Mike Haynes


Was there a parliamentary alternative in Russia in 1917?

(Part 3)


The political failure of the SRs and the Mensheviks

It is possible to have an argument with the Bolshevik analysis but what is striking is the failure of both SR and Menshevik theorists to advance a counter-argument of any depth. Instead they remained stuck in an argument that had not advanced beyond the pre-war days. Both the main groups of SRs and the Mensheviks still operated with the more or less coherent idea that the revolution had to be a bourgeois one. [118] Yet by now they were also arguing that it was no longer possible to work with the bourgeoisie which had opposed the revolution and was looking to civil war. Equally, however, they rejected the idea of a socialist coalition which would include the Bolsheviks since this would alienate the bourgeoisie and risk throwing such a coalition government into the hands of the “extremists”. Instead they tried to occupy the middle ground supporting a coalition with the right socialists (with or without Kerensky). This produced a position which was theoretically and politically unworkable and this was clear both to the right and the left, and often to the SR and Menshevik leaderships themselves. One interpretation of this is that the Menshevik and SR leaders were afraid of taking power themselves. Lande later wrote that “lacking confidence in their own ability to govern, they found the theory of the bourgeois character of the Russian Revolution a reassuring excuse”. [119] But this is too easy. Harding is much nearer the mark when he argues that the problem was not courage but politics and though his comment applies specifically to the Mensheviks it can be extended to the centre of the Socialist Revolutionaries:

None of the prominent theorists of Menshevism attempted to keep pace with, or offer substantial criticism of, the theoretical premisses which Bukharin and Lenin elaborated in the period 1914 to 1917. The Mensheviks remained rooted in the synthesis of 1905 (economic analysis – comparatively low development of Russian capitalism, derivative political practice – the realisation of the democratic revolution). In 1917 they bitterly criticised Lenin’s proposals for an advance to socialist practice but made little or no attempt to confront the theoretical basis from which this was derived. It was they who bucked the argument. [120]

It was Lenin who in 1917 “cut the knot”, as Fedor Dan put it. The Menshevik theorists Dan, Martov, etc, failing to cut the knot themselves, floundered between the idea of “bourgeois revolution” and something beyond it; “Dan did not appeal to the traditional conception in its pristine purity. Too many holes had been punched in it by the Mensheviks’ own amendments, adjustments, and explanations of 1905 and 1917”. [121] Unable to disentangle themselves in any coherent way from the idea of a “bourgeois revolution” they continued to wriggle on the hook they had created for themselves.

From the right the Cadets hammered away at this inconsistency. By now the party had adopted what Rosenberg calls “a fully fledged civil war mentality” and its leaders were anxious to draw lines. [122] Miliukov insisted that if the left genuinely believed that the revolution was bourgeois and could not go beyond a bourgeois stage then they had to follow the consequences and accept what Sukhanov had argued for after February, namely that they should allow the bourgeoisie “to stand at the head of that revolution and carry out their bourgeois affairs”. They argued that a bourgeois revolution without the bourgeoisie, over the opposition of the bourgeoisie, on the backs of a socialist coalition, was simply “unfeasible” and the mess the attempt achieved vindicated this view. [123] In the Council of the Republic Nabokov and other Cadets made the same argument immediately insisting that the key issue was order and the fight against Bolshevism. As Nabokov saw it, “Our ‘leftist friends’ were incorrigible, and ... all our efforts to reach agreement and support for authority in its fight with anarchy and rebellion had almost gone to waste.” Speaking to Dan and the Mensheviks, Nabokov and the Cadets argued that “your present attitude is again the old ambiguous, uncertain, ‘in so far as’ kind of confidence which is no help whatever to the government and does not facilitate its task”. [124]

From the right of the Socialist Revolutionaries, Kerensky and the group around him made the same challenge to the centre of his party and the Mensheviks:

The Bolsheviks, Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries ... are for everything that causes anarchy, refuses to defend the country, or is against unity. Their front is one, and the devastation of Russia moves at a gigantic rate. And the other part of the democracy – the one that sits in session at the Alexandrovsky Theatre – its front united, and what does it intend to do? Does it seriously imagine that it is possible to support the Provisional government ... and to continue to seek compromises with ... those who sow discord and hostility throughout the Republic, who repudiate at bottom what it asserts ...

Postresov, who led the right wing of Menshevism, denounced the refusal of a coalition with the bourgeoisie, saying this “is worse than Bolshevism. This is absurdity”. [125]

But how could you have a coalition with a bourgeoisie defending its class interests, wishing to see the popular movement suppressed and toying with counter-revolutionary generals? On what terms should support be given to a succession of “irresponsible” governments which had failed to satisfy the popular agenda? Yet the revolution had to be “bourgeois democratic”. This produced a series of bizarre theoretical twists. The left had shifted since February from the position of allowing a bourgeois government to carry out bourgeois tasks; to participation of socialists in a bourgeois government to carry out bourgeois tasks; to opposition to a government of the bourgeoisie in favour of a socialist government which would limit itself to bourgeois democratic tasks. To support this it was now argued in the Menshevik Party that the bourgeoisie had failed so the initiative was passing over to a socialist led revolutionary democracy which could carry out the bourgeois revolution with the support of the “revolutionary” petty bourgeoisie. This bizarre idea owed more to a desperate analogy with the French Revolution than a credible assessment of the situation in Russia in 1917 which, for all its weaknesses, one of the biggest industrial powers in the world. [126]

The problem was that the situation had changed but the analysis had not, so that, as Galili argues, whereas between February and July 1917 Menshevik ideas “made for several viable alternatives” the period after July “was one of mounting hopelessness for the Mensheviks”. [127] The theoretical twists were complimented by political ones. By late September both the SR and Menshevik parties were formally supporting a “democratic coalition”, excluding Cadets, only to find that when Kerensky managed to form the third coalition (in negotiation with leading figures in these parties) it included Cadets and Mensheviks and SRs. Chernov, the most prominent centre SR now under pressure from the left, was outraged when the central committee of the party agreed to endorse the coalition. Amongst the Menshevik leadership an agonised debate took place as they too tried to distance themselves from what the Internationalists called their “non-representatives” in the government while not going so far as to break all connection with it.

As the agonising continued Kerensky kept up the attack from the right in the Council of the Republic:

I believe (Kerensky addressed the Internationalists) that everyone at the present time must decide whether he is on the side of the republic, freedom and democracy, or against these. (Prolonged applause on all benches, with the exception of the Internationalists). And if there are people who believe that the truth is on the other side, then they must manfully take their place in those ranks, and not behave themselves as they do now. (Storm of applause from the right and centre; noise from the left).

“Noise from the left” but no answer since Kerensky’s taunts again exposed from one side of the polarisation the indecision that the Bolsheviks exposed from the other. In turn Dan, one of the key leaders of the Mensheviks, argued that the Bolsheviks had “openly taken advantage of the real dissatisfaction among the broad masses whose needs have not been met” because of the obstruction “by classes whose representatives are sitting on the right side” but he then returned to the plaintive cry that the government should deliver a solution on peace (while being forced to recognise that the minister of foreign affairs “did not say a single word about raising the question of peace negotiations at the Allied Conference”) and land.



The collapse of SR and Menshevik support

With these political problems and inconsistencies it is not surprising to find that while Bolshevik support grew rapidly, support for the SRs and Mensheviks flooded away in the summer and autumn of 1917. The pattern of urban elections shows the Bolsheviks were a small minority but a growing one in provincial Russia throughout 1917. In the larger urban centres, however, they were a major presence. Nationally everyone recognised that their performance in Petrograd and Moscow was the litmus test. Both cities had two elections to their city dumas in 1917 and although turnout fell sharply in the second elections large numbers still voted. Rosenberg, the Western historian who has studied these elections most closely, suggests that absenteeism was as much caused by frustration with the lack of progress as apolitical apathy.

Table 2: Percent Distribution of Vote in Petrograd and Moscow Duma and Constituent Assembly Elections [128]

27-29 May

20 August

November 25

June 24










Minor-non socialist






Socialist bloc (mainly SR)
Socialist Revolutionaries







Minor socialist





























In Petrograd the second election took place on 20 August. It shows the recovery in Bolshevik strength after July before the Kornilov coup had occurred (indeed the likely result may have added to the case for action from the right). Table 2 clearly demonstrates the swing to the Bolsheviks away from, especially, the Mensheviks in Petrograd but also to some extent the Socialist Revolutionaries. Analysing the results the journal of the Union of Towns commented that:

The most striking fact of the elections is the colossal strengthening of the Bolsheviks. The mood in the social democratic masses of Petrograd is going to the left. In this connection the Petrograd elections only confirm those facts, already known to us earlier; the ousting of the Mensheviks by the Bolsheviks in the factory committees, in the district party organisations, the conquest of the trade unions by the Bolsheviks, the victories of Bolshevik-Internationalist resolutions [i.e. Bolshevik and left wing Menshevik] over Menshevik ones in the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ deputies. [129]

Coming a month later the Moscow urban elections demonstrated the further radicalism produced by the Kornilov coup and the intensifying crisis. On the one hand, the Cadets’ relative position was strengthened as their absolute vote barely diminished. But on the left the Menshevik vote slumped relatively and fell absolutely from 81,000 to 16,000 a fall of 80 percent. The Socialist Revolutionary vote collapsed even more spectacularly from 360,000 to 55,000 – an absolute fall of almost 85 percent. The Bolshevik vote by contrast rose from 12 to 51 percent and absolutely from 184,000 to 194,000. By continuing the analysis beyond October to include the results for the Constituent Assembly elections held in the November (based on a massive turnout) this basic pattern can be confirmed.

In the countryside too support was dissolving rapidly for the SRs, “while local militants in the uezd and guberniia peasant committees and soviets were still inclined to stick to the party line, the patience of the peasants themselves was running out and direct action coming to the fore ... The chiefs were allowing themselves to be transformed into the main prop of authority at the local level”. [130] Viewed in these terms the Constituent Assembly results were no fluke in being an overwhelming left vote with the Bolsheviks gaining 25 percent and a clear victory in the industrial areas and key fronts in the army – a result all the more impressive if the balance between the right SR and left SR vote is properly understood as we will try to show in a moment.

Thus the better known swing away from the SRs and Mensheviks in the soviets and factory committees was a reflection of a much wider trend clearly apparent in the local government elections in the two biggest cities. Since a discussion of the trend in the committees and soviets can easily be found elsewhere we will here simply draw attention to Table 3 which shows the changing position in the first three All-Russian Congresses of Soviets.

Table 3: Percent Distribution of Delegates to First Three Congresses of Soviets
by Party and Party Tendency [131]



Socialist Revolutionary






right SR


Centre right

(3 June)









(25 October)









(10 January 1918)









Once again the swing to the Bolsheviks is evident. Secondly, the weakening appeal of both the SRs and the Mensheviks is clearly apparent reflecting what Read terms “their refusal to go along with their constituents”. [132] Thirdly, we can see that within these parties the centre right weakened, producing a much more even balance with the left in the delegates of the Mensheviks and SRs at the Second Congress. The left SRs formed a separate party after the Second Congress, ensuring their domination of SR support at the Third Congress. Behind these figures lay a complex process of division and weakening in both the SRs and the Mensheviks. If, as we have argued, the revolutionary upsurge remade the Bolshevik Party and pushed it towards revolution, its impact on the SRs and Mensheviks was the opposite – parts of the parties began to split and move towards counter-revolution while the mainstream equivocated before drifting into opposition.



The internal divisions and weakening of the SRs

As we have seen, the Socialist Revolutionaries were the biggest party on the left. Their initial success was based on the combination of an appeal to the towns with socialist demands and an appeal to the peasants based on support for their right to have the land. In the spring of 1917 this enabled the SRs to dwarf other parties with a membership of at least half a million and possibly many more, grouped in 60 province organisations as well as organisations in the army and fleet. By the summer membership may even have gone as high as a million as whole villages and army units joined up.

But the Socialist Revolutionaries were always loosely organised and disparate, divided by the war and then split wide apart in 1917 itself. Although to some extent an oversimplification, three tendencies resulted – a right, centre and left. The right was led by Kerensky, Breshkovskaya and Savinikov grouping politically around the paper Volia naroda. The centre, until the summer the dominant force, was led by Victor Chernov. But from the spring a left Socialist Revolutionary group developed, grouped around the Novy put and Znamya truda journals and led by Spiridonova, Natanson and Kamkov. The growing isolation of the right within the party was reflected in the way in June Kerensky was excluded from the central committee and, after the failure of the Kornilov coup, Savinikov was expelled. From the other side Chernov, removed from his position as minister of agriculture, in part as a concession to property owners, also felt free to attack the Provisional government and the right even more in September 1917.

But the main beneficiaries of this disillusion were not so much the centre as the left Socialist Revolutionaries. In September 1917 they won control of the Petrograd committee of the party and as popular support haemorrhaged the left looked set to gain control of the party as a whole in the autumn. What the left SRs lacked, however, was control of the party apparatus and when October came Chernov and the centre effectively sunk their differences with the right using their control of the party to oppose the taking of power and drive out the left SRs who, though they could not command the leading organs, clearly had a mass of support in the base of the party. When the left SRs decided to stay in the Second Congress of Soviets, the central committee of the party expelled the 79 who remained. Then on 11 November the Extraordinary Congress of Peasant Soviets met in Petrograd with some 195 left SR delegates against around 65 right and centre SRs. Even if there are doubts about particular mandates this shows the massive swing that had taken place.

This Congress too voted to support the revolution and the left SRs formed a party of their own on 24 November, joining the Bolsheviks to create a revolutionary coalition. When the full Second Congress of Peasant Deputies met on 26 November with roughly 350 Left SR delegates against some 300 centre and Right SRs (and around 90 Bolsheviks) Spiridonova, the leader of the Left SRs, defeated Chernov to be elected chair. He immediately took the Right and centre SRs out of the Congress to try to create a parallel body. Far from embodying a superior claim to “democracy”, the mainstream leadership of the SRs were only able to act as they did by manipulating their control of the party.

The elections for the Constituent Assembly merely enabled them to take this manipulation a step further. Although historians hostile to the revolution dwell on the fact that the SRs were the largest party, they neglect the absence of evidence that the position espoused by its leadership had real support beyond the top echelons. The SR electoral list had been drawn up before the full impact of the polarisation to the left outside and within the party. The list therefore gave an enormous preponderance to the Right and the centre to such an extent that when some 420 SRs were elected only around 40 of them were from the Left. As the analysis above should make clear, this in no sense represented the true balances of forces during the last days in which the SR party was united. But the SR leadership had no qualms about seizing this further opportunity to weaken the revolutionary front in favour of its failed policy of compromise.

When the Constituent Assembly was so casually disbanded its obvious lack of mass support exposed the SRs claim to have a mass popular base to legitimate their obstruction of the new government. The Constituent Assembly, with effective SR dominance, in its limited life refused to endorse the government’s policy on land, even though this was to all intents the historic policy of the SRs. This demonstrates the impasse to which the party had come and how Chernov and other centre left leaders had allowed it to be marginalised in their support of the chimera of some wider class compromise in 1917.



The internal divisions and weakening of the Mensheviks

Similar processes of division could be found within the smaller Menshevik Party in the summer and autumn. Figures of party membership remain uncertain partly because of the chaotic state of party organisations in 1917 and partly because in the peripheral areas Menshevik and Bolshevik groups sometimes remained united during 1917, occasionally splitting only after October. Miller suggests that a realistic evaluation of the comparative dynamics of Bolshevik and Menshevik membership shows the Bolsheviks with some 10,000 members in February rising to 40,000 by the time of their April conference and around 200,000 in the summer. By October he accepts the traditional figure of some 350,000 members. In comparison the Mensheviks grew much faster early on – to some 100,000 in April. A rough equality was reached in August with the Mensheviks having around 200,000 members but then in the remaining months they failed to grow any more. Their relative weakness was also reflected in their heavy dependence for members on areas like the Caucasus (around 50,000 members in Georgia alone) whereas the Bolsheviks dominated the industrial heartlands of Russia. The Mensheviks also had a weaker proportional working class base and drew fewer workers into positions of leadership. Whereas at the summer 1917 conference of the Bolshevik Party some 40 percent of delegates were workers, in the Menshevik conference the figure was closer to 20 percent. This was partly related to the party’s failure to focus to the same extent as the Bolsheviks, or in some instances the SRs, on working class issues. Many years ago, for example, Ward pointed out that coverage of the factory committee movement was better in the SR paper, Delo naroda, than Menshevik papers and the main Menshevik paper in Petrograd did not even discuss the May-June Factory Committee Conference in the city. [133]

The Mensheviks, like the SRs, had three main tendencies. On the right, led by Postresov, were those who had supported the war before and after February – the so called Defencists. These were few in number – at the Menshevik conference in August they had the support of only around 5 percent of delegates – but they were a powerful influence on those who participated in the Provisional government and those who supported participation. By August around 55 percent of members supported the centre – the so called Revolutionary Defencists, led by Mikhail Liber and Fedor Dan. Around 30 percent supported the party’s left wing (with another 10 percent supporting a United Social Democratic-Internationalist strand) amongst whom Martov was the leading figure although his personal influence in the party at large was much wider. Moreover it was in the “Bolshevik belt” (as Larin described it in September 1917) of industrial Russia that the Menshevik Internationalist wing was the stronger part of the party reflecting the way that the base of the party was being pulled to the left. [134]

The Menshevik leadership’s difficulties presented an obvious problem. If they had the correct analysis why was the working class turning away from them? Their answer was crassly reductionist. Real class conscious workers, they argued, supported their more moderate position. Therefore those who did not support them could not be class conscious workers but were instead socially less stable groups including a mass of soldiers. Indeed Postresov had earlier prefigured this argument claiming that truly class conscious workers would have supported the war effort and working class opposition to the war was therefore a manifestation of its social dilution. Later Martov, who saw Postresov’s view as absurd, found himself caught up in the same reductionist logic on an even larger scale arguing that the post-war wave of radicalism across the Western world – “world Bolshevism” was a reflection of a war-induced dilution of the Western working class including the influx of women untrained in the class struggle. [135]

The trouble was that even their own members felt this pressure in October. In Petrograd on 24 October, as the Mensheviks in Pre-Parliament had some last minute success in forcing it into a more oppositional stance to the Provisional government, they could not even call demonstrations to support their pressure on Kerensky least the demonstrators reflected Bolshevik ideas. [136]



The issue of power

When the third coalition government was announced on 25 September the Petrograd Soviet immediately passed a motion which read:

We, the workers and garrison of Petrograd will give no support whatsoever to a government of bourgeois omnipotence and counter-revolutionary coercion. We express our complete assurance that the news of the new government will meet with one answer alone from all the revolutionary democracy, “Resign!” And, basing our actions on this unified voice of true democracy, the All- Russian Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, will create a true revolutionary power. [137]

The prediction was correct. When the Second Congress convened, there were some 670 delegates from 400 soviets, including 300 Bolsheviks, some 200 SRs of whom around half were Left SRs and 33 Menshevik Internationalists. As the delegates began to convene they were asked their views on the question of power. Table 4 sets out the results.

Table 4: Views of the delegates to the Second Congress of Soviets
on government [138]

For “All power to the soviets”


For “All power to democracy”


For a democratic coalition without Cadets


For a democratic coalition with the Cadets


Thus only 79 delegates were prepared to consider a coalition with the bourgeoisie and only 58 with the only serious bourgeois party.

It can be argued, therefore, that had the Bolsheviks not played the role they did in October in pushing for a decisive response to what was seen as the continuing hesitations of the Provisional government, there would still have been a push for power from below. On the Military Revolutionary Committee, for example, although the Bolsheviks played a leading role they had only 53 out of some 80 members and the remaining 27 were by no means less militant.

In fact, as we know with hindsight, the seizure of power in Petrograd on 24-25 October was easy because the Provisional government no longer had support. “When a power was not defended by those who organised it – was it needed?” asked Malyantovich, the last minister of justice in the Provisional government. [139] The Second Congress of Soviets met on 25 October, after revolutionary workers, troops and Red Guards had seized the key centres of power in Petrograd. But with the outcome still uncertain, the Socialist Revolutionary and Menshevik leaderships now had to cease equivocating and respond. Dan, for the Mensheviks, predictably still proposed an homogenous democratic coalition. Martov went further, calling for a socialist coalition and this call generated support from both the Left SRs and the Bolsheviks and was approved unanimously. At this point the representatives of the main Menshevik groups turned on the Congress and the new leadership denouncing them and walking out with the right SRs and Bundists, leaving Martov plaintively echoing his call for unity with those who had left. The situation was now different. “We all accepted Martov’s proposal to discuss peaceful ways of solving the crisis,” said Lunarcharsky, “... but a systematic attack was launched at us ... Without hearing us out, without even discussing their own proposals, they immediately tried to separate themselves from us ... to isolate us”. [140] Having had the ground pulled from under him by his own comrades, Martov was then forced to choose between the Congress and his party. Fatally he abandoned the Congress leaving with most of the rest of the Menshevik Internationalists to what Trotsky famously called “the dustbin of history”.



The popular movement

The devaluation of the political choices made in 1917 extends in another direction, as we suggested earlier. This is the direction of the political choice made by the workers. In some analyses it is as if revolutionary ideas float above the working class – in the Bolshevik Party – until workers, driven by the pressure of events, converged with the Bolsheviks in October. Any serious account of radicalisation has to give prominence to the real forces affecting the development of the popular movement. But there is an additional political dimension to radicalisation that also needs to be incorporated but rarely has been. Politics is there in the way in which the individuals who made up the popular movement made choices between alternatives, formed in the context of political debates, however poorly or inarticulately they were formulated. Yet in some accounts it is almost as if workers, faced with growing pressure, were the subject of blind forces which drove them towards the Bolshevik Party in the autumn of 1917.

Suny unwittingly expresses this view when he writes that “by early fall 1917 a coincidence of lower class aspiration and the Bolshevik programme resulted in elected Leninist majorities in the soviets of both Petrograd and Moscow and the strategic support of soldiers on the Northern and Western fronts.” Read goes further still arguing that “the popular agenda – a better deal for workers, land redistribution, protection from economic crisis, greater direct democracy and a just end to the war – remained a relatively stable programme in search of implementation” and that the workers only turned to the Bolsheviks because neither the SRs or the Mensheviks would carry out this programme, concluding that “the popular movement did not turn towards Bolshevism because they became converts to its basic philosophy”. [141]

But even were this completely true, workers’ actions would still involve a double political choice. There was the choice of the established parties that we have already noted. There was the political judgement that workers then made (and which they had not made earlier) that these parties were no longer to be trusted and that the Bolsheviks were a better guarantee of their aspirations would be realised. Ignoring this political element creates an account that converges with that offered by Menshevik theorists in the autumn and winter of 1917. According to this the “coincidence” of interest between the popular movement and the Bolsheviks was based on no more than a temporary conjuncture. The Bolsheviks should have understood this and rejected power. For their part the “socialist” opposition to taking power in October was justified in opposing it since a gap was bound to open up as the popular movement fell away. At this point the Bolsheviks’ opponents could say, “We told you so,” and reap the benefit of their stand. Even worse, the devaluation of politics lends support to those like Pipes, Figes and many modern historians in Russia who, in their different ways, see the social movement as a mob. Whether intentionally or not these historians therefore allow themselves to play a trick which devalues the need to explore and understand the nature of political commitment in 1917, implicitly legitimises the anti-Bolshevik position on the left in 1917 and then removes the need to explore how the actions of the anti-Bolshevik parties during and after October might themselves have contributed to the problems of trying to stabilise the revolution.

The difficulty with their argument is threefold. The first problem is what the Bolsheviks were doing during 1917. Sukhanov in an oft quoted passage writes that they were “at the factory benches and in the barracks every blessed day. For the masses, they had became their own people, because they were always there.” Did this mean that they were standing there like some mute magnetic pole of attraction drawing inert iron filings towards them? Of course this was not the case. They were there winning and losing arguments, selling or failing to sell their newspapers, successfully or unsuccessfully collecting money, carrying or failing to convince the people over political issues. And their opponents, less often present, if Sukhanov is correct, were doing exactly the same when they were there. Secondly, to the extent that workers made a pro-revolutionary choice we can argue that this was a better political choice than that made by their leaders who were abandoning them. The argument that the revolution had to go forward made sense in terms of the experience that workers were having. It made sense in terms of what at other times might disparagingly be called the “low politics” of their everyday lives. Conventional politics, of course, is high politics, conducted from afar with human beings as its subjects. In 1917, however, high politics became “low politics” just because the political process could no longer be contained in palaces, chancelleries and parliaments. And finally, put in these terms, the onus is thrown back on those whose politics, at the crucial moment, led them to stand aside or oppose the popular movement. As in any social conflict, to stand aside at the crucial moment is perhaps to live to fight another day but it is also to weaken your side, perhaps fatally. [142]



Compounding the error

Accounts of the October Revolution too often end with Lenin standing in the Second Congress of Soviets late on the night of 25 October 1917. In fact the revolution was a process which began in Petrograd on 24-25 October but continued over several months as it spread across Russia. In the spring the problem of consolidating the revolution merged with the brief but spectacular advance of the German armies which forced the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Then a couple of months later it merged with the beginning of the civil war. Soviet accounts dealing with this as “the triumphal march” of Soviet power made a nonsense of the complex problems that consolidating power entailed. Apart from the important issue of the continuing dynamic of the revolution from below, analysing the consolidation of the revolution also requires attention to the policies of the SRs and Mensheviks after the October events in Petrograd. Since the pattern of response was set in the first few days, we will conclude our discussion by setting out how these new divisions confirmed the choices made on 24-25 October.

Few historians have resisted the temptation to treat the emergency measures of the first months of Soviet power as the outcome of imminent tendencies in Bolshevism or opportunistic volte faces from earlier positions held. But it is here that what is traditionally seen as the historians’ question of “what happened next?” becomes important. Much of the recent history of the revolution has been written in terms of the deeper structures which help to determine historical events. But this does not mean that the history of events can be ruled out completely and even less that “events” are predetermined by structure. Things happen one after another as contexts and problems change and then a grasp of chronology and movement becomes crucial. This is even more so in a revolution because the speed of events accelerates. Bukharin put this well just before the October events:

In a time of revolution with its inevitable ebb and flow of the tide, when, like in the cinema, the situation, historical picture, faces, figures change quickly and events scarcely allow one to keep hold of oneself, it is completely natural that institutions, developing at the beginning of this violent historical tornado, repeatedly change their role and significance. [143]

The immediate consolidation of the revolution in Petrograd faced three explicitly counter-revolutionary challenges – the military opposition outside the city; a threat from officers inside the city and a strike of white collar employees designed to prevent the state apparatus being taken over. In addition, the Mensheviks and SRs who had left the Congress of Soviets then grouped with others opposed to the revolution (including Cadets) in a Committee for the Salvation of the Revolution and the Motherland. The left wing of this committee was close to the left in the soviets while the centre and right had contacts with those prepared to fight against the revolution. The problem was further complicated by the equivocation of the leadership of the railway workers’ union over whether it should support the revolution or not, with its inclination being to draw back from the most radical measures.

It needs to be stressed at this point that neither Lenin, nor Trotsky, nor the Bolsheviks as a whole wanted an all-Bolshevik government to emerge from the taking of power. Indeed tensions in the Bolshevik Party led some who feared isolation to temporarily resign from the party in early November. Why then did a coalition not emerge? Swain, following the tendency of recent historians to endorse the position taken by the SRs and the Mensheviks, has argued:

... that the successful campaign to discredit the third Coalition Government and overthrow it within the parliamentary atmosphere of the “Pre-Parliament” did not result in the formation of a democratic coalition was the fault of the Bolshevik Party – Lenin ... succeeded in seizing power not from the bourgeoisie and the liberals, but from democracy, and its dominant voice, the SR party. [144]

In fact the Committee for the Salvation of the Revolution immediately reproduced all of the divisions about political power that had been apparent on 24 October and before. Should the opposition unite with bourgeois forces against the revolution? Should it be a “socialist opposition” against both the Bolsheviks and the bourgeoisie and for what? Should it defend the Provisional government (and Kerensky?) or look for a new government that was neither Bolshevik nor from the old Provisional government?

While many on the left which grouped around the committee argued that by forcing the issue of power the Bolsheviks had opened the way for a later counter-revolution, Postresov argued that the seizure of power was the counter-revolution and therefore there could be no compromise with it. It had to be opposed by the socialist opposition uniting with the bourgeoisie (effectively to defend the bourgeois limits of the revolution). Martov, equivocated – seemingly far more concerned not to lose contact with the right wing of the Mensheviks than the Bolsheviks and the soviet. It is symptomatic of the political confusion in the committee that when on 29 October a group of officers and cadets staged an unsuccessful rising in Petrograd they did so under the flag of the committee and with the support of some of its SR and Menshevik members.

What crystallised these problems was the action of the railway workers’ union. The executive of the union (VIKZHEL) tried to push all sides back into talks (supporting its position with the threat of a railway strike) about a new coalition government which effectively meant negotiations between the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs and their representatives in the Second Congress of Soviets, the centre Menshevik and SR leadership and those forces grouped around the Committee for Salvation.

Despite Swain’s argument that the Bolsheviks were responsible for the failure of these talks the evidence points in the opposite direction, including that which he quotes in his account. When negotiations began the Menshevik and SR leaders immediately demanded a coalition which would exclude the Bolsheviks, despite the talks being aimed at an all-socialist coalition. On 28 October the union reported to its Moscow headquarters that “the Bolsheviks are making concessions ... the Committee for Salvation is irreconcilable; but we will exert pressure on it”. The next day Gendelman, who had led the SRs out of the Congress of Soviets, rejected the participation of the Bolsheviks in a coalition telling the Committee for Salvation that “even in the democratic camp there are moments when it is necessary to decide an agreement with weapons.” No comment could have been more unfortunate for the right because that same day officers and cadets in Petrograd staged their insurrection under the flag of the committee. The railway union was therefore forced to condemn the right and those who toyed with them from the centre as “the madmen who at this moment ... do not want compromise. Instead of striving for a compromise, the right part of democracy ... put to the Bolsheviks the impossible demand of total capitulation, quite unconcerned for the consequences.”

Under pressure from the union and groups of workers the debate then moved to the possibility of a coalition which would include both right wing socialists and Bolsheviks but not Lenin and Trotsky, with Chernov, the SR leader, as prime minister. From the point of view of the centre right the attraction of this was that it might split the Bolsheviks and allow their influence to be diminished. Not surprisingly therefore the proposal provoked sharp differences within the Bolshevik leadership as their negotiators inclined to support it. But before anyone had a chance to respond part of the right wing of the SR’s and the right of the Mensheviks broke away arguing that there could be no compromise and that the revolution had to be opposed. While the Bolsheviks were debating the issue the central committee of the SRs also broke off leaving only a rump in which the Menshevik leaders were prominent. As their own side of the coalition dissolved, undercutting the whole basis of the negotiations, their hopes were briefly raised by the appearance of a split at the top of the Bolshevik Party as a leading group resigned for fear of the revolution being isolated if a compromise was not reached. Dan even boasted, “Thanks to our tactics, the Bolsheviks are already splitting”. [145]

Against this Lenin and Trotsky argued that any coalition had to recognise the shift in power that had occurred and allow the Bolsheviks a leading role. Power could no longer hang in the air or between competing institutions, it had to be based in the soviets, the Bolsheviks had to be a major part of any coalition and the presence of Lenin and Trotsky themselves was important not for personal reasons but as a reflection of agreement that something significant had changed. A coalition which dropped the leaders of the major party was a nonsense. “Nothing whatever can come of merely leaving a few Bolsheviks in a coalition government,” said Trotsky; “We have taken power – and we must also bear the responsibilities.” [146]

The talks crumbled not because of an objection in principle to a socialist coalition on the part of the Bolshevik leadership but because the SRs and the Mensheviks were not prepared to negotiate a meaningful coalition and because, as they prevaricated, their own side was falling apart. In the short term this had two consequences. Those members of the Bolshevik leadership quickly returned, chastened, to the fold. Secondly, the process of break-up of the SR party was hastened with the Left SRs forming a new revolutionary coalition government with the Bolsheviks and against their former comrades. It was this revolutionary coalition that would take the revolution through its first months before it was split by entirely different issues in the spring of 1918.

Now isolated, the old SR leadership and the Mensheviks looked to the Constituent Assembly and beyond to establish a third force which they imagined would allow them to stand between the revolution and the bourgeoisie. In so doing they merely built on their past errors. Although it had not been apparent in October, it was increasingly clear that the basis of the Constituent Assembly and the soviets was a competing and not a complementary one. This is why the right now put so much emphasis on the Constituent Assembly. The Cadet Nabokov, for example, now argued on the eve of elections that he had not wanted, occurring at a time he had opposed, with an electorate he despised, that “it is necessary to hold the elections whenever there is the slightest possibility of doing so. The gravest responsibility towards the country will be insured by all who dare to cast doubt on the correctness of the elections of the Constituent Assembly on which the whole country is henceforth setting its hopes”. [147]

Although the swing to the Bolsheviks and Left SRs was continuing post-October it was clear that the united SR ticket was going to emerge as the major force in any assembly because of the huge peasant vote. But the SR leadership could only interpret this as a vote for stability if they ignored the split in the SR party and the further radicalisation of the peasantry. Beyond this the party complexion was to an extent irrelevant since the majority of delegates elected to the Constituent Assembly were clearly elected by a population voting for peace, for land redistribution, a transfer of power to the workers and, in many areas, self determination. The Constituent Assembly could only prevent this if it became the basis of yet another government that would rule over the people. As Bukharin had put it, in a revolution the film moves faster and institutions and parties change their role: the Constituent Assembly, once the symbol of revolutionary progress, was now the symbol of something else. But the ultimate fate of the revolution would now be decided by how a much bigger question was answered.

In the period 1917 to 1921 the Bolsheviks would undoubtedly make many mistakes but they would make them against a background of a revolutionary opportunity in the West that could have helped them but was missed. There, revolutionary crises were pushed to the brink but there was no Bolshevik Party to respond. The socialist equivalents of the SRs and the Mensheviks held out against revolution and assisted consciously or unconsciously in the process by which the crisis was diffused. In 1921 they could look proudly at their handiwork. The crisis had been successfully negotiated in the West, and in Russia, though victorious in the civil war, the Bolsheviks were weakened enormously, the working class destroyed and the remnants of the revolution isolated. But their success was an illusion. A year later in Italy Mussolini came to power, then in 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany. In both East and West there was a high price to pay for the failure of international revolution.

Already in the summer of 1917, before October, a writer in the Spartakus journal in Germany argued, “Here begins the fatal destiny of the Russian Revolution. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia is destined to suffer a desperate defeat compared to which the fate of the Paris Commune was child’s play – unless the international proletarian revolution gives it support in time.” Whoever wrote this could not have foreseen that in Russia the defeat of the revolution would take the form of Stalin’s counter-revolution but he saw the essence of the problem. So too did Rosa Luxemburg. She did not fear to criticise what she thought were the mistakes the Bolsheviks might be making but she also saw where the blame would lie if they failed. Writing to Luise Kautsky from prison in 1917 she saw something else:

Are you happy about the Russians? Of course, they will not be able to maintain themselves in this witches’ sabbath, not because some statistics show economic development in Russia to be too backward as your clever husband has figured out, but because social democracy in the highly developed West consists of miserable and wretched cowards who will look quietly on and let the Russians bleed to death. [148]




118. On the changing conception of bourgeois revolution in 1917 as it was articulated by the Mensheviks, see L. Lande, The Mensheviks in 1917, in L. Haimson (ed.), The Mensheviks from the Revolution of 1917 to the Second World War (University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp.15, 17-18, 25-26; B. Sapir, The Conception of Bourgeois Revolution, ibid., pp.366-388

119. L. Lande, op. cit., p.25.

120. N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought, vol.2 (London, 1981) p.150.

121. B. Sapir, op. cit., p.369.

122. W. Rosenberg, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.250.

123. P. Miliukov, op. cit., p.457-463.

124. V.D. Nabokov, The Bolshevik Coup d'État, op. cit., pp.149-50.

125. Volia naroda, 20 September, translated in R.P. Browder and A. Kerensky, op. cit., p.1641; L. Lande, op. cit., p.29.

126. L. Lande, op. cit., pp.17-19.

127. Z. Galili, The Menshevik Leaders in the Russian Revolution: Social Realities and Political Strategies, op. cit., pp.6, 338.

128. W. Rosenberg, The Russian Municipal Duma Elections of 1917, op. cit.; O. Radkey, op. cit.

129. Gordodskoi vestnik vse Rossiiskovo Souza Gorodov, quoted in V.M. Kruchkovskaya, op. cit., p.47.

130. C. Read, op. cit., p.119.

131. Figures do not add up to 100 because of rounding. N.N. Smirnov, Tretii Vse Rossiiskii S’ezd Sovetov (Moscow, 1988) pp.62-63.

132. C. Read, op. cit., p.159.

133. B. Ward, Wild Socialism in Russia, the Origins, California Slavic Studies, vol.3 (1966) p.142.

134. I have followed the analysis in V.I. Miller, K voprosy o srvanitel’noi chislennosti partii Bol’shevikov i Men’shevikov v 1917 g, Voprosy istorii KPSS (1988), part 12 pp.109-118. See also L. Lande, Some Statistics of the Unification Congress, August 1917, in L. Haimson (ed.), op. cit., pp.389-391.

135. L. Lande, op. cit., pp.4-5; B Sapir, op. cit., p.374.

136. L. Lande, op. cit., p.43.

137. Quoted in B.D. Gal’perina, The Petrograd Soviet in September and October of 1917 (New Data), Voprosy Istorii, no.10 (1978), translated in Studies in Soviet History, vol.xxiii, no.1, Summer 1984, pp.89-90. This Soviet study contains some useful information to supplement more familiar Western accounts.

138. Z. Galili, Mensheviks ..., op. cit., p392, A. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York, 1976)

139. Malyantovich in S. Jones, op. cit.

140. Z. Galili, Liberals in the Russian Revolution, op. cit., p.394.

141. R.G. Suny, Revision and Retreat in the Historiography of 1917: Social History and its Critics, op. cit.. p.167; C. Read, op. cit., pp.148, 158 (my emphasis).

142. I have benefited enormously from an excellent critique of the social history school: J.E. Marot, Class Conflict, Political Competition and Social Transformation: Critical Perspectives on the Social History of the Russian Revolution, Revolutionary Russia, December 1994, vol.7, no.2.

143. N. Bukharin, op. cit., p.128.

144. G. Swain, op. cit., pp.48-53. It should be made clear that when Swain speaks here of “seizing power” he means political power. The question of economic and social power is resolutely ignored in the central part of his discussion.

145. G. Swain, op. cit., p.57; L. Lande, op. cit., pp.64 onwards.

146. Quoted T. Cliff, Trotsky: The Sword of the Revolution, 1917-1923 (Bookmarks, 1985), p.25.

147. V.D. Nabokov, op. cit..

148. Quoted J.P. Nettl, Rosa Luxemburg (Oxford University Press, 1969), p.423, 425.


Last updated on 15.4.2001