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The 1917 Russian Revolution

Joe Craig

18th April 2005

The Russian Empire at the turn of the 20th century was a huge conglomeration of nationalities and ethnic groups covering over 21 million miles from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Baltic and Black seas in the west. With a population of over 178 million people it was overwhelmingly a rural and agrarian society. ‘Eighty per cent of the population was composed of peasants living for the most part in scattered villages with poor communications between them. To the Russian peasant, the village was, for all practical purposes the world.’(1) In 1861 the peasants had been freed from serfdom but the legislation doing so had failed to modernise and develop most of Russian agriculture.

Industry was concentrated in a few areas such as St. Petersburg and Moscow with oil production in Baku in the south and mining in the Donets Basin. The greater proportion of it was owned by foreign capital especially in St Petersburg, and the capitalist class was both weak and divided, with much of it heavily dependent on the state. Some its factories were extremely modern and even by world standards extremely large, especially in the capital St. Petersburg. This created a relatively compact and concentrated working class much of it recruited relatively recently from the villages.

The Empire was a creaking autocracy presided over by a Tsar with absolute power. Anyone could be arrested, imprisoned or exiled to Siberia without trial. The press was subject to censorship, meetings and all associations required the permission of the government and the whole regime was defended by a notorious secret police the Okhrana. Between the verkhi, the wealthy and privileged classes, and the nizy, the lower classes, lay a vast and unbridgeable gulf. Many workers harboured an intense class pride that rested on complete and total opposition to those in society above them. This was fertile ground on which socialists could fight to give workers’ alienation political expression and a political programme.

Theory of Revolution

Marxists in Russia, in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), regarded their immediate and primary task as overthrowing the Tsarist regime. In 1898, the year the Party had its First Congress, Akselrod, a prominent leader and later Menshevik, argued that ‘if there is no possibility of giving the Russian proletariat an independent, pre-eminent role in the fight against tsarist autocracy and arbitrary rule, then Russian social democracy has no historical right to exist.’(2) When this was challenged at the end of the century by the ‘Economist’ tendency, which said Marxists should concentrate on the economic struggles of the workers and to making these struggles political, Lenin wrote his famous booklet ‘What is to be Done?’ Despite later notoriety, at the time it was viewed by most as a statement of orthodoxy.

The pressures placed on this system erupted in 1905 on ‘Bloody Sunday’ when troops fired on a peaceful demonstration in St Petersburg sparking off a revolution. Eventually the army suppressed the revolt and some temporary reforms were introduced, including a parliament or Duma, elected on a restricted franchise but the failure to institute fundamental and widespread reforms made another revolution inevitable. But what sort of revolution?

The ‘orthodox’ had split at the Second Congress of the RSDLP in 1903 into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks but many rank and file members of the RSDLP, to which both factions still belonged, were unclear about the differences. It was not until the 1905 revolution and after that strategic differences became clearer. ‘The essence of this divide was that the Mensheviks now no longer believed that the working class and its party could or should exercise hegemony over the democratic revolution whereas the Bolsheviks continued to hold fast to this central tenet of old orthodoxy.’(3)

Both factions continued to believe that what they were fighting for was a democratic revolution that would go no further than to destroy the existing semi-feudal autocracy. This would then facilitate the widest and most unrestricted development of capitalism which would then hasten the arrival of the later workers and socialist revolution. The Mensheviks believed that this could only be done in an alliance with the newly active liberal capitalists, who would form the leadership of the revolution while the workers would keep their hands clean by being an ‘extreme revolutionary opposition.’(4) The Bolsheviks rejected this and looked to a revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants which would fight the capitalists for leadership of the revolution and form a government of its own once the autocracy was overthrown.

Both factions were agreed that a socialist revolution was off the agenda. Lenin attacked those who dreamed of ‘the absurd and semi-anarchist idea of giving effect to the maximum programme and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution. The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible.’(5)

The object of Lenin’s attack was Leon Trotsky who regarded the working class as the only really revolutionary force to which the peasantry would ally. Since the latter were incapable of any independent political project the peasants would be politically subordinated to the workers. Having led a revolution, the workers would find it impossible to restrict their demands within artificial limits. They would inevitably seek to enjoy the fruits of victory and this would inexorably propel the revolution to break not only with the capitalist parties but also with the capitalist state and capitalist system.

Trotsky agreed with Lenin that objective conditions prevented the establishment of socialism in Russia because of its low stage of capitalist development. This meant that to achieve socialism, indeed to survive at all, the revolution had to spread to more advanced capitalist countries, but for Trotsky this also meant a socialist revolution was required – in order to win the support of workers in the west. This theory of Trotsky’s – permanent revolution – was to prove a much more accurate prognosis of the revolutionary turmoil of 1917 than the theories of the Mensheviks or, at this time, of Lenin.

Nevertheless the debates among Marxists about the nature of the coming revolution – how far an alliance with either the capitalist class or peasantry could go or how a revolution limited to Russia could survive – proved to be key questions that raised themselves again and again over the following decades. So ridiculed by western socialists for their seemingly interminable polemical debates, the remark in 1902 by Lenin proved prophetic: ‘that it is precisely during the revolution that we shall stand in need of the results of our theoretical battles with the Critics in order to be able resolutely to combat their practical positions!’(6)

After a period of reaction following the defeat of the 1905 revolution workers activity began to rise again from around 1912. By 1914 the key trade unions were led by the Bolsheviks and the number of economic and political strikes had increased. This radicalisation was temporarily halted by the patriotic fervour whipped up by Russian participation in the First World War and by repression of workers and revolutionary groups, particularly the Bolshevik Party.

The war however placed enormous strains on the regime. It was ill-prepared for modern, all-out warfare and after initially favourable developments the Russian army came under severe pressure. Russian industry and organisation was unable to meet the demands of the war which swallowed up 60 to 70 per cent of production and a political struggle within the establishment and capitalist class developed as it became clearer the regime was a barrier to successful prosecution of the conflict.

The February Revolution

For workers and peasants the war meant not only death and injury at the front but inflation and shortage of goods at the rear. Speculation was rampant while hardship increased and workers were threatened with conscription to the front for the least insubordination. Nevertheless strikes increased and on occasion were supported by locally garrisoned soldiers in Petrograd (as the capital had been renamed). In January the largest strike of the war took place with between 200,000 and 300,000 workers taking part. In February 1917 the pressures within Russian society again resulted in revolution – the February revolution – and this time it succeeded in overthrowing the Tsar and the absolutist regime.

It has been common to compare the February revolution with the October revolution later in the year by saying that the former was both spontaneous and leaderless while the later was the result of precise political and military calculation by the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. There is more than a grain of truth in this but the particular nature of the February events are worth looking at for lessons that they provide about these distinctions.

The revolution began in Petrograd from a strike and demonstration called by the local Bolshevik Party for International Women’s Day on 23rd February. No one foresaw that these would lead to revolution. In this first sense the events were spontaneous – the significance and development of action was not planned or understood. The Bolsheviks had thought that a more decisive test of strength would take place later, on May Day, and thus called on workers to maintain discipline and conserve their forces. The success of 23rd February however prompted them to reconsider their plans. They decided to continue the action the following day and to seek to spread it and to organise to win support from other workers and soldiers in the garrison.

The strikes, meetings, and demonstrations multiplied throughout the city and by the next day the strike movement had become general. The Bolsheviks debated how this movement might be given clear political objectives – against the war – and rank-and-file Bolsheviks wanted to issue a manifesto against the war and be given arms so that they could fight the police. Shliapnikov, the Bolshevik leader, hesitated and was worried that the few revolvers he could distribute would simply lead to clashes with the army and the suppression by it of the workers revolt. He argued that the main task was to win over the troops by propaganda and persuasion.

The government attempted to repress the leadership of the revolt by arresting around one hundred members of various revolutionary organisations and putting up posters threatening armed force. The Mensheviks began to urge the workers to end the demonstrations and return to work as the government had demanded. Demonstrations continued and around 50 protestors were killed and 100 wounded but by now some soldiers had begun to fraternise with the demonstrators.

The 27th became the critical day for the revolt. The troops began to come over to the workers side and many declared they would not fire on the demonstrators; one officer was shot when he tried to enforce discipline. Soldiers began their own demonstrations and the Bolsheviks captured an arms factory distributing weapons and freeing prisoners from the Remand prison. Both workers and soldiers confronted the police and after fierce fighting defeated them. Workers fanned over the city destroying police stations and hunting down individual members of the force.

Soviet Power

Members of the Workers Group who had been arrested and who were now free assembled with trade union and co-operative leaders to set up a ‘Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The Workers Group had originally been set up to win workers to increased support for the war effort, but it had become too radical for the government as it attempted to win workers away from the leadership of the revolutionary groups.

The new Soviet reflected earlier experience of such bodies during the revolution in 1905. Soviets were councils of workers directly elected by the workers themselves in factories, trade unions and political parties whose delegates could be instantly recalled and replaced by their electors. The soviet called by the Workers Group called on workers and soldiers to elect representatives to send to the new body at the Tauride Palace. At the same time the Bolsheviks of the Vyborg area of Petrograd were calling for a Provisional Revolutionary Government to be set up through a soviet meeting at the Finland station. In the event most people sent representatives to the soviet at the Tauride palace and it became the leading body of the revolution, although the Vyborg soviet continued to exist.

This disconcerted the Bolsheviks who found the revolution they had played such a large part in organising had been taken under the leadership of socialists who supported continuation of the war and a policy of compromise with the new Duma Provisional Committee that had been created at the same time as the soviets. This Duma Committee quickly became a government and within a few days the new Provisional Government was formed made up prominent individual capitalists and politicians from the capitalist parties.

The right-wing socialist leadership of the Soviet was prepared to support the new Provisional Government if its own demands were met, including preparation of a Constituent Assembly that would finally decide the form of government of the country. It also insisted that the soldiers who had supported the revolution in Petrograd should not be disarmed or removed from the city. The soviet majority, by 400 votes to 19, decided to monitor the new government and exercise a veto over decisions but not to take power itself. Thus began the system of dual power.

Dual power

The workers were left in the position that their revolution was now under the leadership of capitalists and capitalist parties. How had this come about? Partly this was a result of the unplanned nature of a revolution that had been against the absolutist regime but which had no programme from the political parties putting forward an alternative. Partly it was a result of the confusion of fast moving and novel events and the feeling of national unity that was experienced by the fact that all classes had been liberated from the Tsarist yoke. But mainly it was because the working class lacked the confidence to take power themselves. Would they have been supported by the rest of the country, by the peasants in the countryside or the army at the front? What programme would they take power under? What policies would they seek to implement?

The workers distrusted ‘census’ society, the privileged classes, even while recognising that they too had rallied, belatedly, to the revolution, but they did not want to take responsibility from these classes for running the state and economy. They did however have their own soviets and therefore a certain control over the new Government. The following resolution was passed by the Petrograd Cable Factory on 3rd March indicating their general views: ‘We consider the most essential issue of the current moment to be the establishment of strict control over the ministers who were appointed by the state Duma and who do not enjoy popular confidence. The control must be constituted by representatives of the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies.’(7)

Only a minority of even the Bolshevik Party, and not its returning leaders, supported opposition to the new Provisional Government. These leaders, including Stalin and Kamenev, favoured monitoring the new government and took a position on the war that was hardly very different from the right-wing socialist parties. Kamenev even wrote an article for the party paper condemning the slogan ‘Down with the war,’ although Petrograd Bolsheviks caused such an outcry that the previous anti-war stance was reinstated. Behind this confusion lay the Bolshevik theory that the Russian revolution was to be a bourgeois one.

All this was shattered by the return of Lenin from exile in Switzerland. He demanded opposition to the war and criticised the idea that it had suddenly become one to defend the freedoms of the revolution. It was still for him capitalist and imperialist and thus an aggressive war of territorial conquest. He advocated withdrawal of support from the Provisional government and for creation of a government based on the soviets, enshrined in the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’. The barrier to this was not so much the Provisional Government itself but the right-wing socialist parties, the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, that controlled the soviets.

Through this policy Lenin had all but accepted the arguments of Trotsky and his policy of permanent revolution, and he found a ready response from the most militant Bolshevik workers. When the Soviet majority had voted to end the general strike that had brought the February revolution one agitator summed up the Trotskyist argument: ‘…the workers cannot win freedom and not use it to ease the burdens of their labour, to fight capital.’(8)


Lenin’s arguments were confirmed in April when a note from the Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government, PN Miliukov, to the Allied Powers was made public. It revealed the Government’s commitment to continuing the war and to ’pursuing Russia’s vital interests,’ in other words the war aims of the Tsarist regime – including acquisition of Constantinople and the Straits.(9) This provoked huge demonstrations and the resignation of a number of capitalist ministers. It convinced a number of right wing figures that the Provisional Government was irretrievably weak in the face of the Soviets and that it was necessity to create a new government free from the constraints of dual power. It convinced others of the need to co-opt leading socialist figures from the soviets to strengthen the Government.

The Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), based on the peasantry and representing a continuation of the native revolutionary tradition of populism, agreed but the Mensheviks were more doubtful. They feared being held responsible for the policies of the Provisional Government and losing influence over the workers to rivals on the left. The Executive Committee of the Soviets nevertheless voted to participate in a coalition government, being vigorously opposed by the Bolsheviks and Menshevik-Internationalists, a left-wing faction of the Mensheviks led by Lenin’s old comrade Martov. The Soviet placed conditions on participation, such as state control of the economy, democratisation of the army and taxation of the rich but these were inimical to the interests of the capitalist parties in the government and the SR and Menshevik ministers in the new government never pursued their implementation. Trotsky’s resolution opposing the new government gained a mere 20 to 30 votes. The workers expected that the new socialist ministers would ensure the government bent more to the Soviets’ will while the new ministers were determined to go no further than their capitalist allies.

The failure of the government to solve the economic problems of the country and the constant postponement of radical measures demanded by the workers and peasants such as land redistribution and convocation of a Constituent Assembly was due in no small part to the continuation of the war. On June 16 the Provisional Government launched a new offensive on the front at the request of its western allies. After initial considerable success the Austro-Hungarian Army was reinforced by the German Army and a counter-offensive resulted in the Russian Army retreating in panic. Discipline in many units collapsed, desertion increased, and some soldiers killed their officers while pillaging the local population.

The attack offended the widespread desire for peace and workers expressed their views in factory resolutions. In the New Lessner Machine-Construction Factory they declared ‘that a blow has been dealt to the Russian Revolution and the International by this offensive, and the whole responsibility for this policy lies with the Provisional Government and the party of Mensheviks and SRs supporting it… We need not an offensive at the front but an offensive against the bourgeoisie inside the country.’(10)

Workers had initially made economic gains from the February revolution and strikes or even the mere threat of strikes had won large pay rises – on average 150% during the first three months. They had won a minimum wage on 24th April and perhaps most significantly a big reduction in the working day, which had been seen as a vital demand by socialists. The capitalists had initially conceded these demands relatively easily although they had resisted the steps taken by many workers to introduce workers control of the factories. Trade unions were only beginning to be formed and it was committees based in the factories themselves that had introduced workers demands for some form of control.

This involved expelling the most hated foremen from the factory and tearing up the factory rulebook which contained the harsh procedures for discipline. It involved not so much actual management of the factories as monitoring and supervision plus veto powers over hiring and firing. The workers hesitated to go any further, feeling technically unprepared and fearing that under conditions of economic crisis ‘their chances of failing and being discredited were very great.’(11) A conference of factory committees decided that ‘Not desiring to take upon ourselves the responsibility for the technical and administrative organisation of production in the given conditions until full socialisation of the economy, the representatives of the general factory committee enter the administration with a consultative voice.’(12) The situation in the factories thus mirrored the political situation nationally, one of dual power.

By October 74% of the industrial workforce were in enterprises under some form of workers control and Bolshevik support for it was a major reason for the growth in their popularity. They viewed it not as a solution to mounting economic problems but as a way of mitigating them and of fighting the capitalists. The concessions given up by the capitalists had convinced the Mensheviks that their prognosis for the revolution had been correct and that both worker and capitalist could work together, however this idea was to collapse as the irreconcilable interests of workers and capitalists became clearer.

The deteriorating economic conditions created greater inflation and food shortages meaning that higher wages were more than eaten up by higher prices, when food could be purchased at all. Factories began to suffer shortages of supplies and workers became more active in control of their factories by taking measures to ensure supplies of fuel and raw materials. Factory owners began to resist demands for higher wages more vigorously and to threaten to close factories if the workers demands continued. The leading group of metal workers began to seek political solutions just as the less organised and unskilled workers, including women textile workers, began to organise and undertake strike action to defend their already desperate standard of living.

For the most advanced workers it was becoming clear that higher wages were not an answer as these were quickly eaten up by higher prices and anyway, they were threatened by the owners that their factories would be closed if wages increased too much. Workers suspected that the owners were deliberately sabotaging production in order to further political aims. A survey in the spring by the newspaper of the industrialists themselves found that since April 54 out of 75 plant closures had been motivated by the desire to break the workers.

Conditions for peasants also deteriorated as the Government struggled with supplying food for the army and the towns. In March it introduced bread rationing and on the following day a State monopoly of the trade in grain was introduced so that all supplies had to be distributed through State organisations. Private trade still continued but through either channel the peasants increasingly found it impossible to find manufactured goods to trade for. Peasants began to withhold grain increasing shortages of food in the towns and worsening the ability of industry to produce the manufactured goods that the peasants could receive in exchange for their food. The Provisional Government established a commission in April to study the problem and come back with a solution. The head of the commission held the view that only State control of industry, transport and distribution could solve the problem but this was a view opposed by the capitalist ministers and the commission never reported.

July Crisis

Despite the mounting crisis the Provisional Government coalition retained the support of the soviets and the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets passed a vote of confidence 543 to 126 on 3 June. The Bolsheviks had 105 delegates, the Menshevik-Internationalists 32, the SRs 284 and the Mensheviks 248; the remaining being smaller groups and non-aligned delegates. Discontent was rapidly increasing and support for Bolshevik policies was preceding support for the party itself.

The mounting economic and social crisis and the failure of the offensive at the front placed strains not only on the soviets but on the Provisional Government, which responded by appeasing its right wing. It appeared to go back on its commitment not to order the removal of troops from the capital and also ordered an attack on the offices of a number of revolutionary groups.

On 3rd July the ministers of the Government belonging to the liberal capitalist Kadet Party resigned from the Government hoping thereby to force it to break from reliance on the Soviets. To many all this looked like a concerted attempt at counter-revolution and the most radical soldiers’ and workers’ organisations decided to demonstrate against the government. The Bolsheviks counselled restraint as they believed that any attempt to seize power would be premature and would be easily isolated. Various anarchists on the other hand advocated overthrowing the Provisional Government. When demonstrations continued the Bolsheviks decided it was better to be part of the movement rather than to leave it to its own devices.

The demonstrators adopted the Bolshevik slogan of ‘All Power to the Soviets!’ and Lenin in his speech to the demonstration on 4th July urged ‘restraint, steadfastness and vigilance.’(13) This was not a Bolshevik attempt to seize power since the SRs and Mensheviks still had a majority in the Soviets. ‘Emblematic of the paradox of the situation is the famous scene when sailors surrounded V.M. Chernov, SR Minister of Agriculture in the coalition government, and yelled at him “Take power, you son-of-a-bitch, when it is given to you.”(14)

The demonstrators came under attack from armed counterrevolutionaries and suffered heavy casualties. The Government launched a smear campaign against Lenin claiming he was a German agent and brought back loyal troops from the front to suppress any further demonstrations. The Bolsheviks ordered a retreat and the Government ordered a clampdown on the left. At the end of the ‘July days’ hundreds had been killed and thousands imprisoned. Lenin was forced into hiding, Trotsky and other leaders were jailed and right wing mobs attacked workers and suspected leftists on the streets of the capital. Workers were profoundly shocked that all this had taken place under the leadership of ‘socialist’ parties.

Essentially the fears of the Bolsheviks had been confirmed. The advanced sections of the workers and soldiers’ movement were not in a position to lead the majority of both groups behind them. Workers were still not prepared to overthrow the Government because to do so would mean breaking with the right-wing socialist parties who still commanded the support of the less class conscious workers. For the advanced workers the failure of the July days was a bloody nose that made them more cautious about any future attempt to seize power.

Workers and soldiers suffered renewed attacks from the capitalists politically and in the factories as the right took advantage of the dynamic of events to advance their cause. Regiments suspected of disloyalty were disbanded and their soldiers sent to the front, the death penalty was reintroduced at the front and Bolshevik newspapers were banned. These actions were taken by right wing socialists who were later to complain about a lack of democracy after the October revolution.

An overwhelming sense of disaster loomed over workers as the supply crisis worsened and Petrograd was left on one occasion with only two days supply of grain. The mounting danger was reflected in a report incorporated into a resolution passed by a conference of factory committees in August: ‘In the economic and political spheres one is forced to note of late a changed situation. In the economic sphere Russia has already entered a period of real catastrophe because the economic break-down and the food crisis have reached extreme limits. One already feels an acute scarcity of grain, and the picture of real hunger looms before us in all its immensity.’(15) The worst fears of workers were to be confirmed. The intractable nature of the unfolding crisis has led one historian to describe the situation not as one of dual power but one of dual non-power.


The repressive measures allowed a new Coalition Government with the Kadets and right-wing Socialists to be set up. The central demands of the right were that since the workers movement had been forced to retreat the task of winning the war had to be pursued more vigorously and without previous restraints. For the new Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Army this meant that the railways were to be placed under military control, all factories working for the war were to be placed under martial law and strikes were to be banned.

The head of the Government, Kerensky, did not oppose the proposals of Kornilov, but they were clearly provocative and could not be openly imposed. Kornilov and Kerensky began to elaborate a coup attempt that would break the log jam. This project to restore democracy in fact involved setting up Kornilov as a dictator and it was only when it became clear to Kerensky that he was to be a victim himself did he withdraw from the plan and sacked Kornilov as Supreme Commander.

Kornilov went ahead with the attempted coup and his troops marched on Petrograd hoping to use agents provocateurs to precipitate Bolshevik action that could be portrayed as an attempt by them to seize power. This would then allow Kornilov’s action to be seen as defensive. The plot did not go well however and the conspirators were divided. Possible allies were neutralised once Kerensky as head of the Provisional Government signalled his opposition.

The Bolsheviks took the initiative in mobilising the workers, and radical soldiers and sailors in defence of the capital. Railway workers frustrated their advance, other army units arrested suspected plotters among the officer corps and detachments of agitators met Kornilov’s troops with revolutionary propaganda. The coup attempt was defeated with hardly a shot being fired.

The failed plot discredited the army command and the Kadet Party, some of whose leaders were implicated in it. The Kerensky regime was weakened and the Bolsheviks began to win more and more support as workers feared another counterrevolutionary attempt to strangle their newly won freedoms. At one workers’ meeting ‘a former defencist [supporter of the war] worker mounted the rostrum and with tears in his eyes begged forgiveness from his comrades, promising personally to wring Kornilov’s neck. Another appeared with a huge portrait of Kerensky, which he proceeded to tear to shreds before the assembly.’(16)

The workers and the left were now able to go on the offensive and the Bolsheviks were able for the first time to carry a resolution at the Petrograd Soviet, calling for a government of the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry, immediate peace negotiations, confiscation of the large estates and introduction of workers control of industry. Many provinces were now ahead of the capital with local Soviets refusing to relinquish power after having assumed control during the Kornilov crisis.

Towards October

The failed coup attempt created another crisis for the Government and a new, third, coalition government was formed. The governing parties attempted to regain popular legitimacy by holding a Democratic Conference and a Pre-Parliament to decide the question of political power. In this they contrived as far as possible to ensure that it had a majority supporting their existing policies. The new coalition however was set up independently of the Conference and only exposed the fault line running through the policy of the SRs and Mensheviks who wished to continue coalition with the Kadets. The Democratic Conference voted for coalition in principle but against the discredited Kadet Party being involved. To confuse things even further it voted against a coalition without the Kadet Party!

The Democratic Conference decided to sit permanently until the Constituent Assembly was elected but the Bolsheviks denounced the Conference, the new Government, and coalition with the capitalists. They called for all power to be transferred to the Soviets and convocation of a new Congress of Soviets that would surely register a majority for the Bolsheviks and their demands. Prominent representatives of the capitalists made it clear that they preferred the Germans to capture Petrograd than to let the capital fall to revolution. They looked approvingly to the example of Riga which had been captured by the Germans, the Soviet abolished and the old police reintroduced.

The Bolsheviks were now faced with the choice of whether to wait for the new Congress of Soviets to meet and win it to a policy of seizure of power, wait for the Constituent Assembly be convoked or organise an insurrection themselves. Waiting ran the risk of leaving the initiative to the right-wing socialists. They might postpone the Soviet Congress or refuse to accept its claims to power. They were already calling on local soviets not to send delegates and some were calling for their disbandment. The centre of their policy was unity with the capitalists and Soviet power could not be supported because the soviets excluded capitalists. The Constituent Assembly might record a majority for the SRs who opposed soviet power and opposed even the demands of their peasant supporters for land redistribution. Kerensky had already shown that he was prepared to form a government independently of formal democratic procedures and had collaborated with one right-wing coup attempt before realising he too was a target.

While the Bolsheviks were considering the options the advance of the German army was becoming ominous. The Government was threatening to surrender Petrograd and move to Moscow. This had led to capitalist attempts to close factories, with promises to open them in the country. The workers however continued to suspect that it was simply a means of closing completely and of the capitalists freeing themselves from the factory committees which were increasing their measures of control. For some time workers had believed that Petrograd was to be deliberately surrendered to the Germans in order to throttle the revolution. If the Germans occupied Petrograd there would be no elections to anything.

Lenin argued strongly that now was the time to seize power and Bolshevik resolutions on Soviet power were now winning large majorities in the factories. Faced with closure, workers knew that without state power their own local attempts to save them through full workers control would be fruitless. At the Fourth Factory Committee Conference a delegate made this point: ‘…our conference said from the very start that under a bourgeois government we will not be able to carry out consistent control…Therefore the working class cannot bypass state power, as comrade Renev [an anarchist] proposes.’(17)

The historian David Mandel writes that ‘Dozens of resolutions passed at factory meetings on the eve of the insurrection leave no doubt that when asked to choose between waiting for the Constituent Assembly and seizing power at once through the soviets, the Petrograd workers as a whole were almost… unanimous.’(18) In fact he has come across only one resolution supporting waiting for the Constituent Assembly. Some supporters of the SRs themselves also now called for Soviet Power. Leaders of the Menshevik Internationalists and Left SRs involved in the debates in the factories themselves admitted that ‘Our speeches seemed doomed to us.’(19)

The Bolsheviks won over the Petrograd Soviet to create a Military Revolutionary Committee (MRC) whose ostensible purpose was to monitor troop movements in and out of the capital and to prevent its surrender. It was this organisation that was to be the mechanism for launching the October revolution.

The Bolshevik leadership however was still divided over the seizure of power and Central Committee members Kamenev and Zinoviev went public in their opposition to the planned insurrection. They argued that unity with the other socialist parties was possible, reflecting widespread workers support for such unity. Trotsky argued that the insurrection would gain its validation and legitimacy from the Second Congress of Soviets and could be presented as a defensive measure against Kerensky and the Government bent on surrendering the capital. ‘Did not the very attempt to remove the garrison mean that the Government was preparing to disperse the Congress of Soviets?’(20)


The political conditions for insurrection were in place. Peasants were increasingly taking things into their own hands and seizing land without waiting for the approval of the Government. Soviet power had already been established in a number of places and the majority of workers in Petrograd and Moscow had been won over. So too had the army and the soldiers at the front would no longer provide the means to suppress rebellion in the capital. The practical and military preparations were put in place.

‘Any lingering doubts… were laid to rest on 22 October, the ‘Day of the Petrograd Soviet,’ the half-year anniversary of the February Revolution. The Petrograd Soviet called for a peaceful review of soviet forces through mass meetings, and eye-witness accounts all concur that the response was overwhelming. “The day surpassed all our expectations,” recalled Lashevich, a Bolshevik soldier activist and delegate to the Petrograd Soviet, 30,000 showed up at the Peoples House. ”Anyone present at that meeting will never forget it. The enthusiasm of the thousands of workers and soldiers was so great that one direct appeal and that entire human colossus would have left with empty hands for the barricades, for death.”…Another Bolshevik who spoke at two factories on Vasilevskii ostrov, notes “We spoke frankly before the masses of the coming seizure of power by us and heard only words of encouragement.” Non-Bolshevik observers, hostile to the insurrection, confirm this. According to Mstislavskii, “The day of the Soviet took place amidst a tremendous upsurge of spirit. Trotsky so electrified the crowd by his speech that thousands of hands rose in a single outburst of emotion at his call, swearing loyalty to the revolution, to the struggle for it – to the mortal end.”(21)

Not all workers were so enthusiastic and judging the various moods of the workers was central to the debate raging inside the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. But generally the mood of the majority seemed clear. In a report to the Central Committee on the situation in the trade unions Schmidt made the following remarks. ‘In view of the existing economic conditions one can expect in the near future colossal unemployment. In this connection the mood is vigilant. All agree that outside the struggle for power there is no way out of the situation. They demand power to the soviets.”(22)

At a Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region, covering 23 Soviets including Petrograd and Moscow, between 11th and 13th of October the Bolsheviks further sounded out support and made preparations for the seizure of power. In Moscow workers resolutions spoke openly of insurrection and in Petrograd the MRC was able to establish effective control over the garrison, as well as consolidate the support of the armed workers of the Red Guard and the sailors of the Baltic Fleet.

The Government met and decided that the formation of the MRC was a criminal act and that its members should be arrested. Early on the morning of 24th troops of the Provisional Government closed down a Bolshevik paper and attempted to destroy the printing press. Trotsky as head of the MRC recorded that ‘From various quarters we were receiving communications that the government, or more correctly, the government parties, were actively organising and arming their forces.’(23) The MRC used the attacks of the Government to present its actions as defensive measures against the counterrevolution. One by one the MRC ordered its forces into action: ‘without any chaos, without street fights, without firing or bloodshed, the government institutions were occupied one after another by severe and disciplined detachments of soldiers, sailors and Red Guards, in accordance with the exact telephone orders given from the small room on the third floor of the Smolny Institute.’(25) Kerensky attempted to summon troops to the capital but his message was intercepted by pro-Soviet forces.

The Petrograd Soviet opened at 2pm on 25th and Lenin declared that the Provisional Government no longer existed and that its ministers had or would shortly be arrested. The revolution had so far occurred without bloodshed. Lenin declared the new policy of the Soviet Government would be peace, publishing the state’s secret treaties and land to the peasants. ‘We must now set about building a proletarian socialist state.’(25) A Menshevik-Internationalist recalled the meeting: ‘When Trotsky informed the Soviet that ‘power had passed to the people,’ a thunder of applause followed. Then Lenin and Zinoviev came out. Such a triumph. Especially Trotsky’s speech carved itself into my mind… Each word burned the soul… and I saw that many people were clenching their fists, that an unshakable determination was forming in them to struggle to the end.’(26) In the evening the Winter Palace was stormed by 20,000 Red Guards, soldiers and sailors. Kerensky had fled.

The Second Congress of Soviets opened with 670 delegates of whom 300 were Bolshevik, the biggest party but not a majority. Those on the left, the Left SRs (the Socialist Revolutionary Party had split) and Menshevik-Internationalists, with whom the Bolsheviks offered to form a coalition government, wanted a government of ‘all socialist parties’ but this simply redrew the knot which the Bolsheviks had tried to break. The right-wing socialist parties such as the Right SRs and the Mensheviks were determined to pursue their alliance with the capitalist parties.

In fact the Bolshevik insurrection had broken the knot – the Mensheviks and Right SRs showed their fidelity to the parties of capitalism over the rest of the revolutionary socialist left by walking out of the Congress. By this act they also signalled their basic hostility to Soviet Power. In an interval in the Congress the Bolsheviks entered into negotiations with the Left SRs in an attempt to form a coalition government but the latter still wanted to explore the possibility of a government of all the socialist parties.

When the Congress resumed there were a total of 625 delegates of whom 390 were Bolshevik or had declared that they had Bolshevik sympathies. Lenin then put forward the measures he had promised the previous day – peace and land. Already enjoying the support of the working class this was the Bolsheviks’ means of winning the support of the majority of the Russian people – the peasants and the peasants in uniform. After these decrees a government was formed called the Council of People’s Commissars responsible to the Congress of Soviets and its Executive Committee. The revolution had triumphed! It had been the result not of a few days fighting but of months of political agitation.

The role of the Bolsheviks has been explained by one historian in this way: ‘Bolshevik agitation and organisation played a crucial role in radicalising the masses. But the Bolsheviks themselves did not create popular discontent or revolutionary feeling. This grew out of the masses’ own experience of complex economic and social upheavals and political events. The contribution of the Bolsheviks was rather to shape workers’ understanding of the social dynamics of the revolution and to foster an awareness of how the urgent problems of daily life related to the broader social and economic order. The Bolsheviks won support because their analysis and proposed solutions seemed to make sense. A worker from the Orudiiny works, formerly a bastion of defencism where Bolsheviks were not even allowed to speak, stated in September that “the Bolsheviks have always said: ‘It is not we who will persuade you, but life itself.’ And now the Bolsheviks have triumphed because life has proved their tactics right.”(27)

The triumph however was not anticipated to last long and the new Government was widely expected to last only a few weeks. The SRs and Mensheviks called for the fall of the new government, the capitalist papers daily reported its last hours had come, and white collar workers including government employees and bank workers went on strike, supported by their bosses. The leaders of the right wing parties sought support from the troops at the front but new elections to the army committees there were producing soviet majorities.

Defending the Revolution

The escaping Kerensky attempted to raise an army to march on Petrograd and crush the new Government but he was only able to raise a limited force. These did however march on the capital and initially faced inferior Bolshevik forces. In Petrograd itself an army cadet uprising took place but this was put down by the armed workers of the Red Guard and revolutionary sailors. The march on Petrograd was also decisively defeated outside the city in a battle on Pulkovo heights.

In Moscow the revolution encountered more serious resistance as the authorities had witnessed events in the capital and were not to be taken by surprise. The Bolsheviks were also not so well organised or determined. The SRs, some Mensheviks and Vikzhel, the leadership of the Menshevik-Internationalist dominated Railway Workers Union, plus others, fought those revolutionary workers who supported the Bolsheviks. Negotiations sponsored by Vikzhel were used by the SR commander to attempt to bring in reinforcements but these were persuaded by forces supporting the Bolsheviks not to interfere. After the commander broke the cease-fire conditions fierce fighting broke out.

Eventually the revolutionary workers were victorious and the counterrevolutionary cadets were disarmed and allowed to return to their units. Many later applied and were allowed to leave the city whereupon they joined the counterrevolutionary Volunteer Army in the Kuban. Elsewhere news of the revolution in Petrograd led to local Soviets taking over power from the institutions of the Provisional Government.

This was not however the only threat to the new Government. Vikzhel also threatened the Government with a general railroad strike and demanded a government of all the socialist parties. It forced negotiations between the Bolsheviks and the right wing socialist parties but some in the latter wanted to reverse the result of the revolution with a return to the Kerensky government or a coalition excluding the Bolsheviks. They quietly ignored their own failure to establish a coalition government before the revolution when the Bolsheviks had the support of around one third of soviet delegates. They had likewise at this time refused Lenin’s offer for the Bolshevik’s to act as a loyal opposition if the right wing socialists governed alone without the capitalists. The Bolsheviks had offered a coalition government at the beginning of the Second Congress of Soviets but now they were in no mood for grand compromises. They knew that the key to the strength and success of the new government rested on its ability to take revolutionary and decisive action.

The fundamental objection of all the right wing socialists was to Soviet power itself, which necessarily excluded the capitalists, and in the negotiations they demanded the disarming of the revolution through subordination of all armed forces to the City Duma. The more radical Menshevik Internationalists, who it might have been hoped would join the Bolsheviks in government, refused because they wanted to retain unity with the right wing socialists. But these parties in turn were committed to unity with the capitalists. The refusal of the Menshevik-Internationalists to take sides in the rapidly emerging civil war also condemned them in the eyes of most workers.

Some SR members were already in contact with right wing officers who had previously been associated with Kornilov and who were now planning a right wing coup. This army cadet plot was foiled when the Bolsheviks discovered it but the plot indicated how far to the right some in the ‘socialist’ parties had moved. The SR Central Committee later pulled out of the talks but eventually an agreement was reached and a government consisting of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs was formed, with the Soviet Executive to include members of the Railway Workers Union. A conference of rank and file members of the latter on 13 November condemned its leaders as an ‘elite… that by no means reflects the revolutionary will of the proletariat.’(28)

‘It is worth stressing... that not even the Bolsheviks, Lenin and Trotsky included, insisted on an exclusively Bolshevik government… Just the opposite is true: Petrograd’s workers’ organisations, by now virtually all Bolshevik-led, including the Central Soviet of the Factory Committees, the Petrograd Soviet and the Trade Union Council, all urged the formation of a unified socialist government. The problem was the vagueness of the word ‘unity’. Although much bandied about, it left crucial questions unanswered: On what basis unity? And at what price?’(29)

Those opposed to Soviet Power, and in favour of a ‘socialist unity’ that meant continued alliance with Russia’s capitalists, had one more opportunity. Elections for the long delayed Constituent Assembly were held between 15 and 19 of November. The SRs received the biggest vote, 40% while the Bolsheviks received almost 24%, the capitalist Kadet party 4.7% and the Mensheviks 2.3%. The Bolsheviks did best in the working class districts such the Vyborg and Peterhof districts of Petrograd where they got 70 and 68 per cent respectively. They also did well among the troops of the Northern and Western fronts and in the Baltic Fleet where they received over 62% of the vote. The victory for the SRs on the other hand reflected the vast peasant majority in the country.

When the Assembly met on 5 January the actions of the new Soviet Government were denounced but after an adjournment the Bolsheviks read a declaration dissolving the Constituent Assembly. The Left SRs left in the evening leaving the Assembly inquorate although it continued until closed by the officer of the Red Guard, who informed the remaining delegates that the guards were tired and that they should therefore go home. There were demonstrations by supporters of the Assembly and the parties that supported its existence but these were violently repressed by the Red Guard.

In general however the closing of the Assembly did not lead to widespread resistance. The country was already heading towards civil war, polarising between those supporting Soviet Power and the remnants of the old regime and capitalists which wanted to go back to before October or even to before February. An assassination attempt on Lenin had taken place on 1 January and a week later a large number of officers had been arrested in connection with a plot timed to coincide with the opening of the Constituent Assembly. It was in these increasingly bitter circumstances that Red Guards violently suppressed supporters of the Constituent Assembly. 

The Assembly became important not because of its intrinsic significance, which was slight, but because it became the rallying cry of those forces inside and outside the country who claimed that the Bolsheviks were already instituting a dictatorship and that the Assembly represented the possibility of a democratic alternative. Lenin claimed that the Soviets were a much higher form of democracy than the parliamentary form of the Constituent Assembly. They were a direct form of participatory democracy and more faithfully reflected the current views of electors through the practice of instant recall of delegates.

He also claimed, correctly, that the electoral lists voted for were compiled before the split in the SR Party, depriving the more radical Left SRs of the opportunity of standing as a separate party. Kerensky and those Left SRs who fought to overthrow him were thus on the same SR list of candidates!

The SR candidates elected were disproportionately from the right of the party. They had had the opportunity to govern for months but had shirked it for coalition with the capitalists. It received its support from the peasant majority who thought the party would deliver it land, though the right of the party was actually determined to prevent this. To give land to the peasants would have led to the collapse of the army as the peasants in uniform would have immediately turned from the front and gone home to their villages to get their share. Continuation of the war was the firm policy of all the right wing socialists because of their alliance with Russia’s capitalists and their common alliance with Allied imperialism.

But the claims of the Right SRs, Mensheviks and right wing socialists in the west were not just the subject of academic debate; they were put to the test in Russia in 1918.

By the end of June 1918 the SRs had created an alternative regime in Samara, establishing a ‘Committee of the Constituent Assembly’ (Komuch). It claimed to be a democratic alternative although it excluded members of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs and therefore had a political base narrower than the government it opposed. The local soviet when it was re-elected, was “roughly half… Bolsheviks, thinly disguised as ‘internationalists.’… on 30 August 1918 it passed a resolution proposed by them critical of the Komuch administration.”(30).

Despite its claims to socialism (Komuch continued to fly the red flag) it lost support especially from the peasants because of its determination to continue fighting the First World War. It also had to negotiate with its fellow SR endorsed government in Siberia which similarly opposed the Soviet Regime but which also restored capitalist ownership and suppressed the local soviets. Attempts were made to unite the two alternative governments through the intervention of another counterrevolutionary organisation, the Union for the Regeneration of Russia (URR). In this attempt one of its leaders Avksentiev argued that it was ‘preposterous that those members of the Constituent Assembly gathered in Samara, numbering about fifty, could claim to represent the nation.’(31)

This alternative to Soviet Power was dependent on western imperialist support, most directly from the French. A similar alternative in the north of the country around Archangel was reliant on the British. The real choice facing everyone in Russia was made clear when both of these ‘democratic’ alternatives were overthrown by the right wing officers they relied upon to turn their rhetoric into real power. The removal of the URR sponsored government was completed by Admiral Kolchak, ‘a veteran of the very earliest attempts at counterrevolution in the summer of 1917.’(32) The choice in 1918, as during 1917, was between Soviet Power under Bolshevik leadership promising land, peace and bread and the reactionary coalition of officers, landowners and ‘liberal’ capitalist promising a return to dictatorship, landlord rule and a war in alliance with imperialism.

The revolution triumphed because workers led the peasants and peasants in uniform in a movement that overcame its lack of confidence in its own strength through understanding that the mounting economic catastrophe and the continuing war could be solved only by taking power. In October 1917, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party that is what they did. It was tested again and again in its early years through imperialist invasion and a civil war that killed millions of people but it survived. It later succumbed to Stalinism but its victory over imperialism has left a lasting legacy. It remains the most inspirational moment in the history of the global working class. It is one that we need not fear to remember or to learn from. On the contrary, drawing on these lessons, it is these events that we must seek to repeat under new circumstances and with new tools but with the same objective.


(1) James D White, ‘The Russian Revolution 1917-1921 A Short History’, p 4.
(2) ‘On the Question of the Present Tasks and Tactics of the Russian Social Democrats (Draft Programme), P.B.Akselrod, quoted in ‘Marxism in Russia: Key Documents’, edited by Neil Harding p 25.
(3) Neil Harding, Introduction, ‘Marxism in Russia: Key Documents’ p 32 
(4) Menshevik Conference Resolution, ‘Marxism in Russia: Key Documents’, edited by Neil Harding, p.314.
(5) V Lenin, quoted in the Introduction, ‘Marxism in Russia: Key Documents’, edited by Neil Harding, p. 34.
(6) V Lenin ‘What is to be Done?’, Penguin edition p. 233.
(7) David Mandel, ‘The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime’, p. 66.
(8) D. Mandel, p.87.
(9) J D White, p 95.
(10)D. Mandel, p. 137.
(11) D. Mandel p. 107.
(12) D. Mandel p. 107.
(13) J D White p. 110.
(14) Ronald Gregor Suny, Revising the old story: the 1917 revolution in light of new sources, in ‘The Workers Revolution in Russia, 1917 – The View from Below’, D.H. Kaiser, p. 10.
(15) D. Mandel ‘The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet seizure of Power’, p. 217.
(16) D. Mandel, p. 253.
(17) D. Mandel, p.281.
(18) D. Mandel, p. 291
(19) D. Mandel, p. 291
(20) Leon Trotsky, ‘From October to Brest-Litovsk’, p. 18.
(21)  David Mandel, ‘The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power’, p. 292.
(22) D. Mandel, p. 298.
(23) L. Trotsky, p. 22.
(24) L. Trotsky, p. 27.
(25) J D White p. 164.
(26) D. Mandel p. 311.
(27) S. Smith, Petrograd in 1917: the view from below, in D.H. Kaiser, p. 77.
(28) D. Mandel, p. 314.
(29) David Mandel, ‘The Petrograd Workers and the Soviet Seizure of Power’, p. 324.
(30) Geoffrey Swain, ‘The Origins of the Russian Civil War’, p.187.
(31) G Swain p. 203.
(32) G Swain p. 219



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