The final act of the revolution

Michele Bollinger tells the story of the Russian Revolution's insurrection in October.

The Russian Revolution of 1917

THE DEFEAT of the coup attempt led by the right-wing General Kornilov at the end of August set the stage for the final act of the Russian Revolution.

The Provisional Government, led by Alexander Kerensky, was further compromised in the eyes of Russian workers. Kerensky had continued to prosecute the war and was complicit in putting Kornilov in a position of power in the first place.

The moderate socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SR), still had the support of a large section of workers, soldiers and peasants, but their collaboration with the Provisional Government had tarnished their standing.

By contrast, the Bolsheviks--because of their members' decisive role in defeating Kornilov and their commitment to defending the soviets--won greater influence. By September, the Bolsheviks were the majority in the Petrograd and Moscow soviets and others across Russia. Leon Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet.

"The mass mood was not specifically Bolshevik in the sense of reflecting a desire for a Bolshevik government," wrote historian Alexander Rabinowitch. "As the flood of post-Kornilov political resolutions revealed, Petrograd soldiers, sailors and workers were attracted more than ever by the goal of creating a soviet government uniting all soviet elements. And in their eyes, the Bolsheviks stood for soviet power--soviet democracy."

The inherently unstable situation of dual power--the soviets on the one hand, and the Provisional Government on the other--was coming to a head. "It was a question," Trotsky wrote, "of one of the element of a dual power making an insurrection against the other."

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"ALL POWER to the soviets" was becoming the clear, if not fully formed, aspiration of Russian workers, soldiers and some peasants. But it wasn't the aim of Russia's socialist parties--the Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and even some Bolsheviks, who maintained a murky vision of a broad-based, socialist coalition government to succeed Kerensky's Provisional Government.

By mid-September, the Bolsheviks were oriented around influencing the Democratic State Conference, a body organized by Menshevik and SR leaders in the Provisional Government to rival the Congress of Soviets. The Democratic State Conference paved the way for a pre-Parliament, a national body representing all classes in Russia, whose opening ceremony was presided over by Kerensky.

To Lenin, this orientation was all wrong. He believed the Bolsheviks were missing a decisive opportunity to organize to overthrow Kerensky and claim power for the soviets. He launched a campaign within the party--first among its leadership, and then the rank and file--to take immediate steps toward organizing an insurrection.

The reluctance to embrace Lenin's call for insurrection came from a fear that the Bolsheviks would repeat the experience of the July Days--that a premature action would backfire.

But Lenin insisted that the situation had changed. As he wrote in one mass appeal:

Comrades! Look around you, see what is happening in the countryside, see what is happening in the army, and you will realize that the peasants and soldiers cannot tolerate it any longer...Go to the barracks, go to the Cossack units, go to the working people and explain the truth to them. If power is in the hands of the soviets...there will be a workers and peasants' government in Russia; it will immediately, without losing a single day, offer a just peace to all belligerent peoples...if power is in the hands of the soviets, the landowners estates will immediately be declared the inalienable property of the whole people...No, not one more day are the people willing to suffer postponement.

With the question of the insurrection still unsettled, the Bolsheviks did come to terms with the nature of the pre-Parliament and staged a dramatic walkout, led by Trotsky.

The Bolshevik Central Committee met on October 10, the first time Lenin debated his comrades face to face about the new situation. Lenin insisted that "the political situation is fully ripe for the transfer of power." His resolution, which made seizure of power "the order of the day," passed by a vote of 10-2.

But debates persisted with Lenin's longtime collaborators, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev, who were steadfastly opposed to an insurrection. They were skeptical of both Bolsheviks' supposed strength and the Provisional Government's weakness.

Zinoviev and Kamenev proposed that the party maintain a "defensive posture" and continue plans to work within a Constituent Assembly, as promised by Kerensky. Their conception of working class power was that the "soviets must be a revolver pointed at the head of the government, with the demand to convene the Constituent Assembly and stop all Kornilovite plots."

Lenin responded: "Someone has very pointedly retorted to our pessimist: 'Is it a revolver with no cartridges?'...[If] it is to be a revolver 'with cartridges,' this cannot mean anything but technical preparation for an uprising; the cartridges have to be procured, the revolver has to be loaded--and cartridges alone will not be enough."

Lenin was proved right about the need to prepare for an insurrection. But he was wrong about how it should take place--both in his argument that the Bolsheviks should themselves should carry out the insurrection in the name of the soviets, and in his suggestion that it begin in Moscow.

Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders were better placed to recognize that support for the Bolsheviks was a product of loyalty to the soviets and soviet power. They began to develop a strategy of preparing for insurrection that utilized the strength of the soviets themselves.

The Petrograd Soviet established a Military Revolutionary Committee to organize for the defense of the revolution. Under Trotsky's leadership, the committee began to seize on any attempt at repression by the Provisional Government to not only defend the soviets, but expand the scope of soviet power.

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THE CRUCIAL moment arrived in October when the Kerensky government suddenly announced plans to move the bulk of the Petrograd garrison--now as much a center of the revolution as the city's factories--to the front. "In unison," Rabinowitch wrote, "garrison troops proclaimed their lack of confidence in the Provisional Government and demanded the transfer of power to the soviets."

The Military Revolutionary Committee sent its own commissars to replace the government's representatives in all garrison units. The committee issued an order that "no directives to the garrison not signed by the Military Revolutionary Committee should be considered valid."

Effectively, the soviet had taken control of the armed forces in Petrograd away from Kerensky--"disarming the Provisional Government without firing a shot," Rabinowitch writes.

Meanwhile, preparations were taking place for the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets from throughout the country--where the Bolsheviks were certain to have the majority of delegates.

On the eve of the congress, the Provisional Government made a last attempt at a crackdown. For example, Kerensky ordered the bridges raised in the center of the capital to disrupt movement--as the Tsar had done during the February Revolution.

The Military Revolutionary Committee's countermoves were coordinated out of the Smolny Institute--formerly a woman's boarding school, which had been taken over as the central headquarters of the Petrograd soviet, and where the leaders of the Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups gathered. "Agitators, organizers, leaders of factories, regiments, districts would appear," wrote Trotsky, "to get news, to check up on their own activities and return to their posts."

In the end, the process by which armed workers and soldiers took power in Petrograd was strikingly simple.

Trotsky writes that a company of soldiers "was given the task of seizing the nearby Nikolaevsky railroad station. In less than a quarter of an hour, the station was occupied by strong guards without a blow." Government buildings, transport stations, bridges, communications centers--all were occupied by similar detachments. With ease, a group of 40 sailors seized the State Bank building on the Ekaterininsky Canal.

As Trotsky commented: "The job was done. It was not necessary to employ force, for there was no resistance. The insurrectionary masses lifted their elbows and pushed out the lords of yesterday."

Late on October 25, detachments of armed workers seized the Winter Palace, where Kerensky had holed up with other top officials of the Provisional Government. Kerensky himself had fled hours earlier. The remaining ministers were arrested without a fight.

While being transported to his cell in Trubestskoi Bastion, Alexander Konovalov, Kerensky's Minister of Trade and Industry, "suddenly realized he was without cigarettes. Gingerly, he asked the sailor accompanying him for one and was relieved when the sailor not only offered him shag and paper but, seeing his confusion about what to do with them, rolled him a smoke."

The empty threats of the bourgeoisie--not to mention the moderate socialists, like the Mensheviks--who predicted chaos and anarchy were exposed with every step the Russian masses took toward their own liberation. Even police reports from that night indicate an absence of disorder.

The next morning, the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened and adopted a decree transferring power to the soviets. The Provisional Government had been toppled, and the demand for "All Power to the Soviets"--the embodiment of workers' democratic self-rule--was made a reality.

This article first appeared in the October 26, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.