Could the Bolsheviks have seized power in July?

The demonstration forbidden by the government and the Executive Committee had been a colossal one. On the second day not less than five hundred thousand people participated. Sukhanov, who cannot find words strong enough for the “blood and filth” of the July Days, nevertheless writes: “Political results aside, it was impossible not to look with admiration upon that amazing movement of the popular masses. Even while deeming it fatal, one could not but feel a rapture in its gigantic spontaneous scope.” According to the reckonings of the Commission of Inquiry, 29 men were killed and 114 wounded – about an equal number on each side.

That the movement had begun from below, irrespective of the Bolsheviks – to a certain extent against their will – was at first recognized even by the Compromisers. But on the night of July 3, and yet more on the following day, official opinion began to change. The movement was declared an insurrection, the Bolsheviks its organizers. “Under the slogan, ‘All Power to the Soviets’,” writes Stankevich, a man close to Kerensky, “there occurred an organized insurrection of the Bolsheviks against the majority of the soviets, consisting at that time of the defensist parties.” This charge of organizing an insurrection was something more than a method of political struggle. During the month of June those people had well convinced themselves of the strong influence of the Bolsheviks on the masses, and they now simply refused to believe that a movement of workers and soldiers could have surged up over the heads of the Bolsheviks. Trotsky tried to explain the situation at a session of the Executive Committee: “They accuse us of creating the mood of the masses; that is wrong, we only tried to formulate it.” In books published by their enemies after the October revolution, particularly in Sukhanov, you will find it asserted that the Bolsheviks covered up their actual aim only in consequence of the defeat of the July insurrection, hiding behind the spontaneous movement of the masses. But could one possibly conceal, like a buried treasure, the plans of an armed insurrection which drew into its whirlpool hundreds of thousands of people? Were not the Bolsheviks compelled in October to summon the masses quite openly to insurrection, and to make preparations for it before the eyes of all? If no one discovered such a plan in July, it is only because there was none. The entry of the machine-gunners and Kronstadters into the Peter and Paul fortress with the consent of its permanent garrison – upon which “seizure” the Compromisers especially insist – was not at all an act of armed insurrection. That building situated on an island – a prison rather than a military post – might perhaps serve as a refuge for men in retreat, but it offers nothing whatever to attacking forces. In making their way to the Tauride Palace the demonstrators passed calmly by the most important government buildings – to occupy which the Putilov detachment of the Red Guard would have been an adequate force. They took possession of the Peter and Paul fortress exactly as they took possession of the streets, the sentry posts, the public squares. An additional motive was its nearness to the Palace of Kshesinskaia to whose aid it could have come in case of need.

The Bolsheviks made every effort to reduce the July movement to a demonstration. But did it not, nevertheless, by the very logic of things transcend these limits? This political question is harder to answer than the criminal indictment. Appraising the July Days immediately after they occurred, Lenin wrote: “An anti-government demonstration – that would be the most formally accurate description of the events. But the point is that this was no ordinary demonstration. It was something considerably more than a demonstration and less than a revolution.” When the masses once get hold of some idea, they want to realize it. Although trusting the Bolshevik party, the workers, and still more the soldiers, had not yet acquired a conviction that they ought to come out only upon the summons of the party and under its leadership. The experiences of February and April had taught them rather the opposite. When Lenin said in May that the workers and peasants were a hundred times more revolutionary than the party, he undoubtedly generalized this February and April experience. But the masses had also generalized the experience in their own way. They were saying to themselves: “Even the Bolsheviks are dawdling and holding us back.” The demonstrators were entirely ready in the July Days to liquidate the official government if that should seem necessary in the course of business. In case of resistance from the bourgeoisie they were ready to employ arms. To that extent there was an element of armed insurrection. If, in spite of this, it was not carried through even to the middle – to say nothing of the end – that is because the Compromisers confused the whole picture.

In the first volume of this work we described in detail the paradox of the February régime. The petty bourgeois democrats, Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries received the power from the hands of the revolutionary people. They had not set themselves the task of winning it. They had not conquered the power. They were put in possession of it against their will. Against the will of the masses, they tried to hand over this power to the imperialist bourgeoisie. The people did not trust the Liberals, but they trusted the Compromisers. The Compromisers, however, did not trust themselves. And in this they were in a way right. Even in turning over the whole power to the bourgeoisie, the democrats had continued to be somebody. But once they had seized the power in their own hands, they would have become nothing at all. From the democrats the power would almost automatically have slid into the hands of the Bolsheviks. This was inevitable, for it was involved in the organic insignificance of the Russian democracy.

The July demonstrators wanted to turn over the power to the soviets, but for this the soviets had to agree to take it. Even in the capital, however, where a majority of the workers and the active elements of the garrison were already for the Bolsheviks, a majority in the Soviet – owing to that law of inertia which applies to every representative system – still belonged to those petty bourgeois parties who regarded an attempt against the power of the bourgeoisie as an attempt against themselves. The workers and soldiers felt clearly enough the contrast between their moods and the policy of the Soviet – that is, between their today and their yesterday. In coming out for a government of the soviets, they by no means gave their confidence to the compromisist majority in those soviets. But they did not know how to settle with this majority. To overthrow it by violence would have meant to dissolve the soviets instead of giving them the power. Before they could find the path to a change of the personal composition of the soviets, the workers and soldiers tried to subject the soviets to their will by the method of direct action.

In a proclamation of the two Executive Committees on the subject of the July Days, the Compromisers indignantly appealed to the workers and soldiers against the demonstrators, who, they alleged, had “attempted by force of arms to impose their will upon your elected representatives.” As though the demonstrators and the electors were not merely two names for the same workers and soldiers! As though electors have not a right to impose their will upon those they have elected! And as though this will consisted of anything else but the demand that they should fulfill their duty – namely, get possession of the power in the interests of the people! The masses concentrated around the Tauride Palace were shouting into the ears of the Executive Committee the very same phrase which that nameless worker had thrust up at Chernov with his horny fist: “Take the power when they give it to you!” In answer the Compromisers sent for the Cossacks. These gentlemen of the democracy preferred a civil war against the people to a bloodless transfer of power into their own hands. It was the White Guards who fired the first shots, but the political atmosphere of the civil war was created by the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries.

Running into this armed resistance from the very institution to which they wished to turn over the power, the workers and soldiers lost a clear sense of their goal. From their mighty mass movement the political axis had been torn out. The July campaign was thus reduced to a demonstration partially carried out with the instruments of armed insurrection. Or, it would be equally true to say: It was a semi – insurrection, directed toward goals which did not permit other methods than those proper to a demonstration.

Although declining the power, the Compromisers had not wholly given it over to the Liberals. This was both because they feared them – the petty bourgeois always fears the big bourgeois – and because they feared for them. A pure Kadet ministry would have been immediately overthrown by the masses. Moreover, as Miliukov rightly points out, “In struggling against independent armed actions, the Executive Committee of the Soviet was fortifying its own right, proclaimed in the tumultuous days of the 20th and 21st of April, to deploy at its own discretion the armed forces of the Petrograd garrison.” The Compromisers were continuing to steal the power from under their own pillows. In order to offer armed resistance to those who had written on their banners “All Power to the Soviets,” the Soviet was obliged actually to concentrate the power in its hands.

The Executive Committee went even farther in the July Days: it formally proclaimed its sovereignty. “If the revolutionary democracy deemed necessary a transfer of all power into the hands of the soviets,” says their resolution of July 4, “the decision of that question could belong only to a plenary session of the Executive Committees.” While declaring the demonstration in favor of the soviet power a counter-revolutionary insurrection, the Executive Committee thus at the same time constituted itself the supreme power, and decided the fate of the government.

When at dawn on the 5th of July the “loyal troops” entered the Tauride Palace, their commander reported that his detachment submitted to the Executive Committee wholly and without reserve. Not a word about the government! But the rebels also wanted to submit to the Executive Committee in the character of a sovereign power. In surrendering the Peter and Paul fortress, the garrison considered it sufficient to announce their submission to the Executive Committee. Nobody demanded a submission to the official authority. The troops summoned from the front also placed themselves wholly at the disposal of the Executive Committee. Why, in that case, was there any shedding of blood?

If this conflict had taken place toward the end of the Middle Ages, both sides in slaughtering each other would have cited the same text from the Bible. Formalist historians would afterwards have come to the conclusion that they were fighting about the correct interpretation of texts. The craftsmen and illiterate peasants of the Middle Ages had a strange passion, as is well known, for allowing themselves to be killed in the cause of philological subtleties in the Revelations of Saint John, just as the Russian Separatists submitted to extermination in order to decide the question whether one should cross himself with two fingers or three. In reality there lies hidden under such symbolic formulae – in the Middle Ages no less than now – a conflict of life interests which we must learn to uncover. The very same verse of the Evangelist meant serfdom for some, freedom for others.

But there is a far more fresh and modern analogy. In the June days of 1848 in France, the same shout went up on both sides of the barricades: “Long live the Republic!” To the petty bourgeois idealist, therefore, the June fight has seemed a misunderstanding caused by the inattention of one side, the hot-headedness of the other. In reality the bourgeoisie wanted a republic for themselves, the workers a republic for everybody. Political slogans serve oftener to disguise interests than to call them by name.

In spite of the paradoxical character of the February régime – scribbled all over to boot with Marxian and Narodnik hieroglyphics by the Compromisers – the actual interrelation of classes is easy enough to see. It is only necessary to keep in view the twofold nature of the compromise parties. The educated petty bourgeois oriented himself upon the workers and peasants, but hobnobbed with the titled landlords and owners of sugar factories. While forming a part of the soviet system, through which the demands of the lower classes found their way up to the official state, the Executive Committee served at the same time as a political screen for the bourgeoisie. The possessing classes “submitted” to the Executive Committee so long as it pushed the power over to their side. The masses submitted to the Executive Committee, in so far as they hoped it might become an instrument of the rule of workers and peasants. Contradictory class tendencies were intersecting in the Tauride Palace and they both covered themselves with the name of the Executive Committee – the one through unconscious trustfulness, the other with cold-blooded calculation. The struggle was about nothing more or less than the question who was to rule the country, the bourgeoisie or the proletariat?

But if the Compromisers did not want to take the power, and the bourgeoisie did not have the strength to take it, maybe the Bolsheviks could have seized the helm in July? In the course of those two critical days the power in Petrograd completely dropped from the hands of the governmental institutions. The Executive Committee then felt for the first time its own complete impotence. In such circumstances it would have been easy enough for the Bolsheviks to seize the power. They could have seized the power, too, at certain individual points in the provinces. That being the case, was the Bolshevik party right in refraining from an insurrection? Might they not, fortifying themselves in the capital and in certain industrial districts, have subsequently extended their rule to the whole country? That is an important question. Nothing gave more help to the triumph of imperialism and reaction in Europe at the end of the war than those few months of Kerenskyism, exhausting revolutionary Russia and immeasurably damaging her moral authority in the eyes of the warring armies and of the toiling masses of Europe who had been hopefully awaiting some new word from the revolution. To shorten the birth pains of the proletarian revolution by four months would have been an immense gain. The Bolsheviks would have received the country in a less exhausted condition; the authority of the revolution in Europe would have been less undermined. This would not only have given the soviets an immense predominance in conducting the negotiations with Germany, but would have exerted a mighty influence on the fortunes of war and peace in Europe. The prospect was only too enticing!

But nevertheless the leadership of the party was completely right in not taking the road of armed insurrection. It is not enough to seize the power – you have to hold it. When in October the Bolsheviks did decide that their hour had struck, the most difficult days came after the seizure of power. It requires the highest tension of the forces of the working class to sustain the innumerable attacks of an enemy. In July even the Petrograd workers did not yet possess that preparedness for infinite struggle. Although able to seize the power, they nevertheless offered it to the Executive Committee. The proletariat of the capital, although inclining toward the Bolsheviks in its overwhelming majority, had still not broken the February umbilical cord attaching it to the Compromisers. Many still cherished the illusion that everything could be obtained by words and demonstrations – that by frightening the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries you could get them to carry out a common policy with the Bolsheviks. Even the advanced sections of the class had no clear idea by which roads it was possible to arrive at the power. Lenin wrote soon after: “The real mistake of our party on the 3rd and 4th of July, as events now reveal, was only this … that the party still considered possible a peaceful development of the political transformation by way of a change of policy on the part of the soviets. In reality the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had already tangled and bound themselves up by compromisism with the bourgeoisie, and the bourgeoisie had become so counterrevolutionary, that there was no longer any use talking about a peaceful development.”

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If the proletariat was not politically homogeneous and not sufficiently resolute, still less so was the peasant army. By its conduct on the 3rd and 4th of July the garrison made it wholly possible for the Bolsheviks to seize the power, but nevertheless there were neutral units which by the evening of the 4th were decisively inclining to the side of the patriotic party. By July 5, the neutral regiments had taken their stand with the Executive Committee, and the regiments tending towards Bolshevism were striving to assume a color of neutrality. It was this, far more than the belated arrival of troops from the front, that gave a free hand to the authorities. If the Bolsheviks in the heat of the moment had seized the power on the evening of July 4th, the Petrograd garrison would not itself have held it, and would have hindered the workers from defending it against the inevitable blow from without.

The situation looked still less favorable in the active army. The struggle for peace and land had made the army extremely hospitable, especially since the June offensive, to the slogans of the Bolsheviks, but the so-called “spontaneous” Bolshevism of the soldier was not in the least identified in his consciousness with a definite party, with its Central Committee, or its leaders. The soldiers’ letters of those times clearly depict this condition of the army. “Remember, Messers Ministers, and all you chief leaders,” writes the crooked hand of a soldier from the front, “we don’t understand very well about parties, only that the future and the past are not far off. The Tzar sent you to Siberia and sat you in jail, and we will sit you on our bayonets.” In these lines an extreme bitterness against those higher up who are deceiving the soldiers, is united with a recognition of the soldiers’ own helplessness. “We don’t understand very well about parties.” The army mutinied continually against the war and the officers, making use of slogans from the Bolshevik dictionary. But it was far from ready to raise an insurrection in order to give the power to the Bolshevik party. For the subduing of Petrograd the government picked out reliable detachments from the troops nearest the capital without encountering active resistance from other detachments, and it transported the echelons without resistance from the railroad workers. The discontented, rebellious, easily excitable army was still formless politically. It still contained too few compact Bolshevik nuclei capable of giving a single direction to the thought and activity of the crumbly soldier mass.

On the other hand the Compromisers, in order to turn the front against Petrograd and the peasant rear, made successful use of that poisoned weapon which in March the reaction had so carefully tried to bring to bear against the Soviet. The Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks said to the soldiers on the front: The Petrograd garrison, under the influence of the Bolsheviks, is refusing to send replacements; the workers do not want to work for the necessities of the front; if the peasant listens to the Bolsheviks and seizes the land now, nothing will be left for the men at the front. The soldiers needed some supplementary experience before they would understand for whom the government was saving the land, whether for the peasants at the front or the landlords.

Between Petrograd and the active army stood the provinces. Their reaction to the July events serves in itself as a very important a posteriori criterion for deciding the question whether the Bolsheviks were right in refraining from a direct struggle for power in July. Even in Moscow the pulse of the revolution was incomparably weaker than in Petrograd. In the session of the Moscow committee of the Bolsheviks stormy debates arose. Individuals belonging to the extreme left wing of the party – such, for example, as Bubnov – proposed that they occupy the Post Office, the telegraph and telephone stations, the editorial offices of Russkoe Slov – that is, that they take the road of insurrection. The committee, very moderate in its general spirit, decisively rejected these proposals, considering that the Moscow masses were not in the least ready for such action. It was nevertheless decided to hold a demonstration in spite of the veto of the Soviet. A considerable crowd of workers marched to Skobelevsky Square with the same slogans as in Petrograd, but with far from the same enthusiasm. The garrison reacted by no means unanimously; individual units joined the procession, but only one of them came fully armed. The artillery soldier, Davidovsky, who subsequently took a serious part in the October struggles, testifies in his memoirs that Moscow was not prepared for the July Days, and that the leaders of the demonstration were left with a bad taste in their mouths by its unsuccess.

In Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the textile capital where the soviet was already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, news came of the events in Petrograd, accompanied by a rumor that the Provisional Government had fallen. At a night session of the Executive Committee it was resolved, as a preliminary measure, to establish control over the telephone and telegraph. Work was stopped in the factories on July 6. Forty thousand took part in the demonstration, many of them armed. When it was learned that the Petrograd demonstration had not led to victory, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet hastily beat a retreat.

In Riga, under influence of the news from Petrograd, a clash occurred on the night of July 6 between Lettish sharpshooters inclined towards Bolshevism and the “Battalion of Death,” the patriotic battalion being compelled to retire. The Riga soviet adopted on that same night a resolution in favor of a government of the soviets. Two days later a similar resolution was adopted in Ekaterinburg, the capital of the Urals. The fact that this slogan of Soviet Power, which had been advanced in the early months only in the name of the party, became henceforward the program of individual local soviets indubitably meant a gigantic step forward. But from resolutions in favor of a Soviet Power to insurrection under the banner of the Bolsheviks, there was still a considerable road to travel.

In certain parts of the country the Petrograd events served as a stimulus to set off acute conflicts of a private character. In Nizhni-Novgorod, where some soldiers on furlough had long been resisting their entrainment for the front, junkers sent from Moscow to enforce orders aroused the indignation of two local regiments by their violence. Shooting followed, and men were killed and wounded. The junkers surrendered and were disarmed. The authorities disappeared. A punitive expedition set out from Moscow with three kinds of troops. At its head was the commander of the Moscow district, the impulsive Colonel Verkhovsky – a future War Minister of Kerensky – and the president of the Moscow soviet, the old Menshevik Khinchuk, a man of no military temper, the future head of the cooperatives, and afterward soviet ambassador in Berlin. However, they found nobody to subdue, as a committee elected by the mutinous soldiers had fully restored order by the time they arrived.

In Kiev, during approximately the same hours of the same night, and on the same ground – refusal to go to the front – soldiers of the regiment named after the Hetman Polubotko mutinied to the number of five thousand, seized a store of weapons, occupied the fortress and the district headquarters, and arrested the commander and the head of the militia. The panic in the city lasted several hours, until by the combined efforts of the military authorities, a committee of social organizations, and the institutions of the central Ukrainian Rada, the arrested were liberated and the greater part of the mutinous troops disarmed.

In far away Krasnoyarsk the Bolsheviks, thanks to the mood of the garrison, felt so strong that, in spite of the wave of reaction already gathering in the country, they held a demonstration on July 9, in which eight to ten thousand people took part, a majority of them soldiers. A detachment of 400 soldiers with artillery was moved against Krasnoyarsk from Irkutsk, led by the district military commander, the Social Revolutionary, Krakovetsky. During the two days of conferences and negotiations necessitated by the two-power régime, the punitive detachment became so demoralized by the soldiers’ agitation that the commissar hastened to send them back to Irkutsk. But Krasnoyarsk was upon the whole an exception.

In a majority of the provinces and county seats, the situation was incomparably less favorable. In Samara, for instance, the local Bolshevik organization, upon receiving news of the fights in the capital, “awaited the signal for action, although there was almost nobody they could count on.” One of the local members of the party says: “The workers had begun to sympathize with the Bolsheviks” but it was impossible to hope that they would go into a fight; it was still less possible to count on the soldiers. As for the Bolshevik organizations: “They were altogether weak; we were a mere handful. In the soviet of workers deputies there were a few Bolsheviks, but in the soldiers’ soviet there was, it seems, not a single one; and moreover the soviet consisted almost exclusively of officers.” The principal cause of this weak and unfavorable reaction of the country lay in the fact that the provinces, having received the February revolution from the hands of Petrograd without a struggle, were far slower than the capital in digesting new facts and ideas. An additional period was necessary before the vanguard could draw up to its own position the heavy reserves.

Thus the state of the popular consciousness – decisive factor in a revolutionary policy – made impossible the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in July. At the same time the offensive on the front impelled the party to oppose the demonstration. The collapse of the offensive was absolutely inevitable. As a fact it had already begun, but the country did not yet know it. The danger was that if the party were incautious, the government might lay the blame upon the Bolsheviks for the consequences of its own madness. The offensive must be given time to exhaust itself. The Bolsheviks had no doubt that the break in the mood of the masses would be very abrupt when it came. Then it would be clear what should be undertaken. Their reckoning was absolutely right. Events, however, have their own logic which takes no account of political reckonings, and this time events came down cruelly on the heads of the Bolsheviks.

L.D. Trotsky, “Could the Bolsheviks Have Seized the Power in July?”, The History of the Russian Revolution 

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