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The 1917 ’July days’ – rich in lessons for today

Revolution never develops in a straight line.

Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary, London. Originally published in July 2007.

Between February and October 1917 there were many sharp turns in the situation in Russia. In April, the government coalition of ’socialists’ – the Social Revolutionaries (SRs) and Mensheviks (minority) – with the capitalist ministers, continued the bloody first world war.

However, the mass of workers, together with the peasants, particularly the ten million soldiers, were absolutely exhausted by the war and yearned for the end of the slaughter. But even the worker and peasant councils, the soviets, which were dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, actually supported continuation of the war.

These parties were also hostile to the demands of the workers, for instance, for an eight-hour day. Initially the capitalists retreated in the face of this long-standing demand of the workers. Many times in history, faced with a mass onslaught, the possessing classes have bent with the wind, only later to try to undermine whatever ’reforms’ are temporarily conceded. We see in France today, with the coming to power of the right-wing Sarkozy government, how the 35-hour week, conceded by the earlier Socialist government of Jospin, is set to be destroyed if the government gets its way.

Yet, a shorter working day is vital for participation of the masses in making decisions and putting them into practise, particularly in a period of revolution. If the working class is chained to the factory and office, as is the case today, there is little or no time left to be involved in ’civic life’, in the trade unions or political parties. Britain has the longest working week in western Europe. Many workers are compelled to take two or even three jobs to keep their heads above water. And, on the basis of capitalism, it could get a lot worse: “We are in the early stages of a trend towards longer hours that could last for the next 30 years or more” (Hamish McRae, The Independent).

A principled position

The first all-Russian congress of soviets on 3 June 1917, dominated by the SRs and Mensheviks, refused to ratify the eight-hour day. This and other issues infuriated the masses, particularly in Petrograd, and led to growth of support for the Bolsheviks. At the beginning of the revolution, as Trotsky explained: “Not only in the soldiers’ soviets but also in the workers’ soviets, the Bolshevik faction generally constituted 1-2%, at best 5%. The leading bodies of the petty-bourgeois democracy [Mensheviks and so-called Social Revolutionaries] had the following of at least 95% of the workers, soldiers and peasants participating in the struggle”.

From the beginning, the Bolsheviks were systematically attacked because they expressed the real interests of the masses for bread, peace, land and freedom. On a smaller scale, there is an element of this present today, particularly in the unions in Britain. Socialist Party members as well as other militants are singled out for attack both by the employers and the conservative trade union officialdom.

For instance, in the National Union of Teachers former ’lefts’ have tended to coalesce with the leadership. Socialist Party members in that union have stood out against their prevarications over the issue of an early ballot for strike action for an improved pay rise. This has earned them the charge of ’sectarianism’ from this ’coalition’ which includes practically every other political trend in the union.

This ironically includes the Socialist Workers Party, which is a byword for real sectarianism as well as a denunciatory approach towards others. But Marxists have always been accused of being ’sectarians’ whenever they dare to speak the truth to the working class. This is invariably accompanied by attempts to persecute Marxists in the unions, as is now the case in UNISON.

To the working class

The Bolsheviks ignored the parliamentary babblers and the top layer of the workers’ movement but concentrated their attention on the masses and particularly the most oppressed millions and tens of millions. The whole press, including the papers of the Mensheviks and SRs carried out a vicious campaign against the Bolsheviks.

Even in the first months after February, there was a torrent of abuse, suggesting that carloads of gold had been delivered to the Bolsheviks from Germany and that Lenin was hiding in a German aeroplane. This even led soldiers and sailors to threaten to bayonet Lenin and other leaders of Bolshevism!

But the brutal experience of the masses in the trenches and factories led to disillusionment with the other parties. Yesterday’s indignation of the soldier and sailor against the Bolsheviks became remoulded into passionate devotion to them and unselfish readiness to follow them to the very end. And, on the other hand, the hatred of the masses for the capitalist Cadet party was inevitably transferred to their allies, the Mensheviks and SRs.

In the poll tax struggle in Britain in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and in the epic 1983-1987 Liverpool struggle, Militant, now the Socialist Party, experienced something similar. From a small force, we became the dominant political trend in the Liverpool struggle.

This was achieved not through manoeuvres, as our right-wing and left reformist opponents argued at that time and since, but by winning through argument and action mass working-class support through correct perspectives, programme, strategy and tactics, and a preparedness ’to go to the end’ in the struggle against Thatcher. The same applied in the poll tax struggle where it was Militant, not the small, left, phrase mongering organisations existing then and today, and certainly not the ’babblers’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which led a movement of 18 million non-payers – an unprecedented mass movement. This not only defeated the poll tax but reduced Thatcher and her government to rubble.

Changes in consciousness

In 1917, the working masses, who learn quickly in a revolution, transferred their hopes to the Bolsheviks, who grew rapidly. From 2,000 members in Petrograd in February 1917 – some historians put the figure at 3,000 – they grew to 16,000 by April (with 79,000 nationally). By the July Days, Bolshevik party membership stood at 200,000.

The indignation of the masses against the government was reflected in June; on the 18th of that month a massive demonstration of between 500,000 and 800,000 workers marched through Petrograd. The Menshevik and SR majority had themselves been compelled to call the demonstration, as a means of heading off one proposed by the masses of Petrograd under the influence of the Bolshevik rank and file. But they completely miscalculated.

As the “delegates to the congress assembled on Mars Field, [they] read and counted the placards” (Trotsky). During the demonstration, the first Bolshevik slogans were met half-laughingly by the soviet dignitaries but “the same slogans were repeated again and again. ’Down with the ten minister-capitalists’, ’down with the offensive’ and, most importantly, ’All power to the Soviets’.” (Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, p462).

Reactionary pro-capitalist historians suggest revolution arises either from ’conspiracy’ or the result of a revolutionary party’s ’agitation’. However, revolutions take place according to clear laws. The mass of the population may be unaware of these laws but the changes in mass consciousness result primarily from objective developments. This is capable of being anticipated and explained in advance by Marxist theory.

The 1917 June days led directly to the July ’half-insurrection’. This was similar to what has happened in previous revolutions: the ’June days’ in the 1848 revolution, the ’Spartacist uprising’ of January 1919, and the ’May Days’ in Barcelona in 1937.

The working masses are conscious of having made a revolution, overthrowing an old regime, but the gains are being snatched out of their hands. They therefore come out onto the streets to prevent this. This is what took place at the beginning of July 1917, particularly in Petrograd.

Rather than this being an indication that the Bolsheviks were, at that stage, set on a ’seizure of power’, as right-wing historian Richard Pipes argued, the Bolsheviks and Lenin in particular did everything at that stage in their power to apply the brakes.

There was massive impatience in the ranks of the working class, with even Bolshevik influenced workers demanding: “Why don’t they get busy up there?”, having in mind not only the Mensheviks and SRs, but also the governing bodies of the Bolsheviks. But an attempt to overthrow the Provisional government at that stage was premature.

The 1905 revolution, a dress rehearsal for 1917, had failed partly because the peasants were not ready to fully support the workers. In July 1917 Petrograd was ahead of the rest of the country. On 21 June, Lenin appealed in the newspaper Pravda to the Petrograd workers and soldiers to wait until events “should bring over the heavy reserves to the side of Petrograd”.

At the same time the government was trying to move revolutionary detachments from Petrograd to the war front. The mood of the working class rose to fever pitch, with demands for action by armed soldiers: “Come on, let’s get moving!”. When the Bolsheviks tried to restrain the workers, there were cries of “Down with it! Again you want to postpone things. We can’t live that way any longer”.

The Bolsheviks then switched tack. They recognised that the impatient workers of Petrograd, who gave two-thirds of their votes in the soviets to the Bolsheviks at the beginning of July, were determined to come out onto the streets to confront the government. Because of this, they concluded that they had to put themselves at the head of the demonstration.

Lenin is condemned by the historian Pipes as a “hopeless vacillator”, unable to make up his mind in June and July. On the contrary, Lenin opposed a demonstration to begin with but then, recognising the mood of the masses, urged the Bolsheviks to lead the demonstration in order to mitigate too much damage.

When the mass demonstration on 4 July took place it was accompanied by a furious capitalist propaganda offensive denouncing the Bolsheviks’ “attempt to seize power”. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were in receipt of ’German funds’ and the street demonstrations in July had been ’directed by the Germans’.

The demonstrators were fired on and a wave of repression – including the death of one young Bolshevik – was unleashed. This was with the full support of the “entire socialist press” – that is the papers of the Mensheviks and SRs. One newspaper editor wrote confidently at the time: “The Bolsheviks are compromised, discredited, and crushed. More than that, they have been expelled from Russian life, their teachings have turned out to be an irreversible failure” (The Bolsheviks Come to Power, by Alexander Rabinovich, p51).

Repression and the ’month of the Great Slander’ were unleashed against the workers and the Bolsheviks. Some of them, like Lenin, were compelled to go underground and others were jailed. Another historian, Orlando Figes, accuses: “Lenin was always prone to overestimate the physical danger to himself; in this respect he was something of a coward. It cannot be said that his life was ever at direct risk during his summer on the run”.

The same ’objective’ historian writes a paragraph later: “However, given the frenzied anti-Bolshevik atmosphere, it is not hard to see why Lenin should be so concerned for his personal safety. This was a time of lynch law and the tabloid press was full of cartoons showing Lenin on the scaffold”.

Lenin’s refusal to appear before the courts at that stage, which would have been comprised of the bitterest class enemies of the workers, peasants and Bolsheviks, was entirely correct. As Trotsky commented: “It is sufficient to remember the fate of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg”. These two great leaders of the German revolution were murdered by reactionary Junkers, which effectively politically beheaded the German revolution. Lenin went into hiding not out of concern for himself but because of what was at stake for the revolution. For him, the interests of the revolution were paramount. If neither Lenin nor Trotsky had survived, the Russian revolution would have been shipwrecked.

Whip of counter-revolution

The period after July was a ’festival of reaction’. But the forces of counter-revolution were not sufficiently strong to completely crush the Bolsheviks and the workers’ organisations.

The slanderous campaign against the Bolsheviks has some echoes – but not of course on the same scale – in all the past big social and class movements in Britain. Look at the vilification by The Sun, television and radio of Arthur Scargill and the miners during the heroic 1984-85 strike. Tony Benn was depicted as ’Hitler’ in The Sun when he stood for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1980s.

Similarly, every capitalist newspaper nationally and locally vilified the Liverpool Militants during their epic struggle, reaching a peak after Kinnock attacked Militant in 1985. This did not stop the Liverpool Marxists from winning every election under the banner of Labour – which was a workers’ party at the bottom at that stage – when they were in power during the 1980s.

Similarly, the repression and slander did not break the Bolsheviks or the Russian working class. Sometimes, as Karl Marx pointed out, revolution needs the whip of counter-revolution. The counter-revolution post-July 1917 culminated in the attempt of the right-wing General Kornilov – “the heart of a lion and the brain of a sheep” – to seize power from the government in August 1917.

But Kornilov’s coup was defeated by the working class with the Bolsheviks playing the most prominent role. There was a similar development in the Portuguese revolution when the right-wing General Spinola attempted to seize power from the Socialist-Communist coalition in March 1975. He was defeated by the desertion of his own troops, which in turn pushed the revolution to the left. Like the Kornilov troops in 1917, they refused to take action in support of Spinola once the real situation was explained to them.

The August 1917 events led to preparation for the October revolution, which will be the subject of a future article. However, like all phases of the Russian revolution, the July Days are rich in lessons for future struggles. Of course, Russia in 1917 was far removed from the advanced industrial countries of Europe, Japan and the USA today – it was a backward country dominated by peasants.

But the laws of revolution and counter-revolution under capitalism have a relevance in all countries and eras. In the last 90 years, there have been many opportunities for the working class to follow in the path of the Russian workers of 1917. But, unlike 1917, because of faulty leadership the opportunity to effect change was not seized. Even some capitalist commentators today have a dim awareness that beneath the gloss and economic fireworks their system is shaky.

Jeremy Warner, in the business section of The Independent of 23 June, explains “Why I’ve dusted off my ’Das Kapital’”. He states: “The world as it was then [the 19th century industrial revolution] is not without its parallels in today’s supercharged global economy, and, after decades in the wilderness, it is possible that some of Karl Marx’s central ideas might enjoy something of a revival”. He hastens to add: “I’m not talking here about revolutionary communism”. God forbid!

But capitalism is preparing the ground for ’social ruptures’, that is, mass movements with the threat of revolution, throughout the globe. Warner himself writes about “new and quite unexpected forms of class conflict and envy”.

Ruptures, social revolution, are not just possible but likely in the future. It will differ in many respects from 1917. But the processes will be similar to the great events of 90 years ago.

The new generation of young people and workers in particular must prepare for these events by studying the real history of the Russian revolution.

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