How the Bolsheviks Won

The Bolsheviks' rise to power, one hundred years ago today, revisited.

July 4, 1917. Street demonstration on Nevsky Prospekt in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) just after troops of the Provisional Government opened fire with machine guns. Viktor Bulla / Wikimedia

In my contribution, I want to revisit the main conclusions of my writings on 1917, especially as they relate to the thorny, still deeply politicized question of how the Bolsheviks won out in the struggle for power in 1917 Petrograd. However, let me start with a few words about the views of earlier historians on this issue.

To Soviet historians, the October 1917 revolution was the legitimate expression of the will of the revolutionary Petrograd masses — a popular armed uprising in support of Bolshevik power led by a highly disciplined vanguard party, brilliantly directed by V. I. Lenin. Western historians, on the other hand, have tended to view the Bolsheviks’ success as the consequence of the Provisional Government’s softness toward the radical left; a historical accident or, most frequently, the result of a well-executed military coup, lacking significant popular support, carried out by a small, united, highly authoritarian and conspiratorial organization controlled by Lenin and subsidized by enemy Germany. To historians holding the latter view — which now includes many historians in Russia today — the structure and practices of the Bolshevik party in 1917 were the inevitable progenitor of Soviet authoritarianism.

The conclusions of my research work on 1917 departed in significant ways from these common interpretations. To illustrate this point, let me take note of a few important, still often overlooked moments during the crucial summer and fall of 1917 which seemed me to be of special importance in understanding the character and course of the “October Revolution” in Petrograd. I will then summarize how “Red October” looks to me today.

The July Uprising

The first of the moments to which I want to turn is the abortive “July uprising,” which appeared to many at the time, and to most Western historians since, as an unsuccessful attempt by Lenin to seize power and as a dress rehearsal for “Red October.”

In my book, Prelude to Revolution, I concluded that the chaotic, bloody, ultimately unsuccessful July uprising was an accurate reflection of unwillingness on the part of soldiers in the war-inflated Petrograd garrison to accept shipment to the front in support of the July 1917 Russian offensive, and of genuine, widespread, spiraling impatience and dissatisfaction on the part of the large mass of Petrograd factory workers, soldiers, and Baltic fleet sailors with the continued maintenance of the war effort and the meager social and economic results of the February 1917 revolution. With regard to the Bolshevik role in the preparation and organization of the July uprising, I concluded that the eruption was partly the outgrowth of four months of steady Bolshevik propaganda and agitation; that factory and unit-level, rank-and-file Bolsheviks played leading roles in starting it; and that extremist leaders of two major auxiliary arms of the party, the Bolshevik Military Organization and the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee, responsive to their new, impatient constituencies, encouraged it against the wishes of Lenin and a majority of the Bolshevik Central Committee.

I also ventured several broader generalizations with important implications for subsequent events from my study of the July uprising. One set of generalizations concerned mass attitudes in Petrograd toward the Provisional Government, soviets, and the Bolsheviks at that time. Studying the evolution of popular opinion between February and July, I concluded that among Petrograd workers, soldiers, and sailors who acted politically in any way, the Provisional Government was already then — that is, by midsummer of 1917 — widely perceived as an organ of the propertied classes, opposed to fundamental political and social change, and cold to popular needs. On the other hand, although the lower strata of the Petrograd population subjected the moderate socialists to increasing criticism for their support of the Provisional Government and the continuing war effort, it nonetheless viewed soviets at all levels as genuinely democratic institutions of popular self-rule. Hence, the enormous and ever growing popular attraction of two of the Bolsheviks’ chief political slogans, “All Power to the Soviets!” and “Immediate Peace!”

As for the situation of the Bolsheviks, the July uprising ended in a painful, seemingly decisive defeat for them. Nonetheless, what appeared most significant to me was the great popularity of the radical Bolshevik program demonstrated before and during the July uprising. At a time when the popular expectations for meaningful change were sky high, and when other major political groups were demanding patience and sacrifice in the interests of the war effort, the radical Bolshevik political program, and the party’s apparent responsiveness to the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens, contributed significantly to the very considerable influence and strength it had acquired in just a few months.

This led me to a second set of generalizations reflected in the July experience. These generalizations related to the traditional image of the Bolshevik party in 1917 as an essentially united, authoritarian, conspiratorial organization, tightly controlled by Lenin. Based on exhaustive empirical research, I concluded that this image bore precious little relation to the reality. It was not simply that from top to bottom, from March 1917 on, the Bolshevik organization included left, right, and centrist factions, each of which helped shape the party’s politics. No less important, it seemed to me, was the fact that amid the unstable, locally varying, constantly changing conditions prevailing in revolutionary Petrograd in 1917, not to speak of Russia as a whole, the Bolshevik Central Committee was simply unable to control nominally subordinate agencies. Lower organizations were relatively free to tailor their appeals and tactics to their perception of the developing situation on the ground. The importance of this factor in interpreting the Bolshevik party’s behavior during the 1917 revolution was, I concluded, difficult to overestimate.

Further, I found that Lenin’s pre-revolutionary conception of a small, professional, conspiratorial party had become obsolete after the “February Revolution” and the party’s doors were quickly opened wide to tens of thousands of new members who also influenced policy. In other words, to a significant degree, the Bolshevik organization in Petrograd was both open and responsive to the concerns of the popular masses. Undisputedly, this caused great difficulty in July. However, I concluded that in the longer run, the Bolsheviks’ extensive, carefully cultivated connections in plants and factories, in a myriad of worker organizations and military units, were an important source of the party’s strength and ultimate ability to take power.

The Reaction

The second revealing moment in 1917 that I want to touch on is the brief period of reaction in Petrograd that followed the collapse of the July uprising. This was the time when the initially successful Russian offensive on the Eastern Front was turned into a most terrible rout of the Russian army, and when Alexander Kerensky became prime minister. Kerensky headed a liberal-moderate socialist coalition government overwhelmingly concerned with suppressing the Bolsheviks, restoring domestic political authority and order (if necessary by force), and somehow shoring up the collapsing front.

Briefly, it appeared that a lull had been reached in the revolutionary workers’ movement. Public opinion in Petrograd seemed to have swung decisively rightward. Yet despite a constant barrage of flamboyant, hardline rhetoric by Kerensky, incessantly echoed by temporarily resurgent conservative civil and military groups, it was clear that none of the repressive measures loudly proclaimed by Kerensky were either fully implemented or achieved their objectives (which is not to say that they could have successfully restored order). More than this, the apparently increasing danger of counterrevolution reflected in such events as the Moscow Conference — the large, much ballyhooed gathering of conservative forces in mid-August 1917 — heightened popular suspicion of the Provisional Government and stimulated the desire to let bygones be bygones and to unite more closely in defense of the revolution. I found that this mass response to what were popularly perceived as dangerous threats to the revolution were reflected in numerous, mutually reinforcing documents of the time.

If hostility toward the Bolsheviks on the part of ordinary citizens dissipated in the face of the apparent threat of counterrevolution within a few weeks after the July uprising, then already by the second half of August — before General Lavr Kornilov’s failed rightist putsch — there were increasing signs that the party, with its apparatus essentially intact, had embarked on a new period of striking, rapid growth. I found that a clear indication of the degree to which the party’s fortunes were again on the rise was reflected in the results of mid-August elections to the Petrograd City Duma. In these citywide elections, the Bolsheviks scored a resounding triumph.

The Kornilov Affair

Inevitably, perhaps, with the very existence of the Russian state immediately threatened by military forces from outside and by political, social, and economic disintegration within, and with the Kerensky government so obviously unable to stem accelerating deterioration, liberal and conservative groups looked to the high command of the army for salvation. The efforts of some of these elements culminated in the so-called “Kornilov affair” of late August. In thinking about General Kornilov’s failed rightist putsch, my primary concern today is not the still disputed questions of Kornilov’s objectives and personal ambitions, or of Kerensky’s possible complicity in wresting authority from the soviets and reestablishing order by means of a strong military dictatorship. In the present context, the facet of this particularly revealing historical moment that interests me most is what the struggle against Kornilov in Petrograd revealed about the attitudes and power of ordinary citizens then and about the impact of the Kornilov experience on the stature of the Bolsheviks.

Let me recall in briefest terms what occurred in Petrograd following Kerensky’s August 27 announcement that General Kornilov had refused to recognize his authority and that troops supporting Kornilov were aboard trains and already nearing the capital. The Kadet Party, the main Russian liberal party, sympathetic to Kornilov’s objectives and distrustful and scornful of Kerensky, refused to support him. For the briefest time, it appeared that Kornilov’s troops could not be prevented from occupying the capital and that the Provisional Government would surely fall. But all political groups to the left of the Kadets — Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs, Anarchists, every labor organization of any importance, and soldier and sailor committees at all levels — immediately banded together in defense of the revolution.

Under the direction of the Rail Workers Union, communications between Kornilov in southern Russia and his forces advancing on Petrograd were cut, and trains carrying insurgent troops were derailed. Everywhere Kornilov’s forces were stranded, officers were forced to stand by helplessly as crowds of delegates from mass organizations, some dispatched from Petrograd and others from nearby towns and villages, quickly persuaded Kornilov’s troops, selected for their reliability and discipline, not to move further and to pledge loyalty to the revolution. Suffice to say, the episode was over in a few days, without a shot fired.

And in the first flush of this triumph over the counterrevolution, most organizations in Petrograd that had taken part in the anti-Kornilov movement expressed their views about the nature, make-up, and program of a future government in a torrent of political resolutions. These resolutions obviously had not been designed by any single agency for they differ significantly on specifics. Yet common to most of them was aversion to any kind of further political collaboration with the propertied classes and attraction for the immediate creation of some sort of exclusively socialist government that would end the terrible war. It was apparent that to many, including Bolsheviks, the swift defeat of General Kornilov confirmed the immense political potential of all socialists working together.

It seemed to me there were other noteworthy political ramifications of the Kornilov experience. For the time being, the rightist movement was shattered, that was clear. And because of their behavior both before and after the crisis, the Kadets were widely suspected of having been in league with the general; they were now weakened and deeply demoralized. Moreover, because of bitter internal disputes over the character and composition of a future government, the Mensheviks and SRs were scarcely in better shape. Each now included rapidly growing left factions whose immediate political goals were closely aligned with those of moderate Bolsheviks. And meanwhile, the disintegration of the Russian economy continued apace. In Petrograd, food and fuel shortages became much more acute.

Naturally, the Kornilov affair also did inestimable harm to Kerensky’s reputation, among both the defeated Right and the Left. Clearly, among the competitors for power in 1917 Petrograd, the Bolsheviks were the big beneficiaries of the failed rightist move. Yet it seemed questionable to argue, as many historians did and still do, that Kornilov’s defeat made Lenin’s victory virtually inevitable. To be sure, Kornilov’s failure testified to the great potential power of the Left and demonstrated once again the enormous popular attraction of the Bolsheviks’ program of radical change. However, the mass mood was not specifically Bolshevik in the sense of reflecting a desire for a Bolshevik government. That, it seemed to me, was the crucial point. For the fact is that the idea of a Bolshevik government had never been raised publically before. In the eyes of Petrograd workers, soldiers, and sailors, the Bolsheviks stood for Soviet power — for multiparty Soviet popular democracy. This was now an impediment to the unilateral seizure of power. For as the flood of post-Kornilov political resolutions showed, the city’s lower classes were attracted more than ever by the possibility of creating a Soviet government uniting all democratic socialist elements.

In any case, the abortive July uprising and subsequent reaction demonstrated the risks inherent in overreliance on the popular mood. This conclusion was also inescapable. Moreover, the history of the party from the time of the February Revolution on revealed the potential for programmatic discord and undisciplined, disorganized activity within Bolshevik ranks. So in the aftermath of the Kornilov affair, whether the party would find the requisite strength of will, organizational discipline, and sensitivity to the complexities of the fluid and potentially explosive prevailing situation to take power was still an open question.

“Red October”

This, then, was my reading of significant, often overlooked historical moments during the summer of 1917 that seemed to me to be of particular importance in understanding “Red October.” Now, let me now suggest how the Bolshevik success in October 1917 appeared, framed against this background. Recall that in mid-September, Lenin, then still hiding out in Finland, sent two historically momentous letters to the party leadership in Petrograd. In these letters, which quite literally came out of the blue, Lenin demanded that Bolsheviks in Petrograd organize an armed uprising and overthrow the Provisional Government “without losing an instant.” Also remember that Lenin’s directive was rejected by unanimous vote of the Central Committee.

There were, records showed, several reasons for this rapid, wholly negative — indeed, horrified — response. For one thing, the receipt of Lenin’s shocking directive coincided with the start of the Democratic State Conference when party leaders in the capital, under the impression that they had Lenin’s blessing, were oriented toward convincing a majority of conference delegates that the conference itself should initiate the creation of a new, exclusively socialist government. This effort failed. The fact that the Bolshevik leadership ignored Lenin’s orders even after it became clear that the Democratic State Conference would not abandon coalition politics was partly due to the influence of moderate Bolsheviks like Lev Kamenev. However, most significant is that even Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky, who in principle shared Lenin’s fundamental theoretical assumptions regarding the necessity and feasibility of an early socialist revolution in Russia, were skeptical of mobilizing workers, soldiers, and sailors behind the “immediate bayonet charge” insisted on by Lenin.

The situation was similar to that during the heyday of the reaction which prevailed in the aftermath of the July uprising. At that time, most party leaders in Petrograd ignored Lenin’s demand that they abandon soviets as revolutionary organ. Now, toward the end of September, these Bolsheviks seemed to once again have had a more realistic appreciation than Lenin of the limits of the party’s influence and authority among ordinary citizens, and of the latter’s continuing attachment to soviets as legitimate democratic organs in which all genuinely revolutionary groups would collaborate to fulfill the revolution. Consequently, together with the Left SRs, they began to associate the seizure of power and the creation of an all-socialist coalition government publically with the early convocation of another national Congress of Soviets as a way to take advantage of the legitimacy of soviets at a popular level.

The impact on Bolshevik tactics of the outlook of workers, soldiers, and sailors was most pronounced during the two weeks preceding the overthrow of the Provisional Government. To be sure, at a historic secret session of the Central Committee on October 10 in which Lenin participated, it was resolved to make an armed insurrection “the order of the day.” Yet despite this green light for the organization of an armed uprising, the Petrograd masses were not called to arms.

Once more, this was partly due to the frantic efforts of Bolshevik moderates led by Kamenev to head off immediate violence against the government. However in the wake of the Central Committee’s historic October 10 decision, it is clear that militantly inclined party leaders in closest touch with workers and lower ranking military personnel — Bolsheviks who sided with Lenin in principle — earnestly explored the possibilities for organizing a popular armed uprising. And after several days of circulating in “the districts” (in plants, factories, and military barracks), significant numbers of them were forced to conclude that the party was technically unprepared to initiate immediate action against the government. They also concluded that most ordinary citizens would not be responsive to a call by the party to rise before the fast approaching congress of soviets which, after all, the Bolsheviks themselves had touted as revolutionary Russia’s highest political authority pending early convocation of a Constituent Assembly.

Some militant Bolshevik leaders responded to these problems by insisting that the start of an uprising simply be delayed pending completion of further military preparations. However, there was another general approach: that soviets, because of their stature at a popular level, rather than party organs, be employed for Kerensky’s overthrow; therefore, that an attack on the government should be masked as a defensive operation on behalf of the soviet; that every opportunity should be utilized to undermine the Provisional Government’s power peacefully; and that the formal overthrow of the government should be linked with and legitimized by the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. Bolshevik leaders sharing these views were more confident than Lenin that a majority of delegates at the congress of soviets would support the formation of an inclusive, all-socialist coalition government. This outlook, I found, was shared by many leading Petrograd Bolsheviks (most prominently, by Trotsky).

In The Bolsheviks Come to Power, I tried my best to reconstruct the Bolsheviks’ successful pursuit of these tactics rather than Lenin’s — in particular, their utilization of a counterrevolutionary threat to help create an ostensibly nonparty organ, the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. Under the guise of protecting the revolution, this organ gained control of virtually the entire Petrograd garrison, in the process disarming the government without a shot being fired. It was only after Kerensky responded to the Military Revolutionary Committee’s usurpation of command authority over the garrison by initiating a military crackdown on the Bolsheviks that the armed action against the government that Lenin had been demanding for over a month began. This occurred late the night of October 24-25, only hours before the scheduled opening of the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets. By that time, only demoralized, meager, and constantly dwindling numbers of Cossacks, cadets, and women soldiers still defended Kerensky’s cabinet huddled and isolated in the Winter Palace.

In his book Red October, the late Robert V. Daniels, an influential American historian of Russian communism, concluded that the belated “uprising” of October 24-25 was of crucial historical importance because by prompting Mensheviks and SRs to withdraw from the national soviet congress, it eliminated the possibility that the congress would form a representative socialist coalition government in which moderate socialists would likely have had a significant voice. Thus, it paved the way for the formation of an exclusively Bolshevik soviet government, the Sovnarkom. This, incidentally, was also Sukhanov’s view. Analysis of the political identity and position of arriving congress delegates on the government question and the dynamics of the congress’s decisive opening session, indicated that this was indeed the case. However a more important point that became apparent to me was that only after Kerensky’s understandable but hopeless military attack on the Bolsheviks did the armed action advocated by Lenin become feasible.

The Petrograd workers and soldiers who supported the Bolsheviks in the subversion and overthrow of the Provisional Government did so because they were persuaded that the revolution and the congress were in imminent danger. Only the creation of a multiparty, exclusively socialist government by the soviet congress, pending decisions on Russia’s permanent political future by a representative Constituent Assembly — which, to repeat, is what the Bolsheviks stood for at a popular level — seemed to offer the hope of avoiding death at the front and of achieving a freer, better, more just life.

Beyond Petrograd

Let me end by suggesting what seem to me to be the implications of all of this today, on the centennial of the revolution, in addressing the question of “how the Bolsheviks won?” Surely it is clear that the answer to this question is far more complex than traditional Soviet and Western interpretations suggest. To be sure, it was and remains as difficult for me as it has been for virtually all historians of the Russian Revolution to envision the Bolshevik success in the absence of Lenin’s ultimately decisive interventions (most importantly his call to continue the revolution upon his return to Petrograd in April 1917, and his appeals for the immediate seizure of power beginning in mid-September 1917). These interventions by Lenin are a vivid example of the sometimes decisive role of the individual in history.

Nonetheless, of similarly crucial importance to the rapid rise of the Bolsheviks and their ultimate success, was the correspondence between the Bolsheviks’ public program and popular aspirations at a time when the Provisional Government was blamed for rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, pursuit of the war effort, and tolerance, if not support for, of the counterrevolution. This, while the three other major Russian political parties — the Kadets, Mensheviks, and SRs — were widely discredited by their apparent support for Kerensky and his domestic and foreign policies. The most fundamental difference between me and many historians of the “October Revolution” is that in my view the ability of the party to accommodate divergent theoretical views and a significant degree of initiative and tactical independence on the part of nominal subordinate agencies, as well as the party’s decentralized structure and responsiveness to the prevailing popular mood, had as much if not more to do with the party’s success as did revolutionary discipline, organizational unity, and obedience to Lenin. For it is apparent that the successful tactics of the Petrograd Bolsheviks in the fall of 1917 emerged out of a continuing interchange of ideas regarding the development of the revolution, and constant interplay between party members at all levels with factory workers, soldiers, and sailors.

As we see, on a number of occasions in July, September, and October, 1917, Lenin issued directives which, if followed to the letter, would probably have been disastrous. Each time, party agencies and Bolshevik leaders, attuned to rapidly fluctuating political realities and responsive to popular opinion, either rejected Lenin’s orders or adapted them to fit prevailing circumstances. Had it been otherwise the Bolsheviks would likely not have succeeded. From this perspective “Red October” in Petrograd was in large part a genuine expression of popular forces, as much a complex political struggle as a military contest, in which the fate of the Provisional Government — though not the composition and character of the new revolutionary Soviet regime — was sealed well before the military operations emphasized in most accounts.

Has my explanation of the Bolshevik success in Petrograd changed significantly? The answer is: no, not fundamentally. If I could, I would change the title of my first book, Prelude to Revolution. With the perspective of a full century, the July uprising and even the February and October revolutions appear as key phases of one grand, fundamental political and social process that might properly be called “The Great Russian Revolution.” Access to Russian archives and relatively recently published document collections and scholarly monographs shed important new light on such long neglected topics as the 1917 Revolution in the provinces, adding valuable fresh detail to knowledge of individual developments in Russia’s center. However, they have not undermined my overall sense of the importance of the Bolshevik party’s structure and the popular attraction of democratic soviet power in explaining “how the Bolsheviks won.”