Repression and resurgence

Paul D'Amato looks at the period of repression that followed the July Days--and the lessons that the Bolshevik Party drew from the experience.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

BY LATE June 1917, many workers in Russia were fed up with the moderate leaders in the soviet who refused to take power from the Provisional Government, which had re-launched a disastrous military offensive, was refusing to act on the land question, and was doing nothing to solve an acute hunger crisis.

Leon Trotsky notes in his History of the Russian Revolution that even workers who were members of the Bolshevik Party were losing patience with the party, wondering when it was going to act decisively to turn the situation--and therefore were more and more susceptible to anarchist agitation for immediate action to overthrow the Provisional Government.

Lenin and the other leaders of the Bolsheviks responded by urging calm and insisting that the time wasn't right. "We understand your bitterness," Lenin wrote in Pravda on June 21, "but we say to them: Comrades, an immediate attack would be inexpedient."

Lenin argued that the failure of the military offensive must first be felt among the masses before more decisive action could be taken.

Playing the part of the "fire hose" was not something that worker militants in the party were used to, and they found it distasteful. Pressure built for an armed demonstration at the beginning of July.

The party's Central Committee first insisted that there be no demonstration, then that it be unarmed--but it couldn't control developments. In the end, party leaders decided to place themselves at the head of the demonstration and steer it as much as possible away from armed confrontation.

Yet those who had pushed most for the armed demonstration--both anarchists and militants from the Bolshevik Military Organization--really had no concrete plan as to what this demonstration was to achieve.

The anarchist Bleichman argued that all that was necessary was for the masses to come out into the streets armed, and the Provisional Government would fall, just as the Tsar had fallen in February. Many saw the action as merely a threatening protest--a shake of the fist at soviet leaders, meant to pressure the Executive Committee of the soviet into action.

The Cadet leader Miliukov reported seeing a worker at the Tauride Palace shaking his fist in the face of Chernov, a Socialist Revolutionary (SR) leader in the soviet and minister in Kerensky's government, and saying, "Take the power, you sonofabitch, when they give it to you."

But many of these same participants had some vague hope that protests might go even further. Trotsky had to come out and rescue Chernov from a lynching he was about to receive at the hands of a group of sailors.

The still-moderate leaders of the soviet, who were committed to collaborating with the capitalists, considered these demonstrations demanding soviet power--i.e., that they should take power into their hands--a dire threat that must be stopped.

The moderates denounced the Bolsheviks as conspirators against the revolution. Kamenev, a moderate Bolshevik, defended the party in the soviets, saying, "We did not summon the manifestation. The popular masses themselves came into the street...But once the masses have come out, our place is among them."

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AS THE demonstrations began, tens of thousands of armed demonstrators marched to the Tauride Palace, the location of the soviet, and masses of soldiers and workers also marched to the Ksheshinskaya Mansion, where the Bolsheviks were headquartered, demanding speeches. Lenin disappointed the protesters by urging patience and restraint.

Provocateurs deliberately shot at Cossacks and regular troops who had been called from the front to put down the demonstration, causing shootouts. After a series of fruitless armed clashes, which included machine-gun and sniper attacks on protesters from the windows of Petrograd's bourgeois districts, the Bolsheviks issued an appeal on July 5 to end the demonstration. Sensing that the protest had exhausted itself, the participants disbanded.

Trotsky brilliantly summed up the "paradox" of the July days: "The July demonstrators wanted to turn over the power to the soviets, but for this, the soviets had to agree to take it," which they did not.

On the contrary, July showed that the moderates were more willing to ally with the bourgeoisie to crush revolutionary initiative than to accept the power that initiative was pushing them to seize.

Trotsky remarks in the History of the Russian Revolution that July was a "semi-revolution":

A prototype of the July Days is to be found in all the old revolutions--with various, but generally speaking unfavorable, and frequently catastrophic, results. This stage is involved in the inner mechanics of a bourgeois revolution, inasmuch as that class which sacrifices most for the success of the revolution and hopes the most from it, receives the least of all.

The natural law of the process is perfectly clear. The possessing class which is brought to power by the revolution is inclined to think that with this the revolution has accomplished its mission, and is therefore most of all concerned to demonstrate its reliability to the forces of reaction.

This "revolutionary" bourgeoisie provokes the indignation of the popular masses by those same measures with which it strives to win the good will of the classes it has overthrown. The disappointment of the masses follows very quickly; it follows even before their vanguard has cooled off after the revolutionary struggle.

The people imagine that with a new blow they can carry through, or correct, that which they did not accomplish decisively enough before. Hence, the impulse to a new revolution, a revolution without preparation, without program, without estimation of the reserves, without calculation of consequences.

On the other hand, those bourgeois layers which have arrived at the power are in a way only waiting for a stormy outbreak from below, in order to make the attempt decisively to settle accounts with the people.

Such is the social and psychological basis of that supplementary semi-revolution, which has more than once in history become the starting point of a victorious counterrevolution.

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FOR THE first few weeks after the July demonstrations, it seemed that the reaction might be victorious. The aftermath produced a wave of demoralization among workers and soldiers.

There was a brief orgy of attacks, both physical and political, against the Bolshevik Party, but clearly intended as part of a more general reaction against the entire left. Hundreds were arrested, including Kamenev, the Kronstadt Bolshevik leader Raskolnikov and other leading Bolsheviks.

Fearing for his life, Lenin went into hiding, along with Zinoviev. Trotsky was also arrested.

A young Bolshevik activist handing out leaflets was struck by a saber and killed after being arrested. The party was driven from its headquarters in Ksheshinskaya, and its press was shut down. Several local party offices were raided and destroyed.

The Soviet Executive Committee issued a proclamation on July 8 demanding that the government "crush all anarchical outbursts." Street assemblies were banned, and capital punishment was restored in the military in the war zone. The extreme right began acting more openly and confidently. Most significantly, all citizens were ordered to turn in their weapons.

Using false evidence, Lenin was accused of being a German agent. This slander campaign had its effect, in particular, among some of the least conscious workers and soldiers. A handful of Bolshevik workers were turned out of factories, and the party's recruitment dried up. For a period, the military barracks excluded all Bolsheviks.

But in the end, the reaction was relatively short-lived, and the movement bounced back in a matter of a month--stronger, deeper and broader. Suspicious of the government still and alarmed by the specter of counterrevolution, Russian workers refused to give up their arms.

The greater the threat of reaction, the more the Bolsheviks were welcomed as the guardian of the revolution's left flank. While the party's recruitment briefly stopped, it lost very few members, and its organization survived the period intact.

The local district soviets--which were more in touch with the rank-and-file mood--showed little interest in attacking Bolsheviks. What most interested them was preventing the government from disarming the workers, stopping left-wing soldiers from being sent to the front, resisting the reinstitution of the death penalty at the front, and challenging the growth of the extreme right.

All these concerns led straight back to the revival of the Bolsheviks' standing and the lowering of the standing of the moderate soviet leaders, who were even more strongly allied with the Provisional Government now than before the July Days.

By the beginning of August, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were reporting mass defections from their party ranks into the Bolshevik Party, and at the beginning of August, the workers' section of the soviet overwhelmingly passed a revolution protesting the arrest and persecution of Bolsheviks. Also, Bolshevik influence was once again gaining among the Petrograd military garrison.

Lenin himself exaggerated the depth of the reaction, arguing that the soviets had exhausted themselves as revolutionary organs of power, and that power could no longer be seized relatively peacefully, as he had previously thought. He proposed that the party now abandon its slogan "All power to the soviets," arguing that the party would have to summon the coming insurrection through the party and the factory councils.

Some Bolshevik activists more in touch with developments in Petrograd disagreed. At the Sixth Party Congress, held on July 26, Iurenev, an associate of Trotsky (who was still in prison), argued that the "All power to the soviets" slogan wasn't necessarily inappropriate even if an insurrection was necessary to achieve it. He argued that acting outside and against the soviets would create a split between revolutionary workers and poor peasants, who gave their allegiance to the soviet.

Volodarsky, the party's most popular orator, argued:

Do we need to maintain the slogan "All power to the soviets" in the same form as before July 3-5? Certainly not! But you can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. We must simply modify our slogan supported by the poorer peasantry and revolutionary democracy organized in the soviets of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies.

The Baku Bolshevik Dzhaparidze, who had been elected as a candidate member of the Central Committee, argued that the party should not equate the local and district soviets with the soviet Executive Committee. He argued, correctly as it later turned out, that the party must not turn its back on the soviets, but rather continue to rally the masses around soviet power and win a Bolshevik majority in them.

Yet at the same time, Lenin was correct to begin pushing for a realization in the party that power could only be seized by insurrectionary means.

Though the Sixth Congress officially abandoned the slogan "All power to the soviets" through the month of August (ironically at a time when the Bolsheviks' standing in various soviets was growing), it was resurrected after the Kornilov coup attempt at the end of the month.

What was left of Lenin's argument was the importance of preparing the party and the working class for an insurrection against the Provisional Government--once it was clear that the party had a majority in Petrograd, Moscow and elsewhere among workers, soldiers and sailors.

This article first appeared in the August 3, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.