The October insurrection, which took power into the hands of the workers and poorest sections of the peasantry, was no historical accident. It flowed from two factors decisive for the victory of any proletarian revolution.
On the one hand it arose inevitably from the deepening crisis that gripped Russian society in the autumn of 1917. The February Revolution, which overthrew the Tsar had ushered in an inherently unstable period of dual power.
The bourgeoisie, through the Provisional Government, held formal control over the state apparatus. But they did so only with the permission of the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ soviets – the embryo of another state power.
The bourgeoisie lived, breathed and tried to rule courtesy of the reformist leaders of the soviets, the Mensheviks and the right wing of the peasant based SRs.
As the months wore on the situation of dual power became less and less acceptable to both the bosses and the working masses. This created crisis after crisis. One way or the other it had to be resolved. Either the bourgeoisie would launch a second Kornilov into action to crush the revolution, or the workers would lead society out of its impasse by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat.
By the autumn of 1917 this was the stark choice facing the classes in Russia. It was the objective precondition for the insurrection. Trotsky later noted:
“Amass uprising is no isolated undertaking which can be conjured up at any time one pleases. It represents an objectively conditioned element in the development of a revolution, as a revolution represents an objectively conditioned process in the development of society.”
Subsequent history has shown all too often however those favourable objective conditions – an acute revolutionary crisis – do not on their own guarantee the victory of the proletariat. This was shown with tragic consequences in Chile, Portugal and Iran. To mobilise the proletariat for the direct struggle for power and weld it into a fighting force capable of destroying the bourgeoisie’s state, a conscious leadership is required – a subjective factor.
The October insurrection proved that the revolutionary party, armed with the correct programme, tactics and strategy, and prepared to arm itself and the class with rifles too, is the indispensable pre-requisite for victory.
Immediately after the Kornilov affair Lenin expressed the belief that a peaceful development of the revolution was once again possible. In his article “On Compromises” Lenin explained that if “All power to the Soviets” could be realised forthwith, that is, if the Menshevik and SRleaders in the soviets could be forced by the pressure of the masses to break from the bourgeoisie then:
“In all probability it could secure the peaceful advance of the whole Russian Revolution, and provide exceptionally good chances for great strides in the world movement towards peace and the victory of socialism.”
The slim chance for this compromise lay in the fact that workers were distrustful in the extreme of the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of Kornilov. Their pressure was a material factor. It could perhaps, be exerted to the point where the Mensheviks and SRs would be forced to make some sort of break – at least formally – with the chief capitalist party, the Cadets.
Loyal opposition refused
But before the ink was dry on the article he had written Lenin received news that Kerensky was planning to form a five person directory, and strengthen his drive to establish a Bonapartist dictatorship for the bourgeoisie. Even now the Mensheviks and SRs refused to consider the proposal for a “socialist” only government based on the soviets within which the Bolsheviks would accept the role of loyal opposition. Upon receipt of this news Lenin suggested re-titling his article “Belated Thoughts”. He wrote:
“Perhaps the few days in which a peaceful development was still possible have passed too. Yes, to all appearances, they have already passed.”
Henceforth Lenin concentrated his thoughts on how to take the revolution forward under Bolshevik leadership. In less than a fortnight he concluded that the rising was an immediate necessity. Over the following weeks Lenin fought a relentless struggle to win the Bolsheviks to this perspective. He quickly grasped that in a matter of weeks the objective situation had dramatically changed. He fought to change the party accordingly. He struggled to make the subjective factor equal to the tasks of the objective situation.
The crisis of the dual power situation intensified on every front during September and October. In the countryside, as the days of the harvest passed, the peasant masses renewed their ferocious war against the landowners. The agrarian question, which Trotsky called the “subsoil of the revolution” acquired decisive importance. Traditionally the peasants looked to the SRs as their representatives. Yet the SRs were openly collaborating with the landowners. The Provisional Government, of which the SRs were an integral part declared in September, as instances of violences against the landowners rose from 440 in August, to 958, that:
“. . . all must experience alarm over the disorders which were happening everywhere in the wildest forms.”
The pitchforks that pierced the overfed bellies of the landowners worried the SRs far more than the cruel land hunger that existed amongst the peasant masses. All the SRs could offer the peasants was that on an unspecified day a constituent assembly, which the bourgeoisie were successfully preventing from being convened, would solve the land question. Unimpressed, the peasants continued their land war. October saw 42.1% of all instances of land seizure since the fall of the Tsar.
The peasant land war, spurned by the SRs and opposed by the bourgeoisie, had found a natural ally in the proletariat’s revolutionary struggle. This in turn immeasurably strengthened the proletariat as the leader of all the oppressed and downtrodden in Russia. As Trotsky put it:
“In order that the peasant might clear and fence his land, the worker had to stand at the head of the state: that is the simplest formula for the October Revolution.”
The land war and the struggle of the proletariat were also increasingly enmeshed with a wave of struggles for autonomy by the nationalities imprisoned within the Tsarist empire. In the east, Bashkirs and Kazakhs fought for autonomy as a means of getting land. Throughout the lands of the empire national struggles erupted and were directed against Kerensky’s dithering Provisional Government. Moreover, the phenomenal spread of soviets throughout the nationalities increasingly meant that autonomy became identified with soviet power.
Amongst the soldiers, sailors and workers the continuation of the war and the threat of famine increased mass hostility to Kerensky.
The Baltic fleet was dominated by the Bolsheviks. Garrison after garrison followed them. The Soviets began to return ever more convincing Bolshevik majorities as the crisis deepened. This process of radicalisation was well underway by early September. Indeed when some Bolsheviks saw Lenin’s “On Compromises” they were indignant that a rightist course was being proposed. Slutsky, from the Petrograd Committee, argued on 7 September:
“As in the factories, so among the poverty stricken peasants we see movement leftwards . . . For us to consider compromises now is ludicrous. No compromises! . . . Our task is to clarify our position and to prepare unconditionally for a military clash.”
In fact Lenin himself was quickly moving towards the same conclusion. The crisis had matured. Delay would prove fatal. The Bolsheviks must launch the insurrection.
Lenin’s views were communicated to the Central Committee (CC) in a number of letters and discussed on 15 September. Lenin argued that the forthcoming Democratic Conference, to which the Bolsheviks were aiming to send a sizeable delegation, would not resolve the problem it was due to debate – the question of the government. He expressed his belief that the Mensheviks and SRs would weight the conference in favour of the petit bourgeoisie. It would deceive the peasants and the workers. At the same time the authority of Bolshevism was increasing all of the time. He wrote:
“We have the advantage of certain victory, for the people are already near to exhaustion and after showing them the importance of our leadership in the ‘Kornilov days’, and then offering the bloc members a compromise and having it refused by them amidst vacillation on their part which has continued ever since, we are giving the whole people a sure way out.”
That way out was a Bolshevik government which could only be installed by smashing the reformist leadership and the whole bourgeois state apparatus out of the way. All the efforts of the Bolsheviks should be directed towards the factories and barracks, not the Democratic Conference.
He argued that the Democratic Conference should be told that if it does not accept the Bolshevik programme in full then there will be an insurrection. And, anticipating opposition to this course of action from within Bolshevism Lenin opened the struggle with the vacillators by declaring that the waverers should be left “in the waverers camp.”
Lenin’s new course hit the CC like a bombshell. Copies of the letters were destroyed for fear that they might get beyond the CC. Nobody, at that stage, favoured an immediate rising. The Bolshevik plans for the Democratic Conference had been framed along the lines of the “On Compromises” policy. The declaration to the conference called on the conciliators to break with the bourgeoisie and transfer power into the hands of the soviets. It addressed a series of demands to the conciliators but not, as Lenin had favoured, in the form of an ultimatum.
Vote for coalition
The Democratic Conference, which opened on 14 September, was itself a factor in winning more Bolsheviks over to Lenin’s insurrectionary views. He proved right as to its composition. Delegations were carefully weighted and on the day the Bolsheviks – increasingly a majority in the soviets – were in a tiny minority at the conference. There were 532 SRs (of whom 71 were Lefts), 530 Mensheviks (only 56 Internationalists amongst them) and 134 Bolsheviks. The urban working class areas were grossly under-represented.
With such a composition the conference, not surprisingly, voted for yet another coalition between the Soviet parties and the Cadets who, only a few weeks before, had worked hand in glove with Kornilov. The conference went on to establish a council, a Pre-Parliament, which was there merely to advise the Provisional Government.
This experience convinced Trotsky and Sverdlov that “All power to the Soviets” could now only be achieved against the conciliators. It became for them a slogan for an uprising. By the middle of the conference they were moving visibly closer to Lenin’s position.
The dispute over the rising now took the form of a dispute over whether on not the Bolsheviks should boycott the Pre-Parliament. Trotsky favoured such a boycott and fought for it in the CC. He won 9-8 but the closeness of the vote prompted the CC to consult
the Bolshevik delegation at the Democratic Conference. The delegation very much represented the regional and city committee men rather than the party rank and file. They tended to lean to the right. To Trotsky and Lenin’s extreme annoyance they voted 77-50 in favour of participating in the Pre-Parliament. Lenin wrote:
“Trotsky was for the boycott. Bravo Comrade Trotsky! Boycottism was defeated in the Bolshevik group at the Democratic Conference. Long live the boycott. We cannot and must not under any circumstances reconcile ourselves to participation . . . There is not the slightest doubt that there are noticeable vacillations at the top of our party that may become ruinous.”
Nevertheless, the tide in the Bolshevik Party was turning in Lenin’s favour. His letters had become known about in wider circles of the Party. Fresh forces representing the proletarian rank and file of the Party were elbowing their way into the debate supporting Lenin’s line. His impatience – even his threat to resign from the CC – was slowly bearing fruit. The first victory came when, on 5 October, the CC formally decided to boycott the toothless Pre-Parliament. This act announced Bolshevism’s conviction that the future of the revolution now lay exclusively in the struggle for soviet power. As Trotsky wrote:
“We left in order to say that only soviet power can raise up the slogan of peace and toss it over the heads of the international bourgeoisie to the proletariat of the entire world Long live the direct and open struggle for revolutionary power in the country.”
That walk out received the virtually unanimous endorsement of factory resolutions from throughout Russia. It signalled that the proletariat had seen enough of their leaders’ wheeling and dealing with Kerensky and the bourgeoisie. Now was the time for something completely different.
A new dimension
On 10 October the CC met again to consider Lenin’s views. This time he had donned his disguise (according to Kollontai he looked like a Lutheran minister) and attended despite the risk of arrest by Kerensky’s police. Lenin’s resolution added a new dimension to his view of the situation – a rising in Russia could spark a European wide revolt
So important did Lenin regard news he had heard of disaffection in the German fleet that he began his resolution by noting “The international situation as it affects the Russian Revolution”. This aspect of Lenin’s strategy has been systematically downplayed by the Stalinists whose doctrine of “socialism in one country” contradicts a vital element of Lenin’s Marxism.
The meeting came to a vote on Lenin’s resolution. It was clear that the line of divide was between settling the fate of the revolution by staging a rising in the immediate future or the postponement of the rising and the acceptance of the role of “opposition” in a “democratic” capitalist Russia. The resolution was clear:
“Recognising that an armed uprising is inevitable, and the time fully ripe, the Central Committee instructs all party organisations to be guided accordingly and to decide all practical questions from this standpoint.”
The resolution was adopted ten to two. The two vacillators were close comrades of Lenin’s, Zinoviev and Kamenev. These two men opposed the rising from the day Lenin first argued for it to the fateful day itself. Kamenev in particular, was a consistent right winger in the party who had never really been reconciled to Lenin’s “April Theses”. As late as August Kamenev was still trying to build bridges to the Second International by speaking openly in favour of attendance at a proposed reformist peace conference at Stockholm. This was an open break with agreed Bolshevik policy which was against attendance. In the aftermath of Kornilov’ s attempted coup Kamanev leapt at Lenin’s “On Compromises” and proceeded to give it an extremely right wing and constitutionalist interpretation. Thus when Lenin changed tack and argued for a rising the CC minutes record that Kamenev proposed:
“After considering Lenin’s letters the CC rejects the practical proposals they contain, calls on all organisations to follow CC instructions alone and affirms once again that the CC regards any kind of demonstration in the streets as quite impermissible.”
This proposal was rejected by the CC, which did not yet want to write off Lenin’s proposals altogether.
Kamenev was playing on the fear, “the convulsion of doubt” as Trotsky called it, that lingered in the party after the July defeat. In so doing he was able to enlist wider support than he had ever enjoyed prior to July. In particular he won over Zinoviev.
Zinoviev was wedded to the idea that, with the defeat of Kornilov, Lenin’s perspective of peaceful development via “All power to the Soviets” had become timeless. And, in the event – not at all certain – that the forthcoming Second National Congress of Soviets took place, then the influence of Bolshevism would grow and grow. Zinoviev’s gradualism, centred more on life in the soviets than Kamenev’s, expressed itself in an article he wrote on 27 September:
“In our view the all-powerful authority over the Russian land is the Congress of Soviets opening on 20 October. By the time the Congress convenes, if it is able to meet at all, the experience with this new coalition [under Kerensky] will have failed and wavering elements will at long last associate themselves with our slogan, ‘All power to the Soviets’. Each day will witness a growth in our force.”
In this perspective key decisions are left to chance and to fate.
Zinoviev and Kamenev, with support from other prominent Bolsheviks like Nogin, Rykov and Riazanov, argued that Lenin’s call for a rising was premature. The time was not ripe. The masses were supposedly not yet ready. In particular Kamenev harboured the belief that a coalition of soviet parties including the Bolsheviks (something Lenin vehemently opposed) might emerge from the Democratic Conference. Thus, while Trotsky was hammering away at the need for soviet power in every address he made to that conference, Kanlenev argued:
“The only possible course is for state power to be transferred to the democracy – not to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, but to that democracy which is well enough represented here. We must establish a new government and an institution to which that government must be responsible.”
At a Presidium meeting he went on to assure the Mensheviks and SRs of Bolshevik support for a government that was a “homogeneous democratic ministry”. He stated:
“We will not overthrow such a government. We will support it insofar as it pursues a purely democratic policy and leads the country to the constituent assembly.”
“Support insofar as” was the rotten old formula he and Stalin used back in March and against which Lenin’s “April Theses” were directed. It made its reappearance at the Democratic Conference. Even the debacle of the Democratic Conference and the Pre-Parliament failed to budge Kamenev. He resisted a boycott right to the end.
The decisive clash with Lenin and Trotsky came a week after the historic 10 October meeting. Amuch larger CC was held on 16 October with representatives of various other committees also in attendance. It revealed that the vacillators represented a strong current in the party. Although Lenin’s resolution for an insur
rection was passed once again 19-2, a proposal from Zinoviev, to wait until the Second Congress of Soviets, was defeated 15-6. This resolution – sharply counterposed to Lenin’s given that it was not yet certain the Congress would be convened – showed the extent of support for Zinoviev. Those forces were only for a rising in the abstract. Notables such as Kalinin spoke of the rising as a far off event. Nevertheless the die was cast.
Faced with this decision Zinoviev and Kamenev betrayed the party. They immediately circulated a letter against the decision to the members. More clearly than ever before it revealed the deeply opportunist kernel within their perspective. They asked if Russia was ripe for insurrection and replied “No, a thousand times no!!!” They pinned all their hopes on the “excellent” chances that the Bolsheviks held of becoming the biggest opposition in the Constituent Assembly. And they argued – as did the reformist Rudolf Hilferding some years later – that soviet power and bourgeois democracy should be combined:
“The constituent assembly too can only rely on the soviets in its revolutionary work. The constituent assembly plus soviets – here is that mixed type of state institution we are going towards.”
In effect they wrote off the crisis that had engulfed Russia as something a yet to be convened constituent assembly could solve. As Trotsky later noted this perspective was based on “fatalist optimism” which binds:
“. . . the proletarian vanguard hand and foot, and by means of the ‘democratic’ state machinery turns it into an oppositionist shadow of the bourgeoisie bearing the name of Social Democracy.”
While their action in opposing the rising could be explained as a mistake and while their campaign to reverse the decision of 16 October in the party was a breach of democratic centralism, their next move was, as Lenin said, strike-breaking. In an article in Gorky’s non-party paper, Novaya Zhizn, Kamenev publicly declared his opposition to the CC decision for a rising. He did so even though that decision had, obviously, not been published for security reasons. Kamenev was, in effect, giving Kerensky advance notice of the Bolshevik plan.
Lenin was resolute in carrying through the struggle against the vacillators, who had now turned into strike breakers. Zinoviev had acceded to Kamenev performing this act of treachery and was branded as co-responsible by Lenin. In demanding their expulsion from the party, Lenin wrote:
“It is not easy for me to write this about people who were once close comrades but it would seem to me a crime to hesitate here, for a party of revolutionaries which did not punish prominent strike-breakers would perish.”
Lesson for revolutionists
There is a lesson for every revolutionist here. The party had set its course towards the insurrection. That decision had been democratically arrived at. Zinoviev and Kamenev had put their case and lost. They went on to betray the party. For Lenin, at this point, the struggle against vacillation could not be stopped half-way. It could not be suspended because these men were friends and comrades. The good of the revolution, the will to victory demanded that they be expelled.
As it turned out they were not thrown out. Stalin even published an editorial note on the affair criticising Lenin’s tone and soilidarising with Zinoviev. But, with this action Zinoviev and Kamenev destroyed their chances of reversing the party’s decision.
Following the affair Lenin pressed, ever more impatiently, for the attack to be launched. On the eve of October, interpreting every delay as a potential new vacillation, he declared of the CC:
“Idon’t understand them. What are they afraid of . . . Just ask them if they have one hundred loyal soldiers or Red Guardsmen with rifles. Idon’t need anything else.”
In fact he had won. Delays from late October were caused by technical rather than political difficulties. Thus, when he arrived – without CC permission – at the Smolny late on the evening of 24 October, matters were well in hand. Lenin had brought the decisive subjective factor, the revolutionary Bolshevik Party itself, into line with the tasks and potential of the objective situation.