‘Dual powerlessness’ lays basis for crisis of July 1917

Lenin’s assertion [at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets] of the Bolshevik willingness to take power was a declaration of war on the Provisional Government and was intended as such. The authority of the coalition was wilting; it was the period of what Trotsky called “the dual powerlessness.”

The next step was to test the state of mind of workers and soldiers in Petrograd. The Bolsheviks summoned their supporters to a street demonstration on June 9 [June 22 on the modern calendar], 1917, but called it off in face of opposition in the congress. The congress itself then arranged a monster street demonstration in support of the Soviets on June 18, 1917. But not more than a handful of the banners carried expressed confidence in the Provisional Government, and it was said that the slogans inscribed on 90 percent of them were Bolshevik.

A more serious popular rising began on July 3 [July 16], 1917, at the moment when the government, hard pressed by the allies, had ordered a large-scale military offensive in Galicia. The demonstrations lasted for four days and became seriously menacing.

It was freely believed that this was the beginning of a serious Bolshevik attempt to seize power, though the party leaders insisted that it was a spontaneous demonstration which they themselves struggled to keep within bounds; and Lenin himself argued that it was impossible to act so long as a majority still believed in “the petty bourgeois capitalist-controlled policy of the Mensheviks and SRs.” This time, however, the government took up the challenge. Loyal troops were drafted into the capital; Pravda was suppressed; and orders were issued for the arrest of the three chief Bolshevik leaders. Kamenev was taken; Lenin and Zinoviev went into hiding, and escaped to Finland.

Within the next few days the Galician offensive failed, with heavy losses; another ministerial crisis led to the resignation of Lvov and the appointment of Kerensky as premier; Trotsky and the Mezhraiontsy, some 4000 strong, at length joined the Bolsheviks; and there was a flood of further arrests, including Trotsky, Lunacharsky and Kollontai.

Presidium of the 6th Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks), July/August 1917. The six leaders pictured in top row were then in prison or in hiding following the July Days: Lenin, Zinoviev, Trotsky, Kamenev, Kollantai and Lunacharsky.

At the end of July, 1917, with Lenin and other leaders still in hiding or in prison, the sixth party congress – the first since the London congress of 1907 – was held in Petrograd. Sverdlov presided; and it fell to Stalin and Bukharin to make the main political reports. Lenin had furnished guidance in a small pamphlet written since his retirement into hiding, “On the Slogans,” in which he argued for the withdrawal of the slogan “all power to the Soviets.” This had been devised in the days when a peaceful transfer to Soviets representing the proletariat and the peasantry still seemed possible. Since the July troubles it was clear that the bourgeoisie had declared for counter-revolution, and that it would fight: the existing Soviets were tools of the bourgeoisie.

The congress, skillfully led by Stalin in face of some opposition on this point, declared that “all power to the Soviets ” was “the slogan of the peaceful development of the revolution, of the painless transfer of power from the bourgeoisie to the workers and peasants,” and that nothing would now avail short of the complete liquidation of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. [Lenin would later revive the slogan “all power to the Soviets,” in September when a Bolshevik majority was in view.]

When Nogin, echoing the doubt expressed by Rykov at the April conference, asked whether the country had “really made such a leap in two months that it is already prepared for socialism,” Stalin boldly replied that “it would be unworthy pedantry to ask that Russia should ‘wait’ with her socialist transformation till Europe ‘begins’,” and that “the possibility is not excluded that Russia may be the country which points the way to socialism” – an acceptance of Trotsky’s thesis of 1906. At the same time there was a warning against being provoked into “premature fighting.” With the leaders dispersed, and the party itself threatened at any moment with official persecution, the congress could do little but mark time.

E.H. Carr, “From February to October,” The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923 Vol. 1


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