80th Anniversary

The 1917 October Revolution

How the Bolshviks Seized Power:
Part 2: Leninist Tactics: Triple Audacity and Relying on the Masses

Revolutionary Worker #932, November 16, 1997

On the night of October 10-11 the Bolshevik Central Committee voted 10 to 2 to set the course for armed insurrection. The Central Committee took this decision amid a rapidly fracturing social order. Kerensky had ordered the removal of the naval fleet from Petrograd. The masses feared that Kerensky was planning to hand over Petrograd to the German army and give them the job of crushing the revolutionary movement there.

The people resisted accordingly. The garrison units proclaimed that they would refuse any orders to evacuate Petrograd, and the soviets--over the opposition of the Menshevik and Socialist-Revolutionary leadership--voted to back the garrison committee. Moreover, the soviets moved to form a "revolutionary defense committee." The committee's avowed purpose was to resist German attack, but it could also fight against further treachery by the Kerensky government. The garrison and soviet were now in virtual open mutiny against the government. This could not last long and could ultimately only be settled by force of arms.

All this did not mean, however, that the Bolsheviks had a sure shot for insurrection. Important problems still had to be solved, and quickly.

First, military preparations for insurrection were lacking. The masses had demonstrated (and fought) with arms in hand during July and had defended Petrograd against Kornilov in August. But insurrection requires something on another level altogether. It means developing an offensive strategy for seizing power, marshaling forces to strike, setting targets, coordinating attacks, etc. It means welding the masses organizationally to function as an army, to wage war, and to take the offensive. This is qualitatively higher than even the mass armed defense of a city--it is a leap of the highest magnitude. And to effect this the party had to move from the sphere of dealing with political problems to the related but qualitatively different military sphere.

Taking the Offensive and
Relying on the Masses

All during this period Lenin's leadership made the crucial difference. He hammered on two main points. First, the Bolsheviks could not wait for more favorable conditions, they had to move immediately to rally the masses onto the offensive. And second, above all else they must place their reliance on the proletariat in arms. Writing shortly before the insurrection, Lenin noted Marx's insistence that insurrection is an art, and not a spontaneous happening. He then elaborated on the rules of this art:

  1. Never play with insurrection, but when beginning it realize firmly that you must go all the way.
  2. Concentrate a great superiority of forces at the decisive point and at the decisive moment; otherwise the enemy, who has the advantage of better preparation and organization, will destroy the insurgents.
  3. Once the insurrection has begun, you must act with the greatest determination, and by all means, without fail, take the offensive. "The defensive is the death of every armed rising."
  4. You must try to take the enemy by surprise and seize the moment when his forces are scattered.
  5. You must strive for daily successes, however small (one might say hourly in the case of a town), and at all costs retain "moral superiority."

Marx summed up the lessons of all revolutions in respect to armed uprising in the words of "Danton, the greatest master of revolutionary policy yet known:de l'audace, l'audace, encore de l'audace" (audacity, audacity, yet more audacity).

What was the key to such tactical audacity? The organized strength of the masses. Lenin wrote:

The most determined elements (our "shock forces" and young workers, as well as the best of the sailors) must be formed into small detachments to occupy all the important points and to take part everywhere in all important operations, for example: to encircle and cut off Petrograd; to seize it by a combined attack of the sailors, the workers, and the troops--a task which requires triple audacity; to form detachments from the best workers, armed with rifles and bombs, for the purpose of attacking and surrounding the enemy's "centres" (the officers' schools, the telegraph office, the telephone exchange, etc.). Their watchword must be: "Better die to a man than let the enemy pass!" (Lenin's Collected Works, Vol. XXVI, 180-181, "Advice of an Onlooker")

To carry through this orientation would require a breathless race from behind. Lenin's line required a drastic rupture, a leap into the unknown and unprecedented. Everything that had been won up until then would be risked; but only this line and orientation could win everything.

Meanwhile, events continued to move at a machine-gun pace. On October 19 the Provisional Government, emboldened by a public letter from the Bolshevik leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev opposing the insurrection (!),<$fkamenev and Zinoviev wrote to a non-party newspaper arguing against any idea of "our Party initiating armed demonstrations of any kind in the immediate future." This plainly implied that the Bolsheviks were about to move. This costly betrayal gave the government an excuse to carry out repression. Lenin replied to their arguments for delay with what John Reed called "one of the most audacious pieces of political propaganda the world has ever seen," his "Letter to Comrades." Lenin's letter took on and devastated the by-now familiar--but still influential--arguments of Kamenev and Zinoviev from a dozen different angles and in the process deepened the political and military thinking guiding the insurrection.> began to concretely prepare for a clampdown. Armored cars mounted with machine guns positioned themselves in front of the Winter Palace (the government headquarters). Reinforced patrols of cadets cruised the city streets. The government ordered the arrest of agitators in the barracks. That night the high chiefs of the military divided the capital into special districts and laid plans for raids on and occupation of key points, including the Soviet headquarters at the Smolny Institute.

The Red Guard

But the Party and the masses were also moving. Since very early on in the revolution, the masses had been organizing themselves into Red Guards--organizations of proletarians which took on self-defense and some policing responsibilities in their factories and neighborhoods. In October the Bolsheviks had moved to transform these Red Guards into the backbone of a proletarian army. Their strongest base was in the Vyborg District (a district being something on the order of a large proletarian neighborhood--like Harlem or L.A.'s Pico-Union in the United States).

On October 21, in the face of what was shaping up to be a massive reactionary demonstration the next day, the Vyborg District Red Guard ordered some factory units to go on full alert. On the 23rd, the Vyborg Red Guard staff sent a secret order to all units to maintain themselves in full fighting readiness and to stay at the factories. A book about the Red Guard recounts the following:

"A worker at the Vulkan Factory, F. A. Ugarov, wrote that after the `Day of the Soviet' [an October 21 demonstration called in support of the Soviets], the mood of the workers was intensified.... An order from the staff of the Red Guard was received to prepare the Red Guard for action. The bolts of rifles clicked. In the yard of the factory they fitted the trucks with sheet armor and mounted machine guns. The factory ceased to be a factory and became an armed camp."

Another worker recalled that in the last days before the revolution some armed workers did not leave the factory but slept there instead, with their guns, turning the factory cafeteria into a barracks. In fact at a number of plants in Vyborg the Red Guard went on "barracks status." This was a very important measure of making the qualitative leap from an organization of armed workers into an army.

Winning the Troops

Lenin relied overwhelmingly on the masses of proletarians, organized into Red Guard units; but he also wanted to win over or neutralize as many government troops as possible before the uprising.

The Bolsheviks had politically organized among the troops since the very beginning of World War I. This was extremely dangerous underground work. It included encouraging fraternization between the Russian soldiers and those of the hostile imperialist powers; agitating to reveal the true class interests of the majority of soldiers (peasants) in the army; distributing the Bolshevik newspaper aimed at soldiers; and developing Bolshevik cells where possible. The government punished civilian Bolshevik organizers by sending them off to the front to die. But this often boomeranged, when the Bolsheviks so drafted organized new revolutionaries on the very front lines of the war!

As the war went on, the Russian army suffered severe defeats. Slowly it began to disintegrate as a unified and disciplined fighting force. This took a leap during and after the February revolution, when political turmoil throughout society erupted within the army itself. Since then the Provisional Government had fought to restore discipline and again send the army off against the Germans; the Bolsheviks sought to increasingly widen the gulf between the majority of soldiers and the government and to develop support for the revolution.

Agitation and organization among the troops grew crucial as the insurrection approached. In early October the Petrograd Soviet had formed the Military Revolutionary Committee, or MRC, to serve as a command center for the proletarian forces. On October 21 the MRC began to dispatch commissars to the garrison units. In what amounted to a direct challenge to the army command, these commissars called on the troops to obey only those orders approved by the MRC. Such an initiative could help win the neutrality and even support of at least some of the troops in event of an uprising--though it could not and would not prevent the use of loyal and reliable troops for preemptive strikes against the masses and their leaders.

The barracks went into an uproar; debate and struggle greeted the arriving commissars in almost every unit and went on virtually nonstop. As demand for these commissars/agitators grew, the MRC pressed into service every force it could find: early arrivals for the Congress of Soviets, Bolshevik cadres just sprung from jail, radical rank-and-file troops all streamed into the barracks. The political struggle waged among the troops could not in itself substitute for the need to defeat the government army in battle, militarily. But it could and did render some of the government forces unreliable and ripe for further Bolshevik agitation, and actually won some key units to participate in the insurrection on the side of the Bolsheviks.


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