The July Days: Turning Point in the Revolution

The Provisional government had solved none of the country’s problems. The War dragged on, meaning slaughter at the front and starvation at home. Workers in the cities were aggravated by food shortages on the one hand, while profiteers made fortunes from arms production and the black market on the other.

In the villages, peasants were beginning to get impatient with airy promises that the land would be redistributed leading to no official action.

The soldiers were demanding an end to the war with more and more urgency. The bulk of them were peasant conscripts. Not only did they wish to avoid death at the front, but by now they also wished to return to their villages for the harvest, lest their crops rot in the field.

Meanwhile, the capitalists regarded the intervention of the masses into history with hatred. They sabotaged the economy in order to discredit the revolution and organized a creeping lockout.

The February revolution had exploded independently of even the socialist parties and had succeeded in destroying Tsarism. But, above the heads of the masses, the Menshevik and Socialist Revolutionary leaders formed a coalition government with liberal princes and capitalists in the leading positions.

February also saw the revival of the soviets, councils elected by workers, soldiers and peasants in city wards, towns and villages and then at regional and national level. They were a focus of workers’ democracy, which had more authority than the Provisional government.

The Mensheviks and SRs had the majority in them. The masses had confidence in these leaders whom the Tsar’s regime had denounced as dangerous revolutionaries and in some cases jailed or exiled.

But the compromisers, as the Bolsheviks called them, had accepted the dictates of the Kadets, who controlled the provisional government. The government and Soviet leaders seemed paralyzed by the contending class forces the revolution had aroused and the masses became increasingly frustrated with the compromisist leaders.

The workers of Petrograd were the quickest to draw the political conclusions from their frustration, and their politicians infected the soldiers posted in the city. The centralized Tsarist state had meant that the capital had a decisive social weight in Russian society. A large proportion of the working class was concentrated in the city too. So rotten was the Tsarist regime, that insurrection in Petrograd alone had been enough to finish it off. The provinces had followed Petrograd with little trouble.

So, when the compromisers betrayed their hopes before their very eyes, the Petrograd workers and soldiers moved quickly towards the slogans of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

The Bolsheviks understood that they could not win the Menshevik and SR workers and peasants simply by issuing an ultimatum to them to drop their established party allegiances. Just as today workers support mass parties, because of the tradition they represent, so most Russian workers and peasants looked to these reformist leaders.

Soviet Power

So the Bolsheviks’ slogans demanded of these parties’ leaders that they do the job their supporters expected them to do.

Their key demands were that the socialists break with the Kadets and take political power into their own hands. The compromisers could easily have done this by declaring the executive of the Soviet the government of the country. The Bolshevik slogans “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” and “All power to the soviets!” became increasingly popular amongst the masses.

Already in June, the Bolsheviks had called a demonstration to coincide with the first all-Russian soviet congress. They had been under special pressure from the soldiers who opposed the government’s plans for a new military offensive.

The compromisers had an overwhelming majority at the congress. It demanded that the Bolsheviks call off their demonstration. But it had been forced to call an official soviet demonstration for the following Sunday, under the blandest possible slogans.

It was a huge success … for the Bolsheviks! 400,000 attended, but to the compromisers’ horror, their banners bore the Bolsheviks’ ‘extremist’ slogans. Despite this, the government continued on its rightward course. On June 18 the new offensive started.

The June demonstrations showed the Bolsheviks were the leading political force in Petrograd. But the same was not yet true for the rest of the country.

Millions of soldiers at the front and peasants in the provinces had only just heard from them, and that through the usually vitriolic reports of the capitalist press and the compromisers. They still had confidence in their leaders, even though they had often put forward the Bolsheviks’ demands of “bread, peace and land”.

Lenin understood that soon these illusions would turn into their opposite. But pressure was mounting in Petrograd for immediate action against Kerensky’s government.

Ultra-left sectarians imagine that revolutionaries merely have to find the most left point on the political spectrum and occupy it. But a serious workers’ party has to weigh all the political, strategic and tactical considerations in a situation in order to achieve victory.

The Bolsheviks could have taken power in Petrograd in June or July. But the rest of the country would not have followed suit. There would have been a repeat of the Paris Commune of 1871. There the workers in the French capital had taken power briefly, but were eventually butchered into submission by the Prussian army in collaboration with the French capitalist class.

One of the reasons for this tragic defeat was the Commune’s isolation from the rest of France, which allowed reactionaries to regroup outside the city.

In Russia there was the added danger that many front-line soldiers at that stage believed that their comrades’ refusal to go to the front jeopardized their chances of going home. So the Bolsheviks had to restrain the Petrograd masses from a showdown with the government.

This was not the most popular policy, especially with many of the soldiers who imagined that the possession of guns gave them an easy solution to all their problems. They imagined that a further revolution could be accomplished as easily as February’s.

Even sections of the Party, the rawest recruits and those closest to the impatient masses, were affected by the prevailing mood, and were less than enthusiastic in putting the Party’s position over.

Government in Crisis

On July 2, the Kadets threw the government into crisis. Using some timid concessions to Ukrainian nationalism as a pretext, the four Kadet ministers resigned. In reality, they knew that the offensive was collapsing and decided to let the compromisers deal with the consequences on their own.

At the time a company of machine-gunners were due to leave for the front. On hearing that the coalition had been destroyed, and with it the compromisers’ excuses for their political inaction, the gunners’ regiment sent delegates round factories and regiments calling for an armed demonstration.

By 7:00 pm the factories were at a standstill and a massive demonstration had assembles. Unlike in the early days of the revolution, middle-class well-wishers were absent. “Today only the common slaves of capital were marching” said one participant. The Liberal, Nabokov, saw only “insane, dumb, beastlike faces”.

The Bolsheviks were faced with an accomplished fact. They tried to restrain the masses, but to no avail. The Party’s Petrograd Committee, which was meeting at the time, had to reconsider the position. Just as irresponsible as advocating a mistaken course of action, would have been abandoning the masses to their fate once they had taken that course.

Marxists cannot always choose the ground on which to fight. Sometimes workers feel forced to take action regardless of whether their leaders feel it is tactically advisable. If battle becomes inevitable, Marxists must advocate the best tactics in the circumstances so that the masses will suffer fewer setbacks and draw correct conclusions from their experiences.

By now, reactionaries were provoking skirmished with the demonstrators which they hoped would come to a bloody head. The Committee, along with representatives of the Central Committee, issued an appeal for a peaceful demonstration which would present its demands to the Soviet executive, and joined the march.

The demonstrations continued for a second day, this time joined by 10,000 from the Kronstadt naval fortress. Inevitably, provocateurs fired on the demonstration. In the evening, two Cossack squadrons sparked off a small battle which claimed 13 lives.

When they finally faced the Soviet leaders, the workers got nothing but empty phrases. “Take the power, you son of a bitch, when they give it to you, one worker shouted at a ‘socialist’ minister.

At the height of the demonstrations, the rich had rushed to the stations, desperate to get out of town. As the movement began to subside, workers found in the better-off areas were attacked and beaten as the reactionaries regained confidence.

The Bolshevik Central Committee called on workers and soldiers to end the demonstration and this time their call was heeded. At five o’clock in the morning, the Soviet’s leaders were ‘saved’ from the workers lobbying them by officers and soldiers led by a well-known Menshevik lieutenant.

Vital Lesson

Workers and soldiers were disoriented by the lack of results from this massive movement. Why was it not possible to repeat February’s success with the same ease? The July Days were a temporary blow to their morale.

The rightists on the other hand were tremendously emboldened. The compromisers had been terrified by the masses and had proved that they would not act against capitalism. The reaction raised its head. The Bolsheviks were particularly viciously attacked. They were accused of organizing an attempted insurrection, the exact opposite of the truth.

Despite the painful consequences, in some senses the July Days were an essential experience for the Bolshevik Party and the advanced workers.

Afterwards Lenin pointed out that if the compromise leaders had put the slogan “All power to the Soviets” into action, Russian society would have been transformed peacefully. In the July Days, Petrograd’s workers and soldiers tried to force the Mensheviks and SRs to adopt a common program with the Bolsheviks. “Many still cherished the illusion that everything could be obtained by words and demonstrations,” remarked Trotsky.

The partial defeat taught them that the Bolshevik leaders had been right in warning that the task was not so easy as it had seemed at first. They learned that the reformist leaders had to be replaced.

For a final showdown with the capitalists, the Petrograd workers were forced to conclude, a general staff was necessary and that general staff was the Bolshevik Party. Even out of a setback the Party won a deeper loyalty from and authority over the masses.

Trotsky later pointed out that the most difficult task of the October revolution was not the seizure of power, but enduring the struggles and privatizations necessary to hold onto it.

Here too, the July Days and their aftermath were an essential lesson “…At the time our workers and soldiers would not have fought and died for Petrograd,” Lenin said. Subsequent events were to teach them that power could be won and kept only by their own efforts and self-sacrifice tied to the leadership of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s party.

“As a technical trial,” the Kadet leader Miliukov wrote, “the experience was for them (the Bolsheviks) undoubtedly of extraordinary value … It was evident that when the time came for repeating the experiment they would carry it more systematically and consciously.”

The Bolsheviks did absorb the lessons of the July Days and they were invaluable for the victory in October.