The Kornilov Coup, August 1917: Military blocs or autonomous class struggle?
Continuing our series of articles commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Russian revolution, we are re-publishing an article that first appeared in World Revolution number 13, in August 1977.
Few events in the history of the Russian Revolution have been so falsified by the counter-revolution as the Bolsheviks' supposed ‘alliance' with Kerensky's Provisional Government against General Kornilov's insurrection of August 1917.
Kornilov was the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army's South-Western front. As such he was under the command of Kerensky's Provisional Government, the regime which was the product of the February Revolution. Under the growing threat of the Soviets and the Bolshevik Party, Kerensky and Kornilov conspired to forcibly overthrow the Soviets in August. Kornilov, however, decided that Kerensky's democratic government had vacillated too much in respect to the Soviets, and had therefore played itself out. As a result Kornilov revised his plans and aimed to overthrow Kerensky in the process of crushing the Soviets.
Purely out of an instinct for survival, yet unable to sense fully the fundamental threat to bourgeois order represented by the Soviets, Kerensky pleaded for their all-out support once he had discovered Kornilov's duplicity. The Provisional Government placed itself in practice at the mercy of the Soviets in Petrograd as a protection against Kornilov. The Soviets dissolved Kornilov's detachment from within in the space of four days. In doing so, the awareness of its own strength, gained by this mass movement of the Soviets against Kornilov's coup, provided the Russian working class with the assurance it needed to smash the Provisional Government itself a few weeks later in October.
Very soon, the Kerenskys of this world, and , when it came to it, the entire world bourgeoisie, were to understand the enormity of the error committed by Kerensky when he opposed Kornilov's coup. He provided the Soviets with the unique opportunity to gain the upper hand in the balance of class forces in Russia by means of their struggle against Kornilov. Never again would factions of the democratic bourgeoisie commit such a blunder in their struggle against the proletariat. That this situation presented itself in such a uniquely favourable manner to the proletariat was partly due to the period (capitalism had just entered its period of permanent crisis in 1914), and partly to the ignorance of the bourgeoisie as to the real danger represented by the armed proletariat. After all, with the exception of the localised case of the Paris Commune in 1871, the workers had never destroyed the bourgeois state before. October 1917 marks also the first time that the proletariat held power on a national scale in this period of capitalist decadence.
The extreme left-wing of capital, especially the Trotskyists, have falsified the tactics of Bolshevism during this episode. To some of them like the International Spartacist Tendency, the alleged ‘military support' that Bolshevism is supposed to have given Kerensky against Kornilov's reactionary insurrection' is the single most important ‘lesson' of the Russian Revolution. In its future road to what the Spartacists consider to be working class revolution, if only the proletariat learns how to ‘militarily' support a faction of its class enemy, its own success is assured. Failure to follow this ‘lesson', the proletariat is warned, must result in fascism and rightist repression. The proletariat must at all costs abandon its own class terrain, its own goals, and place itself at the disposal (momentarily of course) of its democratic, leftist executioners because it isn't ‘strong enough' at that point to overthrow them. This counter-revolutionary sophistry, this myth about the ‘alliance' of Bolshevism with Kerensky, is a complete distortion of what actually took place. In effect, this distortion has been the basis for a whole series of mystifications, which have helped defeat the proletariat in the last fifty years of its history.
The tactics of the ‘united front' formulated by the Comintern in 1920-21 under Bolshevik influence depart in many ways from the basic distortions of this experience. Trotsky's writings on Germany (in 1930-34) use the ‘lessons' of the Kornilov coup time and time again to justify his policy of the united front between the two supposed workers' parties in Germany at that time, the Social Democracy and the Stalinists, against Hitler. In Spain in 1936-38, Trotsky again relies on the same arguments to defend, albeit ‘critically', those twin bastions of the ‘counter-revolution': the Stalinists and the Republic, against Franco,
"The Stalin-Negrin government is a quasi-democratic obstacle on the road to socialism; but it is also an obstacle, not a very reliable or durable one, but an obstacle nonetheless, on the road to fascism" (Trotsky).
He went on to say that if the proletariat ‘aided' in the destruction of the Negrin government, it would only be serving the fascists by doing so. It was necessary instead, Trotsky argued, for the proletariat to "find a correct attitude" toward the "hybrid struggle" between the Republic and Franco "in order to transform it from within [!] into a struggle for the proletarian dictatorship." In 1939-45, the Trotskyists followed in the footsteps of their mentor to use the same ‘anti-fascist' logic contained in this mystification to rally ‘military support from within' to Allied imperialism for its war effort against the fascist imperialisms.
In other words, the experience of the Kornilov coup has been distorted in such a way as to allow the left of capital to gag the proletariat on innumerable occasions. Today, when the present resurgence of the world proletariat threatens the capitalist order once more, this mystification of the ‘lesser evil' has again come into its own. The events in Chile and Portugal in this decade are a tragic testimony to its effectiveness as a weapon in the bourgeoisie's political arsenal. It is vital, therefore, to examine critically what happened during Kornilov's coup. Did the Bolsheviks really give ‘military' or any other kind of support to Kerensky?
The fundamental issue which is at stake for the proletariat in its examination of this event is the following: can the working class carry out any sort of common action with factions of the bourgeoisie in this epoch of the decay of capitalism? Our answer is a definite NO! "Wherever the proletariat comes out independently the bourgeoisie ceases to be a revolutionary class", Lenin wrote (http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1906/dec/20.htm.) If anything confirmed this forever for the proletariat, it was the experience of the Russian Revolution. In order to show how the proletariat did not subordinate its struggle to any alliance with bourgeois democracy, we should first examine in detail the conditions of that period.
Class consciousness and democracy in 1917
The suddenness of the first imperialist war which plunged capitalism into its permanent epoch of decay caused immense confusion in the camp of the proletariat. The sudden passage of the 2nd International to the camp of imperialism in 1914 did not mean that the proletariat abandoned many of the illusions produced in the previous period of reformist struggle. In Russia, these illusions came to the fore immediately after the February 1917 Revolution. To take one example - for years the majority of the Russian revolutionaries thought that Russia would have to pass through a bourgeois democratic stage prior to the socialist revolution. The downfall of Czarism and the eventual coming to power of Kerensky's Provisional Government made many people believe that the ‘bourgeois revolution' was actually taking place. Soviets, stronger and more generalised than those which appeared in 1905, developed side by side with this liberal regime, but many workers still conceived the Soviets to be merely organs of support for it.
The Bolsheviks' call for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly also expressed the very real hesitations and confusions in the workers' movement at that time as to what was on the historical agenda for the working class. That the bourgeois democratic stage could not solve any real problems for the workers, soldiers and peasants became more and more apparent as the Provisional Government continued the war effort begun by the Czar. Consequently, a deep radicalisation unfolded in Russia, especially in the proletariat, as it came to understand that Kerensky had to be stopped, and that only the Soviets could lead society out of capitalist barbarism. The ‘bourgeois democratic stage,' had not erased one bit Russia's imperialist nature, and in fact it only tied the Soviets to the war effort of Russia and the Entente imperialisms.
Lenin's April Theses illustrate in a remarkably clear way the early conviction of the proletariat of the need to overthrow the bourgeois democratic regime. But this sharper understanding within the proletariat, including its communist fractions, was blunted by many incorrect assumptions still carried over from the past struggles of the class before the war. Some of these centred on the conception that the Provisional Government initially represented an inevitable stage in the revolution, but that it now had to be exposed because it was ‘betraying' and trampling on the ideals of democracy through its participation in the imperialist war and by defending the most backward strata of Russian capitalism.
The Soviets' initial support for the Provisional Government symbolized this confusion concerning the nature of democracy. And this confusion was deeply rooted in the minds of the Russian proletariat as it emerged from years of absolutist rule.
The Bolsheviks could not help but reflect these ambivalent conceptions; it was, after all, a completely new situation for the proletariat as it faced up to the tasks of a new epoch in its historical struggle for communism. After expecting the downfall of Czarism for years, and the establishment of a bourgeois republic, the workers were confronting in the space of weeks and months the new reality of this period. That reality was the complete bankruptcy of bourgeois democracy, and the enormous possibility for proletarian revolution internationally represented by the appearance of the workers' councils in Russia.
In a period of revolutionary upsurge, confusions are transcended rapidly and need not be fatal in an immediate sense. The class was, in any case, moving in its autonomous terrain, unifying itself, creating and steeling its organs of struggle. The old Bolshevik slogan of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' was quickly superseded by the need to stress ‘All Power to the Soviets'.
At the same time, the polarisation of political parties became sharper, as they obeyed their true class nature. The final evolution of the Social Revolutionaries (SRs - a radical petty-bourgeois party based on the peasantry), and the Mensheviks, was reaching its consummation. Initially, these parties were at the helm of the Soviets, and indeed one could say that as long as they expressed the hesitations and confusions of the classes organized in the Soviets, these parties reflected the heterogeneity within the Soviet camp which by its very nature could only be a temporary phenomenon. By defending and propping up the Provisional Government, however, they more and more revealed which class forces they represented. But even here, their evolution was by no means final - the Left SRs were to support the October Revolution and even participate in the first Soviet government. Equally factions of the Mensheviks either joined Bolshevism prior to the revolution, or participated in the Soviets after October. Overall, the brief support these tendencies gave Soviet power expressed also the proximity of a period in which parties of the radical petty-bourgeoisie had played a progressive role in the evolution of capitalism.
When the Bolsheviks called the leaders of these parties ‘compromisers' or ‘conciliators' prior to October, they were addressing a true moment in the life and development of these organisations. At that time, the experience of the proletariat had not given the final verdict as to the class nature of petty-bourgeois ‘conciliation'. The workers still went on seeing these parties as hesitant expressions of ‘popular' and ‘democratic' aspirations in the population at large, different in kind to the proponents of rightist counter-revolution.
When Kornilov, expressing the impatience and wrath of the bourgeoisie at the vacillations of its ‘compromisers', attempted to crush the Soviets, the workers' and the soldiers' councils reacted as one, although for different reasons. The workers saw the coup as a direct threat to the workers' revolutionary goals; the soldiers saw Kornilov as the enemy of democracy, of peace and as the foe of agrarian reform. The coup was therefore confronted as a danger to the democratic and socialist revolutions. The Bolsheviks, in their mobilization against Kornilov undertook it, not only to defend the workers' councils and the Soviets in general, but as a way to expose such democratic illusions in the Provisional Government, illusions which still held sway in the context of the Russian population as a whole. It is not that the Bolsheviks catered to the democratic illusions of the soldiers and the peasantry for ‘tactical reasons', but that these illusions in democracy revealed the proximity of a bygone-era in the world, and these were lingering confusionsfrom which the Bolsheviks themselves had not escaped entirely. The experience of the proletariat had yet to show that the era of soviet power expressed the fundamental antagonism existing between the soviets and bourgeois democracy, including its most ‘radical' manifestations. The Bolsheviks realised, especially after October, that bourgeois democracy was nothing but a weapon wielded by totalitarian imperialism against the working class.
Indeed, bourgeois democracy was used to the hilt in Germany and Central Europe to mercilessly crush the proletariat. The final test of democracy came for the whole proletariat in those years of 1919-23, when everywhere elections, parliaments, referendums, etc, were used to smother the workers' councils, if not to defeat them in the streets.
The ‘lesser evil' in the Kornilov coup
Among the best accounts of this episode is Trotsky's, contained in his History of the Russian Revolution. We refer the reader to that for details of the event. What we want to raise here are the two most important questions regarding Kornilov's coup:
1. Did Kerensky's ‘resistance' to the coup express a fundamental affinity of bourgeois democracy with the needs of the proletariat during this epoch? In other words, do the Kerenskys of capital offer the class something which is basically better from what the Kornilovs, the Hitlers, the fascists, i.e. the right of capital, can offer?
2. Did the proletariat defend Kerensky during the coup?
To both these questions the leftists vociferously answer ‘Yes'! For us, the answer is ‘No'!
1. If the Kerenskys of this world - and that includes the unions and other capitalist gangs the Trotskyists call ‘workers parties' - offer something better to the proletariat than the right, the proletarian revolution reduces itself to playing not only the ‘seven keys in the musical scale' as Trotsky said, but an eternal symphony on the theme of the ‘lesser evil'. Given the conditions of capitalist political decomposition in the crisis, the bourgeoisie will always attempt to produce a left face in an effort to raise proletarian support for capital. This is not only to recruit proletarian cannon fodder to defeat other national capitals, but as a way to crush the proletariat mercilessly from within, and thus defeat the danger of proletarian revolution. The whole history of the proletariat over the last fifty years is a bloody proof of the role of capital's left-wing. From Ebert and Noske to Stalin, Mao and Carrillo, capital can always produce, up to the last minute of its existence, a suitable ‘lesser evil' to attempt to seduce the proletariat from its own struggle into a struggle for capital. On this issue, Lenin and Trotsky provided a profound and corrupting confusion when they dismissed the crimes of the ‘compromisers' as things the proletariat should not take so seriously, because in Lenin's words, "... for the good of the cause the proletariat will always support not only the vacillating petty-bourgeoisie but also the big bourgeoisie..." (‘On Slogans') He objected to petty-bourgeois ‘moralising' which would deny proletarian support to the ‘compromisers' against the ‘counter-revolution'. What Lenin and Trotsky never did see clearly was that these ‘compromisers', like Kerensky and Social Democracy, were in fact becoming, if not already, the counter-revolution. They were not the ‘lackeys' of capitalism - they were an essential capitalist weapon to defeat the proletariat. In an optimistic passage in Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder describing the future of communism, Lenin mentions in passing that: "... the Russian Bolsheviks were defeated in July 1917; over 15,000 German communists were killed as a result of the wily provocation and cunning manoeuvres of Scheidemann ,and Noske, who were working hand in glove with the bourgeoisie and the monarchist generals..." He failed to see that the scales of comparison were absurd. The ‘defeat' of the July Days in Russia quickly turned into a strengthening of the proletariat. By the end of July the Bolsheviks had recovered their strong influence in the factories and workers' districts in Petrograd. But the German Revolution never recovered politically from its crushing defeat, represented by the loss of more than 15,000 of its best fighters, Luxemburg and Liebknecht included, in 1919. From Kerensky to Noske there had already been a fantastic progression in terms of capital's ability to learn lessons against the class. It is Noske, and later Stalinism, which express in a more finished form the incipient murderous logic of democrats such as Kerensky. It is they who took to completion the job Kerensky was too impotent to do in Russia in 1917. After October, the world bourgeoisie instinctively recognized the need to fuse their Kerenskys and Kornilovs into one. In Germany this abominable Frankenstein, this juggernaut which splintered the proletariat and left it lying in the dust, was the German Social Democracy, Noske's party. It was first out into large-scale action with the full backing of the unions and other section of the bourgeoisie in 1918-19. This was the logic of Social Democracy's support for the imperialist war in 1914. In Russia this evolution of the ‘compromisers' became final and evident during the Russian Civil War, when the Social Revolutionaries and Menshevism definitely passed to the side of the White Armies and capitalism.
For the proletariat, relentless opposition to all its executioners isn't a question of ‘morality' or ‘revenge'. It is a question of life and death, of survival against its class enemy, against the class which stands in the way of the communist revolution. All the sophistries of Trotsky in 1932, when he ‘warns' the workers of the imminent rise of Hitler, amount to apologies for the degeneration of the Comintern and those two organisers of German capital, the Social Democracy and the German Communist Party. In China in 1927, as in Spain, it was the Communist Party which openly participated in the demoralisation or in the crushing of the proletariat. Compared with these insidious products of the counterrevolution, Kerensky's actions were like child's play. Never again would such vacillating tendencies appear in the camp of the bourgeoisie.
Seen from hindsight, Kerensky's role in the Russian Revolution appears as an aborted first attempt of capital to deal with the meteoric rise of the workers' councils in the first victorious proletarian revolution of this century. Since then, capital has produced better executioners, such as Stalinism. They do not need to conspire with any Kornilovs to crush the proletariat - Stalinism can itself attempt to accomplish that task with its own police forces and with a bestial cynicism that would even have shocked Kerensky.
The left of capital, including its democratic wings, have proven in this century to be no less murderous than the extreme right. That the Trotskyists cannot see this is not a mistake, or another proof of their stupidity. Every reactionary cause mobilises the cadre that are necessary. Their arguments on the Kornilov question are but another confirmation that Trotskyism organically defends its class, the capitalist class.
2. The other issue which we will deal with is the myth that the Bolsheviks actually ‘supported' Kerensky against Kornilov. This is not a question of words. The Trotskyists have muddled the whole issue and just because the workers' Red Guards, the soldiers and sailors didn't arrest Kerensky during the coup, they claim that this was ‘military support'. But in order to ‘support' something there must be something there in the first place to support. All evidence shows that the main, if not all, the thrust of the resistance to the coup came from the soviets, not from the few detachments still loyal to Kerensky. Detachments it should be noted which were intensely demoralised. The workers were not interested in defending Kerensky and the Provisional Government. They correctly saw the coup as the attempt of the counter-revolution to crush the Soviets. Many years later Trotsky affirmed that the Bolsheviks had an ‘alliance' with the Kerensky troops fighting Kornilov (which troops in the vicinity of Petrograd weren't subordinated to the Soviets?). He even said that the Bolsheviks ‘accepted the official command' of Kerensky as long as they were not sufficiently strong to overthrow him (again a formal truism which in this context becomes a lie). Trotsky also asserted later that the Bolsheviks did not remain ‘neutral' between the camp of Kerensky and that of Kornilov; and that they fought ‘in the first camp' against the second. This is a flagrant lie, a sad aspect of Trotsky's own degeneration as a revolutionary. His literary acrobatics, written in the middle and late 30s, distort his own brilliant account of the episode in his History.
By insisting hysterically that workers should not ‘abstain' or be ‘neutral' during inter-bourgeois conflicts, the Trotskyists, following in their master's footsteps, terrorise the class in order to place it solidly behind the ‘first camp' of the bourgeoisie. But this never happened during Kornilov's coup. When the Soviets fought Kornilov, they were doing so from their own terrain, under the hegemony of the revolutionary proletariat. The proletariat was becoming convinced of the need for its own class dictatorship. This autonomous awareness was not blunted by the Soviets calling for the defence of ‘democracy', which reflected in that specific historic conjuncture the ideological weight of other, non-capitalist classes increasingly alienated from the bourgeoisie and Kerensky.
If the Bolsheviks showed certain confusions in their formulations on whether Kerensky should be overthrown then, these confusions stem not only from agitational expediency but from the immaturity of the proletariat in that period. They did not stem from any opportunist strategy. Only later were these ambiguities ‘theorised' and made into sacred laws for the whole workers' movement to follow, especially from 1920 onwards, when Soviet Russia was becoming more and more isolated from the world proletariat, and these pressures inevitably brought demoralisation and political capitulation to the bourgeoisie. The ‘lessons' of the Kornilov event were thus fabricated after the fact to provide a support for the Comintern's policy of united fronts, a policy of betrayal and compromises with the bourgeoisie on the world arena.
In 1917, the proletariat steeled itself during its struggle against Kornilov - it felt that the resistance against an insurgent general could be successful, whereas after the retreat of the July Days the proletariat was wary of the consequences of another premature confrontation with the state. To fight Kornilov was a decisive test for the proletariat and Bolshevism throughout Russia. The class passed the test splendidly and was soon to use its increased confidence in the October insurrection. But nobody spoke at the time of ‘military blocs' with Kerensky as the Trotskyists do today.
What Lenin feared was precisely the ‘theorisation' of support for Kerensky, or passivity in front of Kornilov's move against the Soviets. If Kerensky seemed to have no base at all in Petrograd during those days this didn't mean however that his power was totally spent in the countryside or the Army. The Bolsheviks sensed that although Kerensky was almost finished, his role had yet to be played out inside the Soviets. By understanding this, Bolshevism, which was still in the process of winning the majority in the Soviets, used the time to build up its forces for the final confrontation. As we have said, the Soviets in fact dissolved Kornilov's attempted coup on their own. During the Kornilov coup Kerensky's regime became a caretaker government, but it was necessary for the proletariat to go through the reality of the experience to grasp what the situation was. The proletariat had no intentions of repeating the unplanned insurrection of the July Days. It needed the test of events to realise that the situation in the main centres had finally shifted in its favour - that the soldiers and peasants supported the transfer of power to the Soviets.
Soon after Kornilov's coup was defeated, the Russian Army suffered fresh defeats in its last offensives against Germany; for a while it appeared that the German Army could take Petrograd. In this context, it is revealing to see how even the threat of the ‘German Kornilovists' did not result in Bolshevik calls for ‘military support' for the Kerensky regime in its war effort against Germany. According to the Trotskyist logic, this should have been the case. On the contrary, Lenin never proposed to defend Kerensky even after the fall of Riga had made a German advance towards Petrograd an enormous danger. In a letter to the Central Committee (September 1917), he wrote: "We must take power now because the impending surrender of Peter will make our chances a hundred times worse."
He also stressed that while Kerensky and Co. headed the Army, it was not in the power of the Bolsheviks to prevent Petrograd's surrender. Moreover, Lenin went on to insist that as long as the proletariat was in power, the Bolsheviks would continue to be defeatists, not ‘defencists', even if this meant that their chances for an insurrection would be made a ‘hundred times worse'. http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/aug/30.htm
The proletariat's position of course can never be ‘neutral' when confronted with onslaughts by the bourgeoisie. It must take the offensive by generalising its struggles; it must prepare its forces to destroy all factions of capital without ever leaving its own terrain ‘militarily' or ‘technically' to support one gang of capitalist butchers against another.
The whole epoch opened up in 1917 has deepened these fundamental lessons for the proletariat. Furthermore, history will never again see the same constellation of forces that appeared in Russia in 1917. The actors have changed fundamentally - the ‘compromisers' have become capitalist executioners everywhere and the proletariat has also had ample time to reflect upon its own terrible defeat and illusions which allowed it to happen. It will no doubt in the coming revolutionary wave tend to climb to heights never seen before in the last revolutionary period, precisely because its experience in the intervening half century has taught it much about bourgeois democracy.
The mystifications about the Kornilov coup are just another pack of lies the proletariat will have to dispel in practice, in the merciless struggle waged by the workers' councils against all capitalist factions, left and right. This is the real lesson of the proletariat's resistance to the Kornilov coup, a lesson of intransigence and self-activity which will never be erased by the word-juggling of the counter-revolution.
Nodens (August 1977)