The June crisis: Bolshevism on trial

On June 11 there assembles a formidable court of justice: the Executive Committee, members of the presidium of the congress, leaders of the factions – in all about a hundred men. Tseretelli as usual appears in the rôle of prosecutor. Choking with rage, he demands deadly measures, and scornfully waves away Dan, who is always ready to bait the Bolsheviks, but still not quite ready to destroy them. “What the Bolsheviks are now doing is not ideological propaganda, but a conspiracy. The Bolsheviks must excuse us. Now we are going to adopt different methods of struggle … We have got to disarm the Bolsheviks. We cannot leave in their hands those two great technical instruments which they have possessed up to now. We cannot leave machine guns and rifles in their hands. We will not tolerate conspiracies.” That was a new note. What did it mean exactly to disarm the Bolsheviks? Sukhanov writes on this subject: “The Bolsheviks really did not have any special stores of weapons. All the weapons were actually in the hands of soldiers and workers, the immense mass of whom were following the Bolsheviks. Disarming the Bolsheviks could mean only disarming the proletariat. More than that, it meant disarming the troops.”

In other words, that classic moment of the revolution had arrived when the bourgeois democracy, upon the demand of the reaction, undertakes to disarm the workers who had guaranteed the revolutionary victory. These democratic gentlemen, among whom were well-read people, had invariably given their sympathy to the disarmed, not to the disarmers – so long as it was a question of reading old books. But when this question presented itself in reality, they did not recognize it. The mere fact that Tseretelli, a revolutionist, a man who had spent years at hard labor, a Zimmerwaldist of yesterday, was undertaking to disarm the workers, had some difficulty in making its way into people’s heads. The hall was stunned into silence. The provincial delegates nevertheless felt that someone was pushing them into an abyss. One of the officers went into hysterics.

No less pale than Tseretelli, Kamenev rose in his seat and cried out with a dignity the strength of which was felt by the audience: “Mr. Minister, if you are not merely talking into the wind, you have no right to confine yourself to speech. Arrest me, and try me for conspiracy against the revolution.” The Bolsheviks left the hall with a protest, refusing to participate in this mockery of their own party. The tenseness in the hall became almost unbearable. Lieber hastened to the aid of Tseretelli. Restrained rage was replaced by hysterical fury. Lieber called for ruthless measures. “If you want to win the masses who follow the Bolsheviks, then break with Bolshevism.” But he was heard without sympathy, even with a half-hostility.

Impressionable as always, Lunacharsky immediately tried to find a common ground with the majority: Although the Bolsheviks had assured him that they had in mind only a peaceful demonstration, nevertheless his own experience had convinced him that “it was a mistake to organise a demonstration”; however, we must not sharpen the conflicts. Without pacifying his enemies, Lunacharsky irritated his friends.

“We are not fighting with the left tendency,” said Dan jesuitically – he was the most experienced, but also most futile of the leaders of the swamp. “We are fighting with the counter revolution. It is not our fault if behind your shoulders stand the agents of Germany.” The reference to Germans was merely a substitute for an argument. Of course these gentlemen could not point to any agents of Germany.

Tseretelli wanted to deal a blow; Dan merely wanted to show his fist. In its helplessness the Executive Committee sided with Dan. The resolution offered to the congress next day had the character of an exceptional law against Bolsheviks, but without immediate practical inferences.

“You can have no doubt after the visit of your delegates to the factories and regiments,” said a declaration addressed to the congress in writing by the Bolsheviks, “that if the demonstration did not take place, it was not because of your veto, but because our party called it off … The fiction of a military conspiracy was created by the members of the Provisional Government in order to carry out the disarming of the proletariat of Petrograd and the disbanding of the Petrograd garrison … Even if the state power went over wholly into the hands of the Soviet – which we advocate – and the Soviet tried to put fetters upon our agitation, that would not make us passively submit; we should go to meet imprisonment and other punishments in the name of the idea of international socialism which separates us from you.”

The Soviet majority and the Soviet minority confronted each other breast to breast three days as though for a decisive battle. But both sides stepped back at the last moment. The Bolsheviks gave up the demonstration. The Compromisers abandoned the idea of disarming the workers.

Tseretelli remained in the minority among his own people. But nevertheless from his point of view he was right. The policy of union with the bourgeoisie had arrived at a point where it became necessary to paralyse the masses who were not reconciled to the coalition. To carry the Compromise policy through to a successful end – that is, to the establishment of a parliamentary rule of the bourgeoisie – demanded the disarming of the workers and soldiers. But Tseretelli was not only right. He was besides that powerless. Neither the soldiers nor the workers would have voluntarily given up their arms. It would have been necessary to employ force against them. But Tseretelli was already without forces. He could procure them, if at all, only from the hands of the reaction. But they, In case of a successful crushing of the Bolsheviks, would have immediately taken up the job of crushing the Compromise soviets, and would not have failed to remind Tseretelli that he was a former hard-labour convict and nothing more. However, the further course of events will show that even the reaction did not have forces enough for this.

Politically Tseretelli grounded his argument for fighting the Bolsheviks upon the assertion that they were separating the proletariat from the peasantry. Martov answered him: Tseretelli does not get his guiding ideas “from the depth of the peasantry. A group of right Kadets, a group of capitalists, a group of landlords, a group of imperialists, the bourgeoisie of the West” – these are the ones who are demanding the disarmament of the workers and soldiers. Martov was right: the possessing classes have more than once in history hidden their pretensions behind the backs of a peasantry.

From the moment of publication of Lenin’s April theses, a reference to the danger of isolating the proletariat from the peasants became the principal argument of all those who wanted to drag the revolution backward. It was no accident that Lenin compared Tseretelli to the “old Bolsheviks.”

In one of his works of the year 1917, Trotsky wrote on this theme: “The isolation of our party from the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, even its extreme isolation, even by way of solitary confinement, would still in no case mean the isolation of the proletariat from the oppressed peasantry and the oppressed city masses. On the contrary, a sharp demarcation of the policy of the revolutionary proletariat from the treacherous apostasy of the present leaders of the Soviet, can alone bring a saving political differentiation into the peasant millions, draw away the poor peasants from the traitorous leadership of the aggressive Social Revolutionary type of muzhik and convert the socialist proletariat into genuine leaders of the national plebeian revolution.”

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

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