1917–2017 centenary - May to July

lenin ptilov
Lenin addresses the workers at the Putilov Works

In 2017 we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace, and progress in history. Throughout the year, FRFI is carrying articles which analyse the lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution. In FRFI 256 we examined the aftermath of the February Revolution and Lenin’s presentation of the April Theses. Below, we continue the series with edited versions of two articles by Patrick Newman, first published in FRFI in 1987, which analyse developments up to July 1917, with Lenin’s Bolshevik leadership working to lay the political groundwork for the socialist revolution, but holding back a premature uprising.

Full versions of these articles can be found on our website www.revolutionarycommunist.org

Factory, land and nation

Marx and Engels expected the socialist revolution to begin in Europe, particularly in countries with a large working class such as Britain or Germany. Yet the development of imperialism in the 20th century meant the spread of revolutionary movements outside Europe.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, 85% of the population lived in the countryside (in Britain at the same date, 20%) and only 5% of the labour force was employed in industry (for Britain 60%). Although the working class was small (in 1914 only three million out of a total population of 150 million) it was the most highly concentrated in the world.

Proportionately, there were twice as many enterprises employing over 1,000 workers as in Germany or the US. During the war the concentration increased, especially in Petrograd where the number of workers in large factories almost doubled. The average factory employed 2,850 workers, and one, the Putilov Works, employed 40,000.

The majority of the workers toiled for a 10-hour day for a pittance – a 1908 survey of working class income listed as luxuries tramcar travel and postage stamps. Workers were subjected to harsh, humiliating conditions, especially in the textile industry. The foremen frequently used violence and in some places mounted guards with whips rode around inside the factory.

During the war, conditions worsened considerably. Prices multiplied six times between 1913–1917. On average, wages fell by about 15% in real terms from their previous low level. To add insult to injury, the capitalist class made enormous profits: in the Moscow textile industry, the average profit for 1916 was 53.1%, for the first part of 1917 it was 75.2%.

Attracted by these super-profits, English and French banks invested heavily in Russian industry. Even in 1913, 33% of the capital of Russian industry was foreign-owned, but the war accelerated this process tremendously, so that the Russian bourgeoisie became little more than a junior partner of imperialism. Thus the strength of the working class was not counter-balanced by a strong native bourgeoisie.

The first test of strength between the working class and the bourgeoisie took place over the eight-hour day. In the 1905 revolution the failure to win this demand had been the first major setback. But in 1917 the capitalists were forced to give way only three weeks after the February revolution.

The Mensheviks opposed fighting for the eight-hour day: ‘A struggle on two fronts – against the reaction and against the capitalist – is too much for the proletariat.’ However the workers could see that ‘freedom’ was not much use to them if it did not mean freedom from excessive toil for the capitalist. So in most of the big factories, the workers, led by the Bolsheviks, simply got up and left after eight hours work – foremen who tried to prevent them from doing so were carted out of the factories in wheelbarrows.

But however well organised the working class, without powerful allies it could be isolated and eventually defeated. It found its allies in the peasantry and the subject nationalities of the Russian empire.

The wager on the strong

Although feudalism in Russia was formally abolished by the 1861 Act of Emancipation, it was not destroyed outright. The serfs were freed, but they were still tied to the feudal landlords by the ‘labour-service’ system.

The amount of land allocated to the former serfs was actually reduced after 1861, and the doubling of the population by 1900 meant an enormous pressure on the land. By 1905 in European Russia 10 million peasant households owned 79 million hectares, while 28,000 landlords, members of the aristocracy or the higher bureaucracy owned 66 million hectares, with the crown lands amounting to 5.4 million hectares, and the church 2.7 million. The communal allotments amounted to 150 million hectares.

The landlord system prevailed in European Russia. In the borderlands, especially the Baltic provinces, the differentiation of the peasantry was quite advanced; and the virgin lands of the north and Siberia, untouched by feudalism, were colonised by peasant farmers.

How would the conflict between landlord and peasant be resolved? History had shown two solutions (Lenin, CW vol 13 p239). Either the ruling powers control developments from above (Prussian way), and the feudal landlord economy slowly evolves into bourgeois landlord economy, while at the same time there arises a small minority of large capitalist farmers. Or the land is distributed by action from below (American way). This leads to a rapid development of capitalist farming, with a differentiation of the peasantry into landless labourers and capitalist farmers.

The peasants attempted the revolutionary solution in 1905. Although they were eventually defeated, they terrified the ruling classes, who realised that they must implement the Prussian solution more vigorously. The Stolypin decree, 9 November 1906, aimed to promote the development of a class of large capitalist farmers, the kulaks, by giving individual peasants permission to sell their portion of communal land – Stolypin called it the ‘wager on the strong’.

For Russia, it was too little, too late. In Germany it had taken decades to create a class of capitalist farmers, a reliable support for counter-revolution; but in Russia by the end of the first decade (1916), only 12% of the communal land had been broken up.

The war intensified the agrarian crisis. By 1916, the planted area in European Russia declined by 8.4%; and the government carried away from the countryside about 10 million workers (40% of the able-bodied male population of the villages) and about 2 million horses (10%).

How did the peasantry respond in the first three months of the revolution? Some seizures of land took place, but as a whole it cautiously waited to see if the new government had reliable punitive detachments at its disposal.

Politically the peasantry supported the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). At the First All-Russian Congress of Peasants Deputies (4–28 May 1917), 537 (48%) of the 1,115 deputies were SRs, with only 14 Bolsheviks (1.4%). The elections to its Executive Committee (EC) gave the SR leader, Chernov, 810 votes, Lenin 20. The SRs opposed land seizures, and called on the peasants to wait for the Constituent Assembly to distribute the land.

But the peasants were becoming impatient. Although the Bolsheviks were still a tiny minority, they were more prepared than the SRs to fight for the peasants’ interests. As the only Russian Marxist of his time to make a serious study of the agrarian problem, Lenin had equipped the Bolshevik party with a realistic programme.

Its central demand was the organised seizure of the landlords’ estates, as they were ‘… the material mainstay of the power of the feudalist landowners and a guarantee of the possible restoration of the monarchy.’ (CW 24 p290).

Fearing, however, that the rich peasants might unite with the bourgeoisie to hold back the revolution, Lenin called for the setting up of Soviets of Agricultural Labourers' Deputies, relying on the landless labourers to carry the revolution through to the end. As it happened, just as in 1905, even the rich peasants made the destruction of the landlord system their central objective.


The first systematic census (1897) showed that 60% of the inhabitants of the Russian empire were non-Russians. From the accession of Tsar Alexander III (1881) to the 1905 revolution the Tsars followed a systematic policy of intensified Russification and the repression of national minorities, mainly in an attempt to utilise Great Russian chauvinism as a weapon against growing social unrest. The Poles (6.1% of the population) and the Jews (4.1%) suffered the most.

In Poland, Russian was the official language for the administration, local government and the courts. Russian Poland was ruled by governor generals, usually high-ranking army officers, who wielded absolute power. The slightest manifestation of national feeling was ruthlessly stamped out.

The Jews were forbidden to move out of the Pale of Settlement, to purchase land property, or to settle outside towns. They were subject to pogroms by the Black Hundreds, fascist gangs armed and financed by the state, which were approved by the Tsar. In the most notorious example, at Odessa in October 1905, 300 Jews were killed and thousands wounded.

On coming into power the Provisional Government established full equality of all citizens regardless of national origin; it restored the Finnish constitution (suspended 1897) and abolished the restrictions on Jews. However, it recognised the independence only of Poland, calling for ‘an independent Polish State’ – not very generous given that the entire area of Russian Poland was then occupied by the Germans. Where it had the power to deny the right to a national minority, such as the Ukrainians (17% of the population), it attempted to do so.

The SRs and the Mensheviks responded to the demands of national minorities with their usual formula ‘Wait for the Constituent Assembly’. In fact, the Mensheviks did not recognise the right of all nations in the state to self-determination. Their enthusiasm for self-determination for Georgia was aroused only after the October revolution, when it was used as a weapon against the proletarian revolution.

Only the Bolsheviks supported the right of all the nations forming part of Russia freely to secede and form independent states (April Conference resolution). In his commentary on the resolution Lenin made it clear that the right to secede must not be confused with the advisability of secession, which must be decided by the proletarian party with regard to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat for socialism.

British Labour and British imperialism

The Russian working class was disappointed in its search for allies among leaders of the international working class. From the moment the Tsar was overthrown well-wishing ‘socialists’ from the Tsar’s allies came to offer ... not their international solidarity, but their demands for a continuation of the war. None were more brazen in their support for the imperialist war than the British Labour leaders.

It is difficult to gauge the response of the working class to the February revolution, but the cautious language of the Prime Minister Lloyd George records that: ‘The shock that came from Petrograd passed through every workshop and mine, and produced a nervous disquiet which made things difficult in recruitment and munitionment.’

However, the ruling class had no need to feel ‘nervous disquiet’ when it regarded its tame socialists. Not only did they obediently fulfil their tasks, they outdid their masters in imperialist ambition. Representatives of the Moscow Soviet told the Labour delegation (19 April) that ‘The Tsar made us fight for Constantinople, which is not Russian and never was ...’, at which one of the British delegates jovially exclaimed: ‘If you don't want Constantinople, then, damn it, we'll take it!’

Puzzled by their hosts’ lack of imperialist appetite, taxed by them about their occupation of Ireland and India, the British delegates summed up their view of Soviet Russia: ‘My Gawd, if this is democracy we don't want the bloody thing in our country!’

Waiting for the Constituent Assembly

Fearing the outcome, the supporters of the Constituent Assembly were in no hurry to convene it – the special conference on the convocation of the Assembly was first held 11 weeks after the February revolution, and its proceedings were even more leisurely.

Would the workers, peasants, and national minorities wait for the Constituent Assembly? Or would the Bolsheviks be able to develop their revolutionary initiative and seize power directly, by means of the Soviets?

July days

The people reach for power

The first trial of strength between the Provisional Government and the Soviets occurred over Foreign Minister Miliukov’s Note of 18 April, assuring the Allies that the Russian army could be relied on ‘. . . to fight the world war out to a decisive victory.’

The Menshevik-SR bloc sought to give the Note a favourable ‘interpretation’, but to the soldiers faced with a return to the front Miliukov’s intentions were unambiguous enough. On 21 April the demonstration called by the Bolsheviks was strongly supported by workers from the Vyborg District and by armed soldiers. In the bourgeois districts the forces of the counter-revolution – the armed officers, the cadets and the gilded-youth – began to mobilise openly for the first time.

Civil war seemed imminent. But the masses heeded the Petrograd Soviet’s call not to hold further demonstrations. With the addition of a few anodyne phrases to Miliukov’s Note suggesting that the war was not for annexation or conquest, it considered the matter ‘settled’. The reassuring formulae of the rewritten Note were accepted in the Soviet by an overwhelming majority.

Yet the episode demonstrated the reality of the Soviet’s own statement to the people: ‘We alone have the right to give you orders’. With the masses, it was the Soviet and not the Provisional Government which held the power and the authority. But what should the Soviets do about the Provisional Government?

The government itself posed the question point-blank, on 26 April, appealing to the Menshevik-SR bloc to participate. After considerable vacillation, the lure of ministerial office proved too strong. On 1 May, the Soviet EC decided by 41 votes to 18, with only the Bolsheviks and a small group of left-Mensheviks against, to enter the government.

The first coalition

The Menshevik-SR bloc had six ministries out of 16, including Agriculture, (Chernov, SR) Labour, (Skobelev, Menshevik) and War (Kerensky, Popular Socialist). Perhaps over-excited by their dizzy rise to ministerial eminence, they made some rash promises. Before he returned to the routine activities of a ‘socialist’ Minister of Labour – opposing strikes, asking the workers to exercise restraint – Skobelev threatened ‘We’ll take all the profits, we’ll take 100 per cent’. In the eyes of the non-Bolshevik masses, the entrance of the Menshevik-SRs into the coalition seemed a step forward. Some of the ministers had a long and honourable record of anti-Tsarist activity. In 1916 both Tsereteli, who became leader of the bloc, and Chernov had been on the left wing of the anti-imperialist movement. Perhaps the socialist ministers would gradually crowd out the bourgeois ministers (Miliukov had been forced to resign on 2 May), leading to an all-socialist government which could grant their demands without further struggle.

The real significance of the coalition, as yet hidden from the masses, was contained in one clause of the new government’s declaration: the need to prepare the army ‘... for defensive and offensive activity...’. The Allies badly needed a Russian offensive. By June half of the French army was considered unreliable, due to the influence of the Russian Revolution. The bourgeoisie aimed to use the ‘socialists’ as agents to persuade the masses to continue the war.

The rise of the Bolsheviks

But even before it began to prepare openly for an offensive, the coalition’s pro-bourgeois policies compromised them in the eyes of the masses, who began to turn to the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had the greatest success in the Petrograd factories and the Kronstadt naval base.

In the factories, the capitalists struck against the revolution by means of a lock-out. Between March and the end of July, with increasing momentum, 568 factories were closed down with the loss of 104,000 jobs. In the south Russian coalmines, the owners deliberately sabotaged and disorganised production.

The Bolsheviks’ solution was straightforward: ‘Make the profits of the capitalists public, arrest fifty or a hundred of the biggest millionaires ... for the simple purpose of making them reveal ... the fraudulent practices which ... are costing [Russia] thousands and millions every day.' (Lenin CW 25 p21).

The appeal of the Bolshevik slogans was shown at the first conference of Petrograd Factory Committees (30 May–3 June), when the Bolshevik resolution won 80% of the votes. The workers’ section in the Petrograd Soviet was already a Bolshevik majority; and in the Moscow Soviet the largest party, with 41% of the seats.

Kronstadt was the chief naval base, protecting the approaches to Petrograd. The 80,000 strong Baltic Fleet was an explosive combination of class forces: in 1917, 25.4% of the sailors were working class, and over 90% of the younger officers came from the nobility. From the beginning of May Kronstadt was dominated by the Bolsheviks – their refusal to enter the coalition meant they bore no responsibility for its increasingly unpopular policies.

But in Russia as a whole, the Bolsheviks were still very much a minority. At the first All Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers and Soldiers Deputies (3–24 June), the Bolsheviks (105 delegates) were still a long way behind the SRs (285) and Mensheviks (248); three quarters of the delegates were prepared to ratify the coalition.

The June demonstration

While the Congress was in session, on 9 June, the Bolsheviks’ Military Organisation proposed a mass demonstration against an offensive, under two slogans: ‘All Power to the Soviets’, ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers.’

The Congress passed a resolution forbidding demonstrations for three days, on the grounds, that ‘concealed counter-revolutionaries want to take advantage of the demonstration’ which was ‘a Bolshevik conspiracy to overthrow the government and seize power’. Recognising the authority of the Congress, the Bolsheviks prevailed on their supporters to accept the decision.

Feeling, however, the need to demonstrate their supposed popularity, on 12 June the Menshevik-SR bloc authorised a demonstration for 18 June under their slogans – ‘Universal Peace’, ‘Immediate Convocation of a Constituent Assembly’, ‘Democratic Republic’ – not daring to demand support for coalition with the bourgeoisie or the renewal of the offensive. Its leader, Tsereteli, boasted: ‘Now we shall have an open and honest review of the revolutionary forces ...’.

True enough – about 400,000 workers and soldiers came out in an unarmed demonstration – but under the Bolshevik slogans: ‘Down with the offensive!’, ‘Down with the ten capitalist ministers’. Only three small groups carried banners bearing the slogan ‘Confidence to the Provisional Government’, until they were forced to lower them by the angry demonstrators.

The offensive

On 12 June the Congress of Soviets gave Kerensky approval to resume military operations. Only the Bolsheviks voted against. Launched on 18 June, at first it made considerable advances – but against empty trenches and undefended positions. When the Austrians made a stand, the Russian army went into headlong retreat, with commanders at the front reporting mass desertions and collective refusals to obey orders.

The Bolsheviks were the only party to oppose the offensive in advance: a resolution of greeting to the advancing army at the Petrograd Soviet had a substantial minority (40%) against.

At the end of June, therefore, the problem faced by the Bolsheviks was not that of gaining support – it was how to restrain the masses from rushing into a premature insurrection. Already on 21 April, sections of the Bolsheviks had come out with the premature slogan ‘Down with the Provisional Government’; on 17 May the Kronstadt Soviet passed a resolution supported by the Bolsheviks declaring itself to be the sole authority.

Lenin’s speech at the All-Russian Conference of Bolshevik Military Organisations (20 June) warned: ‘One wrong move on our part can wreck everything ... If we were now able to seize power, it is naive to think that having taken it we would be able to hold it ... we are an insignificant minority ... the majority of the masses are wavering but still believe the SRs and Mensheviks.’ (A Rabinowitch Prelude to Revolution 1968 p121–122). The test was soon to come: the ‘July days’.

3 July

As the offensive fails Kerensky gives orders for regiments from Petrograd to be sent to the front. Protests from the garrison soldiers, led by the 1st Machine Gun Regiment, call for an armed demonstration. Delegates from the regiment arrive at Kronstadt at 2pm to appeal to the sailors for support. The Bolsheviks’ most popular speaker, Sernyon Roshal, is shouted down when he tries to restrain the crowd.

Other delegates go round the Petrograd factories and by 7pm all are out on strike. They have less success with the soldiers – at this point only a few isolated regiments are definitely pro-Bolshevik. The supporters of the Provisional Government spend the day frantically rushing round Petrograd in search of loyal troops, but can find only 100 men.

4 July

20,000 armed Kronstadters set off for Petrograd. They march to the Bolshevik HQ in Kseshinskaya's Palace, where they are greeted by Lenin. He calls for All Power to the Soviets, and appeals for firmness, steadfastness and vigilance.

From there they march along the Nevsky Prospect, the Petrograd equivalent of Bond Street. Provocateurs fire from the windows and attics of the houses at the rearguard of the demonstration. Panic! Rifles fire into the air, at the ground, marchers scatter and disperse, reforming only when the invisible enemy is silenced.

There is only one, quite small-scale, pitched battle between revolutionaries and their opponents. Cossacks open fire upon workers and machine gunners – on both sides 13 are killed, and 32 wounded. In all the skirmishes and random shootings, 56 people are killed and 350 wounded.

The marchers approach Tauride Palace, home of the Petrograd Soviet. Peasant sailors seize Chernov, demanding a redistribution of the land. A worker shakes his fist in his face: ‘Take the power, you son of a bitch, when they give it to you.’ With Trotsky’s help, the crowd calms down and he is freed.

This is an elemental popular movement surging out of party control. But there is no attempt to make an insurrection by seizing the key centres of power (railway stations, post office, banks etc). The demonstrators want Soviet power, are opposed to the Soviet leadership but are not yet strong enough to overthrow it.

5 July

The tide begins to turn against the revolutionaries. At 2am the offices of Pravda are sacked by a mob of officers and students. Two hours later, the three most backward guard battalions arrive at the Tauride to defend the Soviet against the Bolsheviks. At their head is the Izmailovsky Regiment, instrumental in destroying the Petrograd Soviet in 1905.

How has the Menshevik-SR bloc managed to find loyal troops? The rumour has been spread that Lenin is a German spy. The first morning editions of the bourgeois press duly oblige. A wretched Black Hundred rag, The Living Word, carries the banner headline: ‘Lenin is a German spy!’ An official fabrication written by two notorious scandalmongers, it is based on the ‘evidence’ of a former police agent and a speculator.

At 7.45am the 300 sailors and 200 machine gunners in Kseshinskaya’s Palace are ordered to lay down their arms.

6 July

Cossacks and other reactionary regiments, containing pro-Tsarist and Black Hundred supporters, arrive from the front. At last the Menshevik-SR bloc has found enough loyal supporters to prevent any further demonstrations. Pravda and Soldiers Pravda are suppressed, party organisations driven out of their premises and forced to go underground.

In Lenin’s view, this was ‘something considerably more than a demonstration and less than a revolution.’ But is this a definitive victory for the counter-revolutionaries? Or are the inner forces of the revolution strong enough to overcome this setback?

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 258 June/July 2017


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