What are workers' councils? (Part 3): The revolution of 1917 (July to October)

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In the series "What are workers' councils?" we want to answer the question by analysing the historical experience of the proletariat. It isn't a case of putting the soviets forward as a perfect model for others to copy; we want to understand both their mistakes as well as their achievements, so that current and future generations will be armed with this knowledge.

In the first article we saw how they emerged in the revolution of 1905 in Russia.[1] In the second we saw how they were the centrepiece of the revolution of February 1917 and how they entered a deep crisis in June-July 1917 until being taken hostage by the bourgeois counter-revolution.[2]

In this third article we will see how they were recaptured by the mass of workers and soldiers who would then seize power in October 1917.

After the defeat of July, the bourgeoisie is intent on destroying the soviets

The process of evolution, both in nature and in human society, is never linear. Its course is full of contradictions, convulsions, dramatic setbacks, retreats and advances. This analysis can readily be applied to the struggle of the proletariat, a class that by definition is excluded from the ownership of the means of production and has no economic power. Its struggle is one of convulsions and contradictions, with retreats, with what seem like permanent acquisitions appearing to be lost, with long periods of apathy and despondency.

Following the February Revolution, the workers and soldiers seemed to skip from one victory to another. Bolshevism became more influential; the masses - especially in the region around Petrograd - were moving in the direction of revolution. It was like a fruit ripening.

However, in July there were moments of crisis and hesitancy that are typical of the proletarian struggle. "A direct defeat was experienced by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, who in their urge forward had come up against the confusedness and contradictions of their own aims, on the one hand, and, on the other, the backwardness of the provinces and the front."[3]

The bourgeoisie seized the opportunity to launch a furious offensive: the Bolsheviks were vilified as German agents[4] and arrested en masse; paramilitary gangs were organised who attacked them in the street, imposed boycotts of their meetings, wrecked their premises and print shops. The fearsome Tsarist Black Hundreds, the monarchist circles, the government bodies regained the upper hand. The bourgeoisie - with the backing of British and French diplomats - was aiming to destroy the soviets and to impose a ferocious dictatorship.[5]

The revolution that began in February reached a point where the spectre of defeat became ever more likely: "Many thought that the revolution in general had exhausted itself. The February Revolution had indeed exhausted itself to the bottom. This inner crisis in the mass consciousness, combining with the slanders and measures of repression, caused confusion and retreat - in some cases panic. The enemy grew bolder. In the masses themselves all the backward and dubious elements rose to the surface, those impatient of disturbances and deprivations."[6]

The Bolsheviks inspire the response of the masses

However, at this difficult time, the Bolsheviks proved to be an essential bastion of the proletarian forces. Pursued, slandered, shaken by violent debates in their own ranks and the resignation of many militants, they did not weaken or fall into disarray. They concentrated their efforts on drawing the lessons of the defeat and in particular the key lesson: how had the soviets been taken hostage by the bourgeoisie and their existence threatened?

From February to July there was a situation of dual power: The soviets were on the one side and on the other was the power of the bourgeois state, which had not been destroyed and still had enough in reserve to make a full recovery. The events of July had destroyed the impossible equilibrium that existed between soviets and state power:

"The General Staff and the military leaders, with the deliberate or semi-deliberate assistance of Kerensky, whom even the most prominent Socialist-Revolutionaries now call a Cavaignac,[7] have seized actual state power and have proceeded to shoot down revolutionary units at the front, disarm the revolutionary troops and workers in Petrograd and Moscow, suppress unrest in Nizhni-Novgorod, arrest Bolsheviks and ban their papers, not only without trial, but even without a government order. [...] The true meaning of the policy of military dictatorship, which now reigns supreme and is supported by the Cadets and monarchists, is preparations for disbanding the Soviets."[8]

Lenin also showed how the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries "have completely betrayed the cause of the revolution by putting it in the hands of the counter-revolutionaries and by turning themselves, their parties and the Soviets into mere fig-leaves of the counter-revolution."[9]

Under such conditions, "All hopes for a peaceful development of the Russian revolution have vanished for good. This is the objective situation: either complete victory for the military dictatorship, or victory for the workers' armed uprising [...] The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!' was a slogan for peaceful development of the revolution which was possible in April, May, June, and up to July 5."[10]

In his book The Soviets, Anweiler[11] uses this analysis to try to show that "This was the first barely veiled proclamation that the Bolsheviks aimed to win sole power. Lenin aimed to take power for his party with or against the soviets. [...] Plainly to him the soviets were only pawns and had no intrinsic value as a superior democratic form of government."[12]

Here is the now famous and often repeated charge that Lenin "used the soviets tactically to achieve absolute power". However, an analysis of the article that Lenin wrote at a later date demonstrates that his concerns were radically different from those attributed to him by Anweiler: he was trying to find a way to get the soviets out of the crisis they were in, to pull them back from the false path that was leading to their disappearance.

In the article On slogans, Lenin was unequivocal: "After the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. [...] Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets."[13] He specifically asserts: "A new cycle is beginning, one that involves not the old classes, not the old parties, not the old Soviets, but classes, parties and Soviets rejuvenated in the fire of struggle, tempered, schooled and refashioned by the process of the struggle."[14]

The writings of Lenin contributed to a stormy debate in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party, which crystallised during the Sixth Party Congress. It was held from July 26th to August 3rd in the strictest secrecy and in the absence of Lenin and Trotsky, who were being pursued by police. In the Congress three positions were put forward: the first, reflecting the disorientation of the defeat in July and the drift of the soviets, openly proposed "abandoning them" (Stalin, Molotov, Sokolnikov); the second vehemently supported sticking with the old position of "All power to the soviets"; the third advocated entrusting the "grass roots" organisations (factory councils, local soviets, district soviets) with responsibility for reconstituting the collective power of workers.

In mid-July, the masses are beginning to recover

It was the last that proved to be the correct position. From mid-July the "grass roots" soviet organisations had begun a fight for the renewal of the soviets.

In the second article of this series we saw how the masses were organised around the soviets in a huge network of soviet organisations of all sorts, that expressed their unity and strength.[15] The apex of the soviet system - the soviets in the towns - did not preside over an ocean of passivity of the masses; just the opposite, there was an intense collective life embodied in thousands of assemblies, factory councils, district soviets, inter-district assemblies, conferences, formal and informal meetings... In his Memoires, Sukhanov[16] gives us an idea of the atmosphere that prevailed at the Conference of the Petrograd Factory Councils: "On May 30th in the White Hall, a conference of workshop and factory committees from the capital and surrounding areas was convened. The conference had been prepared from the ‘grass roots'; its planning had been conceived in the factories without the involvement of any government bodies concerned with labour issues, or even the soviets. [...] The conference was truly representative: the workers came from their workbenches, and they participated actively in its work in large numbers. For two days, this workers' parliament discussed the economic crisis and the breakdown inside the country."[17]

Even in the worst moments following the July Days, the masses were able to maintain these organisations, which were less affected by the crisis than "the big soviet organs": the Petrograd Soviet, the Congress of Soviets and its executive committee, the CEC (Central Executive Committee).

Two concomitant reasons explain this difference. First, the "grass roots" soviet organisations were directly convened under pressure from the masses who, realising the problems and the hazards, called for an assembly and saw it convened within the space of a few hours. The situation of the soviet organs "at the top level" was very different: "However as the Soviet worked more efficiently, it lost proportionately its direct contact with the masses. The plenary sessions, almost daily during the early weeks, were less frequent and only sparsely attended by the deputies. The Soviet Executive became increasingly independent, even though it remained subject to certain controls of the deputies, who had the right to discharge it."[18]

Secondly, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were concentrated in the bureaucratic nucleus of the large soviet organs. Sukhanov described the atmosphere of intrigue and manipulation that emanated from the Petrograd Soviet: "The Presidium of the Soviet, which was originally an organ to manage internal procedure, tended to substitute itself for the Executive Committee in its functioning. In addition, it strengthened itself through a permanent and somewhat occult organisation that got the name ‘the Star Chamber'. It included members of the Presidium and a sort of clique made up from the devoted friends of Cheidze and Tsereteli. The latter, with the shame and the disgrace that went with it, was one of those accused of being dictatorial inside the Soviet."[19]

By contrast, the Bolsheviks conducted an active and daily intervention inside the soviets at the grass roots level. Their presence was very dynamic, they were often the first to propose meetings and debates and the adoption of resolutions that would give expression to the will and the advancement of the masses.

On July 15th, a demonstration of workers from the large factories in Petrograd massed in front of the building housing the soviet to denounce the slander against the Bolsheviks and to demand the release of prisoners. On July 20th, the assembly at the arms factory in Sestroretsk demanded the payment of wages that had been withheld owing to workers' involvement in the July Days; they devoted the money they recovered to funding the anti-war press. Trotsky recounts how, on July 24th, "...a meeting of the workers of 27 plants in the Peterhoff District passed soon after that a resolution of protest against the irresponsible government and its counter-revolutionary policy."[20]

Trotsky also noted that on July 21st delegations of soldiers from the front arrived in Petrograd. They were tired of all the hardship they were suffering and the repression the officers inflicted on the most visible individuals. They spoke about it to the Executive Committee of the soviet, which didn't consider it of any significance. Then several militant Bolsheviks suggested contacting the factories and the soldiers' and sailors' regiments. The reception there was completely different: they were received like brothers, listened to, fed and housed.

"At a conference that nobody summoned from above, which grew up spontaneously from below, representatives were present from 29 regiments at the front, from 90 Petrograd factories, from the Kronstadt sailors and from the surrounding garrisons. At the focus of the conference stood the trench delegates - among them a number of young officers. The Petrograd workers listened to the men from the front eagerly, trying not to let fall a word of their own. The latter told how the offensive and its consequences had devoured the revolution. Those grey soldiers - not in any sense agitators - painted in unstudied words the workaday life of the front. The details were disturbing - they demonstrated so nakedly how everything was crawling back to the old, hateful, pre-revolutionary regime", says Trotsky, and he adds the following: "Although Socialist-Revolutionaries obviously predominated among the men from the front, a drastic Bolshevik resolution was passed almost unanimously: only three men abstained from the voting. That resolution will not remain a dead letter. The dispersing delegates will tell the truth about how the Compromise leaders repulsed them and the workers received them."[21]

The Kronstadt Soviet - one of the vanguard posts of the revolution - also got to hear: "On 20th July a meeting in Yakorny Square demanded the transfer of power to the soviets, the sending of the Cossacks to the front with the gendarmes and police, the abolition of the death penalty, the admission of the Kronstadt delegates to Tsarskoe Selo to make sure that Nicholas II was adequately guarded, the disbandment of the ‘Battalions of Death', the confiscation of the bourgeois newspapers, etc."[22] In Moscow, the factory councils had agreed to hold joint meetings with the regimental committees, and in late July a conference of factory councils to which soldiers' representatives were invited adopted a resolution denouncing the government and demanding "new soviets to replace the government." In the elections on August 1st, six of the ten district councils in Moscow had a Bolshevik majority.

Faced with the price increases agreed by the Government and plant closures organised by the bosses, strikes and mass protests began to grow. Sectors of the working class hitherto considered to be "backward" (paper, leather, rubber, and janitors, etc.) also took part.

Sukhanov reported a significant development in the Workers' Section of the Petrograd Soviet: "When the Workers' Section of the Soviet created a Presidium, which it did not have before, the Presidium was found to be made up of Bolsheviks."[23]

In August a National Conference was held in Moscow whose objective was denounced by Sukhanov, as: "suppressing ‘all democratic' opinion to benefit ‘nation-wide' opinion, thus freeing the government of ‘the whole country' from the control of all kinds of organisations, of workers, peasants, Zimmerwaldians, half-Germans, half-Jews and other groups of hoodlums."[24]

Workers recognised the danger and many assemblies voted motions calling for a general strike. The Moscow Soviet rejected them by 364 votes to 304 but the district soviets protested against this decision: "The factories immediately demanded new elections to the Moscow Soviet, which was not only lagging behind the masses, but coming into sharp conflict with them. In the Zamoskvoretsky (Moscow suburb south of the Moskva) district soviet, which met jointly with the factory committees, a demand for the recall of those deputies who had ‘gone against the will of the working class' received 175 votes with 4 against and 19 abstaining!"[25] More than 400,000 workers went on strike, which spread to other towns like Kiev, Kostrava and Tsatarin.

The mobilisation and self-organisation of the masses foils the Kornilov coup

These are only a few significant facts, the tip of the iceberg of a vast process that showed a turning point in the attitudes that predominated from February to June - more passive, still suffering many illusions, and with the protests more restricted in workplaces, districts or towns:

  • numerous unitary assemblies of workers and soldiers were opened up to peasant delegates. The conference of factory and district soviets and factory districts invited soldiers' and sailors' delegates to work with them;
  • there was growing confidence in the Bolsheviks: after being slandered in July, the indignation at the persecution they suffered fuelled increasing recognition of the validity of their analyses and their slogans;
  • the multiplication of demands could only be met by the renewal the soviets and by taking power.


The bourgeoisie saw that the gains it had made in July were at risk of going up in smoke. The failure of the National Conference in Moscow was a big setback. English and French Embassies pushed for "decisive" action. This was the context of the "plan" for a military coup by General Kornilov.[26] Sukhanov emphasised that "Miliukov Rodzianko and Kornilov themselves had conceived it! Dumbfounded, these valiant heroes of the revolution had begun urgently to prepare, in secret, their plan of action. To allay suspicion, they stirred up public opinion against what the Bolsheviks might do next."[27]


We cannot analyse here all the details of the operation.[28] The important thing is that the massive mobilisation of workers and soldiers managed to stop the military machine in its tracks. And what is remarkable is that this response was made by developing an organisational effort that would provide the final impetus for the renewal of the Soviets and their march towards the seizure of power.

On the night of August 27th, the Petrograd Soviet proposed the formation of a Military Revolutionary Committee to organise the defence of the capital. The Bolshevik minority accepted the proposal but added that such a body "must be supported by the mass of workers and soldiers."[29] At the next session the Bolsheviks made a new proposal, accepted reluctantly by the Menshevik majority for, "the sharing of weapons in the factories and working-class neighbourhoods".[30] When announced, there was a quick response: "In the districts, according to the workers' press, there immediately appeared ‘whole queues of people eager to join the ranks of the Red Guard'. Drilling began in marksmanship and the handling of weapons. Experienced soldiers were brought in as teachers. By the 29th, Guards had been formed in almost all districts. The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles. [...] The giant Putilov factory became the centre of resistance in the Peterhoff district. Here fighting companies were hastily formed. The work of the factory continued night and day; there was a sorting out of new cannon for the formation of proletarian artillery divisions."[31]

In Petrograd, "... the district soviets were drawing more closely together and passing resolutions: to declare the inter-district conferences continuous; to place their representatives in the staff organised by the Executive Committee; to form a workers' militia; to establish control of the district soviets over the government commissars; to organise flying brigades for the detention of counter-revolutionary agitators."[32] These measures "meant an appropriation not only of very considerable government functions, but also of the functions of the Petrograd Soviet. [...] The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction. Again the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organisation was revealed. Although paralysed above by the leadership of the Compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment under pressure from the masses."[33]

This generalisation of the self-organisation of the masses spread across the country. Trotsky cites the case of Helsingfors where "a general congress of all the soviet organisations which sent its commissars to the offices of the governor general, the commandant, the Intelligence service, and other important institutions. Thenceforth, no order was valid without its signature. The telegraphs and telephones were taken under control",[34] and something happened that was very significant: "On the second day, a rank-and-file Cossack appeared before the Committee with the announcement that the whole regiment is against Kornilov. Cossack representatives were for the first time introduced into the Soviet."[35]

September 1917: the total renewal of the soviets

The suppression of the Kornilov coup provided a dramatic reversal of the balance of power between the classes: the Provisional Government of Kerensky was implicated in the whole thing. The masses took sole control over these events, by strengthening and revitalising their collective organs. Their response to Kornilov was "the start of a radical transformation of the whole situation, a revenge for the July Days. The Soviet was reborn!"[36]

The newspaper of the Cadet Party,[37] Retch, was not mistaken when it stated: "The streets are already swarming with armed workers who terrorise peaceable inhabitants. In the soviets, the Bolsheviks firmly demanded their imprisoned comrades be set free. Everyone was convinced that once the action of General Kornilov was over, the Bolsheviks, opposed by the majority in the Soviet, would use all their energy to force it to adopt at least a part of their programme." Retch was however mistaken about one thing: it was not the Bolsheviks who forced the soviet to follow their programme; it was the masses who forced the soviets to adopt the Bolshevik programme.

The workers had gained enormous confidence in themselves and they wanted to apply this to the complete renewal of the soviets. Town after town, soviet after soviet, in a dizzying process, the old social traitors' majorities were overthrown and new soviets with majorities for Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups (Left Social Revolutionaries, Menshevik internationalists, anarchists) emerged after discussions and massive voting.

Sukhanov describes the state of mind of the workers and soldiers: "Driven on by class instinct and, to some extent, class consciousness; with the theoretical input provided by the Bolsheviks, tired of war and the toll of suffering; disappointed by the sterility of the revolution that had given them nothing as yet; angry with the bosses and the government who were themselves still living in comfort; wishing to exercise the power that was theirs at last, they were eager to go into battle."[38]

The episodes in this re-conquest and renewal of the soviets are legion. "On the night of September 1st, while still under the presidency of Cheidze, the Soviet voted for a government of workers and peasants. The rank-and-file members of the compromisist factions almost solidly supported the resolution of the Bolsheviks. The rival proposal of Tsereteli got only 15 votes. The compromisist presidium could not believe their eyes. The Right demanded a roll call and this dragged on until three o'clock in the morning. To avoid openly voting against their parties, many of the delegates went home. But even so, and despite all the methods of pressure, the resolution of the Bolsheviks received in the final vote 279 votes against 115. It was a fact of great importance. It was the beginning of the end. The presidium, stunned, said they would resign."[39]

On September 2nd, a conference of all the soviets in Finland adopted a resolution for power to be assumed by the soviets, by 700 votes for, 13 against, with 36 abstentions. The Regional Conference of Soviets in Siberia approved a similar resolution. The Moscow Soviet did the same on September 5th during a dramatic meeting in which it approved a motion of distrust in the Provisional Government and the Executive Committee. "On the 8th, the Bolshevik resolution was adopted in the Kiev soviet of workers' deputies by a majority of 130 votes to 66 - although there were only 95 deputies in the official Bolshevik faction."[40] For the first time, the Soviet of peasants' representatives from the Petrograd region elected a Bolshevik as its delegate.

The culminating point of this process was the historic session of the Petrograd Soviet, on September 9th. Preparations were made through countless meetings in factories, neighbourhoods and in the regiments. Around 1,000 delegates attended a meeting where the Bureau had proposed to cancel the vote of August 31st. The new vote gave a result that signified the definitive rejection of the social traitors' policy: 519 votes against cancellation and for the soviets taking power; 414 votes for the presidium and 67 abstentions.

One might think, from a superficial standpoint, that the renewal of the soviets was merely a change of majority, passing from the social- traitors to the Bolsheviks.

It is certain - and we'll deal with it at greater length in the next article in this series - that the working class and therefore its parties too, were still burdened by a vision strongly influenced by parliamentarism in which the class chooses "representatives to act in its name", but it is important to understand that this was not the basis for the renewal of the soviets.

1) The renewal was built on the vast network of meetings of grass roots soviets (factory and district councils, committees from the regiments, joint meetings). After the Kornilov coup, the occurrence of these meetings multiplied dramatically. Each soviet session adopted a unified and clear position derived from an infinite number of preliminary meetings.

2) This self-organisation of the masses was consciously and actively driven by the renewal by the soviets. While previous soviets were autonomous and called only a few massive gatherings, the new soviets called for open meetings on a daily basis. While the former soviets feared and even disapproved of the assemblies in the factories and neighbourhoods, the new ones continually summoned them. The soviet called for meetings "of the grass roots" around each significant or substantial debate so it could adopt a position. The fourth coalition Provisional Government (on September 25th) met a reaction: "Close upon the resolution of the St. Petersburg Soviet refusing to support the new coalition, a wave of meetings swept through the two capitals and the province. Hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers, protesting against the formation of the new bourgeois government, pledged to carry out a determined struggle against it and demanded power to the Soviets."[41]

3) The proliferation of regional congresses of soviets - which spread like wildfire across all Russian territories from mid-September - was spectacular. "During these weeks the numerous regional soviet congresses meeting reflected the mood of the masses. The Moscow regional congress held in early October demonstrated a typically rapid Bolshevisation and polarisation. At the beginning of the deliberations the Social Revolutionaries offered a resolution opposing the transfer of power to the soviets, which carried 159 votes against 132. But in another vote, three days later, the Bolshevik fraction won 116 votes with 97 opposed. [...] At many later soviet congresses Bolshevik resolutions were also passed, all calling for the assumption of power by the all-Russian Soviet Congress and for removal of the Provisional Government. In Ekaterinburg, 120 delegates from 56 Ural soviets met on October 13th; 86 of them were Bolsheviks. [...] In Saratov, the Volga regional congress rejected a Menshevik-Social Revolutionary resolution and adopted a Bolshevik one..."[42]

But it is important to clarify two issues that are fundamental for us.

The first is the fact that the Bolsheviks' resolutions winning a majority meant much more than a simple delegation voting for a party. The Bolshevik Party was the only party clearly in favour not only of the seizure of power but of putting forward a concrete way of doing it: an insurrection with a comprehensive plan which would overthrow the Provisional Government and dismantle the power of the state. While the social-traitor parties announced their intention to force the soviets to commit hara-kiri, while other revolutionary parties made unrealistic or vague proposals, only the Bolsheviks were convinced that "...the Soviet of Workers; and Soldiers' Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted at the endless repetition of resolutions and protests."[43]

It was therefore natural that the masses of workers put their trust in the Bolsheviks not by giving them a blank cheque, but by seeing them as an instrument of their own struggle that was approaching its high point: the insurrection and taking power. "The camp of the bourgeoisie now had reason to be alarmed. The crisis was clear to everyone. The movement of the masses was visibly overflowing; the excitement in the working class neighbourhoods of St. Petersburg was evident. We only listened to the Bolsheviks. At the famous Modern Amphitheatre, where Trotsky, Volodarsky and Lunacharsky came to speak, we saw endless queues and crowds that the huge building was unable to hold. The agitators encouraged the move from rhetoric to action and promised power to the Soviet in the immediate future." This was how Sukhanov, despite being an opponent of the Bolsheviks, described the atmosphere that prevailed in mid-October. [44]

Secondly, the accumulated evidence of September and October pointed to a significant change in the mentality of the masses. As we saw in the previous article in this series, the slogan "All power to the soviets" raised tentatively in March, defended forcefully by Lenin in April, proclaimed massively in demonstrations in June and July, had until then been more an aspiration than a consciously adopted programme of action.

One reason for the failure of the movement in July was that the majority was demanding that the soviets "force" the Provisional Government to appoint some "socialist ministers".

This division between Soviet and Government showed a clear misunderstanding of the work of the proletarian revolution, which is certainly not "to choose its own government" and so preserve the structure of the old state, but to destroy the state apparatus and assume power directly. Although, as we will see in the next article, the multitude of new problems and confusions would affect the consciousness of the masses, they were beginning to see the slogan "All power to the soviets" in more concrete and accurate terms.

Trotsky shows how, having lost control of the Petrograd Soviet, the social traitors used every means at their disposal, concentrating on their last bastion, the CEC: "The Executive Committee had in good season taken away from the Petrograd Soviet the two newspapers established by it, all the administrative offices, all funds and all technical equipment, including the typewriters and inkwells. The innumerable automobiles that had been at the disposal of the Soviet since February, had every last one of them been transferred into the keeping of the compromisist Olympus. The new leaders had nothing - no treasury, no newspapers, no secretarial apparatus, no means of transport, no pen or pencil. Nothing but bare walls and the burning confidence of the workers and soldiers. That, however, proved sufficient."[45]

The Military Revolutionary Committee, soviet organ of the insurrection

In early October, a flood of resolutions from soviets throughout the country called for the Congress of Soviets, continually postponed by the social-traitors, to be held so that practical measures could begin for the seizure of power.

This orientation was a response both to the situation in Russia and to the international situation. In Russia, the peasant revolts were spreading into almost all regions and there were widespread seizures of the land; soldiers were deserting their barracks and returning to their villages, exhibiting growing fatigue faced with an inextricable war; workers in the factories were having to deal with production being sabotaged by some bosses and managers; the whole of society was threatened with famine due to the total breakdown of supplies and the increasing cost of living. On the international frontline, desertions, insubordination and fraternisation between soldiers of both sides multiplied; a wave of strikes swept across Germany, a general strike broke out in August 1917 in Spain. The Russian proletariat had to seize power, not only to respond to the intractable problems facing the country but, more importantly, to open a breach through which the world revolution could develop against the terrible suffering caused by three years of war.

Against the revolutionary upsurge of the masses, the bourgeoisie used its own weapons. In September, it attempted to hold a democratic conference which failed once again, like that in Moscow. For their part, the social-traitors did everything possible to delay the Congress of Soviets, with the goal of keeping the soviets throughout the country dispersed and disorganised and thus preventing their unification for the purpose of seizing power.

But the most formidable weapon, and one still taking shape, was the attempt to sabotage the defence of Petrograd so that the German Army could crush the most advanced bastion of the revolution. Kornilov, the "patriot", had already tried out this coup in August when he abandoned revolutionary Riga[46] to German troops who "restored order" in a bloodbath. The bourgeoisie that makes national defence its credo, using it as a poison against the proletariat, does not hesitate to ally itself with its fiercest imperialist rivals when it sees its power threatened by the class enemy.

This issue, the defence of Petrograd, led the discussions in the Soviet to the formation of a Military-Revolutionary Committee, composed of elected delegates from the Petrograd Soviet, from the soldiers' section of this Soviet, from the Soviet delegates from the Baltic Fleet, from the Red Guard, from the Regional Committee of Soviets in Finland, from the Conference of the factory councils, from the railway union and from the military organisation of the Bolshevik Party. A young and combative member of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Lazimir, was appointed head of this committee. The objectives of the committee were both to defend Petrograd and to prepare the armed uprising, two objectives which "heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defence of Petrograd." [47]

The next day a Standing Conference of the whole garrison of Petrograd and the region was summoned. With these two organs, the proletariat was equipping itself with the means for the insurrection, the essential and indispensable means for the seizure of power.

In a previous article in the International Review, we demonstrated how - contrary to the fairy tales woven by the bourgeoisie that present October as a "Bolshevik coup d'etat" - the insurrection was the work of the soviets and more specifically the Petrograd Soviet.[48] The organs that had meticulously prepared, step by step, the military defeat of the Provisional Government, the last bastion of the bourgeois state, were the Military-Revolutionary Committee and the Standing Conference of the garrisons. The MRC forced the Army headquarters to submit for approval any order and any decision, no matter how trivial, thus completely paralysing it. On October 22nd during a dramatic meeting, the last recalcitrant regiment -that of the Peter and Paul - agreed to submit to the MRC. On October 23rd, on a momentous day, thousands of assemblies of workers and soldiers were involved in the final seizure of power. The checkmate executed by the insurrection of October 25th, which occupied the headquarters and the seat of the Provisional Government, confronted the last battalions that were faithful to it, arrested ministers and generals, occupied the centres of communication and thereby laid the conditions so that the next day the Congress of Soviets of all the Russias took power.[49]

In the next article in this series, we see the enormous problems that the soviets had to face after taking power.

C. Mir 6-6-10


[1]. International Review n° 140.

[2]. International Review n° 141.

[3]. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 2, chapter 11 "The Masses Under Attack, p. 756 (Pluto Press).

[4]. See the very detailed refutation of this thesis in Trotsky op. cit., volume 2, chapter 4, "The Month of the Great Slander".

[5]. General Knox, head of the English military mission, said: "'I'm not interested in the Kerensky government, it is too weak. What is wanted is a strong dictatorship. What is wanted is the Cossacks. This people need the whip! A dictatorship - that is just what it needs.'  So said the representative of the government of the oldest democracy", quoted in Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 9, "The Kornilov Insurrection", p.724.

[6]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2 , chapter 11, "The Masses Under Attack", p.764.

[7]. Cavaignac: French general (1802-1857), executioner of the insurrection of Parisian workers in 1848.

[8]. Lenin, The political situation (Four theses), 23 (10) July 1917.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. See references in the previous article in this series.

[12]. The Soviets, The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1917; Chapter 4, "Bolshevism and the Councils of 1917", p. 170 (Pantheon Books, 1974).

[13]. Lenin, On slogans, Mid- July 1917.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. See the previous article in this series in the section headed "March 1917: a gigantic network of soviets spreads throughout Russia", International Review n° 141.

[16]. Sukhanov, a Menshevik Internationalist, split from the left wing of Menshevism where Martov was a militant. He published his Memoires in 7 volumes. An abridged version was published in French as The Russian Revolution (Editions Stock, 1965). All quotations below are our translations from this French edition.

[17]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "Triumph of the reaction; Around the coalition", p.210.

[18]. Anweiler, op. cit. Chapter 3, "The Soviets and the Russian Revolution of 1917", p.108.

[19]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The Triumph of the reaction; In the depths".

[20]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 11, "The Masses Under Attack", p.767.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Sukhanov, op. cit.  "Counter-revolution and disintegration of democracy; after July: the second and third coalitions".

[24]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The Shame of Moscow".

[25]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 6, "Kerensky and Kornilov", p.658.

[26]. Kornilov: fairly incompetent general who distinguished himself by his constant defeats at the front, was then praised by bourgeois parties and considered a "patriotic hero" after the July Days.

[27]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[28]. See Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 5, "The Counter-Revolution Lifts its head"; chapter 6, "Kerensky and Kornilov"; chapter 8, "Kerensky's Plot" and chapter 9, "Kornilov's Insurrection".

[29]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 10, "The Bourgeoisie Measures Strength with the Democracy", p.735.

[32]. Ibid, p.734.

[33]. Ibid, our emphasis.

[34]. Ibid, p.737.

[35]. Ibid.

[36] Sukhanov, op. cit., "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[37]. Cadet Party: Constitutional Democratic Party, the main bourgeois party of the time.

[38]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Disintegration of Democracy after the Kornilov Uprising".

[39]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, "The Rising Tide", p.803.

[40]. Ibid.

[41]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Artillery Preparation".

[42]. Anweiler, op. cit., chapter 4, "Bolshevism and the Councils, 1917," p.182. In the appendices there is a list of the many regional conferences that virtually covered the whole empire, and through their votes decided on the seizure of power.

[43]. Lenin, Theses for the report to the conference of 8th October on the organisation of Petersburg. "On the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets'", October 8th, 1917.

[44]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Artillery Preparation".

[45]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, "The Rising Tide, p.807.

[46]. Capital of Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire.

[47]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 3, "The Military-Revolutionary Committee", p.945.

[48]. See our article "The Russian Revolution, part 2, The Soviets take power " in International Review n°72.

[49]. In our article "October 1917, A Victory of the Working Masses " (International Review n°. 91), we develop a detailed analysis on how the insurrection of the proletariat had nothing to do with a revolt or a conspiracy, what rules it followed, and the indispensable role played in it by the party of the proletariat.

Historic events: 


History of the workers' movement: