an enormous preponderance to the Right and the centre to such an extent that when some 420 SRs were elected only around 40 of them were from the Left. As the analysis above should make clear, this in no sense represented the true balances of forces during the last days in which the SR party was united. But the SR leadership had no qualms about seizing this further opportunity to weaken the revolutionary front in favour of its failed policy of compromise.

When the Constituent Assembly was so casually disbanded its obvious lack of mass support exposed the SRs claim to have a mass popular base to legitimate their obstruction of the new government. The Constituent Assembly, with effective SR dominance, in its limited life refused to endorse the government’s policy on land, even though this was to all intents the historic policy of the SRs. This demonstrates the impasse to which the party had come and how Chernov and other centre left leaders had allowed it to be marginalised in their support of the chimera of some wider class compromise in 1917.

The internal divisions and weakening of the Mensheviks

Similar processes of division could be found within the smaller Menshevik Party in the summer and autumn. Figures of party membership remain uncertain partly because of the chaotic state of party organisations in 1917 and partly because in the peripheral areas Menshevik and Bolshevik groups sometimes remained united during 1917, occasionally splitting only after October. Miller suggests that a realistic evaluation of the comparative dynamics of Bolshevik and Menshevik membership shows the Bolsheviks with some 10,000 members in February rising to 40,000 by the time of their April conference and around 200,000 in the summer. By October he accepts the traditional figure of some 350,000 members. In comparison the Mensheviks grew much faster early on – to some 100,000 in April. A rough equality was reached in August with the Mensheviks having around 200,000 members but then in the remaining months they failed to grow any more. Their relative weakness was also reflected in their heavy dependence for members on areas like the Caucuses (around 50,000 members in Georgia alone) whereas the Bolsheviks dominated the industrial heartlands of Russia. The Mensheviks also had a weaker proportional working class base and drew fewer workers into positions of leadership. Whereas at the summer 1917 conference of the Bolshevik Party some 40 percent of delegates were workers, in the Menshevik conference the figure was closer to 20 percent. This was partly related to the party’s failure to focus to the same extent as the Bolsheviks, or in some instances the SRs, on working class issues. Many years ago, for example, Ward pointed out that coverage of the factory committee movement was better in the SR paper, Delo naroda, than Menshevik papers and the main Menshevik paper in Petrograd did not even discuss the May–June Factory Committee Conference in the city. [133]

The Mensheviks, like the SRs, had three main tendencies. On the right, led by Postresov, were those who had supported the war before and after February – the so called Defencists. These were few in number – at the Menshevik conference in August they had the support of only around 5 percent of delegates – but they were a powerful influence on those who participated in the Provisional government and those who supported participation. By August around 55 percent of members supported the centre – the so called Revolutionary Defencists, led by Mikhail Liber and Fedor Dan. Around 30 percent supported the party’s left wing (with another 10 percent supporting a United Social Democratic-Internationalist strand) amongst whom Martov was the leading figure although his personal influence in the party at large was much wider. Moreover it was in the ‘Bolshevik belt’ (as Larin described it in September 1917) of industrial Russia that the Menshevik Internationalist wing was the stronger part of the party reflecting the way that the base of the party was being pulled to the left. [134]

The Menshevik leadership’s difficulties presented an obvious problem. If they had the correct analysis why was the working class turning away from them? Their answer was crassly reductionist. Real class conscious workers, they argued, supported their more moderate position. Therefore those who did not support them could not be class conscious workers but were instead socially less stable groups including a mass of soldiers. Indeed Postresov had earlier prefigured this argument claiming that truly class conscious workers would have supported the war effort and working class opposition to the war was therefore a manifestation of its social dilution. Later Martov, who saw Postresov’s view as absurd, found himself caught up in the same reductionist logic on an even larger scale arguing that the post-war wave of radicalism across the Western world – ‘world Bolshevism’ was a reflection of a war-induced dilution of the Western working class including the influx of women untrained in the class struggle. [135]

The trouble was that even their own members felt this pressure in October. In Petrograd on 24 October, as the Mensheviks in Pre-Parliament had some last minute success in forcing it into a more oppositional stance to the Provisional government, they could not even call demonstrations to support their pressure on Kerensky least the demonstrators reflected Bolshevik ideas. [136]

The issue of power

When the third coalition government was announced on 25 September the Petrograd Soviet immediately passed a motion which read:

We, the workers and garrison of Petrograd will give no support whatsoever to a government of bourgeois omnipotence and counter-revolutionary coercion. We express our complete assurance that the news of the new government will meet with one answer alone from all the revolutionary democracy, ‘Resign!’ And, basing our actions on this unified voice of true democracy, the All- Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, will create a true revolutionary power. [137]

The prediction was correct. When the Second Congress convened, there were some 670 delegates from 400 soviets, including 300 Bolsheviks, some 200 SRs of whom around half were Left SRs and 33 Menshevik Internationalists. As the delegates began to convene they were asked their views on the question of power. Table 4 sets out the results.


For ‘All power to the soviets’



For ‘All power to democracy’


For a democratic coalition without Cadets


For a democratic coalition with the Cadets


Thus only 79 delegates were prepared to consider a coalition with the bourgeoisie and only 58 with the only serious bourgeois party.

It can be argued, therefore, that had the Bolsheviks not played the role they did in October in pushing for a decisive response to what was seen as the continuing hesitations of the Provisional government, there would still have been a push for power from below. On the Military Revolutionary Committee, for example, although the Bolsheviks played a leading role they had only 53 out of some 80 members and the remaining 27 were by no means less militant.

In fact, as we know with hindsight, the seizure of power in Petrograd on 24–25 October was easy because the Provisional government no longer had support. ‘When a power was not defended by those who organised it – was it needed?’ asked Malyantovich, the last minister of justice in the Provisional government. [139] The Second Congress of Soviets met on 25 October, after revolutionary workers, troops and Red Guards had seized the key centres of power in Petrograd. But with the outcome still uncertain, the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik leaderships now had to cease equivocating and respond. Dan, for the Mensheviks, predictably still proposed an homogenous democratic coalition. Martov went further, calling for a socialist coalition and this call generated support from both the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks and was approved unanimously. At this point the representatives of the main Menshevik groups turned on the Congress and the new leadership denouncing them and walking out with the right SRs and Bundists, leaving Martov plaintively echoing his call for unity with those who had left. The situation was now different. ‘We all accepted Martov’s proposal to discuss peaceful ways of solving the crisis,’ said Lunarcharsky, ‘… but a systematic attack was launched at us ... Without hearing us out, without even discussing their own proposals, they immediately tried to separate themselves from us ... to isolate us’. [140] Having had the ground pulled from under him by his own comrades, Martov was then forced to choose between the Congress and his party. Fatally he abandoned the Congress leaving with most of the rest of the Menshevik Internationalists to what Trotsky famously called ‘the dustbin of history’.

The popular movement

The devaluation of the political choices made in 1917 extends in another direction, as we suggested earlier. This is the direction of the political choice made by the workers. In some analyses it is as if revolutionary ideas float above the working class – in the Bolshevik Party – until workers, driven by the pressure of events, converged with the Bolsheviks in October. Any serious account of radicalisation has to give prominence to the real forces affecting the development of the popular movement. But there is an additional political dimension to radicalisation that also needs to be incorporated but rarely has been. Politics is there in the way in which the individuals who made up the popular movement made choices between alternatives, formed in the context of political debates, however poorly or inarticulately they were formulated. Yet in some accounts it is almost as if workers, faced with growing pressure, were the subject of blind forces which drove them towards the Bolshevik Party in the autumn of 1917.

Suny unwittingly expresses this view when he writes that ‘by early fall 1917 a coincidence of lower class aspiration and the Bolshevik programme resulted in elected Leninist majorities in the soviets of both Petrograd and Moscow and the strategic support of soldiers on the Northern and Western fronts.’ Read goes further still arguing that ‘the popular agenda – a better deal for workers, land redistribution, protection from economic crisis, greater direct democracy and a just end to the war – remained a relatively stable programme in search of implementation’ and that the workers only turned to the Bolsheviks because neither the SRs or the Mensheviks would carry out this programme, concluding that ‘the popular movement did not turn towards Bolshevism because they became converts to its basic philosophy’. [141]

But even were this completely true, workers’ actions would still involve a double political choice. There was the choice of the established parties that we have already noted. There was the political judgement that workers then made (and which they had not made earlier) that these parties were no longer to be trusted and that the Bolsheviks were a better guarantee of their aspirations would be realised. Ignoring this political element creates an account that converges with that offered by Menshevik theorists in the autumn and winter of 1917. According to this the ‘coincidence’ of interest between the popular movement and the Bolsheviks was based on no more than a temporary conjuncture. The Bolsheviks should have understood this and rejected power. For their part the ‘socialist’ opposition to taking power in October was justified in opposing it since a gap was bound to open up as the popular movement fell away. At this point the Bolsheviks’ opponents could say, ‘We told you so,’ and reap the benefit of their stand. Even worse, the devaluation of politics lends support to those like Pipes, Figes and many modern historians in Russia who, in their different ways, see the social movement as a mob. Whether intentionally or not these historians therefore allow themselves to play a trick which devalues the need to explore and understand the nature of political commitment in 1917, implicitly legitimises the anti-Bolshevik position on the left in 1917 and then removes the need to explore how the actions of the anti-Bolshevik parties during and after October might themselves have contributed to the problems of trying to stabilise the revolution.

The difficulty with their argument is threefold. The first problem is what the Bolsheviks were doing during 1917. Sukhanov in an oft quoted passage writes that they were ‘at the factory benches and in the barracks every blessed day. For the masses, they had became their own people, because they were always there.’ Did this mean that they were standing there like some mute magnetic pole of attraction drawing inert iron filings towards them? Of course this was not the case. They were there winning and losing arguments, selling or failing to sell their newspapers, successfully or unsuccessfully collecting money, carrying or failing to convince the people over political issues. And their opponents, less often present, if Sukhanov is correct, were doing exactly the same when they were there. Secondly, to the extent that workers made a pro-revolutionary choice we can argue that this was a better political choice than that made by their leaders who were abandoning them. The argument that the revolution had to go forward made sense in terms of the experience that workers were having. It made sense in terms of what at other times might disparagingly be called the ‘low politics’ of their everyday lives. Conventional politics, of course, is high politics, conducted from afar with human beings as its subjects. In 1917, however, high politics became ‘low politics’ just because the political process could no longer be contained in palaces, chancelleries and parliaments. And finally, put in these terms, the onus is thrown back on those whose politics, at the crucial moment, led them to stand aside or oppose the popular movement. As in any social conflict, to stand aside at the crucial moment is perhaps to live to fight another day but it is also to weaken your side, perhaps fatally. [142]

Compounding the error

Accounts of the October Revolution too often end with Lenin standing in the Second Congress of Soviets late on the night of 25 October 1917. In fact the revolution was a process which began in Petrograd on 24–25 October but continued over several months as it spread across Russia. In the spring the problem of consolidating the revolution merged with the brief but spectacular advance of the German armies which forced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Then a couple of months later it merged with the beginning of the civil war. Soviet accounts dealing with this as ‘the triumphal march’ of Soviet power made a nonsense of the complex problems that consolidating power entailed. Apart from the important issue of the continuing dynamic of the revolution from below, analysing the consolidation of the revolution also requires attention to the policies of the SRs and Mensheviks after the October events in Petrograd. Since the pattern of response was set in the first few days, we will conclude our discussion by setting out how these new divisions confirmed the choices made on 24–25 October.

Few historians have resisted the temptation to treat the emergency measures of the first months of Soviet power as the outcome of imminent tendencies in Bolshevism or opportunistic volte faces from earlier positions held. But it is here that what is traditionally seen as the historians’ question of ‘what happened next?’ becomes important. Much of the recent history of the revolution has been written in terms of the deeper structures which help to determine historical events. But this does not mean that the history of events can be ruled out completely and even less that ‘events’ are predetermined by structure. Things happen one after another as contexts and problems change and then a grasp of chronology and movement becomes crucial. This is even more so in a revolution because the speed of events accelerates. Bukharin put this well just before the October events:

In a time of revolution with its inevitable ebb and flow of the tide, when, like in the cinema, the situation, historical picture, faces, figures change quickly and events scarcely allow one to keep hold of oneself, it is completely natural that institutions, developing at the beginning of this violent historical tornado, repeatedly change their role and significance. [143]

The immediate consolidation of the revolution in Petrograd faced three explicitly counter-revolutionary challenges – the military opposition outside the city; a threat from officers inside the city and a strike of white collar employees designed to prevent the state apparatus being taken over. In addition, the Mensheviks and SRs who had left the Congress of Soviets then grouped with others opposed to the revolution (including Cadets) in a Committee for the Salvation of the Revolution and the Motherland. The left wing of this committee was close to the left in the soviets while the centre and right had contacts with those prepared to fight against the revolution. The problem was further complicated by the equivocation of the leadership of the railway workers’ union over whether it should support the revolution or not, with its inclination being to draw back from the most radical measures.

It needs to be stressed at this point that neither Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor the Bolsheviks as a whole wanted an all-Bolshevik government to emerge from the taking of power. Indeed tensions in the Bolshevik Party led some who feared isolation to temporarily resign from the party in early November. Why then did a coalition not emerge? Swain, following the tendency of recent historians to endorse the position taken by the SRs and the Mensheviks, has argued:

… that the successful campaign to discredit the third Coalition Government and overthrow it within the parliamentary atmosphere of the ‘Pre-Parliament’ did not result in the formation of a democratic coalition was the fault of the Bolshevik Party – Lenin ... succeeded in seizing power not from the bourgeoisie and the liberals, but from democracy, and its dominant voice, the SR party. [144]

In fact the Committee for the Salvation of the Revolution immediately reproduced all of the divisions about political power that had been apparent on 24 October and before. Should the opposition unite with bourgeois forces against the revolution? Should it be a ‘socialist opposition’ against both the Bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie and for what? Should it defend the Provisional government (and Kerensky?) or look for a new government that was neither Bolshevik nor from the old Provisional government?

While many on the left which grouped around the committee argued that by forcing the issue of power the Bolsheviks had opened the way for a later counter-revolution, Postresov argued that the seizure of power was the counter-revolution and therefore there could be no compromise with it. It had to be opposed by the socialist opposition uniting with the bourgeoisie (effectively to defend the bourgeois limits of the revolution). Martov, equivocated – seemingly far more concerned not to lose contact with the right wing of the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks and the soviet. It is symptomatic of the political confusion in the committee that when on 29 October a group of officers and cadets staged an unsuccessful rising in Petrograd they did so under the flag of the committee and with the support of some of its SR and Menshevik members.

What crystallised these problems was the action of the railway workers’ union. The executive of the union (VIKZHEL) tried to push all sides back into talks (supporting its position with the threat of a railway strike) about a new coalition government which effectively meant negotiations between the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs and their representatives in the Second Congress of Soviets, the centre Menshevik and SR leadership and those forces grouped around the Committee for Salvation.

Despite Swain’s argument that the Bolsheviks were responsible for the failure of these talks the evidence points in the opposite direction, including that which he quotes in his account. When negotiations began the Menshevik and SR leaders immediately demanded a coalition which would exclude the Bolsheviks, despite the talks being aimed at an all-socialist coalition. On 28 October the union reported to its Moscow headquarters that ‘the Bolsheviks are making concessions ... the Committee for Salvation is irreconcilable; but we will exert pressure on it’. The next day Gendelman, who had led the SRs out of the Congress of Soviets, rejected the participation of the Bolsheviks in a coalition telling the Committee for Salvation that ‘even in the democratic camp there are moments when it is necessary to decide an agreement with weapons.’ No comment could have been more unfortunate for the right because that same day officers and cadets in Petrograd staged their insurrection under the flag of the committee. The railway union was therefore forced to condemn the right and those who toyed with them from the centre as ‘the madmen who at this moment ... do not want compromise. Instead of striving for a compromise, the right part of democracy ... put to the Bolsheviks the impossible demand of total capitulation, quite unconcerned for the consequences.’

Under pressure from the union and groups of workers the debate then moved to the possibility of a coalition which would include both right wing socialists and Bolsheviks but not Lenin and Trotsky, with Chernov, the SR leader, as prime minister. From the point of view of the centre right the attraction of this was that it might split the Bolsheviks and allow their influence to be diminished. Not surprisingly therefore the proposal provoked sharp differences within the Bolshevik leadership as their negotiators inclined to support it. But before anyone had a chance to respond part of the right wing of the SR’s and the right of the Mensheviks broke away arguing that there could be no compromise and that the revolution had to be opposed. While the Bolsheviks were debating the issue the central committee of the SRs also broke off leaving only a rump in which the Menshevik leaders were prominent. As their own side of the coalition dissolved, undercutting the whole basis of the negotiations, their hopes were briefly raised by the appearance of a split at the top of the Bolshevik Party as a leading group resigned for fear of the revolution being isolated if a compromise was not reached. Dan even boasted, ‘Thanks to our tactics, the Bolsheviks are already splitting’. [145]

Against this Lenin and Trotsky argued that any coalition had to recognise the shift in power that had occurred and allow the Bolsheviks a leading role. Power could no longer hang in the air or between competing institutions, it had to be based in the soviets, the Bolsheviks had to be a major part of any coalition and the presence of Lenin and Trotsky themselves was important not for personal reasons but as a reflection of agreement that something significant had changed. A coalition which dropped the leaders of the major party was a nonsense. ‘Nothing whatever can come of merely leaving a few Bolsheviks in a coalition government,’ said Trotsky; ‘We have taken power – and we must also bear the responsibilities’. [146]

The talks crumbled not because of an objection in principle to a socialist coalition on the part of the Bolshevik leadership but because the SRs and the Mensheviks were not prepared to negotiate a meaningful coalition and because, as they prevaricated, their own side was falling apart. In the short term this had two consequences. Those members of the Bolshevik leadership quickly returned, chastened, to the fold. Secondly, the process of break-up of the SR party was hastened with the Left SRs forming a new revolutionary coalition government with the Bolsheviks and against their former comrades. It was this revolutionary coalition that would take the revolution through its first months before it was split by entirely different issues in the spring of 1918.

Now isolated, the old SR leadership and the Mensheviks looked to the Constituent Assembly and beyond to establish a third force which they imagined would allow them to stand between the revolution and the bourgeoisie. In so doing they merely built on their past errors. Although it had not been apparent in October, it was increasingly clear that the basis of the Constituent Assembly and the soviets was a competing and not a complementary one. This is why the right now put so much emphasis on the Constituent Assembly. The Cadet Nabokov, for example, now argued on the eve of elections that he had not wanted, occurring at a time he had opposed, with an electorate he despised, that ‘it is necessary to hold the elections whenever there is the slightest possibility of doing so. The gravest responsibility towards the country will be insured by all who dare to cast doubt on the correctness of the elections of the Constituent Assembly on which the whole country is henceforth setting its hopes’. [147]

Although the swing to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs was continuing post-October it was clear that the united SR ticket was going to emerge as the major force in any assembly because of the huge peasant vote. But the SR leadership could only interpret this as a vote for stability if they ignored the split in the SR party and the further radicalisation of the peasantry. Beyond this the party complexion was to an extent irrelevant since the majority of delegates elected to the Constituent Assembly were clearly elected by a population voting for peace, for land redistribution, a transfer of power to the workers and, in many areas, self determination. The Constituent Assembly could only prevent this if it became the basis of yet another government that would rule over the people. As Bukharin had put it, in a revolution the film moves faster and institutions and parties change their role: the Constituent Assembly, once the symbol of revolutionary progress, was now the symbol of something else. But the ultimate fate of the revolution would now be decided by how a much bigger question was answered.

In the period 1917 to 1921 the Bolsheviks would undoubtedly make many mistakes but they would make them against a background of a revolutionary opportunity in the West that could have helped them but was missed. There, revolutionary crises were pushed to the brink but there was no Bolshevik Party to respond. The socialist equivalents of the SRs and the Mensheviks held out against revolution and assisted consciously or unconsciously in the process by which the crisis was diffused. In 1921 they could look proudly at their handiwork. The crisis had been successfully negotiated in the West, and in Russia, though victorious in the civil war, the Bolsheviks were weakened enormously, the working class destroyed and the remnants of the revolution isolated. But their success was an illusion. A year later in Italy Mussolini came to power, then in 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. In both East and West there was a high price to pay for the failure of international revolution.

Already in the summer of 1917, before October, a writer in the Spartakus journal in Germany argued, ‘Here begins the fatal destiny of the Russian Revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia is destined to suffer a desperate defeat compared to which the fate of the Paris Commune was child’s play – unless the international proletarian revolution gives it support in time.’ Whoever wrote this could not have foreseen that in Russia the defeat of the revolution would take the form of Stalin’s counter-revolution but he saw the essence of the problem. So too did Rosa Luxemburg. She did not fear to criticise what she thought were the mistakes the Bolsheviks might be making but she also saw where the blame would lie if they failed. Writing to Luise Kautsky from prison in 1917 she saw something else:

Are you happy about the Russians? Of course, they will not be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ sabbath, not because some statistics show economic development in Russia to be too backward as your clever husband has figured out, but because social democracy in the highly developed West consists of miserable and wretched cowards who will look quietly on and let the Russians bleed to death. [148]


1. Readers unfamiliar with the argument about the movement from below in both Russia and Europe can be recommended two excellent review articles, D. Howl, The Russian Revolution, International Socialism 62, Spring 1994; D. Gluckstein, Revolution and the Challenge of Labour, International Socialism 61, Winter 1993.

2. O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 (Cape 1996) is the latest attempt to rewrite the history of the revolution. The ideas criticised here permeate this discussion so that capitalism and the ruling class almost disappear from his account as social forces.

3. Not all right wing accounts view Tsarist Russia optimistically. Martin Malia argues that ‘it would have required a near miracle for Russia to have evolved organically and peacefully into a constitutional democracy had she been spared the shock of the First World War.’ But he then argues that the most likely scenario was a failed revolution producing a ‘national conservative regime’ which would have created an authoritarian regime (like Franco’s Spain) preferable to the totalitarianism which he believes did result from 1917. M. Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia 1917–1991 (Free Press 1994).

4. This relative weakness is confirmed by the work of Paul Gregory who has reconstructed Russian national income from the Tsarist data itself. Gregory has recently offered himself as a historian whose work lends encouragement to the view that market capitalism can transform the prospects of modern Russia. But his figures of long run growth per head show that Russia simply did not grow faster than advanced Western Europe and therefore could not have been on a convergence path. Nor does it help to extrapolate from Russia’s highest pre-1914 period of growth since on his own admission this was shorter than equivalent periods in other countries. P. Gregory, Russian National Income 1885–1913 (Cambridge University Press 1982).

5. C. Read, From Tsar to Soviets. The Russian People and their Revolution, 1917–1921 (UCL Press 1996), p. 34. Although we will later suggest some problems with Read’s account it is much to be preferred to Figes’ account. Unfortunately it has not received the same attention as Figes’ repudiation of the revolution.

6. The idea of patrimonialism is summed up in a sentence of Tsar Nicholas II: ‘I conceive of Russia as a landed estate of which the proprietor is the Tsar, the administrator is the nobility and the workers are the peasantry.’

7. Quoted in R. Pipes, Struve: Liberal on the Right, 1905–1944 (Harvard University Press 1980), p. 175.

8. G. Freeze, The Soslovie Paradigm and Russian Social History, American Historical Review, vol. 91, no. 1, 1986; L. Haimson, The Problem of Social Identities in Early 20th Century Russia, Slavic Review, vol. 47 (1988).

9. Thus the idea, argued in different ways by Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn and Arno Mayer (and going back to Joseph Schumpeter and beyond) that the aristocracy remained the dominant force in Europe in 1914 because it had contained and ‘feudalised’ the bourgeoisie can be stood on its head. The aristocracy remained a powerful force precisely because key sections of it had adapted to capitalism, becoming subject to ‘embourgeoisement’ where it mattered.

10. The best study is A.J. Reiber, Merchants and Entrepreneurs in Imperial Russia (Chapel Hill 1982).

11. Quoted in M. Ferro, Nicholas II The Last of the Tsars (Viking 1991), p. 200.

12. Quoted in R. Pipes, op. cit., p. 177.

13. K. Kautsky, The Driving Forces and Prospects of the Russian Revolution. This pamphlet was widely translated in Russia after 1905.

14. See P. Miliukov, Political Memoirs 1905–1917 (University of Michigan Press 1967), pp. 287–288, 308–309.

15. Quoted in R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 73, 210–218.

16. R.H. Johnson, Tradition Versus Revolution. Russia and the Balkans in 1917 (Columbia University Press 1977), p. 172.

17. D. Geyer, Russian Imperialism. The Interaction of Domestic and Foreign Policy, 1860–1914 (Berg 1987), p. 255. Geyer points out that the failure to develop a specific theory of imperialism applied to Russia before 1917 leads to Russian expansion being seen as ‘a natural law of Russian history’. In its place he offers an approach largely in terms of the model of social imperialism developed by German historians like Wehler and Fischer: ‘internal tensions’ were ‘deflected’ outwards into imperial conquest and the fulfilment of ‘traditional desires’ in conflicts with ‘ancient enemies’ (p. 345–346). This approach is illuminating, but as in German historiography, can be misleading if it becomes the whole story since it underplays economic interests and fails to locate the more ‘modern’ capitalist drives behind expansion. See D. Blackbourn and G. Eley, The Peculiarities of German History: Bourgeois Society and Politics in Nineteenth Century Germany (Oxford University Press 1984).

18. ‘Imperialism’ is frequently confused with ‘colonialism’. The Marxist theory of imperialism was developed to explain the expansive clash of state power in the heartland of capitalism in 1914 not the scramble for Africa or anywhere else. For a brief review of Russia’s great power role see P. Struve, The Balkan War and Russia’s Task, The Russian Review, vol. 2, no. 2, May 1913, pp. 11–13. See also R. Pipes, op. cit., pp. 88–97, 180–186, 201–210, 216, 243.

19. N. Stone, The Eastern Front (Hodder & Stoughton 1975), p. 285.

20. Quoted in V.V. Shelokhaev (ed.), Politicheskaya istoriya Rossii v partiyakh i litsakh (Moscow 1993), pp. 101–102.

21. The best account remains N. Stone, op. cit..

22. Sir B. Pares, Russia (Penguin, 1941), pp. 88–89.

23. Quoted V.S. Daikin, The Leadership Crisis in Russia on the Eve of the February Revolution, Voprosy Istorii, no. 3, 1982, translated in Studies in Soviet History, vol. Xxiii, no. 1, Summer 1984.

24. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution. The Constitutional Democratic Party, 1917–1921 (Princeton University Press 1974), pp. 43–45.

25. Quoted V.V. Shelokhaev, op. cit., p. 295.

26. C. Read, op. cit., p. 44; Guchkov quoted in Shelokhaev, op. cit., p. 296.

27. Sometimes this was brought home personally to the politicians. As he was on the way to help resolve the crisis at the top the Cadet constitutionalist Nabokov recalled being stopped by a man in the street who told him, ‘Do not leave any Romanovs, we have no use for them.’ V.D. Medlin and S.L. Parsons (eds.), V.D. Nabokov and the Russian Provisional government, 1917 (Yale 1974), pp. 42–43.

28. B.I. Kolonitskii, Anti-bourgeois propaganda and anti-“Burzhui” consciousness in 1917, The Russian Review, vol. 53, April 1994, pp. 183–196.

29. ‘While the three of us – Nabokov, Miliukov and myself – were pondering how to enlist the promulgation of Grand Duke Mikhail’s abdication of the throne ... we were interrupted by telegrams about sailors executing admirals and officers in Sveaborg and Kronstadt.’ wrote Baron Nol’de. It is fortunate that two of the major insider memoirs of the formation of the Provisional government are translated in the same volume, V.D. Medlin and S.L. Parsons (eds.), op. cit.. Nabokov was the legal expert of the Cadets. The volume includes two memoirs by him, The Provisional government and The Bolshevik coup d’état, and a third by B.E. Nol’de, who was effectively his assistant, V.D. Nabokov in 1917. They will be referred to separately below. The quotation from Nol’de is on p. 16.

30. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p. 406. Miliukov’s memoirs contain his own thoughts on the problem of the legitimacy of the Provisional government.

31. When L’vov mentioned that he had a mass of telegrams of support for the Provisional government Steklov replied ‘We could show you right now far more, ten times as many, telegrams endorsed by hundreds and thousands of organised citizens, which demand that we take power into our own hands.’ V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., p. 125.

32. The fourth Duma elected in 1912 included in its 436 members 150 anti-Semitic far right members, 130 Octobrists and their allies, 55 Cadets, a mere 20 representatives of the national minorities, and some 13 social democrats and 9 Trudoviks representing the mass of peasants and workers.

33. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p.391.

34. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., pp.49–53.

35. B.E. Nol’de, op. cit., p. 20.

36. B.E. Nol’de, op. cit., p. 20. See V.D. Nabokov’s almost identical formulation, The Provisional government, op. cit., p. 53. To maintain this idea of a legitimate transfer of power Nabokov insisted from the start that the essence of February had not been a ‘revolution’ but a ‘coup d’état’ since a coup preserves the basis of state power while a revolution might be considered to challenge it.

37. Almost immediately L’vov as head of the Provisional government was forced beyond them when he was pressured into dismissing the heads of the provincial governments of Russia which seemed to confirm that in a constitutional sense February was a revolution and not a coup. Worse from the constitutional perspective on 7 March the Tsar who until then had been technically free was arrested and confined to his Tsarkoe Tselo palace outside Petrograd – a decision which Nabokov believed confirmed the image of a Tsar being ‘dethroned’ rather than freely ‘abdicating’.

38. R. Abraham, Alexander Kerensky. The First Love of the Revolution (Sidgwick & Jackson 1987), pp. 123–124.

39. R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 146.

40. V.V. Shelokhaev, op. cit., p. 105, gives the figure of over 100; W. Rosenberg’s study of urban council elections in 1917 found 68 different organisations standing including 9 religious groups, 24 minor non-socialist groups and 20 nationalist parties; W. Rosenberg, The Russian Municipal Duma Elections of 1917: a Preliminary Computation of the Returns, Soviet Studies, vol. xxi (1969), pp. 131–163.

41. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 90, 190.

42. By comparison the Trade Industrialists ran slates in 35 percent of towns; the Union of House Owners in half of towns. On the left the Bolsheviks could only manage independent slates in 27 percent of towns though they stood in some others as part of a socialist bloc.

43. O. Radkey, The Elections to the Russian Constituent Assembly of 1917 (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1950), pp. 16–21. This is the main source but some minor inaccuracies probably exist because a complete set of official results was never published.

44. The potential national problem of the Cadets was already apparent in 1906 in the first Duma elections when they got 39 percent of the urban vote but only 11 percent in landlord assemblies and 4 percent of the peasant vote. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 27.

45. Local elections took place quickly partly because the Provisional government needed a responsible administrative base and partly because it hoped that the framework of local politics could be conditioned by national control, and therefore if local circumstances put radicals in power they would be constrained by the wider national framework. Russia in 1917 therefore presented the paradox of a political society where at the national level the argument was that elections had to be postponed while at the local municipal level perfectly adequate, if not on occasion model, electoral procedures were in place which built on the Municipal Electoral Statue of 15 April 1917.

46. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp. 161,164, 166, 188.

47. W. Rosenberg The Russian Municipal Duma Elections of 1917, op. cit.

48. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.55, 188.

49. R.P. Browder and A. Kerensky (eds.), The Russian Provisional government of 1917 (Stanford University Press 1961), p. 135.

50. R. Abraham, op. cit., pp. 148–149.

51. L. Kochan, Cadet Policy in 1917 and the Constituent Assembly, Slavonic & East European Review, vol. xiv (1967), pp. 183–192.

52. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 90, 190.

53. M. Philips Price, In the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets, in M. Jones (ed.), Storming the Heavens: Voices of October (Zwan 1987), p. 28; A. Kerensky, The Provisional government 1917, Slavonic Review, 1930, p. 2.

54. L. Erwin Heenan, Russian Democracy’s Fatal Blunder: The Summer Offensive of 1917 (Praeger, 1987), is the major attempt to argue this. Her account does contain some useful information but on the central issue she shows a remarkable naivety over the dynamics and constraints which determine the actions of a great power.

55. R.A. Wade, The Russian Search For Peace, February–October 1917 (Stanford 1969), pp. 143–147.

56. A. Kerensky, op. cit.

57. Quoted R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 341. Russia’s declining influence during the war is well brought out by Heenan even though she does do not appear to understand the full implications of this argument. See L.E. Heenan, pp. 3–9.

58. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government op. cit., p. 106.

59. Quoted in G. Katkov, Russia 1917: The Kornilov Affair. Kerensky and the Break-Up of the Russian Army (Longman, 1980), p. 14.

60. R. Abraham, op. cit., pp. 192–193.

61. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., p. 87.

62. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., p. 86.

63. The Times, 5 January 1918.

64. A. Kerensky, op. cit., p. 11.

65. Quoted H. Pichter, Witnesses of the Russian Revolution (Murray 1994), pp. 82–83.

66. A. Kerensky, op. cit., p. 9.

67. R.A. Wade, op. cit., pp. 145–146.

68. See R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 278; R.A. Wade, op. cit., pp. 146–147, on Tereshchenko’s negative role; Miliukov approvingly said of Tereshchenko that he ‘quietly pursued my very policy and successfully deceived the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies’, P. Miliukov, op. cit., p. 424.

69. Kerensky did not accept the idea of annexations in the west but he had a strong sense of Russia having a role as a great power as well as its civilising mission in the east. See R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 12, 99, 174, 237.

70. C. Read, op. cit., p. 138; R. Abraham, op. cit., pp. 309–310.

71. C. Read, op. cit., p. 153 (my emphasis – MH). [Note by ETOL: There is no emphasis indicated in the printed version.]

72. B. Pares, op. cit.; H. Pichter, op. cit., p.145. Much of the recent writing on the Russian peasantry has criticised earlier attempts to argue that there was serious class differentiation amongst the peasants. I have a qualified sympathy with this ‘revisionism’ but to the extent that it is correct it would seem to undercut even more any argument that the rural revolt could have been appeased by anything less than wholesale handover of land to those who worked it.

73. The question of how much land was owned by landlords and others is often shrouded in confusion. For a good contemporary account see L. Litoshenko, Landed Property in Russia, Russian Review, vol. 2, no. 4, November 1913, pp. 185–207.

74. It might be objected to this argument that land reform was ‘successfully’ undertaken at the end of the war in a number of Eastern European countries and was therefore possible in Russia too. But the post-war context of land reform was very different in these countries; so too was the relative power of different sections of the ruling class and the state; but above all concessions were encouraged and minds concentrated by the different experience of Russia.

75. K. Tverdovskii [pseudonym: N.I. Bukharin], K voprosy o zemel’nuikh zakhvatakh, Spartak, no. 7, 16 September 1917, reprinted in N.I. Bukharin, Na podstupakh k oktyabru, statii i rechi, mai–dekabri 1917 g (Moscow 1926), p. 113.

76. The lack of a wide base of support for private land ownership is also reflected in the fact that formal landowner parties got only 171,245 votes in the elections for the Constituent Assembly.

77. This discussion is based on J. Channon, The Landowners in R. Service (ed.), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution (Macmillan 1992); T.V. Osipova, Vserossiskii soyuz zemel’nykh sobstvennikov v1917g, Istoriya SSSR, no. 3 (1976).

78. C. Read, op. cit., p. 118.

79. Quoted W. Rosenberg, Liberals op. cit., p. 124–125; P. Avrich, Russian factory committees in 1917, Jahrbücher fur Geschichte Osteuropas, 1963, part 2, p. 167.

80. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p. 424.

81. Konovalov became minister of trade and industry; Guchkov was the first minister of war and Tereshchenko, the sugar businessman from the south west, became minister of finance.

82. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p. 463; Z. Galili, Commercial-Industrial Circles in Revolution: the Failure of “Industrial Progressivism”, in E. Rogovin, J. Frankel, B. Knei-Paz (eds.), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge University Press 1992), p. 188.

83. The best short summary account of the economic problems of 1917 remains N. Stone, op. cit., ch 13.

84. Quoted in L. Schapiro, 1917: The Russian Revolution and the Origins of Present Day Communism (Penguin 1984), p. 97.

85. W.G. Rosenberg and D. Koenker, Strikes and Revolution in Russia 1917 (Princeton University Press 1989).

86. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917–1918 (Cambridge University Press 1983), p. 146.

87. The ambiguity and changing balance of meaning can be seen clearly in the main resolution of the first All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees – easily available in J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (Penguin 1966), pp. 295–296.

88. Z. Galili, Commercial-Industrial Circles in Revolution: the Failure of “Industrial Progressivism”, op. cit., p. 204.

89. The Disorganisation of Russian Industry, Russia: A Journal of Russian-American Trade, May 1918, pp. 11–13.

90. L. Lande, The Mensheviks in 1917, L. Haimson (ed.), The Mensheviks from the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (University of Chicago Press 1976), p. 41.

91. Quoted H. Pichter, op. cit., p. 114.

92. C. Read, op. cit., p. 136 ; R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 219; P. Miliukov, op. cit., pp. 471–472.

93. P. Miliukov, op. cit., pp. 464–474; W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 198.

94. The most detailed account of the Kornilov coup is by G. Katkov, op. cit.. Katkov combines a detailed command of the sources with a defence of highly questionable arguments. He seeks effectively to defend Kornilov and to condemn Kerensky. Despite the mass of valuable information he offers, his account can be faulted in four key areas, firstly in his desire to defend Kornilov he places the most charitable interpretation on his actions and the least charitable on that of his opponents; secondly, he fails to adequately rebut charges that Kornilov had important meetings with interested groups before the coup; thirdly, and most seriously, he abstracts his account from the social dynamics of the situation and the balance of changing class forces, especially at the top of Russian society; finally, he minimises the role of Allied and especially British involvement which although certainly hesitant was not insignificant. For more politically astute accounts of the coup see J.D. White, The Kornilov Affair – a Study in Counter-Revolution, Soviet Studies, vol. 20, October 1968, pp. 187–205; M. Ferro, October 1917: A Social History of the Russian Revolution (Routledge 1980); for a survey of the historiography of the coup which criticises Katkov’s more narrow interpretation see J.W. Long, Kornilov Redivivus: New Data on the Prelude to Bolshevism, Russian History, vol. 11, no. 1, Spring 1984, pp. 1–10. Most recently, G. Swain, The Origins of the Russian Civil War (Longman 1996), ch. 1, is good on the coup.

95. The traditional Russian officer corps was a highly conservative force in Russian society. It celebrated its anti-intellectual stance even in military matters and lacked an appreciation ‘that the Russian army’s weakness was caused by the backwardness of Russia’s society and economy’. A ‘young Turk’ group had arisen before 1914 but with limited effect. Now the war to some extent democratised the lower ranks but there was still insufficient time for this to penetrate to create the high army structure. See P. Kenez, Russian Officer Corps Before the Revolution: the Military Mind, Russian Review vol. 31 (1972), pp. 226–231; D.R. Jones, The Officers and the October Revolution, Soviet Studies, vol. xxviii, no. 2, April 1976, pp 207–223; and most usefully, A. Wildman, Officers of the General Staff and the Kornilov Movement, in E.R. Frankel, J. Frankel and B. Knei-Paz (eds.), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge University Press 1992).

96. Quoted G. Katkov, op. cit., p. 166.

97. R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 227. It is unclear how many soldiers were shot after the restoration of the death penalty. Officially few death penalties were sanctioned at the top but actions may have been taken by local commanders. Kerensky boasted to General Knox that within a week Kornilov had 147 men shot but this may have been said for effect.

98. Quoted in G. Katkov, op. cit., p. 169.

99. Quoted in M. Leibman, The Russian Revolution (Cape 1970), p. 189.

100. C. Read, op. cit., p. 52.

101. Quoted in W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 209–210.

102. R. Abraham, op. cit., p. 233; G. Katkov, op. cit., p. 63.

103. Quoted in V.V. Shelokhaev, op. cit., p. 316.

104. G. Katkov, op. cit., p. 175; G. Swain, op. cit., ch. 1.

105. G. Katkov, op. cit., pp. 141, 143; W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 223. The same attitude was apparent in the contacts between Allied representatives and the General Headquarters. Buchanan, the British ambassador, clearly would have been happy with a successful coup but felt that he could not be seen to give any open support before the event. He therefore held supporters of a coup at arms length while doing nothing to dissuade it. At the Stavka, on the other hand, the British liaison officer was happy to be swept along by events and to encourage Kornilov.

106. C. Read, op. cit., p. 140.

107. Sadly, two of the best social historians of 1917 have retreated towards post-modernism. See S. Smith, Writing the history of the Russian Revolution After the Fall of Communism, Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 46, no. 4 (1994) pp. 563–578; R.G. Suny, Revision and Retreat in the Historiography of 1917: Social History and its Critics, Russian Review, vol. 53, April 1994, pp. 165–182. For a brief critique see J.E. Marot, A post-modern approach to the Russian Revolution? Comment on Suny, The Russian Review, vol. 54, April 1995, pp. 260–264.

108. The directory consisted of Kerensky, Tereshchenko as foreign minister, Verkhovsky and Verderevsky in charge of the war and navy, and Nikitin in charge of posts and telegraphs.

109. So far as I am aware there is no study of the Senate and Duma in 1917 which is unfortunate as they were centres of reaction after February.

110. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., p. 78.

111. The conference passed a motion in support of coalition with the bourgeoisie by only 766 to 688 but then rejected the idea of a coalition with the Cadets – the only serious bourgeois party. When the vote for coalition was put a second time it was decisively lost, which Figes ascribes to the way ‘the basic skills of parliamentary decision making proved beyond its leaders’; O. Figes, op. cit., p. 466. We would explain it more simply in terms of the scale of the polarisation which now existed.

112. Z. Galili, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies (Princeton University Press 1989), p. 389–390.

113. C. Read, op. cit., p. 70; S.A .Smith, op. cit.

114. V.M. Kruchkovskaya, Tsentral’naya Gorodskaya Duma Petrograda v 1917g (Moscow 1986), pp. 60–63.

115. J Reed, op. cit..

116. L. Schapiro, op. cit., px.

117. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26, pp. 21, 74–77; vol. 25, p. 340; vol. 24, p. 513.

118. On the changing conception of bourgeois revolution in 1917 as it was articulated by the Mensheviks, see L. Lande, The Mensheviks in 1917, in L. Haimson (ed.), The Mensheviks from the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (University of Chicago Press 1976), pp. 15, 17–18, 25–26; B. Sapir, The Conception of Bourgeois Revolution, ibid., pp. 366–388

119. L. Lande, op. cit., p. 25.

120. N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, vol. 2 (London 1981), p. 150.

121. B. Sapir, op. cit., p. 369.

122. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 250.

123. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p. 457–463.

124. V.D. Nabokov, The Bolshevik Coup d’état, op. cit., p. 149–50.

125. Volia naroda, 20 September, translated in R.P. Browder and A. Kerensky, op. cit., p. 1641; L. Lande, op. cit., p. 29.

126. L. Lande, op. cit., pp. 17–19.

127. Z. Galili, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies, op. cit., pp. 6, 338.

128. W. Rosenberg The Russian Municipal Duma Elections of 1917, op. cit.; O. Radkey, op. cit..

129. Gordodskoi vestnik vse Rossiiskovo Souza Gorodov, quoted in V.M. Kruchkovskaya, op. cit., p. 47.

130. C. Read, op. cit., p. 119.

131. Figures do not add up to 100 because of rounding. N.N. Smirnov, Tretii Vse Rossiiskii S’ezd Sovetov (Moscow 1988) pp. 62–63.

132. C. Read, op. cit., p. 159.

133. B. Ward, Wild Socialism in Russia, the Origins, California Slavic Studies, vol. 3 (1966) p. 142.

134. I have followed the analysis in V.I. Miller, K voprosy o srvanitel’noi chislennosti partii Bol’shevikov i Men’shevikov v 1917 g, Voprosy Istorii KPSS (1988), part 12 pp. 109–118. See also L. Lande, Some Statistics of the Unification Congress, August 1917, in L. Haimson (ed.), op. cit., pp. 389–391.

135. L. Lande, op. cit., pp. 4–5; B. Sapir, op. cit., p. 374.

136. L. Lande, op. cit., p. 43.

137. Quoted in B.D. Gal’perina, The Petrograd Soviet in September and October of 1917 (New Data), Voprosy Istorii, no. 10 (1978), translated in Studies in Soviet History, vol. xxiii, no. 1, Summer 1984, pp. 89–90. This Soviet study contains some useful information to supplement more familiar Western accounts.

138. Z. Galili, Mensheviks …, op. cit., p. 392, A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York 1976)

139. Malyantovich in S. Jones, op. cit.

140. Z. Galili, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p. 394.

141. R.G. Suny Revision and Retreat in the Historiography of 1917: Social History and its Critics, op. cit.. p. 167; C. Read, op. cit., pp. 148, 158 (my emphasis).

142. I have benefited enormously from an excellent critique of the social history school: J.E. Marot, Class Conflict, Political Competition and Social Transformation: Critical Perspectives on the Social History of the Russian Revolution, Revolutionary Russia, December 1994, vol. 7, no. 2.

143. N. Bukharin, op. cit., p. 128.

144. G. Swain, op. cit., pp. 48–53. It should be made clear that when Swain speaks here of ‘seizing power’ he means political power. The question of economic and social power is resolutely ignored in the central part of his discussion.

145. G. Swain, op. cit., p. 57; L. Lande, op. cit., pp. 64 onwards.

146. Quoted T. Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917–1923 (Bookmarks 1990), p. 25.

147. V.D. Nabokov, op. cit.

148. Quoted J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford University Press 1969), pp. 423, 425.

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