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The July Days and the Kornilov Affair: How the United Front Saved the Russian Revolution

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The nine months of the Russian Revolution, from February to October 1917, were a period when events moved with lightning speed, when there were great leaps of consciousness. July and August were perhaps the most tumultuous months, encompassing the premature workers’ uprising in Petrograd known as the July Days, the period of reaction against the Bolsheviks that followed, and the right-wing military coup attempt under General Kornilov.

A Summer of Struggle

In February, the masses came onto the scene of history and ended the rule of the hated, autocratic Tsar, but the Provisional Government that followed solved none of the burning problems of the workers and soldiers who carried out the revolution – problems including the disastrous war, the food crisis, and the demand of the peasant majority to take the land from the landlords. On top of that, the capitalists were sabotaging production in the factories by gradually locking out more and more workers. Increasingly, the workers of Petrograd were drawing the conclusion that the Provisional Government, dominated by the “socialist” Mensheviks and Social Revolutionary parties in coalition with the liberal capitalist parties, could not be trusted to end the war and develop the economy in the interests of all.

Leading up to the July Days, the Bolsheviks grew exponentially with the demands of “All Power to the Soviets” and “Down with the Ten Minister-Capitalists.” The soviets – councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants – had far more authority than the Provisional Government to whom the soviet leaders had given the power.

However, the Bolshevik leadership did everything they could to hold back the surge for action among the Petrograd workers and soldiers in July. Petrograd was the most advanced part of the country, and workers and peasants in other regions of Russia would need more time and experience to reach revolutionary conclusions. A workers’ state limited to Petrograd would be dangerously isolated and would likely undergo the same fate as the Paris Commune of 1871, which was brutally crushed by the French capitalist class and its allies.

When it became clear that the Petrograd working class could not be restrained, the Bolsheviks joined the demonstrations against the Provisional Government despite their earlier campaign of discouraging them. After weathering the wave of protests, the Provisional Government unleashed a wave of repression against the Bolsheviks, including jailing much of its leadership, that forced the party into semi-underground work.

The premier, Kerensky, looked to the reactionary right wing in society – military generals, capitalists, representatives of foreign interests, and leftover monarchists – in an attempt to shore up his position. General Kornilov, head of the military in Petrograd, assured Kerensky that a regrouping of the right wing and military forces – with Kornilov at its head – could smash the Bolshevik threat and strengthen the government. In reality, Kornilov was plotting a bloody military coup to destroy both the Bolsheviks and the Provisional Government.
The Bolsheviks correctly recognized the grave threat that a military dictatorship represented to the working class, and they organized a fighting force to turn back the coup. In temporarily uniting with the Provisional Government to ensure the defeat of the far-right forces, the Bolsheviks maintained their program, supporting all power to the soviets, although they did not advance this as a slogan at that stage.

United Front Tactic

The united front did not imply any compromise with or support for the Provisional Government or the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders. The Provisional Government that found itself in power following the February Revolution had extended the war, opposed gains for workers like the 8-hour day, launched raids against the Bolsheviks, and imprisoned Bolshevik leaders. It, too, was an enemy of a workers revolution, but not as deadly in the short term as Kornilov.

As Bolshevik agitators introduced doubts into the minds of the soldiers, Kornilov’s forces disbanded and scattered. The railroad workers and telegraph workers directed a campaign of sabotage and misdirection against the plotters, and the working-class and revolutionary soldiers mobilized and organized armed bodies to defend Petrograd.

The unified mobilization of the working class was critical in defeating Kornilov. It can seem contradictory that the Bolsheviks would defend the Provisional Government from Kornilov. However, Marxists recognize that history does not go in a straight line, and the united front can win victories for the working class while exposing the inability of the liberals to act decisively when faced with a clear and present danger. The failure of the leadership of the socialists and communists to unite in action against the threat of fascism allowed Hitler to take power in Germany in 1933.

At present, the highest priority of socialists and the left in the U.S. must be to inflict a decisive blow on the Trump administration and check the dangerous emboldening of the far right. The Democratic Party establishment, ostensibly the party of resistance to Trump, refuses to mobilize the working class. We need the widest possible unity of all sections of society targeted by this unhinged administration around a clear pro-worker, anti-corporate program, while having an ongoing debate within the movement about the best strategy and tactics to defeat the right. This strategy can build the left, cut across the growth of the right, and hand the Trump administration a potentially fatal defeat.

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