The situation of ‘dual power’ that emerged after the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 was marked by a series of major political crises.

Petrograd sailors

The Russian Revolution passed through five major crises as the class struggle ebbed and flowed during 1917.

Four of these crises – the February Days, the April Days, the Kornilov Coup (in August), and the October Insurrection – involved successful mass action to drive the revolution forwards. They weakened the old order, strengthened popular organisation, increased the consciousness, confidence, and combativity of the masses, and raised the platform from which the next advance would be made.

One of the crises – the July Days – was a partial setback. It resulted in retreat, not advance, for the revolutionary movement. Even so, it brought down a prime minister, and taught the masses valuable lessons.

The first crisis was the five-day insurrection that destroyed the Tsarist monarchy, brought to power a Provisional Government dominated by bourgeois liberals, and spawned a fast-developing network of democratic popular assemblies or ‘soviets’.

The second crisis played out between 18 April and 5 May. It was triggered by the new foreign minister’s undertaking to continue the imperialist war in alliance with Britain and France. This provoked two days of mass demonstrations (20-21 April). Many soldiers marched with their arms. Many called for the overthrow of the Provisional Government.

KerenskyBut it was too soon for a decisive battle. Lenin and the Bolsheviks reined the movement back. Nonetheless, the April Days produced a governmental crisis which saw the fall of Miliukov, the foreign minister, on 2 May, and the creation of a coalition government including Kerensky and five other ‘socialist’ ministers on 5 May.

The July Days crisis took the form of a three-day abortive insurrection in Petrograd (3-5 July). This represented a far more determined challenge to the Provisional Government than that of April. And it was followed by a wave of repression which drove the Bolshevik Party underground.

The problem was the gap between Petrograd, where the mood in the factories and barracks was already insurrectionary, and that in the rest of the country. The danger was that a revolution in Petrograd would be isolated and then drowned in blood like the Paris Commune (see MHW60).

Iron discipline had been necessary. The Bolsheviks had marched with the masses, but had argued against an immediate attempt to overthrow the government. Many workers denounced them as traitors. Many of their own members and close supporters were in despair.

As the movement subsided, hundreds were arrested, the revolutionary press was shut down, and Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders were forced into hiding. In working-class districts, the mood was sullen, and support for the party slumped.

But the July Days did not represent a decisive defeat. They brought about the fall of Prince Lvov, the Kadet prime minister, and his replacement by the ‘socialist’ Kerensky (21 July). And the Bolsheviks had succeeded in leading a retreat and preventing the decapitation of the revolution. The Petrograd mass movement was temporarily cowed; but it had not been broken.

The retreat was enough, however, to encourage an attempt at Tsarist counter-revolution. On 26 August, General Kornilov demanded dictatorial powers in order to restore order at home and in the army. Kerensky, on behalf of the Provisional Government, refused. Kornilov then marched on Petrograd.

Lenin argued that the revolution was in danger and that all revolutionaries had to defend Kerensky against Kornilov. Despite the betrayals and repression of the Kerensky government, it had to be supported against the generals, because if the coup succeeded the soviets and the left parties would be destroyed.

The Bolshevik intervention was decisive: it meant the entire revolutionary movement was mobilised against the coup. Kornilov’s army simply melted away. The soldiers were not prepared to fight for a Tsarist general. ‘The insurrection,’ wrote Trotsky, ‘had rolled back, crumbled to pieces, been sucked up by the earth.’ It had lasted four days (27-30 August).

The pendulum of revolution was now swinging with great force. The rising hopes of millions were approaching critical mass. The gloom of July was dispelled by the elation of August. Recruits poured into the Bolshevik Party. Lenin had supported Kerensky as a rope supports a hanged man.

The Bolsheviks had counted around 2,000 members in Petrograd in early March. This had reached 16,000 by late April, and 36,000 by late July. By then, more than one in ten of Petrograd’s industrial workers was a party member.

The July DaysThis meant growing influence over the working class as a whole. The Bolshevik vote in the capital increased from 20% in May, to 33% in August, to 45% in November.

At the First Soviet Congress in early June, the Bolsheviks had 13% of delegates. By the Second Congress in late October, they had 53%, and their allies, the Left SRs, had a further 21%.

The swing to the Bolsheviks after the defeat of Kornilov coincided with a deepening of Russia’s economic, social, and military crisis.

The soldiers were refusing to fight, shooting their officers, and heading for home. The peasants were taking possession of the land. The national minorities were agitating for independence. Industry was grinding to a halt. The levers of state power had seized up. The soviets were increasingly in control of social life. The Provisional Government was effectively paralysed.

Some time between 12 and 14 September, Lenin, who was still in hiding, wrote a letter headed ‘The Bolsheviks Must Assume State Power’. It was addressed to the Central Committee and the Petrograd and Moscow Committees of the Bolshevik Party.

The Bolsheviks had secured a majority in both the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. This, Lenin argued, demonstrated that the revolutionary crisis had ripened. The swing to the left in mass consciousness was now on a sufficient scale to ensure that if the revolutionary vanguard acted, the masses would follow. The danger now was delay.

Yet delay there was. The Bolshevik leaders vacillated. Not until 10 October did the Bolshevik Central Committee approve a resolution proposed by Lenin (who had attended in disguise) for an immediate insurrection.

But there was further vacillation – and outright defiance when two dissident members of the Central Committee, Zinoviev and Kamenev, went public with their opposition to Lenin’s policy.

Even on the eve of the insurrection, 24 October, Lenin felt it necessary to write to the Central Committee that ‘the situation is critical in the extreme … it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal … history will not forgive revolutionaries for procrastinating when they could be victorious …’

KornilovWhy was the Bolshevik leadership so reluctant to act? Why did it almost fail the ultimate test?

All parties, even the most revolutionary, give rise to their own organisational conservatism. Without caution and routine, no lasting organisation is possible. Wild adventurism is self-destructive.

The Bolshevik Party, so painfully constructed over long years of struggle, so profoundly shaped by experience of underground work in a police state, was conservative as a matter of self-preservation.

But then came the moment – and it would be brief – when the balance of forces finally tipped in favour of the revolutionaries.

Most of the time, explains Tony Cliff in his biography of Lenin, the workers are weaker than their enemies. ‘Any revolutionary party that did not control its impatience over the years in the light of this fact would condemn itself to adventurism and to its own destruction.

‘But the moment comes – and this is the meaning of revolution – when the habit of considering the enemy as stronger becomes the main obstacle on the road to victory.’

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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