One hundred years ago today—November 7, 1917—the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in an almost bloodless coup against a government that no longer could claim any supporters. Probably no more than 10,000 Bolshevized soldiers, sailors, and workers participated, seizing key governmental institutions in Petrograd and arresting the ministers of the feckless provisional government. There were no more than a handful of casualties. By contrast, the February Revolution that had overthrown the Tsar had involved hundreds of thousands of participants in an unplanned series of demonstrations, and the number of casualties exceeded one thousand.
The Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was deliberately timed by Lenin to immediately precede the convening of the national Congress of Soviets—the bodies of worker, peasant, soldier, and sailor representatives that had sprung up across the nation in the wake of the Tsar’s fall. Unlike the self-appointed provisional government that had also formed when the Romanovs were compelled to end their 300-year dynasty, the Soviets commanded widespread, though by no means universal, support.
On the evening of November 7, with all of Petrograd’s government centers in Bolshevik control save the Winter Palace, where the government ministers and only a few hundred troops remained, and which the novice Bolshevik revolutionaries were still figuring out how best to assault, the Congress of Soviets was called to order. During the meeting, delegates could hear the guns of the navy ship Aurora, manned by its Bolshevik crew, blasting away at the Palace (it was firing blanks, but made a hell of a noise). Within an hour, the Congress was informed that the Palace had fallen and the ministers been arrested.
The real action, however, was in the Congress itself. There, delegates from a range of socialist parties considered what to do about a seizure of power that in no way resembled Marx’s vision of the road to socialism. It was the common belief of all Marxists that the proletariat—the urban working class, chiefly those employed in manufacturing—would be the class that fought for and won socialism—and that, therefore, such revolutions would take place in heavily industrialized nations, which Russia emphatically was not. As Russia was still an overwhelmingly agrarian society, a nation of landlords and peasants, this posed a pickle for Russian Marxists. One way out of the pickle had been proposed by Trotsky some years before the revolution: Since the Russian bourgeoisie was too small and weak to lead a revolution that would create the capitalist infrastructure that would in turn breed socialist workers, the socialists would have to step up and lead it, in the process, they hoped, triggering revolutions in the more advanced nations of Europe, whose victorious socialists could then help their otherwise out-on-a-limb Russian comrades. This was the bank shot of all bank shots, but it was the best scenario that those Russian socialists who sought a revolution could come up with.
In 1917, Russia was home to three major socialist parties—the Social Revolutionaries (SRs), who represented the nation’s peasant majorities, and the two Marxist parties that had once been part of the (by then defunct) Social Democratic Party—the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. The split between the Bolshies and the Menshies had begun at the 1903 Social Democrats’ party congress, and it came over the question of whether new members had to be “professional revolutionaries” closely vetted by existing members (the Bolshevik position, and one crafted in response to the fact that all such parties were illegal in Tsarist Russia), or could simply join, as they did in Western democracies (the Menshevik position). This particular dividing point no longer mattered once the Tsar had fallen, but the divisions implicit in the two opposing visions had in the interim grown clearer and more profound: Bolshevik policy was set by a small central committee, while the Mensheviks had a more open process and far less internal discipline (which posed problems in revolutionary times). Socialism, Lenin said, would never come “from the bottom up.”
Once the Tsar had fallen and as 1917 progressed, the Bolsheviks and the left wings of both the SRs and the Mensheviks advocated the policy of “All Power to the Soviets.” The reasons for this policy were many and compelling. The provisional government had continued the Tsarist regime’s commitment to the World War, which had already cost Russia more than a million casualties as its armies were thrown against the far better equipped and trained Germans. The government had also declined to take any position on land reform, the primary demand of the nation’s peasant majority, who chiefly worked under primitive conditions on the estates of a relatively small landlord class. The Bolsheviks, left-SRs, and left-Mensheviks favored a withdrawal from the war and the breaking up of the large estates. Moreover, both these developments were well underway in any case, through the undirected action of soldiers, who were deserting the army in the hundreds of thousands, many of them killing their officers as they left, and peasants, who were burning down manor houses and driving out their landlords all across the land.
But the events of 1917 had been so without precedent that all three of these socialist parties were split. Initially, in the weeks following the fall of the Tsar, many within the three parties believed that in addition to participating in the Soviets, they should have representatives in or at least support the provisional government as well. Lenin emphatically disagreed, as he announced to general astonishment when he arrived in Petrograd from Switzerland in April (all the major left leaders had been in exile in other lands when the Tsar fell). Before Lenin’s arrival, other Bolsheviks—including the party newspaper’s editor, one Joseph Stalin—had favored cooperation with the government, while some more right-leaning Mensheviks and SRs actually joined it.
Julius Martov, the leader of the left-Mensheviks, opposed Menshevik participation in the government. A longtime colleague and longtime rival of both Lenin and Trotsky, Martov was generally considered both the intellectual leader of Russia’s democratic socialists and an icon of decency: in his memoirs, the revolutionary activist Victor Serge remembered Martov as “a Marxist whose honesty and brilliance were of the first order … highly cultured, uncompromising and exceedingly brave.” It was Martov who’d opposed Lenin’s vision of a top-down party at the 1903 Social Democratic Party Congress; Martov who’d joined with Lenin, while they were both in exile in Switzerland in 1915, to found a rump group of European socialists opposed to involvement in the World War; and now, Martov who opposed his fellow Mensheviks’ involvement with and support for the provisional government.
The meeting of the all-Soviet Congress on the night of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power was Martov’s defining moment. Like all the delegates, he’d been presented with the Bolshevik takeover as a fait accompli. As Orlando Figes documents in his nearly 1,000-page history of the revolution, A People’s Tragedy, Lenin had actually insisted on and timed the coup as much to undercut the other socialist parties as to overthrow the government. The other members of the Bolshevik Central Committee either opposed the seizure of power altogether—that was the position of Kamenev and Zinoviev, two of Lenin’s most prominent colleagues—or wanted it undertaken either after or during the Congress so that it could be accomplished in the name of the Soviets. Lenin argued otherwise, furiously, demanding that it be undertaken just before the Congress convened, so that its ownership would be exclusively Bolshevik. And as was the case in nearly every Bolshevik meeting, whatever Lenin wanted, Lenin got.
The opposition, reluctance, or hesitation of Lenin’s Bolshevik comrades—and of the Mensheviks and SRs as well—to Lenin’s proposed takeover had many roots. The first was doctrinal: No way could socialists govern in a nation so backward as Russia. The second followed from the first: If the socialists did take power, they would meet with overwhelming opposition, and if they weren’t overthrown immediately, they would plunge the nation into a violent civil war. The third followed—at least among some opponents, Martov most articulately and presciently—from the first two: If the Bolsheviks were to cling to power, they would have to become a ruthless killing machine. Which wasn’t, as Martov saw it, the path to socialism.
Inevitably, all these differences came to a head at the Soviet Congress meeting 100 years ago. Martov made a motion that the new Soviet government be multi-tendency and contain members from all the socialist parties (a “united democratic government,” as he termed it). He encouraged the new government to reach out to other groups and social forces. Otherwise, he warned that a civil war of great violence, and a reign of repression to keep the Bolsheviks in power, would inevitably follow. Delegates from all tendencies applauded his motion, but then the Right-Mensheviks and Right-SRs walked out, to Martov’s dismay. Trotsky, speaking for himself and Lenin, countered that it was the Bolsheviks who’d taken power and Bolsheviks who’d govern. Turning on Martov, who’d been his mentor and friend, Trotsky delivered this famous malediction:
Now we are told: renounce your victory, make concessions, compromise. With whom? I ask: with whom ought we to compromise? With those wretched groups who have left us or who are making this proposal? But after all we’ve had a full view of them. No one in Russia is with them any longer. A compromise is supposed to be made, as between two equal sides, by the millions of workers and peasants represented in this congress, whom they are ready, not for the first time or the last, to barter away as the bourgeoisie sees fit. No, here no compromise is possible. To those who have left and to those who tell us to do this we must say: you are miserable bankrupts, your role is played out; go where you ought to be: into the dustbin of history!
Upon which, Martov stormed out of the room. But into history’s dustbin? Or, I’d contend, into its pantheon of democrats and social prophets?
In the weeks following the November 7 seizure of power, a number of leading Bolsheviks, particularly those close to the nation’s industrial unions, embraced Martov’s recommendation to set up a coalition government, but Lenin and Trotsky’s go-it-alone position prevailed. Martov became a critic of the government for its failure to follow socialist and democratic norms. In January 1918, he spoke at a Trade Union Congress, as Mitchell Cohen documents in the current issue of Dissent, “against the Bolshevik proposition that independent unions were no longer necessary in the ‘proletarian’ state.” A few years later, he answered Lenin’s claim that the Bolsheviks had done nothing more than follow the brave example of the 1871 Paris Communards, of whom Marx heartily approved. Not so, wrote Martov. Unlike the Commune, Russia had no popular elections, it had a political police force, local communities were denied the right to self-government. As Cohen writes, “Martov pointed out that the Bolsheviks repudiated the ‘democratic parliamentarism’ of bourgeois society, but not ‘instruments of state power’—the bureaucracy, the police, and a standing army—to which parliamentarism was a ‘counterweight’ in bourgeois society.”
In 1920, Victor Serge visited Martov, who was then living in Moscow “on the brink of utter destitution in a little room. … He was campaigning for working-class democracy, denouncing the excesses of the Cheka [the predecessor to the KGB] and the Lenin-Trotsky ‘mania for authority.’ He kept saying, ‘Just as though socialism could be instituted by decree, and by shooting people in cellars!’”
“Lenin,” Serge continues, “who was fond of him, protected him against the Cheka, though he quailed before Martov’s sharp criticism.”
Later that year, with many of his comrades imprisoned, in exile, or dead, Martov moved to Berlin. The following year—with the Russian Civil War finally at an end, leaving behind a devastated nation that even its rulers understood was nothing like the socialist experiment they had once envisioned—the notoriously unsentimental Lenin wrote Trotsky that his single greatest regret was “that Martov is not with us. What an amazing comrade he is, what a pure man!” Trotsky wrote back that he missed Martov, too. How much of this sentiment was personal, and how much was a pang of longing for a lost ideal that neither Lenin nor Trotsky could ever express directly or even acknowledge to themselves, we shall never know.
Long plagued by various illnesses, Martov died in Berlin in 1923. As Martov’s health declined, and as Lenin himself lay dying, he instructed the party secretary, Stalin, to forward some funds to Martov so he could receive better medical care. Stalin never did.