One Hundred Years Ago: All Power to the Soviets!

One Hundred Years Ago: All Power to the Soviets!

The Russian Revolution began during the winter of 1917 and was like a play in four acts. It built rapidly in intensity as winter gave way to spring and spring, to summer. No one person wrote the script of this play, no small revolutionary elite brought off the revolution in Russia. The first revolutionary generation, that of the Populists, began its work in the 1860s. The dramatis personae of the revolution in 1917 were not born yet when the Populists went “to the people” to organise amongst the Russian peasantry. In 1898 when the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was established, the leaders of 1917 were students or people in their twenties. The revolutionary movement in Russia took almost sixty years to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and a further four years before it could be said to have secured power. In short, it was the Sixty Years Revolution. Three generations of students, intellectuals, workers and peasants committed themselves to its success. Most of the first generation did not live to see the day when the red flag was raised over the Kremlin in Moscow. The revolution was a movement of the masses, of workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants aroused by centuries of tsarist injustice and brutality, brought to the limits of endurance by the First World War.

In 1898 when the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was established, the leaders of 1917 were students or people in their twenties

After Tsar Nicholas II abdicated in March 1917, the revolution moved rapidly to the left. A Provisional Government was set up, though it had no democratic legitimacy nor was it revolutionary. It represented the interests of the tsarist elite intent on stopping the revolution. The new government clashed with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies, a tumultuous “council” or assembly of the revolutionary masses. Soviets spread across the country and provided the venues of the rough and ready democracy of the Russian Revolution. They were the der’mocraty, or “democraps” as one disgusted university professor in Moscow called them, in a play on words, der’mo meaning shit. The Russian bourgeoisie feared and loathed the revolutionary masses, “the gorillas”, who stank of tobacco, sweat, and wielded rifles tipped with long bayonets

The Provisional Government clashed with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies, a tumultuous “council” or assembly of the revolutionary masses.

At first Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks dominated the Soviets, but not for long. They insisted that representatives of the former tsarist elite be included in the Provisional Government. One might as well as have planned the sabotage of the revolution, because the last thing the elites wanted was a deepening of the revolutionary movement. Either the SRs and Mensheviks did not know what they were doing, or they did and could not be trusted. One way or another, the menu peuple caught on quickly and recalled them from the Soviets to be replaced by representatives with stiffer backs and a better understanding what needed to be done to secure the revolution in Russia. These new Soviet deputies tended to back the Bolsheviks, led by V. I. Lenin, the brain of the Russian Revolution, and L. D. Trotsky, its sword.   

The Russian bourgeoisie feared and loathed the revolutionary masses, “the gorillas”, who stank of tobacco, sweat, and wielded rifles tipped with long bayonets.

In the swing to the left of the revolutionary movement, the key event was the abortive Kornilov-Kerensky putsch which occurred in the late summer. A. F. Kerensky was the head of the Provisional Government and General L. G. Kornilov, commander-in-chief of the army . They planned a coup d’état to stop the revolution, disperse the Petrograd Soviet and punish militant soldiers and Bolsheviks. That was the plan. But in a comedy of confusion and errors, the plan went wrong and Kerensky and Kornilov fell out like thieves, denouncing one another. Kerensky had to turn to militant workers and garrison soldiers to save himself. “Defend the revolution, not Kerensky,” said the Bolsheviks.

General Lavr Kornilov, commander-in-chief of the Russsian army

Kornilov was arrested and Kerensky went back to his old ways of trying to stop the revolution. “General Kornilov’s objectives were praiseworthy,” said one important minister of the Provisional Government, “but the method was bad and the moment, inopportune.”

“Now the difficulties are going to start,” he added in an understatement, “for we will have to face a resurgence of hostility from soldiers against their commanders.”

Kerensky offered the same message to the French ambassador and the new head of the French military mission. “Kerensky spoke to us in favourable terms about Kornilov,” they reported to Paris: “He recognised that the former commander in chief did not harbour any personal ambitions and was solely motivated by a patriotic interest…” His entourage was to blame for “the counter-revolutionary coup d’état”.

This was eyewash of course. Kerensky was trying vainly to back pedal, looking for support in the French and British embassies in Petrograd. Any observant worker or soldier could see that the Provisional Government was no guardian of the revolution. The French ambassador observed that Kerensky had to rely “on the parties of the centre and the right”; his “popularity” being “much diminished”. Here was another understatement. “Kerensky will not long last in power,” said frustrated British and French officers and diplomats watching everything go wrong. For them the revolution was a calamity.

 “The abortive coup d’état could hasten the Russian withdrawal from the war,” opined one French officer. It had rallied militant workers and garrison soldiers to the Bolsheviks. The Soviets in Petrograd and Moscow voted Bolshevik majorities. Trotsky became chairman of the Petrograd Soviet. Bolshevism was spreading like wildfire. A group of arrested generals being transferred from one town to another were made to walk through the streets between a gauntlet of yelling, cursing soldiers throwing rocks and mud. When the generals got to the railway station they were forced to ride in a goods wagon instead of a passenger car. The generals were lucky to get away with their lives, observed one French officer.

French soldiers were sick and tired of being slaughtered in senseless frontal attacks on German trenches by generals sitting comfortably in their offices in Paris sipping cognac

The former tsarist elite could see the writing on the wall. It was sauve qui peut. “The bourgeoisie, almost unanimously, is less concerned with the moral and territorial conditions of a future peace settlement than with the future settlement of social issues,” reported a French diplomat: “Patriotic fervour… will be subject to class interests.”

The French high command was worried by Russian revolutionary propaganda. “I cannot insist enough,” wrote the French chief of staff, General Ferdinand Foch , “on the danger which would represent the spread of [this] propaganda in the Allied countries… I am concerned it would find fertile ground… in France and that it could contribute to an agitation similar to that which undermined the army and the French nation last spring….” The French army had mutinied in the spring of 1917. Common soldiers were sick and tired of being slaughtered in senseless frontal attacks on German trenches ordered by generals sitting comfortably in their offices in Paris sipping cognac.

Elites remembered the horrors of the French Revolution. The red genie of revolution seemed to be coming out of his lamp again. That much was clear. But what could the “Entente” powers do about it? To the French general staff it looked like Russia would soon conclude a separate peace or fall into such disorder as to make it easy prey for the enemy. There were no good options. The least that should be done was to protect “the considerable economic interests” of the Entente powers and their citizens. The French high command contemplated military intervention. Only the United States and Japan had sufficient available forces to send, but that option was not practical either. To get across Siberia was a long way especially on the single track, low capacity Trans-Siberian Railway. Something nevertheless had to be done: the French general staff proposed, for example, taking control of Russian “natural resources and means of production” as “collateral” for Entente “interests”.

French chief of staff, General Ferdinand Foch

The first step, according to one French study, would be for the United States to take control of Russian railways. “It would also be desirable to organise more or less open Allied control of customs, ports, postal and telegraph services, mining operations, metallurgical plants in the state domain, etc.” The “etc.” meant just about anything of value in Russia, and these ideas circulated in Paris while Kerensky was still trying to hang on to power. Was Russia to become a semi-colony like China? It began to look like it: the French had taken out their carving knives. “A few Japanese or American divisions would undoubtedly be sufficient” to protect Allied interests. But taking control of Russian resources would not solve the problem created by a Russian withdrawal from the war. For that eventuality, the only solution was “a peace on the back of Russia”. In the summer and autumn of 1917, this was a popular idea in Paris and London. It was “a measure of justified retaliation”, according to the French, though not very practical.

Impractical or not, general staff officers could still dream and had to plan. Here is what the French had in mind in October 1917. Germany would obtain Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Byelorussian territories. A federation of Poland and the Ukraine would be created under an Austro-Hungarian protectorate. Finland would go to Sweden and Bessarabia to Romania. Eastern Siberia would be ceded to Japan. The Cossack territories of the Kuban, the Don and Caucasus would become independent. A “Muscovite state” including western Siberia would be created “under the control of the western powers.”

So much for Russia remaining an ally of France. Could the plan work? Would Germany agree to give up gains in the west and to pay reparations in exchange for large territorial gains in the east, and in effect for “the dismemberment of Russia”? Not in October 1917, when the war was going relatively well for Germany. And what about the Americans? They seem to have been left out of French calculations. If Russia was to be parceled out, control of the Trans-Siberian would hardly be enough to satisfy the US government, nor would it want to see the Japanese settled in the Russian far east. These French ideas were unrealistic, but they were by no means the last to be considered in Paris and London.

While the French and British contemplated “a peace on the back of Russia”, the Bolsheviks had to decide what to do with their rapidly growing popular support. Bolshevik organisation was too good, according to French and British observers: it could only be explained by German agents and German “gold”.

In fact, the Bolsheviks were far from one mind about what to do next. Some of the old guard, for example Lev B. Kamenev and Grigorii E. Zinoviev, advocated a go-slow approach. We’re not ready, they said, to seize power even from the rotten Provisional Government. We may not have enough organised armed support in Petrograd and more generally in the country. Front line soldiers are demoralised. We should not rush developments but build up our forces and wait for the right moment to act. It hasn’t come yet.

Yes, it has, and that’s just the point, an impatient Lenin retorted. He rushed back to Petrograd from Finland where he had been hiding out to avoid arrest by the Provisional Government.

“Comrades! Look around you… and you will realise that the peasants and soldiers cannot tolerate it any longer. Kerensky is again negotiating with the Kornilovite generals… to prevent the soviets from obtaining power!

Go to the barracks, go to the Cossack units, go to the working people and explain the truth to them…

All power to the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies!”

Here was the Bolshevik call to arms. Vest power in the Soviets which represented workers and peasants, and excluded the former tsarist elite which would stop at nothing to abort the revolution.

Zinoviev and Kamenev continued to drag their feet, even publishing Bolshevik plans to seize power. They sounded like broken-down Mensheviks, insisting on the need for collaboration with the bourgeoisie and opposing the seizure of power. Lenin was beside himself with fury, but he won the debate in the party. On 10/23 October, the Bolshevik Central Committee approved a resolution calling for the preparation of a popular armed uprising to transfer power to the soviets.

The Petrograd press was full of speculation about the date of a Bolshevik seizure of power. On 19 October/1 November the British military attaché in Petrograd telegraphed London to warn that an attempt to seize power would occur on 7 November/25 October. But who knew for certain? There had been previous false alarms. Would this new report prove true? If the Bolsheviks seized power, could they hold on to it? Time would soon tell.