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Kornilov’s coup and the united front

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Kerensky’s government though increasingly exposed was still trying to crack down on the organised workers. Kerensky was himself plotting a coup, but it was to be his coup, not the generals. On 24 August he closed down the Bolshevik press once again. But unfortunately for him decisive circles of the bourgeoisie were preparing to oust him and his government. In co-ordinated blow on the 27 August the bourgeois Cadets resigned from the Provisional Government and General Kornilov, announced that he was marching on Petrograd “to restore order in the capital”. There was of course no disorder in the capital but the long depressed stock market suddenly soared as the capitalists anticipated the counter-revolution’s victory. Privy to the whole plot was Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador whose Embassy was something of an organising centre for the coup within the capital.

The soldiers and cassocks that were ordered to march on Petrograd were units that were deemed to be more reliable and could be put to work killing revolutionaries. In order to ensure their loyalty they were told by their officers that Petrograd was being run by German spies, that an uprising had taken place at the behest of the German military.

Kerensky who was privy to and indeed in agreement with Kornilov’s measures to crush the Soviets and soldiers committees, suddenly realised to his horror that the general intended to overthrow the whole Provisional Government, including himself. That would be the end not only for his own bonapartist ambitions but possibly his life. Thus Kerensky, in fear and trembling as to the consequences of doing so, turned to the Soviet to save himself.

The Mensheviks and the SRs too panicked when they realised a coup was underway. For six months, under the cover of the “dual power regime” they had allowed the forces of counter-revolution a chance to gather their strength and strike back. Now in terror they had to turn to the Bolsheviks to rescue them. The Party was now put to the test of leading a united front of resistance to the counter-revolution.

The news of Kornilov’s march on Petrograd led to huge mass meetings in the factories. Every one of them vowed to defend the city and urgently demanded arms from the Soviet Executive. The Baranovskii Machine Construction factory resolved:

“We demand that the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet, give arms to the workers, who not sparing their lives, will stand as one in defence of the just rights of revolutionary democracy, and together with our brethren soldiers, will erect an impassable barrier to the counter-revolution. ”

Thousands of Petrograd workers threw themselves into the struggle to stop Kornilov, at least 25,000 enlisted for the Red Guards who were co-ordinated by the Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee. The government was forced to re-arm the militia they had disarmed in July. At Putilov 8,000 of the workforce were sent to perform defence and agitation duties. Those who remained behind achieved three weeks output of cannon in three days in order to defend the revolution!

The Menshevik leadership of the Petrograd Soviet were obliged to set up a Committee of Struggle against the counter-revolution and to invite the Bolsheviks to participate in it. There were three delegates apiece from the SRs, the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks plus delegates from the main trade unions. But this no longer represented the real balance of forces as Sukhanov a Menshevik-Internationalist recorded in his Memoirs:

“The committee making defence preparations had to mobilise the worker-soldier masses. But the masses insofar as they were organised were organised by the Bolsheviks and followed them. At the time theirs was the only organisation that was large, welded together by elementary discipline and linked with the democratic lower levels of the capital Without it the committee was impotent.”

The Bolshevik party had grown so rapidly that by the end of August it had some 240,000 members nationwide. Kerensky was thus forced to cower behind a proletarian wall defending Red Petrograd, fearful of what rearming the Bolsheviks would mean. But in the short term he simply had no alternative. The Bolshevik leaders were released from jail and the party’s propaganda and agitation was given free rein. Bolshevik militants were prominent in all the mobilisations to halt Kornilov.

The problem for the Bolsheviks was how to use these mobilisations to win the remaining sections of masses, soldiers as well as workers, definitively away from the Mensheviks, that is how to intensify the contradictions between the rank and file Mensheviks and SRs and their compromised leaders?

Kamenev and Lenin develop the policy
Until the outbreak of the Kornilov coup Lenin had stuck to his line that because the counter-revolution had already occurred in July, talk of a military coup was Menshevik play acting. He vigorously demanded no blocks or alliances with the Mensheviks. Only as the reality of the situation bore in on him and the opportunities it offered became clear did he change his tactics.

Fortunately once again the Bolsheviks on the ground realised the necessity of united action with the Mensheviks, the SRs and even Kerensy. Kamenev formulated the basis of a united front. Lenin too now realsed the key to success lay in ‘indirectly’ campaigning against Kerensky “by demanding a more and more active, truly revolutionary war against Kornilov”. The aroused workers must be mobilised to press partial demands on Kerensky which would develop the militant mood and reawakened confidence of the rank and file while exposing the weakness and vacillation of their leaders. He formulated demands on them, including the arrest of the Cadet leader Milyukov and Duma President Rodzianko who were backing Kornilov. He included the legalisation of the transfer of the land to the peasants, and workers’ control over grain distribution and the factories.

The Bolsheviks immediately demanded the arming of the Petrograd workers and the summoning of the militant Kronstadt, Vyborg and Helsingfors garrisons to Petrograd. The demand for weapons and training for the workers was immense. Trotsky described the scene:

“In the districts, according to the workers’ press, there immediately appeared whole queues of people eager to join the ranks of the Red Guard. Drilling began in marksmanship and the handling of weapons. Experienced soldiers were brought in as teachers. By the 29th, guards had been formed in almost all the districts. The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles.”

Involving the workers in the fight for their demands in the revolutionary defence of Petrograd was for Lenin, the means of taking them forward politically. That is why he insisted that demands be presented:

“…not only to Kerensky, and not so much to Kerensky as to the workers, soldiers and peasants who have been carried away by the course of the struggle against Kornilov.”

In denying Kornilov the right to overthrow Kerensky Lenin was in fact digging Kerensky’s grave, and the graves of all those who sought to compromise with him. As Lenin put it:

“We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky. Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation. We shall not overthrow Kerensky right now. We shall approach the task of fighting against him in a different way.”

This means of waging the struggle against Kornilov and Kerensky proved a resounding success. Kornilov was stopped in his tracks as his army dissolved around him under the pressure of Bolshevik agitators and sabotage by militant railway workers. Trotsky describes the scene as the Cossacks approached Petrograd:

“From the direction of Petrograd innumerable delegations continued to arrive from regiments sent out to oppose the Kornilovists. Before fighting they wanted to talk things over. The revolutionary troops were confidently hopeful that the thing could be settled without fighting. This hope was confirmed: the Cossacks readily came to meet them. The communication squad of the corps would seize locomotives, and send the delegates along all railroad lines. The situation would be explained to every echelon. Meetings were continuous and at them all the cry was being raised: ‘They have deceived us!’”

This led to mutiny amongst the approaching troops. Even the so-called Savage Division of Caucasian mountaineers, when they realised that there was no “pro-German uprising” in Petrograd arrested their officers and deserted Kornilov. Within days the advancing column literally dissapated like steam.

The political prestige of the Bolshevik Party took a giant leap forward in the aftermath of Kornilov’s defeat and Kerensky’s humiliation. The demands of the united front, addressed to Kerensky, the SRs and the Mensheviks, but carried into life by thousands of rank and file workers in the committees of struggle, was “only” for the limited goal of defeating Kornilov. But by combining unity in action with a merciless critique of Kerensky and the conciliating Menshehvik and SR leadership of the soviets the Bolsheviks proved to hundreds of thousands of workers that they were the only consistent defenders of the revolution. The united front was a bridge to the masses and a weapon against their reformist misleaders.

General Kornilov’s defeat at the hands of the Petrograd workers opened the final phase of the Russian Revolution. The workers had arms once again. A new confident tone was to be heard in factory meetings throughout the capital city. Factory after factory replaced their Menshevik or SR delegates to the Soviet with Bolsheviks.

In September the Petrograd Soviet passed its first Bolshevik resolution calling for a government of ‘the revolutionary proletariat and peasantry’. In opposition the Mensheviks could only muster 15 votes out of 1,000 delegates for the Provisional Government! The Moscow Soviet passed a Bolshevik resolution four days later. The spectre of a Bolshevik majority at the nationwide congress of soviets was looming and with it the possibility that All Power to the Soviets might mean political power in the hands of the Bolsheviks and their allies.