Russia’s first coalition government: A compromise of capitalists & reformists

All official theories, declarations and advertisements to the contrary notwithstanding, the power belonged to the Provisional government on paper only. The revolution, paying no attention to the resistance of the so-called democracy, was striding along, lifting up new masses of the people, strengthening the workers. The Soviets, and to a limited extent even arming the local commissars of the government and the “social committees” created under them, in which representatives of bourgeois organisations usually predominated, were quite naturally and without effort crowded out by the soviets. In certain cases, when these agents of the central power tried to resist, sharp conflicts arose. The commissars accused the local soviets of refusing to recognize the central government. The bourgeois press began to cry out that Kronstadt, Schlusselburg or Tzaritsyn had seceded from Russia and become independent republics. The local soviets protested against this nonsense. The ministers got excited. The governmental socialists hastened to these places, persuading, threatening, justifying themselves before the bourgeoisie. But all this did not change the correlation of forces. The fatefulness of the processes undermining the two power system could be seen in the fact that these processes were developing, although at different tempos, all over the country. From organs for controlling the government the soviets were becoming organs of administration. They would not accommodate themselves to any theory of the division of powers, but kept interfering in the administration of the army, in economic conflicts, questions of food and transport, even in the courts of justice. The soviets under pressure from the workers decreed the eight-hour day, removed reactionary executives, ousted the more intolerable commissars of the Provisional Government, conducted searches and arrests, suppressed hostile newspapers. Under the influence of continually increasing food difficulties and a goods famine, the provincial soviets undertook to fix prices, forbid export from the provinces and requisition provisions. Nevertheless at the head of the soviets everywhere stood the Social Revolutionaries and Menshevik who rejected with indignation the Bolshevik slogan, “Power to the Soviets!”

Soldiers march during April Crisis that brought down pro-war Foreign Minister Pavel Milyukov.

Especially instructive in this connection is the activity of the soviet in Tiflis, the very heart of the Menshevik Gironde which gave the February revolution such leaders as Tseretelli and Cheidze, and sheltered them afterwards when they had hopelessly squandered themselves in Petrograd. The Tiflis Soviet, led by Jordania – afterwards head of independent Georgia – found itself compelled at every step to trample on the principles of the Menshevik Party in control of it, and act as sovereign power. This soviet confiscated a private printing establishment for its own uses, made arrests, took charge of investigations and trials for political offences, established a bread ration, and fixed the prices of food and the necessaries of life That contrast between official doctrine and real life, manifest from the very first day, only continued to grow throughout March and April.

In Petrograd a certain decorum at least was observed – although not always, as we have seen. The April days, however had unequivocally lifted the curtain on the impotence of the (Provisional Government, showing that it had no serious support whatever in the capital. In the last ten days of April the government was flickering and going out. “Kerensky stated with, anguish that the government was already non-existent, that it did not work but merely discussed its condition” (Stankevich). You might say in general about this government, that up to the days of October in hard moments it was always undergoing a crisis, and in the intervals between crises it was merely existing. Continually “discussing its condition,” it found no time for business.

From the crisis created by the April rehearsal of future events, three outcomes were theoretically possible. The power might have gone over wholly to the bourgeoisie; that could have been achieved only through civil war; Miliukov made the attempt, but failed. The power should have gone over wholly to the soviets; this could have been accomplished without any civil war whatever, merely by raising of hands – merely by wishing it. But the Compromisers did not want to wish it, and the masses still preserved their faith in the Compromisers, although it was badly cracked. Thus both of the fundamental ways out – the bourgeois and the proletarian – were closed. There remained a third possibility, the confused, weak-hearted, cowardly half-road of compromise. The name of that road was Coalition.

At the end of the April days the socialists had no thought of a coalition. In general those people never foresaw anything. By the resolution of April 21 [May 4 on the modern calendar], the Executive Committee had officially converted the double sovereignty from a fact into a constitutional principle. But here again the owl of wisdom made her flight too late: this juridical consecration of the March form of double sovereignty – the kings and the prophets – was carried out just at the moment when this form had already been exploded by the action of the masses. The socialists tried to close their eyes to this. Miliukov relates that when the question of a coalition was raised from the government side, Tseretelli said: “What good will it do you if we enter your cabinet? We will be compelled, in case you are stubborn, to withdraw from the ministry with a loud bang.” Tseretelli was trying to frighten the liberals with his future “bang.” As always in the fundamentals of their policies, the Mensheviks were appealing to the interests of the bourgeoisie themselves. But the water was up to their necks. Kerensky frightened the Executive Committee: “The government is at present in an impossibly difficult situation: the rumours of its resignation are no political by-play.” At the same time there was pressure from the bourgeois circles. The Moscow city duma passed a resolution in favour of coalition. On April 26 [May 9], when the ground was sufficiently prepared, the Provisional Government announced in a special appeal the necessity of bringing in to the governmental work “those active creative forces of the country which have not yet participated in it.” The question was thus presented point-blank.

The feeling against coalition was nevertheless pretty strong. At the end of April the following soviets declared themselves against the participation of socialists in the government: Moscow, Tiflis, Odessa, Ekaterinburg, Nizhni-Novgorod, Tver, and others. Their motives were very clearly expressed by one of the Menshevik leaders in Moscow: If the socialists enter the government, there will be nobody to lead the movement of the masses “in a definite channel.” But it was difficult to convey this idea to the workers and soldiers against whom it was, directed. The masses, in so far as they were not yet for the Bolsheviks, stood solid for the entrance of socialists into the government. If it is a good thing to have Kerensky as a minister, then so much the better six Kerenskys. The masses did not know that this was called coalition with the bourgeoisie, and that the bourgeoisie wanted to use these socialists as a cover for their activities against the people. A coalition looked different from the barracks and from the Mariinsky Palace. The masses wanted to use the socialists to crowd out the bourgeoisie from the government. Thus two forces tending in opposite directions united for a moment in one.

In Petrograd a series of military units, among them an armoured car division friendly to the Bolsheviks, declared in favour of coalition government. The provinces voted for the coalition by an overwhelming majority. The coalition tendency prevailed among the Social Revolutionaries; they only feared to go into the government without the Mensheviks. And finally, the army was in favour of coalition. One of its delegates later – at the June congress of the soviets – expressed not at all badly the attitude of the front toward the question of power: “We thought that the groan which arose from the army when it learned that the socialists would not enter the ministry to work with people whom they did not trust, while the whole army was compelled to go on dying with people whom it did not trust, must have been heard in Petrograd.”

The war was the deciding factor in this question, as in others. The socialists had at first intended to sit out the war, as also the sovereignty, and wait. But the war would not wait. The Allies would not wait. The front did not want to wait any longer. Right in the middle of the governmental crisis came delegates from the front and put up to their leaders in the Executive Committee the question: Are we going to fight or not? Which meant: Do you assume the responsibility for the war or not? There was no dodging that question. The Entente was posing the same question in the language of a half-threat.

The April offensive on the west European front cost the Allies heavily and gave no results. A wavering was felt in the French army under the influence of the Russian revolution and of the failure of its own offensive from which so much had been hoped. The army, in the words of Marshal Pétain, “was bending in our hands.” To stop this threatening process the French Government had need of a Russian offensive – and until that at least a firm promise of one. Aside from the material relief to be gained, it was necessary as quickly as possible to snatch the halo of peace from the Russian revolution, poison the hope in the hearts of the French soldiers, compromise the revolution by associating it with the crimes of the Entente, trample the banner of the Russian workers’ and soldiers’ insurrection in the blood and mud of the imperialist slaughter.

In order to attain this high aim, all possible levers were brought into play. Among these levers not the last place was occupied by the patriotic socialists of the Entente. The most experienced of them were sent into revolutionary Russia. They arrived armed to the teeth with obsequious consciences and boneless talk. “The foreign social-patriots,” writes Sukhanov, “were received with open arms in the Mariinsky Palace, Branting, Cachin, O’Grady, De Brouckère, and others felt at home there and formed a united front with our ministers against the Soviet.” It must be conceded that even the Compromisers’ Soviet was often ill at case with those gentlemen.

The Allied socialists made the rounds of the fronts. “General Alexeiev,” wrote Vandervelde, “did everything in his power in order that our efforts should be applied to the same end as were those undertaken a little earlier by delegations of sailors from the Black Sea, by Kerensky, Albert Thomas – that is to complete what he called the moral preparation of the offensive.” The President of the Second International and the former chief of staff of Nicholas the Second thus found a common language in their struggle for the glorious ideals of democracy. Renaudel, one of the leaders of French socialism, was able to cry out with relief: “Now we can talk without blushing of the war of justice.” It was three years before humanity learned that those people had something to blush about.

On the 1st of May [May 14] the Executive Committee, having passed through all the stages of vacillation known to nature, decided by a majority of 41 votes against 18, with 3 abstaining, to enter into a coalition government. Only the Bolsheviks and a small group of Menshevik-Internationalists voted against it.

It is not without interest that the victim of this closer rapprochement was the recognised leader of the bourgeoisie, Miliukov. “I did not go out, they put me out,” said Miliukov later, Guchkov had withdrawn already on April 30 [May 13], refusing to sign the Declaration of the Rights of the Soldier. How dark it was in those days in the hearts of the liberals is evident from the fact that the Central Committee of the Kadet Party decided, in order to save the Coalition, not to insist upon Miliukov’s remaining in the government. “The party betrayed its leader,” writes the right Kadet, Isgoyev. The party, however, had no great choice. The same Isgoyev remarks quite correctly At the end of April the Kadet Party was smashed to pieces; morally it had received a blow from which it would never recover.”

But on the question of Miliukov the Entente was to have the last word. England was entirely willing that the Dardanelles patriot should be replaced by a more temperate “democrat.” Henderson, who was in Petrograd with authorisation to replace Buchanan as ambassador in case of need, learning of the state of affairs, deemed this change unnecessary. As a fact, Buchanan was exactly in the right place, for he was a resolute opponent of annexations in so far as they did not coincide with the appetites of Great Britain. “If Russia has no need of Constantinople,” he whispered tenderly to Tereshchenko, “the sooner she announces this, the better.” France at first supported Miliukov, but here Thomas played his rôle, coming out. after Buchanan and the Soviet leaders against Miliukov. Thus that politician, hated by the masses, was abandoned by the Allies, by the democrats, and lastly by his own party.

Miliukov really did not deserve such cruel punishment – at least not from these hands. But the Coalition demanded a purification sacrifice. They pictured Miliukov to the masses as that evil spirit who had been darkening the universal triumphant recession towards democratic peace. In cutting off Miliukov, the Coalition purified itself at one stroke from the sins of imperialism. The staff of the Coalition Government, and its programme, were approved by the Petrograd Soviet on May 5 [May 18]. The Bolsheviks mustered 100 votes against it. “The meeting warmly greeted the orator-ministers,” Miliukov ironically tells of this meeting. “It greeted with the same stormy applause, however, ‘the old leader of the first revolution’ Trotsky, who had arrived the day before from America, and who sharply condemned the entrance of socialists into the ministry, asserting that the ‘double sovereignty’ is not destroyed, but ‘merely transferred into the ministry,’ and that the real single power which will ‘save’ Russia will arrive only when ‘the next step is taken, the transfer of power into the hands of the workers’ and soldiers’ deputies’; then will begin ‘a new epoch, an epoch of blood and iron, but not in a struggle of nation against nation, but of the suffering and oppressed class against the ruling classes.’” Such is Miliukov’s rendering. In his conclusion Trotsky formulated three rules for the policy of the masses “three revolutionary articles of faith: do not trust the bourgeoisie; control the leaders; rely only on your own force.” Speaking of this speech, Sukhanov remarks: “He evidently did not expect any sympathy for his words.” And in truth the orator left the hall amid far less applause than had greeted his entrance. Sukhanov, very sensitive to what is going on in the couloirs of the intelligentsia, adds: “Although Trotsky did not belong to the Bolshevik Party, rumours were already going around to the effect that he was worse than Lenin.”

The socialists appropriated six portfolios out of fifteen. They wanted to be in the minority. Even after deciding openly to enter the government, they continued to play this game of give-away. Prince Lvov remained Premier; Kerensky became Minister of War and Marine; Chernov, Minister of Agriculture. Miliukov’s place as Minister of Foreign Affairs was taken by Tereshchenko, a connoisseur of the ballet who had become the confidential man at one and the same time of Kerensky and Buchanan. They all three agreed in thinking that Russia could get along exceptionally well without Constantinople. At the head of the Department of Justice stood an insignificant lawyer, Pereverzev, who subsequently acquired a passing glory in connection with the July incident of the Bolsheviks. Tseretelli limited himself to the portfolio of Posts and Telegraphs in order to keep his time for the Executive Committee. Skobeleyv, becoming Minister of Labour, promised in the heat of the excitement to cut down the profits of the capitalists one hundred per cent. That phrase soon acquired wings. For the sake of symmetry the Ministry of Trade and Industry was given to a great Moscow industrialist, Konovalov. He brought along with him certain notables from the Moscow Stock Exchange who received important government posts. After two weeks, by the way, Konovalov resigned as a protest against the “anarchy” in public economy. Skobelev, even before two weeks, had renounced his attack on profits, and was busying himself with the struggle against anarchy – quelling strikes, summoning the workers to self-restraint. The Declaration of the new government consisted, as is to be expected of all coalitions, of commonplaces. It referred to an active foreign policy in the cause of peace, a solution of the food question, and a getting ready to solve the land question. All this was mere talk. The single serious point – at least from the standpoint of intention – was the one about the preparation of the army “for defensive and offensive activity to prevent the possible defeat of Russia and her Allies.” In this was essentially summed up the whole meaning of the Coalition, which was created as the last play of the Entente in Russia.

“The Coalition Government in Russia,” wrote Buchanan, “is for us the last, and almost the only, hope for salvation of the military situation on that front.” Thus behind the platforms, speeches, compromises and votes of the liberal and democratic leaders of the February revolution, stood an imperialist stage director in the person of the Entente. Being obliged hastily to enter the government in the name of the interests of the Entente front, which was hostile to the revolution, the socialists took upon themselves about a third of the power and the whole war.

The new Minister of Foreign Affairs had to delay publishing for two weeks the answers of the Allied governments to the declaration of March 27, in order to work out certain stylistic changes which would disguise their polemic against the Declaration of the Coalition Cabinet. That “active foreign policy in the cause of peace” expressed itself thereafter in Tereshchenko’s zealously editing the texts of the diplomatic telegrams drawn up for him by old-régime clerks. Crossing out “claims he would write “the demands of justice”; in place of “safeguarding the interests” he would write “for the good of the peoples.” Miliukov, with a slight grinding of teeth, said of his successor: “The Allied diplomats knew that the ‘democratic’ terminology of his despatches was a reluctant concession to the demands of the moment, and treated it with indulgence.”

Thomas and the newly arrived Vandervelde did not sit with folded arms. They zealously interpreted the “good of the peoples” in correspondence with the needs of the Entente, and manipulated with a fair success the simpletons of the Executive Committee. “Skobelev and Chernov,” reported Vandervelde, “are energetically protesting against all thoughts of premature peace.” No wonder Ribot, relying on such assistants, felt able to announce to the French Parliament on May 9, that he intended to make a satisfactory reply to Tereshchenko “without giving up anything.”

No, the real masters of the situation were not intending to give up anything that was lying around loose. It was just in those days that Italy announced the independence of Albania, and immediately placed her under Italy’s protectorate. That was not a bad object lesson. The Provisional Government had an idea of protesting – not so much in the name of democracy, as because of the destruction of “equilibrium in the Balkans.” But impotence compelled it for the time to bite its tongue.

The only new thing in the foreign policy of the Coalition was its hasty rapprochement with America. This young friendship offered three not unimportant advantages: the United States was not so compromised with military depravities as France and England; the transatlantic republic opened before Russia broad prospects in the matter of loans and military supplies; finally, the diplomacy of Wilson – a mixture of knavery with democratic piety – fell in admirably with the stylistic needs of the Provisional Government. In sending the Root mission to Russia, Wilson addressed the Provisional Government with one of his parish letters in which he declared: “No people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live.” The aims of the war were defined by the American President not too definitely, but beguilingly: “… to secure the future peace of the world and the future welfare and happiness of its.” What could be better? Tereshehenko and Tseretelli needed only that: fresh credits and the commonplaces of pacifism. With the help of the first, and under cover of the second, they could make ready for the offensive which the Shylock on the Seine was demanding with a furious shaking of all his promissory notes.

On the 11th of May [May 24], Kerensky went to the front to open his agitation in favor of an offensive. “A wave of enthusiasm is growing and spreading in the army,” reported the new War Minister to the Provisional Government, choking with the enthusiasm of his own speeches. On May 14 [May 27], Kerensky issued a command to the army: “You will go where your leaders conduct you,” and in order to adorn this well-known and not very attractive prospect for the soldier, he added: “You will carry on the points of your bayonets-peace.” On May 22 [June 4], the cautious General Alexeiev, a man of no parts in any case, was removed, and replaced in the position of commander-in-chief by the more flexible and enterprising Brussilov. The democrats with all their power were preparing the offensive – the grand catastrophe, that is, of the February revolution.

L.D. Trotsky, “The First Coalition,” The History of the Russian Revolution


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