The Road to Red October: Chapter 6. The Bolsheviks – mass party of the working class




The Russian workers, particularly those in Petrograd, had suffered a very real setback after the defeats of the July Days. The Bolshevik leadership was arrested or forced into exile. Circulation of the party press was halved after July with the central organ having a circulation of only 50,000 in August. The mood in the factories was often despondent.


Yet by September and October the tide had turned decisively in favour of the Bolsheviks. After years in exile or underground, after months as the intransigent left minority in the soviets and after the persecution suffered in July the Bolsheviks at last proved themselves to be the party of the Russian working class. Their undisputed leadership enabled them to transform the spontaneous class consciousness of the working class into a conscious political force. Their methods of achieving that leadership, of defeating the reformist obstacles that stood in the way of victory, are a priceless legacy for revolutionaries today.


Under Kerensky’s premiership the forces of the bourgeois counter-revolution continued to mobilise. The pressure from the High Command became intense. Brusilov the Commander-in-Chief curtly demanded of Kerensky, “There cannot be dual authority in the army. The army must have one head and one authority.” He demanded the complete and total restoration of military discipline.


Kerensky, whose own role as would-be Bonaparte and “strongman” rested on a balancing act between the soviets and the counter-revolution, played for time by dismissing Brusilov and replacing him with Kornilov. Kerensky made this balancing act incarnate by summoning a “State Conference” in Moscow from 12 to 15 August. Here, appropriately in the Bolshoi Theatre, Kerensky pirouetted back and forth between the massed delegates of big business and the officer corps on his right and the Menshevik/SRsoviet delegates on his left, whose fear and hatred for each other burst forth repeatedly. Kerensky could only hysterically assert his own strength and authority and thereby fatally undermine it in the eyes of the bourgeoisie at least. And indeed it was an offensive by the counter-revolution that was to cut the ground from under its own feet. Looking at Kerensky, at Tsereteli and Chernov, the counter-revolution made an enormous mistake. It thought it saw in these exhausted bankrupts the exhaustion and bankruptcy of the working class and the revolution. It was a mistake for which they were to pay dearly and at short notice.


Before July the Bolsheviks had established themselves as the leadership in several key fighting units of the working class. In the August city council elections in Petrograd they chalked up majorities in the proletarian districts of Peterhof and Vyborg. Their influence in the factory committees had increased, with 82% of the delegates at the August All-Russian Factory Committee Conference endorsing their call for soviet power. The Bolsheviks led a general strike in Moscow against the State Conference. That self same strike had been opposed by the conciliator leadership of the Moscow Soviet.


Workers resolute


That the workers were not prepared to make their peace with the bourgeoisie or the Provisional Government was demonstrated by a resolution from the young workers of Putilov:


“We, the youths, having learnt from the experience of our fathers how dangerous it is to fraternise with the bourgeoisie, declare that it will be a fearful hour when we, the youth, for the salvation of the revolution take to the streets to destroy with our young hands those parasites who live off the blood and sweat of the toilers . . .


“[We express] our profound scorn for the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks who continue to cohabit with the bourgeoisie and allow themselves to be led on a leash by Kerensky and Tsereteli.”


Further battles lay ahead and this was patently clear to the most class conscious workers. But after July the workers had learnt the need for discipline and organisation, the need to avoid premature and sporadic struggles.


counter-offensive against both the Provisional Government and the gains of the working class. The July Days had given them the confidence to press home the attack. On 22 July the right wing General Kornilov was appointed to the supreme command by Kerensky. He declared he would be answerable only to his “own conscience and the whole people”. He very quickly assumed the mantle of the messiah of the counter-revolution. At the Moscow State Conference he was fawned on by Kerensky and the bourgeois ministers as the “first soldier of the revolution”.


Kornilov’s rise coincided with increasing clamour from the bosses for the complete restoration of their right to hire and fire, which had been usurped by the factory committees. There were well hatched plans to establish a military dictatorship to establish the order that the Provisional Government had still evidently failed to achieve.


The weakness of Kerensky’s government was sharply exposed. He was trying to crack down on the organised workers. On 24 August he closed down the Bolshevik press once again. At the very same time the bourgeoisie were preparing to oust him and his government. Quite simply, after July the bosses felt they had no further use for the Provisional Government. In co-ordinated fashion, the bourgeois Cadets resigned from the government and General Kornilov announced a march to restore order in the capital on 27 August. The long depressed stock market soared as the capitalists looked forward to the counter-revolution’s victory.


Bolshevik predictions verified


Everything the Bolsheviks had been predicting about the role of the conciliator Mensheviks and Kerensky was being verified by the march of events. These traitors to the working class had been allowing the forces of counter-revolution the chance to re-gather their strength and strike back. The Party was now put to the test of fighting the counter-revolution.


Kornilov’s march on Petrograd shattered the post-July order in the factories. Meetings vowed to defend the city and demanded arms to do so from the Soviet Executive. The old Baranovskii Machine Construction factory resolved:


“We demand that the Central Executive Committee [TsIK], give arms to the workers, who not sparing their lives, will stand as one in defence of the just rights of revolutionary democracy, and together with our brethren soldiers, will erect an impassable barrier to the counter-revolution and will tear out the poisonous fangs from the snake that has dared to poison the great Russian Revolution with its lethal venom.”


Thousands of Petrograd workers threw themselves into the struggle to stop Kornilov. At least 25,000 enlisted for the Red Guards who were co-ordinated by the Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. At Putilov 8,000 of the workforce were sent to perform defence and agitation duties. Those who remained behind achieved three weeks output of cannon in three days so as to defend the revolution!


Kerensky cowered behind the proletarian wall defending Red Petrograd. In the short term he had no alternative. Bolshevik leaders were released from jail and Bolshevik propaganda and agitation was in free flow again. Bolshevik militants were prominent in all the mobilisations to halt Kornilov. The problem for the Bolsheviks was how to use these mobilisations to win the mass of the workers away from their trust in the Mensheviks and in the wretched Kerensky, how to intensify the contradictions between the rank and file Mensheviks and SRs and their compromised leaders?


For Lenin the key to this lay in “indirectly” campaigning against Kerensky “by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov.” The aroused workers must be mobilised to press partial demands on Kerensky, which would develop the militant mood and reawakened confidence of the rank and file while exposing the weakness and vacillation of their leaders. Their demands were to include the arrest of the Cadet leader Miliukov and Duma President Rodzianko who were backing Kornilov. They included the legalisation of the transfer of the land to the peasants, and workers’ control over grain distribution and the factories.


The Bolsheviks also demanded the arming of the Petrograd workers and the summoning of the militant Kronstadt, Vyborg and Helsingfors garrisons to Petrograd. Involving the workers in the fight for their demands in the revolutionary defence of Petrograd was, for Lenin, the means of taking them forward politically. That is why he insisted that the demands be presented, “. . . not only to Kerensky, and not so much to Kerensky as to the workers, soldiers and peasants who have been carried away by the course of the struggle against Kornilov.”


In denying Kornilov the right to overthrow Kerensky Lenin was in fact digging Kerensky’s political grave and the graves of those who sought to compromise with him. As Lenin put it:


“We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way.”


This means of waging the struggle against Kornilov and Kerensky proved a resounding success. Kornilov was stopped in his tracks as his army dissolved around him under the pressure of Bolshevik agitators and sabotage by militant railway workers. The political fortunes of the Bolshevik Party increased tremendously in the aftermath of Kornilov’s defeat and Kerensky’s humiliation. Its use of a united front, addressed to Kerensky and the Mensheviks, but carried into life by thousands of rank and file workers in the committees of struggle, was for the limited goal of defeating Kornilov. But by combining unity in action with a merciless critique of Kerensky and the conciliating leadership of the soviets, the Bolsheviks proved to thousands of workers that they were the only consistent revolutionaries. The united front was a bridge to the masses and a weapon against their reformist misleaders.


The final phase


General Kornilov’ s defeat at the hands of the Petrograd workers opened the final phase of the Russian Revolution. The workers had arms once again. The ranks of the Red Guards had grown dramatically. Anew confident tone was to be heard in factory meetings throughout the capital city. Factory after factory replaced their Menshevik or SRdelegates to the Soviet with Bolsheviks. Resolution after resolution passed at mass meetings in early September took up the Bolshevik call for all power to pass to the soviets and challenge the Soviet leadership’s collaboration with the Kerensky government. The workers of Langezipen typically told those leaders:


“. . . we suppose that the Kornilov rebellion has washed your sleepy eyes clear and enabled you to see the situation in its true light.


“We declare that you have long spoken for us, but not our views, and we demand that you begin to speak the language of the proletariat or else we reserve for ourselves freedom of action.”


In fact the Kornilov coup attempt had not washed clear the sleepy eyes of the Menshevik and SRleaders of the TsIK. It had clouded them even further. While Kerensky tried to strengthen his power by establishing a five person directorate, the TsIK still continued to support him in exchange for a promise to convene a Pre-Parliament. The tension between the aspirations of the proletarian mass and the intentions of those they had once delegated to represent them was increasing dramatically.


In September the Petrograd Soviet passed its first distinctively Bolshevik resolution calling for a government of “the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry”. In opposition, the Mensheviks could only muster 15 votes out of 1,000 delegates in support of the Provisional Government! The Moscow Soviet passed a Bolshevik resolution four days later.


The other contenders for proletarian leadership either withered and declined, as was the case with the Mensheviks, or they were gripped by splits and instability. The SRparty split, with the Left SRs supporting the calls for soviet power against their ex-leaders. The bulk of the Petrograd SRorganisation backed the Lefts, reflecting the mood of Red Petrograd.


It was the growing identification of the most active workers with the Bolshevik Party that marked the most important change in the mood of the working class. Tireless agitation and propaganda to expose the treachery of the Soviet leadership was now beginning to bear fruit. By October Bolshevik Party membership stood at 250,000 compared to around 30,000 at the beginning of the year. In Petrograd the Bolsheviks could count 43,000, members in their ranks of whom 28,250 were workers and 5,800 soldiers. The overwhelming majority of the party was proletarian.


The bulk of the intelligentsia inevitably abandoned the banner of the proletariat as the hour of decision drew close. Those intellectuals – the finest intellects in Russia and much of Europe – that stuck by the working class were party intellectuals. Their talents were at the service of the proletarian party.


Bolshevik’s meteoric rise


The party’s proletarian core was chosen by the majority of the workers to be their representatives in the soviets and the factory committees. In the Red Guard in October, for example, 44% were Bolshevik Party members. The vanguard party of Lenin now comprised the mass vanguard of the Russian working class. The meteoric rise of the Party was consolidated in September and October. In Moscow district council (duma) elections in September the Bolsheviks secured 52% of the vote and virtually wiped out the Mensheviks. During September and October the Bolsheviks could count on 68% support in the Moscow Soviet while the Mensheviks and SRs were receiving 16% and 4% respectively. The Party was truly becoming the national party of the Russian working class. In Saratov in the Volga it took leadership of the Soviet in September. It was to do the same in the majority of soviets across Russia’s far flung industrial centres as the month wore on.


These facts, stubborn facts that bourgeois historians have never yet been able to refute, show as a lie and a slander the charge that when the Bolsheviks took power they were a minority and their action was a coup. On the contrary, as a majority they led a mass revolution. Once the Bolsheviks comprised that layer of workers that the majority of the Russian working class looked to lead their struggles, the task was to use that position of leadership to mount a formal offensive against both the Provisional Government and the conciliator leadership ensconced in the Soviet Executives.


For those workers who had entered the ranks of the Bolsheviks there was no question but that the deepening crisis could only be solved by the seizure of power by the soviets. Yet, even after Kornilov, the TsIK refused Lenin’s offer of loyal opposition within the soviets if they were to take the power. The transfer of power to the soviets could now only take the form of a Bolshevik-led and organised seizure of power. Surveying the developing peasant land seizures, the paralysis of Kerensky’s government and the new mood in the soviets, the third Petrograd city conference of the Bolsheviks resolved in early October that the moment for decisive action was nigh. The assembled representatives of the leadership of Red Petrograd’s proletariat declared:


“All these circumstances say clearly that the moment of the last decisive battle, which must decide the fate not only of the Russian but of the world revolution, has arrived.”


Memories of July


One last difference existed between the Bolshevik vanguard and the majority of workers. The majority were for soviet power. In Petrograd only one factory mass meeting voted contrary to the call for the impending second All Russian Congress of Soviet Deputies to take the power. That argument had been clinched decisively. However, still only a minority of workers, mainly the younger ones, were prepared for an open “coming out” (vystuplenie in Russian) to achieve that end. The memory of July lingered on. Ared guard from the Petrograd Pipe Factory described his own foreboding as their detachment spent the last pre-October night in the factory:


“. . . But Idid not feel like sleeping. Many thoughts raged through my head, much was still not understood that is so clear now. The July Days stood out too vividly before my eyes. The hissing of the philistine crowd shook my certainty.”


But there had been a dramatic change in the balance of class forces since July which should have quelled such nerves. The other industrial centres were far nearer to the mood of Petrograd. The peasantry was in motion, and recognising this the Bolsheviks were prepared to lead the struggle for power. All the conditions existed for the seizure of power by the working class.


In this situation only a decisive move by the vanguard could provide the masses with the final confrontation that the majority wished for even though many of them shrank from it. As the Vyborg district organiser Latsis expressed it so well:


“In the coming out the organised apparatus must be to the fore, the masses will support. It is totally different from before.”


The Bolsheviks had learnt in July that the rising could not follow the pattern of the bourgeois revolution of 1789 in France in which the great mass of people rise as one against the old regime. In modem capitalist society the art of insurrection involved meticulous planning. Technical preparation had to follow on from political preparation. With the conquest of the masses the Bolsheviks were obliged to begin the secret work necessary for the victory of a rising. The Party was obliged to fashion the instruments of insurrection, As Trotsky observed:


“Just as a blacksmith cannot seize the red hot iron in his naked hand, so the proletariat cannot directly seize the power; it has to have an organisation accommodated to this task. The co-ordination of the mass insurrection with the conspiracy to the insurrection, the organisation of the insurrection through the conspiracy, constitutes that complex and responsible department of revolutionary politics which Marx and Engels called ‘the art of insurrection’, It pre-supposes a correct general leadership of the masses, a flexible orientation in changing conditions, a thought-out plan of attack, cautiousness in technical preparation, and a daring blow.”


Having won proletarian leadership, the Bolsheviks prepared to strike that “daring blow” and seize state power for the soviets. On 22 October the Petrograd workers were rallied in a series of meetings to celebrate the “Day of the Petrograd Soviet”. Party workers spoke to indoor meetings organised to avoid provocation and confrontation. At the Central People’s House 30,000 attended to hear Trotsky electrify his audience with a call to carry the revolution through to the very end. An SRdescribed that at factory meetings at this time: “our speeches seemed doomed to us.” The Menshevik commentator Sukhanov left the People’s House with his head in a swim:


“With an unusually heavy heart Iwatched this truly majestic scene. And all over Petrograd it was the same thing. Everywhere final reviews and formal oaths. Strictly speaking, this was already the insurrection. It had already begun.”


Those who were to seize the bridgeheads, the post office and railway stations, those who were to arrest the Provisional Government, knew that the mass of the workers stood behind them. That fact gave the Bolsheviks the confidence and the courage to act and the certainty that victory would be theirs.