The revolution gains strength

Paul D'Amato examines how the events after the February Revolution set the stage for the struggle for workers' power that played out through October.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE FEBRUARY Revolution created two governments in Russia.

One was official--the Provisional Government, dominated by the Russian capitalists, who actually feared the revolution and were intent on ending it as quickly as possible. The other was unofficial--the soviets of workers' and soldiers' deputies, which represented the depths of Russian society in revolt.

The moderate socialists--the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries--believed that these two institutions could coexist. Indeed, they had insisted that the bourgeoisie, not the soviets, should take power after February--and that the soviets, though they possessed in reality more power than the Provisional Government, should yield to the latter.

Yet these two centers of class power were incompatible; one represented the interests of the capitalists and landowners, the other, the working class and poor peasants. At some stage, one was going to triumph over the other.

Only the Bolshevik Party stated this truth plainly and openly. Leon Trotsky's first speech in the soviet upon his return to Russia in May enunciated clearly (though he was not yet a party member) the Bolsheviks' message to workers and oppressed peoples of Russia: "Do not trust the bourgeoisie; control the leaders; rely only on your own force."

All other parties save the Bolsheviks proceeded to compromise themselves irrevocably in the eyes of the Russian masses.

Even Nikolay Chkheidze, the Menshevik chairman of the soviet, proclaimed in a statement committing the soviets to support of the war effort: "The slogan for the revolution is 'Down with Wilhelm.'"

By this time, the Russian army was finished as a fighting force. For the Russian bourgeoisie and its international allies, the purpose of promoting the war was primarily to strangle the revolution.

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LENIN'S PLAN for the Bolsheviks seemed straightforward and simple: "Patiently explain" that all power must be taken by the soviets, and the experience of the working masses would itself move them leftward. This approach proved stunningly successful, winning the party thousands of new recruits.

But it also raised new and more difficult tactical questions related to the uneven character of the struggle--how to avoid the most advanced sections of the working class and soldiers in Petrograd moving faster than other parts of the country and creating a situation in which they would become isolated and crushed by the counterrevolution?

There were a number of factors creating this danger. One, the soldiers of the Petrograd garrison, numbering about 300,000, were quickly radicalized by their opposition to the military offensive and the impending possibility of transfer to the front, so they felt they had to act.

Second, the Petrograd workers, particularly in the Vyborg district, where the city's major factories were concentrated, had already by June, if not earlier, gone over to support Bolshevik demands. The same was true for the sailors of Kronstadt and the Baltic fleet. Third, anarchists were conducting a high-pitched agitation in favor of immediate overthrow of the provisional government, and were gaining a growing hearing.

All these factors were pulling the Petrograd Bolsheviks to the left and compelling them to act.

The result was a series of demonstrations; one in April, one in June, and one in July--each time larger, better armed and more militant--which threatened to spill over into street fighting and a premature bid for power in Petrograd.

Demonstrations were necessary as a method of probing the enemy and counting forces. But there was the constant danger of premature confrontations. Several times, Lenin and the Bolshevik Central Committee had to pour cold water on the party's hotter heads.

The April crisis was prompted by a note sent to the allies by Kadet Party leader Paul Miliukov--then minister of war in the Provisional Government--fully committing Russia to carry through its war obligations. A hastily organized demonstration of workers and armed soldiers on April 20, involving some 30,000 participants, ended in clashes with rightist forces.

In backing the protest, the Bolsheviks' Petrograd Committee issued slogans for the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government. This was in spite of an argument that Lenin had made some days earlier:

The slogan "down with the provisional government" is an incorrect one at the present moment, because, in the absence of a...majority of the people on the side of the revolutionary proletariat, such a slogan is either an empty phrase, or objectively, amounts to attempts of an adventurist character.

Lenin later criticized the Petrograd Committee for moving too far left when what was needed was not to give battle, but to carry out a "peaceful reconnaissance of our enemy's forces."

The April crisis caused the first of a series of cabinet reshufflings that removed Muliukov and brought moderate socialists into the Provisional Government.

The result was not to shift the Provisional Government to the left, but, on the contrary, to compromise the moderate socialists even more in the eyes of the masses, who could see that even with socialists in it, the government was still committed to the war and resistant to land reform.

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BY JUNE, it was clear that at least in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks had won over the majority of the working class, as well as a great deal of the military regiments stationed in the city.

The Bolsheviks had placed a great deal of importance on winning over the soldiers--without whose support no revolutionary overthrow could succeed--and had created a special organization, the Military Organization, to conduct organizational and propaganda work among the regiments.

On the Military Organization's initiative, the party called a demonstration for June 10. Though party leaders like Lenin viewed it as an opportunity to review the troops, Military Organization leaders hoped it could be the signal for an armed confrontation with the Provisional Government.

The Central Committee, however, called off the demonstration when faced by a stern demand to cancel it by the Executive Committee of the soviet--a move that created a great deal of anger in the party ranks.

The Soviet Executive Committee then decided to call its own demonstration on June 18 to advertise its own sway among the masses. The protest was huge--almost half a million people. But unfortunately for the soviet leaders, most of the factories and a majority of the military garrison regiments marched under Bolshevik slogans--"All Power to the Soviets"; "Down with the 10 Capitalist Ministers"; "Peace for the hovels; war for the palaces."

The June demonstration convinced Military Organization leaders that the time was ripe for the seizure of power.

But the question at this point was not whether it was possible to seize power in Petrograd. The question was whether such a seizure would create a "Paris Commune" situation, in which the capital city became isolated from the rest of the country.

At a June 19 conference of the Military Organization, Lenin argued, "If we were now able to seize power, it is naïve to think that having taken it we would be able to hold it." The party, he noted, had not yet even won a majority of delegates in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets, let alone elsewhere in the country.

Yet the pressure for another demonstration was great. The stage was now set for a far bigger clash than in April.

Amid great fanfare from rightist parties, the bourgeoisie, liberals and moderate socialists, War Minister Alexander Kerensky announced a military offensive to begin on June 18 (the offensive collapsed not long after it started under a German counterattack).

Under extreme pressure from troops who didn't want to be sent to the front, the Military Organization called for an armed demonstration to begin on July 3. The Bolsheviks' Central Committee at first tried to stop the protest, but when it was clear it would happen anyway, it decided to join it and give it as peaceful a character as possible.

Confusion as to the aim of the operation was apparent, however, in the fact that its participants couldn't decide whether this was to be a demonstration which aimed to pressure the soviets to take power (the position of the Central Committee), or an armed insurrection to forcibly overthrow the Provisional Government (the position of the Military Organization and the Kronstadt sailors).

In the end, the protests resulted in various fruitless armed clashes that left hundreds dead. Though as a rehearsal for the October Revolution, it did allow the revolutionaries to measure the enemy's strength as well as their own, the July Days' initial result was the flowering of reaction and an orgy of attacks on the Bolshevik Party.

This article first appeared in the July 6, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.