The Russian Revolution: Red October and the Bolshevik Coup (2)
---Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution
Damp winds blew off the Gulf of Finland, but there were no warm clothes in the shops. Just window after window full of flowers, corsets, dog collars, false hair -- bourgeois items for which there was absolutely no demand. Lines for bread, sugar and tobacco started forming at four o'clock in the morning. On September 25, 1917, Kerensky appointed a new cabinet. It was the fourth provisional Government, the third coalition and the seventh major reshuffling since the revolution had gotten underway back in February. The town of Reval, the last stronghold between the Germans and Petrograd, was evacuated by the Russians on October 3rd. Every day now, the people of Petrograd asked the government when their city would be evacuated. Barges floated down the Neva, laden with the art treasures of the Hermitage as well as sacks full of papers from all the ministries. One barge sank. "It doesn't matter," said one of the sailors as the barge went down. Indeed, it didn't matter. Every day hundreds of thousands of "hungry, tired and angry people" listened to Bolshevik propaganda served up gratis on the streets of Petrograd. It was a simple message, according to Sukhanov: "The rich have lots of everything, the poor have nothing. Everything will belong to the poor ." It didn't matter that it was all lies. "After all," wrote the young Russian poet Boris Pasternak, "what everybody needed were not empires, but bread, salt and candles."
Leon Trotsky, the "famous leader of the bandits and the hooligans," caused a sensation at the pre-parliament. He openly accused the government and the bourgeoisie of encouraging the "bony hand of hunger," to strangle the revolution. He said they were preparing to surrender the capital as part of a government conspiracy. Such a statement drew shouts from the right, shouts about Germans, sealed trains and the cry of "Bastard!" Then he and all the Bolsheviks walked out of the meeting. Sukhanov thought that they were "now taking up arms against the entire old world." In "ruined, half-wild, petty bourgeois, economically shattered" Russia, this small party was trying to create an unheard of proletarian state and a new society. They had "put an end to the united front of the democracy for ever." Civil war would surely follow. The lust for blood fueled by class hatred was strong. Manors and country estates were burning. Members of the ancien r�gime were being casually murdered by the mob. In a village near Baku, half a dozen ragged deserters bayoneted an elderly general who had told them, "this is my single fault. I love Russia. I love my people, I demand that you let me go." Needless to say, the deserters did not like his use of the word "demand." The mob turned on the two ladies with him and trampled their bodies to death "like a manure heap." The civil war implicit in the walk-out, as all those concerned knew full well, would extend throughout Russia.
Essential to a successful Bolshevik takeover was deception. And it was Leon Trotsky who was brilliant in formulating its tactics. The country was in no mood for a single party power. An uprising carried out under the slogan of the Soviet, Trotsky realized, was "something quite different." So, "whilst moving forward all along the line," he later explained, "we maintained an appearance of defensiveness." He could not do this with a properly convened Soviet Congress. There was not the slightest chance of a Bolshevik victory in a national Soviet election so the existing Congress was illegally packed with Bolsheviks.
The decision to mount the coup was taken on October 10th. Lenin had returned to Petrograd disguised as a train engineer. At 10pm he crossed the city for the first Central Committee meeting he had attended since July. The meeting was held in Sukhanov's apartment. His wife, Galina, was a Bolshevik, and had ensured that her husband would not return until late that night. Twelve members took part. They all wore wigs and make-up, glued-on mustaches and false beards. Lenin wore a wig of gray hair. It had been ordered from a wigmaker who worked for the Maryinsky Theater and whose normal clientele were aristocrats. He was puzzled why Lenin wanted a gray model since most of his customers wanted to look younger rather than older. Lenin also wore glasses and had shaved off his trademark beard. Zinoviev, known for his flowing mane, shaved his head and wore a false beard. The Provisional Government's chance to arrest those plotting the coup was missed. Had the Government swooped down on the meeting that night they would have made history -- Lenin, Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Kollantai were all there. So too were Felix Dzerzhinsky, future head of the secret police, Yakov Sverdlov, the man responsible for murdering Nicholas and his family and, of course, Joseph Stalin (see Lecture 10). The Government ought to have acted but didn't -- one more example of the impotence of the Provisional Government itself.
Around three in the morning, Lenin picked up a child's ruled tablet and wrote the following resolution: "recognizing that an armed uprising is inevitable and that its time has come, the Central Committee suggests that all party organizations be guided by this." The exhausted committee members ended the meeting, ate a light breakfast, and then left Sukhanov's flat to spread the word: Now was the time to seize power!
However, the Twelve were not the only individuals with knowledge of the coup. The newspapers had been talking about it for days. When the Cabinet met on October 16th, there was no sense of alarm. They had simply assumed that a coup was unlikely since by that time, any sense of surprise had been lost. Lenin was exhausted. He dropped his wig in the mud on his way to the Finland Station and it had to be cleaned. He never got the hang of wearing it. "He kept trying to straighten it," said his Bolshevik landlady, Margarita Fofanova. Needless to say, Lenin was a very nervous man. Sukhanov thought that Lenin's ideas -- the smashing of the credit system, the seizure of banks, parity of wages, and workers' control -- were "so disproportionately few in comparison with the immensity of the tasks, and so unknown to anyone outside the Bolshevik Party, that you might say they were completely irrelevant." Maxim Gorky described the plotters of the coup as "crazed fanatics."
On October 22nd, the commissar for the western front cabled a message to Kerensky that said: "There is nothing left but to give up. Disintegration has attained its limit." The newspaper Russkiye Vedomosti apologized to its readers that it could run only a fraction of the stories about mutinies and pogroms that flooded its newsroom each day. Kharkov, Tambov, and Ostrog "merge into one dark picture of murders, pillages, arsons and debauch." Mobs searched everywhere for axes and crow bars so they could break into wine cellars. Landowners and shopkeepers who were suspected of speculation were beaten to death with clubs and the "same fate awaits Jews, just because they are Jews."
In Petrograd, everything could be had for big money, that is, if you had it. Cab fares were fifteen times their pre-war rate. Soldiers were hired by the hour to stand in lines and sell their chocolate rations at twelve rubles to the pound. Felix Yusupov, back in Petrograd after his brief exile for the killing of Rasputin, found social life "agreeable once more" and began to give parties in his palace. If the Bolshevik coup came, most thought it would fail. "I only wish they would come out," Kerensky told the British ambassador, "and then I will put them down." David Francis, the US ambassador, thought that a golden opportunity was being lost. "Beginning to think the Bolsheviks will make no demonstrations," he cabled Washington. "If so, shall regret as believe sentiment turning against them and time opportune moment for giving them a wholesome lesson ." With the coup right around the corner, there were no plans to cope with it. At 5 AM on October 24th, military cadets acting on Kerensky's orders broke the page molds of Bolshevik newspapers and sealed off the offices. Trotsky could hardly contain his excitement: "Kerensky is on the offensive." It's pretty clear what this meant: now the Bolsheviks could accuse the government of counter-revolution. "Although an insurrection can only win on the offensive," Trotsky wrote in his massive History of the Russian Revolution, "it develops better the more it looks like self-defense."
By mid-morning, Bolshevik troops retook the newspaper offices without a struggle. The molds were repaired and the papers began to pour off the presses once again. Kerensky cabled the front for additional armed forces but he hoped he would not have to use them. He had at his disposal, 200 cadets, 200 women soldiers and 134 unattached officers for policing duties. Trotsky was at the Smolny Institute, the former home of a finishing school for aristocratic girls, but now used as the general headquarters for the Bolshevik Party and the Petrograd Soviet. A delegation from the Petrograd City Hall arrived during the afternoon to ask on behalf of the mayor whether the uprising would take place or not. Trotsky met the delegation and assured them that indeed the insurrection was underway. The delegation left the Smolny a bit puzzled for there was very little indication that the city was in the midst of an insurrection. The rest of the city, meanwhile, figured that since there were no outward signs of insurrection, that the coup had not been attempted. Elegant men and women, fashionable Petrograd, assembled at the Alexandrinsky Theatre to watch Alexei Tolstoy's play The Death of Ivan the Terrible. Others, suitably dressed, were at the Maryinsky listening to Fedor Ivanovich Chaliapin in Boris Godunov. The Restaurant de Paris was turning away diners unlucky enough not to have made reservations. The cinemas, the bars and the night clubs were bustling hives of activity. With the Bolshevik coup just hours away, it's hard to fathom that fashionable Petrograd could remain so passive and unaware
Not so Lenin. He spent the better part of the evening pacing the floor of his hideaway apartment. He couldn't stand the slow pace of events, the indecision in both Smolny and the Winter Palace. He was also still getting information about the supposed coup second-hand. That evening Lenin sat down and wrote a letter to his wife, Krupskaya, who was then at the Vyborg party headquarters. It was now 7 PM and it was necessary, Lenin said, to get on with the uprising. "What are they afraid of?" he asked of the Central Committee. "Just ask them if they have one hundred loyal soldiers or Red Guards with rifles. I don't need anything else!" Here is the full text of Lenin's letter:
If this letter showed anything, it was the total lack of coordination between Lenin and the Central Committee. It also showed Lenin's deep distrust of the revolutionary inclinations of his colleagues. Would the proposed coup actually take place?
By 10 PM, Lenin decided to leave his flat and make his way to the Smolny. He put on his ill-fitted wig and added a pair of glasses but in his haste, had forgotten his makeup. So, he wrapped a large handkerchief around his head as if he had a toothache then caught a tram part of the way, arriving at the Smolny just before midnight. The sentries at the main gate refused to let him enter because his pass had expired. He telephoned Trotsky and soon both men were ready to make history.
Small groups of Bolshevik troops moved out of their barracks in the early hours of Wednesday, October 25th. They were visibly relieved at the general lack of resistance. They took the Neva bridges, the main telegraph office, the post offices, the railroad stations, the Central Bank and the power stations. No shots were fired. The troops simply surrounded the office and forced those inside into submission. There was little evidence of retaliation. When Kerensky woke up that morning he looked out his window and noticed that the Bolsheviks controlled the bridge leading to the Winter Palace. He tried to telephone the Palace but his line was dead. So, the leader of the Provisional Government had to do something: he decided to leave Petrograd, go to the front and raise an army of loyal troops so that the coup could be put down. He made his way to the government motor pool but the Bolsheviks had already removed all the distributors from the cars. An ensign was sent out to see if he could requisition an automobile that worked. The ensign made his way to the British Embassy but his request for an automobile was denied. The author, Vladimir Nabokov was still in his morning bath when the ensign knocked on his door. Somewhat upset, Nabokov told him his car was not suitable for Kerensky's long journey to Tosno, where he was to meet the troops. The Chief of the Militia turned the ensign away as did the Italian Embassy. The worried ensign was about to give up when he saw an automobile flying an American flag. The Pierce Arrow belonged to the Assistant Military Attach�, E. Francis Bigg. The ensign told the attach� that the car was for Kerensky. The Americans agreed that Kerensky could use the car but also wanted his personal assurance. So the ensign and three Americans walked to the General Staff Building where Kerensky assured them that he did indeed need the car. Soon, Kerensky and several of his aides climbed into the car and were off. However, since Kerensky's driver, an American, really didn't know where they were going, they ended up making several wide circles of the Palace Square in full view of hundreds of spectators who, of course, recognized Kerensky. It was at least thirty minutes before Kerensky's driver found his way out of Petrograd and toward the northern front.
Government ministers arrived at the Winter Palace by cab, while in the Smolny, Lenin announced their overthrow. The city pretty much ignored Lenin's claim. Trams were running, the banks were open and factories were working. The troops stationed themselves at strategic points but were clearly bored. At 2:35pm, Trotsky felt compelled to hold an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet to prevent the Congress delegates drifting away in boredom at the Smolny. He claimed that the government had "ceased to exist," as the result of a movement of "such enormous masses" for which there was no parallel in history. The only real sign of revolt was the odd armored car, siren blaring, with Bolshevik initials splashed on its gray body. Sukhanov was so unimpressed by it all that he went home to eat supper by candlelight. He thought that any Bolshevik regime would be short-lived.
The siege of the Winter Palace was so sloppy that the American journalists John Reed and Louis Bryant were able to stroll into the building during the afternoon. Palace servants in their Tsarist blue uniforms took their coats, and cadets were glad to show them around. Louise Bryant found them "poor, uncomfortable, unhappy boys," reared in genteel isolation and now "without a court, without a Tsar, without all the tradition they believed in." Packing crates and mattresses littered the floors along with cigarette butts and empty wine bottles. Many of the defenders were drunk. "I am very anxious to get away from Russia," remarked one captain to Reed, "I have made up my mind to join the American army." Two cyclists arrived with a Bolshevik ultimatum threatening to open fire if the palace did not surrender by 7:10pm. The ministers still had hopes that Kerensky would appear with reinforcements and declined to give themselves up.
As it turned out, the coup did not interfere with the evening life of the city. The ministers in the Winter Palace dined on soup, fish and artichokes and then ordered all the lights to be put out. Meanwhile, the Bolshevik-manned battleship Aurora, moored on the Neva, was ordered to open fire on the Palace when a red light was shone from the Peter and Paul Fortress. However, since the cruiser was fresh out of the dockyards it had only blank ammunition on board. Anyway, the fortress garrison could not find a red light but eventually a purple flare was launched and the Aurora began to fire its blanks. The cadets at the Palace opened fire with their machine guns but it was several minutes before they realized that no bombs were falling.
The women's detachment loyal to Kerensky, declaring that its function was to fight Germans, left the Palace. At 11 PM, the six-inch guns of the Peter and Paul Fortress began to fire rounds at the 1500-room Winter Palace. One shell missed by several hundred yards; another hit but did little damage. Most shells fell into the Neva. Meanwhile, the Ministers took naps. In a period of two hours, the Bolsheviks fired thirty-five shots at the Winter Palace: only two shots found their mark and according to Trotsky, did little more than "injure the plaster."
At 2 AM on October 26th, a friend called on the Justice Minister Malyantovich to ask how he was. "Not bad. In cheerful spirits," he replied. He lay back and tried to sleep but soon he began to hear noises. The ministers grabbed their coats. A cadet rushed in and asked "What are the orders of the government? To fight to the last man?" Wearily, the ministers shouted back, "It's not necessary. It's useless. No bloodshed!" Just then a mob of Bolsheviks crowded into the room. One man stood at the front and shouted: "I inform you, all you members of the Provisional Government, that you are arrested. I am Antonov-Ovseenko, a representative of the Military Revolutionary Committee." Petrograd had fallen to the Bolsheviks.
COMMENTS AND REFLECTIONS ON 1917
This so-called October Revolution was an "armed insurrection" carried out by the Bolshevik Party using the apparatus of the Petrograd Soviet. Lenin insisted that the transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Bolsheviks take this militarized form rather than the political form of a vote by the forthcoming All-Russian Congress of Soviets, an approach favored by Zinoviev and Kamenev. Lenin did this because he believed, as did Marx, that the class struggle was class warfare and so necessarily involved physical violence. No other method could demonstrate where the real power lay. In the same manner, Lenin understood the literal meaning of Marx's call to "expropriate the expropriators" by urging the masses to "steal the stolen." This was no violation of Marx's view of the logic of history -- armed coercion was always integral to that logic. And so, the October coup set the precedent for the continuing use of coercion by the Party through all the stages required to construct socialism.
From his refuge in Finland, Lenin initiated pressure for such an insurrection in the wake of the Kornilov affair of the late summer, and by October 10th he had persuaded the Central Committee to vote 10 to 2 for such an action "in principle." But the task of organizing the insurrection fell to Leon Trotsky. In order to give the Party coup an appearance of greater proletarian legitimacy, Trotsky delayed it so that it would coincide with the forthcoming, national Congress of Soviets. This was against Lenin's express command. Trotsky also engineered the creation within the Soviet of the Military Revolutionary Committee, which was in fact dominated by the Bolsheviks, to carry out the actual takeover of Petrograd.
In other words, this Revolution was a minority military action, not a mass event like the one that occurred in February, or in 1905, for that matter. To be more precise, what did occur was an amateur police operation of the Military Revolutionary Committee, some sailors of the Baltic fleet and a handful of Red Guards to take over the nerve-centers of the capital on the night of October 24th. The Petrograd proletariat and the city's military garrison remained overwhelmingly neutral. Because there were no forces to fight for the Provisional Government, the Bolsheviks had almost nothing to overthrow. As Lenin himself put it, the Party "found power lying in the streets and simply picked it up."
Thus the strategy that Lenin had embraced in his APRIL THESES paid off in the October seizure of power. Lenin, the Bolshevik leader, hitherto unknown to most Russians as well as the outside world, suddenly found himself the chairman of the Council of People's Commissars of the Russian Soviet Republic, a government that was in fact little more than the Bolshevik Party in power. This new power immediately issued two decrees. The first, "On Peace," called for a negotiated end to the war. What this really meant was Russia's unilateral withdrawal from the conflict. The second, "On Land," socialized gentry and state properties. What this implied was an endorsement of the already accomplished agrarian revolution. As Lenin put it to Trotsky on the night of the coup, "it makes the head swim."
Our sense of wonder at the Bolshevik victory has lingered in the historiography ever since, where it has produced problems of interpretation The problem arises from the facts. First, that the Bolshevik Party was largely Lenin's personal creation and second, that his personal insistence on armed insurrection was the driving force which led up to the October coup. However, does all this mean that without Lenin there would have been no Red October and hence no Soviet regime?
This rather extreme version of the "great man" theory has often been advanced. Even Trotsky, though committed as a Marxist to the social logic of history, comes close to holding Lenin indispensable to Bolshevik victory. Trotsky may have wished to be more cautious. The events of 1917 -- from Order Number One in February to the emergence of the Left SRs in October -- show that even without Lenin there was ample room on the Russian Left for an extremist party of "revolution now." Consider that statement carefully. Before October it was the case that Lenin's Party, although the most hierarchical of all the Russian parties, was not as yet the monolithic instrument commanded at will by its leader that it later became.
Indeed, Trotsky's own historical role belies the overriding importance he attributed to Lenin. In addition, Trotsky's role also points to the fluidity of the Party in 1917. After all, Trotsky abandoned the Mensheviks only in June 1917. And in October, it was Trotsky who was directing the Bolshevik seizure of power. Go figure! He even countermanded Lenin's impatient directives in order to coordinate the Party takeover with the Congress of Soviets, so as to enhance the coup's "proletarian" appearance. Lenin, for all the impetus he gave to the coup, had nothing to do with carrying it out, since he was still in hiding when it began. Where Lenin was more than truly indispensable was in his role, over the previous fourteen years, as architect of the Party organization. However, even in this domain, by 1917, there were numerous little Lenin's who could have pursued the same maximalist policies.
The maximalist strategy that Lenin worked out in the April Theses would work only in the exceptional social circumstances that the war had by 1917 created in Russia. The central fact of that year was that the linchpin of the over-centralized Russian Imperial system was removed. From that point on, all subordinate structures in the country began to quickly unravel. The army, the industrial economy, the social structure of the countryside, and the administrative system of the Empire, both in the Great Russian provinces and among the border nationalities all disintegrated. By the end of the year, Russia no longer possessed any functioning, organized structures. The result was a generalized void of power, an interregnum in all aspects of national life. Thus, by the end of October the wreckage of the Russian Empire was up for grabs, vulnerable to whatever force with the will and organizational capacity to take it over.
The dynamic of national disintegration began with the army and was driven throughout the year above all by the war. The policy of the Provisional Government was to prosecute the war to a victorious conclusion at the side of its democratic allies. The policy of the Soviet was to fight only for a "democratic peace without annexations or indemnities." Once discipline had been restored after the work of Order Number One, the liberal-socialist coalition government formed in April adopted a compromise war policy. As a result, Kerensky's democratic offensive was launched in June. This offensive, of course, ended in nothing less than a rout. Army discipline was once again undermined and fueled the Bolshevik thrust of the July Days. And that event in turn led to General Kornilov's attempt in August to restore Russia's fighting capacity by sweeping away the Soviets. But this failed effort discredited the army command and officer corps once and for all. After August, therefore, the army simply melted away, with the peasant soldiers trekking home to participate in the partition of the gentry's lands. Thus, all the political crises of the DUAL POWER, from April to July to August, were directly caused by the army, and by the fall, the impact of these crises on the army was such that the coercive power of the state was destroyed. The name for such a situation is anarchy -- the genuine absence of government.
In the course of 1917 all of old Russia's structures -- the state, the army, the Empire, the local administration, the economy and both the urban and rural societies -- came apart simultaneously. Such a situation explains why, amidst a state of generalized collapse, that there was no chance of establishing a durable constitutional democracy. History militated against it. Any government that would have tried to intervene against this revolutionary process before its full unwinding would have been discredited. Even if the Provisional Government had found the resolve to immediately convene a Constituent Assembly, to unilaterally take Russia out of the war, and to give the land to the peasants, this would have hardly had the desired result. These were measures that critics later felt the Provisional Government should have adopted in order to stop Bolshevism. These measures were also, in fact, similar to Bolshevik policy. They would have been revolutionary and disruptive in their effect, and they would have only deepened the anarchy without giving the Provisional Government the new coercive means to master it -- means that came quite naturally to the Bolsheviks.
The fact of the matter is that in 1917 the impetus for disintegration was such that, once it had played itself out, only an authoritarian, coercive solution was possible for creating some new type or order. As the historian and leader of the Kadet Party Paul Miliukov put the matter, by the end of the summer the alternatives for Russia were either Kornilov or Lenin. But since Kornilov and the forces of the traditional order that he symbolized had no real power, only Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in a position to pick up the pieces and to fashion a new type of order once the storm had spent its force.
This new type of order would be the "dictatorship of the proletariat" proclaimed after October as the vehicle for the transition from capitalism to socialism. Drawing on Marx's analysis of the Paris Commune, during the summer of 1917 in his book State and Revolution, Lenin had interpreted the direct proletarian democracy of the workers' soviets as the realization of a new "commune" state. As such, the soviets constituted the basis of the coming dictatorship and the new socialist state. Thus, although it is only amidst a general process of national disintegration that the Russian workers' movement could have acquired "world-historical" significance, this broader process indeed received its political and ideological meaning from working-class action or, at the very least, from action in the name of the working class.
It is for this reason that interpretation of the Russian Revolution both in the East and in the West, has been overwhelmingly concerned with the working class in relation to the Bolshevik Party. This question is urgent because whatever legitimacy the Soviet regime could once claim, in its own view, depended on the ideological conformity of the proletariat with the Party and hence, on the socialist authenticity of October. How then to explain the coming to power of the proletariat in October 1917? In fact, the proletariat did not come to power. What came to power was a political and ideological organization, the Bolshevik Party. Yet, the historical myth surrounding Red October, is that of a "revolution from below." A revolution led by the Russian masses in the interests of the Russian masses. But our narrative of the events of October have shown how nearly absent the working classes of Petrograd were during the so-called "ten days that shook the world."
The myth of proletarian October is the myth of the triumph of the alienated and dehumanized masses over all their sufferings and deprivations. In this historically logical process, suffering is the criteria of authentic humanity. This was as true for Marx as it was for Dostoevsky. And since intense crisis makes suffering most acute, the war and the social collapse of 1917 conferred on the humiliated and offended of Russian life quintessential human status. For the suffering of 1917 was no myth, but a most cruel, physical and mental fact. In these circumstances, the modest Russian proletariat could indeed appear in the eyes of its self-appointed leaders, and in the eyes of many socialists throughout the world, to be the universal class and the bearer of the logic of history. Thus this myth became a mighty empirical force, the indispensable launching pad of the whole Soviet dream.
Incipit vita nova. Here begins the new life.
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