The fine art of revolutionary manoeuvre

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General Kornilov (front row with stick) and other army officers

The tumultuous summer months of 1917 in Russia saw the right regrouping in an attempt to reverse the gains of the February Revolution. Alan Gibson describes the twists and turns which brought the Bolsheviks and the moderates together — but also laid the groundwork for the October insurrection.

‘In the menacing hour of grave ordeals at the front and complete internal collapse from the political and economic disorganisation, the country can be saved from ultimate ruin only by a really strong government in the capable and experienced hands of persons who are not bound by narrow party or group programs.”

So said General Kaledin to a State Conference in Moscow on 12-15 August 1917. It was the clearest sign yet that, after six months of deepening turmoil both in the Russian army and across the country as a whole, army chiefs, manufacturers, bankers and leading capitalist politicians were gearing up for a counter-revolution against the massive gains made in the February Revolution.

The conference, called by the country’s provisional government, came just weeks after two days of protests and demonstrations had seen well over 500,000 workers and soldiers, many carrying weapons, march on the country’s political centre in Petrograd (today’s St Petersburg). They were demanding the immediate resignation of the provisional government and the transfer of power to the soviets — the committees of elected delegates from army regiments and factories that had been formed during the February events.

Critically, they were calling for an end to the political turmoil that had been created during the period of dual power that had resulted from the February Revolution. Then, following four days of demonstrations, strikes, soldiers’ mutinies and armed battles, the 300-year-old Tsarist regime had collapsed, and bourgeois politicians had formed a provisional government. On the very same day, and in the very same building, however, socialist leaders had also reformed the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies — a body that workers had created during the 1905 uprising.

The latter was by far the more powerful of the two bodies because of its organic links with the masses that had carried out the revolution, but its leaders in the Executive Committee believed it was necessary to reach a compromise with the bourgeois government — one formally recognised by Russia’s wartime allies — and rule together. As Lenin said at the time, it was a compromise that was doomed to fail.

Mutinied

By July, Russia’s ill-equipped army, already badly damaged by more than two years of terrible war, was falling apart as more and more soldiers either mutinied or fled the battlefields. The economy was heading for meltdown as investors fled, manufacturers closed down factories, and infrastructure broke down. Supplies of food to the cities and towns were drying up, and inflation was soaking up the value of workers’ wages.

Workers and soldiers had already demonstrated their anger over the provisional government’s decisions to continue sending soldiers to their slaughter in the trenches, and over the growing economic turmoil, adding to the rising political tensions. Many of the most politically advanced were joining the Bolsheviks, which had since April openly argued for another workers’ revolution. Now matters were coming to a head.

With messages from the front reporting the bloody failure of yet another offensive, soldiers in a host of Petrograd’s garrisons gathered in huge meetings, often alongside workers from the city’s industrial areas, and called for the downfall of the government and for the soviet’s Executive Committee to take power. They sent out delegations to regiments and factories in and around the city, and to the Kronstadt naval fortress, to join them in an armed assault on the government in order to achieve these aims.

Lenin and the majority of Bolsheviks argued against the assault, pointing out that although there was little to stop a revolution in Petrograd, the rest of the country was nowhere near ready to join it. It would ultimately end in defeat because of its political isolation. This, however, did not stop the Bolsheviks joining the demonstrations, but with the intention of doing their utmost to moderate the soldiers’ and workers’ demands.

By now, not only were government ministers panicking; so was the Executive Committee of the city’s soviet, which had absolutely no intention of agreeing to take power. Ever since the committee had decided to hand over the enormous power it had in order to compromise with bourgeois politicians, it had been more and more incorporated into a coalition with them. Rather than take forward the gains from February, it had found itself trying to quell them.

Now it faced two ways. On the one hand it believed it was necessary to not only put down the revolt but to take the opportunity to destroy the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, the committee’s leaders knew that by doing so they would leave themselves vulnerable to their own destruction by the right wing forces they would inevitably unleash.

In the event, the government’s shock troops and Cossacks arrived in the city to put down the revolt. But as Leon Trotsky explains in his epic History of the Russian Revolution, “almost the whole armed force of the government was hostile to it. The government was living by the authorisation of the Executive Committee; the power of the Executive Committee derived in turn from the hopes of the masses that it might at last come to its senses and take the power.”

Two days of demonstrations, armed skirmishes, turmoil and confusion on the streets of Petrograd followed, during which Trotsky and Lenin, alongside leading Bolsheviks, succeeded in restraining the protesters, stopping the overthrow of the government and helping the Executive Committee’s leaders sidestep soldiers’ threats that unless they took power their days would be numbered. But the price they paid was high.

With the demonstrations dying out, the government’s troops, though small in number, were free to smash up the Bolsheviks’ offices and printers and arrest party members, revolutionaries, militant workers and mutinous soldiers. As one witness recorded, they were joined by “self-appointed groups of officers, military cadets and gilded youth” who rushed to “help” the regime. To reinforce the reaction, rumours were circulated claiming the Bolsheviks were “agents of German imperialism”, and that Lenin was a German spy. A host of revolutionaries, including Trotsky, were jailed, while Lenin fled the city.

It was at this point that the leading government minister, Alexander Kerensky, formed a government of “salvation of the revolution” with the aim of stabilising the situation. But he had little room for manoeuvre. As he said, “If I move to the left I have an army without a general staff and if I move to the right, I have a general staff without an army.” He initially tried to reach an agreement with the army’s commander in chief, General Lavr Kornilov, to impose military rule in the capital, but drew back when he realised the general’s counter-revolution would not only supress the Bolsheviks and their followers but his own government as well.

Kornilov, with support from his generals, business leaders and foreign powers, was now working with French and British military leaders to muster forces for an outright assault on Petrograd with the aim of ridding the country of every vestige of the huge democratic gains made in February. By mid-August news of the mobilisation was reaching the city.

Kerensky and his government, along with the Executive Committee of the Petrograd soviet and its followers, were now panicking. The former lacked the authority to summon help. The latter, having turned their back on the tens of thousands of soldiers and workers who had demanded they take power the month before, were now helpless.

Independently

Kerensky, in desperation, turned to the only force that still had real influence over the masses, the Bolsheviks. They suppressed their own grievances against Kerensky and agreed to help defend Petrograd. But they made it clear that they were acting entirely independently of the government, and that they were still intent on overthrowing it.

As Lenin explained to the party, “We must campaign not so much directly against Kerensky, as indirectly against him, namely by demanding a more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov. The development of this war alone can lead us to power.”

The Bolsheviks demanded Kerensky arm the workers and summon regiments loyal to the soviets back into the city. At the same time they appealed directly to the workers of Petrograd to take up arms in the struggle against Kornilov, thus avoiding handing Kerensky any major role in leading it. Trotsky, still in jail, answered visiting sailors who asked if it was now time to arrest the government that that would be wrong. “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterwards we’ll settle with Kerensky,” he said.

The Bolsheviks now mobilised to form defence committees across the city. They mustered workers from the giant munitions factories to gather arms, grenades and cannons. Soldiers and workers worked together to dig trenches and build barricades. Critically, the Bolsheviks called on their supporters on the railways to divert trains carrying Kornilov’s forces and sabotage tracks. Every station was organised to maintain communications with the city’s Military Revolutionary Committee.

The magnificent united front that the Bolsheviks helped build against the terrible danger that Kornilov posed saw his march on Petrograd collapse within four days. The general fled the city but was captured by soldiers’ committees. Within days his generals were dismissed and government ministers who had been implicated in the counter-revolutionary attempt were dismissed. Kerensky tried to form a new government, but now his weakness, and that of the whole bourgeois edifice he had tried to maintain, was exposed.

The Bolsheviks had cast aside the scandalous rumours used to discredit them as thousands flocked to join them. They quickly rebuilt their influence not only within the city’s workers’ and soldiers’ soviets but now throughout the whole country. Some two months later, having won the majority of delegates in the Petrograd Soviet, they led the insurrection against Kerensky’s government, and in the name of the soviets’ Military Revolutionary Committee, took over state power.