Mike Haynes


Was there a parliamentary alternative in Russia in 1917?

(Part 2)


The battle for landed property

Maintaining Russia as a great imperial power would mean nothing if the ruling class could not retain control of its economic power and in 1917 this meant that the decisive battles were over land and industry. Yet in respect of land, the polarisation was already huge in the spring of 1917. Shingarev, the first Provisional government minister of agriculture, said in May that he was receiving 100 telegrams a day about the arbitrary rule of peasant committees and the threat to private land ownership. In that month too Read notes:

The first major congress representing the popular movement was the national Congress of Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies that met in Petrograd in early May. It had 1,115 delegates. Fourteen were Bolsheviks. Almost half were SRs. Its main action was to pass overwhelmingly a resolution on land that declared, “The right of private property in land is abolished forever ... Hired labour is not permitted”. [71]

Peasant attitudes are sometimes portrayed as irrational but the resentment of landlordism reflected in motions like this had grown up over the generations and was socialised into each new generation and reinforced by the poverty and oppression of everyday life that so many rural inhabitants experienced. Kirnosov, a peasant deputy in the first Duma, dismissed a landlord defence of property rights with the cutting comment that peasants well understood what was at stake: “We know your idea of property; my uncle [a serf] was exchanged for a greyhound.” Observers in 1917 found the same bitterness when peasants were told to wait for the land: “My grandfather, my father and I paid so many taxes for our five dessyatins [13 acres] here, that the land could be quite covered with the money that we gave for it. My father and I were made to pay 36 roubles every year, and to get that money in the old days cost us plenty of sweat and blood”. [72]

Nothing less than the confiscation of the landlords’ land would satisfy the aspirations of the peasantry but this encountered several difficulties. An immediate one was that land redistribution might disrupt the war effort, but behind this were two other problems. One was that the landlords could hardly be expected to be enthusiastic (and they were not simply the aristocracy as the land sales had been going on apace since 1861). [73] The second was that much of the financial system rested on loans that were secured on land so that any confiscation threatened the wider stability of the economy. The Provisional government (and indeed in the past the Cadets) argued that it had nothing in principle against land redistribution provided it was supported by the Constituent Assembly and went through proper channels. However, a different agenda was clearly in place at the top of Russian society. [74] As critics on the left pointed out, the talk of the dangers of land confiscation, turmoil and disturbances in the villages, and financial instability all suggested that what was at stake was not respect for the Constituent Assembly but resistance to the confiscation of land itself. “This argument applies in general to the confiscation of land even if it were undertaken by the Constituent Assembly. It is advanced therefore by supporters of landowners and large scale capital who do not want any real change in the countryside, who want to consolidate the influence of the landowners and money lenders”. [75]

It is not surprising then to find Russia’s landowners organising increasingly vigorously throughout 1917 to oppose the revolution. The biggest landowners began to organise a pressure group. In 1905 the All-Russian Union of Landowners had been formed but this had withered with the decline of peasant unrest after 1907. Then in late 1916 there were attempts to create a new union, bringing together those with more than 50 dessyatins, to assist in the war effort. After the February Revolution this union became the organising force for the defence of landowners’ interests, joining with the Cadets to try to resist change in the countryside. District and province meetings were held and in May 1917 some 300 delegates from 31 provinces came together in Moscow for the Constituent Congress of the All-Russian Union of Landowners and Farmers. “Your property, your labours and your expenditures are in danger,” wrote the secretary of the newly formed Council of the Congress. [76] Policies were clarified, not least by the effective alliance with the Cadets, to fight against any attempt to confiscate land worked by those owners who were developing their holdings. On 25 May a draft law was issued banning land sales pending the Constituent Assembly. The union attacked this as a violation of the rights of property, working with the banks who saw the draft law as a threat to the stability of financial markets which was underpinned by existing and potential land sales. As a result, to the dismay of many peasants, the law was effectively dropped. Then in the first week of July the union held its All-Russian Congress with 400 delegates, resolving that if landowners were to “fulfil their duty to the motherland and to hand over the harvest to it, then [the government] should categorically forbid land committees to take away land, equipment and livestock and to deprive them of labour”. When Chernov became minister of agriculture the union kept up a constant war of attrition against him. [77] Pressure from the landowners was also increased when the Assembly of Notables met in early August and this fed into the Kornilov revolt at the end of the month. The landowners’ union also intensified the attempt to use the courts to hold back the peasantry.

This brought direct conflict with the peasantry. “One can only be struck by the solidarity of [their] community,” writes Read. The scale of peasant violence is a much debated issue but Read suggests that it may have been kept down due to the belief that finally the Constituent Assembly would deliver the land. [78] But one reflection of the success of the landowners can be seen in military actions the Provisional government was persuaded to take against the peasantry. Between May and June there were only 11, whereas in July and August 39 took place and in September and October there were 105 military actions along with arrests of up to 2,000 land committee members responsible, as the government and local authorities saw it, for going too far. Many of these were small but the rising scale was not lost on observers. Moreover in September they culminated in a major confrontation in Tambov where peasant hostility was such that the local landowners, local government and the national government were forced to compromise and back down, prefiguring the surge of peasant hostility and land redistribution that would follow the October Revolution.



The frontier of control in industry

But if the survival of bourgeois Russia meant the defence of land ownership then it depended even more on the control of industry. If the revolution was no more than a bourgeois revolution what rights and long term future did the factory committees and soviets have? Already in May Miliukov attacked radicalism, asking, “What reason is there for continuing the revolution?” Skobelev, the Menshevik minister of labour, argued similarly at the end of May that “we find ourselves in the bourgeois stage of revolution. The transfer of enterprises into the hands of the people would not at the present time assist the revolution”. [79]

In fact the attitude of industrialists changed during 1917 as their position worsened. In the early days of the revolution the initiative in industrial circles passed to businessmen like A.I. Konovalov, a cotton entrepreneur and vice-chairman of the Moscow stock exchange, whose firms, said Miliukov, “were famous for the brilliant way in which they handled the labour question”. [80] With some other businessmen from the Moscow region Konovalov had aspired to more modern “European” business and labour practices. This led him into conflict with the Tsarist government and industrialists in the Petrograd area who, he believed, too much favoured workplace and government repression of labour rather than the enlightened self interest of more positive workplace policies. After February he and like minded businessmen had a decisive sway. Pavel Riabushinskii could even describe the first Provisional government as “our regime”. [81] In the so called “honeymoon period” of March and early April it looked possible to reconstruct labour relations by recognising unions, conceding the eight hour day and a large wage increase to take account of inflation, and establishing conciliation boards to deal with conflicts. Debates still existed over the wisdom of this programme and some industrialists were unhappy that the government should play a role in what they considered “their” field, but there can be no doubt that there was considerable movement.

But the growing class contradictions of 1917 soon undercut this strategy and employers who, like workers, were organising apace in various associations soon began to swing in a more hostile direction. In opposition to the growing demands from below Konovalov, in Miliukov’s words, “preferred to resign on 18 May without even finding a replacement for himself. In vain he was urged to remain at his post ... This was the first answer from the ‘bourgeois’ members of the [first] coalition to the unfeasible part of the coalition’s programme.” By the summer of 1917 “pessimism, suspicion and intransigence had come to dominate the entrepreneurs’ dealings with the Provisional government, with their socialist partners in the cabinet and above all with the workers”. [82]

This was because the employers perceived a threat to stability, their profits and the very existence of their firms. During 1917 the economic crisis continued to develop. [83] Inflation soared as the Provisional government struggled to finance the war but found it difficult to raise taxes or get its loans taken up. Industrial production continued to be squeezed by the war. This helped to perpetuate a vicious circle where peasants were reluctant to sell grain to the towns which were producing little they wanted to buy. Attempts to fix prices and even early examples of grain requisitioning failed to alleviate the difficulties. The strain on transport grew too, further disrupting the distribution of food, raw materials and finished goods. In June 1917 a Conference on Defence Supplies was told that “the state of industry is catastrophic”. By August the Ministry of Supplies could say that the “country is faced with the grim spectre of famine”. [84]

The situation was made worse by the increasing expectations of workers and the fact that the indecisiveness of local and national government meant that industrialists could no longer confidently trust it as “theirs”. This was reinforced by the pattern of strikes which went down immediately after February but rose from April to the July crisis, declining in July but rising prior to the Kornilov coup, falling in early September as the coup was defeated and then rising again in late September to early October 1917. [85]

Much has been made by some social historians of the fact that when the workplace committees spoke of workers’ “kontrol” the Russian term has a weaker meaning than “control” in English, suggesting more the idea of supervision. But if the early demands of the factory committees for “kontrol” were less radical than is sometimes imagined then the growing crisis forced a redefinition. As Smith puts it, “The policy of workers’ control of production was first and foremost an attempt by factory committees to stem the tide of industrial chaos”. [86] But to stem the tide the conception of “kontrol” had to move closer and closer to that of “control” in the English sense. [87] From the employers’ point of view this meant that their prerogatives were increasingly challenged as the frontier of control was pushed outwards by the factory committees and workers were radicalised by the crisis. In reply employers tried to draw the line, “We are now prepared to rebuff the attack on private property,” said one. “You must defend yourselves by establishing an organisation that will establish unity.” As Galili puts it, “In the post-July period the Moscow industrialists, both those led by Riabushinskii in the All-Russian Commercial-Industrial Union and those headed by Guzhon in the Moscow Society of Factory and Mill Owners, made confrontation their declared aim”. [88]

This switch in position by the most “progressive group” is easily understandable in terms of not only their disappointment with the results of February but also the specific way in which the economic crisis affected them. The core of the early difficulties was in the textile industry of the central industrial region, especially the provinces of Moscow, Vladimir, Riazan, Kaluga and Kostroma. Here shortages of fuel and raw materials immensely complicated the problems of industrialists and caused plants to close. In the March-July period 133 plants shut in these provinces with an average of 530 workers each, making up 68 percent of recorded jobs lost. Overall 8 percent of cotton plants closed with 12 percent of the industry workforce and 30 percent of the silk workforce lost their employment. It was in August-September that the crisis hit the metal working industry harder. Until then only 91 of the plants that had closed had been in this sector with an average size of 120 workers. Now around a third of the 231 plants closing were in metal working with an average of over 300 workers each, making up some 55 percent of the incompletely reported workforce losses. Moreover the spiral was continuing downwards throughout 1917. In the Donets only 80 million poods of coal were mined in October when 52 million poods were needed for the railways alone. Industrial supplies were to be only one third of what was needed. [89]

As we shall see this led sections of the industrialists straight into the arms of Kornilov. Even after his coup failed the pressure remained to fight to push back the frontier of control. This accounts for the way in September that, to the consternation of those on the left who believed that some comprise with capital remained possible, even moderate groups of workers suddenly found themselves under pressure from the employers. [90]



Russia – one and indivisible

As we have seen, the concept of Russia “one and indivisible” was a unifying force in the ruling class before 1914. Some liberals might have thought in terms of a “United States of Russia” or looked admiringly at the supposed integration of the British Empire as alternatives to Tsarist oppression but they shared a concern to maintain the integrity of the Russian state. This was challenged in 1917 by left-leaning nationalist movements but, rather than make generous concessions, liberals tried to hold on to a larger Russia. The Cadet leadership was even prepared to do this though it antagonised its own members in areas like the Ukraine.

The one concession that was quickly made was the acceptance of independence for Poland. However, this was less radical than it appeared since Poland was under enemy occupation and if Germany was defeated and a new Polish state was created it would have to include parts of what were Germany and Austria. This could be to Russia’s advantage, as could the fact that Poland would be a large buffer state in central Europe. Beyond this there was resistance to change even amongst those who ostensibly supported claims for national self determination. Kerensky told the First Congress of Soviets, “Today I say only one thing – I recognise the rights of the Ukraine and Finland, but cannot agree to their separation until the Constituent Assembly of the Russian people has sanctioned it “. [91] This argument was especially provocative in Finland where, when Nicholas abdicated as emperor of Russia he also abdicated as Grand Duke of Finland (a title he held separately). Power should therefore have reverted to the Finnish assembly. Moreover this assembly had, for the time, relatively impeccable democratic credentials, having been elected by universal suffrage. In addition deputies from Finland were not to be elected to the Constituent Assembly making nonsense of the argument for waiting for “self determination”.

Nevertheless when the Finnish Sejm voted for autonomy in July 1917 the Provisional government dissolved it. It did not take much to see another agenda at work here. Not the least of the problems was that granting Finnish independence might encourage other national groups to demand the same rights to self determination especially those in the Ukraine. Then it was argued that “Russia’s interests” in the war had to have priority and Finland, where pro-German elements were powerful, might become a base for the enemy close to Petrograd. This was overlaid by the idea that fine words from the Provisional government should be taken at face value and could somehow dissipate the suspicion of Russian motives inculcated by Tsarist oppression, an idea which to the oppressed nationalities looked like great Russian chauvinism dressed up in democratic clothes.

The issue of the Ukraine was even more sensitive because it was so much more central to the idea of “Russia”. Moreover in the Constituent Assembly elections in the Ukraine over 70 percent voted for nationalist parties. This radicalisation reflected complex motives, and the conflict between the idea of “Russian”, “Ukrainian” and other local identities versus the possibility of more internationalist ideas has recently received much attention. But while Russia’s new rulers were happy to implement some form of autonomy, what mattered above all in Moscow and Petrograd in 1917 was keeping the Ukraine in Russia. It was the Ukrainian issue that broke the first coalition of the Provisional government. On 10 June the Ukrainian Rada proclaimed the autonomy of the Ukraine and called for a national assembly. Members of the Provisional government agreed to recognise the Rada if nationalists reduced their demands until the Constituent Assembly met. But this was too much for the Cadets who saw separatism as German inspired and “yet another link in the German plan to break Russia up”. For Miliukov it represented “the chopping up of Russia under the slogan of self determination”. It was, as he says in his memoirs, the “betrayal of Russia’s interests”. While he recognised the need to make some gesture towards autonomy his attitude is reflected in his language: both the Finns and Ukrainians were “striving to take advantage of Russia’s troubles” but whereas the Finns were “cautious and subtle” the Ukrainian nationalists were “fanatics”. [92] As the Cadets left the Provisional government, Kerensky denounced them. “On the front, thousands are giving up their lives – and you here, you desert your posts and smash the government.” But Miliukov and the Cadet leaders well understood both their support for the idea of “Russia” and the politics of July. Once the insurgency of the workers in the capital in early July was defeated they were able to exercise a controlling influence over the new second coalition government whose Cadet ministers were “virtually hand-picked by Miliukov”. [93]

This attempt to hold the line against the claims of national self determination continued into the autumn. Even on the eve of October the minister of foreign affairs, Tereshchenko, who reputedly could not even pronounce the word Ukraine, was still denouncing the idea of independence for even the Baltic states as inconsistent with the position of Russia as a great power.



The Kornilov coup

All of these conflicts pointed to a fundamental choice in the summer of 1917 which Miliukov formulated as “Lenin or Kornilov” – the general who attempted a coup. In reality the “coup” that resulted was a disaster, a confused attempt to take power which collapsed without shots being fired in anger. But in the process it destroyed any remaining credit that the government, army high command and the political class had with the mass of the urban population. The hostile reaction to it caused a renewed national surge to the left whose main beneficiary was the Bolshevik Party. Controversy continues to rage over whether it was a coup at all and how serious a threat it presented. George Katkov denounces the idea that a coup was ever intended as a “lunatic theory”, a product of Kerensky’s fevered imagination. [94]

Such dismissals fail to engage with the tensions and uncertainties that afflict both left and right alike in revolutionary situations. No less than a revolutionary seizure of power, a coup from the right is a leap in the dark that cannot be meticulously planned. If it works then everything that happened was intended and a tribute to the foresight of the plotters. If it fails then the defence becomes it was never really intended, the coup organisers had misunderstood what was meant and so on. All of this is clearly apparent in the story of the Kornilov coup. Had it worked key sections of the Russian political class were ready to line up behind it as its “loyal supporters”. But when it failed they cashed in their insurance policies in an attempt to get themselves off the hook.

The attempted coup was the result of the coming together of two logics. The first was the concern of sections of the officer class in the army to impose order on the troops and to have a government that would support the military. [95] General Kornilov was appointed commander in chief of the Russian armies on 18 July to replace Brusilov who had lost the support of all sides. On the South Western Front Kornilov had adopted “an uncompromising stand towards the military committees” in the army. By late June when the offensive of the Eighth Army brought some success he was convinced that “a firm statement from the commander coupled with determined action was necessary to arrest the army’s disintegration”. On the 7-8 July, now commander in chief on the South Western Front, to stop the retreat, he:

... at once demanded that the commanding officers take decisive measures against traitors and renegades, notifying them that I was assuming full responsibility for such action. I ordered that deserters and looters be shot, and that the bodies of those executed be displayed prominently at the roadsides, with appropriate inscriptions attached to them. [96]

Meetings at the front were banned and shock battalions of officer cadets were formed “to combat desertion, marauding and violence”. His elevation to commander in chief therefore was a clear political statement by the Provisional government, and Kornilov was just as anxious that they should understand his position. He immediately tried to impose three conditions. Rather than reject them the Provisional government fudged and conceded that he should be responsible to his conscience and the nation (i.e. not the government); that there should be no interference with his operational orders or appointments; and that measures applied at the front, including the death penalty, should also be applied to the army in the rear. [97] He then moved to try to insist on a more total militarisation of the whole war effort telling a conference at General Headquarters on 30 July, in words he recalled a month later, “We must have three armies: one fighting in the trenches, another workers’ army in the rear and another consisting of railwaymen.” The implementation of this was a task for the Provisional government but “such armies should be governed by the same iron discipline as now at present enforced in the armies at the front”. [98]

The second logic arose from the wider class struggle and the coming together of sections of the ruling class around a more determined defence of capitalism. It was defeat of the partial uprising of the July Days in Petrograd that marked the change in climate. L’vov, though forced out of office in favour of Kerensky as prime minister, saw this clearly: “It is my firm conviction that our deep breach on the Lenin front has incomparably more importance for Russia than the breach made by the Germans on the South Western Front”. [99] This was reflected in the character of the new second coalition of the Provisional government. In the words of Miliukov, “With a slight preponderance of socialists, the actual preponderance in the cabinet unquestionably belonged to the convinced partisans of bourgeois democracy.” To which Trotsky later famously added his comment that “it would be more accurate to say bourgeois property”. [100]

A succession of measures quickly followed as the atmosphere at the top of society grew more hostile to the revolution from below in all its forms. On 8 July the military regulations were tightened; the death penalty reintroduced on 12 July and a major meeting of the government and the generals took place on 16 July. In the countryside a public order decree of 6 July made it an offence to incite attacks on private property, on 8 July the government again insisted that land seizures were not allowable. By mid-July Chernov, the new and ostensibly more left wing minister of agriculture, was trying to define and limit the powers of land committees. In areas at the front under the control of the army, peasant demonstrations were banned. In industry too the turn was clear and by mid-August Skobolev, the Menshevik minister of labour, was trying, under pressure, to reduce the power the factory committees.

On 3 August at the Trade Industrialists Conference in Moscow Riabushinbski had insisted that “we ought to say ... that the present revolution is a bourgeois revolution, that the bourgeois order which exists at present is inevitable, and since it is inevitable, one must draw the logical conclusion and insist that those who rule the state think in a bourgeois manner and act in a bourgeois manner ...” This signal was understood not only by the left. For Rech, the Cadet paper, this was “an occasion where the bourgeoisie finally strikes back ...” [101] At the Moscow State Conference (between 12-15 August) Kornilov spoke but, left it to General Denikin to represent what was been called “the authentic voice of the Russian generals”, and the polarisation became even clearer. Even the sceptical Katkov is forced to admit that:

One thing that was crystal clear to all present was that a gathering like this could never beget a new parliament, or indeed any other body representative of the whole nation, on which the government could rely. Not even the most innocently worded resolution could now be put to the vote without revealing the chasm that had opened up in Russian society. [102]

But the bourgeoisie was actually split on how to move forward. Already in the spring V.S. Zavoiko, a man with wide business links which stretched from Petrograd to the Baku oil industry, had helped to link together leading Petrograd industrialists and bankers as well as other interested parties like the publisher B.A. Suvorin. Zavoiko also helped to reinforce connections for this group with sections of the army. Related to them was the industrialist A.I. Putilov who established the Society for the Economic Rehabilitation of Russia. Their initial aim had been to produce conservative propaganda to limit the revolution and to support right wing candidates for the Constituent Assembly. But as the revolution developed perceptions began to change. The All-Russian Congress of Trade and Industry at the start of August, followed by the State Conference, both held in Moscow, allowed contacts to be developed. The exact story of the plotting and meetings remains disputed but it is clear that the liberal Moscow based businessmen, while growing increasingly hostile to the revolution, still wished to bide their time. This was the direction of Riabushinskii’s infamous speech at the Trade Congress from which the phrase “bony hand of hunger” is often quoted out of context. What he actually said was:

Therefore, gentlemen, we have to wait – this catastrophe, this financial-economic failure, will be inevitable for Russia, if we are not already facing catastrophe, and when it becomes obvious to everybody only then will they feel that they have been taking the wrong road ... We feel that this is inevitable. But unfortunately it is necessary for the bony hand of hunger and poverty to grab the false friends of the people by the throat, the members of the committees and soviets, in order that they should understand this. [103]

However, the Petrograd group was much more active. Deriving from those sections of capital which had developed the closest links with Tsarism (including through military production) they more naturally looked to the army for support after February and now saw in Kornilov a way forward. They were supported in this by wider sections of the upper classes fearing for their future and seeing him as a potential saviour. Individuals wrote to him urging action. “Letters”, he said, “came flooding in from all over the country describing acts of violence perpetrated against landowners and a complete breakdown in every sector of national life”. [104] The Cadet party began to debate what position it should take. Throughout July and August it had moved further to the right. Although the Cadets were a secular party it was even beginning to make its peace with the Orthodox Church whose leadership were anxious about their future role in Russia. Tyrkova, on the right of the party, told the Cadet leadership on 20 August that the Cadets “must support a dictator even more than Kerensky; there is no other way, only through blood.” Miliukov, said his fellow Cadet Maklakov, treated the possibility of a coup as “an accomplished fact” and therefore the only issue was “to find the right attitude to take towards it”. To this end Miliukov was happy to allow Kornilov to believe that he had his active support whereas he was in fact trying to have a foot in both camps in case Kornilov failed. According to General Denikin, Maklakov told him at the time, “Tell General Kornilov that we are all of us inciting him to act, Miliukov especially. In fact nobody is going to support General Kornilov – they are all going to watch from the sidelines”. [105]

What was happening was clearly sensed by sections of the popular movement. As Read puts it:

From the ordinary soldiers’ and sailors’ point of view ... the new conjuncture was clear. The authorities were on the offensive in the army and navy just as they were in the factories and villages. The period from July to August saw the most concerted effort of the whole revolutionary period to slow down and even control the popular movement. [106]

Tension rose throughout August. On 20 August Riga fell to the Germans and then news arrived that a major munitions supply dump in Kazan had exploded with the loss of a million shells and 12,000 machine guns. The officer class was further antagonised by the news that troops had murdered General Hirschfeld and a prominent political commissar, Linde. What happened next is still surrounded in confusion. Essentially, it appears that at some stage the pretext of a Bolshevik uprising in Petrograd (some officers even had to be dissuaded from creating a riot to simulate this) would be used as the justification for sending troops into the capital. At the last moment Kerensky, having either by his complicity or weakness done nothing to stop the build up to decisive action by Kornilov, saw a chance to denounce him and remove his challenge and, he hoped, restore his declining credibility with the popular base of the revolution. By turning on Kornilov at the key moment he may have unwittingly saved the revolution but his desperate gamble failed not least because no fighting took place to back up his own account of his stand against the general. Instead General Alekseev successfully mediated with Kornilov as his troops faded away under the impact of the denunciation of Kornilov’s actions and the propaganda of the rapidly mobilised workforce of Petrograd. Without the glory of a whiff of “grapeshot” to bolster him Kerensky suddenly found his own actions exposed to the glare of publicity and humiliation. He had temporarily removed a challenge from the army but was himself now in an even weaker position in terms of public support.



Political choices post-Kornilov

A revolutionary crisis, it has been said, is a moment of truth when the divisions in a society are exposed and a political choice stands starkly before the contesting classes. We have already argued that far from the policy of the Provisional government being a series of “mistakes”, what happened between February and August reflected the way in which the interests of the ruling class conflicted with those of the popular movement without “bourgeois democracy” offering the possibility of a solution. The Kornilov coup was a response on the part of sections of the ruling class to this dilemma. When it failed, the initiative, at least for the moment, passed to the left but the underlying problems that divided society remained unresolved. Indeed the pressure grew worse in September and October making the political response of the parties concerned the supreme question.

In our understanding of this, however, we encounter something of a paradox. In one sense we are better informed of the dynamics of the popular movement in the final revolutionary crisis than ever before. This is a result of the mass of fine work produced in the West in the last two decades. But much of this work has come from social historians who have been so concerned with the popular movement that they have dangerously devalued the political choices made in late 1917. This has had a number of unfortunate consequences. Two are crucial here. The first is the devaluation of what we can call “the party political choice” – the understanding of the way in which the political, policy and organisational strengths and weaknesses of parties were ruthlessly tested in the crisis. The second devaluation can be seen in the “sociologism” of the analysis of the popular movement (and especially the factory workers) where the swing to support the Bolsheviks is almost presented as a gut response to crisis rather than an expression of a conscious political choice between competing political alternatives.

This failure to build a properly political dimension into the understanding of the crisis has left the analysis of many of these “social historians” of the revolution vulnerable. Faced with the resurgence of a more conservative approach to the revolution many have beaten a hasty retreat rather than refine their work. The result is what we can call a “Menshevik” approach to the “moment of truth” in October. On the left the term Menshevik has so often been used as a term of abuse that we hesitate to use it here lest it be misunderstood as simple pejorative labelling. But the term is the correct one in two senses. Firstly some historians, most notably Vladimir Brovkin, openly identify with the Menshevik case in developing a critique of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Secondly, the wider discussion echoes the basic Menshevik claim that the Bolsheviks took advantage of a temporarily favourable conjunction to take power in such a way that they could not hope to maintain their popular base for more than a short time. They would therefore be forced to rule over it, rather than with it. In some cases this weakness in the understanding of the political in the autumn of 1917 is then reinforced by another historiographical retreat in the form of a lurch towards postmodernism. If political choices are constructed at the level of language and “discourse” then the clarity of the moment of truth at the top is diminished – it is not so much a creation of objective circumstances as the “ideological prism” through which the situation is understood. Equally the swing to the left at the bottom becomes even less an expression of a politicised consciousness and more a response constructed from distorted symbolism and a language of conflict and violence. [107]

In order therefore to conclude our discussion of why “bourgeois democracy” failed in 1917 we must first address the issue of the “party political choice” in the autumn before dealing more briefly with the nature of the choices made in the popular movement.



The crisis intensifies

In the wake of the Kornilov coup the second Provisional government coalition fell apart as Cadet ministers were discredited and resigned. Kerensky desperately tried to form a “third coalition” but the question was now whether the bourgeoisie and the Cadets had not so harmed themselves as to be completely untrustworthy partners. This question was made more pointed still by the fact that although the balance of power had swung to the left nothing else had changed – there was still conflict over democracy, the war, land, the factories and the empire – all splitting Russia apart. Kerensky therefore formed a five man “directory” on 1 September to run the government while a new coalition was put together, which took until 25 September. [108]

The weeks of the directory and then the final month of the third coalition saw the further crumbling of authority of the government which vacillated erratically as it clung to power. Ignoring the argument that no fundamental changes could be made without the Constituent Assembly, Kerensky tried to improve his standing by declaring Russia a republic on 5 September. This outraged the Cadets who argued that he had no authority for the move. The Senate – which had survived from the pre-February days, declared against the move until, on 6 October, Kerensky dissolved it and the old state Duma (which had continued to have meetings since February although without a formal role). [109] On the other hand, the government kept up pressure on the peasants and outraged many on the left by declaring martial law in Tashkent. As September progressed into October Kerensky began to look towards a confrontation believing that he could smash a Bolshevik uprising. He told Nabokov, “I would be prepared to offer prayers to produce this uprising ... I have greater forces than necessary. They will be utterly crushed”. [110]

To try to get some base for the government the executives of the urban and rural Congresses of Soviets, in conjunction with Kerensky, called an All-Russian Democratic Conference from 14-22 September. The 1,582 delegates (including 532 SRs, 172 Mensheviks, 136 Bolsheviks and 55 Trudoviks) were immediately paralysed by the question of whether there could be a coalition with the bourgeoisie in general and the Cadets in particular. [111] Before the conference closed it elected the so called Pre- Parliament or Provisional Council of the Republic which eventually met on 7 October. Having helped to call these bodies into existence Kerensky refused to submit the Provisional government to them on the grounds that it was the supreme repository of state power until the Constituent Assembly met and therefore responsible to itself. The Cadets even objected to the title since Russia had not been legally made a republic in their eyes. The same polarisation again emerged. As Galili puts it, “Census Russia again seemed bent on a strategy of confrontation”. [112] The Bolsheviks therefore boycotted the Pre-Parliament, followed by the Petrograd Soviet. They also brought considerable pressure on the reluctant Executive of the Soviets to call the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Despite their fears of the composition of such a Second Congress the existing Soviet Executive was forced to agree and on 23 September called the Second Congress for late October.

The confrontation evident at the political level continued also in the economy. Employers were now finding it hard to survive and it is difficult to distinguish between workers being dismissed because of difficulties in maintaining production and those dismissed because employers were getting out while they could. The Provisional government and the Soviet leadership again equivocated in their response. In Petrograd, for example, “the Putilovtsy faced the October Revolution with one third of their factory facing redundancy thrust upon them by their own supposed representatives in the Soviet and the Provisional government”. At the Fourth Congress of Factory Committees Skrypnik said “We are no longer standing in the ante-chamber of economic collapse; we have entered the zone of collapse itself”. [113]

Petrograd, located in the far north of Russia and dependent on supplies from the centre and the south, felt the crisis in an extreme way. Food was growing scarce. In the first days of October only 30 grain wagons arrived instead of the 500 needed to supply the city. “In Petrograd”, said a writer in Rabochii Put’ in mid-October, “there is no bread, meat, milk – least of all for the poor classes, for the workers and employees; though there is always sufficient quantity for the well-to-do strata of the population. All these goods are always available to the capitalists.” Rationing became more widespread; when supplies diminished, rations were cut and even these then proved hard to deliver to the mass of the population.

The government’s response continued to falter and in trying to solve one problem it seemed to accentuate another. Trying to raise the price of grain, said a motion pushed through the Petrograd City Duma:

... is only advantageous to the owners of large grain stores ...; the greatest weight falls with scandalous unfairness on the urban poor and the needy strata of the peasantry. And therefore the City Duma, forced to raise a tax on bread [by putting up prices], disclaims all responsibility for this, placing it wholly on the policy of the Provisional government. [114]

In the popular movement it seemed that only the attempt to organise things from below was holding the line against chaos. “The organisation of workers’ control is a manifestation of the same healthy activity in the sphere of industrial production as are party organisations in the sphere of politics, trade unions in employment, co-operatives in the domain of consumption and literary clubs in the sphere of culture,” said the First All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees, just prior to the revolution in October.

The working class has much more interest in the proper and uninterrupted operation of the factories ... than the capitalist class. Workers’ control is a better security in this respect for the interests of modern society, of the whole people, than the arbitrary will of the owners, who are guided only by their selfish desire for material profits or political privileges. Therefore workers’ control is demanded by the proletariat not only in their own interest, but in the interests of the whole country, and should be supported by the revolutionary peasantry as well as the revolutionary army. [115]

At the political level this meant that a new government was needed that would end the compromises of the Provisional government in all its forms. As Leonard Schapiro put it, “Any objective and honest student of 1917 in Russia cannot fail to observe the fact that by September or October the majority of the articulate portions of the Russian population had rejected the leadership of the middle class parties, and stood for a soviet government composed of a coalition of all socialist parties represented in the soviets throughout the country”. [116] The question was now how would the left respond?



The Bolshevik response

It is commonplace to accuse the Bolsheviks of being opportunist in October 1917. But this charge fits ill with the evidence of intense debate between 1914 and 1917 on the nature of the crisis and its resolution within the party. If we are able to use hindsight to reformulate the argument that emerged with more sharpness, this does not alter the fact that the shift in ideas was far more impressive than that in any other group, left or right. The explanation for this, though hostile historians are loathe to admit it, is that the Bolshevik Party was both theoretically and politically more flexible than the rest of the left and had to travel less far in terms of its politics in 1917. Thus despite the debates within the Bolshevik Party the effect of the radicalisation in 1917 was to remake the party and drive it towards revolution, a quite different impact from that which it had on the rest of the left.

The starting point for Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin and others was that they were living in a new and increasingly integrated world of imperialism in which the capacity for autonomous development was limited by the growing power of advanced capitalist states. These were prepared to supplement economic competition with military competition and, if necessary, war. This created two tendencies which worked to the advantage of socialism. One was a tendency to ever greater state control, what Bukharin called state capitalism, in which the ever growing units of private capital intermeshed with units of state capital and so made democratic socialist control a more realistic possibility. The second was the way the ever growing integration made it possible for workers in a state like Russia to be able to inaugurate what was a process of more general revolution – part of the basis of what Trotsky called permanent revolution. War accentuated these tendencies further. But the daily bloodshed on the Western and Eastern fronts as well as in the “sideshows” also exemplified that the choice could be one between “socialism and barbarism”. Even if the war were brought quickly to a close, internal and external conflicts no less barbaric would emerge.

Within Russia the specific crisis had created the most militant working class in the world alongside a peasantry and army whose revolt was also growing by the day. It had also created democratic structures of committees and soviets the like of which the world had not seen before. Within these the Bolsheviks had been pushed to the fore:

We are on the threshold of a world proletarian revolution. And since of all the proletarian internationalists in all countries only we Russian Bolsheviks enjoy a measure of freedom – we have a legal party and a score or so of papers, we have the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies of both capitals on our side, and we have the support of the majority of the people in a time of revolution – to us the saying, “To whom much has been given, of him much shall be required,” in all justice can and must be applied.

Not to take this chance risked enormous dangers. The unprecedented scale and speed with which the crisis was still developing meant that either the revolution would succeed or the Tsarist empire would collapse in on itself or be held together by a second Kornilov revolt which would not only destroy the Bolsheviks but carry away the other parties of soviet democracy and its very institutions with them. “History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now”; “It is impossible to stand still in history in general, and in wartime in particular. We must either advance or retreat,” Lenin kept insisting:

The complete disruption of Russia’s economic life has now reached a point where catastrophe is unavoidable, a catastrophe of such appalling dimensions that a number of essential industries will be brought to a standstill, the farmer will be prevented from conducting farming on the necessary scale, and the railway traffic will be interrupted with a consequent stoppage of grain deliveries to the industrial population and the cities involving millions of people. What is more, the breakdown has already started, and has affected various industries. [117]

These positions were not arrived at automatically. They involved debates that were if anything sharper than those in other left parties. In April the Bolshevik Party was divided, again in July, again in September-October over the issue of taking power and then again and again after October. These debates continued into the 1920s until they were finally crushed by emerging Stalinism. Far from Lenin dominating a monolith as both Stalinist and right wing historical writing in the West suggests, the party in 1917 was suffused with debate. Indeed we can stand the normal argument on its head and say that it was just because the party had both a focus on the popular movement and a vigorous tradition of sharp and serious debates that it was able to generate the clear positions that allowed it to function as well as it did. The contrast with its competitors could not be clearer.





71. C. Read, op. cit., p.153 (my emphasis – MH).

72. B. Pares, op. cit.; H. Pichter, op. cit., p.145. Much of the recent writing on the Russian peasantry has criticised earlier attempts to argue that there was serious class differentiation amongst the peasants. I have a qualified sympathy with this “revisionism” but to the extent that it is correct it would seem to undercut even more any argument that the rural revolt could have been appeased by anything less than wholesale handover of land to those who worked it.

73. The question of how much land was owned by landlords and others is often shrouded in confusion. For a good contemporary account see L Litoshenko, Landed Property in Russia, Russian Review, vol.2 no.4, November 1913, pp.185-207.

74. It might be objected to this argument that land reform was “successfully” undertaken at the end of the war in a number of Eastern European countries and was therefore possible in Russia too. But the post-war context of land reform was very different in these countries; so too was the relative power of different sections of the ruling class and the state; but above all concessions were encouraged and minds concentrated by the different experience of Russia.

75. K. Tverdovskii [psuedonym. N.I. Bukharin] K voprosy o zemel’nuikh zakhvatakh, Spartak, no.7, 16 September 1917, reprinted in N.I. Bukharin, Na podstupakh k oktyabru, statii i rechi, mai-dekabri 1917 g (Moscow, 1926), p.113.

76. The lack of a wide base of support for private land ownership is also reflected in the fact that formal landowner parties got only 171,245 votes in the elections for the Constituent Assembly.

77. This discussion is based on J. Channon, The Landowners, in R. Service (ed.), Society and Politics in the Russian Revolution (Macmillan) 1992; T.V. Osipova, Vserossiskii soyuz zemel'nykh sobstvennikov v 1917 g, Istoriya SSSR, no.3 (1976).

78. C. Read, op. cit., p.118.

79. Quoted W. Rosenberg, Liberals, op. cit., p.124-125; P. Avrich, Russian factory committees in 1917, Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, 1963, part 2, p.167.

80. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p.424.

81. Konovalov became minister of trade and industry; Guchkov was the first minister of war and Tereshchenko, the sugar businessman from the south west, became minister of finance.

82. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p.463; Z Galili, Commercial-Industrial Circles in Revolution: the Failure of “Industrial Progressivism”, in E. Rogovin, J. Frankel, B. Knei-Paz (eds.), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.188.

83. The best short summary account of the economic problems of 1917 remains N. Stone, op. cit., ch.13.

84. Quoted in L. Schapiro, 1917: The Russian Revolution and the Origins of Present Day Communism (Penguin, 1984), p.97.

85. W.G. Rosenberg and D. Koenker, Strikes and Revolution in Russia 1917 (Princeton University Press, 1989).

86. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories 1917-1918 (Cambridge University Press, 1983), p.146.

87. The ambiguity and changing balance of meaning can be seen clearly in the main resolution of the first All-Russian Congress of Factory Committees – easily available in J. Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World (Penguin, 1966), pp.295-296.

88. Z. Galili, Commercial-Industrial Circles in Revolution: the Failure of “Industrial Progressivism”, op. cit., p.204.

89. The Disorganisation of Russian Industry, Russia: A Journal of Russian-American Trade, May 1918, pp.11-13.

90. L. Lande, The Mensheviks in 1917, L. Haimson (ed.), The Mensheviks from the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (University of Chicago Press, 1976), p.41.

91. Quoted H. Pichter, op. cit., p.114.

92. C. Read, op. cit., p.136 ; R. Abraham, op. cit., p.219; P. Miliukov, op. cit., pp.471-472.

93. P. Miliukov, op. cit., pp464-474; W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.198.

94. The most detailed account of the Kornilov coup is by G. Katkov, op. cit. Katkov combines a detailed command of the sources with a defence of highly questionable arguments. He seeks effectively to defend Kornilov and to condemn Kerensky. Despite the mass of valuable information he offers, his account can be faulted in four key areas, firstly in his desire to defend Kornilov he places the most charitable interpretation on his actions and the least charitable on that of his opponents; secondly, he fails to adequately rebut charges that Kornilov had important meetings with interested groups before the coup; thirdly, and most seriously, he abstracts his account from the social dynamics of the situation and the balance of changing class forces, especially at the top of Russian society; finally, he minimises the role of Allied and especially British involvement which although certainly hesitant was not insignificant. For more politically astute accounts of the coup see J D White, The Kornilov Affair – a Study in Counter-Revolution, Soviet Studies, vol.20, October 1968, pp.187-205; M. Ferro, October 1917: A Social History of the Russian Revolution (Routledge, 1980); for a survey of the historiography of the coup which criticises Katkov’s more narrow interpretation see J.W. Long, Kornilov Redivivus: New Data on the Prelude to Bolshevism, Russian History, vol.11 no.1, Spring 1984, pp.1-10. Most recently, G. Swain, The Origins of the Russian Civil War (Longman, 1996), ch.1, is good on the coup.

95. The traditional Russian officer corps was a highly conservative force in Russian society. It celebrated its anti-intellectual stance even in military matters and lacked an appreciation “that the Russian army’s weakness was caused by the backwardness of Russia’s society and economy”. A “young Turk” group had arisen before 1914 but with limited effect. Now the war to some extent democratised the lower ranks but there was still insufficient time for this to penetrate to create the high army structure. See P. Kenez, Russian Officer Corps Before the Revolution: the Military Mind, Russian Review, vol.31 (1972), pp.226-231; D.R. Jones, The Officers and the October Revolution, Soviet Studies, vol.xxviii, no.2, April 1976, pp.207-223; and most usefully, A Wildman, Officers of the General Staff and the Kornilov Movement, in E.R. Frankel, J. Frankel and B. Knei-Paz (eds.), Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917 (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

96. Quoted G. Katkov, op. cit., p.166.

97. R. Abraham, op. cit., p.227. It is unclear how many soldiers were shot after the restoration of the death penalty. Officially few death penalties were sanctioned at the top but actions may have been taken by local commanders. Kerensky boasted to General Knox that within a week Kornilov had 147 men shot but this may have been said for effect.

98. Quoted in G. Katkov, op. cit., p.169.

99. Quoted in M. Leibman, The Russian Revolution (Cape,1970), p.189.

100. C. Read, op. cit., p.52.

101. Quoted in W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., pp.209-210.

102. R. Abraham, op. cit., p.233; G. Katkov, op. cit., p.63.

103. Quoted in V.V. Shelokhaev, op. cit., p.316.

104. G. Katkov, op. cit., p175; G Swain, op. cit., ch 1.

105. G. Katkov, op. cit., pp.141, 143; W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.223. The same attitude was apparent in the contacts between Allied representatives and the General Headquarters. Buchanan, the British ambassador, clearly would have been happy with a successful coup but felt that he could not be seen to give any open support before the event. He therefore held supporters of a coup at arms length while doing nothing to dissuade it. At the Stavka, on the other hand, the British liaison officer was happy to be swept along by events and to encourage Kornilov.

106. C. Read, op. cit., p.140.

107. Sadly, two of the best social historians of 1917 have retreated towards post-modernism. See S. Smith, Writing the history of the Russian Revolution After the Fall of Communism, Europe-Asia Studies, vol.46 no.4 (1994) pp.563-578; R.G. Suny, Revision and Retreat in the Historiography of 1917: Social History and its Critics, Russian Review, vol.53, April 1994, pp.165-182. For a brief critique see J.E. Marot, A post-modern approach to the Russian Revolution? Comment on Suny, The Russian Review, vol.54, April 1995, pp.260-264.

108. The directory consisted of Kerensky, Tereshchenko as foreign minister, Verkhovsky and Verderevsky in charge of the war and navy, and Nikitin in charge of posts and telegraphs.

109. So far as I am aware there is no study of the Senate and Duma in 1917 which is unfortunate as they were centres of reaction after February.

110. V.D. Nabokov, The Provisional government, op. cit., p.78.

111. The conference passed a motion in support of coalition with the bourgeoisie by only 766 to 688 but then rejected the idea of a coalition with the Cadets – the only serious bourgeois party. When the vote for coalition was put a second time it was decisively lost, which Figes ascribes to the way “the basic skills of parliamentary decision making proved beyond its leaders”; O. Figes, op. cit., p.466. We would explain it more simply in terms of the scale of the polarisation which now existed.

112. Z. Galili, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies (Princeton University Press, 1989), p.389-390.

113. C. Read, op. cit., p.70; S.A. Smith, op. cit.

114. V.M. Kruchkovskaya, Tsentral'naya Gorodskaya Duma Petrograda v 1917g (Moscow, 1986), pp.60-63.

115. J. Reed, op. cit.

116. L. Schapiro, op. cit., p.x.

117. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.26, pp.21, 74-77; vol.25, p.340; vol.24, p.513.



Last updated on 17.4.2001