October 1917: The soviets organise the insurrection

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In the last two issues of WR, we have been marking the 90th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia by recalling the massive scale and importance of the Russian revolution - the first time in history that the working class had taken political power on the level of an entire country, and the opening salvo in an international explosion of workers' uprisings that shook world capitalism to the core. In these articles we showed the huge leap in working class self-activity and consciousness in the months preceding the actual seizure of power. Today the October insurrection is almost uniformly dismissed by bourgeois historians (and, in their shadow, the ideologists of anarchism) as a mere coup d'etat or putsch carried out by the Bolshevik party for their own nefarious purposes. The article that follows (extracted from a longer article that first appeared in International Review 72 and available in full online here ) reaffirms the real character of October. In continuity with the maturation of the class movement in the period that began in February 1917, the insurrection was anything but a putsch, and to this day remains the highest point that working class self-organisation has ever attained.

The working class moves towards the insurrection

The situation of dual power which dominated the whole period from February to October was an unstable and dangerous time. Its excessive prolongation, due to neither class being able to impose itself, was above all damaging for the proletariat: if the impotence and chaos that marked this period accentuated the unpopularity of the ruling class, it at the same time exhausted and disorientated the working masses. They were getting drained in sterile struggles and all this began to alienate the sympathies of the intermediate classes towards the proletariat. This, therefore, demanded the taking of power through the insurrection to decant and decide the situation: "either the revolution must advance at a rapid, stormy and resolute tempo, breaking all barriers with an iron hand and place its goals ever farther ahead, or it will quite soon be thrown backwards behind its feeble point of departure and suppressed by the counter-revolution" (Rosa Luxemburg, The Russian Revolution).

Insurrection is an art. It has to be carried out at a precise moment in the evolution of the revolutionary situation, neither too soon, which would cause it to fail, nor too late, which would mean an opportunity being missed, leaving the revolutionary movement to become a disintegrating victim of the counter­revolution.

At the beginning of September the bourgeoisie, through Kornilov, tried to carry out a coup - the signal for the bourgeoi­sie's final offensive to overthrow the Soviets and to fully restore its power.

The proletariat, with the massive cooperation of the soldiers, thwarted the bourgeoisie's plan and at the same time accelerated the decomposition of the army: soldiers in numerous regiments pronounced themselves in favour of the expulsion of officers and of the organisation of soldiers' councils - in short, they came out on the side of the revolution.

As we have previously seen, the renewal of the Soviets from the middle of August was clearly changing the balance of forces in favour of the proletariat. The defeat of the Kornilov coup accelerated this process.

From the middle of September a tide of resolutions calling for the taking of power flooded in from the local and regional Soviets (Kronstadt, Ekaterinoslav etc). The Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region held on the 11-13th of October openly called for the insurrection. In Minsk the Regional Congress of Soviets decided to support the insurrection and to send troops of soldiers loyal to the revolution. On the 12th "Workers of one of the most revolutionary factories of the capital (the old Parviainen) made the following answer to the attacks of the bourgeoisie: ‘We declare that we will go into the street when we deem it advisable. We are not afraid of the approaching struggle, and we confi­dently believe that we will come off victorious'" (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol 3, ‘The Military Revolutionary Committee', page 91). On the 17th October the Petrograd Soldiers' Soviet decided that "The Petrograd garrison no longer recognises the Provisional Government. Our government is the Petrograd Soviet. We will only carry out the orders of the Petrograd Soviet issued through its Military Revolutionary Committee" (J Reed, Ten Days That Shook The World). The Vyborg district Soviet called a demonstration in support of this resolution, which sailors joined. A Moscow Liberal paper - quoted by Trotsky - described the atmosphere in the city thus: "In the districts, in the factories of Petrograd, Novsld, Obujov and Putilov, Bolshevik agitation for the insurrec­tion has reached its highest level. The animated state of the workers is such that they are disposed to carry out demonstrations at any time".

The increase of peasants' revolts in September constituted another element in the maturation of the necessary conditions for the insurrection: "It would be sheer treachery to the peasants to allow the peasant revolts to be suppressed when we control the Soviets of both capitals. It would be to lose, and justly lose every ounce of the peasants' confidence. In the eyes of the peasants we would be putting ourselves on a level with the Lieberdans and other scoundrels" (Lenin, ‘The Crisis Has Matured', Selected Works, Vol. 2, page 348).

Importance of the international situation

However, the international situation was the key factor for the revolution. Lenin made this clear in his letter to the Bolshevik comrades attending the Congress of Soviets of the Northern Region (8-10-17): "Our revolution is passing through a highly critical period. This crisis coincides with the great crisis - the growth of the world socialist revolution and the struggle waged against it by world imperialism. A gigantic task is being presented to the responsible leaders of our party, and failure to perform it will involve the danger of a complete collapse of the internation­alist proletarian movement. The situation is such that, in truth, delay would be fatal" (Lenin, SW, vol. 2, page 395). In another letter (1.10.17) Lenin made it clear that "The Bolsheviks have no right to wait for the Congress of Soviets, they must take power at once. By so doing they will save the world revolution (for otherwise there is danger of a deal between the imperialists of all countries, who, after the shootings in Germany, will be more accommodating to each other and will unite against us), the Russian revolution (otherwise a wave of real anarchy may become stronger than we are) and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people at the front" (Lenin, SW, vol. 2, page 391).

This understanding of the international responsibility of the Russian proletariat was not confined to Lenin and the Bolsheviks. On the contrary, many sectors of workers recognised it:

- on the 1st of May 1917, "throughout Russia, side by side with soldiers, prisoners of war were taking part in the processions under the same banners, sometimes singing the same song in different voices ... The Kadet minister Shingarev, during one of the Conferences with the trench delegates, defended the order of Guchkov against ‘unnecessary indulgence' towards prisoners of war... this remark did not meet with the slightest sympathy. The Conference decisively expressed itself in favour of relieving the conditions of the prisoners of war" (Trotsky, op cit, Vol. 2, pages 313, 269);

- "A soldier from the Romanian front, thin, tragical, and fierce cried: ‘Comrades! we are starving at the front, we are stiff from cold. We are dying for no reason. I ask the American comrades to carry word to America that the Russians will never give up their revolution until they die. We will hold the front with all our strength until the peoples of the world rise up and help us! Tell the American workers to rise and fight for the social revolution'" (J Reed, op cit, page 52).

The Kerensky government intended to disperse the most revolutionary regiments of Petrograd, Moscow, Vladimir, Reval etc. to the front or to remote regions in order to behead the struggle. At the same time, the Liberal and Menshevik press launched a campaign of calumnies against the soldiers, accusing them of "smugness" of "not giving their lives for the Motherland" etc. The workers of the capital responded immediately: numerous factory assemblies supported the soldiers, called for "all power to the Soviets" and passed resolutions calling for the arming of the workers.

Formation of the Military Revolutionary Committee

In this atmosphere, the meeting of the Petrograd Soviet on the 9th of October decided to create a Military Revolutionary Committee with the initial aim of controlling the government. However, it was soon transformed into the centre for the organisation of the insurrection. It regrouped representatives of the Petrograd Soviet, the Sailors' Soviet, the Finlandia region Soviet, the railway union, the congress of factory councils and the Red Guard.

The latter was a workers' body that was "formed for the first time during the 1905 revolution and was reborn during the March days of 1917, when there was a necessity for a force to maintain order in the city. In this period the Red Guard were armed and the Provisional Governments efforts to disarm them came to nothing. In each crisis that arose during the course of the revolution, detachments of the Red Guards appeared in the streets. They had no military training or organisation, but were overflowing with revolutionary enthusiasm" (J Reed, op cit).

On the foundations of this regroupment of class forces, the Military Revolutionary Committee (from now on referred to as the MRC) convoked a conference of regimental committees which on the 18th of October openly discussed the question of the insurrection. The majority of the committees, apart from 2 which were against and 2 that declared themselves neutral (there were another 5 regiments which did not agree with the Conference), pronounced in favour of the insurrection. Similarly the Confer­ence passed a resolution in favour of the arming of the workers. This resolution was already being put into practice: en masse the workers went to the state arsenals and demand all the arms. When the government prohibited the handing over of arms, the workers and employees of the Peter and Paul Fortress (a reactionary bastion) decided to place themselves at the disposal of the MRC, and along with other arsenals organised the distribution of arms to the workers.

On the 21st of October the Conference of regimental commit­tees adopted the following Resolution: "1) The garrison of Petrograd and its environs promises the RMC its full support in all its actions. 2) The garrison appeals to the Cossacks: we invite you to our meeting to-morrow. You are welcome, brother Cossacks! 3) The All-Russian Congress of Soviets must take power. The garrison promises to put all its forces at the disposal of the Congress. Rely upon us, authorised representatives of the power of the soldiers, workers and peasants, you can count on us. We are all at our posts to conquer or die" (Trotsky, op cit, vol. 3, page 108-109).

Here we have the characteristic features of a workers' insurrec­tion: the creative initiative of the masses, straight forward and showing admirable organisation; discussions and debates which give rise to resolutions that synthesise the level of consciousness that the masses have reached; reliance on persuasion and convic­tion, as in the call to the Cossacks to abandon the government gang, or the passionate and dramatic meeting of the soldiers of the Peter and Paul Fortress which took place on the 23rd of October, where it was decided to obey no one but the MRC. These characteristic features are, above all, expressions of a movement for the emancipation of humanity, of the direct, passionate, creative initiative and leadership of the exploited masses.

The "Soviet day" on the 22nd of October, which was called by the Petrograd Soviet, definitively sealed the insurrection: in all the districts and factories meetings and assemblies took place all day, which overwhelmingly agreed on the slogans "down with Kerensky" and "all power to the Soviets". This was a gigantic act where workers, employees, soldiers, many Cossacks, women, and children openly united in their commitment to the insurrec­tion.

It is not possible within the outline of this article to recount all of the details (we recommend reading Trotsky's and Reed's books, which we have mentioned). What we want to make clear is the massive, open and collective nature of the insurrection "The insurrection was thus set for a fixed date, the 25th of October. And this was not agreed on in some secret session, but openly and publicly, and the revolution was victoriously carried out on the 25th of October precisely (6th of November), as had been established beforehand. World history has known a great many revolts and revolutions, but could one find another insurrection by the oppressed class that had been openly and publicly set for a precise date and which had been triumphantly carried out on the day nominated beforehand. For this reason and various others, the November Revolution is unique and without comparison" (Trotsky, The November Revolution, 1919).

The Bolsheviks had clearly posed the question of the insurrec­tion in the workers' and soldiers' assemblies from September; they occupied the most combative and decisive positions in the MRC and the Red Guard; it was they who swung the barracks where there were doubts or which were for the Provisional Government. This was done through convincing the soldiers: Trotsky's speech was crucial in bringing over the soldiers of the Peter and Paul Fortress. They also untiringly denounced the manoeuvres, accusations and traps of the Mensheviks, and struggled for the calling of the 2nd Congress of Soviets against the sabotage of the social traitors.

An insurrection by the working class, not the party alone

Nevertheless, it was not the Bolsheviks, but the whole prole­tariat of Petrograd who decided on and carried out the insurrec­tion. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had repeatedly tried to delay the holding of the 2nd Congress of Soviets. It was through the pressure of the masses, the insistence of the Bolshe­viks, the sending of thousands of telegrams from the local Soviets demanding its convocation, that finally obliged the CEC - the lair of the social traitors - to call it for the 25th.

"After the revolution of the 25th of October, the Mensheviks, and above all Martov, talked a lot about the seizure of power behind the Soviets' and workers' backs. It is hard to imagine a more shameless deformation of the facts. When the Soviets - in session - decided by a majority to call the 2nd Congress on the 25th of October, the Mensheviks said ‘you have decided the Revolution'; when in the Petrograd Soviet, by an overwhelming majority, we decided to refuse to allow the dispersal of the regiments away from the capital, the Mensheviks said: ‘This is the beginning of the revolution', when in the Petrograd Soviet we created the MRC the Mensheviks made it clear that ‘this is the organism of the armed insurrection'. But when the insurrection, which had been planned, created and ‘discovered' beforehand by this organ, exploded on the decisive day, the same Mensheviks cried: ‘a plot by conspirators has provoked a revolution behind the workers' backs!'" (Trotsky, ibid).

The proletariat provided itself with the means of force - the general arming of the workers, the formation of the MRC, the insurrection - in order that the Congress of Soviets could effectively take power. If the Congress of Soviets had decided "to take power" without first carrying out these measures such a decision would have been an empty gesture easily ripped apart by the revolution's enemies. It is not possible to see the insurrection as an isolated formal act: it has to be seen within the overall dynamic of the class and, concretely, within a process on the international level where the conditions for the revolution were developing, and within Russia where innumerable local Soviets were calling for the effective taking of power: the Petrograd, Moscow, Tula, the Urals, Siberia, Jukov Soviets simultaneously carried out the triumphant insurrection.

The Congress of Soviets took the definitive decision, com­pletely confirming the validity of the initiative of the proletariat in Petrograd: "Based upon the will of the great majority of workers, soldiers, and peasants, based upon the triumphant uprising of the Petrograd working men and soldiers, the congress as­sumes power ... The congress resolves: that all local power shall be transferred to the Soviets of workers', soldiers' and peasants' Deputies, which must enforce revolutionary order". (J Reed, op cit) Adalen 5/10/92.

History of the workers' movement: