SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 207 April 2017

Russian revolution timeline

April 1917

This is the third in our series on the events of 1917. Dates are given in the old style Julian calendar used in Russia at the time. This was 13 days earlier than the Gregorian calendar (adopted in Russia in 1918).

The mass movement triggered by the February revolution has forced the tsar to abdicate. A Provisional Government has been appointed. Alongside this unstable and weak administration, councils (soviets) of workers and soldiers are playing an ever important role. However, the right-wing leadership of the soviets – including and above all in the capital Petrograd – cannot deliver the bread, peace and land demanded by the masses.

April 1917

3: Lenin, Zinoviev and 17 other Bolsheviks (among other activists) arrive from exile at Finland station, Petrograd, to a huge welcome. In a short speech, Lenin shocks those (including in his own party) expecting bland words of greeting with his full support for the revolutionary masses and international socialist revolution. All the way to the Bolshevik HQ, Lenin addresses the crowds.

4: Lenin explains his April Theses to Bolsheviks at the HQ, then at another meeting to Bolshevik and Menshevik members.

7: Pravda, the Bolsheviks’ paper, publishes the April Theses – Kamenev’s preface denounces Lenin’s ‘scheme’ as ‘unacceptable’. A subsequent Bolshevik Petrograd Committee rejects the theses 13 votes to 2 with 1 abstention. Lenin takes the campaign to the party’s membership.

14: At another Petrograd Bolshevik meeting, Lenin’s demand for the transfer of power from the Provisional Government to the Soviet beats Kamenev’s cautious call merely for ‘the most vigilant watch’ of the government by 20:6 with 9 abstentions.

18: Massive demonstrations celebrate international workers’ day – May Day in the western Gregorian calendar. Pavel Milyukov, foreign affairs minister, telegrams Russia’s war allies stating that the Provisional Government will continue the agreement with Britain, France and the USA, and will not make a separate peace with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Ottoman Turkey.

20-21: News of the telegram provokes mass, armed protests in Petrograd against the government’s war aims, Milyukov, and the Provisional Government itself. The right-wing Kadet party organises counter-demos of officers and middle class layers. Clashes and armed confrontations occur. The Petrograd Soviet executive, led by right-wing socialist Mensheviks and the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, bans meetings and protests for 48 hours.

20: Trotsky is released from his five-week (illegal) detention by British authorities in a German prisoner-of-war camp in Canada. He and his family resume their journey to Russia.

26: The Provisional Government announces it will move to form a coalition including right-wing socialists. Russia’s war allies pile pressure on the Provisional Government to launch a new military offensive – partly to stop revolution spreading to French and British troops. The imperialist powers send social democratic leaders to put their case – such as Arthur Henderson (leading Labour Party figure in Britain’s coalition cabinet), and Emile Vandervelde (Belgian president of the Second International).

24-29: An all-Russia Bolshevik Party conference overwhelmingly approves the transfer of power to the soviets by 149:3 with 8 abstentions. The Bolsheviks now number 79,000 – 15,000 in Petrograd.

30: Minister of war, Alexander Guchkov, resigns as a result of the mass pressure.


Lenin’s April Theses

The theses were Lenin’s wake-up call to the Bolshevik party, whose leadership in Russia had failed to keep up with events following the February revolution. This was made worse in March when Stalin and Kamenev arrived in Petrograd from exile in Siberia. They shifted the Bolsheviks’ political line further to the right, calling for conditional support for the Provisional Government, and for reconciliation with the Mensheviks.

They saw the revolution as the start of a period of capitalist economic and political development, relegating the role of the working class to supporters of the ‘liberal’ government – and any idea of socialism to some dim and distant future.

This caused confusion among Bolshevik members, especially working-class activists in the middle of the mass struggle. The Provisional Government was made up of landlords, capitalists and tsarist sympathisers. It could never end the war, distribute land, provide food or meet workers’ demands. To suggest otherwise was to sow dangerous illusions.

On the other hand, the soviets – although led by right-wingers – were based on the collective strength of the organised working class, the only force capable of driving through the radical change needed. Unless the soviets took power, counter-revolution and military rule would triumph.

In the April Theses, Lenin called on the Bolsheviks to campaign to win over the soviets to a socialist programme based on the independent action of the working class. He set 1917 Russia against the background of further revolutionary movements internationally.

Lenin demanded: no support for the Provisional Government; all power to the soviets; end the war; confiscate the big landed estates; nationalise the banks; establish workers’ control of industry; replace the police/army with a workers’ militia; replace the old state bureaucracy with a workers’ administration; proclaim a Communist Party; establish a new international.

This programme set him at odds with Stalin, Kamenev and the majority on the Bolshevik Central Committee still clinging to old, routinist positions which, in those revolutionary times, had long passed their use-by date.

In the April Theses, Lenin’s thinking coincided with the theory of ‘permanent revolution’, Leon Trotsky’s 1906 analysis of the first Russian revolution. This remained Trotsky’s perspective in 1917.


Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhraiontsy

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) was formed in 1898 to bring together the numerous Marxist and revolutionary groups in the Russian empire.

On 17 November 1903, at a conference in London, it split into two main camps: the Bolsheviks (meaning ‘majority’) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (‘minority’) headed by Julius Martov.

Various trends continued to exist in the RSDLP. Trotsky, for instance, although politically aligned with the Bolsheviks, attempted to unify the factions for several years, remaining independent of both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

In 1912, the RSDLP-Bolsheviks became a separate party.

At a crucial stage in 1917, Trotsky and his organisation, the Mezhraiontsy, merged with the Bolsheviks in full political and organisational agreement. Mezhraiontsy translates as ‘inter-district committee’ – its political meaning was that it stood between the different socialist camps.

Throughout this time, socialists and Marxists often called themselves ‘social democrats’. The term was linked to the revolutionary movement and ideology founded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the mid-1800s. Today, it is usually used by mainstream media to refer to ‘moderate’, ‘centre-left’ (pro-establishment) parties.

In 1918, the Bolshevik party changed its name to the (All) Russian Communist Party. This was one of the demands in the April Theses. Lenin’s aim was to state clearly the need for communist (or socialist) change – and to distance the party from the other ‘social democratic’ groups which were selling out the workers, soldiers and peasants.

Lenin linked this to the call for a new international: for a break from the Second International of mass social democratic parties which had backed the imperialist powers during the first world war. They had been complicit in the slaughter of millions of people, betraying the basic Marxist principles of workers’ solidarity and socialist internationalism.

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