Counter-revolution defeated: Russia 1917 Part 6

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General Kornilov
General Lavr Kornilov

Centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution 1917–2017

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 258 we examined the developments up to July 1917. Below, we continue the series with an edited version of an article by Patrick Newman first published in FRFI 71 in September 1987, which looks at Kornilov’s attempted coup.


Counter-revolution defeated

After the July days, the masses had fallen back in confusion. Would the forces of reaction seize the opportunity to crush them? In earlier proletarian revolutions – France 1848, 1871 and Russia 1905 – the bourgeoisie was able to wreak a terrible revenge, killing thousands of workers. But in Russia 1917 the counter-revolution was too weak to take advantage of its most favourable moment.

Only three regiments were disarmed, disbanded and expelled from Petrograd after the July turmoil. The mass of the soldiers showed a passive hostility to the Bolsheviks, but could not be incited to counter-revolutionary violence. Very few armed workers were disarmed by force and hardly any gave up their weapons voluntarily. In those factories where the Bolsheviks were weak, there were some cases of Bolsheviks being hounded out of work; but where the Party had been strong, the workers were somewhat demoralised but not defeated.

Even Lenin was surprised at the feebleness of the reaction – his first response to the setback was: ‘They are getting ready to shoot us all.’ In fact only one Bolshevik was killed while selling papers. Several Bolshevik Party local offices in Petrograd were raided. The Party’s military organisation was, however, quite seriously affected, with some of its best leaders jailed, and its paper, Soldiers Truth, banned.

Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding, but other leading Bolsheviks remained in the open. Of the top Bolshevik leadership, only Kamenev was arrested immediately, Lunacharsky and Trotsky on 22 July; of the total membership, no more than 400 (out of a Petrograd membership of 32,000) were arrested. The prison regime was relatively lenient – a prison warder explained: ‘Here you are today, in prison, but tomorrow, perhaps, you will be ministers.’

All these instances of repression were carried out sporadically and usually on local, rather than governmental initiative. Why was the reaction unable to seize the opportunity?

The major reason was the continuing opposition to the war. If the Russian army had been successful at this point, a wave of patriotism might have swept the revolution away. But on 7 July it became known that the offensive had failed dismally. The high command of the South Western front, where 56,000 men had been killed in the preceding two weeks, admitted that: ‘The desire to attack has dissipated quickly. The majority of the units are in a state of increasing demoralisation.’

In the cities the conditions were steadily worsening. By mid-July the theoretically available rations per person were 600g of bread per day, five eggs and 450g of meat per week.

Here was a stalemate – the masses not yet strong enough to overthrow the government; the bourgeoisie unable to inflict a decisive defeat on the revolution. At first the crisis expressed itself in a rapid series of governmental changes, then the counter-revolution openly mobilised for a coup d’état.

The second coalition

On 7 July the Popular Socialist Kerensky became Prime Minister and, with the help of the Menshevik, Tsereteli, aimed to form a government. Over the next two months, there was a frequent shuffling of the cards in the ministerial pack, while the real power of the bourgeois party, the Kadets, grew enormously.

In the first Coalition, the socialists were in a minority (6/16), though masters of the situation; in the second Coalition, formed 25 July, they were in a majority (10/17), but as shadows of the Kadets. The Menshevik-SRs tried to present this as the strengthening of the ‘democracy’, their strategy being concisely expressed by a Popular Socialist Minister thus: ‘The more forces we attract from the Right, the fewer will remain of those who wish to attack the government.’

Exactly the opposite was happening – real concessions were made to the Right, meaningless ones to the Left. Of the former, the most significant measure was the restoration of the death penalty on 12 July.

The Bolsheviks re-group

Lenin argued that the dual power regime, when power could have been peacefully transferred to the Soviets, was over. Power had now passed into the hands of the counter-revolution, with the collaboration of the SRs and Mensheviks. The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets’ had to be discarded, lest it encourage the illusion that power could be transferred peacefully; and the key task now was the organisation of the insurrection (‘On Slogans’ CW25 p185).

His position was not immediately accepted by the Bolshevik Party. At the Central Committee meeting of 13-14 July, Lenin’s theses were rejected 10-5, with Molotov his only staunch supporter.

His supporters campaigned vigorously at the Sixth Congress (26 July-3 August), where his theses were presented by Stalin, despite some reservations, and a compromise motion close to Lenin’s position was adopted.

The Party now had firm roots among the masses. The Party’s organiser, Sverdlov, reported that the Party had grown from 80,000 members in April to 200,000, 45% of them in Petrograd and Moscow. By contrast, the Mensheviks had only 8,000 members.

The Bolsheviks’ growing strength spurred on the counter-revolutionaries’ efforts at mobilisation. The usual counter-revolutionary stratagem, setting peasants from the provinces against the workers of the industrial cities, would not work in Russia.

The peasant land war continued unabated; and the Provisional Government had utterly antagonised the oppressed nationalities. On 18 July it had dissolved the Finnish parliament for approving a law which proposed to enact a limited degree of self-determination; and it was equally hostile to the Ukraine’s similarly modest claims for national recognition.

But the bourgeoisie had no other choice – the ‘socialists’ were clearly incapable of controlling the masses and pursuing the war effectively: an attempt had to be made to crush all kinds of opposition, the ‘socialists’ included.

The Moscow State Conference

Its first step was to organise a series of conferences in Moscow from the beginning of August. At the Conference of Public Figures (ie, landlords, capitalists and their hangers on) a textile magnate let slip their intentions in a phrase which echoed throughout Russia: ‘The bony hand of hunger and national destitution will seize by the throat the friends of the people!’

The fulcrum of the conspiracy was the Moscow State Conference (12-14 August). Numerous peasant soviets complained – if a convention is to be assembled why not the Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal suffrage? The Bolsheviks gave the answer: ‘If they hurry the convocation of the Constituent Assembly ... most peasants will disapprove of the war policy ... the Moscow Conference is a national assembly to approve imperialist and counter-revolutionary policies ... a conspiracy against the workers and soldiers, disguised in socialist phraseology.’

Of the 2,414 delegates the 446 Soviet representatives (mainly Mensheviks and SRs) were outnumbered by 488 from the four Tsarist Dumas (parliaments), elected on the most reactionary franchise in Europe. The Bolsheviks were forbidden by the Mensheviks-SRs from making a statement at the conference and did not attend.

They made their point in the streets. On the opening day a general strike (opposed by the Menshevik-SR majority in the Moscow Soviet) was a complete success: no lights, no tramcars, no taxis; the factories, stations, railroad yards and shops were closed.

The Conference showed that the Kadets had moved so far to the right as to antagonise even the ‘socialists’ present. The Kadet leader, Miliukov, noted that when the right side of the hall clapped, the left side remained silent; when the left clapped and applauded furiously, the right was sunken in dejected silence.

Kornilov’s plot

The unbroken support for the general strike had warned the bourgeoisie that the working class was on the alert. It could not use the Conference as a signal for the coup, so it planned for 27 August.

Its leader was to be General Kornilov. Appointed by Kerensky as Supreme Commander of the South Western front on 7 July, he had shown moderate competence in battle, but excelled in an energetically fought press campaign to portray himself as the ‘hero of the nation.’

The plan was simple and well-conceived. Arouse chauvinist excitement; bring up regiments within striking distance of Petrograd; organise a network of terrorists in Petrograd; and a Cossack colonel, Dutuv, was to simulate a ‘Bolshevik insurrection’, creating disturbances which would give the regiments a pretext to intervene to ‘restore law and order’. 27 August was the six-month anniversary of the revolution, and the celebrations would offer the perfect opportunity for a provocation.

The generals had vital support from the imperialist governments, particularly the British. They had realised that the missions of ‘socialist’ leaders to persuade the Russian soldiers to fight were willing but ineffective. In the words of the Head of the British Military Mission, General Knox, ‘This people needs the whip!’

The British Ambassador, Buchanan, was fully sympathetic to Kornilov, but diplomatically avoided a too obvious entanglement, while allowing Knox to place at Kornilov’s disposal a weapon invaluable in street fighting – British armoured cars. British soldiers dressed in Russian uniforms were engaged in training certain units.

Even before the Moscow Conference, four cavalry divisions, including the Savage Division, mountaineers from the Caucasus, were transferred closer to Petrograd. Theoretically their purpose was to defend the Baltic port of Riga, the key to the approaches to Petrograd.

But as the Germans advanced, Kornilov withdrew most of the forces defending the town which was captured on 19-21 August. The ‘heroic’ Kornilov ordered the retreat despite the wish of the Letts [Latvians] to ‘fight for their capital’. In the forefront of its defence was a Lettish brigade consisting almost exclusively of Bolsheviks. Kornilov preferred to lose to the Germans than win with the Bolsheviks.

The generals knew they had to follow their timetable. The elections to the Petrograd Town Council (20 August) showed an unexpectedly large vote for the Bolsheviks: on a high turnout, the Kadets received 20%, the SRs 37%, Mensheviks (all left-Mensheviks) 4.2% – and the Bolsheviks 33%. In the factory committees and the trade unions in Petrograd the Bolsheviks had an increasing majority.

On 26 August the Kadet ministers resigned creating a governmental crisis, in time for 27 August. Their plan was serious but the conspirators were not. Events in Petrograd had a comic opera quality. Dutuv plaintively records ‘I ran ... and called people to come into the streets, but nobody followed me.’ At least he tried – the two leading conspirators passed the time drinking in night clubs, until one of them slipped away with the funds.

Meanwhile, the regiments under Kornilov’s command headed for Petrograd. But they did not get very far – railway workers tore up the tracks, or diverted trains onto sidings. A Muslim delegation from the Caucasus explained to the troops the aim of the conspiracy – they then stuck on the staff car a red flag inscribed ‘Land and Freedom.’ Kornilov could not raise a single infantry detachment.

In Petrograd itself, the right Mensheviks had proposed formal co-operation with the Bolsheviks in a ‘Committee for Struggle with Counter-revolution’. The Bolsheviks agreed, on condition that the workers were armed, and that this was a military-technical alliance, not a political bloc with Kerensky. At least 13,000 workers enrolled in the Red Guards, with 40,000 rifles at their disposal.

There were no serious skirmishes – Kornilov’s forces simply melted away. The conspiracy had failed ignominiously. Now it was the Bolsheviks’ turn. Could they win power – and, more importantly, hold it?