80 years since the Russian Revolution: The July Days and the vital role of the Party

In the series Russia 1917

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailThe July Days of 1917 are one of the most important moments, not only in the Russian Revolution, but in the whole history of the workers' movement. In the space of three days, from July 3rd to July 5th, one of the mightiest ever confrontations between bourgeoisie and proletariat, despite ending in a defeat for the working class, opened the road to the seizure of power four months later in October 1917. On July 3rd, the workers and soldiers of Petrograd rose massively and spontaneously, calling for all power to be transferred to the workers' councils, the soviets. On July 4th an armed demonstration with half a million participants besieged the leadership of the soviet, calling for it to take power, but returned home peacefully in the evening, following an appeal by the Bolsheviks. On July 5th, counter-revolutionary troops took over the Russian capital, and began to hunt down the Bolsheviks and repress the most advanced workers. But by avoiding a premature struggle for power, the proletariat maintained its revolutionary forces intact. As a result, the working class was able to draw all the lessons of these events, and in particular to understand the counter-revolutionary character of bourgeois democracy and of the new left wing of capital: the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries who had betrayed the cause of the workers and poor peasants and gone over to the counter-revolution. At no other moment of the Russian Revolution was the danger of a decisive defeat of the proletariat, and the decimation of the Bolshevik party so acute as during those dramatic 72 hours. At no other moment did the profound confidence of the leading battalions of the proletariat in its class party, in the communist vanguard, prove more important.

80 years later, in face of the bourgeois lies about the "death of communism", and in particular its denigration of the Russian Revolution and Bolshevism, the defence of the true lessons of the July Days and of the whole proletarian revolution is one of the main responsibilities of revolutionaries. According to the lies of the bourgeoisie, the Russian Revolution was a "popular" struggle for a bourgeois parliamentary republic, the "freest country in the world" until the Bolsheviks, "inventing" the "demagogic" slogan of "all power to the soviets" imposed through a "putsch" its "barbaric dictatorship" over the great majority of the working population. However, even the briefest objective look at the events of July 1917 will show as clear as daylight that the Bolsheviks were on the side of the working class, that it was bourgeois democracy which was on the side of barbarism, putschism, and the dictatorship of a tiny minority over the working people.


A cynical provocation by the bourgeoisie, and a trap set for the Bolsheviks

The July Days of 1917 were from the outset a provocation by the bourgeoisie, with the aim of decapitating the proletariat by crushing the revolution in Petrograd, and eliminating the Bolshevik party before the revolutionary process in Russia as a whole became ripe for the seizure of power by the workers.

The revolutionary upsurge of February 1917, leading to the replacement of the Tsar by a "bourgeois democratic" provisional government, and to the establishment of the workers' councils (soviets) as a rival, proletarian centre of power, was first and foremost the product of the struggle of the workers against the imperialist world war begun in 1914. But the provisional government, as well as the majority parties in the soviets, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs), against the will of the proletariat, committed themselves to continue the war, and to the imperialist robber programme of Russian capitalism. In this way, not only in Russia but in all countries comprising the Entente, the coalition against Germany, a new pseudo-revolutionary legitimacy had been lent to the war, to the greatest crime in human history. Between February and July 1917 several million soldiers, including the flower of the international working class, were killed or wounded to settle the question: which of the main capitalist imperialist gangsters should rule the world? Although many Russian workers initially fell for the lies of the new leaders that it was necessary to continue the war "in order to achieve a just peace without annexations once and for all", now coming as they did from the mouths of alleged "democrats" and "socialists", by June 1917 the proletariat had resumed the revolutionary struggle against the imperialist slaughter with redoubled energy. During the gigantic demonstration of June 18th in Petrograd, the internationalist slogans of the Bolsheviks won over a majority for the first time. By the beginning of July, the biggest and bloodiest Russian military offensive since the "triumph of democracy" was ending in a fiasco, the German army breaking through the front at several points. It was the most critical moment for Russian militarism since the beginning of the "Great War". But although the news of the offensive's failure had already reached the capital, fanning the revolutionary flames, it had not yet penetrated to the rest of the gigantic country. Out of this desperate situation the idea was born of provoking a premature revolt in Petrograd, crushing the workers and the Bolsheviks there, and then blaming the collapse of the military offensive on the "stab in the back" delivered from behind the front by the capital.

The objective situation was not unfavourable to such a plan. Although the main workers' sectors in Petrograd were already going over to the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and SRs still had a majority position in the soviets, and were still dominant in the provinces. Within the working class as a whole, even in Petrograd, there remained strong illusions about the capacity of the Mensheviks and SRs to serve in some way the cause of revolution. Despite the radicalisation of the soldiers, mostly peasants in uniform, a considerable number of important regiments were still loyal to the provisional government. The forces of counter-revolution, after a phase of disorientation and disorganisation after the "February Revolution", were now at the zenith of their reconstitution. And the bourgeoisie had a trick card up its sleeve: forged documents and testimonies claiming to prove that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were paid agents of the German Kaiser.

This plan represented above all a trap, a dilemma for the Bolshevik party. If the party put itself at the head of a premature insurrection in the capital, it would discredit itself in the eyes of the Russian proletariat, appearing as the representative of an irresponsibly adventurist policy, and to the backward sectors even as the helper of German imperialism. But if it disowned the mass movement it would dangerously isolate itself from the class, leaving the workers to their fate. The bourgeoisie hoped that however the party decided, its decision would spell its doom.


The counter-revolutionary, Black-Hundred, anti-Semitic mob funded by "Western democracy"

Were the anti-Bolshevik forces the fine democrats and defenders of the "freedom of the people" alleged by bourgeois propaganda? They were led by the Kadets ([1]), the party of big industry and the great landlords; by the officers committee representing about 100,000 commanders preparing a military putsch; by the soviet of the counter-revolutionary Cossack troops; by the secret police; and by the anti-Semitic "Black Hundred" mob. "Those are the circles stirring up pogroms, shooting at demonstrators etc." as Lenin wrote. ([2])

But the July provocation was a blow against the maturing world revolution struck not only by the Russian, but by the world bourgeoisie in the form of the governments of Russia's war allies. In this treacherous attempt at an early drowning of a still unripe revolution in blood we can recognise the handwriting of the old democratic bourgeoisie: the French with its long and bloody tradition of such provocations (1791, 1848, 1870), and the British with its incomparable political experience and intelligence. In fact, in view of the Russian bourgeoisie's increasing difficulties in effectively combating the revolution and maintaining the war effort, Russia's Western allies had already become the main force, not only financing the Russian front, but advising and funding the counter-revolution. The Provisional Committee of the State Duma (parliament) "supplied a legal covering for the counter-revolutionary work, which was broadly financed by the banks and by the embassies of the Entente" as Trotsky recalled ([3]).

"Petrograd was swarming with secret and semi-secret officer organisations enjoying lofty protection and generous support. In a confidential report made by the Menshevik, Lieber, almost a month before the July Days, it was asserted that the officer-conspirators were in touch with Buchanan. Yes, and how could the diplomats of the Entente help trying to promote the speedy establishment of a strong power in Russia?" ([4]).

It was not the Bolsheviks, but the bourgeoisie which allied itself with foreign governments against the Russian proletariat.

The political provocations of the blood-thirsty bourgeoisie

At the beginning of July, three incidents arranged by the bourgeoisie were enough to trigger off a revolt in the capital

1. The Kadet party withdrew its 4 ministers from the Provisional government. Since the Mensheviks and SR's had until then justified their refusal of "all power to the soviets" with the need to collaborate, outside the workers' councils, with the Kadets as representatives of the "democratic bourgeoisie" this snubbing of the coalition was bound to provoke renewed demands for immediate soviet power among workers and soldiers.

"To imagine that the Kadets may not have foreseen the effect of this act of open sabotage of the Soviet would be decidedly to underestimate Miliukov. The leader of liberalism was obviously trying to drag the Compromisers into a difficult situation from which they could make a way out only with bayonets. In those days Miliukov firmly believed that the situation could only be saved with a bold blood-letting" ([5]).

2. The humiliation of the provisional government by the Entente, aimed at obliging it to confront the revolution with arms or be dropped by its allies.

"Behind the scenes the threads of all this were in the hands of the embassies and governments of the Entente. At an inter-allied conference in London the western friends "forgot" to invite the Russian ambassador (...) This mockery of the ambassador of the Provisional Government and the demonstrative exit of the Kadets from the government - both events happening on the 2nd of July - had the same purpose: to bring the Compromisers to their knees" ([6]).

The Menshevik and SR parties, still in the process of joining the bourgeoisie, inexperienced in their role, full of hesitations and petty bourgeois vacillations, and still with small proletarian-internationalist oppositions within their ranks, were not initiated into the counter-revolutionary plot, but manoeuvred into the role designated to them by their senior bourgeois leaders.

3. The threat to immediately transfer combative revolutionary regiments from the capital straight to the front. In fact, the explosion of the class struggle in response to these provocations was initiated, not by the workers but the soldiers, and politically incited not by the Bolsheviks but by the Anarchists.

"In general the soldiers were more impatient than the workers - both because they were directly threatened with a transfer to the front, and because it was much harder for them to understand considerations of political strategy. Moreover, each one had his own rifle; and ever since February the soldier had been inclined to over-estimate the independent power of a rifle" ([7]).

The soldiers immediately undertook to win the workers for their action. At the Putilov Works, the biggest Russian workers concentration, they made their most decisive breakthrough. "About ten thousand men assembled. To shouts of encouragement, the machine-gunners told how they had received an order to go to the front on the 4th of July, but they had decided "to go not to the German front, against the German proletariat, but against their own capitalist ministers". Feeling ran high. Come on, lets get moving" cried the workers" ([8]).

Within hours, the proletariat of the whole city had risen, armed itself and come together around the slogan "all power to the soviets", the slogan of the masses themselves.

The Bolsheviks avoid the trap and lead the proletariat around it

On the afternoon of July 3rd, delegates from the machine-gun regiments arrived to win the support of the city conference of the Bolsheviks, and were shocked to learn that the party was speaking out against the action. The arguments given by the party - that the bourgeoisie wanted to provoke Petrograd in order to blame it for the fiasco on the front, that the moment was not ripe for armed insurrection, and that the best moment for a more immediate major action would be when the collapse on the front was known to all - show that the Bolsheviks immediately grasped the meaning and danger of the events. In fact, already since the June 18th demonstration the Bolsheviks had been publicly warning against a premature action.

Bourgeois historians have recognised the remarkable political intelligence of the party at that moment. Indeed, the Bolshevik party was imbued with the conviction that it is imperative to study the nature, strategy and tactics of the class enemy to be able to respond and intervene correctly at each moment. It was steeped in the marxist understanding that the revolutionary seizure of power is a form of art or science, where an insurrection at an inopportune point and the failure to seize power at the correct moment are both equally fatal.

But as correct as the analysis of the party was, to have stopped here would have meant falling for the trap of the bourgeoisie. The first decisive turning point during the July Days came the same night, when the Central Committee and the Petrograd Committee of the party decided to legitimise the movement and put itself at its head, but in order to assure its "peaceful and organised character". As opposed to the spontaneous and chaotic events of the previous day, the gigantic demonstrations of July 4th betrayed the "ordering hand of the party". The Bolsheviks knew that the goal the masses had set themselves, of obliging the Menshevik and SR leadership of the soviet to take power in the name of the workers councils, was an impossibility. The Mensheviks and SRs, presented today by the bourgeoisie as the real defenders of Soviet democracy, were already integrating themselves into the counter-revolution and waiting for an opportunity to have done with the workers' councils. The dilemma of the situation, the still insufficient consciousness of the mass of the proletariat, was concretised in the famous story of an enraged worker waving his fist under the chin of one of the "revolutionary" ministers shouting "Take power, son of a bitch, when we give it to you". In reality, the ministers and soviet misleaders were playing for time until regiments loyal to the government arrived.

By now the workers were realising for themselves the difficulties of transferring all power to the soviets as long as the traitors and compromisers held the leading influence within it. Because the class had not yet found the method of transforming the soviets from within, it was trying vainly to impose its armed will upon them from without.

The second decisive turning point came with the address Bolshevik speakers to tens of thousands of Putilov and other workers on July 4th, at the end of a day of mass demonstrations, which Zinoviev began with a joke to ease the tension, and which ended with an appeal to return home peacefully - an appeal that the workers followed. The moment of revolution had not yet arrived, but it was coming. Never was the truth of Lenin's old saying more dramatically proven: patience and humour are indispensable qualities for revolutionaries.

The Bolsheviks' ability to lead the proletariat around the trap of the bourgeoisie was not only due to their political intelligence. What was decisive was above all the profound confidence of the party in the proletariat and in marxism, allowing it to fully base itself on the force and method which represents the future of humanity, and thus avoid the impatience of the petty bourgeoisie. Decisive too was the profound confidence which the Russian proletariat had developed in its class party, allowing the party to remain with and even lead the class although all sides knew it shared neither its immediate goals nor its illusions. The bourgeoisie failed in its aim to drive a wedge between party and class, a wedge which would have meant the certain defeat of the Russian Revolution.

"It was the absolute duty of the proletarian party to remain with the masses, and to attempt to give the justified actions of these masses as much as possible a peaceful and organised character, not standing aloof, washing its hands in innocence like Pilate for the pedantic reason that the masses were not organised to the last man, and that excesses took place in its movement" ([9]).

The pogroms and slanders of the counter-revolution

Early in the morning of July 5th, government troops began to arrive in the capital. The work of hunting down the Bolsheviks, depriving them of their meagre publishing resources, disarming and terrorising workers, inciting pogroms against the Jews began. The saviours of civilisation from "Bolshevik barbarism" resorted to two main provocations to mobilise troops against the workers.

1) The campaign of lies that the Bolsheviks were German agents. "The soldiers sat gloomily in their barracks waiting. Only in the afternoon of July 4 did the authorities at last discover an effective means of influencing them. They showed (..) documents demonstrating as plain as 2+2=4 that Lenin was a German spy. That moved them. The news flew around the regiments. (...) The mood of the neutral battalions changed" ([10]). In particular a political parasite called Alexinski, a renegade Bolshevik who had once helped to form an "ultra-left" opposition against Lenin, but having failed to fulfil his ambitions had become a declared enemy of workers' parties, was an instrument in this campaign. As a result, Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were obliged to go into hiding, while Trotsky and others were arrested. "The internationalists behind bars - that is what Mr. Kerensky and Co. need" declared Lenin ([11]).

The bourgeoisie has not changed. 80 years after, they are conducting a similar campaign with the same "logic" against the communist left. Then: since the Bolsheviks refuse to support the Entente, they must be on the German side! Now: since the Communist Left refused to support the "antifascist" imperialist camp in World War II, they and their successors today must have been on the German side. "Democratic" state campaigns prepare future pogroms.

Revolutionaries today, who often underestimate the significance of such campaigns against them, still have much to learn from the example of the Bolsheviks after the July days, who moved heaven and earth in defence of their reputation within the working class. Trotsky later called July 1917 "the month of the most gigantic slander in human history", but even this pales in comparison with the present day slander that Communism equals Stalinism.

Another way of attacking the reputation of revolutionaries, as old as the method of public denigration, and normally used in combination with it, is the encouragement by the state of non-proletarian and anti-proletarian elements who like to present themselves as revolutionaries.

"Provocation undoubtedly played a certain role in the events at the front as well as on the streets of Petrograd. After the February revolution the government had thrown over into the active army a large number of former gendarmes and policemen. None of them of course wanted to fight. They were more afraid of the Russian soldiers than of the Germans. In order to get their past forgotten, they would stimulate the most extreme moods of the army, incite the soldiers against the officers, come out loudly against discipline, and often openly give themselves out for Bolsheviks. Bound naturally together as accomplices, they created a kind of special Brotherhood of Cowardice and Villainy. Through them would penetrate and quickly spread through the army the most fantastic rumours, in which ultra-revolutionism was combined with Black Hundredism. In critical hours these creatures would give the first signals for panic. The press more than once referred to this demoralising work of the police and gendarmes. No less frequent references of this kind are to be found in the secret documents of the army itself. But the high command remained silent, preferring to identify the Black Hundred provocateurs with the Bolsheviks" ([12]).

2. Snipers fired at troops arriving in the city, who were then told the Bolsheviks were behind the shooting.

"The deliberate madness of this shooting clearly disturbed the workers. It was clear that experienced provocateurs were greeting the workers with lead with a view to anti-Bolshevik inoculation. The workers were eager to explain this to the arriving troops, but they were denied access to them. For the first time since the February days the junker or officer stood between the worker and soldier" ([13]). Being forced to work in semi-illegality after the July Days, the Bolsheviks also had to fight against the democratic illusions of those within their ranks who wanted their leaders to go up for trial before a counter-revolutionary court to answer charges of being German agents. Recognising another trap being laid for the party, Lenin wrote:

"A military dictatorship is at work. It is ridiculous to even speak of a court case. What we are dealing with here is not at all a "court case", but an episode of civil war" ([14]).

If the Party survived the period of repression which followed the July Days, it was not least because of its tradition of constant vigilance in the defence of the organisation against all the attempts of the state to destroy it. It should be noted for instance, that the police agent Malinovsky, who before the war managed to become the member of the central committee of the party directly responsible for the security of the organisation, would probably have been the man in charge of hiding Lenin, Zinoviev etc. after the July Days, had he not been unmasked by the vigilance of the organisation beforehand (despite the blindness of Lenin himself!). Without such vigilance, the result would most probably have been the liquidation of the most experienced party leaders. In January-February 1919, when Luxemburg. Liebknecht, Jogisches and other veterans of the young KPD were murdered by the German bourgeoisie, it seems that the authorities may have been tipped off by a "high-ranking" police agent within the party.

Balance-sheet of the July Days

The July Days revealed once again the gigantic revolutionary energy of the proletariat, its struggle against the fraud of bourgeois democracy, and the fact that the working class alone is a factor against imperialist war in the face of the decadence of capitalism. Not "democracy or dictatorship" but the dictatorship of the proletariat or the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, socialism or barbarism, that is the alternative facing humanity which the July Days posed, without yet being able to answer. But what the July Days above all illustrated is the indispensable role of the proletarian class party. No wonder that the bourgeoisie is today "celebrating" the 80th anniversary of the Russian Revolution with renewed manoeuvres and slanders against the contemporary revolutionary milieu.

July 1917 also showed that overcoming illusions in the renegade ex-workers' parties, on the left of capital is vital if the proletariat is to seize power. This was the central illusion of the class during the July Days. But this experience was in itself decisive. The July Days definitively clarified, not only for the working class and the Bolsheviks, but for the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries themselves, that the latter's organisations had irrevocably joined the counter-revolution. As Lenin wrote at the beginning of September:

"In Petrograd at the time we were not even physically in a position to take power, and had it been physically possible to take it, it would not have been possible to hold onto it politically, since Tsereteli and Co. had not yet sunk to supporting the hangmen. That's why, at the time, from the 3rd to the 5th of July in Petrograd, the slogan of taking power was wrong. At that time even the Bolsheviks still lacked the conscious determination - nor could that have been otherwise - to treat Tsereteli and Co. as counter-revolutionaries. At the time neither the soldiers nor the workers possessed the experience which the month of July gave them" ([15]).

Already in mid-July Lenin had clearly drawn this lesson:

"After the 4th of July the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, hand in hand with the monarchists and Black Hundreds, engulfed the petty bourgeois Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, after having intimidated them, placing the real state power (...) in the hands of a military clique, who shot those who refused orders on the front, and struck down the Bolsheviks in Petrograd" ([16]).

But the key lesson of July was the political leadership of the party. The bourgeoisie has often employed the tactic of provoking premature confrontations. Whether 1848 and 1870 in France, or 1919 and 1921 in Germany, in each case the result has been a bloody repression of the proletariat. If the Russian Revolution is the only major example where the working class has been able to avoid such a trap and bloody defeat, then above all because the Bolshevik class party was able to fulfil its decisive vanguard role. In steering the class away from such a defeat, the Bolsheviks saved from their perversion by opportunism the deeply revolutionary lessons of Engels' famous 1895 Introduction to Marx's Class Struggle in France, especially his warning:

"And there is only one means through which the continuous swelling of the ranks of the socialist armies in Germany can be set back for some time: a large scale confrontation with the military, a blood letting like 1871 in Paris" ([17]).

Trotsky summarised the balance sheet of the action of the party as follows:

"Had the Bolshevik Party, stubbornly clinging to a doctrinaire appraisal of the July movement as "untimely," turned its back on the masses, the semi-insurrection would inevitably have fallen under the scattered and uncoordinated leadership of anarchists, of adventurers, of accidental expressers of the indignation of the masses and would have expired in bloody and fruitless convulsions. On the other hand, if the party, after taking its place at the head of the machine-gunners and Putilov men, had renounced its own appraisal of the situation as a whole, and glided down the road to a decisive fight, the insurrection would indubitably have taken a bold scope. The workers and soldiers under the leadership of the Bolsheviks would have conquered the power - but only to prepare the subsequent shipwreck of the revolution. The question of power on a national scale would not have been decided, as it was in February, by a victory in Petrograd. The provinces would not have caught up to the capital. The front would not have understood or accepted the revolution. The railroads and the telegraphs would have served the Compromisers against the Bolsheviks. Kerensky and headquarters would have created a government for the front and the provinces. Petrograd would have been blockaded. Disintegration would have begun within its walls. The government would have been able to send considerable masses of soldiers against Petrograd. The insurrection would have ended, in those circumstances, with the tragedy of a Petrograd Commune. At the July forking of historic roads, the interference of the Bolshevik Party eliminated both fatally dangerous variants - both that in the likeness of the July Days of 1848, and that of the Paris Commune of 1871. Thanks to the party's taking its place boldly at the head of the movement, it was able to stop the masses at the moment when the demonstration began to turn into an armed test of strength. The blow struck at the masses and the party in July was very considerable, but it was not a decisive blow (..) It fully preserved its fighting cadres, and these cadres had learned much" ([18]).

History proved Lenin right when he wrote:

"A new phase begins. The victory of the counter-revolution sparks off disappointment among the masses concerning the parties of the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, and clears the way for the transition of the masses to the politics of supporting the revolutionary proletariat" ([19]).


[1]) So-called from the initials - KD - of their party, the Constitutional Democrats.

[2] ) Lenin: Where is the Power and where is the Counter-Revolution?

[3] ) Trotsky: History of the Russian Revolution, Page 517.

[4]) Trotsky: History P.551. Buchanan was a British diplomat in Petrograd.

[5]) Trotsky: History P. 525.

[6]) Trotsky: History P. 624.

[7]) Trotsky: History P. 520.

[8]) Trotsky: History P. 528.

[9]) Lenin: On Constitutional Illusions.

[10]) Trotsky: History P.561.

[11]) Lenin: Should the Bolshevik leaders stand trial?

[12]) Trotsky: History P. 585. A very similar role was played by ex-gendarmes, criminal elements and other lumpen proletarians among the "Spartakus soldiers" and "revolutionary invalids" during the German revolution, particularly during the tragic "Spartakus Week" in Berlin, January 1919, and proved even more catastrophic.

[13]) Trotsky: History P. 568.

[14]) Lenin: Should the Bolshevik leaders stand trial?

[15]) Lenin: Rumours about a Conspiracy.

[16]) Lenin: On Slogans.

[17]) Engels: Introduction to the 1895 edition of Class Struggles in France.

[18]) Trotsky: History. P. 593-94.

[19]) Lenin: On Constitutional Illusions.