This is the 90th anniversary of the Russian workers’ revolution of November 1917. Since the fall in 1991 of the Stalinist regime which eventually overwhelmed the workers’ government and made a counter-revolution in the 1920s, more has been available to researchers in the west. Some new books have advanced our understanding of the revolution. None, however, can match the exciting exposition of the course of 1917, in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Written in 1930, Trotsky’s book presents a fascinating study of the ebbs and flows of a complex class struggle. All students of the Russian revolution should begin their studies with Trotsky’s great masterpiece. The following extract is taken from the last chapter and is an account of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets which met on 25-26 October in Petrograd.
In Smolny [Institute] on the 25th of October the most democratic of all parliaments in the world’s history was to meet. Who knows — perhaps also the most important.
Having got free of the influence of compromisist intellectuals, the local soviets had sent up for the most part workers and soldiers. The majority of them were people without big names, but who had proved themselves in action and won lasting confidence in their own localities. From the active army it was almost exclusively rank-and-file soldiers who had run the blockade of army committees and headquarters and come here as delegates. A majority of them had begun to live a political life with the revolution. They had been formed by an experience of eight months. They knew little, but knew it well. The outward appearance of the Congress proclaimed its make-up…
A grey colour prevailed uninterruptedly, in costumes and in faces. All had worn out their clothes during the war. Many of the city workers had provided themselves with soldiers’ coats. The trench delegates were by no means a pretty picture: long unshaven, in old torn trench-coats, with heavy papakhi [tall hats] on their dishevelled hair, often with cotton sticking out through a hole, with coarse weather-beaten faces, heavy cracked hands, fingers yellowed with tobacco, buttons torn off, belts hanging loose, and long unoiled boots wrinkled and rusty. The plebeian nation had for the first time sent up an honest representation made in its own image and not retouched.
The statistics of this Congress which assembled during the hours of insurrection are very, incomplete. At the moment of opening there were 650 delegates with votes: 390 fell to the lot of the Bolsheviks — by no means all members of the party, but they were of the flesh and blood of the masses, and the masses had no roads left but the Bolshevik road. Many of the delegates who had brought doubts with them were maturing fast in the red-hot atmosphere of Petrograd.
How completely had the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries squandered the political capital of the February revolution. At the [first] June Congress of Soviets the Compromisers had a majority of 600 votes out of the whole number of 832 delegates. Now the compromisist opposition of all shades made up less than a quarter of the Congress. The Mensheviks, with the national group adhering to them, amounted to only 80 members — about half of them “Lefts.” Out of 159 Social Revolutionaries — according to other reports 190 — about three-fifths were Lefts, and moreover the Right continued to melt fast during the very sitting of the Congress. Toward the end the total number of delegates, according to several lists, reached 900. But this figure, while including a number of advisory members, does not on the other hand include all those with votes. The registration was carried on intermittently; documents have been lost; the information about party affiliations was incomplete. In any case the dominant position of the Bolsheviks in the Congress remains indubitable.
A straw-vote taken among the delegates revealed that 505 soviets stood for the transfer of all power to the soviets; 86 for a government of the “democracy”; 55 for a coalition; 21 for a coalition, but without the Kadets. Although eloquent even in this form, these figures give an exaggerated idea of the remains of the Compromisers’ influence. Those for democracy and coalition were soviets from the more backward districts and least important points…
In the name of the Bolsheviks a Moscow delegate, Avanessov, moves that the præsidium be elected upon a proportional basis: 14 Bolsheviks, 7 Social Revolutionaries, 3 Mensheviks and 1 Internationalist. The Right immediately declines to enter the præsidium. Martov’s group sits tight for the time being; it has not decided. Seven votes go over to the Left Social Revolutionaries. The Congress watches these introductory conflicts with a scowl.
The Congress greeted its præsidium with enthusiasm. While the factions had been assembling and conferring, Lenin with his make-up still on, in wig and big spectacles, was sitting in the passage-way in the company of two or three Bolsheviks. On the way to a meeting of their faction Dan and Skobelev stopped still. Opposite the table where the conspirators were sitting, stared at Lenin, and obviously recognised him. Time, then, to take the make-up off. But Lenin was in no hurry to appear publicly. He preferred to look round a little and gather the threads into his hands while remaining behind the scenes.
The verbal battles of the two camps were extraordinarily impressive against a background of cannon-shots. Martov demanded the floor. The moment when the balance is still oscillating is his moment — this inventive statesman of eternal waverings. With his hoarse tubercular voice Martov makes instant rejoinder to the metallic voice of the guns: “We must put a stop to military action on both sides ... The question of power is beginning to be decided by conspiratorial methods. All the revolutionary parties have been placed before a fait accompli ... A civil war threatens us with an explosion of counter-revolution. A peaceful solution of the crisis can be obtained by creating a government which will be recognised by the whole democracy.”
A considerable portion of the Congress applauds. Sukhanov [historian of the revolution and critic of the Bolsheviks] remarks ironically: “Evidently many and many a Bolshevik, not having absorbed the spirit of the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky, would have been glad to take that course.” The Left Social Revolutionaries and a group of United Internationalists support the proposal of peace negotiations. The Right Wing, and perhaps also the close associates of Martov, are confident that the Bolsheviks will reject this proposal. They are wrong. The Bolsheviks send Lunacharsky to the tribune, the most peace-loving, the most velvety of their orators. “The Bolshevik faction,” he says, “has absolutely nothing against Martov’s proposal.” The enemy are astonished. “Lenin and Trotsky in thus giving way a little to their own masses,” comments Sukhanov, “are at the same time cutting the ground from under the Right Wing.” Martov’s proposal is adopted unanimously. “If the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries withdraw now,” runs the comment in Martov’s group, “they will bury themselves.” It is possible to hope, therefore, that the Congress “will take the correct road of creating a united democratic front.” Vain hope! A revolution never moves on diagonals.
The Right Wing immediately violates the just-approved initiation of peace negotiations. The Menshevik Kharash, a delegate from the 12th Army with a captain’s star on his shoulders, makes a statement: “These political hypocrites propose that we decide the question of power. Meanwhile it is being decided behind our backs ... Those blows at the Winter Palace are driving nails in the coffin of the party which has undertaken such an adventure ...” The captain’s challenge is answered by the Congress with a grumble of indignation.
This demonstration of the Right Wing does not cow anybody, but causes alarm and irritation. The majority of the delegates are too sick and tired of these bragging and narrow-minded leaders who fed them first with phrases and then with measures of repression…
[The right seem to withdraw…]
Martov’s declaration, hostile through and through to the Bolsheviks, and lifeless in its arguments, condemns the revolution as “accomplished by the Bolshevik party alone by the method of a purely military plot,” and demands that the Congress suspend its labours until an agreement has been reached with all the socialists parties. To try to find the resultant of a parallelogram of forces in a revolution is worse than trying to catch your own shadow!
But it was necessary to put up a resistance to Martov. This task fell to Trotsky. “Now since the exodus of the Rights,” concedes Sukhanov, “his position is as strong as Martov’s is weak.” The opponents stand side by side in the tribune, hemmed in on all sides by a solid ring of excited delegates. “What has taken place,” says Trotsky, is an insurrection, not a conspiracy. An insurrection of the popular masses needs no justification. We have tempered and hardened the revolutionary energy of the Petrograd workers and soldiers. We have openly forged the will of the masses to insurrection, and not conspiracy ... Our insurrection has conquered, and now you propose to us: Renounce your victory: make a compromise. With whom? I ask: With whom ought we to make a compromise? With that pitiful handful who just went out? ... Haven’t we seen them through and through. There is no longer anybody In Russia who is for them. Are the millions of workers and peasants represented in this Congress, whom they are ready now as always to turn over for a price to the mercies of the bourgeoisie, are they to enter a compromise with these men? No, a compromise is no good here. To those who have gone out, and to all who made like proposals, we must say, ‘You are pitiful isolated individuals; you are bankrupts; your rôle is played out. Go where you belong from now on — into the rubbish-can of history!’”
“Then we will go!” cries Martov without awaiting the vote of the Congress.
The red marshals employed the short delay accorded to them with complete success. A new wind was blowing in the atmosphere of the Congress when its sitting was renewed. Kamenev read from the tribune a telephonogram just received from Antonov. The Winter Palace has been captured by the troops of the Revolutionary Military Committee; with the exception of Kerensky the whole Provisional Government with the dictator Kishkin [the man whom the provisional Government had appointed as military chief] at its head is under arrest. Although everybody had already learned the news as it passed from mouth to mouth, this official communication crashed in heavier than a cannon salute. The leap over the abyss dividing the revolutionary class from power has been made.
Driven out of the Palace of Kshesinskaia in July, the Bolsheviks have now entered the Winter Palace as rulers. There is no other power now in Russia but the power of the soviets. A complex tangle of feelings breaks loose in applause and shouting: triumph, hope, but also anxiety. Then come new and more confident bursts of applause. The deed is done. Even the most favourable correlation of forces contains concealed surprises, but the victory becomes indubitable when the enemy’s staff is made prisoner…
The unhappy Mensheviks selected this moment to draw attention to themselves. They had not yet, it seems, withdrawn. They had been considering in their faction what to do. Out of a desire to bring after him the wavering groups, Kapelinsky, who had been appointed to inform the congress of the decision adopted, finally spoke aloud the most candid reason for breaking with the Bolsheviks: “Remember that the troops are riding towards Petrograd; we are threatened with catastrophe.” “What! Are you still here?” – the question was shouted from all corners of the hall. “Why, you went out once!” The Mensheviks moved in a tiny group towards the entrance, accompanied by scornful farewells.
Lunacharsky at last got a chance to read a proclamation addressed to the workers, soldiers and peasants. But this was not merely a proclamation. By its mere exposition of what had happened and what was proposed, this hastily written document laid down the foundations of a new state structure. “The authority of the compromisist Central Executive Committee is at an end. The Provisional Government is deposed. The Congress assumes the power ...” The Soviet Government proposes immediate peace. It will transfer the land to the peasants democratise the army, establish control over production, promptly summon the Constituent Assembly, guarantee the right of the nations of Russia to self-determination. “The Congress resolves: That all power in the localities goes over to the soviets.” Every phrase as it is read turns into a salvo of applause. “Soldiers! Be on your guard! Railway workers! Stop all echelons sent by Kerensky against Petrograd! ... The fate of the revolution and the fate of the democratic peace is in your hands!”…
The session finally came to an end at about six o’clock. A grey and cold autumn morning was dawning over the city. The hot spots of the camp-fires were fading out in the gradually lightening streets. The greying faces of the soldiers and the workers with rifles were concentrated and unusual. If there were astrologers in Petrograd, they must have observed portentous signs in the heavens.
The capital awoke under a new power. The everyday people, the functionaries, the intellectuals, cut off from the arena of events, rushed for the papers early to find out to which shore the wave had tossed during the night. But it was not easy to make out what had happened. To be sure, the papers reported the seizure by conspirators of the Winter Palace and the ministers, but only as a passing episode. Kerensky has gone to headquarters; the fate of the government will be decided by the front. Reports of the Soviet Congress reproduce only the declarations of the Right Wing, enumerate those who withdrew, and expose the impotence of those who remained. The political editorials, written before the seizure of the Winter Palace, exude a cloudless optimism…
… So now Smolny became the focal point for all functions of the capital and the state. Here all the ruling institutions had their seat. Here orders were issued and hither people came to get them. Hence a demand went out for weapons, and hither came rifles and revolvers confiscated from the enemy. Arrested people were brought in here from all ends of the city. The injured began to flow in seeking justice. The bourgeois public and its frightened cab-drivers made a great yoke-shaped detour to avoid the Smolny region.
A steady flood of people poured along the sidewalks of the adjoining streets. Bonfires were burning at the outer and inner gates. By their wavering light armed workers and soldiers were belligerently inspecting passes. A number of armoured-cars stood shaking with the action of their own motors in the court. Nothing wanted to stop moving, machines or people. At each entrance stood machine-guns abundantly supplied with cartridge-belts. The endless, weakly lighted, gloomy corridors echoed with the tramping of feet, with exclamations and shouts. The arriving and departing poured up and down the broad staircase. And this solid human lava would be cut through by impatient and imperative individuals. Smolny workers, couriers, commissars, a mandate or an order lifted high in their hand, a rifle on a cord slung over their shoulder, or a portfolio under their arm.
The Military Revolutionary Committee never stopped working for an instant. It received delegates, couriers, volunteer informers, devoted friends, and scoundrels. It sent commissars to all corners of the town, set innumerable seals upon orders and commands and credentials – all this in the midst of intersecting inquiries, urgent communications, the ringing of telephone bells and the rattle of weapons. People utterly exhausted of their force, long without sleep or eating, unshaven, in dirty linen, with inflamed eyes, would shout in hoarse voices, gesticulate fantastically, and if they did not fall half dead on the floor, it seemed only thanks to the surrounding chaos which whirled them about and carried them away again on its unharnessed wings.
Never since the creation of the world have so many orders been issued — by word of mouth by pencil, by typewriter, by wire, one following after the other – thousands and myriads of orders, not always issued by those having the right, and rarely to those capable of carrying them out. But just here lay the miracle – that in this crazy whirlpool there turned out to be an inner meaning. People managed to understand each other. The most important and necessary things got done. Replacing the old web of administration, the first threads of the new were strung, The revolution grew in strength.
During that day, the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks was at work in Smolny. It was deciding the problem of the new government of Russia. No minutes were kept — or they have not been preserved. Nobody was bothering about future historians, although a lot of trouble was being prepared for them right there. The evening session of the Congress was to create a cabinet of ministers. M-i-n-i-s-t-e-r-s? ’What a sadly compromised word! It stinks of the high bureaucratic career, the crowning of some parliamentary ambition. It was decided to call the government the Soviet of People’s Commissars: that at least had a fresher sound. Since the negotiations for a coalition of the “entire democracy” had come to nothing, the question of the party and personal staff of the government was simplified. The Left Social Revolutionaries minced and objected. Having just broken with the party of Kerensky, they themselves hardly knew what they wanted to do. The Central Committee adopted the motion of Lenin as the only thinkable one: to form a government of Bolsheviks only…[The Left SRs would enter the government in December].
The Congress opened its session at nine o’clock in the evening. “The picture on the whole was but little different from yesterday — fewer weapons, less of a jam.” …This session was to decide the questions of peace, land and government. Only three questions: end the war, give the land to the people, establish a socialist dictatorship [i.e. socialist rule: Marxists like Trotsky considered all variants of capitalist rule, from the parliamentary to the fascist, to be bourgeois “dictatorship”]. Kamenev began with a report of the work done by the præsidium during the day the death penalty at the front introduced by Kerensky abolished; complete freedom of agitation restored; orders given for the liberation of soldiers imprisoned for political convictions, and members of land committees; all the commissars of the Provisional Government removed from office; orders given to arrest and deliver Kerensky and Kornilov. The Congress approved and ratified these measures.
Lenin, whom the Congress has not yet seen, is given the floor for a report on peace. His appearance in the tribune evokes a tumultuous greeting. The trench delegates gaze with all their eyes at this mysterious being whom they had been taught to hate and whom they have learned without seeing him to love. “Now Lenin, gripping the edges of the reading-stand, let little winking eyes travel over the crowd as he stood there waiting, apparently oblivious to the long-rolling ovation, which lasted several minutes. When it finished, he said simply, ‘We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.’”
…That initial statement which John Reed puts in the mouth of Lenin does not appear in any of the newspaper accounts. But it is wholly in the spirit of the orator. Reed could not have made it up. Just in that way Lenin must surely have begun his speech at the Congress of Soviets — simply, without unction, with inflexible confidence: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”
But for this it was first of all necessary to end the war. From his exile in Switzerland Lenin had thrown out the slogan: Convert the imperialist war into a civil war. Now it was time to convert the victorious civil war into peace. The speaker began immediately by reading the draft of a declaration to be published by the government still to be elected. The text had not been distributed, technical equipment being still very weak. The congress drank in every word of the document as pronounced.
“Suddenly, by common impulse,” – the story will soon be told by John Reed, observer and participant, chronicler and poet of the insurrection — “we found ourselves on our feet, mumbling together into the smooth lifting unison of the Internationale. A grizzled old soldier was sobbing like a child. Alexandra Kollontai rapidly winked the tears back. The immense sound rolled through the hall, burst windows and doors and soared into the quiet sky.”
Did it go altogether into the sky? Did it not go also to the autumn trenches, that hatch-work upon unhappy, crucified Europe, to her devastated cities and villages, to her mothers and wives in mourning? “Arise ye prisoners of starvation! Arise ye wretched of the earth!” The words of the song were freed of all qualifications. They fused with the decree of the government, and hence resounded with the force of a direct act. Everyone felt greater and more important in that hour. The heart of the revolution enlarged to the width of the whole world.
“We will achieve emancipation. The spirit of independence, of initiative, of daring, those joyous feelings of which the oppressed in ordinary conditions are deprived – the revolution had brought them now ... with our own hand!” The omnipotent hand of those millions who had overthrown the monarchy and the bourgeoisie would now strangle the war.
The Red Guard from the Vyborg district, the grey soldier with his scar, the old revolutionist who had served his years at hard labour, the young black-bearded sailor from the Aurora – all vowed to carry through to the end this “last and deciding fight.” “We will build our own new world!” We will build! In that word eagerly spoken from the heart was included already the future years of the civil war and the coming five-year periods of labour and privation. “Who was nothing shall be all!”
All if the actualities of the past have often been turned into song, why shall not a song be turned into the actuality of the future? Those trenchcoats no longer seemed the costumes of galley-slaves. The papakhi with their holes and torn cotton took a new aspect above those gleaming eyes. “The race of man shall rise again!” Is it possible to believe that it will not rise from the misery and humiliation, the blood and filth of this war?