Lenin and the First Communist Revolutions, IV

  • The Russian Coup d'Etat: November, 1917

    The indecisive Kerensky, already minister of war and navy, became Prime Minister soon after the first failed Leninist coup. His response to the putsch was, strangely, to alienate his military supporters (Pipes in particular argues forcefully that Kornilov and other military figures jailed by Kerensky were not in fact plotting against him) while thwarting any serious effort to neutralize the Bolsheviks. As Pipes notes, Kerensky "even deprived the Military Staff of the authority to arrest Bolsheviks and forbade it to confiscate weapons found in their possession. As the end of July, he looked the other way as the Bolsheviks held their Sixth Party Congress in Petrograd." Kerensky soon ordered the release of all but a few of the Bolsheviks from prison, including Trotsky, so that by October 10 (old calendar) "all but twenty-seven Bolsheviks were at liberty and preparing for the next coup."(The Russian Revolution) Largely under Trotsky's control due to Lenin's absence, the Bolsheviks intensified their manipulation of the soviets; upon winning control of the Moscow and Petrograd soviets, they set up their own national soviet organization, even though on the national level the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks were still the dominant parties. The Bolsheviks cleverly split off a faction of the Social Revolutionaries, known henceforth as the "Left SRs," which enabled them to keep up the pretense of sharing power with other socialist parties.

    The next step was for the Bolsheviks to convene a the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Just as Lenin split off his followers from the R.S.D.L.P. and declared his faction to be the "real" party, so too did Lenin now split off his followers in the soviets and declare them to be the "real" national council of soviets - even though the Mensheviks and SRs still had a large majority on the national level. After bargaining for a few concessions, the original Ispolkom legitimized the Second Congress by agreeing to participate. This was a fatal error, as Pipes observes:

    Although aware of what the Bolsheviks had in mind, the Ispolkom gave them what they wanted: a hand-picked body, filled with their adherents and allies, which was certain to legitimize a Bolshevik power seizure. (The Russian Revolution)

    Lenin now secretly returned to Petrograd, ensuring that his followers would exert their best efforts to seize power. The night before their hand-picked Second Congress was to meet, on October 24 (old calendar) Leninist cadres forcibly seized control of all the power centers in Petrograd: railroads, mail, phones, banks, bridges. Their early efforts to take the Winter Palace and arrest the Provisional Government were however thwarted by loyal troops. Lenin and Trotsky had planned to open the Second Congress only after the Winter Palace was under their control, but these difficulties put them in an awkward situation. Unfazed, Trotsky simply opened the Second Congress with the announcement that the Provisional Government had been dismissed. Lenin arrived at the Congress to proclaim the "worldwide socialist revolution." Suitably packed with loyal Bolsheviks, the Second Congress voted in a new 15-member Provisional Government or "Sovnarkom" composed exclusively of Bolsheviks, along with a new Iskolpom of 62 Bolsheviks and 29 Left SRs out of 101 members. The Winter Palace fell shortly thereafter, and part of the Provisional Government was arrested. In other urban centers, similar coups put Lenin's followers firmly in charge, bolstered by their Left SR allies, with a window dressing of other parties to keep up appearances.

    Lenin and Trotsky now had the upper hand, but their triumph was incomplete. Their gerrymandered Provisional Government was supposed to reign only until new elections to the Constituent Assembly were held. Lenin's optimism led him to permit these national elections, which were relatively free and representative of the entire Russian population. While the Bolsheviks won in Petrograd and Moscow, and had particularly strong support from soldiers, the elections made it clear that at best the Bolsheviks had the support of only a minority of the population - even though they had been in charge of the central government for a month!

    Constituent Assembly Election Results
    Party # of Votes (000's) Percent of Vote
    Socialist-Revolutionaries 17,943 40.4%
    Bolsheviks 10,661 24.0%
    Mensheviks 1,144 2.6%
    Left SRs 451 1.0%
    Other Socialists 401 0.9%
    Constitutional Democrats ("Kadets") 2,088 4.7%
    Other Russian Liberal Parties 1,261 2.8%
    Ukrainian SRs 3,433 7.7%
    Georgian Mensheviks 662 1.5%
    Mussavat (Azerbaijan) 616 1.4%
    Dashnaktsutiun (Armenia) 560 1.3%
    Alash Orda (Kazahkstan) 407 0.9%
    Other National Minority Parties 407 0.9%
    Unaccounted 4,543 10.2%

    This was a crushing defeat for Lenin. But while only a quarter of the voters cast their votes for the Bolsheviks, Lenin's followers had the determination and discipline that their opponents lacked. The Leninists abruptly changed their position, declaring that the Constituent Assembly elections did not represent the will of the people. They banned the Kadets (which, like the Bolsheviks, had a relatively strong following in the urban centers), dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and pulled their standard trick: forming a packed parallel assembly and declaring it to the be "the" assembly. As Pipes explains, in early January...

    [T]he Bolsheviks opened their counter-Assembly, labeled "Third Congress of Soviets." Here no one could obstruct them because they had reserved for themselves and the Left SRs 94 percent of the seats, more than three times what they were entitled to, judging by the results of the Constituent Assembly. The little left over their allocated to the opposition socialists - just enough to have a target for abuse and ridicule. The congress duly passed all the measures submitted to it by the government spokesmen, including the "Declaration of Rights." Russia became a "Federation of Soviet Republics," to be known as the "Russian Soviet Socialist Republic," which name she retained until 1924, when she was renamed "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." The congress acknowledged the Sovnarkom as the country's legitimate government, removing from its name the adjective "provisional." It also approved the principle of universal labor obligation.

    As Orwell wrote in 1984, "One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish the dictatorship." The first Communist state had arrived.

    The Russian Revolution: March, 1917
    The First Communist Dictatorship