The 1917 October Revolusion
How the Bolsheviks Seized Power
Part 3: "To Delay is Fatal"
Revolutionary Worker #933, November 23, 1997
The government was feverishly attempting to move loyal troops into the city. On the afternoon of October 23, Kerensky secretly met with his top commanders. They agreed to a preemptive strike on the 24th. They moved to initiate criminal proceedings against the Military Revolutionary Committee,* to arrest Lenin along with other Bolsheviks freed since the July uprising, and to shut down the Bolshevik newspapers.
Early the next morning Kerensky and the Provisional Government went on the offensive. The Soviet headquarters at Smolny had begun to get reports of alarming troop movements on the city outskirts and of Kerensky's frantic efforts to mobilize loyal troops. At dawn a force of military cadets and officers occupied the main Bolshevik printing press, seizing that day's papers.
Cadet patrols began to systematically lift the bridges over the Neva River in order to isolate the workers' districts from the center of the city. (This would be similar to a military blockade of an urban ghetto during a revolutionary crisis in the U.S.) The cadet patrols also moved through the city in a show of strength, attempting to disperse the knots of people now gathering on street corners.
In response, the MRC ordered the regimental committees and commissars to bring their regiments to battle readiness and await further instruction. The MRC ordered the headquarters staff of the Red Guard to dispatch 1,500 to 2,000 workers to the Smolny. Others were ordered to occupy the key positions in their districts, organize the protection of the factories, and muster forces for seizing government offices. The Litovsky Guards, an army unit now led by the Bolsheviks, retook the printing press at 11 a.m.
The masses rose. By early afternoon on the 24th, armed workers and soldiers streamed towards Smolny to ask for orders. The Red Guard and other armed workers remembered July when the government had succeeded in shutting the bridges and isolating the proletarian districts. Now they rushed to the bridges, mounting resistance to the cadets who were trying to seize them.
Again, Vyborg took the lead. The Vyborg Red Guards, according to one witness, "on their own initiative...took possession of Liteiny, Sampsonievsky and Grenadersky Bridges." One commissar sent by the MRC to the Liteiny Bridge found it already secured with a sapper unit loyal to the Bolsheviks at one end and the Red Guard at the other. The bridges connecting Vyborg to the city were quickly swung open by Red Guards from the Renault Works and the Parviainen Works. The Red Guards from the Benz Works went out to capture a bridge on an armored car which they themselves had repaired.
But while the decisive clash had been joined, the masses had not yet been given the leadership necessary to seize power. Throughout the 24th Lenin sent messages from his hideout urging the party to the offensive. "Comrades," his last note, written at 6 p.m., began,
"I am writing these lines on the evening of the 24th. The situation is critical in the extreme. In fact it is now absolutely clear that to delay the uprising would be fatal.
"With all my might I urge comrades to realize that everything now hangs by a thread; that we are confronted by problems which are not to be solved by conferences or congresses (even congresses of soviets), but exclusively by peoples, by the masses, by the struggle of the armed people.
"The bourgeois onslaught of the Kornilovites and the removal of Verkhovsky show that we must not wait. We must at all costs, this very evening, this very night, arrest the government, having first disarmed the officer cadets (defeating them, if they resist), and so on.
"We must not wait! We may lose everything!...
"Who must take power?
"That is not important at present. Let the Military Revolutionary Committee do it, or `some other institution'...
"The seizure of power is the task of the uprising; its political purpose will become clear after the seizure.
"It would be a disaster, or a sheer formality, to await the wavering vote of October 25 [i.e., the Congress of Soviets**]. The people have the right and are in duty bound to decide such questions not by a vote, but by force...
"The government is tottering. It must be given the deathblow at all costs.
"To delay action is fatal."
(Collected Works of Lenin, Vol. XXVI,
"Letter to Central Committee Members," pp. 234-235)
A few hours later Lenin decided on his own to go to Smolny and, taking his bodyguard with him, arrived near midnight on the 24th.
What was Lenin fighting for in specific, and why so fiercely, so insistently, so tenaciously? What were the stakes?
Whether by intention or just the pull of habit and spontaneity, there was a tremendous tendency for the Bolshevik leadership to go for seizing some vital spots, set up defense of the proletarian neighborhoods, and await the convening of the Congress of Soviets. While perhaps temporarily hindering the ability of the government to suppress and wipe out the revolution, this strategy would have inevitably resulted in a siege or stalemate. The government would have remained in the Winter Palace, promising negotiations and mediation, playing for time until it had rallied its forces back into battle.
During the events of the 24th the people had the initiative. But delay could have shifted the momentum to the government. More important, the actions of the revolutionary forces had not yet brought forth the sheer numbers of people that would have to be militarily activated for the seizure of power.
Both sides--the government, with its established army, and the people, who were forging their armed forces in the heat of battle--were in a race to bring up reserves. For the people, reserves meant the vast masses who could only be activated by the real prospect of power and the armed battle for it. For the government, this meant the still loyal troops that they could command.
It is important to remember that the established army had the advantages of organization, discipline and habitual authority: they were, after all, an army. To defeat such an army required a relentless offensive which hit enemy forces while they were scattered and cut off from each other, and in so doing would bring much broader masses into the fight. This is why Lenin correctly insisted that delay would be fatal. This is why he struggled so hard to take the party on the offensive. And this is why it is so crucial that he succeeded in that struggle.
* The Military Revolutionary Committee, or MRC, was created by the Petrograd Soviet to coordinate proletarian fighting forces and those troops who supported the revolution. (See Part 2 of this series.)
**The Congress of Soviets was an all-Russian representative group of the Soviets from each district and city. Some in the Bolshevik leadership argued to wait for the Congress to convene and pass a resolution for power, at which point the Bolsheviks could summon the masses to defend the new power. This seemed less risky and more likely to garner mass support. But Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks had to take the offensive, rally the masses and present the Congress with a "done deed." Otherwise the Congress would end up talking forever and frittering away the one-in-a-lifetime opportunity for revolution.
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