What was the real constitution of the country after the inauguration of the new power?
The monarchist reaction was hiding in the cracks. With the very first ebb of the wave, property owners of all kinds and tendencies gathered around the banner of the Kadet Party, which had suddenly become the only non-socialist party – and at the same time the extreme right party – fill the open arena.
The masses went over in droves to the socialists, whom they identified with the Soviet. Not only the workers and soldiers of the enormous garrisons in the rear, but all the many-coloured small people of the towns – mechanics, street peddlers, petty officials, cab-drivers, janitors, servants of all kinds – feeling alien to the Provisional Government and its bureaux, were seeking a closer and more accessible authority. In continually increasing numbers, peasant delegates were appearing at the Tauride Palace. The masses poured into the Soviet as though into the triumphal gates of the revolution. All that remained outside the boundaries of the Soviet seemed to fall away from the revolution, seemed somehow to belong to a different world. And so it was in reality. Beyond the boundaries of the Soviet remained the world of the property owner, in which all colours mingled now in one greyish-pink defensive tint.
Not all the toiling masses chose the Soviet; not all awakened at once; not every layer of the oppressed dared instantly believe that the revolution concerned them. In the consciousness of many only an undiscriminating hope was stirring. But all the active elements of the masses poured into the Soviet, and activity prevails in times of revolution. Moreover, since mass activity was growing from day to day, the basis of the Soviet was continually broadening. It was the sole genuine basis of the revolution.
In the Tauride Palace there were two halves: the Duma and the Soviet. The Executive Committee was at first crowded into some narrow secretarial chambers, through which flowed an uninterrupted human flood. The deputies of the Duma tried to feel like proprietors in their sumptuous chambers. But the barriers were soon swept away by the overflow of the revolution. In spite of all the indecisiveness of its leaders, the Soviet spread out irresistibly, and the Duma was crowded away into the back yard. The new correlation of forces broke its path everywhere.
Deputies in the Tauride Palace, officers in their regiments, commanders in the staffs, directors and managers in factories, on the railroads, in the telegraph offices, landlords or managers of estates – all felt themselves during those first days of the revolution to be under the suspicious and tireless scrutiny of the masses. In the eyes of those masses the Soviet was an expression of their distrust of all who had oppressed them. Typesetters would jealously follow the text of the articles which they had set up, railroad workers would anxiously and vigilantly watch over the military trains, telegraphers would become absorbed in re-reading the texts of telegrams, soldiers would glance around suspiciously every time their officer made a move, workers would dismiss from the factory an overseer belonging to the Black Hundreds and take in under observation a liberal manager. The Duma from the first hours of the revolution, and the Provisional Government from its first days, became reservoirs into which flowed a continuous stream of complaints and objections from the upper layers of society, their protests against “excesses,” their woeful comments and dark forebodings.
“Without the bourgeoisie we cannot manage the state apparatus,” reasoned the socialistic petty bourgeois, timidly looking up at the official buildings where the skeleton of the old government looked out with empty eyes. The problem was solved by setting some sort of a liberal head on the institution which the revolution had beheaded. The new ministers entered into the czarist bureaux, took possession of the apparatus of typewriters, telephones, couriers, stenographers and clerks, and found out from day to day that the machine was running empty.
Kerensky subsequently related how the Provisional Government “took the power in its hands on the third day of all Russian anarchy, when throughout the whole extent of the Russian land there existed not only no governmental power, but literally not one policeman.” The soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies standing at the head of millions of people, counted for nothing; that of course was merely one element of the anarchy. The orphaned condition of the country is summed up for Kerensky in the disappearance of policemen. In that confession of faith of the most leftward of the ministers, you have the key to the whole policy of the government.
The place of the governors of provinces was occupied, on the order of Prince Lvov, by the presidents of the provincial zemstvos, who differed but little from their predecessors. Often enough they were feudal landlords who regarded even the governors as Jacobins. At the head of the counties stood the presidents of the county zemstvos. Under the new name of “commissars” the population recognised their old enemies. “New Presbyter is but Old Priest writ large,” as Milton once said of the cowardly Presbyterian reformation. The provincial and district commissars took possession of the typewriters, correspondence, and clerks of the governors and chiefs of police, only to find out that they had inherited no real power. Real life both in the provinces and in the counties concentrated around the Soviet. A two-power system thus reigned from top to bottom. But in the provinces the Soviet leaders, those same Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, were a little simpler and by no means everywhere renounced that power which the whole situation was imposing upon them. As a result of this, the activity of the provincial commissars consisted mainly of submitting complaints as to the complete impossibility of fulfilling the duties of their office. Two days after the formation of the liberal ministry the bourgeoisie were feeling that they had not acquired the power, but lost it. In spite of all the fantastic caprices of the Rasputin clique before the revolution, its real power had been limited. The influence of the bourgeoisie upon the government had been enormous. The very participation of Russia in the war was more the work of the bourgeoisie than the monarchy. But the main thing was that the czarist government had guaranteed to the property owners their factories, land, banks, houses, newspapers; it was consequently upon the most vital questions their government. The February revolution changed the situation in two contrary directions it solemnly handed over to the bourgeoisie the external attributes of power, but at the same time it took from them that share in the actual rulership which they had enjoyed before the revolution. The former employees of the zemstvos where Prince Lvov was the boss, and of the Military-Industrial Committee where Guchkov was in command, became today, under the name of Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, lords of the situation in the country and on the front, in the city and in the village. They appointed Lvov and Guchkov to the ministry, and laid down the conditions of their work as though they were hiring stewards.
On the other hand, the Executive Committee, having created a bourgeois government, could not make up its mind like the Bible God to call the creation good. On the contrary, it made great haste to increase the distance between itself and the work of its hands, and announced that it intended to support the new power only in so far as it should truly serve the democratic revolution. The Provisional Government very well knew that it could not survive an hour without the support of the official democracy. But this support was promised only as a reward for good behaviour-that is, for fulfilling tasks alien to it, and which the democracy itself had just declined to fulfil. The government never knew within what limits it might dare to reveal its semi-contraband sovereignty. The leaders of the Executive Committee could not always advise it, because it was hard for them to guess just where some dissatisfaction would break out in their own midst, expressing the dissatisfaction of the masses. The bourgeoisie pretended that the socialists were deceiving them. The socialists in their turn were afraid that the liberals, with their premature demands, would stir up the masses and complicate a situation difficult enough as it was. “In so far as” – that equivocal formula laid its imprint on the whole pre-October period. It became the juridical formulation of the inner lie contained in the hybrid régime of the February revolution.
To bring pressure upon the government, the Executive Committee elected a special commission which it politely but ludicrously named “Contact Commission.” The organisation of the revolutionary power was thus upon the principle of mutual persuasion. The mystic writer Merezhkovsky could find a precedent for such a régime only in the Old Testament: the kings of Israel had their prophets. But the prophets of the Bible, like the prophets of the last Romanov, used at least to receive suggestions directly from heaven, and the kings did not dare to contradict. In that way a single sovereignty was assured. It was quite different with the prophets of the Soviet: they prophesied only under the stimulus of their own limited intelligence. The liberal ministers moreover believed that nothing good could come out of the Soviet. Cheidze, Skobelev, Sukhanov and others would run to the government and garrulously try to persuade it to make some concession; the ministers would object; the delegates would return to the Executive Committee, try to influence it with the authority of the government; again get into contact with the ministers; and so begin over again from the beginning. This complicated mill-wheel never did any grinding.
In the Contact Commission everybody complained. Guchkov especially wept over the disorders in the army caused by the connivances of the Soviet. At times the War Minister of the revolution “in the literal sense of the word … poured out tears, or at least earnestly wiped his eyes with his handkerchief.” He was quite right in thinking that to dry the tears of the anointed is one of the functions of a prophet.
On the ninth of March General Alexeiev, the Chief of Staff, telegraphed the War Minister: “The German yoke is near if only we indulge the Soviet.” Guchkov answered him tearfully: “The government, alas, has no real power: the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it.”
Week followed week, but the situation did not improve in the least. Early in April when the Provisional Government sent deputies of the Duma to the front, it directed them, gritting its teeth, not to reveal any disagreements with the delegates of the Soviet. Throughout the whole journey the liberal deputies felt as though they were under convoy, but they also knew that without this, notwithstanding their lofty credentials, they not only could not approach the soldiers, but they could not even find seats in the trains. That prosaic detail in the memoirs of Prince Mansyrev excellently supplements Guchkov’s correspondence with the staff as to the essence of the February constitution. One of the reactionary wits pretty well characterised the situation thus: “The old government is in prison, I and the new one under house arrest.”
But did the Provisional Government have no other support but this equivocal one of the Soviet leaders? What had become of the possessing classes? The question is a fundamental one. United by their past with the monarchy, the possessing classes had hastened to group themselves around a new axis after the revolution. On the 2nd of March, the Council of Trade and Industry, representing the united capital of the whole country, saluted the act of the State Duma, and declared itself “wholly at the disposition” of its Committee.
The zemstvos and the town dumas adopted the same course. On March 10, even the Council of the United Nobility, the mainstay of the throne, summoned all the people of Russia a language of eloquent cowardice “to unite around the Provisional Government as now the sole lawful power in Russia.” Almost at the same time the institutions and organs of the possessing classes began to denounce the dual power, and to lay the blame for the disorders upon the Soviet – at first cautiously but then bolder and bolder. The employers were soon followed by the clerks, the united liberal professions, the government employees. From the army came telegrams, addresses and resolutions of the same character – manufactured in the staff. The liberal press opened a campaign “for a single sovereignty,” which in the coming months acquired the character of a hurricane of fire around the heads of the Soviet. All these things together looked exceedingly impressive. The enormous number of institutions, well-known names, resolutions, articles, the decisiveness of tone – it had an indubitable effect upon the suggestible heads of the Committee. And yet there was no serious force behind this threatening parade of the propertied classes. How about the force of property? said the petty bourgeois socialists, answering the Bolsheviks. Property is a relation among people. It represents an enormous power so long as it is universally recognised and supported by that system of compulsion called Law and the State. But the very essence of the present situation was that the old state had suddenly collapsed, and the entire old system of rights had been called in question by the masses. In the factories the workers were more and more regarding themselves as the proprietors, and the bosses as uninvited guests. Still less assured were the feelings of the landlords in the provinces, face to face with those surly vengeful muzhiks, and far from that governmental power in whose existence they did for a time, owing to their distance from the capital, believe. The property-holders, deprived of the possibility of using their property, or protecting it, ceased to be real property holders and became badly frightened Philistines who could not give any support to the government for the simple reason that they needed support themselves. They soon began to curse the government for its weakness, but they were only cursing their own fate
In those days the joint activity of the Executive Committee and the ministry seemed to have for its goal to demonstrate that the art of government in time of revolution consists in a garrulous waste of time. With the liberals this was a consciously adopted plan. It was their firm conviction that all measures demanded postponement except one: the oath of loyalty to the Entente.
Miliukov acquainted his colleagues with the secret treaties. Kerensky let them in one ear and out the other. Apparently only the Procuror of the Holy Synod, a certain Lvov, rich in surprises, a namesake of the Premier but not a prince, went into a storm of indignation and even called the treaties “brigandage and swindle ” – which undoubtedly provoked a condescending smile from Miliukov (“The everyday man is a fool”) and a quiet proposal to return to the order of business. The official Declaration of the government promised to summon a Constituent Assembly at the earliest possible date – which date, however, was intentionally not stated. Nothing was said about the form of government: they still hoped to return to the lost paradise of monarchy. But the real meat of the Declaration lay in its promise to carry the war through to victory, and “unswervingly carry out the agreements made with our Allies.” So far as concerned the most threatening problems of the people’s existence, the revolution had apparently been achieved only in order to make the announcement: everything remains as before. Since the democrats attributed an almost mystic importance to recognition by the Entente – a small trader amounts to nothing until the bank recognises his credit – the Executive Committee swallowed in silence the imperialist declaration of March 6.
“Not one official organ of the democracy,” grieves Sukhanov a year later, “publicly reacted to the Declaration of the Provisional Government, which disgraced our revolution at its very birth in the eyes of democratic Europe.”
At last, on the 8th of March, there issued from the ministerial laboratory a Decree of Amnesty. By that time the doors of the prisons had been opened by the people throughout the whole country, political exiles were returning in a solid stream with meetings, hurrahs, military speeches, flowers. The decree sounded like a belated echo from the government buildings. On the twelfth they announced the abolition of the death penalty. Four months later it was restored in the army. Kerensky promised to elevate justice to unheard-of heights. In a moment of heat he actually did carry out a resolution of the Executive Committee introducing representatives of the workers and soldiers as members of the courts of justice. That was the sole measure in which could be felt the heartbeat of the revolution, and it raised the hair on the heads of the eunuchs of justice. But the matter stopped right there. Lawyer Demianov, an important officer in the ministry under Kerensky, and also a “socialist,” decided to adopt the principle of leaving all former officials at their posts. To quote his own words: “The policies of a revolutionary government ought never to offend anybody unnecessarily.” That was, at bottom, the guiding principle of the whole Provisional Government, which feared most of all to offend anybody from the circles of the possessing classes, or even the czarist bureaucracy. Not only the judges, but even the prosecutors of the czarist régime remained at their posts. To be sure, the masses might be offended. But that was the Soviet’s business; the masses did not enter into the field of vision of the government.
The sole thing in the nature of a fresh stream was brought in by the above-mentioned temperamental Procuror, Lvov, who gave an official report on the “idiots and scoundrels” sitting in the Holy Synod. The ministers listened to his juicy characterisations with some alarm, but the synod continued a state institution, and Greek Orthodoxy the state religion. Even the membership of the Synod remained unchanged. A revolution ought not to quarrel with anybody!
The members of the State Council – faithful servants of two or three emperors continued to sit, or at least to draw their salaries. And this fact soon acquired a symbolic significance. Factories and barracks noisily protested. The Executive Committee worried about it. The government spent two sessions debating the question of the fate and salaries of the members of the State Council, and could not arrive at a decision. Why disturb these respectable people, among whom, by the way, we have many good friends?
The Rasputin ministers were still in prison, but the Provisional Government hastened to vote them a pension. This sounded like mockery, or a voice from another world. But the government did not want to offend its predecessors even though they were locked up in jail.
The senators continued to drowse in their embroidered jackets, and when a left senator, Sokolov, newly appointed by Kerensky, dared to appear in a black frock coat, they quietly removed him from the hall. These czarist legislators were not afraid to offend the February revolution, once convinced that its government had no teeth.
Karl Marx saw the cause of the failure of the March revolution in Germany in the fact that it “reformed only the very highest political circles, leaving untouched all the layers beneath them – the old bureaucracy, the old army, the old judges, born and brought up and grown old in the service of absolutism.” Socialists of the type of Kerensky were seeking salvation exactly where Marx saw the cause of failure. And the Menshevik Marxists were with Kerensky, not Marx.
L.D. Trotsky, “The New Power,” The History of the Russian Revolution