The July Days: How the Bolsheviks narrowly avoided disaster

The following article was written on the 70th anniversary of the July days by Dave Hughes (1948-1991) and appears as a chapter in the Road to Red October

The July Days - 3rd to the 7th according to the Julian calendar (16th to 20th according to the Gregorian one) were a critical point in the Russian Revolution. They revealed weaknesses in the Bolshevik Party, despite, or rather because of, its huge and rapid increase in numbers between March and July. But the events also demonstrated its fundamentally democratic internal life and its capacity to learn from a major setback. This “failure” and the recovery from it became the foundation for a more disciplined and effective party in September and October, one that was able to take power at the head of the urban working class and the largely peasant soldiers.

In the spring and early summer of 1917, it became increasingly clear that the Provisional Government installed in February could not address any of Russia’s burning needs. The war-weary soldiers’ yearning for peace, the cry for bread from the workers of the cities, the peasants’ calls for the aristocrats’ land to be distributed to those who tilled the soil - all were met with delay and diversions.

The government made the continuation of the war its overriding priority. A government of the imperialist bourgeoisie, mortgaged to Anglo-French imperialism and with its own designs on the Turkish Empire and Eastern Europe, could not seriously contemplate a separate peace.

The Provisional Government, headed by Prince Lvov, united liberal aristocrats and landowners with manufacturers, bankers and merchants from the two main bourgeois parties - the Cadets led by Pavel Milyukov, and the more conservative Octobrists led by Alexander Guchkov. These constituted the right wing majority of the government. Its left wing was represented by Alexander Kerensky, a member of the Trudovik (Toilers) Party, which was a radical peasant party in the post 1905 Dumas (parliaments).

But real power in terms of who the workers and the soldier masses would obey lay with the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and similar bodies that sprang up all over the country. The majority force in the soviets, the peasant-based Socialist Revolutionaries, along with the Mensheviks had effectively handed government in February to the capitalist parties – this uneasy tension between the Duma and the Soviets, became known as ‘Dual Power’.

In the spring and early Summer, Petrograd witnessed almost ceaseless demonstrations often swelling to half a million strong. Inflation soared and real wages fell. Unemployment increased rapidly. All these attacks drove the workers to strike, to march, and to create factory committees, which took action to preserve jobs. The Cadet daily paper Rech summed up the bourgeoisie’s reaction: “Russia is being turned into a kind of lunatic asylum.”

The Menshevik leaders, who had, according to their long held political perspective, presented the bourgeoisie with control over “its” revolution, discovered that these gentlemen were not in the slightest bit grateful for it. Indeed almost from the outset they fomented economic chaos hoping to create the conditions for a restoration of “order”. The Moscow industrialist Pavel Riabushinsky said: “The emaciated hand of hunger will seize the members of the different committees and soviets by the throat.”

In the countryside peasant soviets began to emerge and - slowly at first - the peasants began to take things into their own hands. In March disorders were reported in 34 districts, in April 174, in May 236, in June 280 and in July 325. The landowners’ manor houses went up in flames and the peasants began to occupy the lands robbed from them by the great Emancipation swindle of 1861. The Mir - the age-old village commune - took on a new life, and the rich peasants (kulaks), who had benefited from Tsarist land reforms and left their mir, were often forced by the mass of the villagers to return to it. Often they ceased paying rent to their landlords.

The news of this turmoil reached the millions of young peasant conscripts at the front and magnified the wave of desertions. The deserters returning to their villages were different men to the boys who had left. Through military training they had acquired technical skills and discipline. They had seen the brutality and incompetence of their upper class officers. They had lost their unreasoning faith in the priests. Some had read - or had read to them - the leaflets and papers of the Bolsheviks. As the year progressed this radicalisation of the multi-millioned peasant masses went on apace.

The SRs still held the overwhelming allegiance of the peasants but events were to begin undermining this too. In early May a governmental crisis erupted. The Soviet had, under mass pressure, issued an appeal for a peace “without annexations and indemnities” and had renounced imperialist war aims. Milyukov, in transmitting this declaration to the Allies, assured them that the government would “fully observe the obligations assumed towards our allies.” Mass demonstrations of soldiers and workers erupted under the slogans “Down with the Provisional Government!” and “Guchkov, Milyukov, Resign!”

Clashes occurred with bourgeois demonstrators. General Lavr Kornilov, then commander of the Petrograd garrison, requested permission to fire on the anti-government demonstrators. This the government dared not do and the crisis was resolved only with Milyukov's resignation and the bringing into the government of another four “socialist ministers”, including the SR leader Victor Chernov as Minister of Agriculture, and the promotion of Kerensky to the War Ministry. Chernov and the SRs were thus put in a position of having to hold back the peasantry on behalf of the landowners and capitalists.

At an Allied military conference in January the Tsarist high command had rashly promised their Anglo-French paymasters a spring offensive against the Austrians in Galicia. The Allies had no expectation of a Russian victory but merely hoped that the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of half-trained and badly armed peasants would hold up the Central Powers and deflect them from an offensive on the Western Front. Kerensky was determined to carry out this inheritance from the Romanovs. The ruling class saw the offensive as an opportunity to restore order at the front, in Petrograd and in the other major cities.

The seven million soldiers at the front greeted the news of the proposed offensive with apprehension. The huge Petrograd garrison, with hundreds of thousands of armed soldiers, heard it with open hostility. The radicalisation of the soldiers was speeded up. In Petrograd the soldiers were represented in the Soviet. The Petrograd Soviet’s famous “Order Number One” had guaranteed them full civil rights when not on duty. Normal discipline had broken down and soldiers’ committees had to counter-sign every officer's order if it was to be carried out.

The Bolsheviks, whose struggle for workers' control within the factories was winning them ever-stronger positions in the committees and the soviets, now devoted a massive effort to increasing the party's position in the barracks and in the trenches.

Bolshevik soldiers organize

On 31 March the Bolshevik Military Organisation was founded. A commission was appointed to direct its work. Its most prominent leaders were Nikolai Podvoisky and Vladimir Nevsky. Another key figure was the Kronstadt sailor Fyodor Raskolnikov. The Military Organisation published a popular daily paper, Soldatskaya Pravda (Soldiers Truth) from mid-April onwards. It soon had a circulation of over 50,000 - half in Petrograd, half at the front. It described the wretched conditions of soldiers lives; printing hundreds of letters and resolutions from military units the length and breadth of Russia, as well as agitating for the Bolsheviks' key slogans; peace, bread, land, and for all power to the soviets.

In early June as the preparations for the offensive, promised to the Allies, began - including attempts to transfer weapons and men to the front from Petrograd - the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets convened in the capital. It sat from 3 to 24 June. Of its 822 delegates with voting rights the SRs had 285, the Mensheviks 248 and the Bolsheviks 105. Others belonged to smaller tendencies like the Mezhraiontsy (Interdistricters or “United Social Democrats”) led by Leon Trotsky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, who had ten delegates.

The right wing socialist and populist parties still had a very sizeable majority. The Bolsheviks stood out as the clearest anti-Provisional Government force. When Tsereteli, the most vigorous Menshevik leader (and a minister in the provisional government), addressed the congress, Lenin made perhaps the most prophetic heckle in history. Tsereteli goaded the audience at the meeting:

“At the present moment there is no political party which would say: 'Give the power into our hands, go away, we will take your place.' There is no such party in Russia.”

“There is!” replied Lenin from his seat.

The response of the majority of the delegates was laughter. In the next month however the attitude of the leaders of the majority soviet parties was to change first to fear and then to hatred as the Bolsheviks experienced a surge in their influence and an upsurge in the revolutionary workers and troops of Petrograd and the sailors of the northern fleet at Kronstadt and Helsingfors.

From early June Kerensky and the government were constantly trying to ship munitions, weaponry and units of the Petrograd garrison to the front in preparation for the coming offensive. The All-Russian Soviet Congress on 8 June voted full support to Prince Lvov and the government, thereby effectively endorsing the plans for it. But the garrison soldiers and the sailors of the Baltic Fleet at Kronstadt were opposed and demanded demonstrations against the renewed war and the attempts to disperse or disarm the revolutionary regiments who, with the workers, had made the February Revolution.

The Bolshevik Military Organisation stood on the left of the Party. Podvoisky advocated a mass armed demonstration to act “as a battering ram that would effect a breach in the Congress”. This proposal caused a sharp disagreement between the left wing of the party – hitherto supporters of Lenin against the party’s right wing, led by Kamenev. For once Lenin found himself in agreement with the super-cautious Kamenev.

Lenin agreed with the leaders of the Bolshevik Military Organisation and wished to undermine, and, if possible, prevent the new offensive with a massive anti-war demonstration whose central slogan would be the call to transfer all power to the soviets. This was designed to try and force the majority SR and Menshevik parties to break with the bourgeois Cadets and Octobrists in the Provisional Government, and take power in a purely socialist ministry, based on the Soviets alone. Hence the two Bolshevik slogans which made this clear: “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” and “All Power to the Soviets”.

Armed counter-revolutionaries

Kamenev and the right were opposed to holding a demonstration at this time but if it were called they insisted it must be unarmed. The Military Organisation insisted this was impossible. The central area of Petrograd was the scene of mounting patriotic demonstrations by right wing bourgeois forces. The officer cadet schools of the capital were nests of armed counter-revolutionaries that the Provisional Government protected.

The antisemitic, proto-fascist Black Hundred organisation still existed in a scarcely underground form. Workers' and soldiers' demonstrations against the war and the government would undoubtedly be attacked. Lenin found himself opposed not only by Kamenev and the right, but even by Grigory Zinoviev, his closest co-thinker during the war, and by his partner and comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya. Nevertheless a joint conference of the Central Committee, the Petrograd Committee and the Military Organisation Bureau voted for a demonstration on 9 June.

The Bolsheviks were not the only force urging a demonstration. The Petrograd Anarchist-Communists were agitating fiercely for an armed demonstration. But they posed as its objective the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government, the “bourgeois” Soviet, the destruction of the state and the installation of a Petrograd Commune.

Clashes between the anarchists and the troops loyal to the Provisional Government provided the pretext for the Soviet Congress passing a resolution banning all demonstrations. Faced with a ban voted for by all the workers' and peasants' parties except the Bolsheviks and the Mezhraiontsy, the Central Committee conceded to the soviet legality of the ban and abandoned the demonstration. The Party and the Military Organisation, despite their anger at the ban and indeed their disagreement at the retreat, carried out the manoeuvre in a disciplined fashion.

Delighted at their “triumph” the Mensheviks over-reached themselves and proposed an official soviet demonstration on 18 June under the official slogans. This demonstration turned against its organisers' intentions and the platforms of official soviet delegates from all over Russia were obliged to witness a massive parade almost totally under Bolshevik slogans.

Maxim Gorky's paper Novaya Zhizn conceded that it “revealed the complete triumph of Bolshevism” amongst the Petrograd proletariat. Bewildered provincial soviet delegates said to Bolshevik demonstrators: “In Petrograd you are the power but not in the provinces, not at the front. Petrograd cannot go against the whole country.” This was something that Lenin and the cooler heads on the left of the party realised. But in the Military Organisation the tremendous success of 18 June carried away what caution remained.

If April had seen the right of the Party nearly pull Bolshevism into the dead end of “defending the fatherland”, July was to see the left almost pull the party into the ditch of adventurism and putschism. Lenin, Zinoviev, Sverdlov and Stalin were to be obliged to bloc with the right to hold back the far left of the Party. They were to be aided in this difficult task by Trotsky whose closeness to, and solidarity with, the Bolsheviks during the “July Days” was to seal his final and irrevocable rallying to Bolshevism.

By 19 June news of the offensive reached Petrograd, further incensing the soldiers of the garrison. At first the news was of victories directed, as the offensive was, at war weary and demoralised Austrian troops in Galicia, many of whom belonged to the oppressed nations of the “fossil monarchy”. Yet by 24 June the offensive ground to a halt and was followed by a massive German counter-attack on the northern front. By 3 July stories of the army's headlong retreat and disintegration began to filter back to the capital.

On 16 June an all-Russian conference of Bolshevik military organisations, with 107 delegates representing upwards of 30,000 members, met in Petrograd. It was the scene of repeated calls from rank and file delegates for the organisation of an immediate armed uprising.

On 20 June the First Machine Gun Regiment was ordered to provide 500 machine guns and two thirds of its strength for transfer to the front. This regiment, made up largely of working class soldiers, was a stronghold of the Bolsheviks. It refused the orders and turned to other regiments for support. This increased calls within the Military Organisation for an insurrection. At the session of the Military Organisation conference that day Lenin came out sharply against such an idea:

“If we're now able to seize power, it is naive to think that we would be able to hold it. We have said more than once that the only possible form of revolutionary government was a soviet of workers', soldiers' and peasants' deputies. What is the exact weight of our fraction in the Soviet? Even in the Soviets of both capitals, not to speak of others, we are an insignificant minority.”

A cold shower

Lenin concluded: “The proletarian party must fight for influence within the Soviet.” It must “patiently explain” to the masses the errors and deception of the majority parties, “then they will come to the Bolsheviks.” A participant later recalled that Lenin's speech was like a cold shower and was received with disappointment and even with dissatisfaction.

In the Military Organisation a majority opposed Lenin's position, as did a powerful faction of the Petrograd committee led by Latsis, Naumov and Stukov. Many of the people who had eagerly supported Lenin in April were now dismayed at his conservatism and began to pursue a divergent policy, aimed towards an uprising. Pravda, the party’s central organ, and Soldatskaya Pravda carried on quite different agitation to one another. The former stressed the need for the immediate calling of elections to a constituent assembly and a mass campaign to win control of the Petrograd Soviet, whilst the latter carried articles that urged immediate action against the government.

On 3 July the First Machine Gun Regiment planned a mass demonstration to the Congress of Soviets meeting in the Tauride Palace. Involved in this decision were the Anarchist Communists, whose attitude was summed up by their spokesman I. Bleikhman:

“Overthrow the Provisional Government, not in order to turn power over to the bourgeois soviet, but to take it into your own hands.”

The Bolshevik leaders Nevsky and Podvoisky, far from holding back the machine gunners, also urged them on albeit with amore limited objective. Their aim was to force the Soviet Congress implement the Bolshevik slogan i.e. to take power from the Provisional Government into its own hands.

“Into the streets! Move out!”

On 3 July a postal workers' strike gripped the capital. The machine gunners went to all the major regiments, factories and to Kronstadt urging them to “come out”. Some regiments flatly refused and proclaimed neutrality between the government and the insurgents. But the Moskovsky, the Finlandsky, Pavlovsky and Grenadier regiments agreed to take part in mass meetings. All the factories on the heavily industrialised Vyborg side, plus 30,000 workers from the giant Putilov works and 10,000 Kronstadt sailors enthusiastically responded to the call. In Putilov the Bolshevik chair of the factory committee announced the vote with the cry “Down with the Provisional Government! Into the streets! Move out!”

By now the Bolshevik Central Committee, extremely alarmed, became aware of what was going on. Lenin was temporarily across the border in Finland taking a brief rest when events began to move rapidly. The Central Committee came out against an armed demonstration and instructed party militants to oppose the demonstration. Latsis angrily replied, “Again we must be fire hoses. How long will this last!”

But by now it was too late to put out the fire and in any case the majority of party militants were quite carried away with the surging quasi-insurrectionary mood of the soldiers, sailors and workers. In general however the Bolshevik slogans “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!”, “All power to the Soviets” and “Down with the offensive” massively predominated over the anarchist influenced ones.

In Kshesinskaya's mansion, which had been expropriated to use as the Bolshevik headquarters, there was momentary confusion. Messengers rushed in reporting that barrack after barrack, factory after factory could not be restrained. The Military Organisation, the Petrograd Committee and the Central Committee met in joint session. It was obvious that now, to avoid a catastrophe, the party had to participate actively and try to give leadership to the inflamed masses. But what was to be the objective of the demonstrations and how far could or should the movement still be reigned in? The answers to such questions were far from clear. The target of the demonstrations was to be the All-Russian Soviet Congress meeting in the Tauride Palace. Obviously the demand was for them to take power. But if they would not, what then? No one could provide a clear answer to this question.

Seventy thousand demonstrators filled the centre of the city. In the bourgeois quarters around the Nevsky Prospekt rightist elements, Black Hundreds or officer cadets eager to provoke the marching soldiers fired on them from the tops of buildings. Despite this, led by military bands, they reached and surrounded the Tauride Palace, where both the Soviet and the old Tsarist parliament the Duma both sat.

One delegation after another entered and pressed their demands upon the majority soviet leaders, Chkheidze, Tsereteli and Chernov. But they were were intransigent in their refusal to give in to the demonstrators’ demands. The congress passed a resolution “indignantly opposing all attempts to influence their will by force.” Yet little direct force was being used beyond the huge numbers that filed past the palace and thunderously applauded speeches by Zinoviev, Trotsky and others.

The next day, 4 July, the demonstrations were far larger, reaching half a million or more. Significantly the numbers of soldiers were less and the proportion of workers much greater. Many regiments stayed in their barracks, refusing alike the calls of the Bolshevik agitators and the pleas for help of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Congress.

However, out at the great naval base at Kronstadt, the sailors commandeered several boats and soon 20,000 sailors and Kronstadt workers were disembarking along the River Neva embankments. They marched en masse to the Bolshevik headquarters in the occupied Kshesinskaya's mansion to hear what the party’s leaders had to say. Lenin had meanwhile hurried back from Finland. He was furious with the Military Organisation cadres. “You should be thrashed for this!” he hissed as he stepped onto the balcony of the mansion to address the sailors.

The provocations against the demonstrators continued. On 4 July five were killed and 25 wounded. These treacherous attacks, plus the frustration of the refusal of the Menshevik and SR leaders to yield to their demands, led to ugly scenes outside the Tauride Palace. Trotsky rescued Victor Chernov from a crowd. Angry fist-shaking workers screamed at the terrified SR leader: “Take power when it's given to you, you son of a bitch!”

Here was encapsulated the contradictions of mass consciousness at this stage of the revolution. The masses had lost confidence in the Menshevik and SR policies and slogans, especially their support for the Cadet ministers and the continuation of the war. They had firmly espoused the Bolshevik slogan of a government based on the soviets. But they had not yet lost their faith in their existing leaders, or rather, only through precisely this experience were the workers and soldiers beginning to shed these illusions. One major false move, an attack on the majority Soviet leaders could result in repelling the masses towards them. The Kronstadt sailors and the Machine gunners, could easily become a vanguard cut off from the masses.

Despite the excitement of the anarchists and the optimism of many rank and file Bolsheviks, even in Petrograd the majority of soldiers and workers would not have supported a Bolshevik seizure of power against the Soviet majority. In Russia as a whole and at the front, a Bolshevik overthrow of the government and the dissolution of the Soviet Congress would have thrown the working class into confusion, rousing its more backward majority against its revolutionary vanguard and turning the overwhelming mass of the peasant soldiers against it.

The Bolsheviks and the Mezhraiontsy thus had to take responsibility for this mass upsurge of the workers and soldiers but lead it away from a dangerous adventure that would end in disaster. Lenin and the Central Committee of the Bolsheviks – closely aided by Trotsky, Lunacharsky and other Interdistricters – did all they could to avoid a disorganised mass uprising that would undoubtedly be subject to provocations by the rightists and which could not in reality culminate in the overthrow of the government. When the masses refused to heed the party’s calls not to demonstrate they put themselves at the head of the demonstrations, fighting to make sure that they were as disciplined, as well guarded and as restrained as possible.

Lastly they utilised the July insurgency to put the maximum pressure on the right wing Menshevik and SR leaders to finally take the power from the capitalist ministers, thus carrying to its culmination this tactic and exposing their unwillingness to do this to the whole of Petrograd, indeed the whole of Russia.

There is no doubt however that the Military Organisation and Soldatskaya Pravda was well to the left of the Bolshevik Central Committee and Pravda, partly encouraging partly dragged along by the militancy of the regiments. The Central Committee and Lenin had to fight hard to exercise a restraining influence and limit the movement’s objective to the slogans calling on the Mensheviks and SR majority in the Soviet to break with the Cadets and take power. But when the latter obdurately refused to do this and when the Bolshevik central committee under Lenin’s influence refused to adopt the slogan “Down with the Provisional Government”, the movement became disoriented and after angry scenes went into decline and was, to put it bluntly, defeated.

In fact the fomenting of a mass insurgency that looked and felt like the beginning of an insurrection, carried out by the Bolshevik left, was a major tactical blunder and the Party was soon to pay dearly for it. The first response of some workers and the majority of soldiers was disillusionment with and suspicion of the Bolsheviks. The collapse of the July insurgency was as sudden as its upheaval thus confirming Lenin and Trotsky’s view that to try to seize power at this point would have been sheer adventurism.

A counter-revolutionary orgy

On the 4/5 July the Soviet Congress sat through the night delaying any definitive reply to any of the workers' demands. The worker and soldier demonstrators and delegations outside thinned and departed. Suddenly through the courtyard and corridors of the Tauride Palace the thunder of marching feet could be heard. Theodor Dan, a prominent Menshevik, mounted the rostrum in triumph to announce “Troops loyal to the (Soviet) Central Executive Committee have arrived!”

To the accompaniment of a regimental band the majority delegates rose to bawl out the Marseillaise, casting malicious and revengeful looks at the Bolsheviks, the Mezhraiontsy and at Martov's “Menshevik Internationalists”. Martov himself bitterly exclaimed: “A classic scene of the start of counter-revolution!” And so it was momentarily. On 5 and 6 July what a Menshevik witness described as a “counter-revolutionary orgy” reigned in central Petrograd.

The Soviet majority launched a savage campaign against them, claiming they had tried to seize power and were tools of the Germans. Chernov, Tsereteli and Co joined with Kerensky, Milyukov and Kornilov in unleashing a fierce repression against the Bolsheviks. They manufactured “evidence” that Lenin was a German spy, and that the Bolsheviks were being paid by the Germans to sabotage the offensive.

During the July days a major governmental crisis took place, with first the Cadet minsters resigning and then Prince Lvov resigning as premier. Their pretext was that the Soviet leaders – albeit only to calm (i.e. deceive) the masses - passed a resolution promising to summon the Constituent Assembly by early September, to signal to the peasants that they could start to take over the landlords estates, and that proposals for peace negations would be made to both Russia’s allies (the Entente) and its enemies (the Central Powers).

Of course once order was restored these were all delayed and delayed again. The Mensheviks and the SR responded to the crisis by according Alexander Kerensky, the war minister, quasi-dictatorial powers; making him prime minister. He in turn set out to play the Bonaparte of the revolution, forming an alliance with the counterrevolutionary general Kornilov. Kerensky announced;

“My government will save Russia and if the motives of reason, honour and conscience prove inadequate it will beat her into unity with blood and iron”

In short Kerensky was in the process of creating a “bonapartist” solution to the impotence and paralysis of the regime of dual power, created by the February Revolution, what Trotsky defined as “a state power rising above contending classes as an arbiter balancing between them” the better to crush the revolutionary classes, the proletariat and the poor peasants. The problem was that there were two queens in the hive – Kerensky and Kornilov - and though the Bolsheviks and the revolutionary mass vanguard had been momentarily daunted by their defeat, they were far from being crushed. Everything was still in play but it depended on whether the Bolsheviks could learn the lessons of July in time.

Although the Bolshevik leadership had demonstrated at the head of the armed masses they had opposed any attempt to seize power as premature, given the balance of class forces across Russia. Now as the demonstrators dispersed, the Provisional Government, recovering from its fright, went onto the offensive to crush the revolutionary party.

Workers and revolutionary soldiers were beaten up and thrown into the canals by Black Hundred gangs. On July 8 the garrison commander seized the opportunity to disarm the First Machine Gun Regiment. The units which had sparked the “uprising” were disarmed and broken up, with many being sent off to the front. In the longer term, however, this meant increasing the number of pro-Bolshevik agitators in the trenches and in doing so it scattered the seeds of the socialist revolution well beyond the capital, helping to overcome the dangers of Petrograd’s isolation, that had been obvious in July.

The party was the principle target for the hammer blows of counter-revolution. Counter revolutionaries shot some Bolsheviks dead in the street. The Bolshevik headquarters were seized and ransacked and a force of officer cadets sent to smash Pravda's presses. Key Bolshevik leaders including Lev Kamenev were arrested on July 9 and imprisoned along with hundreds of rank and file Bolsheviks. Their closest allies from the Mezhraiontsy, Leon Trotsky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, protested the arrests. In an open letter published in Gorky’s Novaya Zhizn Trotsky wrote;

“The fact that I am not connected with Pravda and am not a member of the Bolshevik Party is not due to political differences but to certain circumstances in our party history which have now lost all significance.You can have no logical base for exempting me from the implications of the decree under which Lenin, Zinoviev and Kamenev are subject to arrest. So far as concerns the political side of the question, you can have no reason to doubt that I am as uncompromising an opponent of the general policy of the Provisional Government as the above-named comrades.”

He and Lunacharsky were soon arrested and imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Bastille of Petrograd. The right wing press spewed forth a torrent of accusations that Lenin was German agent and openly called for him to be apprehended and even lynched.

In such witch hunt conditions the party decided that Lenin and Zinoviev should go underground, first in the countryside near Petrograd and later in nearby Finland.

How correct this decision was would be demonstrated negatively less than two years later in Germany when, after the failed Spartakist uprising in Berlin the leaders of the revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were brutally murdered, decapitating the German Revolution.

Pravda, Soladatskaya Pravada and other Bolshevik papers were closed down The circulation of the party press halved in the month following the July Days. The morale of party members in the factories was certainly shaken by the sudden turn around in the situation.

Lenin, in hiding, summed up the results of the July Days. In an article titled The Political Situation written on July 10 he concluded.

The counter-revolution has become organised and consolidated, and has actually taken state power into its hands….. At present, basic state power in Russia is virtually a military dictatorship.”

From this Lenin concluded that “… All hopes for a peaceful development of the Russian revolution have vanished for good…. The slogan “All Power to the Soviets!” was a slogan for peaceful development of the revolution which was possible in April, May, June, and up to July 5-9, i. e., up to the time when actual power passed into the hands of the military dictatorship. This slogan is no longer correct, for it does not take into account that power has changed hands and that the revolution has in fact been completely betrayed by the S.R.s and Mensheviks.”

And his conclusion was:

“Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets.”

Yet the first appearances of the counterrevolution were more severe than the reality turned out to be and likewise the soviets turned out to be more flexible and responsive, i.e. more changeable from below than Lenin had thought. Likewise the Bolshevik Party proved highly resilient and there was no mass desertion from its ranks. A new party paper soon reappeared. Indeed as early as mid-July Yakov Sverdlov, a superb organiser and, with Stalin, one of the few senior Bolshevik leaders left at liberty in the capital, was able to report “the mood in Petrograd is hale and hearty. We are keeping our heads. The organisation is not destroyed.”

Less than a month later the tide had turned again and was now flowing strongly in favour of the Bolsheviks. By the end of August the party had 240,000 members, three times the number in April.

In fact over the coming weeks an internal debate occurred over the lessons of the July defeat. The strategy of the Military Organisation, whose actions which were virtually autonomous from the line of the party leadership, including sharp differences between Soldatskaya Pravda and Pravda, were criticised. The result was not any sort of persecution or purge of the party’s military leaders but a clear subordination of the organisation to the party leadership was put into place.

In short what took place was a reassertion of democratic centralism. The centralised discipline when combined with revolutionary élan and initiative was to prove effective, indeed vital in August-September, during crushing of the Kornilov Revolt. And strengthened by this Bolshevik discipline, the superbly organised October insurrection was able to achieve a lasting victory. The greater discipline of the party was obvious without in any way sacrificing the energy of the party’s military cadres. For this reason Lenin opposed any sort of reprisals against the Military Organisation leaders in July saying, according to Alexander Rabinowitch; “those who don’t take risks never win: without defeats there are no victories.”

Results of July

Trotsky, writing from prison at around this time summed up the political lessons:

“As a matter of fact, the days of July 16, 17 and 18 became a turning point in the development of the Revolution, for the reason that they exposed the complete inability of the leading parties of the petty bourgeois democracy to take power into its hands. After the miserable breakdown of the coalition government, there appeared to be no other alternative than an assumption of power by the Soviets. But the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionists hesitated. To assume power, they reasoned, would mean a break with the bankers and diplomats – a dangerous policy. And when, in spite of the ominous meaning of the events of July 16-18, the leaders of the Soviet continued running after the Efimovs, the propertied classes could not fail to understand that the policies of the Soviet were waiting upon them very much as a little shopkeeper waits upon a banker, namely, with hat in hand. And that is what put courage into the counter-revolution.” (What Next? After the July Days)

It was during this period of repression that Trotsky and the Mezhraiontsy finally joined the Bolshevik party. Despite the repression the Bolsheviks held their sixth congress in Petrograd and Trotsky was elected to the Party’s central Committee.

The July Days and the repression that followed showed that the Bolsheviks were a living party of the workers and soldier masses, which could contain and resolve serious differences over tactics and the way forward without splitting. They showed that the party was far from the monolithic body, always obediently following Lenin’s commands misrepresented in the later Stalinist accounts.

In March and April the right wing under Kamenev and Stalin nearly dragged the party into support for the Provisional Government. In July the ultra-leftism and the lack of discipline of the left wing of the party nearly proved disastrous. Yet steeled by these events the party learned the lessons. Indeed by the end of August and early September the revolutionary fire of the left of the party – now realigned with Lenin and Trotsky - were to play a crucial role in preparing the way for a highly disciplined and well-planned victory in October.

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