Leon Trotsky speaking before a crowd in Petrograd, October, 1917.
“I am certainly not radical enough. One can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself.” -Vladimir Lenin, in conversation with Valeriu Marcu while exiled in Switzerland.
On this day, one hundred years ago, the October Revolution began. In the Gregorian Calendar, the Revolution started on November 7, but in the old Russian Julian calendar, it was October 25. In memory, it marked the beginning of the state that would become the Soviet Union. For those involved, it was something more important: the end of the Provisional Government and what might be called a de facto state of anarchy.
The word anarchy is worth interrogating. Recent abuses of the word in popular culture suggest that anarchy is a kind of directionless physical violence, which removes it from its more valuable political usage. Anarchy was a widespread political ideology at the turn of the century, seen as the antithesis to monarchy, oligarchy, and above all, hierarchy. These words stem from the Greek arkhon, meaning “ruler,” and in the Athenian Democracy indicated certain offices that one could hold as religious kings, generals, or administrators. Anarchy, then, is the absence of rulers, but specifically the absence of hierarchy, or the stratification of rulers over the ruled. In the context of an oppressive Tsarist empire whose police shot protestors while stoking antisemitism and nationalism and fought a useless war for political ambitions and allegiances, the concept of anarchy would have been quite appealing.
The problem with the Provisional Government that formed after February, 1917, was not that it was explicitly authoritarian. The problem, from its inception, was that it was a balancing act between traditional hierarchies and the growing desire for the end of those hierarchies. Alexander Kerensky came to control the Provisional Government, sharing power with the soviets while trying to maintain the war. What Trotsky called “dual power” between Kerensky’s Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet (representing workers, peasants, and soldiers), Lenin called “Bonapartism,” in reference to Napoleon Bonaparte. In mid-1917, Lenin wrote that Kerensky was maneuvering “state power, which leans on the military clique (on the worst elements of the army) for support, between two hostile classes and forces which more or less balance each other out.” Lenin was not alone in criticizing the Provisional Government, which was a primary point of contention among Russia’s revolutionaries.
Apart from Kerensky’s perpetuation of the war effort, he was shown to be an unhelpful leader in August, during what became known as the Kornilov Affair. Lavr Kornilov was a general who, in August, attempted to overthrow the Provisional Government and install a right-wing military dictatorship, a proto-fascist regime that would have undermined the February Revolution and reinstated a new Tsarism. As China Mieville writes of the affair, “. . . there was more than one conspiracy simmering away on the right. Various shadowy groups–the Union of Officers, the Republican Centre and Military League–were meeting to discuss plans for martial law” (213). Add to these the threat of the antisemitic Black Hundreds, responsible for mass murders and pogroms across Russia, as well as counterrevolutionary efforts to win the war, the bleak regime Kornilov almost created would have been as oppressive, if not more so, than the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. But the coup failed because Kerensky managed to work alongside the Petrograd Soviet in time to stop Kornilov’s renegades from invading the capitol.
There was leadership, then, but no ruler. Christopher Read writes that one consequence of the Kornilov Affair was “a sort of reverse of the July Days,” that the “right had discredited itself and restored the ascendancy of the left.” He also writes that there were consequences for Kerensky, too, who “made an agreement with the Petrograd Soviet, armed it, withdrew the ban on its members, primarily the Bolsheviks, and released Soviet prisoners from jail. . . But it was not enough. Kerensky was seen to have cultivated Kornilov in the first place, not least in appointing him C-in-C” (Read 92-93). Indeed, Kerensky was seen as having worked with Kornilov, and many believed that he was sympathetic to an authoritarian coup that would relieve him of his duties. If nothing else, the affair proved that the Provisional Government had become dysfunctional, barely clinging to life.
In the months that followed, popular support for the Bolsheviks rose while support for Kerensky plummeted. It is important to note that the goal of most on the far left, including some Mensheviks, was to pass power to the soviets completely, and end the power of the Provisional Government. As early as September, “eighty soviets in large and medium towns backed the call for a soviet government. In towns such as Tsaritsyn, Narva, Krasnoiarsk, and Kostroma soviet power was already a reality” (Smith 147). During this time, the Bolsheviks were actively campaigning from the ground up, organizing factories, speaking in public, and stoking public support for a soviet antithesis to the Provisional Government. It was around this time that Lenin suggested that the Bolsheviks, “‘having obtained a majority in the soviets of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies in both capitols, can and must take state power into their own hands‘” (Mieville 246), and should make no compromise with the Provisional Government by simply walking away from it.
Here, Lenin believed that the time was ripe for the soviets to lead the soviets in taking power. Earlier, he had encouraged the Bolsheviks to refrain from leaving the Provisional Government in July because they were not popularly supported, and it was important for him to recognize that the support of the workers, peasants, and soldiers was more important than overthrowing a weak Provisional Government. It had to be done for the soviets and all they represented. Now that it was clear the Bolsheviks were going to gain popular recognition in an upcoming pre-parliament session (which would begin October 7), the Bolsheviks would declare their legitimacy among the soviets and then walk out.
The Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, who helped exiled leaders like Lenin correspond with the party and without whom the revolution would not have succeeded, articulated the main argument against working with the Provisional Government in her text “Why the Bolsheviks Must Win.” She wrote that the “February revolution could remove none of the factors which caused it, namely war, rising prices, famine and privation. At the same time, the Russian bourgeoisie calmly continued their rule” (Kollontai). In other words, the horrors that motivated widespread protests across Russia continued to inflict damage, and needed to be addressed with different means. For many Bolsheviks, this meant an armed insurrection to precipitate the transfer of power to the soviets.
After walking out on the pre-parliament, the Bolshevik Central Committee met in secret on October 10 to vote on whether or not to implement an insurrection. By ten to two, after numerous speeches from numerous members, they voted in favor of insurrection. They were now popular representatives of the peasants and workers, and the time had come for another, more radical change necessitated by the moment’s urgency. For the Central Committee members, waiting for more elections would result only in more casualties as the German army approached and increase the chance of another Kornilov-inspired coup. If they waited any longer, the comatose Provisional Government might be toppled and a military dictator might be installed.
The insurrection began on October 25. Fittingly, this was also Trotsky’s birthday.
That day, Trotsky spoke to an “emergency session of the Petrograd Soviet” and announced, “‘On behalf of the Military Revolutionary Committee, I declare that the Provisional Government no longer exists‘” (Mieville 289). The Second Congress of Soviets opened to debate a new soviet-led government. Meanwhile, Red Guards (a paramilitary branch of the Bolsheviks), seized key areas of Petrograd, including bridges, train stations, the post office, and eventually the Winter Palace, where they arrested the remaining members of the Provisional Government, who surrendered peacefully. All except Kerensky, who had long since fled the city.
A number of elected officials who opposed the insurrection walked out of the Second Congress of Soviets, while Trotsky pontificated on the legitimacy of the move he and the Bolsheviks made: “A rising of the masses of the people requires no justification. What has happened is an insurrection, and not a conspiracy.” While those who dissented walked up and left, just as the Bolsheviks had at the pre-parliament weeks before, Trotsky denounced them, shouting, “you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out. Go where you ought to go: to the dustbin of history” (298-299). On those words, the opposition left the Congress to continue debating a new regime, one without monarchy, oligarchy, or hierarchy.
By early morning on October 26, after tense nightlong debates, the Second Congress of Soviets passed a resolution drafted by Lenin to build a soviet-exclusive government, end the war, grant self-determination to nations Russia had subjugated, and transfer land to the peasants (303-304), thus creating an all-soviet state.
The October Revolution occurred without a single loss of life. It was armed, but bloodless. A ship controlled by the Red Guards, the Aurora, fired a blank shot, and some shots were fired periodically during the arrest of the Provisional Government, but nobody died in the October Revolution, partly because of how well organized the Red Guards were, but mostly because the government in place was apathetic to its own demise. It did not resist arrest and cancellation, which suggests that the October Revolution was not a coup, as some historians contest. As S. A. Smith puts it, “. . . a coup implies the seizure of a functioning state machine. Arguably, Russia had not had this since February” (43).
It is telling that the document announcing the insurrection’s success, titled “To the Citizens of Russia,” begins not by declaring a new soviet regime but by iterating that “The Provisional Government has been deposed” (Lenin). A bottom-up regime change was important, but it was more important to end what was in place, a doomed, if not failed, attempt to sustain a fraction of the old guard through the exhausted imitation of the old guard’s strategies. It was not a state of anarchy the way contemporary anarchists would have preferred. Kerensky held together a stitched-up government of poorly balanced provisions and hierarchy beyond its health. He was not a competent ruler, but he still ruled, and as such, he presided over a kind of anarchy by leaving the Provisional Government open to coups that favored hierarchy, which would have been a return to pre-revolutionary Russia.
The October Revolution was an attempt to replace the lasting remains of the Tsarist regime with something new, something untried, something that could create a state without hierarchy. It was a somewhat democratic effort to reaffirm the rule of the soviets, to make every worker, peasant, and soldier free of status. It seems that in the moment, the only other option was a cynical return to military dictatorship, well-known to those many who survived it before. The Bolsheviks wanted to give the Congress an alternative, however strange and frightening it may have been, to what Russians had spent decades suffering through. After the bloody Civil War, Lenin’s too-soon passing, and Stalin’s hijacking of the state, the Second Congress is easily obscured in its long, cold aftermath.
One step forward, one step back.
Trotsky condemned those who refused to try for an alternative to hierarchy to the “dustbin of history,” where, now that Russia is under a new brand of right-wing authoritarianism, the entire Soviet Union now rests, sometimes even in peace.
Mieville, China. October. Verso, 2017.
Read, Christopher. War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Smith, S. A. Russia in Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. Sterling, 2011.
Thorley, John. Athenian Democracy. Routledge, 1996.