The June crisis: ‘The right to a peaceful demonstration is ours’

On the 9th of June [June 23 on the modern calendar] a bomb was exploded at the Soviet congress: in the morning’s edition of Pravda appeared an appeal for a demonstration on the following day. Cheidze, who knew how to get scared, and was therefore inclined to scare others, announced in a voice from the tomb: “If measures are not taken by the congress, tomorrow will be fatal.” The delegates lifted their heads in alarm.

The idea of a showdown between the Petrograd workers and soldiers and the congress was suggested by the whole situation. The masses were urging on the Bolsheviks. The garrison especially was seething – fearing that in connection with the offensive they would be distributed among the regiments and scattered along the front. To this was united a bitter satisfaction with the Declaration of the Rights of the Soldier, which had been a big backward step in comparison with Order No.1, and with the régime actually established in the army. The initiative for the demonstration came from the military organisation of the Bolsheviks. Its leaders asserted, and quite rightly as events showed, that if the party did not take the leadership upon itself, the soldiers themselves would go into the streets. That sharp turn in the mood of the masses, however, could not be easily apprehended, and hence there was a certain vacillation in the ranks of the Bolsheviks themselves. Volodarsky was not sure that the workers would come out on the street. There was fear, too, as to the possible character of the demonstration. Representatives of the military organisation declared that the soldiers, fearing attacks and reprisals, would not go out without weapons. “What will come out of the demonstration?” asked the prudent Tomsky, and demanded supplementary deliberations. Stalin thought that “the fermentation among the soldiers is a fact; among the workers there is no such definite mood,” but nevertheless judged it necessary to show resistance to the government. Kalinin, always more inclined to avoid than welcome a battle, spoke emphatically against the demonstration, referring to the absence of any clear motive, especially among the workers: “The demonstration will be purely artificial.” On June 8, at a conference with the representatives of the workers’ sections, after a series of preliminary Votes, 131 hands against 6 were finally raised for the demonstration, with 22 abstaining.

The work of preparation was carried on up to the last moment secretly, in order not to permit the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks to start a counter-agitation. That legitimate measure of caution was afterwards interpreted as evidence of a military conspiracy. The Central Council of Factory and Shop Committees joined in the decision to organise the demonstration. “Upon the insistence of Trotsky and against the objection of Lunacharsky,” writes Yugov, “the Committee of the Mezhrayontzi decided to join the demonstration.” Preparations were carried on with boiling energy.

The manifestation was to raise the banner of “Power to the Soviets.” The fighting slogan ran: “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists” That was the simplest possible expression for a break-up of the coalition with the bourgeoisie. The procession was to march to the Cadet Corps where the congress was sitting. This was to emphasise that the question was not of overthrowing the government, but of bringing pressure on the Soviet leaders.

To be sure, other ideas were expressed at the preliminary conferences of the Bolsheviks. For instance, Smilga, then a young member of the Central Committee, proposed that they should not “hesitate to seize the Post Office, telegraph, and arsenal, if events developed to the point of a clash.” Another participant in the conference, a member of the Petrograd Committee, Latsis, comments in his diary upon the rejection of Smilga’s proposal: “I cannot reconcile myself … I arrange with comrades Semashko and Rakhia to be fully armed in case of necessity and seize the railroad terminals, arsenals, banks, post and telegraph offices, with the help of a machine-gun regiment.” Semashko was the officer of a machine-gun regiment. Rakhia, a worker, one of the militant Bolsheviks.

The existence of such moods is easily understandable. The whole course of the party was toward a seizure of power, and the question was merely of appraising the present situation. An obvious break in favor of the Bolsheviks was taking place in Petrograd, but in the provinces the same process was going slower. Moreover the front needed the lesson of an advance before it could shake off its distrust of the Bolsheviks. Lenin therefore stood firm on his April position: “Patiently explain.”

Sukhanov in his Notes describes the plan of the demonstration of June 10, as a direct device of Lenin for seizing the power “if the situation proves favorable.” As a matter of fact, only individual Bolsheviks tried to put the matter this way, aiming according to the ironic expression of Lenin, “just a wee bit too far to the left.” Strangely enough, Sukhanov does not even try to compare his arbitrary guesses with the political line of Lenin expressed in innumerable speeches and articles.

The Bureau of the Executive Committee immediately presented the Bolsheviks with a demand to call off the demonstration. On what grounds? Only the state power, obviously, could formally forbid a demonstration; but the state power did not dare think of it. How could the Soviet, itself a “private organisation,” led by a bloc composed of two political parties, prevent a third party from demonstrating? The Bolshevik Central Committee refused to accede to the demand, but decided to emphasize more sharply the peaceful character of the demonstration. On the 9th of June, a Bolshevik proclamation was pasted up in the workers’ districts. “We are free citizens, we have the right to protest, and we ought to use this right before it is too late. The right to a peaceful demonstration is ours.”

The Compromisers carried the question before the congress. It was at that moment that Cheidze pronounced his words about the fatal outcome, and that it would be necessary for the congress to sit all night. A member of the presidium, Gegechkori, also one of the sons of the Gironde, concluded his speech with a rude cry in the direction of the Bolsheviks: “Take your dirty hands off a glorious cause!” They did not give the Bolsheviks time, though it was demanded, to take up the question in a meeting of their faction. The congress passed a resolution forbidding all demonstrations for three days. Besides being an act of violence with relation to the Bolsheviks, this was an act of usurpation with relation to the government. The soviets continued to steal the power from under their own pillow.

Miliukov was speaking at this time at a Cossack conference, and called the Bolsheviks “the chief enemies of the Russian revolution.” Its chief friend, he allowed them to infer, was Miliukov himself, who just before February had agreed to accept defeat from the Germans rather than revolution from the Russian people. To a question from the Cossacks as to the attitude towards Leninists, Miliukov answered: “It’s time to make an end of these people.” The leader of the bourgeoisie was in too great a hurry. However, he really could not afford to waste time.

Meanwhile meetings were being held in factories and regiments, adopting resolutions to go into the streets the next day with the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” Under the noise of the soviet and Cossack congresses, the fact passed unnoticed that 37 Bolsheviks were elected to the duma of the Vyborg district, only 22 from the Social Revolutionary-Menshevik bloc, and 4 Kadets.

Confronted with the categorical resolution of the congress – and moreover with a mysterious reference to a threatening blow from the right – the Bolsheviks decided to reconsider the question. They wanted a peaceful demonstration, not an insurrection, and they could not have any motive for converting a for bidden demonstration into a half-insurrection. On its side the presidium of the congress decided to take measures. Several hundred delegates were grouped in tens and sent out to the workers’ districts and the barracks to prevent the demonstration. They were to meet in the morning at the Tauride Palace and compare notes. The executive committee of the peasant deputies joined in this expedition, appointing 70 from its membership.

Thus, in however unexpected a manner, the Bolsheviks achieved their goal. The delegates of the congress found themselves obliged to get acquainted with the workers and soldiers of the capital. If the mountain was not allowed to come to the prophet, the prophet at least went to the mountain. The meeting proved instructive in the highest degree. In the Izvestia of the Moscow Soviet, a Menshevik correspondent paints the following picture: “All night long, without a wink of sleep, a majority of the congress, more than 500 members, dividing themselves into tens, traveled through the factories and shops and military units of Petrograd, urging everybody to stay away from the demonstration … The congress had no authority in a good many of the factories and shops, and also in several regiments of the garrison … The members were frequently met in a far from friendly manner, sometimes hostilely, and quite often they were sent away with insults.” This official Soviet organ does not exaggerate in the least. On the contrary, it gives a very much softened picture of this nocturnal meeting of two different worlds.

The Petrograd masses at least left no doubt among the delegates as to who was able henceforth to summon a demonstration, or to call it off. The workers of the Putilov factory agreed to paste up the declaration of the congress against the demonstration only after they learned from Pravda that it did not contradict the resolution of the Bolsheviks. The first machine gun regiment – which played the leading rôle in the garrison, as did the Putilov factory among the workers – after hearing the speeches of Cheidze and Avksentiev representing the two executive committees, adopted the following resolution: “In agreement with the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks and their military organisation, the regiment postpones its action.”

This brigade of pacifiers arrived at the Tauride Palace after their sleepless night in a condition of complete demoralization. They had assumed that the authority of the congress was in violable, but had run into a stone wall of distrust and hostility. “The masses are thick with Bolsheviks.” “The attitude to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries is hostile.” “They trust only Pravda.” “In some places they shouted: ’We are not your comrades.’” One after another the delegates reported how, although they had called off the battle, they were defeated.

The masses submitted to the decision of the Bolsheviks, but not without protest and indignation. In certain factories they adopted resolutions of censure of the Central Committee. The more fiery members of the patty in the sections tore up their membership cards. That was a serious warning.

The Compromisers had motivated their three-day veto of demonstrations by references to a monarchist plot, which hoped to avail itself of the action of the Bolsheviks; they mentioned the participation in it of a part of the Cossack congress and the approach to Petrograd of counter-revolutionary troops.

It is not surprising if after calling off the demonstration the Bolsheviks demanded an explanation as to this conspiracy. In place of an answer the leaders of the congress accused the Bolsheviks themselves of a conspiracy. They found this happy way out of the situation.

It must be acknowledged that on the night of June 10 the Compromisers did discover a conspiracy, and one which shook them badly – a conspiracy of the masses with the Bolsheviks against the Compromisers. However, the submission of the Bolsheviks to the resolution of the congress encouraged them and permitted their panic to turn into madness. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries decided to show an iron energy. On the 10th of June the Menshevik paper wrote: “It is time to brand the Leninists as traitors and betrayers of the revolution.” A representative of the Executive Committee appeared at the Cossack congress and requested them to support the Soviet against the Bolsheviks. He was answered by the chairman, the ataman of the Urals, Dutov: “We, Cossacks, will never go against the Soviet.” Against the Bolsheviks the reactionaries were ready to go hand in hand even with the Soviet – in order the better to strangle it later on.

L.D. Trotsky, “The Soviet Congress and the June Demonstration,” The History of the Russian Revolution

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