The events of July 1917 in Petrograd, known as the ‘July days’, represent one of the most striking episodes of the Russian revolution. In a situation of particular ferment among the working class, it fell to the Bolshevik party to see how to prevent the revolutionary process ending in a tragic defeat as the result of a premature confrontation provoked by the bourgeoisie. The lessons of these events remain vital for the proletariat to this day.
The February insurrection had led to a situation of dual power: on the one hand the working class, organised in soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, and on the other hand, the bourgeoisie, represented by the Provisional Government and supported by the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary ‘conciliators’, particularly within the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The more the revolution developed, the more untenable this situation became.
The ascent of the revolution
At the beginning of the revolutionary process, the workers had been full of illusions about the false promises of the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary demagogues: ‘peace’, ‘solving the agrarian problem’, the 8-hour day etc. But soon, especially in Petrograd, they began to see that the Soviet Executive Committee was not responding to their demands at all. On the contrary, it was becoming clear that it was acting as a shield for the objectives of the Provisional Government, which were first and foremost the re-establishment of order at the front and at the rear in order to be able to carry on the imperialist war. In its most radical bastion of Petrograd, the working class began to feel more and more that it had been duped and betrayed by the very people it had entrusted with the leadership of its councils. In a confused manner, the more advanced workers began to pose the real question: who is really exerting power, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?
The radicalisation of the workers, their growing awareness of what was at stake, got underway in mid-April, following a provocative note by the liberal minister Miliukov which reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to continuing the war. Already exasperated by all sorts of deprivations, the workers and soldiers responded immediately with spontaneous demonstrations and massive assemblies in the neighbourhoods and the factories. On 20 April, a gigantic demonstration forced Miliukov to resign. The bourgeoisie was forced to take a temporary step backwards in its war plans. The Bolsheviks were very active within this proletarian upsurge and their influence on the workers was growing. The radicalisation of the proletariat was taking place around the slogan put forward by Lenin in his April Theses: “All power to the soviets”. Throughout May, this slogan inspired more and more workers, while the Bolshevik party came to be seen more and more as the only party that was really on the side of the working class. All over Russia, the revolutionary ferment was expressed in a frenetic development of working class organisation. In Petrograd the factory committees were already dominated by the Bolsheviks. In June, the political agitation continued, culminating in a giant demonstration on the 18th. Originally called by the Mensheviks and the Soviet Executive to support the Provisional Government, who were just about to launch a new military offensive, it rebounded on the ‘conciliators’. The immense majority of the demonstration followed Bolshevik slogans: “Down with the offensive!”, “Down with the capitalist ministers!”, “All power to the soviets!”
The Bolsheviks avoid the trap of a premature confrontation
When the news of the failure of the military offensive reached the capital, it fanned the revolutionary flames, but the news had not yet reached the rest of this huge country. In order to deal with this very taut situation, the bourgeoisie attempted to provoke a premature revolt in Petrograd, to crush the workers and the Bolsheviks, and then to blame the failure of the military offensive on the proletariat of the capital, claiming that it had given a ‘stab in the back’ to the frontline troops.
Such a manoeuvre was made possible by the fact that the conditions for revolution had not yet fully matured. Although discontent was rising among workers and soldiers all over the country, it had not yet reached the same depth as it had in Petrograd. The peasants still had confidence in the Provisional Government. Among the workers themselves, including those in Petrograd, the most widespread idea was not that the workers would take power themselves, but would compel the ‘socialist’ leaders to ‘really take power’ into their hands. It was certain that if the revolution and the Bolshevik party had been crushed in Petrograd, the proletariat in the whole of Russia would soon have been defeated.
Petrograd was in a state of extreme turbulence. The machine-gunners, who alongside the Kronstadt sailors were the advanced guard of the revolution within the armed forces, wanted to act immediately. Striking workers were going to all the regiments calling on them to hold meetings and come out onto the streets. In this context, the bourgeoisie carried out a certain number of well-timed measures aimed at provoking revolt in the capital. The Cadet party decided to withdraw its four ministers from the government, in order to push the workers and soldiers to call for an immediate transfer of power to the soviets: the refusal of the Mensheviks and SRs to support the slogan “all power to the soviets” had been justified by the ‘need’ to collaborate with the ‘democratic bourgeoisie’, but now this excuse no longer had any sense. At the same time, the government threatened to send the most revolutionary regiments of the capital to the front. In a few hours, the proletariat of Petrograd rose up, armed itself and rallied around the slogan “all power to the soviets”. However, at the 18 June demonstration the Bolsheviks had already warned the workers against any premature action. Considering that it was not possible to stop this new movement, they decided to put themselves at its head, supporting it, but arguing that the armed demonstration of 500,000 armed workers and soldiers should have an “organised and peaceful character”. That very evening, the workers understood that the momentary impasse they were in made it impossible to take power straight away. The next day, following the directives of the Bolsheviks, they stayed at home. At this point ‘fresh’ troops arrived in Petrograd to prop up the government and its Menshevik and SR acolytes. In order to vaccinate them against Bolshevism, they were welcomed by rifle fire. This was the work of provocateurs armed by the bourgeoisie but it was attributed to the Bolsheviks. The repression then began. The hunt for Bolsheviks was underway. It was accompanied by a campaign accusing the Bolsheviks of being agents of Germany. Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders had to go into hiding, Trotsky and others were arrested. “The blow struck at the masses and the party in July was very considerable, but it was not a decisive blow. The victims were counted by tens and not by tens of thousands. The working class issued from this trial, not headless and not bled to death. It fully preserved its fighting cadres, and these cadres had learned much” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, ‘Could the Bolsheviks have seized the power in July?’).
The lessons of July 1917
The events of July are a ringing refutation of the bourgeoisie’s current ideological campaigns which present the October revolution as a Bolshevik plot against the ‘young democracy’ installed by the February uprising, and against the ‘democratic’ parties the latter had put in power - Cadets, Mensheviks, and SRs. In the July Days, the real plotters were these same ‘democratic’ parties, who had conspired to the hilt with the most reactionary sectors of the Russian bourgeoisie, and with the bourgeoisie of other imperialist countries, in an attempt to inflict a decisive and bloody defeat on the working class.
July 1917 thus proves that the working class must overcome all its illusions in those former workers’ parties who have gone over to the enemy. Such illusions weighed heavily on the class during the July Days. But this experience also definitively showed that the Mensheviks and the SRs had gone over to the counterrevolution. In mid-July, Lenin was already clearly drawing this lesson: “After July 4, the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie, working hand in glove with the monarchists and the Black Hundreds, secured the support of the petty-bourgeois Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, partly by intimidating them, and handed over real state power to the Cavaignacs, the military gang, who are shooting insubordinate soldiers at the front and smashing the Bolsheviks in Petrograd.” (‘On Slogans’).
History shows that the provocation of premature confrontations is a tried and tested part of the bourgeoisie’s arsenal against the working class. In 1919 and 1921 in Germany, this tactic led to bloody repression against the proletariat. If the Russian revolution is the only real example of a case where the working class has been able to avoid such a trap, it was above all because the Bolshevik party was able to play a decisive role as the political leadership of the class.
The Bolshevik party was convinced that it had the responsibility of permanently analysing the balance of forces between the two opposing classes, as a basis for intervening correctly at every moment in the development of the struggle. It knew that it was vital to study the nature, the strategy and tactics of the enemy class if it was to be able to understand and deal with its manoeuvres. It was impregnated with the marxist understanding that the revolutionary seizure of power is a kind of art or science and it was perfectly aware that an inopportune insurrection would be just as fatal as the failure of a seizure of power carried out at the right moment. The party’s profound confidence in the proletariat and in marxism, its ability to base itself on their historic strength, allowed it to make a firm stand against the illusions of the workers. These capacities also allowed it to resist the pressure of the anarchists and what Trotsky called “the occasional interpreters of the indignation of the masses” who, guided by their petty bourgeois impatience, were agitating for immediate action.
But what was also decisive in the July Days was the profound confidence of the workers themselves in their class party, since this made it possible for the latter to intervene and act as a political leadership even when it was clear that it did not share the masses illusions or immediate aims.
The Bolsheviks faced up to the repression which followed these events without falling into any illusions in democracy, and while fighting tooth and nail against the slanders aimed at them. Today, 90 years on, the bourgeoisie hasn’t changed its nature - on the contrary it has become even more experienced and cynical. The current campaigns against the communist left are based on the same logic as those launched in July 1917 against the Bolsheviks. Then, the bourgeoisie tried to get workers to believe that since the Bolsheviks refused to support the Entente, they must be on the side of Germany. Today, it is trying to give credit to the idea that since the communist left refused to support the ‘anti-fascist’ imperialist camp in the Second World War, it is because it and its present successors are pro-Nazi. Today’s revolutionaries, who tend to underestimate the significance of such campaigns, have to understand that they are designed to prepare future pogroms. They have much to learn from the experience of the Bolsheviks who, after the July Days, moved heaven and earth to defend their reputation within the working class.
During these decisive days, the action of the Bolshevik party allowed the ascending revolution to overcome the traps laid by the bourgeoisie. Only three months before, the party had been in profound disarray concerning the tasks facing the working class. But, by re-appropriating the marxist method, by learning from its own experience and the experience of the class in movement, it was more and more able to play the role of political leadership demanded of it. Thus, the July Days prepared the class and its party for the insurrection of October.
(First published in WR 206. One of a series of articles on the Russian Revolution, the previous one, on the April Theses was in WR 303 )