Red Letter
Daily Left Theory. 15 Minutes or Less. Refreshes at Midnight.
Ten Days that Shook the World: Chapter 3 (On The Eve; 3 of 3)
by John Reed
Estimated Reading Time: 8 min

The tumult is intoxicating. We're in the midst of a dying empire and the stories of a century ago in Russia are of debate, engagement, fear, and revolution. What're the lessons for today?

As I crossed the Palace Square several batteries of yunker artillery came through the Red Arch at a jingling trot, and drew up before the Palace. The great red building of the General Staff was unusually animated, several armoured automobiles ranked before the door, and motors full of officers were coming and going. The censor was very much excited, like a small boy at a circus. Kerensky, he said, had just gone to the Council of the Republic to offer his resignation. I hurried down to the Marinsky Palace, arriving at the end of that passionate and almost incoherent speech of Kerensky’s, full of self-justification and bitter denunciation of his enemies.

“I will cite here the most characteristic passage from a whole series of articles published in Rabotchi Put by Ulianov-Lenin, a state criminal who is in hiding and whom we are trying to find. This state criminal has invited the proletariat and the Petrograd garrison to repeat the experience of the 16th-18th of July, and insists upon the immediate necessity for an armed rising. Moreover, other Bolshevik leaders have taken the floor in a series of meetings, and also made an appeal to immediate insurrection. Particularly should be noticed the activity of the present president of the Petrograd Soviet, Bronstein-Trotzky.

“I ought to bring to your notice— that the expressions and the style of a whole series of articles in Rabotchi Put and Soldat resemble absolutely those of Novaya Rus. . . . We have to do not so much with the movement of such and such political party, as with the exploitation of the political ignorance and criminal instincts of a part of the population, a sort of organisation whose object it is to provoke in Russia, cost what it may, an inconscient movement of destruction and pillage; for given the state of mind of the masses, any movement at Petrograd will be followed by the most terrible massacres, which will cover with eternal shame the name of free Russia.

“— By the admission of Ulianov-Lenin himself, the situation of the extreme left wing of the Social Democrats in Russia is very favourable.” (Here Kerensky read the following quotation from Lenin’s article.):

Think of it!— The German comrades have only one Liebknecht, without newspapers, without freedom of meeting, without a Soviet. They are opposed by the incredible hostility of all classes of society—and yet the German comrades try to act; while we, having dozens of newspapers, freedom of meeting, the majority of the Soviets, we, the best-placed international proletarians of the entire world, can we refuse to support the German revolutionists and insurrectionary organisations?—

Kerensky then continued:

“The organisers of rebellion recognise thus implicitly that the most perfect conditions for the free action of a political party obtain now in Russia, administered by a Provisional Government at the head of which is, in the eyes of this party, ‘a usurper and a man who has sold himself to the bourgeoisie, the Minister-President Kerensky.’

“— The organisers of the insurrection do not come to the aid of the German proletariat, but of the German governing classes, and they open the Russian front to the iron fists of Wilhelm and his friends. Little matter to the Provisional Government the motives of these people, little matter if they act consciously or unconsciously; but in any case, from this tribune, in full consciousness of my responsibility, I quality such acts of a Russian political party as acts of treason to Russia!

“— I place myself at the point of view of the Right, and I propose immediately to proceed to an investigation and make the necessary arrests.” (Uproar from the Left.) “Listen to me!” he cried in a powerful voice. “At the moment when the state is in danger, because of conscious or unconscious treason, the Provisional Government, and myself among others, prefer to be killed rather than betray the life, the honour and the independence of Russia.”

At this moment a paper was handed to Kerensky.

“I have just received the proclamation which they are distributing to the regiments. Here is the contents.” Reading: “‘The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies is menaced. We order immediately the regiments to mobilise on a war footing and to await new orders. All delay or non-execution of this order will be considered as an act of treason to the Revolution. The Military Revolutionary Committee. For the President, Podvoisky. The Secretary, Antonov.’

“In reality, this is an attempt to raise the populace against the existing order of things, to break the Constituent and to open the front to the regiments of the iron fist of Wilhelm.

“I say ‘populace’ intentionally, because the conscious democracy and its Tsay-ee-kah, all the Army organisations, all that free Russia glorifies, the good sense, the honour and the conscience of the great Russian democracy, protests against these things.

“I have not come here with a prayer, but to state my firm conviction that the Provisional Government, which defends at this moment our new liberty—that the new Russian state, destined to a brilliant future, will find unanimous support except among those who have never dared to face the truth.

“— The Provisional Government has never violated the liberty of all citizens of the State to use their political rights. But now the Provisional Government. declares: in this moment those elements of the Russian nation, those groups and parties who have dared to lift their hands against the free will of the Russian people, at the same time threatening to open the front to Germany, must be liquidated with decision!—

“Let the population of Petrograd understand that it will encounter a firm power, and perhaps at the last moment good sense, conscience and honour will triumph in the hearts of those who still possess them.”

All through this speech, the hall rang with deafening clamour. When the Minister-President had stepped down, pale-faced and wet with perspiration, and strode out with his suite of officers, speaker after speaker from the Left and Centre attacked the Right, all one angry roaring. Even the Socialist Revolutionaries, through Gotz:

“The policy of the Bolsheviki is demagogic and criminal, in their exploitation of the popular discontent. But there is a whole series of popular demands which have received no satisfaction up to now. The questions of peace, land and the democratization of the army ought to be stated in such a fashion that no soldier, peasant or worker would have the least doubt that our Government is attempting, firmly and infallibly, to solve them.

“We Mensheviki do not wish to provoke a Cabinet crisis, and we are ready to defend the Provisional Government with all our energy, to the last drop of our blood—if only the Provisional Government, on all these burning questions, will speak the clear and precise words awaited by the people with such impatience.”

Then Martov, furious:

“The words of the Minister-President, who allowed himself to speak of ‘populace’ when it is question of the movement of important sections of the proletariat and the army—although led in the wrong direction—are nothing but an incitement to civil war.”

The order of the day proposed by the Left was voted. It amounted practically to a vote of lack of confidence.

  1. The armed demonstration which has been preparing for some days past has for its object a coup d’etat, threatens to provoke civil war, creates conditions favourable to pogroms and counterrevolution, the mobilization of counter-revolutionary forces, such as the Black Hundreds, which will inevitably bring about the impossibility of convoking the Constituent, will cause a military catastrophe, the death of the Revolution, paralyse the economic life of the country and destroy Russia;
  2. The conditions favourable to this agitation have been created by delay in passing urgent measures, as well as objective conditions caused by the war and the general disorder. It is necessary before everything to promulgate at once a decree transmitting the land to the peasants’ Land Committees, and to adopt an energetic course of action abroad in proposing to the Allies to proclaim their peace terms and to begin peace-parleys;
  3. To cope with Monarchist manifestations and pogromist movements, it is indispensable to take immediate measures to suppress these movements, and for this purpose to create at Petrograd a Committee of Public Safety, composed of representatives of the Municipality and the organs of the revolutionary democracy, acting in contact with the Provisional Government. . . .

It is interesting to note that the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries all rallied to this resolution. When Kerensky saw it, however, he summoned Avksentiev to the Winter Palace to explain. If it expressed a lack of confidence in the Provisional Government, he begged Avksentiev to form a new Cabinet. Dan, Gotz and Avksentiev, the leaders of the “compromisers,” performed their last compromise. They explained to Kerensky that it was not meant as a criticism of the Government!

At the corner of the Morskaya and the Nevsky, squads of soldiers with fixed bayonets were stopping all private automobiles, turning out the occupants, and ordering them toward the Winter Palace. A large crowd had gathered to watch them. Nobody knew whether the soldiers belonged to the Government or the Military Revolutionary Committee. Up in front of the Kazan Cathedral the same thing was happening, machines being directed back up the Nevsky. Five or six sailors with rifles came along, laughing excitedly, and fell into conversation with two of the soldiers. On the sailors’ hat bands were Avrora and Zaria Svobody,—the names of the leading Bolshevik cruisers of the Baltic Fleet. One of them said, “Cronstadt is coming!”— It was as if, in 1792, on the streets of Paris, some one had said: “The Marseillais are coming!” For at Cronstadt were twenty-five thousand sailors, convinced Bolsheviki and not afraid to die.

Rabotchi i Soldat was just out, all its front page one huge proclamation:


The enemies of the people passed last night to the offensive. The Kornilovists of the Staff are trying to draw in from the suburbs yunkers and volunteer battalions. The Oranienbaum yunkers and the Tsarskoye Selo volunteers refused to come out. A stroke of high treason is being contemplated against the Petrograd Soviet. The campaign of the counter-revolutionists is being directed against the All-Russian Congress of Soviets on the eve of its opening, against the Constituent Assembly, against the people. The Petrograd Soviet is guarding the Revolution. The Military Revolutionary Committee is directing the repulse of the conspirators’ attack. The entire garrison and proletariat of Petrograd are ready to deal the enemy of the people a crushing blow.

The Military Revolutionary Committee decrees:
1. All regimental, division and battle-ship Committees, together with the Soviet Commissars, and all revolutionary organisations, shall meet in continuous session, concentrating in their hands all information about the plans of the conspirators.
2. Not one soldier shall leave his division without permission of the Committee.
3. To send to Smolny at once two delegates from each military unit and five from each Ward Soviet.
4. All members of the Petrograd Soviet and all delegates to the All-Russian Congress are invited immediately to Smolny for an extraordinary meeting.

Counter-revolution has raised its criminal head.
A great danger threatens all the conquests and hopes of the soldiers and workers.
But the forces of the Revolution by far exceed those of its enemies.
The cause of the People is in strong hands. The conspirators will be crushed.
No hesitation or doubts! Firmness, steadfastness, discipline, determination!
Long live the Revolution!

The Military Revolutionary Committee.

The Petrograd Soviet was meeting continuously at Smolny, a centre of storm, delegates falling down asleep on the floor and rising again to take part in the debate, Trotzky, Kameniev, Volodarsky speaking six, eight, twelve hours a day.

I went down to room 18 on the first floor where the Bolshevik delegates were holding caucus, a harsh voice steadily booming, the speaker hidden by the crowd: “The compromisers say that we are isolated. Pay no attention to them. Once it begins they must be dragged along with us, or else lose their following.”

Here he held up a piece of paper. “We are dragging them! A message has just come from the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries! They say that they condemn our action, but that if the Government attacks us they will not oppose the cause of the proletariat!” Exultant shouting.

As night fell the great hall filled with soldiers and workmen, a monstrous dun mass, deep-humming in a blue haze of smoke. The old Tsay-ee-kah had finally decided to welcome the delegates to that new Congress which would mean its own ruin—and perhaps the ruin of the revolutionary order it had built. At this meeting, however, only members of the Tsay-ee-kah could vote.

It was after midnight when Gotz took the chair and Dan rose to speak, in a tense silence, which seemed to me almost menacing.

“The hours in which we live appear in the most tragic colours,” he said. “The enemy is at the gates of Petrograd, the forces of the democracy are trying to organise to resist him, and yet we await bloodshed in the streets of the capital, and famine threatens to destroy, not only our homogeneous Government, but the Revolution itself.

“The masses are sick and exhausted. They have no interest in the Revolution. If the Bolsheviki start anything, that will be the end of the Revolution—” (Cries, “That’s a lie!)” “The counter-revolutionists are waiting with the Bolsheviki to begin riots and massacres. If there is any vystuplennie, there will be no Constituent Assembly.” (Cries, “Lie! Shame!”)

“It is inadmissible that in the zone of military operations the Petrograd garrison shall not submit to the orders of the Staff. You must obey the orders of the Staff and of the Tsay-ee-kah elected by you. All Power to the Soviets—that means death! Robbers and thieves are waiting for the moment to loot and burn. When you have such slogans put before you, ‘Enter the houses, take away the shoes and clothes from the bourgeoisie—’” (Tumult. Cries, “No such slogan! A lie! A lie!”) “Well, it may start differently, but it will end that way!

“The Tsay-ee-kah has full power to act, and must be obeyed. We are not afraid of bayonets. The Tsay-ee-kah will defend the Revolution with its body.” (Cries, “It was a dead body long ago!”)

Immense continued uproar, in which his voice could be heard screaming, as he pounded the desk, “Those who are urging this are committing a crime!”

Voice: “You committed a crime long ago, when you captured the power and turned it over to the bourgeoisie!”

Gotz, ringing the chairman’s bell: “Silence, or I’ll have you put out!”

Voice: “Try it!” (Cheers and whistling.)

“Now concerning our policy about peace.” (Laughter.) “Unfortunately Russia can no longer support the continuation of the war. There is going to be peace, but not permanent peace—not a democratic peace. To-day, at the Council of the Republic, in order to avoid bloodshed, we passed an order of the day demanding the surrender of the land to the Land Committees and immediate peace negotiations.” (Laughter, and cries, “Too late!”)

Then for the Bolsheviki, Trotzky mounted the tribune, borne on a wave of roaring applause that burst into cheers and a rising house, thunderous. His thin, pointed face was positively Mephistophelian in its expression of malicious irony.

“Dan’s tactics prove that the masses—the great, dull, indifferent masses—are absolutely with him!” (Titantic mirth.) He turned toward the chairman, dramatically. “When we spoke of giving the land to the peasants, you were against it. We told the peasants, ‘If they don’t give it to you, take it yourselves!’ and the peasants followed our advice. And now you advocate what we did six months ago.

“I don’t think Kerensky’s order to suspend the death penalty in the army was dictated by his ideals. I think Kerensky was persuaded by the Petrograd garrison, which refused to obey him.

“To-day Dan is accused of having made a speech in the Council of the Republic which proves him to be a secret Bolshevik. The time may come when Dan will say that the flower of the Revolution participated in the rising of July 16th and 18th. In Dan’s resolution to-day at the Council of the Republic there was no mention of enforcing discipline in the army, although that is urged in the propaganda of his party.

“No. The history of the last seven months shows that the masses have left the Mensheviki. The Mensheviki and the Socialist Revolutionaries conquered the Cadets, and then when they got the power, they gave it to the Cadets.

“Dan tells you that you have no right to make an insurrection. Insurrection is the right of all revolutionists! When the down-trodden masses revolt, it is their right.”

Then the long-faced, cruel-tongued Lieber, greeted with groans and laughter.

“Engels and Marx said that the proletariat had no right to take power until it was ready for it. In a bourgeois revolution like this ... the seizure of power by the masses means the tragic end of the Revolution.... Trotzky, as a Social Democratic theorist, is himself opposed to what he is now advocating.” (Cries, “Enough! Down with him!”)

Martov, constantly interrupted: “The Internationalists are not opposed to the transmission of power to the democracy, but they disapprove of the methods of the Bolsheviki. This is not the moment to seize the power.”

Again Dan took the floor, violently protesting against the action of the Military Revolutionary Committee, which had sent a Commissar to seize the office of Izviestia and censor the paper. The wildest uproar followed. Martov tried to speak, but could not be heard. Delegates of the Army and the Baltic Fleet stood up all over the hall, shouting that the Soviet was their Government.

Amid the wildest confusion Ehrlich offered a resolution, appealing to the workers and soldiers to remain calm and not to respond to provocations to demonstrate, recognising the necessity of immediately creating a Committee of Public Safety, and asking the Provisional Government at once to pass decrees transferring the land to the peasants and beginning peace negotiations.

Then up leaped Volodarsky, shouting harshly that the Tsay-ee-kah, on the eve of the Congress, had no right to assume the functions of the Congress. The Tsay-ee-kah was practically dead, he said, and the resolution was simply a trick to bolster up its waning power.

“As for us, Bolsheviki, we will not vote on this resolution!” Whereupon all the Bolsheviki left the hall and the resolution was passed.

Toward four in the morning I met Zorin in the outer hall, a rifle slung from his shoulder.

“We’re moving!” said he, calmly but with satisfaction. “We pinched the Assistant Minister of Justice and the Minister of Religions. They’re down cellar now. One regiment is on the march to capture the Telephone Exchange, another the Telegraph Agency, another the State Bank. The Red Guard is out.”

On the steps of Smolny, in the chill dark, we first saw the Red Guard—a huddled group of boys in workmen’s clothes, carrying guns with bayonets, talking nervously together.

Far over the still roofs westward came the sound of scattered rifle fire, where the yunkers were trying to open the bridges over the Neva, to prevent the factory workers and soldiers of the Viborg quarter from joining the Soviet forces in the centre of the city; and the Cronstadt sailors were closing them again.

Behind us great Smolny, bright with lights, hummed like a gigantic hive.

Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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