4 Hamlets of Democratic Socialism

On s'engage et puis on voit.' Lenin was fond of citing Napoleon's maxim. It perfectly expressed his own revolutionary philosophy: that revolutions did not make themselves, they had to be made by their leaders. History has long ceased to be the record of the achievements of extraordinary men: we are all social historians now. Yet the course of history is full of unexpected turns that can only be explained by the actions of great leaders. This is particularly so in the case of revolutions, when the tide of events can be so easily turned. The October seizure of power is a good example: few historical events in the modern era better illustrate the decisive effect of an individual on the course of history. Without Lenin's intervention it would probably never have happened at all — and the history of the twentieth century would have been very different.

* The 'Directors', apart from Kerensky, were: Tereshchenko (Foreign Affairs); General Verkhov-sky (War); Admiral Verderevsky (Marine); and A. M. Nikirin (Posts and Telegraphs).


Kerensky's role stands out in stark contrast; he was quite unable to control events. Those who were close to him during these final weeks testify to his growing isolation, his weakness of will, his paralytic fear of the Left, and his fatal indecision in taking suitable measures against it. The constant tension and the sleepless nights of 1917 had taken a heavy toll on him — and he now lived with the help of morphine and cocaine. Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, the veteran SR and 'grandmother of the revolution', had moved in with Kerensky in the Winter Palace (gossipers called her his 'nanny'). At the end of July the Bolshevik leaders convened in Petrograd for their Sixth Party Conference. She begged Kerensky to arrest them; but he refused, giving the frail excuse that he did not even know where they were meeting. According to David Soskice, Kerensky's private secretary, the grey-haired woman then:

bowed to the ground before Kerensky and repeated several times in solemn imploring tones: 'I beg thee, Alexander Fedorovich, suppress the Conference, suppress the Bolsheviks. I beg thee to do this, or else they will bring ruin on our country and the revolution.' It was a dramatic scene. To see the grandmother of the Russian Revolution who had passed thirty-eight years of her life in prison and in Siberia in her struggle for liberty, to see that highly cultured and noble woman bowing to the ground in the ancient orthodox manner before the young Kerensky. . . was a thing I shall never forget. I looked at Kerensky. His pale face grew still whiter. His eyes reflected the terrible struggle that was proceeding within him. He was silent for long, and at last he said in a low voice: 'How can I do it?' 'Do it, A.F., I beseech thee', and again Babushka bowed to the ground. Kerensky could stand it no longer. He sprang to his feet and seized the telephone. 'I must learn first where the Conference meets and consult Avksentiev', and rang up the Ministry of the Interior. But Avksentiev was not in his office and the matter had to be adjourned for the time. I fancy to Kerensky's great relief.86

The conference went ahead without arrests — and three months later the Bolsheviks came to power.

One of the many remarkable facts about the Bolshevik seizure of power was that it had been expected for so long without anyone taking the measures needed to prevent it: such was the paralysis of the Provisional Government. During the evening of 25 October, as the ministers of the Provisional Government sat in the Winter Palace waiting for the end, many of them were tempted to curse Kerensky for having failed to destroy the Bolshevik Party after the July Days. The legal suppressions against them had certainly failed to reverse their growing influence. But the truth was that the government had neither the means nor the authority to make repressions work against a movement that was starting to grow deep roots in the mass-based organizations.

The social polarization of the summer gave the Bolsheviks their first real mass following as a party which based its main appeal on the plebeian rejection of all superordinate authority. The Kornilov crisis was the critical turning point, for it seemed to confirm their message that neither peace nor radical social change could be obtained through the politics of compromise with the bourgeoisie. The larger factories in the major cities, where the workers' sense of class solidarity was most developed, were the first to go over in large numbers to the Bolsheviks. By the end of May, the party had already gained control of the Central Bureau of the Factory Committees and, although the Menshevik trade unionists remained in the ascendancy until 1918, it also began to get its resolutions passed at important trade union assemblies. Bolshevik activists in the factories tended to be younger, more working class and much more militant than their Menshevik or SR rivals. This made them attractive to those groups of workers — both among the skilled and the unskilled — who were becoming increasingly prepared to engage in violent strikes, not just for better pay and working conditions but also for the control of the factory environment itself. As their network of party cells at the factory level grew, the Bolsheviks began to build up their membership among the working class, and as a result their finances grew through the new members' contributions. By the Sixth Party Conference at the end of July there were probably 200,000 Bolshevik members, rising to perhaps 350,000 on the eve of October, and the vast majority of these were blue-collar workers.87

The Bolsheviks made dramatic gains in the city Duma elections of August and September. In Petrograd they increased their share of the popular vote from 20 per cent in May to 33 per cent on 20 August. In Moscow, where the Bolsheviks had polled a mere II per cent in June, they swept to victory on 24 September with 51 per cent of the vote, while the SR vote collapsed from 56 per cent to 14 per cent, and the Mensheviks from 12 per cent to 4 per cent. The Kadets, on the other hand, as the only party representing the interests of the bourgeoisie, increased their share of the vote from 17 per cent to 31 per cent. These elections highlighted the political polarization of the country at large — Dan called them the 'civil war returns' — as voters swung to the two extremes parties with an overt class appeal. The apathy of the uncommitted — particularly those such as petty clerks, traders and shop assistants, who had no obvious class allegiance or party to vote for — had much to do with the Bolshevik success. Six months of fruitless politics and incessant cabinet crises had not encouraged them to place much faith in the ballot box. The democratic parties ran low-key campaigns and huge numbers of voters stayed away from the polling stations. In the Petrograd elections the turn-out was down by a third since May, while in the Moscow elections it was down by nearly half.88 This of course played into the hands of the Bolsheviks, who were far more hungry — and much better organized — to win power than any other party. How many Communist take-overs have been based on the apathy of the voters in a democracy?

A similar swing to the Bolsheviks took place in the Soviets. Here too grass-roots apathy deprived the Mensheviks and the SRs of their early ascendancy. They had only themselves to blame. To begin with, the Soviets had been open and democratic organs, where important decisions were made by the elected assembly. This made their proceedings somewhat chaotic, but it also gave them a sense of excitement and popular creativity. As the Soviet leaders became involved in the responsibilities of government they began to organize the work of the Soviets along bureaucratic lines, and this alienated the mass of the workers from them. The assemblies began to decline in frequency and attendance as the initiative switched to the executives and their quasi-governmental commissions, whose members were increasingly nominated by the party caucuses. From popular organs of direct self-rule, the Soviets were thus already beginning to be transformed into complex bureaucratic structures, although this process is more commonly associated with the period after 1917. At the time, it seemed a natural development: the workers themselves were deemed to lack the political experience required to take on the responsibilities of government, while the Soviet parties, because of their old camaraderie within the revolutionary movement, were automatically assumed to be exempt from the factional abuse of power which such centralization made possible. This of course was naive — and merely played into the hands of the Bolsheviks, the undisputed masters of factional politics, who increasingly employed such tactics to secure control of the Soviet executives. In dozens of provincial Soviets the Bolsheviks managed to gain a majority on the executive, although they were only a minority in the assembly. This was especially common where a Bolshevik-controlled workers' section was merged with a section of soldiers or peasants and, because of its 'leading role' in the revolutionary movement, given more seats on the executive: in the Samara provincial Soviet, for example, the Bolsheviks made up 75 per cent of the executive but only 26 per cent of the assembly.89

But the Bolsheviks' growing domination of the Soviets was not solely due to their factional scheming: they worked not just from above but also from below. The Soviets' bureaucratization had set them apart from the lives of the ordinary workers, who began to reduce their involvement in the Soviets and either lost all interest in politics or else looked instead to their own ad hoc bodies such as the factory committees to take the initiative. This added strength to the Bolshevik campaign, which was largely channelled through these grass-roots organizations, for the recall of the Menshevik and SR leaders from the Soviets as part of Lenin's drive towards Soviet power. The revitalization of the Soviets in the wake of the Kornilov crisis thus coincided with their radicalization from below, as factories and garrisons recalled the pro-coalition Mensheviks and SRs in favour of those Maximalists (Bolsheviks, Anarchists and Left SRs) calling for the assumption of Soviet power.

As early as August, the Bolsheviks had won control of the Soviets in Ivanovo-Voznesentsk (the 'Russian Manchester'), Kronstadt, Ekaterinburg, Samara and Tsaritsyn. But after the Kornilov crisis many other Soviets followed suit: Riga, Saratov and Moscow itself. Even the Petrograd Soviet fell to the Bolsheviks. On 31 August it passed a Bolshevik motion condemning the coalition politics of the Soviet leaders and calling for the establishment of a Soviet government. Half the delegates eligible to vote had not been present at this historic meeting, though some of the Menshevik and SR delegates had voted against their party leaders. The leaders threatened to resign if the vote was not reversed at a second meeting on 9 September. But once again the Bolshevik motion was carried. Trotsky, appearing for the first time after his release from prison, dealt the decisive rhetorical blow by forcing the Soviet leaders to admit that Kerensky, by this stage widely regarded as a 'counter-revolutionary', was still a member of their executive. On 25 September the leadership of the Petrograd Soviet was completely revamped, with the Bolsheviks occupying four of the seven seats on its executive and Trotsky replacing Chkheidze as its Chairman. This was the beginning of the end. In the words of Sukhanov, the Petrograd Soviet was now Trotsky's guard, ready at a sign from him to storm the coalition'.90

The Bolshevik cause had been greatly strengthened by Trotsky's entry into the party. No one else in the leadership came anywhere near him as a public speaker, and for much of the revolutionary period it was this that made Trotsky, perhaps even more so than Lenin, the best-known Bolshevik leader in the country at large.* Whereas Lenin remained the master strategist of the party, working mainly behind the scenes, Trotsky became its principal source of public inspiration. During the weeks leading up to the seizure of power he spoke almost every night before a packed house at the Cirque Moderne. With his sharp ringing voice, his piercing logic and brilliant wit, he held his listeners spellbound with his denunciations of the Provisional Government. There was a literary, almost Homeric, quality to his oratory (some of his speeches were recorded). It stemmed from the expressive skill of his phrasing, the richness of his imagery, the powerful rhythm and pathos of his speech, and, perhaps above all, the simple style of narration which he used to involve his listeners in the moral drama from which he then drew his political conclusions. He was always careful to use examples and comparisons from the real life of his audience. This gave his speeches a familiarity and earned Trotsky the popular reputation of being 'one of us'.91It was this that gave him his extraordinary power to master the crowd, even sometimes when it was extremely hostile. The incident with Chernov during the July Days was a good example, as were the occasions in the civil war, when Trotsky persuaded dangerous bands of deserters from the Red Army to return to the Front against the Whites.

* It had largely been personal rivalry that prevented Trotsky from joining the Bolshevik Party earlier, despite the absence of any real ideological differences between himself and Lenin during 1917. He could not bring himself to surrender to 'Lenin's party' — a party which he had been so critical of in the past. As Lenin once replied when asked what still kept him and Trotsky apart: 'Now don't you know? Ambition, ambition, ambition.' (Balabanoff, My Life, 175—6.)


Trotsky brought the Mezhraionka with him into the party. The Mezh-raionka, or Inter-District group, was a faction of SD Internationalists with good contacts in the Petrograd garrison. Its importance stemmed less from the size of its following (which was certainly fewer than 4,000 members) than from the stature of its leaders. It was really no more than a collection of brilliant generals without an army. Yet in them the Bolsheviks were to gain some of their most talented organizers, theoreticians, polemicists and agitators: Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Ryazanov, Uritsky, Manuilsky, Pokrovsky, Yoffe and Volodarsky. Many of them were set to play a prominent part in the seizure of power and the later development of the Soviet regime.

The rising fortunes of the Bolsheviks during the summer and autumn were essentially due to die fact that they were the only major political party which stood uncompromisingly for Soviet power.* This point bears emphasizing, for one of the most basic misconceptions of the Russian Revolution is that the Bolsheviks were swept to power on a tide of mass support for the party itself. The October insurrection was a coup d'etat, actively supported by a small minority of the population (and indeed opposed by several of the Bolshevik leaders themselves). But it took place amidst a social revolution, which was centred on the popular realization of Soviet power as the negation of the state and the direct self-rule of the people, much as in the ancient peasant ideal of volia. The political vacuum brought about by this social revolution enabled the Bolsheviks to seize power in the cities and consolidate their dictatorship during the autumn and winter. The slogan All Power to the Soviets!' was a useful tool, a banner of popular legitimation covering the nakedness of Lenin's ambition (which was better expressed as All Power to the Party). Later, as the nature of the Bolshevik dictatorship became apparent, the party faced the growing opposition of precisely those groups in society which in 1917 had rallied behind the Soviet slogan.

* The Mensheviks and SRs only had minority left-wing factions in favour of a Soviet government, of which more on pages 464—5.


The popular demand for Soviet power had never expressed itself in a preference for the dictatorship of any particular party. The torrent of resolutions, petitions and declarations from the factories, the army units and the villages in support of a Soviet government after the Kornilov crisis invariably called on all the socialist parties to take part in its establishment, and often displayed a marked impatience with the factional disputes between them. Their political language had basically remained unchanged since 1905: the dominant image within them was that of 'the people', the narod, in a struggle for freedom against an oppressive regime, the Kerenshchina. The latter, it is true, was now described as 'bourgeois', which no doubt reflected the increased influence of the Marxist agitators and the Bolsheviks in particular. But the basic concept of these resolutions, which these agitators merely articulated in the language of class, remained in essence a popular struggle between 'us' and 'them', the nizy and the verkhi, or the common people and the privileged elite at the head of the government. Their dominant sentiment was one of anger and frustration that nothing concrete had been gained, neither peace, nor bread, nor land, six months after the February Revolution, and that unless a decisive break was made with the bourgeoisie in the coalition there would only be another winter of stagnation.92

What the workers saw in Soviet power, above all, was the chance to control their own factory environment. They wanted to regulate their own shop-floor relations, to set their own wages and working conditions, and combat the 'sabotage', the conspiratorial running-down of production by profit-conscious employers, which many workers blamed for the industrial crisis. In this heightened atmosphere of class war, impatience was growing with the Mensheviks' leadership of the labour movement: their policies of mediating labour disputes and conciliating the employers had failed to stop the rising tide of unemployment. Many workers, especially those under the influence of the Bolsheviks, saw the solution in the sequestration (or nationalization) of their factory by a Workers' State, called 'Soviet Power', which would then set up a management board of workers, technicians and Soviet officials to keep the factory running.* It was part of the growing political consciousness of the workers, the realization that their demands could only be achieved by changing the nature of the state itself.

* This was roughly the import of the Bolshevik Decree on Workers' Control passed on 14 November.


This politicization became manifest in the dramatic upsurge of strikes which crippled the country from September onwards. Because of the general effects of inflation, it was far more widespread than previous strike-waves: unskilled labourers and semi-intelligentsia groups, such as hospital, city and clerical workers, were forced to cast aside their usual reluctance to strike in the struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living. Yet because strikes were ineffective — and even counter-productive — in combating inflation, they were often accompanied by broader political demands for the whole economy to be restructured. Industrial strikes, still the most common, were also much more likely to end up in violence. They were no less than a battle for the control of the workplace and the city economy as a whole. The trade unions and factory committees, which tended to have a moderating influence, soon lost control of these militant strikes. They spilled on to the streets and sometimes even ended in bloody conflicts between the workers — armed, trained and organized by the Red Guards — and the government militias. Employers and managers were assaulted; and where they resorted to lock-outs, the factory buildings were stormed and occupied by the workers. Some strikes spread to involve the residents of whole urban districts in attacks on bakeries and shops, house searches and arrests of the burzboois whom the crowd suspected of hoarding food. There was also a steep rise in looting and crime, drunkenness and vandalism, ethnic conflicts and anti-Jewish pogroms during September and October.93 To the urban propertied classes, these final weeks before the Bolshevik seizure of power appeared like a descent into anarchy.

September also saw a violent upturn in the peasant war against the landed estates. With the approach of the autumn ploughing, the time seemed ripe for a final reckoning with the old agrarian order. The peasants were fed up with waiting for the Provisional Government to deliver on its promises about the land, and most villages now had their own band of soldiers from the army ready to lead them in the march on the manors. The pogrom, or violent sacking of an estate by the mob, became a widespread phenomenon in the central black-soil regions, whereas in previous months the peasant movement had been mainly confined to disputes over rent, the confiscation of cattle and the organized seizure of the arable fields by the village committee. In Tambov province hundreds of manor houses were burned and vandalized — the aim ostensibly being, as the peasants put it, to 'drive the squires out'. This violent wave of destruction seems to have started with the murder of Prince Boris Vyazemsky, the owner of several thousand hectares in the Usman region of Tambov. The local peasants had been demanding since the spring that Vyazemsky lower his rents and return the hundred hectares of prime pasture he had taken from them as a punishment for their part in the revolution of 1905. But on both counts Vyazemsky had refused. On 24 August some 5,000 peasants from the neighbouring villages occupied the estate. Fortified by vodka from the Prince's cellars, and armed with pitchforks and rifles, they repulsed a Cossack detachment, arrested Vyazemsky and organized a kangaroo court which decided to despatch him to the Front, so that he can learn to fight as the peasants have done'. But there were also cries of 'Let's kill the Prince, we are sick of him!', and he was murdered by the drunken mob before he even reached the nearby railway station. Vyazemsky's manor house was then destroyed, the livestock and tools divided up and carted back to the villages, and his arable land ploughed by the peasants.94

Similar pogroms followed on dozens of other estates, not only in Tambov but also in the neighbouring provinces of Penza, Voronezh, Saratov, Kazan, Orel, Tula and Riazan'. In Penza province some 250 manors (one-fifth of the total) were burned or destroyed in September and October alone. One agronomist left a vivid description of the plundered estates in Saratov province during the autumn of 1917:

As far as the manor buildings are concerned, they have been senselessly destroyed, with only the walls left standing. The windows and doors were the worst to suffer; in the majority of the estates no trace is left of them. All forms of transport have been destroyed or taken. Cumbersome machines like steam-threshers, locomotives, and binders were taken out for no known reason and discarded along the roads and in the fields. The agricultural tools were also taken. Anything that could be used in the peasant households simply disappeared from the estates.

Not even Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy's estate in Tula, escaped the wrath of the peasants he had once idolized. Sonya, Tolstoy's widow, who was now old and blind, cabled Kerensky for help, while her daughters packed their father's books and manuscripts into wooden boxes and piled them up in the salon, where they waited in darkness for the plundering mob to come. They had armed themselves with knives and hammers to fight for their lives if need be. But the marauding peasants, seeing the house unlit, assumed it had already been destroyed and moved on to the next estate.95

This final reckoning with the squires usually took place at the same time as the establishment of the Soviet in the village or the volost township. The peasants saw the Soviets as the realization of their long-cherished volia, the direct self-rule of their villages free from the intervention of the gentry or the state. The village Soviets were really no more than the communes in a more revolutionary form. The Soviet assembly was indistinguishable from the open gathering of the communal skhod, except perhaps that the white-bearded patriarchs were now overshadowed by the younger and more literate peasants, such as Semenov, who helped to establish the Soviet in Andreevskoe. The peasant Soviets often behaved like village republics, paying scant regard to the orders of the central state. Many of them employed their own police forces and set up their own courts, while some even had their own flags and emblems. Nearly all of them had their own volunteer militia, or Red Guard, organized by the younger peasants straight out of the army to defend the revolutionary village and its borders.96

* * * The mass of workers and peasants were moving inexorably towards their own localist conceptions of Soviet rule. Only a Soviet government could hope to command any real authority in the country at large. This had been the case since the February Revolution. But time and again the Soviet leaders had chosen to ignore it — their dogmatic faith in the need for a 'bourgeois stage of the revolution' had tied them to the hopeless task of trying to keep the coalition going — and every time the streets had arisen to the cry of Soviet power they had chosen to cover their ears. And yet at last, in the wake of the Kornilov crisis, it seemed that the moment had come for the socialist parties to make the decisive break and form a government of their own. The Kadets, the major bourgeois partner of the coalition, had been thoroughly discredited by their support for the 'counter-revolutionary' general; while the socialist parties were being pulled by their own rank-and-file supporters towards Soviet power. The possibility was beginning to emerge during the first half of September that all the major socialist parties, from the Popular Socialists on the right to the Bolsheviks on the left, might come together for the formation of a government based exclusively on the Soviets and the other democratic organizations. It was a unique historical moment, a fleeting chance for the revolution to follow a different course from the one that it did. If this opportunity had been taken, Russia might have become a socialist democracy rather than a Communist dictatorship; and, as a result, the bloody civil war — which by the autumn of 1917 was probably inevitable — might have lasted weeks instead of years.

The three main Soviet parties were all moving towards the idea of a socialist government, or at least a decisive break with the bourgeoisie, in the weeks following the Kornilov crisis. Martov's left-wing Menshevik faction, which favoured an all-socialist government, was steadily gaining supporters among the rank and file of the party. Under their pressure, the Menshevik Central Committee pledged itself to the formation of a 'homogenous democratic government' on I September. The Left SRs were also gaining ground, effectively emerging as a separate party after the crisis. Their three major policies — a socialist government based on the Soviet, the immediate confiscation of the gentry's estates and an end to the war — could not have been better tailored to suit the demands of the SR rank and file, the mass of the peasants and soldiers, though such was their disillusionment with Kerensky and Chernov that many of them abandoned the SRs altogether and moved directly to the Bolsheviks. The provincial Soviet in Saratov, home of the SRs, went Bolshevik during September.97

The Bolsheviks were also coming round to the idea of a socialist coalition based on the Soviets. Kamenev of course had always been in favour of this. He had been fighting all along to keep the Bolshevik campaign within the Soviet movement and the democratic institutions of the February Revolution. As he saw it, the country was not ripe for a Bolshevik uprising, and any attempt to stage one was bound to end in civil war and the defeat of the party. It would be the Paris Commune all over again. In his view the Bolsheviks had no choice but to continue with the strategy of trying to win support in the Soviets, in the city Dumas, and eventually in the Constituent Assembly through democratic elections. They also had to persuade the Mensheviks and SRs to break with the coalition and join them in a socialist government.

Until the Kornilov crisis, Lenin had been flatly opposed to the idea of any compromise with the Soviet leaders. After the July Days he had given up all hope of coming to power through the Soviets: as he saw it, the Provisional Government had been captured by a 'military dictatorship' engaged in a 'civil war' against the proletariat; the Soviets had lost their revolutionary potential and were being led, 'like sheep to the abattoir', by a group of leaders bent on appeasing the 'counter-revolution'. The only option left was to give up the slogan All Power to the Soviets!' and stage an armed uprising to transfer power to the rival proletarian organs under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. It was revealing of Lenin's attitude towards the Soviets, in whose name his regime was to be founded, that whenever they failed to serve the interests of his party, he was ready to ditch them. It is quite mistaken to argue, as Isaac Deutscher once did, that Lenin was planning to make the Soviet Congress the constitutional source of sovereign power, like the English House of Commons, with the Bolsheviks ruling through this congress in the manner of a Western parliamentary party* Lenin was no Soviet constitutionalist — and all his actions after October testified to this. The Soviets, in his schema, were always to be subordinated to the party. Even in The State and Revolution — supposedly his most 'libertarian' work of political theory, which he completed at this time — Lenin stressed the need for a strong and repressive party state, a Dictatorship of the Proletariat, during the period of transition to the Communist Utopia when the 'bourgeois state' was to be smashed. He barely mentioned the Soviets at all.98

Yet, in the wake of the Kornilov crisis, which had seen the Soviet leaders move to the left, even Lenin was prepared to consider the idea of a compromise with them. Not that he gave up his ultimate aim of a Bolshevik dictatorship. 'Our party', he assured its left wing on I September in his article 'On Compromises', 'is striving after political domination for itself.' But the leftward move of the Soviets, which worked to the benefit of the party, opened up the prospect of moving once again towards Soviet power through peaceful means. The Bolsheviks, after all, were now likely to be a dominant force in any government based on the Soviets — and it was this that enabled Lenin to consider what, in essence, as he put it, would be 'our return to the pre-July demand of all power to the Soviets'. During the fortnight leading up to the opening of the Democratic Conference, on 14 September, when the power question was to be resolved, Lenin supported Kamenev's efforts to persuade the Mensheviks and SRs to break with the coalition and join the Bolsheviks in a socialist government based on the Soviets. If the Soviet leaders agreed to assume power, the Bolsheviks would give up their campaign for an armed uprising and compete for power within the Soviet movement itself. But Lenin's implication remained clear: if the Soviet leaders refused to do this, the party should prepare for the seizure of power."

* It is interesting how many Marxists of Deutscher's generation (E. H. Carr immediately comes to mind) were inclined to see the Western democratic system as inherently authoritarian and the Soviet regime as inherently democratic. For Deutscher's comments on Lenin's 'Soviet constitutionalism' see The Prophet Armed, 290-1.


The fate of Russia thus depended on the actions of the Soviet leaders at the Democratic Conference. This was the moment when their national leadership was put to the crucial test — and was found wanting. The Conference took place in the Alexandrinsky Theatre, which proved a suitable venue since the meeting ended in farce. Three clear political groupings immediately became apparent: the Right, which favoured a coalition with the Kadets; the Centre, which favoured a coalition with the bourgeoisie but without the Kadets; and the Left, which supported a socialist government, either based on the Soviets or more broadly on the democratic groups represented at the conference. But when it came to the vote there was total confusion. To begin with, the conference passed a resolution (by 766 votes to 688) supporting the general principle of a coalition with the bourgeoisie. But then it passed two further amendments excluding the Kadets from such a coalition. This so angered the Right that they then sided with the Left in a second vote on the original resolution and defeated it by 813 votes to 183. After four days of debate the conference had ended without an opinion on the vital issue for which it had been called. This was neither the first nor the last time in the brief and interrupted history of the Russian democratic movement that the basic skills of parliamentary decisionmaking proved beyond its leaders; but it was perhaps the most critical in terms of its consequences.

An extraordinary delegation of conference members was hastily convened to resolve the government crisis. It was dominated by the SR and Menshevik leaders in favour of a coalition and, contrary to the clear vote of the conference, immediately opened negotiations with the Kadets. On 24 September agreement was reached, and the following day Kerensky named his cabinet. It was in essence the same political compromise as the Second Coalition of July, with the moderate socialists technically holding a majority of the portfolios and the Kadets in control of the key posts. But the Third Coalition had none of the ministerial talent — slight though that had been — of its predecessor. It was made up of second-rate Kadets and obscure provincial Trudoviks without any real experience of government at the national level. The socialists had wanted to make it responsible to the Preparliament — a bogus and ultimately impotent body appointed by the Democratic Conference in the vain hope of giving the Republic some form of legitimacy until the convocation of the Constituent Assembly (Plekhanov called it 'the little house on chicken's feet'). But the Kadets had forced them to give up this demand as the price for their involvement in the coalition. The Provisional Government was thus to remain de jure the sovereign power until the Assembly convened.100 But would this new opera buffa cabinet even last that long? Without de facto power, it proved incapable of passing meaningful legislation and only hoped to cling on to office until the November elections. Survival for six weeks — that was the sum of its minuscule ambitions — and yet it lasted only four.

The failure of the Democratic Conference was a public confession of the political bankruptcy of the Soviet leaders. After this final admission of their reluctance to assume power, there was a sudden and sharp collapse in the support for the Mensheviks and SRs. The Menshevik Party had practically ceased to exist in Petrograd by the end of September: the last all-city party conference was unable to meet for lack of a quorum. It was not just their rigid Marxist dogma that had kept the Menshevik leaders within the coalition, but a much more fundamental failure to recognize the social and political forces which had been unfolding during 1917. Almost from the outset', writes Leo Haimson, the foremost historian of the Mensheviks, 'they had found themselves valiantly trying to master a chaos that had gradually overwhelmed them. Nothing about the experience had proven familiar, or run according to expectations.' They had failed to see that their own base of support, the industrial workers, was becoming radicalized, and that only a Soviet government could hope to command any real authority among them. Blinded by their own commitment to the state, which had made them defend the coalition principle at all costs, they ceased to act or think like revolutionaries and dismissed the workers' growing radicalism and support for the Bolsheviks as a manifestation of their 'ignorance' and 'immaturity'; and this confirmed them in their dogmatic belief that the Soviets were not ready for power.101 The SR leaders were guilty of similar self-deception in their naive belief that the peasantry's demand for a fundamental land reform, upon which the SR Party had been built, could be put off until the end of the war and the resolution of the power question at the Constituent Assembly. The peasants were increasingly indifferent to the outcome of the war and to the form of the national government: all they wanted was peace, land and freedom, as expressed in the volia of their own autonomous village committees and Soviets. This would be proved by the ill-fated SR struggle during 1918 to reverse the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and to rally the Volga peasants behind the defence of the Constituent Assembly, after it had been closed by the Bolsheviks.

The failure of the SRs, like that of the Mensheviks, was above all a failure of leadership. Both parties were hopelessly split on the two fundamental issues of 1917: what to do with the war and where to draw the balance between the political and social revolutions. Their right-wing leaders were Defensist and placed greater stress on the political revolution; while their left-wing comrades were firmly committed to peace and radical social reforms. Given Russia's historical legacy and the huge cultural gulf between the intelligentsia and the masses, there was perhaps no real prospect, at least in 1917, of sustaining a political revolution in the European tradition. But a socialist democracy might just have been stabilized, if the Soviet leaders had agreed to form a coalition with the Bolsheviks in September — and if Lenin had subsequently agreed to respect such a coalition. These, of course, were very big 'ifs'. The Left SRs did eventually form a lonely alliance with the Bolsheviks in October, though by that stage Lenin had no intention of treating them as an equal partner. As for the left-wing Mensheviks, they were hopelessly stranded. Martov, their leader, could not bring himself to join any sort of alliance with his old rival Lenin, although this was the logical outcome of his quarrel with the Defensists, as most of his supporters recognized. A party loyalist to the end, Martov remained on board the sinking ship of Menshevism.

Trotsky described Martov as the 'Hamlet of Democratic Socialism' — and this is just about the sum of it. Like so many of the veteran socialist leaders who found themselves at the head of the Soviet movement in 1917, Martov was much too good an intellectual to be a successful politician. He was always held back by his own integrity and philosophical approach to politics. He tended to choose his allies by the coherence of their general world-view rather than the timeliness or even the practicality of their policies. It was this that made him stick with the Mensheviks rather than switch to a tactical alliance with the Bolsheviks in September: he placed greater importance on the basic Marxist principles of the Mensheviks than on the purely political arguments for such an alliance. This high-minded approach has since won Martov many plaudits among the socialist intelligentsia: even Lenin was said to have confessed in 1921 that his single greatest regret was 'that Martov is not with us. What an amazing comrade he is, what a pure man!' Yet such noble principles are a fatal burden for the revolutionary leader, and in Martov's case they made him soft and indecisive when just the opposite was required.102

The same intellectual indecisiveness was characteristic of many of the Soviet leaders in 1917 — and in this sense they could all be described as Hamlets of democratic socialism. Chernov was a similarly tragic figure in the SR Party. Like Martov, he was a brilliant intellectual and party theoretician, yet he utterly lacked the qualities required to become a successful revolutionary leader. He did not have that hardness of inner resolve and will, that single-minded determination to carry his policies through, even if this meant splitting his own party, or indeed that basic instinct to judge when the moment was ripe to strike out for power. That was the crucial difference between a Chernov and a Lenin — and upon that difference the fate of Russia turned.

* * * With Kamenev's plan for a socialist coalition scotched by the failure of the Democratic Conference, Lenin reverted to his campaign in the party for an immediate armed uprising. He had already begun to advocate this in two letters to the Central Committee written from exile in Finland on the eve of the conference. The Bolsheviks, Lenin had argued, 'can and must take state power into their own hands'. Can — because the party had already won a majority in the Moscow and Petrograd Soviets, which was 'enough to carry the people with it' in any civil war, provided the party in power proposed an immediate peace and gave the land to the peasants. Must — because if it waited for the convocation of the Constituent Assembly, 'Kerensky and Co.' would take preemptive action against the transfer of power, either by giving up Petrograd to the Germans or by delaying the convocation of the Constituent Assembly. The Democratic Conference was to be condemned, since it represented 'only the compromising upper strata of the bourgeoisie. We must not be deceived by the election figures: elections prove nothing . . . The majority of the people are on our side.' Reminding his comrades of Marx's dictum that 'insurrection is an art', Lenin had concluded that 'it would be naive to wait for a "formal" majority for the Bolsheviks. No revolution ever waits for that. . . History will not forgive us if we do not assume power now.'103

These two letters reached the Central Committee on 15 September. They were, to say the least, highly inconvenient for the rest of the Bolshevik leaders ('We were all aghast', Bukharin recalled) since the Democratic Conference had just begun and they were still committed to Kamenev's conciliatory tactics. It was even resolved to burn all but one copy of the letters, lest they should fall into the hands of the rank-and-file Bolsheviks and spark a revolt. The Central Committee continued to ignore Lenin's advice and printed instead his earlier articles, in which he had endorsed the Kamenev line. Lenin was beside himself with rage. While he was still afraid to return to Petrograd (Kerensky had ordered Lenin's arrest at the Democratic Conference), he moved from Finland to the resort town of Vyborg, eighty miles from the capital, to be closer. During the following weeks, he assaulted the Central Committee and the lower-level party organizations with a barrage of impatient letters, full of violent and abusive phrases heavily underlined, in which he urged them to start the armed insurrection at once. He condemned the 'parliamentary tactics' of the Bolshevik leaders; and welcomed the prospect of a civil war ('the sharpest form of the class struggle'), which they were trying to avert on the false assumption that, like the Paris Communards, they were bound to be defeated. On the contrary, Lenin insisted, the antiBolshevik forces would be no more than those aligned behind the Kornilov movement, and any 'rivers of blood' would give 'certain victory' to the party.

Finally, on 29 September, at the high point of his frustration, Lenin scribbled an angry tirade against the Bolshevik leaders, in which he denounced them as 'miserable traitors to the proletarian cause. They had wanted to delay the transfer of power until the Soviet Congress, due to convene on 20 October, whereas the moment was already ripe for the seizure of power and any delay would merely enable Kerensky to use military force against them. The workers, Lenin insisted, were solidly behind the Bolshevik cause; the peasants were starting their own war on the manors, thus ruling out the danger of an Eighteenth Brumaire, or a 'petty-bourgeois' counter-revolution, like that of 1849; while the strikes and mutinies in the rest of Europe were 'indisputable symptoms . . . that we are on the eve of a world revolution. To 'miss such a moment and "wait" for the Congress of Soviets would be utter idiocy, or sheer treachery', and if the Bolsheviks did so they would 'cover themselves with shame and destroy themselves as a party'. As a final ultimatum, he even threatened to resign from the Central Committee, thereby giving himself the freedom to take his campaign for an armed uprising to the Bolshevik rank and file, scheduled to meet at a Party Conference on 17 October. 'For it is my profound conviction that if we "wait" for the Congress of Soviets and let the present moment pass, we shall ruin the revolution.'104 Lenin's infamous 'rage' was reaching fever pitch.

Why was Lenin so insistent on the need for an armed uprising before the Congress of Soviets? All the signs were that time was on the side of the Bolsheviks: the country was falling apart; the Soviets were moving to the left; and the forthcoming Congress would almost certainly endorse the Bolshevik call for a transfer of power to the Soviets. Why stage a premature uprising and run the risk of civil war and defeat? Many Bolshevik leaders had stressed the need for the seizure of power to coincide with the Soviet Congress itself. This was the view of Trotsky and several other Bolsheviks in the Petrograd Soviet — and since they were closely informed about the mood in the capital and would have to play a leading role in any uprising, their point of view was highly influential in the party at large. While these leaders doubted that the party had sufficient support to justify an insurrection in its own name, they thought that it might be successfully carried out in the name of the Soviets. Since the Bolsheviks had conducted their campaign on the slogan of Soviet power, it was said that they needed the Congress to legitimize such an uprising and make it appear as the work of the Soviet as a whole, rather than one party. By taking this line, which would have delayed the uprising by no more than a few days, Lenin could have won widespread support in the party against those, such as Kamenev and Zinoviev, who were flatly opposed to the idea of an uprising. But Lenin was adamant — the seizure of power had to be carried out before the Congress convened. He continued to insist on this right up until the eve of the Congress itself.

Lenin justified his impatience by the notion that any delay in the seizure of power would enable Kerensky to organize repressive measures against it: Petrograd would be abandoned to the Germans; the seat of government would be moved to Moscow; and the Soviet Congress itself would be banned. This of course was nonsense. Kerensky was quite incapable of such decisive action and, in any case, as Kamenev pointed out, the government was powerless to put any counter-revolutionary intentions into practice. Lenin, it seems from some of his other writings at this time,* was deliberately inventing the danger of a clamp-down by Kerensky in order to strengthen his own arguments for a pre-emptive insurrection, although it is possible that he had become so out of touch with the real situation in Russia, having been in Finland since July, that he himself believed it. There were certainly rumours in the press that the government was planning to evacuate the capital in early October; and these no doubt reinforced his conviction that a civil war had begun, and that military victory would go to the side which dared to strike first. 'On s'engage et puis en voit.'

But there was another motive for wanting the insurrection before the Soviet Congress convened, quite apart from military tactics. If the transfer of power took place by a vote of the Congress itself, the result would almost certainly be a coalition government made up of all the Soviet parties. The Bolsheviks might gain the largest share of the ministerial places, if these were allocated on a proportional basis, but would still have to rule in partnership with at least the left-wing — and possibly all — of the SR and Menshevik parties. This would be a resounding political victory for Kamenev, Lenin's arch rival in the Bolshevik Party, who would no doubt emerge as the central figure in such a coalition. Under his leadership, the centre of power would remain with the Soviet Congress, rather than the party; and there might even be a renewed effort to reunite the Bolsheviks with the Mensheviks. As for Lenin himself, he ran the risk of being kept out of office, either on the insistence of the Mensheviks and SRs or on account of his own unwillingness to co-operate with them. He would thus be consigned to the left-wing margins of his own party. On the other hand, if a Bolshevik seizure of power took place before the Congress convened, then Lenin would emerge as the political master. The Congress majority would probably endorse the Bolshevik action, thereby giving the party the right to form a government of its own. If the Mensheviks and SRs could bring themselves to accept this forcible seizure of power, as a fait accompli, then a few minor places for them would no doubt be found in Lenin's cabinet. Otherwise, they would have no choice but to go into opposition, leaving the Bolsheviks in government on their own. Kamenev's coalition efforts would thus be undermined; Lenin would have his Dictatorship of the Proletariat; and although the result would inevitably be to plunge the country into civil war, this was something Lenin himself accepted — and perhaps even welcomed — as a part of the revolutionary process.

* During the final days before 25 October Lenin stressed that a military-style coup was bound to succeed, even if only a very small number of disciplined fighters joined it, because Kerensky's forces were so weak.


Returning to the capital, where he lived under cover in the flat of a party worker, Margarita Fofanova, Lenin convened a secret meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee on 10 October. The decision to prepare for an armed insurrection was taken at this meeting. It was one of those small ironies, of which there are bound to be many in the history of any revolution, that this historic event took place in the house of the Menshevik, Nikolai Sukhanov. His wife, Galina Flakserman, was a veteran Bolshevik (just imagine their domestic squabbles!) and had told her meddlesome husband not to bother coming home from his office at the Smolny that night, as it seems was his habit. Lenin arrived late and disguised in a wig — Kollontai recalled that 'he looked every bit like a Lutheran minister' — which he doffed for a moment on entering the apartment and then kept adjusting during the meeting: in his haste he had forgotten to pack the powder and, without it, the wig kept slipping off his shiny bald head. Of the twenty-one Central Committee members only twelve were present. The most important decision in the history of the Bolshevik Party — to launch the armed insurrection — was thus taken by a minority of the Central Committee: it passed by ten votes to two (Kamenev and Zinoviev). This, in effect, was a Leninist 'coup' within the Bolshevik Party* Once again, Lenin had managed to impose his will on the rest of its leaders. Without his decisive personal influence, it is hard to imagine the Bolshevik seizure of power.

* The Bolshevik Party Conference, scheduled for 17 October, was mysteriously cancelled at about this time — no doubt also on Lenm's insistence. The mood of the party rank and file suggested that it would express powerful opposition to the idea of an armed insurrection. During the following days, Kamenev and Zinoviev spearheaded their opposition to the insurrection with a call for the Party Conference to be convened. We still lack the crucial archival evidence to tell the full story of this internal party struggle. (On this see Rabinowitch, 'Bol'sheviki', 119—20.)


In the small hours of the following morning, as the meeting drew to a close, Lenin hastily pencilled its historic resolution on a piece of scrap paper torn from a child's notebook. Although no specific dates or tactics had been set, it recognized 'that an armed uprising [was] inevitable, and the time for it fully ripe', and instructed the party organizations to prepare for it as 'the order of the day'. With the meeting adjourned, Sukhanov's wife brought out the samovar and set the dining table with cheese, salami and black bread. The Bolsheviks at once tucked in.105 Conspiracy had made them hungry.

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