Victor Serge

Year One of the Russian Revolution

I – The October Insurrection

Written: 1925–1928, Vienna, Leningrad, Dietskoye Seloe.
First Published: L’An 1 de la révolution russe, 1930.
This Version: New International, Vol. XIV No. 3, March 1948, pp. 83–90.
Translation: Dan Eastman.
Transcription/Mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Victor Serge’s important historical work, The Year One of the Russian Revolution, provides the only detailed account of the first crucial year of the new Bolshevik regime in Russia. Published in French in 1930 it covers the period from the insurrection to the outbreak of the German revolution in November 1918, with the exception of the first chapter which summarizes the history of the Russian movement up to 1917.

Our first installment is the whole of the second chapter, dealing with the October insurrection itself. (The “October Revolution” took place in November according to the western calendar; Serge uses the old-style dates which were in force at the time.) To save space for the text, we have omitted Serge’s footnotes, mainly bibliographical. The book is a work of scholarship based on primary materials and is carefully documented.

It should be made clear that Serge’s views changed in later years in the direction of anti-Bolshevism, and that The Year One does not represent his last-held opinions. The lasting value of the work, however, lies in the historical material it presents. It is a “must” for students of Bolshevism who wish to arrive at their own conclusions on the important questions raised in the problems confronted by the first workers’ state in history.

For the next installment, see the Memo column on page 60 – Ed.

From the rostrum, Trotsky announced the withdrawal of the Bolsheviks from the Democratic Conference. In metallic tones he voiced the defiance of the workers and peasants before the highest authority of the Republic. He went out, passing in front of the sailors who were guarding the hall. Their bayonets wavered, their hard faces turned, eyes aflame, as he passed. Gesturing with their rifles toward the assembly, they asked him:

“When do we use these?”

It was October 6. The Democratic Conference, called by the Mensheviks and the Socialist-Revolutionaries (S-Rs) as a substitute for a revolutionary parliament, had opened in Moscow in mid-September. Strikes had forced it out of the city; hotel and restaurant waiters had refused to serve its members. It had been transferred to Petrograd. It now deliberated under the guard of a picked unit of the surest sailors. Yet their bayonets bowed at the passage of a Bolshevik delegate.

“When do we use these?”

This spirit was general in the fleet. Two weeks before October 26, the sailors of the Baltic Squadron, anchored in Helsingfors, demanded that delay be ended, and that “the insurrection sanctify the apparently inevitable destruction of the fleet by the Germans.” They were willing to die; but only for the revolution. Since May 15 the Kronstadt Soviet had refused to recognize the Provisional Government. The commissioners sent by Kerensky after the July riots to arrest “Bolshevik leaders” on board the fleet had received this laconic reply: “Leaders? We are all leaders.” It was true. The masses had innumerable leaders.

Delegates from the trenches made threatening speeches at the Soviet. “How much longer will this untenable situation continue? The soldiers have instructed us to say: If energetic measures are not adopted immediately the trenches will be deserted, the entire army will return ... You are forgetting us! If you cannot find the answer we shall deal with our enemies ourselves, at bayonet points – and you with them!” This, Trotsky relates, was the tone of the front.

In the early part of October the insurrection broke out everywhere spontaneously. Agrarian uprisings spread all over the country. The provinces of Tula, Tambov, Ryazan, and Kaluga were in revolt. The peasants, who had expected bread and peace from the first revolution, were undeceived. They were seizing the landowners’ stores and burning their houses. The Kerensky government was putting them down wherever it had sufficient strength. Fortunately its forces were limited. “To put down the peasants would kill the revolution,” Lenin warned.

In the military and urban Soviets, the Bolsheviks, minority of yesterday, became the majority. In the Moscow Municipal Duma elections, they won 199,377 votes out of 387,262. Of 710 elected delegates, there were 360 Bolsheviks, 184 Cadets, 107 S-Rs, 31 Mensheviks, and 41 miscellaneous. On the eve of civil war the moderate middle-of-the-road parties lost ground. The extreme parties gained. While the Mensheviks lost all real influence and the S-Rs, apparently the influential government party a short time before, took third place, the bourgeois Constitutional Democrats, the Cadets, lined up strongly against the revolutionists. In the preceding elections in June, the S-Rs and the Mensheviks had obtained 70 per cent of the votes cast; they fell to 18 per cent. Of 17,000 soldiers who voted, 14,000 were for the Bolsheviks.

The Soviets were transformed. The strongholds of the Mensheviks and the S-Rs were Bolshevized. New majorities were formed. On August 31 in Petrograd, and September 6 in Moscow, Bolshevik resolutions obtained a majority for the first time. On September 8, the Menshevik-S-R leading committees of the two Soviets resigned.

September 26 Trotsky was elected president of the Petrograd Soviet and Nogin president in Moscow. On the 20th of September, the Tashkent Soviet officially took power. It was repressed by Provisional Government troops. On the 27th, the Reval Soviet decided in principle for the transference of all power to the Soviets. A few days before the October Revolution, Kerensky’s troops fired on the revolutionary Soviet at Kaluga.

Let us here remark a little-known fact. The October insurrection was already victorious in Kazan before it began in Petersburg. An eyewitness at Kazan relates the following dialogue between two workers:

“But what would you have done if the Soviets had not taken power in Moscow and Petersburg?”

“We couldn’t refuse power; the garrison wouldn’t let us.”

“Moscow would have wiped you out.”

“No. You are wrong. Moscow couldn’t wipe out the 40,000 soldiers we had in Kazan.”

All over this immense country, the whole laboring class – the workers, peasants and soldiers – were moving toward revolution. An elemental wave of revolt, an irresistible force.

The Party of the Proletariat

The masses have a million heads; they are not at all homogeneous; they are dominated by diverse and contradictory class interests. They do not arrive at a clear understanding – without which no successful action is possible – except by organization. The revolutionary Russian masses of 1917 arrived at a clear understanding of the necessary means and objectives through the Bolshevik party. This is no theory, it is a fact. The relations between the party, the working class, and the toiling masses at large appeared at that time in admirable relief.

What they all desired – the sailors at Kronstadt, the soldiers in Kazan, the workers in Petrograd, the peasants who were ransacking the landowners’ estates – what they all desired without being able to express their desire clearly, without being able to judge economic and political possibilities, to choose their objectives and the most effective means to attain them, to select the favorable moment for action, to be in agreement from one end of the country to the other, to discipline themselves, to correlate their innumerable attacks, without being able, in a word, to constitute an intelligent, educated, directed, prodigious force – what they all wished, the party expressed clearly, and carried into action. The party revealed their own thoughts to the masses. The party was the tie that bound them together from one end of the country to the other; it was their guide, their intelligence, their organization.

When the gunners of the Baltic Fleet feared that the revolution was in danger and sought to help, it was the Bolshevik agitator who showed the way. When the soldiers in the trenches wished to show their desire to end the slaughter, they elected Bolshevik candidates to the army committees. When the peasants, tired of the vacillations of “their” Socialist-Revolutionary Party, wondered if it was not time to act for themselves, Lenin’s voice commanded, “Peasant, seize the land!” When workers sensed counter-revolutionary intrigue all about them, Pravda anticipated their fears and gave them correct revolutionary slogans. Before Bolshevik .posters, the poor passers-by in the street stopped and exclaimed, “That’s right! That’s right!” That voice was their own.

The march of the masses toward revolution, was reflected in a great political overturn. The Bolsheviks, a tiny revolutionary minority in March, became the majority in September and October. It became impossible to distinguish between the party and the masses; they were at one. No doubt there were other revolutionists scattered through the crowd: left Social Revolutionaries – the most numerous, anarchists, Maximalists, who also wished the revolution; a handful of men swept along with the tide of events; leaders being led. It was easy to see how little they understood the realities of the situation. The Bolsheviks, thanks to their keen theoretical understanding, fused themselves with the masses, yet kept to their historic course. “The communists have no interests other than the interests of the entire proletariat,” says the Manifesto of Marx and Engels. How right that phrase, written in 1847, now appeared!

Since the July riots the party had passed through a period of illegality and persecution and was barely tolerated. It was drawn up in an assault column. It demanded devotion, sacrifice, and discipline of its members. In return it could offer only the satisfaction of serving the proletariat. But its membership grew. In April it counted 72 organizations with a total of 80,000 members. By the end of July its membership amounted to 200,000 in 162 organizations.

On the Road to Insurrection

With surprising firmness, clarity, and skill, the Bolshevik party had marched toward the seizure of power ever since the fall of the autocracy. To be convinced of this, it is only necessary to read Lenin’s Letters from Afar, written by him before his departure from Zurich in March 1917. But perhaps this is too narrow a statement. The party had marched toward the seizure of power ever since the day when its Central Committee, composed of almost unknown émigrés (like Lenin and Zinoviev), affirmed that “the imperialist war must be transformed into civil war” (1914), ever since the even earlier day when it was first formed under the threatening clouds of revolution at the London Congress, 1903.

Arriving in Petrograd April 3, 1917, Lenin, after correcting the political line of the party press, immediately formulated the objectives of the proletariat. Tirelessly he urged the party on to persuade the working masses. In the early days of July, when the infuriated mob rose against Kerensky, the Bolsheviks refused to follow the movement. These leaders – leaders in the true sense of the word – refused to be led. They opposed a premature insurrection; the provinces were not ready; the time was not ripe. They held back, swam against the current, braved a loss of popularity. The interests of the proletariat, represented by the party, entered momentarily into conflict with the revolutionary impatience of the masses,

A dangerous conflict! If the enemy had been stronger and more intelligent, the impatience of the masses would have procured it an easy victory. “Now,” said Lenin on the morrow of the July riots, “now they’re going to shoot us all.” Theoretically Lenin was right: it was, perhaps, the only chance for the bourgeoisie to inflict a bloody preventive repression on the proletariat, a repression that would have been decisive for months if not for years. Fortunately the bourgeoisie was less skillful at its own game than Lenin. It did not dare act; for certainly it was not the will that was lacking.

After July its more energetic leaders thought to repair their weakness. They dreamed of a “strong” government. Power hung in the balance. Kerensky’s regime was no more than a stopgap. The unsuccessful Kornilov coup d’état (with Savinkov and Kerensky as accomplices) precipitated a new mobilization of the proletariat. The situation became worse, desperate for the proletariat, whose privations grew daily. The workers correctly felt that if they did not soon conquer they would be conquered.

It became worse for the peasants, who saw the agrarian revolution, promised by the S-Rs, constantly deferred and in danger of being suppressed by some Napoleon of the counter-revolution. It became worse for the army and the fleet, forced to carry on an increasingly hopeless war in the service of enemy classes. It became worse for the bourgeoisie, compromised by the collapse of transport, banking, manufacture, by defeats at the front, by industrial crisis and famine, by the unruliness of the masses, by the lack of authority of the new regime, by the failure of the coercive machine.

After the July riots Lenin said to V. Bonch Bruyevich, “The insurrection is absolutely inevitable; it will soon be obligatory.” In the middle of September the party began to line up for the battle. The Democratic Conference, which was supposed to found a parliament, sat from the 14th to the 22nd. Lenin, in hiding at the moment, impetuously demanded the withdrawal of the Bolshevik fraction from the Conference, where a certain number of Bolsheviks tended to accept the role of a parliamentary opposition. Supported by the majority of the party, Lenin’s line carried the day. The Bolsheviks marched out of the Conference, slamming the door behind them.

Trotsky read their declaration to the remaining delegates.

“The passionate speech of L.D. Trotsky, who had just tasted the pleasures of prison life under the regime of the Mensheviks and the bourgeoisie, cut like a sword through all the plots hatched by the orators of the Center, In clear, sharp terms, he showed that no retreat was possible; that the workers foresaw no retreat, nothing but the road to a new revolution. His speech was greeted with complete silence. A tremor passed over the benches where the bourgeois leaders sat. Applause thundered down from the balcony ... The will to insurrection was clearly expressed, and all the tact and authority of the Central Committee was required to prevent an immediate uprising, for the time was not yet ripe. An even bloodier repetition of the July days was imminent.”

In the last days of September and the first day of October, the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party – Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Sverdlov, Yakovleva, Oppokov, Zinoviev, Kamenev – met in Petersburg, in the apartment of the Menshevik, Sukhanov. They discussed principles of insurrection. Kamenev and Zinoviev thought the insurrection itself might be successful, but that it would be almost impossible to maintain power thereafter on account of economic hazards and the crisis in the food supply, (Rykov and Nogin held approximately the same position, but they were not present.) The majority voted for the insurrection, which was fixed for the 15th of October.

Let us here clarify a point. This difference of opinion cannot be taken to show any opportunist or Menshevik feebleness in men who had been steeled in years of struggle, and who later displayed no weakness during the whole long siege of the civil war. It showed merely that firm revolutionists overestimated the strength of the enemy, and lacked confidence in the forces of the proletariat. Insurrections are not to be played with. It is the duty of revolutionists to consider every chance beforehand. If they apprehend defeat of the revolution, their apprehension has nothing in common with the fears of opportunists, who fear nothing more than the victory of the proletariat.

However, as these perfectly legitimate apprehensions were based on a misunderstanding of fact, they constituted an immense peril to the political line of the party; they could warp it irreparably. Time works for the revolution in certain hours; works against it once a critical moment is passed; an action which is merely deferred may, as a consequence, be completely lost. The Italian proletariat paid dearly for its delay in 1920; the opportunity offered the German proletariat in 1923 will no doubt recur – but when? The error of the opponents of the insurrection was therefore grave, as they have since admitted.

On October 10, the Central Committee (present: Lenin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, Trotsky, Sverdlov, Uritsky, Dzerzhinsky, Kollontai, Bubnov, Sokolnikov, Lomov) voted ten to one in favor of immediate preparation for the insurrection. The preparation was assigned to a political bureau consisting of Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Stalin, Kamenev, Sokolnikov and Bubnov.

The Proletarian Leaders

The relations between the working masses and the party are reflected, inside the party, in the relations between the rank and file and the leaders.

The party is the nervous system – and the brain – of the working class. The leaders and the rank and file play the roles of brain and nervous system in the party. This comparison cannot be taken literally; the functioning of a living organism is much different from the functioning of a social organism. But intelligent as they may be, the ordinary members of the party cannot appreciate the situation as a whole. The information, the contacts, the education, the theoretical and professional preparation of the revolutionist are inevitably lacking, no matter what their personal worth, if they do not belong to that small group which has been tested by long years of struggle and work, which bears the good will of the entire movement, disposes of the party apparatus and is accustomed to collective work. Just as the soldier in the trenches sees only an infinitesimal portion of the battlefield and therefore cannot, no matter what his abilities may be, understand the whole battle – just as the mechanic at his machine cannot take in the whole factory at a glance – the ordinary member, depending solely on his own faculties, can form his opinions only from general ideas, presentiments, and partial understanding.

True proletarian leaders are at once guides, pilots, generals, and directors, for they are engaged in the formidable enterprise of demolishing one social system and erecting a new one in its place. They must discover, by scientific analysis of the historical process, the tendency of events and the possibilities contained therein. They must determine the course for the proletariat, not according to its will or wish of the moment, but according to the laws of history. In a word, they must know reality, perceive possibility, and conceive the course of action which is the link between the real and the possible. Thus they expound the course, the only course, dictated by the larger interests of the proletariat. Their instrument is scientific proletarian thought. Proletarian thought attains its highest expression in the leaders of the organized vanguard of the working class.

These leaders are only great in the measure that they are an incarnation of the masses. In this sense they are giants – anonymous giants. They must be at one with the masses; their profession demands a terrible impersonality. Their value – the genius of a Lenin – lies in the fact that the development of proletarian thought is not at all foreordained; the consciousness of the masses may remain latent, unexpressed at a given moment; the possibilities contained in a certain situation may remain unperceived; the steps necessary to save or to bring victory to the proletariat may not be discovered. The recent history of Western Europe offers only too many examples of opportunities missed through the failure of proletarian thought.

Let us define the proletarian leader, the man of a new epoch, in contrast to the leaders of the ruling classes of today and of other past epochs. The latter are blind instruments of history. The revolutionist is a conscious instrument.

The October Revolution offers an almost ideal example of the proletarian party. Relatively small, it is true, its members lived in the heart of the masses. Long years of experience – revolution, illegality, exile, prison, incessant ideological struggle – formed an admirable group of true leaders, whose common action cemented their common ideas. Individual initiative and strength of character were harmonized by an intelligent centralization, by voluntary discipline, by respect for recognized leaders. The party was furnished with an excellent organizational apparatus, yet suffered not the slightest bureaucratic deformation. There was no organization fetishism, no sickly tradition of equivocation. Its dominant tradition was of a war on opportunism – it was revolutionary to the marrow of its bones. It is all the more remarkable that profound and stubborn hesitation seized on some of its members on the eve of action, and that several pronounced themselves strongly opposed to the seizure of power.

Lenin’s Role in the Crisis

We have remarked Lenin’s powerful unity. He was a man hewn of a single block, entirely devoted at every hour of his life to a single work. He was at one with his party, and through the party, with the proletariat. In the decisive hours he was one with the entire laboring population of Russia, with the proletarians and oppressed people of every country of the world that lay beyond the bloody frontiers. For this reason he appeared as the leader of leaders in October 1917 – the irreplaceable leader of the proletarian revolution.

The spirit of the masses in September and October we know. About September 15 Lenin urged the Central Committee by letter to take power without delay – another letter followed almost immediately concerning Marxism and Insurrection. The insurrection was still to come when Lenin, knowing that it is often more difficult to maintain than to take power, and that it is essential to reveal to revolutionists their own strength, wrote his brochure entitled Will the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? (end of September). On October 7, a new article, a new call: The Crisis Has Matured. From this moment a flaming impatience possessed him. His letters to the Central Committee, to the party, to the members, followed hard on one another – persuasive, pressing, authoritative, inspiring. Over the head of the Central Committee, he addressed the Moscow and Petrograd Committees: To Temporize Now Is a Crime. On October 8 his Advice from an Outsider appeared. On the 16th of October a long memorable letter, To the Comrades, energetically refuting the objections of those opposed to the uprising.

The last hesitations were overcome. Lenin, leader molded in twenty-three years of battle since 1895, acting in unison with the peasants, workers, soldiers, sailors, the vast laboring masses, had set the hour and given the signal for the final action.

It took all his energy – and the energy of several others – to surmount the hesitations which threatened to become fatal.

His writings of this period have been collected in a volume appropriately entitled On the Road to Insurrection. It is a living book, the importance of which can hardly be overestimated – a model of revolutionary dialectic, a treatise on the theory and practice of insurrection, a lecture on the art of victory in the class war. We believe that it ranks with the Communist Manifesto, to which it is, on the eve of the proletarian epoch, a necessary complement.

Lenin’s doctrine of insurrection is summed up in these few lines:

“The insurrection, if it is to be crowned with success, should have the support not of a conspiracy, not of a party, but of a class. That is first. The insurrection should rest on a popular revolutionary upsurge. That is second. The insurrection should come at the historical turning point of the upsurge, at the moment when the activity of the masses reaches its height, as the equivocation and indecision of the enemy reaches its height. That is third. In thus posing the three conditions for the insurrection, Marxism differs from Blanquism.” – (Marxism, and Insurrection)

And the following precept from Marx: “Never play with the insurrection, but remember that once begun it must be carried through to the end.”

Why is it that Lenin stands out as the leader among his confrères, many of them men of worth who wished the revolution no less than he, some of whom even saw the course as clearly ? Numerous leaders in Petrograd and Moscow – and it is a mistake to limit ourselves to the two capitals and to the leaders – marched consciously toward the insurrection. Trotsky, president of the Petersburg Soviet, had never hesitated from the moment of his arrival in Russia. He was in complete agreement with Lenin on the general line, taking exception only to details of execution. In the party Central Committee, the majority were for action.

But none of these revolutionists enjoyed a prestige comparable to Lenin’s. Most of them were his pupils and recognized him as master. Trotsky, whose qualities as an organizer of victories now appeared in striking form, although a member of the Russian Social-Democracy for a long time, was equally distant from the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks – a lone fighter. He had never appeared as the leader of a party. Many Bolsheviks thought of him as of an adversary. Having entered the Central Committee at the end of July (at the Sixth Congress of the Bolshevik Party), a few days after he joined the party, he was new to the members. It is the party that makes the leader, for without a party there can be no leader. It was because he was the creator of the proletarian party that Lenin became the leader of the revolution.

The Red Guard

The action was engaged differently in the two capitals, but with a remarkable basic parallelism.

The initiative in forming the Red Guard in Petersburg belonged to the workers, who undertook it instinctively after the fall of the autocracy. They began to arm themselves by disarming the old order.

In April two Bolsheviks, Shliapnikov and Yeremev, started to systematize this spontaneous organization. The first regular units, if they may be called such, of the militia were formed in the workers’ suburbs, Vyborg principally. The Mensheviks and the S-Rs at first tried to hinder the movement. During a session of the Soviet when they were in the majority, in June, a session held behind closed doors, the Social-Democrat, Tseretelli, urged the disarmament of the workers. He was too late. Leading committees were formed in every ward; a general staff assured the coordination of the wards. Formed on a factory basis as a general volunteer army – the factory formed its own unit or enlisted as a whole – the first Red Guard units undertook the protection of workers’ demonstrations. During the July riots the Vyborg section had been on peaceable terms with Kerensky’s troops. There were some ten thousand Red Guards in Petersburg.

Kornilov’s coup d’état (September 25–30), the advance of a Cossack division on the capital, and the Imminence of counter-revolution forced the Mensheviks and the S-Rs to arm the workers in haste. Not without friction. The Schlusselburg munitions-factory workers sent a bargeload of grenades. The Menshevik Soviet refused to take delivery, but the Red Guard simply appropriated the grenades over the head of the Soviet. The initiative of the workers made up for everything, canceled the ill will of the pacifist socialists. The mobilization of the proletariat against Kornilov showed that the failure of counter-revolution can be just as disastrous for the bourgeoisie as the failure of an uprising for the proletariat.

By September military drill was taught in seventy-nine Petersburg factories. In many of the factories all the workers carried arms. The military division of the Bolshevik party was unable to furnish enough military instructors to meet the demand.

On the eve of the October Revolution, the Red Guard numbered twenty thousand members, organized in battalions of four to six hundred men. Each battalion was divided into three companies: a machine-gun section, a liaison section, an ambulance section, and sometimes an armored-car section. Non-commissioned officers (workers) led the battalion and the companies. They stood guard in watches: two-thirds of the workers in the factory, the other third on guard, with wages paid for time on duty. The statutes of the Red Guard required, for admittance, the recommendation of a socialist party, a factory committee or a trade union. Three unexcused absences were punished by expulsion. Infractions of discipline were tried by a jury of comrades. The use of arms without authorization was a crime. Orders were obeyed without discussion. Each Red Guard carried a numbered identification card. The officers were elected; in reality, however, they were often appointed by factory committees, or other workers’ organizations, and the higher officers were subject to the approval of the ward Soviets. If they did not already possess a military education, the officers were required to take special courses.

This organization of the Petersburg proletariat fulfilled the earlier imperative advice – which had been ignored – of Lenin. In one of his Letters from Afar, written in Zurich, March 11, 1917, and first published after the revolution as an historical document, Lenin in speaking of the workers’ militia had urged the workers: “Do not allow the re-establishment of the police! Do not give up your own local organizations!” And form a militia including women and the youth without delay. “A miracle of organization must be performed,” he concluded.

At Moscow the formation of the Red Guard went off less smoothly. The authorities, led by the Mensheviks and the S-Rs, succeeded in disarming the workers and part of the garrison. The workers had to manufacture grenades in secret, obtaining explosives from the provinces. The organization of a general staff and liaison department was deplorably neglected. These failings and delays cost the Moscow proletariat six days of bloody street battle.

The military division of the party comprised more than a hundred thousand soldiers and a certain number of officers. It formed Military Revolutionary Committees everywhere, the leading committees for the insurrection.

On the Eve of the Battle

The conflict between the two powers – the Provisional Government, headed by Kerensky, and the Soviet – entered a sharper phase in Petersburg after October 16, when the Military Revolutionary Committee, headed by Antonov-Ovseyenko, Podvoisky, and Chudnovsky, was formed. The president of the Soviet also presided over the Committee. The Petersburg garrison had come over to the Bolsheviks. The government, citing the danger of a German offensive, tried to send revolutionary regiments off to the front.

The Military Revolutionary Committee was furnished with liaison, information, and armament departments. It appointed commissars in every unit of the troops. The bourgeoisie was arming – but the appointment of commissars at the armories put a stop to that. The delegates of the MRC were welcomed by the troops, who knew that the Committee was opposed to the order sending them to the front. The MRC simply refused to countersign the order, a refusal they were artful enough to explain as giving the Committee time to examine the question. The MRC assumed general power over the troops, and ended by ordering them not to pay any attention to the regular command. From then on, the insurrection was, so to speak, latent. Two powers measured each other, and two military authorities, one of them insurrectional, deliberately canceled each other’s orders.

The Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets was to meet in Petersburg on October 15. The Mensheviks managed to postpone the meeting until the 25th (November 7, new style), thus obtaining ten days’ grace for the bourgeois Provisional Government. No one doubted but that the Congress, where the Bolsheviks were certain of a majority, would vote for the seizure of power. “You are setting the date of the revolution,” said the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks. In order that the foregone decision of the Congress might be something more than a platonic expression of opinion, it was necessary to support that decision by force of arms.

As to the date for the insurrection, two points of view were manifest: Trotsky wanted to tie it up with the Congress, believing that an independent insurrection of the party would have less chance of carrying along the masses. Lenin thought it “criminal” to temporize until the Congress, fearing that the Provisional Government would forestall the insurrection by a vigorous offensive. Events failed to justify his fear, which was nonetheless legitimate. The enemy proved to be completely demoralized. In our opinion, two perfectly correct conceptions, rising from different considerations, here came into conflict. The one was strategical, based on the necessity for tying up the action of the party with an immediate demand intelligible to the widest masses (“All power to the Soviets!”), certainly a condition for success; the other was based on a general policy of shattering every belief in the possibility of proletarian power before the insurrection. Once this possibility was admitted in theory, why not admit the possibility of power without insurrection? That road could lead far. Since 1906, Lenin had attacked the tendency to “gloss over or forget the insurrection in considering the organization of revolutionary power ...” His realistic position might be expressed: Conquer first! Lenin wanted the insurrection to forestall the Congress; faced with an accomplished fact, the Congress could not but sanction the step. He urged his point of view in a personal conference with the organizers of the insurrection. He was passionately concerned with the details of preparation, and would not consent to defer the offensive at any price. Nevsky and Podvoisky tried vainly to convince him that a few extra days of preparation would only increase the chances of victory. “The enemy will also profit by delay,” he replied obstinately.

The Last Steps

Antonov-Ovseyenko has left a striking account of an interview with Lenin, which occurred a few days before the battle, in a house in the workers’ quarter of Vyborg. Lenin, who was hunted by Kerensky’s police, and who, if captured, would probably have been killed by a “stray” bullet, arrived in disguise. “We found ourselves in the presence of a little old graybeard wearing a pince-nez, wearing it well enough, rather debonair; in fact, a musician, a teacher or a librarian, one would have said. He took off his wig and looked about with his usual humorous expression: ‘What news?’ He was full of assurance. He inquired as to the possibility of calling the fleet to Petersburg. In reply to the objection that this would leave the coast unguarded, he said curtly: ‘The sailors must know that the revolution is in greater danger in Petersburg than on the Baltic.’”

Situated in the center of the city on a little island in the Neva River, the fortress of Peter and Paul was a source of worry to the M.R.C. Its guns commanded the Winter Palace; there were a hundred thousand rifles in its armory. Its garrison appeared to be faithful to the Provisional Government. Trotsky proposed to capture this citadel from the interior – by a meeting. He succeeded with Lashevitch.

October 22 was the day of the Petersburg Soviet. It was the day of the plebiscite, so to speak, of the insurrection. It often happens that an event of great importance rises from an apparently unimportant immediate cause, for the latter is in reality nothing but the last link in a whole chain of causes. The Central Executive, including the treasury of the Soviet, was still in the hands of the pacifist socialists. The Soviet needed a newspaper. It was decided to hold a number of large meetings on the 22nd to raise funds for that purpose.

The bourgeois press, frightened by the mobilization, announced that it was an uprising. Kerensky gave out fine-sounding statements, hut they were nothing but sound. “All Russia is with us; we have nothing to fear.” And he threatened “the dements, the groups, the parties who dare attack the liberty of the Russian people, who risk opening the front to Germany, who will end by completely liquidating the revolution.” A regular Galiffet! But his threats were vain; he was too late. The 22nd saw a formidable mobilization of the masses. Every hall was filled. At the People’s House (Narodny Dam), thousands filled the auditorium, the galleries, the corridors; in the great hall clusters of human beings clung shakily to the steel framework of the building. John Reed was there. His notes on this meeting, where Trotsky inspired the crowd, deserve repetition.

“The people around me appeared to be in ecstasy. They seemed about to burst forth spontaneously in a religious hymn. Trotsky read a resolution to the general effect that they were ready to fight for the workers and peasants to the last drop of their blood ... Who was in favor of the resolution? The innumerable crowd raised their hands as a single man. I saw the burning eyes of men, women, adolescents, workers, soldiers, muzhiks. Trotsky went on. The hands remained raised. Trotsky said, ‘Let this vote be your oath. You swear to give all your strength, not to hesitate before any sacrifice, to support the Soviet, which undertakes to win the revolution and give you land, bread and peace.’ The hands remained raised. The crowd approved; they took the oath ... And the same scene was repeated all over Petersburg. The last preparations were made everywhere; everywhere they swore the last oath; thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men. It was the insurrection.”

Kronstadt and the Fleet

On the morning of the 25th, the revolutionary forces of Kronstadt received orders to prepare to defend the Soviet Congress (for the offensive was launched under the formal cover of defense). Let us pause for a moment on the preparations at Kronstadt, of which one of the participants, I. Flerovsky, has left an excellent account. The rational element, the element of coordination, the perfect organization of the insurrection as a military operation according to the rules of war, appeared most clearly there. The contrast with the spontaneous, badly organized movements which have been so numerous in the history of the proletariat was striking.

“Preparations for the march on Petrograd were carried on during the night ..., The Navy Club was jammed with soldiers, sailors, and workers, all under arms, all ready for action ... the revolutionary general staff followed the plans of operations exactly, designated the various units and sections, made inventory of supplies and ammunition, assigned the different leaders. The night passed in strenuous work. The following boats were ordered to support the operation: the torpedo boat mine-layer Amur, the old cruiser Zarya Svobody (Dawn of Liberty, formerly Alexander III), the monitor Yastrib. The Amur and Yastrib were to disembark troops in Petrograd. The cruiser was to take up a station at the entrance of the maritime canal, commanding the coastal railroad with its cannon. A feverish but silent activity went on in the streets. Army and navy detachments marched toward the port. Only the serious, concentrated faces of the first ranks were to be seen by the light of torches. Neither laughter nor talk; only the martial tread of marching men, sharp commands, and the groaning passage of trucks interrupted the silence. In the port, the boats were hastily boarded. The detachments drawn up on the docks waited patiently for their turn to embark. Is it possible, I thought in spite of myself, that these can be the last moments before the Great Revolution? Everything went off with such simplicity and order that one could believe nothing more at stake than some every-day military maneuver. How little this resembled the revolutionary scenes that one remembers from history ... ‘This revolution,’ my companion said, ‘is going off in fine style!’”

This revolution went off in fine proletarian style – with organization. That is why it conquered so easily and completely in Petrograd.

Let us borrow another significant scene from these memoirs. On board one of the boats headed for the insurrection, the delegate of the revolutionary general staff entered the officers’ mess.

“Here the atmosphere was different. They were worried, careworn, puzzled. As I entered and saluted, the officers rose. They listened to my short explanation while standing. I gave the order, ‘We are going to overthrow the Provisional Government by force. Power will pass to the Soviets. We do not count on your sympathy; we don’t need it. But we urge you to remain at your posts, filling your duties punctually and obeying our orders. We shall spare you superfluous trials. That is all’ – ‘We understand,’ the captain replied. The officers filed out to their posts; the captain mounted the bridge.”

A numerous fleet came to the aid of the proletariat and the garrison. The cruisers Aurora, Oleg, Novik, Zabyika, Samson, two torpedo boats and several other vessels steamed up the Neva.

Three comrades, Podvoisky, Antonov-Ovseyenko, Lashevich, had been entrusted with organizing the capture of the Winter Palace. Chudnovsky, a Bolshevik from the earliest days, who was soon to die in the Ukraine, worked with them.

The former imperial residence was situated in the center of the city on the banks of the Neva. It faced the Peter and Paul Fortress which lay across the river at a distance of six hundred yards. To the south, the palace looked out on a vast paved square which contained the Column of Alexander I. Across this square in a semicircle were the former Army and Foreign Affairs buildings. In 1879 the revolver shots of the student Soloviev, from whom the autocrat Alexander II fled, doubled over, pale with fright, had echoed among these buildings. In 1881, the explosion of a dynamite charge set under the imperial apartments by the carpenter, Stephen Khalturin, had blasted through the square. Here on January 22, 1905, troops had opened fire on the crowd of hymn-singing workers come to petition their “Little Father Czar.” There were fifty deaths and more than a thousand wounded – the autocracy most fatally of all, by its own bullets.

On the morning of the 25th of October, Bolshevik regiments, acting in concert with the Red Guard, began to encircle the Palace, now the seat of Kerensky’s ministry. The attack was planned for nine o’clock in the evening, although Lenin, ever impatient, urged them to attack sooner. While a wall of steel gradually surrounded the Palace, the Congress of Soviets met at Smolny, a former school for daughters of the nobility. Still hunted by the police a few hours before he was to become the leader of the first workers’ state, still in disguise, Lenin strode up and down a small room in the building. Of each new arrival he asked, “The Palace? Not yet taken?” His anger against temporizers mounted hourly. He threatened Podvoisky, “We must shoot him, we must shoot him.” The soldiers grouped around bonfires in the streets near the Palace were equally impatient. “The Bolsheviks are turning diplomat too,” they muttered. Once more Lenin’s view, in a minor detail, was that of the masses. Podvoisky, sure of victory, deferred the attack. Agitators demoralized the already doomed enemy. Every drop of revolutionary blood, now easily spared, was precious.

The Capture of the Winter Palace

The first summons to surrender was sent in to the ministers at six o’clock. At eight o’clock, another ultimatum. Bolshevik orators harangued the defenders. A crack battalion came over to the Bolsheviks, welcomed by a tremendous hurrah as they crossed the square. The Woman’s Battalion surrendered a few moments later. The terrified ministers, left alone in the vast palace without lights, guarded by a handful of military cadets, still hesitated to surrender. Kerensky had run out on them, promising to return at the head of a detachment of faithful troops. They expected to be torn to pieces by an infuriated mob. The cannon of the Aurora – firing blank cartridges! – finally demoralized the defenders. The attack met only feeble resistance. Grenades exploded on the great marble staircases; there was hand-to-hand fighting in the corridors. In the shadows of a great antechamber, a single file of livid cadets crossed bayonets before a paneled door.

It was the last rampart of the last bourgeois government of Russia. Antonov-Ovseyenko, Podvoisky, and Chudnovsky pushed past the motionless bayonets. “I am with you,” one of the youths whispered. Inside was the Provisional Government. Thirteen pitiful, shaking ministers, thirteen fear-strained faces hidden in the shadow. As they went out of the Palace surrounded by Red Guards, a cry for their death went up. The soldiers and sailors had fancied a massacre. The Red Guard kept them close. “Don’t soil the victory of the proletariat with excesses!”

Kerensky’s ministers were sent off to Peter and Paul Fortress, the former Bastille through which so many Russian heroes had passed. There they joined the last ministers of the Czar. That was all.

In the neighboring sections of the city, traffic had not even been interrupted. On the wharfs, sightseers looked on quietly.

A detail of organization: in order that momentary successes of the enemy might not interfere with their work, the military leaders of the insurrection had prepared two reserve headquarters.

The Congress of the Soviets

While the Reds surrounded the Winter Palace, the Petrograd Soviet met. Lenin came out of hiding. Lenin and Trotsky announced the seizure of power. The Soviets were going to offer a democratic peace to all belligerent powers; secret treaties were to be published. Lenin’s first words emphasized the importance of the bond between the peasants and the workers, which was yet unsealed:

“In Russia, the immense majority of the peasantry has said: ‘Enough of this game with the capitalists, we shall march with the workers.’ A single decree abolishing the landowners’ estates will win us the confidence of the peasantry. They will understand that their salvation is with the workers. We shall set up workers’ control of industry ...”

The All-Russian Congress of Soviets did not open until evening in the great white ballroom at Smolny. Five hundred sixty-two delegates were present: 382 Bolsheviks, 31 non-party sympathizers with the Bolsheviks, 70 Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, 36 Center Socialist-Revolutionaries, 16 Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, three nationalist Social Revolutionaries, fifteen united internationalist. Social-Democrats, 21 Menshevik partisans of national defense, seven Social-Democrats from various national organizations, five anarchists.

The room was crowded and feverish. The Menshevik, Dan, opened the Congress in the name of the former All-Russian executive. Cannon thundered on the Neva as the new officers were elected. The resistance of the Winter Palace dragged on. Kamenev, “dressed in his best and in a holiday mood,” replaced Dan an president. He proposed a three-point agenda: “Organization of Power; War and Peace; The Constituent Assembly.”

The Mensheviks and the S-Rs took the floor first. For the former, Martov – their most gifted and intelligent leader, whose physical weakness seemed, in spite of his great personal courage, to reflect the feebleness of the idea he served – “Martov, planted as usual with his pale and trembling hand on his hip, his back queerly twisted, shaking his ruffled hair, urged a peaceful solution of the conflict.” A little late! Mstislavsky took the floor for the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. His party mistrusted the Provisional Government and was favorable to the seizure of power by the Soviets, but had refused to join in the insurrection. He qualified everything he said. All power to the Soviets, certainly! All the more so since they had already seized power. But all military operations must be immediately stopped. How could anybody think in the middle of a cannonade! To which Trotsky replied, “Who is embarrassed by the sound of cannon? To the contrary, we shall work all the better.”

The cannon glared in the windows. A sailor from the cruiser Aurora appeared in the hall to reply to the Mensheviks and the Right S-Rs who were denouncing “this crime against Country and Revolution.”

“A bronzed figure he was,” Mstislavsky relates. “His gestures were curt; his words cut through the air like a knife. Stocky and strong, he mounted the platform, his hairy chest showing beneath the high collar that curved gracefully about his shaggy head. The hall crackled with excitement. ‘The Winter Palace is finished,’ he said. ‘The Aurora is firing at point-blank range.’ ‘Oh!’ groaned the Menshevik Abramovich, on his feet, distracted and wringing his hands. ‘Oh!’ The man from the Aurora responded to this cry with a graceful gesture of magnanimity, and consoled him in a loud whisper that trembled with suppressed laughter: ‘They are shooting blank cartridges. No harm must come to the ministers and the Woman’s Battalion.’ A turmoil ensued. The national-defensist Mensheviks and the Right S-Rs, sixty delegates altogether, went out ‘to die with the Provisional Government.’ They did not get far; their straggling cortege found the streets barred by the Red Guard and they dispersed.”

Late in the night the Left S-Rs decided to follow the Bolsheviks and remain in the Congress.

Lenin did not mount the rostrum until the following day when the decrees on land, peace, and workers’ control of production were voted. His appearance was the signal for a tremendous acclamation. He waited calmly for it to end, looking out over the victorious crowd. Then he said quite simply, without any gesture, his two hands resting on the pulpit, his shoulders slightly inclined forward toward the crowd:

“We are beginning to build the socialist society.”

Moscow: Economic Crisis and Uprising

The economic basis of the revolution appeared more clearly in Moscow.

The city was governed by a Duma composed of bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, and intellectual elements, among whom the S-Rs and the Cadets possessed a stable enough majority. They were frequently re-enforced by the Mensheviks. It was an unpopular assembly. The people in the galleries demonstrated their opinion – as in the French Revolutionary Convention – by applauding the Bolsheviks loudly. The election of the ward Dumas on the 24th of September gave the Bolsheviks a chance to sound out the masses. The election returned a majority for the Bolsheviks in fourteen out of seventeen wards. The Cadets also made some gains. The parties of social conciliation came out the losers.

The Bolsheviks owed their victory to their understanding of the needs of the working masses. The famine was growing; the last grain reserves were being exhausted; the day when the city would be without bread was approaching. The bread ration was reduced to a hundred grams per person per day. The collapse of the transport system made any improvement problematical. Extremely energetic measures were needed if the population was to be saved; centralization of the food supply, city control of baking – in other words, expropriation of the bakers, requisition of buildings, the registration of all inhabitants on a single ration list. The Bolsheviks demanded these measures. The food-supply crisis fitted into the class-war plans of the ruling classes. It put a finishing touch on the sabotage of production carried on by the owners. Thus, really to cope with the famine it was necessary to take over all production.

The Bolsheviks demanded:

  1. Demobilization of all industrial enterprises which produced prime commodities before the war. Continuation of war production meant that the proletariat and the army would lose their capacity for revolutionary action.
  2. Requisition of factories in order to put an end to sabotage by owners and in order to facilitate the return to peacetime production, with the ultimate aim of exchanging industrial products for the peasants’ grain.
  3. Obligation to work for the employees of industry, who might be misled into striking against socialization.
  4. Requisition of stores in order to put an end to speculation.

By the end of the first week of October the Moscow leather workers entered the tenth week of a strike – and a strike was not easy on a ration of a hundred grams of bread a day! The carpenters, metal workers, textile and municipal workers’ unions were preparing to strike. On its side, the owning class organized a sort of strike of capital in production; with partial lockouts, the closing of factories under a number of pretexts, open and secret restrictions of production, sales of machinery and liquidations – all justified by the “untenable situation.”

The real condition of the Moscow workers was extremely grave. Since the beginning of the war the cost of living had increased six and a half times; the price of prime manufactured commodities (cloth, wood, shoes, soap) had increased almost twelve times; wages, on the contrary, had only quadrupled. In vain the workers demanded recognition of their factory committees. The Provisional Government, sympathetic to the owning classes, opposed them with thinly veiled ill will. Desperate strikes were imminent every day. The crisis was ripe. On the 19th of October, the Moscow Soviet, after reviewing the situation, adopted on the motion of Bukharin and Smirnov a series of measures which might be called insurrectional.

To satisfy the demands of the strikers and the trade unions the Soviet decreed: the arrest of capitalists guilty of sabotage of production; the remission of rents; the mobilization of the masses for the seizure of power by the revolutionary workers. The trade unions were instructed to institute the eight-hour day; the striking leather workers were ordered to open the factories themselves.

A few days later a city-wide conference of the party was called. Semashko, Osinsky and Smirnov spoke on the insurrection. “Figures and statistics in hand,” writes an eyewitness, “they showed that if the proletariat, which alone could end the war, did not take power Russia would be ruined, bread and fuel would disappear, the railroads and factories would close down ... their speeches were scientific, almost academic, in tone. This was not an assembly of revolutionists planning a social overturn, but the meeting of a scientific society. The audience, more than half made up of the representatives of military organizations, listened indifferently. Nobody took the floor to contradict. When the insurrection was put to the vote everyone raised his hand. They were unanimous. The insurrection was recognized by everyone as a necessary step.

On the 23rd of October, the Moscow Soviet promulgated its Decree No. 1, giving the power of hiring and firing workers to the workers’ own factory committees. On the 24th the Soviet voted to organize the Red Guard. Each of these votes was the occasion for a furious battle with the Mensheviks and the S-Rs, both of whom defended stubbornly every foot of the ground which they called democracy and legality.

On the 25th, while the battle raged in Petersburg, the Moscow Soviet set up – a little late – a Military Revolutionary Committee. The Mensheviks and the S-Rs exhorted the proletariat to control itself, not to follow the vicious example of the usurpers in Petrograd. Only the Constituent Assembly would have the power to rule the destiny of Russia. Beaten in the vote, the Mensheviks nevertheless entered the MRC to “moderate as much as possible the bad effects of the projected Bolshevik coup d’état.” In other words, to sabotage the insurrection. They were admitted.

The city Duma, meeting the same night behind closed doors without the Bolshevik delegates, had set up a Committee of Public Safety. The S-R mayor, Rudenev, presided over the preparations for battle. Riabtsev, another S-R, hastily armed the cadets in the military schools – the Junkers – the university students, the youth in the schools; in short, the youth of the bourgeois and middle classes.

Beginning of the White Terror

The street battle lasted six days and was extremely hard fought. The initiative belonged to the Committee of Public Safety which on the 27th, while the Duma was in session, summoned the Military Revolutionary Committee to dissolve within fifteen minutes. There followed a confused, stubborn, and bloody struggle, of which we shall only trace the outline.

Moscow is a city that has been gradually built up during centuries in concentric circles around the palaces and churches of the Kremlin, which is a sort of city within a city, fortified and surrounded with high crenellated walls and towers. A bird’s-eye view of the Kremlin reveals it to be a triangle, the base of which lies along the left bank of the Moscow River. The city, built upon hills, with narrow streets that weave in and out of one another, with innumerable churches surrounded by gardens and encircled by tree-bordered boulevards, offers unlimited possibilities for attack and defense.

But from the first, the strategical problems of the two adversaries were limited. The MRC was quartered, with the Soviet, on Tverskaya Street, in the former governor’s residence’.’ The subjugation of this entire quarter was the central task of the government troops. The MRC, on the contrary, endeavored to hold out until the Red Guard, arriving from the suburbs, could take the Whites from the rear. The capture of the Kremlin by the Whites was, under these circumstances, no more than an incident, however important.

The Reds had the advantage of numbers. “Our enemy,” says Muralov, “had about ten thousand men, two officers’ academies, the military sections of the Menshevik and S-R parties, and the youth from the schools. We had not less than fifty thousand on whom we could count ... about fifteen thousand active troops, twenty-five thousand reserve troops, three thousand armed workers, six light-artillery batteries and several heavy pieces.” On one side, the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and intellectual elements; on the other, the great gray mass of soldiers and workers. Nevertheless, the faulty organization and the hesitations of the Reds made the outcome of the battle uncertain.

Kremlin Massacre

At midnight of the 28th, the Junkers – students of the military academies – surrounded the Kremlin. The Committee of Public Safety had already occupied the railroad stations, the power works, and the central telephone exchange. Cut off from the MRC, the commandant of the Kremlin, Berzin, who was told that “order had been restored,” surrendered on the promise that his men would be spared. He himself opened the gates. He was stabbed, struck, and outraged by the Junkers. A colonel said to him, “What? Still alive? You must die.”

The workers in the Kremlin arsenal did not learn of the surrender until their factory committee was arrested. In the morning, they were ordered to line up in the courtyard of the Kremlin wearing their identification discs. Suddenly three machine guns were uncovered in front of them. I quote from the story of one who escaped.

“The men cannot even then believe that they are thus to be shot, without trial, without reason, since they are not combatants. They are commanded to line up at attention. They stand still, hands along the seams of their trousers. At a signal, the chatter of three machine guns mingles with pitiful cries, sobs and death rattles. All who are not killed by the first blast throw themselves toward the only exit, a narrow doorway left open behind them. After a few minutes a heap of screaming, bloody men blocks the doorway ... into which they continue to fire. The bullets splatter the walls of the surrounding buildings with flesh and blood.”

This massacre was not an isolated phenomenon. The Whites arrested and executed everywhere. At the Alexandrovsky Military Academy, a court-martial passed judgment in thirty seconds, judgment which was carried out forthwith in the courtyard. Let us remember these scenes. They show that the defenders of the Provisional Government were all too willing to drown the workers’ insurrection in blood. The White terror had begun.

The news of the massacre interrupted armistice negotiations between the MRC and Colonel Riabtsev. The Whites were only trying to gain time, in hope of re-enforcements. The MRC finally understood that it was a war to the death. It was almost surrounded; but from every section of the city Red Guards and revolutionary regiments came to its aid in great numbers, so that its besiegers were themselves surrounded by a wall of steel. On the evening of the 29th, after a terrible day in which the general staff of the insurrectionists almost fell, a twenty-four hour armistice was signed. It was almost immediately broken by the arrival of a shock battalion which joined the Whites.

The Reds, at the same time, were re-enforced by artillery. The batteries opened fire from the squares. The Whites retreated to the Kremlin. After long delays, occasioned by fear of destroying historic monuments, the MRC decided to order the bombardment of the Kremlin. The Whites surrendered on November 2 at four in the afternoon. “The Committee of Public Safety is dissolved. The White Guard surrenders its arms and is free. The officers keep their sidearms. Only such arms as are necessary for military instruction remain in the military academies. The MRC guarantees the liberty and inviolability of all.” Such were the principal clauses of the treaty signed by the Reds and the Whites. The counter-revolutionists, the butchers of the Kremlin, who would never have spared the Reds in victory – we have seen proof – went free.

Costly clemency! These Junkers, these officers, these students, socialists of the counter-revolution, dispersed over all the vastnesses of Russia to organize the civil war. The revolution would encounter them once more at Yaroslav, on the Don, at Kazan, in Crimea, in Siberia, and in every conspiracy behind the lines.

Organization and Spontaneity

The Petrograd and Moscow insurrections presented striking differences. At Petrograd the long and carefully prepared movement was essentially political, a conscious seizure of power. The revolution went off at a predetermined date, according to Trotsky himself. Two decisive factors dominated the scene: the party and the garrison. The action was carefully planned and unhesitatingly carried into practice. Its success was rapid; little blood was shed.

The Petrograd insurrection was a model of well-organized mass action.

At Moscow the spontaneity of the masses outran their organization. The movement was essentially the result of economic pressure; political consciousness of the goals and methods of the insurrection was less clear. Vacillation and delay put obstacles in the way of the proletariat. The enemy, while numerically much smaller, was better organized, more resolute, and gifted with a clear vision of its objective – the re-establishment of order – and of its method – terror – and succeeded in holding the proletariat in check for some time, inflicting cruel losses on its ranks.

In the suburbs of Moscow, the workers armed themselves as best they could. They joined battle on their own volition. Arms were lacking, ammunition was lacking. When cannon were found they had no shells. When shells were found there were no fuses. The liaison department was defective. There was no intelligence service. “We fought badly; we were carried along with events,” said Muralov, the leader of the Red forces. There was no unified command, the Whites took the offensive. Their rapid occupation of strategic points compensated for their numerical weakness.

Without doubt, the enthusiasm of the combatants was admirable; provided with a capable organization, they would have worked wonders. But by itself this enthusiasm could not prevent a long, uncertain and costly battle.

The Military Revolutionary Committee was formed only on the 25th, much too late, and hesitated too long after it was finally formed. It entered into superfluous negotiations with the Mensheviks and the S-Rs, made the mistake of signing an armistice on the 29th, at the very moment when the Reds were about to capture the telephone exchange, and indulged in unpardonable generosity toward the vanquished counter-revolutionists.

The Moscow and Petrograd insurrections were, in our opinion, movements of a different type. The Moscow insurrection was reminiscent of – although far from parallel with – the proletarian uprisings exemplified by the revolt of the workers of Paris in June 1948 which were provoked by the economic policy of the bourgeoisie. Economic provocation played a leading role in the events at Moscow; revolt was the reply, an instinctive revolt; the enemy attempted a massacre.

The Petrograd insurrection, on the contrary, was a new type of insurrection, of which the Hamburg uprising of 1923 is another example. The action of a large party was coordinated with the action of the masses; both were launched at an appointed moment after minute preparations; the element of chance was reduced to the minimum; the forces deployed were used with the greatest economy. At Hamburg the defeat – it was really more a retreat – only resulted in small losses, although as a general rule defeats have cost heavily.

All other things being equal, the events at Petrograd and Moscow demonstrate, in contrast, the immense superiority of well-organized over spontaneous actions. In the light of these experiences, the conditions for a proletarian victory may be reduced to these simple military maxims: maximum of organization and energy in action; the largest forces at the decisive place at the decisive moment.

Last updated on: 2 August 2018