‘Petrograd workers and soldiers had to test the situation with their own experience’

The failure of the offensive became catastrophic on the 6th of July [July 19, 1917, on the modern calendar], when the Germans broke through the Russian troops on a front twelve versts long and to a depth of ten versts. The breach became known in the capital on July 7 [July 20], at the very height of the punitive and repressive activities. Many months later, when passions ought to have quieted down a little, or at least become a little more sensible, Stankevich – not one of the most vicious enemies of Bolshevism – was nevertheless still writing about the “mysterious sequence of events” to be observed in the breach at Tarnopol following just after the July Days in Petrograd. Those people did not see, or did not want to see, the real sequence of events – the fact that a hopeless offensive begun under the whip of the Entente could not but lead to military catastrophe and, simultaneously therewith, to an outbreak of indignation in the masses deceived in their hopes of the revolution. But what difference does it make what the real concatenation of events was? The temptation to link up the Petrograd manifestation with the misfortune at the front was too strong. The patriotic press not only did not conceal the reverses, but exaggerated them with all its might, not hesitating even to reveal military secrets – printing the names of divisions and regiments and indicating their position. “Beginning on July 8,” Miliukov confesses, “the newspapers began purposely to print outspoken telegrams from the front which struck Russian society like a clap of thunder.” And that was their purpose – to shock, to frighten, to deafen, in order the more easily to link up the Bolsheviks with the Germans.

Provocation undoubtedly played a certain rôle in the events at the front as well as on the streets of Petrograd. After the February revolution the government had thrown over into the active army a large number of former gendarmes and policemen. None of them of course wanted to fight. They were more afraid of the Russian soldiers than of the Germans. In order to get their past forgotten, they would simulate the most extreme moods of the army, incite the soldiers against the officers, come out loudest of all against discipline, and often openly give themselves out for Bolsheviks. Bound naturally together as accomplices, they created a kind of special Brotherhood of Cowardice and Villainy. Through them would penetrate and quickly spread through the army the most fantastic rumors, in which ultra-revolutionism was combined with Black Hundredism. In critical hours these creatures would give the first signals for panic. The press more than once referred to this demoralizing work of the police and gendarmes. No less frequent references of this kind are to be found in the secret documents of the army itself. But the high command remained silent, preferring to identify the Black Hundred provocateurs with the Bolsheviks. And now, after the collapse of the offensive, this method was legalized, and the Menshevik papers endeavored not to fall behind the dirtiest sheets of the chauvinists. With shouts about “Anarcho-Bolsheviks” and German agents, and about former gendarmes, they succeeded for a time in drowning out the question of the general condition of the army and of the policy of peace. “Our deep breach on the Lenin front,” Prince Lvov openly boasted, “has incomparably more importance for Russia in my firm opinion than the breach made by the Germans on the southwestern front …” The respected head of the government was like Rodzianko, the Lord Chamberlain, in that he did not know when to keep still.

If it had been possible to restrain the masses from demonstrating on July 3-4 [July 16-17], the demonstration would inevitably have broken out as a result of the Tarnopol breach. However, a delay even of a few days would have brought important changes in the political situation. The movement would have assumed at once a broader scope, taking in not only the provinces but also, to a considerable degree, the front. The government would have been exposed politically, and would have found it incomparably more difficult to lay the blame upon “traitors” in the rear. The situation of the Bolshevik party would have been more advantageous in every respect. However, even in that case the thing could not have been carried to the point of an immediate conquest of power. Only this much, indeed, can be confidently affirmed: If the July movement had broken out a week later, the reaction would not have come off so victorious. It was just that “mysterious sequence” of the date of the demonstration and the date of the breach which counted heavily against the Bolsheviks. The wave of indignation and despair rolling back from the front fell in with the wave of shattered hopes radiating from Petrograd. The lesson received by the masses in the capital was too severe for anyone to think of an immediate renewal of the struggle. Moreover the bitter feelings caused by the meaningless defeat sought expression, and the patriots succeeded to a certain extent in directing it against the Bolsheviks.

Russian troops desert the front during the collapse of the July 1917 military offensive.

In April, June, and July, the principal actors were the same: the Liberals, the Compromisers and the Bolsheviks. At all these stages the masses were trying to crowd the bourgeoisie out of the government. But the difference in the political consequences of mass interference in the several cases was enormous. It was the bourgeoisie who suffered in consequence of the “April days.” The annexation policy was condemned – in words at least; the Kadet party was humiliated; the portfolio of foreign affairs was taken from it. In June the movement came to nothing. A gesture was made against the Bolsheviks, but the blow was not struck. In July the Bolshevik party was accused of treason, shattered, deprived of food and drink. Whereas in April Miliukov had been forced out of the government, in July Lenin was forced underground.

What was the cause of this sharp change occurring in a period of ten weeks? It is quite obvious that in the ruling circles a serious shift had occurred to the side of the liberal bourgeoisie. However, in that same period – April to July – the mood of the masses had sharply shifted to the side of the Bolsheviks. These two opposing processes developed in close dependence one upon the other. The more the workers and soldiers closed up around the Bolsheviks, the more resolutely were the Compromisers compelled to support the bourgeoisie. In April the leaders of the Executive Committee, worrying about their own influence, could still come one step to meet the masses and throw Miliukov overboard – supplying him, to be sure, with a reliable life-belt. In July the Compromisers joined the bourgeoisie and the officers in raiding the Bolsheviks. The change in the correlation of forces was thus caused this time, too, by a shift of the least stable of political forces, the petty bourgeois democracy – its abrupt movement to the side of the bourgeois counter-revolution.

But if this is so, were the Bolsheviks right in joining the demonstration and assuming responsibility for it? On July 3 [July 16], Tomsky expounded the thought of Lenin: “It is impossible to talk of a manifestation at this moment unless we want a new revolution.” In that case how could the party a few hours later stand at the head of an armed demonstration without summoning the masses to a new revolution? Doctrinaires will see inconsistency here – or still worse, political light-mindedness. Sukhanov, for instance, sees the matter in this way, and incorporates in his Notes no few ironical references to the vacillation of the Bolshevik leadership. The masses take part in events, however, not at the bidding of doctrinaires, but at whatever time this flows inevitably from their own political development. The Bolshevik leadership understood that only a new revolution could change the political situation, but the workers and soldiers did not yet understand this. The Bolshevik leadership saw clearly that the heavy reserves – the front and the provinces – needed time to make their own inferences from the adventure of the offensive. But the advanced ranks were rushing into the street under the influence of that same adventure. They combined a most radical understanding of the task with illusions as to its methods. The warnings of the Bolsheviks were ineffective. The Petrograd workers and soldiers had to test the situation with their own experience. And their armed demonstration was such a test. But the test might, against the will of the masses, have turned into a general battle and by the same token into a decisive defeat. In such a situation the party dared not stand aside. To wash one’s hands in the water of strategical morals would have meant simply to betray the workers and soldiers to their enemies. The party of the masses was compelled to stand on the same ground on which the masses stood, in order, while not in the least sharing their illusions, to help them make the necessary inferences with the least possible loss. Trotsky answered in the press the innumerable critics of those days: “We do not consider it necessary to justify ourselves before anybody for not having stood aside waiting while General Polovtsev ‘conversed’ with the demonstrators. In any case our participation could not possibly have increased the number of victims, nor converted a chaotic armed manifestation into a political insurrection.”

A prototype of the July Days is to be found in all the old revolutions – with various, but generally speaking unfavorable, and frequently catastrophic, results. This stage is involved in the inner mechanics of a bourgeois revolution, inasmuch as that class which sacrifices most for the success of the revolution and hopes the most from it, receives the least of all. The natural law of the process is perfectly clear. The possessing class which is brought to power by the revolution is inclined to think that with this the revolution has accomplished its mission, and is therefore most of all concerned to demonstrate its reliability to the forces of reaction. This “revolutionary” bourgeoisie provokes the indignation of the popular masses by those same measures with which it strives to win the good will of the classes it has overthrown. The disappointment of the masses follows very quickly; it follows even before their vanguard has cooled off after the revolutionary struggle. The people imagine that with a new blow they can carry through, or correct, that which they did not accomplish decisively enough before. Hence the impulse to a new revolution, a revolution without preparation, without program, without estimation of the reserves, without calculation of consequences. On the other hand those bourgeois layers which have arrived at the power are in a way only waiting for a stormy outbreak from below, in order to make the attempt decisively to settle accounts with the people. Such is the social and psychological basis of that supplementary semi-revolution, which has more than once in history become the starting-point of a victorious counter-revolution.

On July 17, 1791, on the Champs de Mars, Lafayette fired on a peaceful demonstration of republicans attempting to bring a petition to the National Assembly which was engaged in screening the treachery of the monarchical power, just as the Russian Compromisers one hundred and twenty-six years later were screening the treachery of the Liberals. The royalist bourgeoisie hoped with a timely bath of blood to settle accounts with the party of the revolution forever. The republican leaders, still not feeling strong enough for victory, declined the battle and that was entirely reasonable. They even hastened to separate themselves from the petitioners – and that was, to say the least, unworthy and a mistaken policy. The régime of the bourgeois terror compelled the Jacobins to quiet down for several months. Robespierre took shelter with the carpenter Duplay. Desmoulins went into hiding. Danton spent several weeks in England. But the royalist provocation nevertheless failed: the settlement on the Champ de Mars did not prevent the republican movement from going on to victory. The great French revolution thus had its “July Days” – both in the political and the calendar sense of the word.

Fifty-seven years later in France, the “July Days” came in June and were incomparably more colossal and tragic. The so-called “June Days” of 1848 grew irresistibly out of the February overturn. The French bourgeoisie had proclaimed in the hour of its victory “the right to labor” – just as in 1789 it announced a great many admirable things, just as in 1914 it swore that it was now waging its last war. Out of that vainglorious “right to labor” arose those pitiful national sweatshops where a hundred thousand workers, after winning the power for their bosses, got a wage of twenty-three sous a day. Only a few weeks later the republican bourgeoisie, generous of phrase but stingy of money, could find no words insulting enough for these “spongers living on a national starvation dole. In the abundance of those February promises and the cold-bloodedness of the pre-June provocations, the national traits of the French bourgeoisie find admirable expression. But even without provocation, the Parisian worker with the February weapons still in his hands could not help reacting to the contrast between gorgeous program and miserable reality – that intolerable contrast every day gnawing at his stomach and his conscience. With what cool and barely concealed calculation did Cavaignac before the eyes of the whole dominant society, permit an insurrection to develop in order the better to drown it in blood! No less than 12,000 workers were slaughtered by the republican bourgeoisie, no less than 20,000 were imprisoned, in order to divest the remainder of their faith in that “right to labor” which the bourgeoisie had proclaimed. Without plan, without program, without leadership, the movement of the June days of 1848 was like a mighty and unrestrainable reflex action of the proletariat. Deprived of their most elementary necessities and insulted in their highest hopes, the insurrectionary workers were not only put down but slandered. The left democrat, Flaucon, a follower of Ledru-Rollin, a predecessor of Tseretelli, assured the National Assembly that the insurrectionaries had been bribed by monarchists and foreign governments. The Compromisers of 1848 did not even have to have a war atmosphere in order to discover English and Russian gold in the pockets of the rebels. It was in this way that the democrats laid down the road to Bonapartism.

The gigantic outbreak of the Commune bore the same relation to the September overturn of 1870, as the June Days to the February revolution of 1848. That March uprising of the Parisian proletariat was least of all a matter of strategic calculation. It resulted from a tragic combination of circumstances, supplemented by one of those acts of provocation in which the French bourgeoisie is so inventive when fear puts the spurs to its spiteful will. Against the plans of the ruling clique, which wished above all to disarm the people, the workers wanted to defend that Paris which they had first tried to make their own. The National Guard had given them an armed organization – one very close to the soviet type – and it had given them political leadership in the person of its Central Committee. In consequence of unfavorable objective conditions and political mistakes, Paris became opposed to France, misunderstood, not supported, in part actually betrayed by the provinces – and fell into the hands of the enraged men of Versailles with Bismarck and Moltke behind their backs. The depraved and beaten officers of Napoleon III proved indispensable hangmen in the service of the gentle Marianne, whom the Prussians in heavy boots had just freed from the embraces of a false Bonaparte. In the Paris Commune the reflex protest of the proletariat against the deceitfulness of a bourgeois revolution first rose to the height of proletarian revolution – but rose only to fall immediately.

Spartacus Week in January 1919 in Berlin belonged to the same type of intermediate, semi-revolution as the July Days in Petrograd. Owing to the prevailing position of the proletariat in the German nation, especially in its industry, the November revolution automatically transferred the state sovereignty to the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet. But the proletariat was politically identical with the Social Democracy, which in turn identified itself with the bourgeois régime. The independent party occupied in the German revolution the place which in Russia belonged to the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks. The thing lacking was a Bolshevik party.

Every day after the 9th of November gave the German workers a vivid feeling as though of something slipping from their hands, being withdrawn, sliding through their fingers. The desire to keep what they had won, to fortify themselves, to put up a resistance, was growing from day to day. And this defensive tendency lay at the bottom of the January fights of 1919. Spartacus Week began, not in the manner of a strategy calculated by the party, but in the manner of a pressure from the indignant lower ranks. It developed around a question of third-rate importance, that of retaining the office of chief-of-police, although it was in its tendencies the beginning of a new revolution. Both organizations participating in the leadership, the Spartacus League and the Left Independents, were taken unawares; they went farther than they intended and at the same time did not go through to the end. The Spartacus men were still too weak for independent leadership. The Left Independents balked at those methods which could alone have brought them to the goal, vacillated, and played with the insurrection, combining it with diplomatic negotiations.

In number of victims the January defeat falls far below the colossal figures of the “June Days” in France. However, the political importance of a defeat is not measured only by the statistics of killed and executed. It is enough that the young communist party was physically beheaded, and the Independent Party demonstrated that by the very essence of its methods it was incapable of leading the proletariat to victory. From a larger point of view the “July Days” repeated themselves in Germany in several different editions: the January week of 1919, the March days of 1921, the October retreat of 1923. The whole subsequent history of Germany derives from those events. The unachieved revolution was switched over into Fascism.

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


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