Home | International Communist Bulletin 8 | 

1917, The Proletariat Takes Power

"On the evening of October 24th the Provisional Government had at its disposal little more than 25,000 men. On the evening of October 25th, when preparations were underway for the storming of the Winter Palace, the Bolsheviks assembled about 20,000 Red Guards, sailors and soldiers before that last refuge of the Provisional Government. But within the palace there were not more than 3000 defenders, and many of those left their posts during the night. Thanks to the Bolsheviks’ overwhelming superiority there were no serious battles in the capital from October 24th to October 26th, and the total number of those killed on both sides was no more than 15, with no more than 60 wounded.
During these critical hours, as all the main strategic points in the city passed under Bolshevik control (telephone and telegraph exchanges, bridges, railroad stations, the Winter Palace etc.), Petrograd continued on the whole to go about its normal business.
Most of the soldiers remained in the barracks, the plants and the factories continued to operate, and in the schools none of the classes were interrupted. There were no strikes or mass demonstrations such had accompanied the February Revolution. The movie theatres (called cinematographias in those days) were filled, there were regular performances in all the theatres, and people strolled as usual on the Nevsky prospect. The ordinary non-political person would not even have noticed the historic events taking place; even on the streetcar lines, the main form of public transportation in 1917, service remained normal. It was in one of those streetcars that Lenin, in disguise, and his bodyguard Eino Rahya travelled to Smolny late on the evening of the 24th."

Thus the Soviet “dissident” historian, Roy Medvedev describes the October Revolution. This picture of Lenin going to the revolution on a tram also conforms with Trotsky’s view of those days.

"Demonstrations, street fights, barricades — everything comprised in the usual idea of insurrection — were almost entirely absent. The revolution had no need of solving a problem already solved. The seizure of the governmental machine could be carried through according to plan with the help of comparatively small armed detachments guided from a single centre ... the very fact that the resistance of the government came down to a defence of the Winter Palace, clearly defines the place occupied by October 25th in the whole course of the struggle. The Winter Palace was the last redoubt of a regime politically shattered during its eight months existence and conclusively disarmed during the preceding two weeks." (The Russian Revolution, p. 1138).

The Russian privileged classes had expected an orgy of looting and murder, political chaos and the collapse of human morality. Instead they were faced with an ordered transition which must have been even more terrifying for them. The proletarian masses had shown they had no need of rulers but could found their own forms of government. Of course, this was later turned into a criticism of the October Revolution by the historians of our class enemy who portrayed the proletarian revolution only in terms of its final act. They could thus spread the legend that this was simply a putsch, a coup d’etat by a small, fanatical, group whilst the masses passively sat on the sidelines. It is surprising that such a myth has not collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. Apart from the fact that the Bolshevik Party had 300,000 members or the fact that it had the active support of nearly every soldier in Petersburg (about 300,000 men), how was it possible for them to have debated publicly the seizure of power in the press for all to read for a fortnight before the final arrest of the Provisional Government? Establishing the proletarian nature of the October Revolution is not our aim here since we take this as a given fact. What we need to look at are the circumstances under which that revolution took place, to examine not only how the proletariat made the Bolshevik Party its instrument but also how the tactics of the Bolsheviks were tested in the complex situation of September and October 1917.

Can the Bolsheviks Win State Power?

The fate of the bourgeois order in Russia was sealed from the moment that the armies of the Kaiser occupied Riga in August 1917. Instead of the promised victories the Germans were now poised to go all the way to Petersburg. Lenin, however, had been arguing for insurrection from the moment he realised that the other so-called socialist parties (the Mensheviks and the S.R.s), true to their theory of supporting a bourgeois system, did not intend to support soviet power. But the Bolshevik Central Committee seemed to be ignoring his letters. What was worse for him was that, as he sat in hiding, the Bolshevik Central Committee seemed to be falling for Kerensky’s attempts to bolster his tottering rule. In the aftermath of the defeat of Kornilov the Provisional Government called a “Democratic Conference” to try to rally the parties represented in the soviet around bourgeois rule. To Lenin’s horror the Bolshevik Central Committee fell for this ruse and participated in this charade (Lenin singled out Trotsky for special praise for arguing for a boycott of this assembly). Furthermore, they also agreed to participate in the so-called “Preparliament” which Kerensky hoped to use to legitimise the position of his unelected government.

Lenin responded in a text called From a Publicist’s Diary in which he denounced the Central Committee:

"There is not the slightest doubt that at the top of our Party there are noticeable vacillations that may become ruinous ... Not all is well with the “parliamentary” leaders of our Party; greater attention must be paid to them, there must be greater workers’ supervision over them ... Our Party’s mistake is obvious. The fighting party of the advanced class need not fear mistakes. What it should fear is persistence in a mistake …" (Selected Works, Vol. II, pp. 340-1).

Not only did the Bolshevik leaders around Kamenev persist in mistakes, but they made them worse by suppressing all Lenin’s criticisms of their approach to the Democratic Conference and the future insurrection.

Although Lenin wrote thousands of words to stimulate them into action they ensured that the key passages were edited out. In frustration Lenin finally submitted his resignation from the Central Committee but “reserving for myself freedom to campaign amongst the rank and file”.

Although the Central Committee did not even discuss this resignation letter, it freed Lenin to take up private correspondence with individuals who were in other Party organisations. This once again revealed that Lenin was not an isolated figure battling against a mediocre party as all histories of the Russian Revolution make out. His struggle was against a party leadership which had become concerned more about the survival of the Party than the victory of the workers. Once the rest of the Party were aware of the issues they followed Lenin. The best example of this was the Petersburg Committee. When it learnt of the censorship of the discussion they were outraged against the Central Committee In fact the really interesting discussion about the need for insurrection took place in the Petersburg Committee. Here there was no element like Kamenev who wanted a deal with the Mensheviks, and who did not really accept the internationalist orientation of the Bolsheviks. This had developed out of the Zimmerwald and Kienthal conferences at the beginning of the First World War, and had been given new programmatic shape in Lenin’s Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism. The international question was now obvious in the concerns of the Bolsheviks in Petersburg. In the debate over the need for insurrection the most coherent opponent of Lenin’s was Volodarsky. He pointed to the backwardness of Russia and insisted that the Bolsheviks should mark time because the Russian Revolution could only succeed as part of a world revolution. Lenin’s s supporters agreed that the fate of the Russian Revolution was dependent on the fate of the world revolution. But they argued that the proletariat in backward Russia had been given a chance not yet offered to the working class anywhere else. The Russian workers must seize power and hold on whilst the European revolution developed.

This argument for not delaying any longer won the day. Lenin enshrined the internationalist position in his text The Crisis has Matured. This text like many others written in this period deserves to be read in full but we will content ourselves with just a few lines which indicate the internationalist essence of Bolshevism — the one factor that made it uniquely working class in the First World War.

"The end of September undoubtedly marked a great turning point in the history of the Russian revolution and, to all appearances, of the world revolution as well ... This stage may be called the eve of revolution. Mass arrests of party leaders in free Italy, and particularly the beginning of mutinies in the German army are indisputable symptoms that a great turning point is at hand, that we are on the eve of world-wide 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 both capitals on our side and we have the support of a majority of the people in a time of revolution - to us the saying “To whom much has been given, of him much will be required”, in all justice can and must be applied." (Collected Works, Vol. II, pp. 342-3).

It was an argument which won over the party, and on October 10th, the Central Committee voted to accept in principle the idea of organizing the insurrection. It was not simply a victory for one man, or even one party, but for the international working class. The problem now was how the insurrection would come about.

The Soldiers Become Bolsheviks

As we showed in the previous chapter, the Bolsheviks won enormous support for their policies well before the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets was called. In fact 80% of the worker delegates to that body were Bolshevik supporters. However, this does not mean that the proletariat was imbued with a communist consciousness since this would have been an impossibility under the prevailing conditions. What they did have were concrete demands which accumulated as 1917 wore on. They wanted an end to the war and its associated miseries of food shortages and inflation.

They had seen that coalition with the bourgeois Provisional Government only continued the war. Furthermore, the Germans continued to advance closer to Petersburg and it was widely believed that Kerensky aimed to allow it to fall into enemy hands so that the revolution there could be crushed. All this meant that the Bolsheviks were bound to increase their support since they were the only party which opposed the war in unambiguous terms and which had all along called for “All Power to the Soviets”. In October 1917 these issues became tied together as barracks after barracks voted not to obey orders to go to the front, and to listen only to the Soviets. Typical of these resolutions was that of the Egersky Guards Regiment on October 12th:

"The pulling out of the revolutionary garrison from Petrograd is needed only by the privileged bourgeoisie as a means of stifling the revolution ... We declare to all who listen that, while refusing to leave Petrograd, we will nonetheless heed the voice of the genuine leaders of the workers and poorer peasantry, that is the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies. We will believe in and follow it because everything else is pure treachery and open mockery of the world revolution." (As quoted in Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, p. 227).

This resolution was passed as part of the final critical struggle for control of the forces in Petersburg. On October 9th Trotsky had been able to get a resolution passed in the Petersburg Soviet which called for peace, the removal of the Kerensky government and, most significantly, proposed that the defence of Petersburg be undertaken by the Soviet itself. As a result of its acceptance this proposal created the famous Military Revolutionary Committee which was to coordinate the practical seizure of power on October 25th. Contrary to later Stalinist myths, the committee was not set up as a premeditated coordinator of the takeover. It only became so because the Mensheviks refused to take part in it. The committee was thus composed solely of Bolsheviks and Left S.Rs who were united on the need to transfer power to the soviets. Furthermore, the resolution to set up the Military Revolutionary Committee came before the Bolshevik Central Committee finally accepted Lenin’s arguments about an immediate seizure of power. The final proof that the Military Revolutionary Committee was not foreseen as the organiser of the October Revolution was that Lenin, and most Bolsheviks (with the exceptions of Trotsky and Volodarsky) looked to the Bolsheviks’ own Military Organisation to carry out the practical preparations. However, the latter, which had gone in for adventurism in July, had been so severly criticised within the Party that it now did not want to get its fingers burnt again.

Their preparations were so deliberate and cautious that in the end they played a subsidiary, rather than a leading role.

The chief reason for this was, as with so many issues in 1917, the bourgeoisie’s imperialist desires to continue the war. The war had brought the fall of Tsardom, it would now finally bring the end of the Russian bourgeoisie and their social democratic lapdogs in the S.R.and Menshevik Parties. In view of the fact that Kerensky needed the Petersburg garrison at the front and in view of the fact that the troops would not go, Kerensky was in fact faced with a mutiny from the moment the troops put themselves under the leadership of the Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. Once Kerensky and his Petersburg commander General Polkovnikov realised this, it was already too late. The Military Revolutionary Committee had managed to get commissars loyal to the Soviet elected in most of the regiments. When Kerensky realised he had few reliable troops in the capital he telegraphed for troops from the front but was told that the troops there were so “infested with Bolshevism” that they would refuse to move unless told the purpose of their transfer. In short the Provisional Government was already virtually paralysed. When Kerensky finally did act on October 23rd it was to call for the arrest of all the Bolsheviks who were out on bail after the July Days (this included all the military leaders of the Party), and to close down the Bolshevik press for sedition. But in order to carry out these measures he had to rely on cadets from officer training schools, a women’s shock battalion and a rifle regiment of war wounded. The forcible seizure of the Trud press where Rabochii Put, a Bolshevik paper addressed to workers, was published, was the signal for the Military Revolutionary Committee to react. The press was soon in workers’ hands again and troops loyal to the Military Revolutionary Committee persuaded those thinking of responding to Kerensky’s appeals to remain neutral. As with the Kornilov Affair, troops being moved towards the capital were also persuaded not to assist the counter-revolution.

Militarily there were now no obstacles to a seizure of power by the working class but there remained the question of when and how. This debate, which had raged in the Bolshevik Party throughout September, had still not been finally resolved despite the famous vote of October 10th. Whilst some members of the Military Revolutionary Committee wanted the immediate overthrow of Kerensky, other Bolsheviks still saw such an uprising as either wrong or premature. Trotsky summarised the situation correctly:

"The government is powerless; we are not afraid of it because we have sufficient strength ... Some of our comrades, for example Kamenev and Riazanov, do not agree with our assessment of the situation. However we are leaning neither to the right or to the left. Our tactical line has been developed by developing circumstances. We grow stronger every day. Our task is to defend ourselves and gradually to expand our sphere of authority so as to build a solid foundation for tomorrow’s Congress of Soviets." (Quoted in Rabinowitch, p. 253).

This was not how Lenin liked it of course. After seven weeks of campaigning for an immediate uprising against a defeated enemy, he could not contain himself. For the second time in a month he disobeyed the Central Committee’s instructions to remain in hiding and took his famous tram ride to the Bolshevik headquarters at the Smolny Institute. He had already sent an appeal to lower levels of the Party urging them to act before the Central Committee. It was a summary of all he had argued before:

"History will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious today (and they certainly will be victorious today), while they risk losing much tomorrow, in fact they risk losing everything. If we seize power today, we seize it not in opposition to the soviets but on their behalf. It would be a disaster, or a sheer formality, to await the wavering vote of October 25. The people have the right and are in duty bound to decide such questions, not by a vote, but by force, in critical moments of the revolution ... The government is tottering. It must be given the deathblow at all costs. To delay action is fatal."

In fact, both positions contain important elements of the truth. Trotsky recognised that there was no further chance for a new Kornilov to appear.

He saw that things were quickly enough as it was to a final denouement (and Trotsky was amongst the most active in ensuring the process was speeded up). Trotsky also knew something Lenin didn’t, namely, that the composition of the Second All-Russia Congress of Soviets would be overwhelmingly for the overthrow of the Provisional Government. Lenin feared that it would still contain enough Mensheviks and S.Rs to postpone any decision on soviet power until the Constituent Assembly, “which cannot possibly be favourable to us”, met. He wanted to present the other “socialist parties” with a fait accompli. If the Mensheviks rejected it then they would expose themselves as bourgeois in front of the working class. In fact this is almost how things turned out.

Proletarian October

The October Revolution has been called the best planned revolution of all time. A militant proletariat, steeled in battle and with its own political instrument in the Bolshevik Party, took power in the most orderly of mass actions in history. However this should not obscure certain facts which are characteristic of the relation of party and class. The Bolshevik Central Committee never, at any time, decided on the date for insurrection. It was simply overruled by the march of events and it was the Bolshevikcontrolled Military revolutionary Committee of the Petersburg Soviet which directed the final attack. Even here though, the real political leadership of the Bolshevik Party lay, not in the committee rooms of Smolny, but on the streets.

When Kerensky sent cadets to close the bridges over the Neva (thus cutting Petersburg’s centre from the working class districts on the Vyborg side) just as he had done in July.

"... they were challenged by an irate crowd of citizens, many of them carrying weapons. Forced to give up their arms the cadets were escorted humiliatingly back to their academy; as nearly as can be determined, this action took place without any specific directives from the Military Revolutionary Committee. Similarly, as soon as the struggle for the bridges began, Ilyin-Zhenevsky, also acting on his own, saw to it that garrison soldiers took control of the smaller Grenadersky and Samsonevsky bridges …" (Rabinowitch p.261).

In short, despite all the planning and all the debates the revolution was not the work of a minority simply leading a passive majority. The Bolsheviks as a military directing centre were not as well-prepared as Stalinist histories have made out. Their real success as a leadership of the working class was in imbuing the mass movement with clear goals that it could follow. Thus the Liteiny Bridge was shut by workers acting on their own consciousness of the importance of the situation, whilst an individual Bolshevik (Ilyin-Zhenevsky) doesn’t wait for instructions form the “centre”, but can act on his own initiative in accordance with the demands of the situation. As we have shown throughout this document, the Bolsheviks’ fitness for the revolutionary task was not the result of some assumed infallibility is strategy and tactics but in the fact that it was a party genuinely rooted in the class conscious vanguard of the working class - and a party capable of learning from its mistakes. In this sense it was the organiser of the proletariat in the October Revolution.

Without its general direction of the class vanguard the October Revolution would have become another heroic failure to put on a historical list that is already too long.

The final evidence of the Bolsheviks’ leadership of the masses came in the figures of the allegiance of the delegates to the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets which gave the Bolsheviks 300 and the S.Rs 193 (of which half were Left S.Rs who supported the overthrow of the Provisional Government), whilst there were 68 Mensheviks and 14 of Martov’s Menshevik Internationalists. The remainder were mainly non-affiliated but, as the voting soon showed, largely followed the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks supported a motion by Martov to establish a coalition government of all the socialist parties, but this was sabotaged by the Mensheviks and S.Rs, who made it clear they were walking out of the Congress. They hoped to mobilise the proletariat against the Bolsheviks but in fact, as the proletariat supported the Bolsheviks they simply walked, in Trotsky’s words, into “the dustbin of history”. This one Menshevik-Internationalist, Sukhanov, realised when he alter wrote:

"By quitting the Congress , we ourselves gave the Bolsheviks a monopoly of the Soviet, of the masses and of the revolution."

Despite further attempts by Martov’s Menshevik Internationalists to try to form a coalition including those parties which rejected soviet power, the Congress now overwhelmingly endorsed the insurrection. At about the same time the Winter Palace fell into the hands of the working class and the members of the Provisional government were arrested – the only arrests made by the working class. Kerensky had earlier escaped to try to rally frontline troops. This turned out to be another demonstration of the overwhelming victory of the Bolsheviks since his efforts almost ended with his own arrest. Disguised as woman, he fled Russian to write increasingly mendacious memoirs at Harvard law School over the next half century.

Meanwhile Lenin has emerged from the shadows of hiding to greet the Congress of Soviets with the simple statement “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”. The real history of the Russian working class revolution had begun...

A List of the Main Books Referred to in this Text

There are literally hundreds of texts on the Russian Revolution and many more were consulted than will appear here. The following list is simply of those editions in English which were actually quoted in the text. Unless stated, editions that were published in London have been used.

Home | International Communist Bulletin 8 |