It was Trotsky and Sverdlov who perfected the means of achieving the proletarian seizure of power that Lenin was urging on the Party. That means was to be an armed insurrection organised by the Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) timed to coincide with, and therefore pass power to, the Second Congress of Soviets. The remorseless struggle of Lenin and the party rank and file was now set to bear fruit.
Lenin had favoured a rising led by the Northern Region Congress of Soviets in mid-October. His impatience was leading him, if anything, to underestimate the task of preparing for the rising. His major allies against the vacillators – Trotsky, Sverdlov, Antonov-Ovseenko, Bubnov and Sokolnikov – stood against him on the question of when and how to stage the rising.
While Lenin had sensed the mood of the workers for a rising and acted on it, those comrades who were in more direct contact with every sector of the masses, grasped the conditions under which the masses would actually stage and support a rising.
Their plan from the outset was to deliver power into the hands of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, through a rising organised in defence of that Congress against the Provisional Government’s attempt to crush it and with it the revolution. Their tactics, from 16 October, demonstrated the validity of their approach. By subverting the authority and military power of Kerensky from that date until the weekend of 21/22 October, they created the conditions of a certain victory on 24/25 October.
So clear was it that the masses wanted soviet power, and so successful were Sverdlov and Trotsky in their campaign to rally the soviets for the struggle for power, that Lenin was obliged to acknowledge the correctness of their line. The first shots in the campaign for the rising were fired during the garrison crisis which began on 9 October. Kerensky tried to move the bulk of the garrison out of Petrograd since it had largely gone over to the Bolsheviks.
The move, rightly suspected as a means of preparing a counter-revolution, was greeted with outrage. Ameeting of the Egersky Guards Regiment on 12 October resolved that:
“The pulling out of the revolutionary garrison from Petrograd is needed only by the privileged bourgeoisie as a means of stifling the revolution.”
The meeting went on to call for soviet power.
The Bolsheviks utilised this crisis, over the next week, to establish the Soviet’s own (MRC). Its task was to defend the revolution. The MRC was staffed by Bolsheviks, Left SRs and anarchists. But as the crisis deepened it was obvious that the Bolsheviks, and in particular Trotsky, led it.
The relationship between the Bolsheviks’ own Military Organisation and the MRC, was a vital factor in the success of the insurrection. Trotsky effectively won the argument that the MRC was the appropriate organ of insurrection at the Central Committee on 20 October. In relation to the Military Organisation it resolved:
“. . . all Bolshevik organisations can become part of the revolutionary centre organised by the Soviet.”
Lenin was fearful of the rightist inclinations of the Party Military Organisation. It wanted to delay the rising for two weeks. He supported the view that the MRC should organise the insurrection and set out to convince Bolshevik military leaders Nevsky, Podvoisky and Antonov to accept it. The Party did not liquidate itself into the MRC. Aprecondition for victory had been Bolshevism’s conquest of leadership in the mass organisations of the revolutionary working class. Through Trotsky the Party led the MRC and through Sverdlov the organisations of the MRC and those of the Bolsheviks were intertwined.
Once the MRC was established and had consolidated its ties with the 25,000 Red Guards and the garrison the Bolsheviks stepped up the action. On 22 October a mass “Day of the Soviets” was staged in Petrograd. Huge meetings in every proletarian centre in the city rallied to the call for soviet power. In the People’s House Trotsky urged the masses on to the last battle after a vote for soviet power:
“Let this vote of yours be your vow – with all your strength and at any sacrifice to support the Soviet that has taken on itself the glorious burden of bringing the victory of the revolution to a conclusion and of giving land, bread and peace!”
Afrightened journalist for the reactionary Reck newspaper recorded: “The vast crowd was holding up its hands. It agreed. It vowed. . .”
On 21 October the MRC declared that no orders to the army were valid unless countersigned by the MRC. This was an act of mutiny that Kerensky if he was to survive could not tolerate. Indeed when the MRC delivered this directive to the military chief in Petrograd he threatened to arrest their commissars.
It was an empty threat the garrison’s units all trusted the MRC. Kerensky had only officers cadets and the women’s battalion under his command.
As the MRC launched this mutiny the Baltic sailors under the leadership of Bolsheviks like Dybenko and Raskolnikov, were preparing to back the rising. On the pre-arranged signal of “Send regulations”, battleships laden with revolutionary sailors were to come to Petrograd. Aparticipant recalls the scene when the order came through on 24 October:
“What did the Gulf of Finland around Kronstadt and Petrograd look like then? This is conveyed well in a song that was popular at the time:
‘From the isle of Kronstadt
Toward the River Neva broad
There are many boats a-sailing
They have Bolsheviks aboard.’”
Kerensky was well aware that a rising was imminent.
Knowing that the Soviet Congress would sound the death knell of his regime he attempted to move into action. On 24 October he ordered the arrest of the MRC and of recently released Bolsheviks and the closure of the Bolshevik press. His few loyal troops were ordered to raise the bridges that separated the government buildings from the workers’ districts.
With calm resolution Trotsky ordered the MRC into action. The Bolshevik print shop was re-opened by troops and Red Guards. Smolny, the headquarters of the Soviet and MRC, was turned into an armed camp.
Two figures symbolise the fate of the revolution at that critical point. Kerensky full of bombast, posing incessantly, pleaded for support from yesterday’s bourgeois institutions – the Pre-Parliament and the officers “in charge” of Petrograd. Lenin, still on the run made his way to the Smolny discussing events with a conductress on a streetcar. Afew hours later Lenin was addressing the Congress of Soviets, the new power in the land. Kerensky was on the run.
The insurrection underway
Beside himself with impatience, Lenin had arrived at the Smolny to discover that the insurrection was underway at last. Victory seemed more and more certain as the morning of the 25th wore on. Stations were swiftly occupied. The mere shining of the cruiser Aurora’s arc lights across the Nikolaevsky Bridge put its cadet guards to flight. Two hundred workers and sailors immediately secured it. The telephone exchange, state bank and all the key junctions were taken by the forces of the MRC. By 10.00am on 25 October the MRC declared:
“The Provisional Government has been overthrown. State power has passed into the hands of the organ of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies the Military Revolutionary Committee which stands at the head of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison.”
In fact the government was cowering in the Winter Palace. The remainder of the day was like a tense waiting game. More and more insurgents gathered at the Palace. The Congress of Soviets prepared to open. One last push was necessary. The Winter Palace had to be stormed. Kerensky himself slipped away in search of support outside Petrograd.
After a series of delays – including comical ones such as the forgetting to bring along the red lantern which had been agreed on as the signal for the attack – the Palace was taken with virtually no bloodshed.
Aforce of Red Guards and sailors stormed the Palace after the Aurora fired her blank shells. The cadets and junkers gave up without a fight Revolutionary discipline prevented any looting and a bourgeois reporter was compelled to admit that no members of the women’s battalion suffered physical or sexual abuse at the hands of the insurgents.
With the Winter Palace secure the rising was complete in Petrograd. Victory in the whole of Russia followed. That it did so was due to the steadfastness of the Bolsheviks and the decision of the Second Soviet Congress to accept the transfer of power into its hands. It did so in recognition of the fact that the MRC has acted to save the revolution. Its vote was a vindication of Trotsky and Sverdlov’s tactics and of Lenin’s guiding strategy.
The imposters leave
The last of the compromisers, the Menshevik Internationalist leader Martov, declared the rising to be a Bolshevik coup against the soviets. The workers soldiers and peasants answered him with catcalls and hoots of derision as he walked out of the Soviet.
Rebutting their claims that the Bolsheviks had usurped power, a young soldier jumped to the platform and stated:
“I tell you now the Lettish soldiers have many times said ‘No more resolutions! No more talk! We want deeds.’ The power must be in our hands! Let these impostor delegates leave this Congress! The army is not with them.”
With that hundreds of working people began to sense the power they held and the correctness of the Bolshevik proposals.
The seizure of power by the MRC was no coup d’etat. The absence of major “disorders”, damage to public buildings and so on was not because the rising lacked a mass character, as ignorant bourgeois reporters suggested. Rather it was because the insurrection was a well planned and highly disciplined action carried through by an apparatus that had mass support. The initial absence of bloodshed and “disorder” in Petrograd was a reflection of the weakness of the bourgeoisie. However, it would be entirely wrong to conclude from the events of the 24th and 25th in Petrograd that the insurrection was peaceful.
Immediately after the rising the counter-revolution mobilised. With a force of battle-hardened Cossacks under the leadership of generals Krasnov and Dukhonin, Kerensky ordered a “March on Petrograd” on 27 October. He followed this force on a white horse as it stormed Gatchina, 27 miles away from the centre of Petrograd. Meanwhile the cadets captured at the Winter Palace were all released by the Bolsheviks. The revolution was generous and trusting to a fault. It learnt of the bloodthirsty perfidy of the bourgeoisie in battle. The cadets immediately seized the telephone exchange in Petrograd and arrested Antonov-Ovseenko. Bitter fighting began in the city. Some 200 people were wounded or killed.
A“Committee for the Salvation of the Country and the Revolution” was established. At a public meeting it held in Petrograd one of its speakers called for the crushing of the Bolsheviks and the Soviet Government “without mercy”. The very same people who were spouting about “democracy” for all they were worth were fantasising about the violence they could inflict on the working class, its party and its government. Significantly it was not only the open parties of the bourgeoisie who joined the counter-revolutionary conspiracy. The Mensheviks and SRs, confirming Lenin’s assessment of them in July as counter-revolutionary parties, joined in the attempts to physically destroy the soviets that they no longer led.
Any doubt about the mass support enjoyed by the new regime was dispelled as Krasnov and Dukhonin advanced. On 28 October a state of emergency was declared in Petrograd. Thousands upon thousands of workers, soldiers and sailors rallied to the defence of the city. They erected an impassable barrier to the advancing Cossacks. Then, having caused the White Guards to halt their advance, the Red forces struck. At Pulkovo Heights on 30 October workers and Red artillery men hammered the forces of the counter-revolution. Two days later a truce was signed. Kerensky disappeared into oblivion. Petrograd was secure. And yet again the revolution trustingly released its enemies. General Krasnov was set free. He immediately headed south to rally forces for the civil war the bourgeoisie now knew it had to launch.
The Moscow rising
In Moscow the rising itself was a bloody affair. The Soviet voted overwhelmingly in support of the Petrograd MRC’ s actions. Immediately the bourgeois parties and the Mensheviks and SRs established a “Committee of Public Safety” with 10,000 troops at its disposal. This force proved more effective than the Petrograd counter-revolutionary Junkers had. It trapped the Red forces in the Kremlin.
After being assured that there would be no reprisals the pro-Soviet forces reluctantly surrendered. They learnt a bitter lesson. Despite having had the “word of a gentleman” that they would not be harmed, the bourgeois officers immediately led their gangs into action. Red Guards coming out the of the Kremlin were set upon and beaten to death. All over the city Bolsheviks were being rounded up and shot. These were the actions of the forces of “democracy”. What a contrast they were to the actions of the proletarian democrats. For when reinforcements came from Petrograd the Red forces in Moscow were able to turn the tide. The White Guards were forced out of every quarter of the city and themselves surrounded in the Kremlin. Red gunners pounded them relentlessly. Eventually they surrendered. The Bolsheviks assured them there would be no reprisals. Unlike a few days before when the Junkers made the same offer only to ignore it and indulge in an orgy of violence, when the Whites filed out of the Kremlin not one was set upon.
The capitalists and their wretched reformist apologists frequently blether on about the horrific violence preached by revolutionaries, and the peace-loving democratic methods they themselves use. Let them consider the Moscow events. Military violence played its role in the service of the revolution. We revolutionaries recognise the importance of that role. But bloodlust, mindless, spiteful acts of brutality – they were the preserve of the bosses and their military and political defenders.
The repeated outbreaks of such violence by the forces of the counter-revolution as 1918 wore on taught the Bolsheviks the necessity for a Red Terror, for the suppression of those who were determined at all costs to destroy the workers’ state. But the Red Terror was a means of ensuring that the peasants kept their land, the workers their control of production, the soldiers their democratic rights. The White Terror had only one objective. To restore the rule of the few over the many in the name of profit and greed.
Revolution not reform
Above all else, the October events proved beyond doubt the viability of proletarian power. They showed the truth of the maxim that no ruling class ever gives up without a fight. Against today’s Kerenskys – the Kinnocks of this world – we assert the absolute right and necessity of all the exploited in Britain and worldwide, to heed the example of the Russian workers. Do not try to tinker with the bosses’ system. Do away with it. And in so doing we will open up new horizons for humankind.
As John Reed, a chronicler of the revolution, noted after a huge demonstration of Russian workers in Moscow in the days following victory:
“Slowly from the Red Square ebbed the proletarian tide . . . Isuddenly realised that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer and for which it was a glory to die . . .”
Seventy years on that kingdom has yet to be built. But October 1917 has, more than any other event in history, placed it within our grasp. We must learn its heroic lessons, and act on them.