August 1917: Kornilov’s Coup Fails

Russia in 1917 saw the forcible entry of the masses onto the stage of history. The sharp pace of change reflected the swift changes in consciousness amongst the mass of the people.

But no revolution ever proceeds in a straight line. This struggle of living forces unfolds through dialectical contradictions; revolutions, the ebb of revolution, periods of reaction, followed by a further impulse towards revolution on a higher level.

The July period was in many ways the watershed between the February revolution and October. In all great revolutions, there are times when the masses, in a period of retreat, feel the gains of the revolution slipping from their grasp and move spontaneously to recapture lost ground.

This happened in June/July in Russia. A similar pattern can be seen in Spain in 1937 and Portugal in 1975. The main difference lay in the existence of the Bolshevik Party in Russia which put itself at the head of the struggle in order to keep the forces of revolution intact for more decisive struggles.

The inevitable result of the Bolsheviks’ restraining of the masses’ revolutionary impatience was to open up an attack by the forces of the Right. July was the “month of the great slander” where an intense hate campaign was instigated against the Bolsheviks.

However the July reaction was neither deep nor long lasting. The hostility whipped up by the right evaporated within weeks and by August support for the Bolsheviks was visibly recovering. Layers of workers, drawing the lessons of their own experience turned again to the ideas of revolution.

The Bolsheviks made electoral gains as people registered discontent with the moderate socialists who controlled the Central Soviet. Lenin’s Party did not gain a majority in the Petrograd Soviet until early September but the tide was beginning to turn.

Worsening economic conditions and unpopular government policies such as the restoration of capital punishment boosted the Bolshevik cause. Pro-Bolshevik resolutions were now passed condemning the government persecutions of those involved in the July events. As one contemporary noted: “The repression of the extreme left served only to increase its popularity among the masses.”

Towards the end of July the Kerensky government faced a deepening social, political and economic crisis. Food shortages, economic dislocation, inflation, civil disorder and peasant unrest all served to fuel the growth of revolutionary ideas, which caused acute alarm amongst the ruling circles.

The government was paralyzed. The Russian bourgeois, anxious to destroy the revolution searched desperately for a way out. John Reed, in his famous book, Ten Days That Shook the World relates that a large proportion of the ruling class would have preferred a German victory in the war to a complete victory of the Soviets. In the ruling circles, there was great disdain for Kerensky’s weak-kneed government.

The idea of the “salvation of the motherland” by a strong dictatorship which could end revolutionary anarchy seized their minds more and more. This view was shared by the main capitalist party, the Kadets, the All Russian Union of Trade and Industry and the Union of Landowners.

General Know of the English Military Mission put into blunt words the attitude of the privileged: “What is wanted is a strong dictatorship; what is wanted is the Cossacks. This people needs the whip! A dictatorship – that is just what it needs.”

In these circumstances the emergence of an officers’ plot was inevitable. Even premier Kerensky had fed this conspiracy by discussions he had with the military command. His ambition was to establish a strong personal dictatorship to do away with Bolshevism – led by himself. Trotsky pointed out “Kerensky wanted to use the revolt of the generals to reinforce his own dictatorship.”

But the Military High Command had other ideas. For them the obvious candidate for such a bonapartist role was the newly appointed Commander in Chief, General Lavr Kornilov.

As a military man, and an admirer of the Black Hundreds, Kornilov made little distinction between the Moderate Socialists and the Bolsheviks – they were all revolutionary scum. After all, wasn’t it the soviets which had created all this mess in the first place; they were the “enemies within.”

General Kornilov became the symbol and focal point of the counter-revolution and a national hero for every reactionary section in Russia. On August 11 he pronounced it “high time to hang the German agents and spies headed by Lenin.”

If the Provisional government was too weak and impotent to act then he would do so independently. On August 24 under the pretext of a “Bolshevik rising”, Kornilov told his general staff to redirect the army to march on Petrograd.

Parallels can be drawn with Franco’s rebellion in 1936 and Pinochet in 1973. When the ruling class sees no alternative it will drop all its democratic talk and turn to military dictatorship to crush the masses by force. The Bolsheviks gave leadership to the struggle in Russia, defeating Kornilov and building the forces which carried out the successful revolution in October. The lack of such a party in Chile and Spain had terrible consequences.

The counter-revolution in Russia began in earnest from that time on. Kornilov’s plans were simple. “The coup will be in place in the suburbs of Petrograd by the evening of August 28. I request that Petrograd be proclaimed under martial law on August 29.”

Kerensky had opened up secret negotiations with the conspirators, aiming to incorporate Kornilov into a new ‘national government’. The General replied that such a government could only be under himself and that Kerensky had better leave Petrograd at once.

As Trotsky commented, “At the same time that Kerensky and Savinkov were intending to clean up the Bolsheviks and in part the soviets, Kornilov was intending also to clean up the Provisional Government. It was just this that Kerensky did not want.”

Faced with this predicament, Kerensky turned tail and ran to the cabinet with the news of the attempted coup. True to form the Kadet ministers resigned on August 26 wanting no responsibility for putting down a “patriotic” revolt!

As in Spain in July 1936, the majority of the High Command went over to the counter-revolution and high government officials were almost all sympathetic to Kornilov. Divisions were dispatched from the front to crush the revolutionary capital. On the 28th of August prices in the Petrograd stock exchange rocketed; the counter-revolutionaries had high hopes of victory.

But the reaction had misread the political situation, especially the mood of the masses. The coup’s social basis was still very shaky. The essence of counter-revolution as of revolution is timing.

The Bolshevik Party was still operating in semi-illegal conditions after the July events. The Party leadership was scattered: Trotsky was in prison and both Lenin and Zinoviev were in hiding. Nevertheless the Bolsheviks swiftly went into action as soon as the news broke.

From Finland, Lenin warned the Bolsheviks that in the fight against Kornilov, they should give no credence or support to the moderates, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. There could be no mixing of their political banners.

“In these circumstances” wrote Lenin, “A Bolshevik would say our soldiers will fight against the counter-revolutionary troops. They will not do so to protect the government … but independently to protect the revolution as they pursue their own aims.”

United Front

This was the policy of the United Front. In the face of a common enemy the United Front serves to unify different workers’ parties in action to achieve a particular object. It does not mean abandoning different political programs or criticisms under the guise of ‘unity’.

There is no merging of political differences but a unity in action. “March separately under your own banners but strike together” was the dictum. This not only raises the level of consciousness but it shows in practice the superiority of militant struggle.

A United Front of Socialist and Communist Parties in Germany could have prevented Hitler coming to power in 1933. But such a vital policy, proved in action in the past was rejected by the Stalinists as ‘counter-revolutionary’. This prepared the defeat of the German proletariat at Hitler’s hands.

In Russia the local soviets were reinvigorated under the guidance of the Bolshevik activists as the enthusiasm of the masses centered on the defense of Petrograd. Mass meetings were held which passed resolutions attacking Kornilov and demanding the release of the July prisoners.

A “Committee of Revolutionary Defense” was set up where the Bolsheviks played a prominent role. Large numbers of workers were organized to erect barricades, dig ditches and put up barbed wire as part of the defense of the capital. Workers’ organizations immediately took over the supply and distribution of food to the population.

The Soviet of Factory-Shop Committees helped coordinate the distribution of arms. “Red Guard” units were created and supplied with weapons and materials from the armaments factories. Many new recruits got military training from the Bolshevik Military Organizations. The Petrograd Carters’ Battalion pledged their 500 carts to help shift military supplies, while the Sixth Engineers organized a 600-man detachment to build defense fortifications.

The Baltic Fleet followed suit with the Kronstadt garrison dispatching 3,000 armed sailors for Petrograd’s defense. The fleet’s crew had arrested some disloyal officers, some of whom were summarily shot for treason.

After the Provisional Government asked for assistance the Kronstadt Military Technical Committee sent a message demanding the release of “our comrades, the finest fighters and sons of the revolution who are at this minute languishing in prison.”

The Bolsheviks categorically refused to enter the Kerensky government but they were the best fighters against Kornilov. The most militant sailors and soldiers were Bolsheviks.

Trotsky reflects: “During the insurrection … Kerensky must go to the sailors of the Baltic fleet and demand of them to defend them in the Winter Palace. I was at the time in prison. They took him to the guard and sent a delegation to ask me what must be done: arrest Kerensky or defend him? … I said: ‘Yes you must guard him very well now; tomorrow we will arrest him.'”

The telegraph and railway workers dealt an enormous blow to the counter-revolution. Their leaders instructed their members to redirect ‘suspicious’ telegrams and by any means block Kornilov’s path. They should dismantle tracks and bridges, leave their posts, misdirect trains and delay all counter-revolutionary shipments.

In Trotsky’s words: “The railway workers … did their duty. In a mysterious way echelons would find themselves moving on the wrong roads. Regiments would arrive in the wrong division, artillery would be sent up a blind alley, staffs would get out of communication with their units.”

Petrograd stayed a fortress of the revolution. The counter-revolutionary army’s movement was paralyzed. Detachments of revolutionary agitators from the factories and Soviets surrounded the stationary troops and harangued them with political propaganda.


The troops had no idea what was happening as their officers had kept them in total ignorance. Mutinies broke out. Officers were arrested in the Savage Division made up of Caucasian mountaineers, the Ussuriishy Mounted Division, which now pledged themselves to the cause of the revolution.

The “counter-revolutionary” army simply melted away; there was never any fighting between Kornilov’s troops and Petrograd. Kornilov’s next in command, General Krymov, encircled by his own troops, reluctantly agreed to negotiate. General Denikin was locked up by his own troops. The revolt had crumbled.

Krymov realized the hopelessness of the situation. “The last card for saving the Motherland has been beaten – life is no longer worth living,” he said, then shot himself. Kornilov was arrested on September 1.

This defeat for the counter-revolution abruptly shifted the balance of forces to the left. The revolt radicalized the masses; in the words of Marx, the revolution sometimes needs the whip of the counter-revolution.

A surge in support now developed for the Bolshevik Party. “This upswing” explained Trotsky “was made possible only thanks to the double-edged Bolshevik policy. While participating in the frontlines of the struggle against Kornilov, the Bolsheviks did not take the slightest responsibility for the policy of Kerensky.

“On the contrary they denounced him as responsible for the reactionary attack and as incapable of overcoming it. In this way they prepared the political premises of the October revolution.”

Through patient and consistent work, with correct tactics and slogans, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Petrograd Soviet in early September. This became the springboard for their winning the majority of the working masses to their banner.

Within two months, the leaders of Bolshevism emerged from underground and prison to lead the first workers’ state in history. The events of August 1917 played a decisive role in preparing the party and its leadership for that historic transformation.