Leon Trotsky

The History of the Russian Revolution

Volume Two: The Attempted Counter-Revolution


Chapter 29
Kerensky and Kornilov

(Elements of Bonapartism in the Russian Revolution)


A GOOD deal has been written to the effect that subsequent misfortunes, including the advent of the Bolsheviks, might have been avoided if instead of Kerensky a man of clear head and strong character had stood at the helm of the government. It is indubitable that Kerensky possessed neither of these attributes. But the question is, why did certain well defined social classes find themselves obliged to lift up just this man, Kerensky, upon their shoulders?

As though to freshen our historic memory, events in Spain are now again showing us how a revolution, washing away the customary political boundary lines, surrounds everybody and everything during its first days with a rosy mist. At this stage even its enemies try to tint themselves with its color. This mimicry expresses a semi-instinctive desire of the conservative classes to accommodate themselves to the changes impending, so as to suffer from them as little as possible. This solidarity of the nation, founded upon loose phrases, makes of compromisism an indispensable political function. Petty bourgeois idealists, overlooking class distinctions, thinking in stereotyped phrases, not knowing what they want, and wishing well to everybody, are at this stage the sole conceivable leaders of the majority. If Kerensky had possessed clear thoughts and a strong will, he would have been completely unfit for his historic rôle. This is not a retrospective estimate. The Bolsheviks so judged the matter in the heat of the events. “An attorney for the defense in political cases, a Social Revolutionary who became leader of the Trudoviks, a radical without any socialist schooling whatever, Kerensky has expressed more completely than anyone else the first epoch of the revolution, its ‘national’ formlessness, the idealism of its hopes and expectations”: thus wrote the author of these lines while locked up in Kerensky’s prison after the July Days. “Kerensky made speeches about land and freedom, about law and order, about peace among nations, about the defense of the fatherland, the heroism of Liebknecht, about how the Russian revolution ought to astonish the world with its magnanimity – waving the while a little red silk handkerchief. The everyday man who was just beginning to wake up politically listened to these speeches with rapture: it seemed to him that he himself was speaking from the tribune. The army greeted Kerensky as their savior from Guchkov. The peasants heard about him as a Trudovik, as a muzhik’s deputy. The Liberals were won over by the extreme moderateness of idea under his formless radicalism of phrase.

But the period of universal and indiscriminate embraces does not last long. The class struggle dies down at the beginning of a revolution only to come to life afterward in the form of civil war. In the fairy-like rise of compromisism is contained the seed of its inevitable fall. The official French journalist, Claude Anet, explained Kerensky’s swift loss of popularity by a lack of tact which impelled the socialist politician to actions “little harmonizing” with his rôle. “He frequents the imperial loges, he lives in the Winter Palace or at Tsarskoe Selo, he sleeps in the bed of Russian emperors. A little too much vanity and vanity a little too noticeable-that is shocking in a country which is the simplest in the world.” Tact implies, in the small as well as the great, an understanding of the situation and of one’s place in it. Of this understanding Kerensky had not a trace. Lifted up by the trustful masses, he was completely alien to them, did not understand, and was not the least interested in, the question of how the revolution looked to them and what inferences they were drawing from it. The masses expected bold action from him, but he demanded from the masses that they should not interfere with his magnanimity and eloquence. Once when Kerensky was paying a theatrical visit to the arrested family of the tzar, the soldiers on duty around the palace said to their commandant: “We sleep on boards, we have bad food, but Nicholashka even after he is arrested has meat to throw in the pail.” Those were not “magnanimous” words, but they expressed what the soldiers were feeling.

Breaking free of their age-old chains, the people were transgressing at every step those boundaries which educated leaders wanted to lay down for them, Towards the end of April Kerensky voiced a lament upon this subject: “Can it be that the Russian Free State is a state of slaves in revolt? ... I regret that I did not die two months ago. I should have died with the great dream,” etc. etc. With this bad rhetoric he hoped to exert an influence on the workers, soldiers, sailors, and peasants. Admiral Kolchak related subsequently before a soviet tribunal how in May the radical War Minister made the rounds of the Black Sea Fleet in order to reconcile the sailors with their officers. It seemed to the orator after each speech that the goal had been attained: “There, you see, admiral, everything is fixed ...” But nothing at all was fixed. The disintegration of the fleet was only beginning.

As time went on Kerensky’s affectations, insolence, and braggadocio more and more keenly offended the masses, During his journey around the front he once cried out irascibly to his adjutant in the railroad car – perhaps on purpose to be heard by a general: “Kick all those damned committees to hell!” Arriving on a visit to the Baltic fleet, Kerensky ordered the Sailors’ Central Committee to appear before him on the admiral’s warship. The Centrobalt, being a soviet body, was not under the war ministry and considered the order offensive. The president of the committee, the sailor Dybenko, answered: “If Kerensky wants to talk to the Centrobalt, let him come to us.” Wasn’t that an intolerable act of impudence! On the vessels where Kerensky did enter into conversation with the sailors, it went no better – especially on the warship Republic whose mood was Bolshevik. Here they questioned the minister on the following points: Why had he voted for war in the State Duma? Why had he put his signature to the imperialist note of Miliukov on the 21st of April? Why had he given the tzarist senators a pension of six thousand rubles a year? Kerensky refused to answer these “crafty” questions put to him by “foes.” The crew dryly declared the minister’s explanations ’unsatisfactory.” In a silence like the tomb Kerensky withdrew from the ship. “Slaves in revolt!” muttered the radical lawyer, grinding his teeth. But the sailors were experiencing an emotion of pride: “Yes, we were slaves and we have revolted!”

Kerensky’s high-handed treatment of democratic social opinion called out at every step semi-conflicts with the soviet leaders, who were travelling the same road but with more of a disposition to look round at the masses. Already on the 8th of March, the Executive Committee, frightened by protests from below, had warned Kerensky of the impossibility of liberating arrested policemen. A few days later the Compromisers found themselves obliged to protest against the plan of the Minister of Justice to export the tzar’s family to England. Again in two or three weeks, the Executive Committee raised the general question of a “regulation of their relations” with Kerensky, but those relations never were and never could be regulated. The same difficulties arose about his party relations, At a Social Revolutionary congress early in June, Kerensky was voted down in the elections to the party central committee, receiving 135 votes out of 270. And how the leaders did squirm in their effort to explain, both to right and left, that “many did not vote for Comrade Kerensky because he is already overloaded with work.” The fact is that, while the staff and departmental Social Revolutionaries adored Kerensky as the source of all good things, the old Social Revolutionaries bound up with the masses regarded him without confidence and without respect. But neither the Executive Committee nor the Social Revolutionary party could get along without Kerensky: He was necessary to them as the connecting link of the coalition.

In the Soviet bloc the leading rôle belonged to the Mensheviks. They invented the decisions – that is, the methods by which to avoid doing anything. But in the state apparatus the Narodniks clearly outbalanced the Mensheviks – a fact which was most obviously expressed in the dominating position of Kerensky. Half Kadet and half Social Revolutionary, Kerensky was not a representative of the soviets in the government, like Tseretelli or Chernov, but a living tie between the bourgeoisie and the democracy. Tseretelli and Chernov formed one side of the Coalition. Kerensky was a personal incarnation of the Coalition itself. Tseretelli complained of the predominance in Kerensky of ’personal motives,” not understanding that these were inseparable from his political function. Tseretelli himself as Minister of the Interior issued a circular to the effect that the commissars of the provinces ought to rely upon all the “living forces” of their locality – that is, upon the bourgeoisie and upon the soviets – and carry out the policies of the Provisional Government without surrendering to “party influences.” That ideal commissar, rising above all hostile classes and parties in order to find his whole duty in himself and in a circular – that is Kerensky on a provincial or a county scale. As a crown to this system there was needed one independent all-Russian commissar in the Winter Palace. Without Kerensky compromisism would have been like a church steeple without a cross.

The history of Kerensky’s rise is full of lessons. He became Minister of Justice thanks to the February revolution which he feared. The April demonstration of “slaves in revolt” made him Minister of War and Marine. The July struggle, caused by “German agents,” put him at the head of the government. At the beginning of September a movement of the masses will make this head of the government supreme commander-in-chief as well. The dialectic of the compromise régime, and its malicious irony, lie in the fact that the masses had to lift Kerensky to the very highest height before they could topple him over.

While contemptuously drawing away his skirts from the people who had given him power, Kerensky the more thirstily grabbed after any sign of encouragement from educated society. In the very first days of the revolution the leader of the Moscow Kadets, Doctor Kishkin, said, upon returning from Petrograd: “if it were not for Kerensky, we should not have what we have. His name will be written in golden letters on the tablets of history.” The praise of these Liberals became one of the most important political criteria for Kerensky, but he could not, and did not wish to, lay his popularity in a simple way at the feet of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, he more and more acquired a taste for seeing all classes at his own feet. “The thought of setting off and balancing against each other the government of the bourgeoisie and the democracy,” testifies Miliukov, “was not foreign to Kerensky from the very beginning of the revolution.” This course was the natural outcome of his whole life’s journey, which had run between the functions of a liberal lawyer and the underground circles. While respectfully assuring Buchanan that “the Soviet will die a natural death,” Kerensky was frightening his bourgeois colleagues at every step with the wrath of the Soviet. And on those frequent occasions when the leaders of the Executive Committee disagreed with Kerensky, he dismayed them by mentioning the most horrible of catastrophes, the resignation of the Liberals.

When Kerensky reiterated that he did not wish to be the Marat of the Russian revolution, that meant that he would refuse to take severe measures against the reaction, but not so against “anarchy.” Generally speaking, by the way, that is the moral of the opponents of violence in politics: they renounce violence when it comes to introducing changes in what already exists, but in defense of the existing order they will not stop at the most ruthless acts.

In the period of preparation for the offensive, Kerensky became the especially beloved figure of the possessing classes. Tereshchenko kept telling each and everybody how highly our Allies esteem “the labors of Kerensky.” The Kadet paper, Rech, while severe with the Compromisers, continually emphasized its favorable attitude to the War Minister. Rodzianko himself recognized that “this young man ... is reborn each day with redoubled strength for creative labor and the welfare of the fatherland.” With such remarks the Liberals were, of course, deliberately flattering Kerensky, but also they could not help seeing that in the essence he was working for them. “Imagine how it would have been,” remarked Lenin, “if Guchkov had attempted to issue orders for an offensive, to disband regiments, to arrest soldiers, to forbid congresses, to shout ‘thou’ at the soldiers, to call the soldiers ‘cowards’ etc. But Kerensky could permit himself this ‘luxury’ – only, it is true, until he had squandered that incredibly quick-melting confidence which the people had placed to his credit ...”

The offensive, while elevating Kerensky’s reputation in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, completely undermined his popularity with the people. The collapse of the offensive was in essence a collapse of Kerensky in both camps. But the striking thing is that exactly this two-sided loss of standing rendered him henceforth “irreplaceable.” As to the rôle of Kerensky in creating the second Coalition, Miliukov expresses himself thus: “the only possible man.” Not, alas: “the only man needed,” This leading liberal politician, be it remarked, never took Kerensky any too seriously, and broad circles of the bourgeoisie were more and more inclined to lay the blame on him for all the blows of fate. “The impatience of patriotically inclined groups” impelled them, according to Miliukov, to search for a strong man. At one time Admiral Kolchak was suggested for this rôle. Moreover, this installing of a strong man at the helm was “thought of in different terms from those of negotiation and compromise.” That we may easily believe. “Hopes of democracy, of the will of the people, of the Constituent Assembly,” writes Stankevich of the Kadet party, were already thrown overboard. The municipal elections throughout all Russia had given an overwhelming majority to the socialists ... and there were beginning to be convulsive reachings out for a power which should not persuade but only command.” More accurately speaking, a power which should take the revolution by the throat.


IN the biography of Kornilov, and in his personal attributes, it is easy to distinguish the traits which justified his candidacy for the post of national savior. General Martynov, who had been Kornilov’s superior in peace time, and in wartime had shared his captivity in an Austrian fortress, characterizes Kornilov as follows: “Distinguished by a sustained love of work and great self-confidence, he was in his intellectual faculties an ordinary and mediocre man, not possessed of any broad outlook.” Martynov places to the credit of Kornilov two traits: personal bravery and disinterestedness. In those circles where most people were thieving and worrying about their own skin, these qualities were striking. Of strategic ability – above all the ability to estimate a situation as a whole, both in its material and moral element – Kornilov hadn’t a trace. “Moreover he lacked organizing ability,” says Martynov, “and with his violent temper and lack of equilibrium was little fitted for planned activity.” Brussilov, who observed the entire military activity of his subordinate during the World War, spoke of him with supreme contempt: “The chief of a bold guerrilla band and nothing more ...” The official legend created around the Kornilov division was dictated by the demand of patriotic social opinion for some bright spot on the dark back ground of events. ’The forty-eighth division,” writes Martynov, “was destroyed thanks to the abominable administration ... of Kornilov himself, who ... did not know how to organize a retreat, and worst of all kept continually changing his mind and losing time ... At the last moment Kornilov abandoned to their fate the division he had led into a trap, and tried himself to escape capture. However, after four days and nights of wandering the unlucky general surrendered to the Austrians, and he only escaped some time later. “Upon his return to Russia Kornilov, in conversing with various newspaper correspondents, touched up the story of his escape with bright colors supplied by his own imagination.” We need not pause upon the prosaic corrections which well-informed witnesses have introduced into his legend. It is evident that from that moment on Kornilov began to acquire a taste for newspaper reclame.

Before the revolution Kornilov had been a monarchist of the Black Hundred tint. In captivity when reading the papers, he would frequently remark that “he would gladly hang all those Guchkovs and Miliukovs.” But political ideas occupied him, as is usual with people of his mould, only insofar as they directly affected his own person. After the February revolution Kornilov found it easy to declare himself a republican. “He was very little acquainted,” according to the report of Martynov, “with the interlacing interests of the different strata of Russian society, knew nothing either of party groups or of individual political leaders.” Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and Bolsheviks constituted for him one hostile mass which hindered the officers from commanding, the landlord from enjoying his estate, the merchant from trading, and the factory owner from producing goods.

Already on the 2nd of March, the committee of the State Duma laid hold upon General Kornilov, and over the signature of Rodzianko demanded of headquarters that this “valiant hero known to all Russia” be appointed commander-in-chief of the troops of the Petrograd district. The tzar, who had already ceased to be a tzar, wrote on Rodzianko’s telegram: “Carry out.” Thus the revolutionary capital acquired its first red general. In a report of the Executive Committee dated March 10, this phrase is applied to Kornilov: “A general of the old stripe who wants to put an end to the revolution.” In those early days, however, the general tried to put his best foot forward, and even carried out without grumbling the ritual of arresting the tzarina. That was placed to his credit. In the memoirs of Colonel Kobylinsky, however – the commander of Tzarskoe Selo appointed by him – it becomes known that Kornilov was here playing a double game. After his presentation to the tzarina, Kobylinsky guardedly relates: “Kornilov said to me: ‘Colonel, leave us alone. Go and stand outside the door.’ I went out. After about five minutes Kornilov called me. I entered. The Empress extended her hand. It is clear that Kornilov had recommended the colonel as a friend. Later on we shall hear of the embraces exchanged between the tzar and his “jailer” Kobylinsky. As an administrator Kornilov in his new position proved unspeakably bad. “His closest associates in Petrograd,” writes Stankevich, “continually complained of his incapacity to do the work or to direct it.” Kornilov lingered In the capital, however, only a short time. In the April days he attempted, not without a hint from Miliukov, to inaugurate the first blood-letting of the revolution, but ran into the opposition of the Executive Committee, resigned, was given command of an army, and afterward of the southwestern front. Without waiting for the legal introduction of the death penalty, Kornilov here gave orders to shoot deserters and set up their corpses on the road with an inscription, threatened the peasants with severe penalties for violating the proprietary rights of landlords, created shock battalions, and on every appropriate occasion shook his fist at Petrograd. This immediately surrounded his name with a halo in the eyes of the officers and the possessing classes. But many of Kerensky’s commissars, too, would say to themselves: there is no hope left but in Kornilov. In a few weeks this gallant general with a mournful experience as commander of a division, became the supreme commander-in-chief of those disintegrating armies of millions which the Entente was trying to make wage a war to complete victory.

It made Kornilov’s head swim. His narrow horizon and political ignorance rendered him an easy prey for seekers of adventure. While wilfully defending his personal prerogative, this man “with a lion’s heart and the brain of a sheep,” as Kornilov was described by General Alexeiev, and after him by Verkhovsky, submitted very easily to personal influences, if only they fell in with the voice of his ambition. Miliukov, who was friendly to Kornilov, remarks in him a “childish trust in people who knew how to flatter him.” The closest inspirer of the supreme commander was a certain Zavoiko, who followed the modest calling of orderly – an obscure figure from among the former landlords, an oil speculator, an adventurer, who especially impressed Kornilov with his pen. Zavoiko did indeed have the brisk style of the swindler who will stop at nothing. This orderly became Kornilov’s press agent, author of the People’s Biography, drawer-up of reports, ultimatums, and all those documents for which there was needed – in the words of the general – “a strong artistic style.” To Zavoiko was added another seeker of adventure, Alladin, a former deputy of the first Duma, who had spent some years abroad, who never removed an English pipe from his mouth, and therefore considered himself a specialist upon international affairs. These two men stood at Kornilov’s right hand, keeping him in touch with the centers of the counter-revolution. His left flank was covered by Savinkov and Filonenko, who employed every means to hold up the general’s exaggerated opinion of himself, and at the same time keep him from taking any premature step which might make him impossible in the eyes of the democracy. “To him came the honest and the dishonest, the sincere and the intriguing, political leaders, and military leaders, and adventurers,” writes the unctuous General Denikin, “and all with one voice cried: Save us!” It would be difficult to determine the exact proportion of the honest and the dishonest. At any rate Kornilov seriously considered himself called to “save,” and thus became a direct rival of Kerensky.


THE rivals quite sincerely hated each other. “Kerensky,” according to Martynov, “assumed a high-and-mighty tone in his relations with the older generals. A humble hard worker like Alexeiev, or the diplomatically-inclined Brussilov, could permit this treatment. But such tactics would not go down with the self-complacent and touchy Kornilov, who ... for his part looked down upon the lawyer, Kerensky.” The weaker of the two was prepared to yield, and did make serious advances. At least Kornilov told Denikin towards the end of July that a proposal had come to him from governmental circles to enter the ministry. “No sir! Those gentlemen are too bound up with the soviets ... I said to them: give me the power and then I will make a decisive fight.”

The ground was quaking under Kerensky’s feet like a peat bog. He sought a way out, as always, in the sphere of verbal improvisations: call meetings, announce, proclaim! His personal success on the 21st of July, when he had risen above the hostile camps of the democracy and the bourgeoisie in the character of the irreplaceable, suggested to Kerensky the idea of a state conference in Moscow, That which had taken place in a closed chamber of the Winter Palace would now be brought out in the open. Let the country see with its own eyes that everything will go to pieces if Kerensky does not take in his hands the reins and the whip.

According to the official list, the State Conference was to include “representatives of political, social, democratic, national, commercial, industrial, and co-operative organizations, leaders of the institutions of the democracy, the higher representatives of the army, scientific institutions, universities, and members of the four State Dumas.” About 1500 conferees were indicated, but more than 2500 assembled – the number having been enlarged wholly in the interests of the right wing. The Moscow Journal of the Social Revolutionaries wrote reproachfully about its own government: “As against 150 representatives of labor, there are 120 representatives of trade and industry; against 100 peasant deputies, 100 representatives of the landlords have been invited; against 100 representatives of the Soviet, there will be 300 members of the State Duma ...” This official paper of Kerensky’s party expressed a doubt as to whether such a conference would be able to give the government “that support which it seeks.”

The Compromisers went to the Conference gritting their teeth: We must make an honest effort, they were saying to each other, to come to an agreement. But how about the Bolsheviks? We must at whatever cost prevent them from interfering in this dialogue between the democracy and the possessing classes. By a special resolution of the Executive Committee, party factions were deprived of the right to take the floor without the consent of the præsidium. The Bolsheviks decided to make a declaration in the name of the party and walk out of the conference. The præsidium, watchful of their every movement, demanded that they abandon this criminal plan. Then the Bolsheviks unhesitatingly handed back their cards of admission. They were preparing another and more significant answer: Proletarian Moscow was to speak its word.

Almost from the first days of the revolution the partisans of law and order had on all possible occasions contrasted the peaceful “country” against tumultuous Petrograd. The convocation of the Constituent Assembly in Moscow had been one of the slogans of the bourgeoisie. The National-Liberal “Marxist,” Potressov, had sent curses to Petrograd for imagining itself to be “a new Paris.” As though the Girondists had not threatened the old Paris with thunder and lightning – had not proposed that it reduce its rôle to 1/83 of what it was! A provincial Menshevik said in June at the congress of soviets: “Some sort of place like Novocherkassk far better reflects the conditions of life in Russia than Petrograd.” In the essence of the matter the Compromisers like the bourgeoisie were seeking support, not in the actual moods of “the country,” but in consoling illusions which they themselves created. Now, when it came time to feel the actual political pulse of Moscow, a cruel disappointment awaited the initiators of the conference,

Those counter-revolutionary conferences which had followed each other in Moscow from the first days of August, beginning with a congress of landlords and ending with the Church Council, had not only mobilized the possessing circles, but had also brought the workers and soldiers to their feet. The threats of Riabushinsky, the appeals of Rodzianko, the fraternization of Kadets with Cossack generals – all this had taken place before the eyes of the lower ranks in Moscow. All this had been interpreted by Bolshevik agitators hot on the trail of the news-stories. But the danger of a counter-revolution had now taken a palpable, even a personal form. A wave of indignation ran through the shops and factories. “If the soviets are powerless,” wrote the Moscow Bolshevik paper, “the workers must unite round their own living organizations.” In the first rank of these organizations were named the trade-unions, a majority of them already under Bolshevik leadership. The mood of the factories was so hostile to the State Conference that the idea of a general strike, suggested from below, was adopted almost without opposition at a meeting of representatives of all the Moscow nuclei of the Bolshevik organization. The trade-unions had taken the initiative. The Moscow soviet by a majority of 364 against 304 voted against the strike. But since at the caucus of their factions the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary workers had voted for the strike, and were now merely submitting to party discipline, this decision of a soviet elected long ago, adopted moreover against the will of its actual majority, was far from stopping the Moscow workers. A meeting of the officers of 41 trade unions passed a resolution to call a one-day strike of protest. The district soviets, a majority of them, came out on the side of the party and the trade-unions. The factories here advanced a demand for re-elections to the Moscow soviet, which was not only lagging behind the masses, but coming into sharp conflict with them. In the Zamoskvoretsky district soviet, which met jointly with the factory committees, a demand for the recall of those deputies who had “gone against the will of the working-class” received 175 votes against 4, with 19 abstaining!

The night before the strike was, nevertheless, a bad night for the Moscow Bolsheviks. The country was indeed following in the steps of Petrograd, but lagging behind, The July demonstration had been unsuccessful in Moscow: a majority, not only of the garrison, but also of the workers had feared to go into the streets against the voice of the Soviet. How would it be this time? Morning brought the answer. The counter-efforts of the Compromisers did not prevent the strike from becoming a powerful demonstration of hostility to the Coalition and the government. Two days before, the newspaper of the Moscow industrialists had confidently declared: “Let the Petrograd government come soon to Moscow. Let them listen to the voice of the holy places, the bells and sacred towers of the Kremlin ...” Today the voice of the sacred places was drowned – by an ominous stillness.

A member of the Moscow committee of the Bolsheviks, Piatnitsky, subsequently wrote: “The strike came off magnificently. There were no lights, no tramcars; the factories and shops were closed and the railroad yards and stations; even the waiters in the restaurants had gone on strike.” Miliukov adds a sharp light to this picture: “The delegates coming to the Conference could not ride on the tramways, nor lunch in the restaurants.” This permitted them, as the liberal historian acknowledges, the better to estimate the strength of the Bolsheviks, who had not been admitted to the Conference. The Izvestia of the Moscow soviet adequately described the significance of this manifestation of August 12th. “In spite of the resolutions of the soviets ... the masses followed the Bolsheviks,” 400,000 workers went on strike in Moscow and the suburbs upon the summons of a party which for five weeks had been under continual blows, and whose leaders were still in hiding or in prison. The new Petrograd organ of the party, The Proletarian, managed before it was shut down to put a question to the Compromisers: “From Petrograd you went to Moscow – where will you go from there?”

Even the masters of the situation must have put this question to themselves. In Kiev, Kostroma, Tzaritzyn, similar one-day strikes of protest occurred, general or partial. The agitation covered the whole country. Everywhere, in the remotest corners, the Bolsheviks gave warning that the State Conference bore the “clearly marked imprint of a counter-revolutionary conspiracy.” By the end of August the meaning of this formula was disclosed before the eyes of the whole people.

The delegates to the Conference, as well as bourgeois Moscow, expected a coming-out of the masses with arms, expected clashes, battles, “August days.” But for the workers to go into the street, would have meant for them to offer themselves to the blows of the Cavaliers of St. George, the officer detachments, junkers, individual cavalry units, burning with the desire to take revenge for the strike. To summon the garrison to the street would have introduced a split, and tightened the task of the counterrevolution which stood ready with its hand on the trigger. The party did not summon them to the street, and the workers themselves, guided by a correct strategic sense, avoided any open encounter. The one-day strike perfectly corresponded to the situation. It could not be hid under a bushel, as was the declaration of the Bolsheviks at the Conference. When the city was plunged in darkness, all Russia saw the hand of the Bolsheviks at the switch-board. No, Petrograd was not isolated. “In Moscow, upon whose patriarchal humbleness so many had set their hopes, the workers’ districts suddenly showed their teeth.” Thus Sukhanov describes the significance of that day. In the absence of the Bolsheviks, but under the sign of the unfleshed teeth of the proletarian revolution, the Coalition conferees had to take their seats.

Moscow wits were saying that Kerensky had come there “to be crowned.” But the next day Kornilov arrived from headquarters with the same purpose, and was met by innumerable delegates – among them those from the Church Council. The Tekintsi leapt from the approaching train in their bright red long coats, with their naked curved swords, and drew up in two files on the platform. Ecstatic ladies sprinkled the hero with flowers as he reviewed this bodyguard and the deputations. The Kadet, Rodichev, concluded his speech of greeting with the cry: “Save Russia, and a grateful people will reward you!” Patriotic sobbings were heard. Morozova, a millionaire merchant’s wife, went down on her knees. Officers carried Kornilov out to the people on their shoulders. While the commander-in-chief was reviewing the Cavaliers of St. George, the cadets, the officers’ schools, and the Cossack squadron drawn up on the square before the station, Kerensky, in his character as rival and Minister of War, was reviewing a parade of the troops of the Moscow garrison. From the station Kornilov took his way – in the steps of the tzar – to the Ivarsky shrine, where a service was held in the presence of his escort of Mussulmen Tekintsi in their gigantic fur hats. “This circumstance,” writes the Cossack officer Grekov, “disposed believing Moscow still more favorably to Kornilov.” The counter-revolution was meanwhile trying to capture the street. Kornilov’s biography, together with his portrait, was generously scattered from automobiles, The walls were covered with posters summoning the people to the aid of the hero. Like a sovereign, Kornilov received in his private car statesmen, industrialists, financiers. Representatives of the banks made reports to him about the financial condition of the country. The Octobrist Shidlovsky significantly writes: “The only one of all the members of the Duma to visit Kornilov in his train was Miliukov, who had a conversation with him, the matter of which is unknown to me.” We shall hear later from Miliukov as much about this conversation as he himself thinks it necessary to relate.

During this time the preparations for a military insurrection were In full swing. Several days before the conference Kornilov had given orders, under pretext of going to the help of Riga, to prepare four cavalry divisions for a movement on Petrograd. The Orenburg Cossack regiment had been sent by headquarters to Moscow “to preserve order,” but at Kerensky’s command it had been held up on the way. In his subsequent testimony before an Inquiry Commission on the Kornilov affair, Kerensky said: “We were informed that during the Moscow conference a dictatorship would be declared.” Thus in those triumphant days of national unity, the War Minister and the commander-in-chief were engaged in strategic counter-maneuvers. So far as possible, however, decorum was observed. The relations between the two camps oscillated between officially friendly assurances and civil war.

In Petrograd, notwithstanding the self-restraint of the masses – the July experience having left its lesson – rumors kept coming down from above, from the staffs and editorial offices, furiously insisting upon an impending insurrection of the Bolsheviks, The Petrograd organizations of the party warned the masses in an open manifesto against possible provocatory appeals upon the part of the enemy. The Moscow soviet meanwhile took its own measures. A secret revolutionary committee was formed, consisting of six people, two from each of the soviet parties, including the Bolsheviks. A secret order was issued forbidding the formation of cordons of Cavaliers of St. George, officers, and junkers, along the line of march of Kornilov. The Bolsheviks, who had been forbidden entry into the barracks since the July Days, were now freely admitted: without them it was impossible to win over the soldiers. While in the open arena the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were negotiating with the bourgeoisie for the creation of a strong power against the masses led by the Bolsheviks, behind the scenes these same Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in co-operation with the Bolsheviks, whom they would not admit to the conference, were preparing the masses for a struggle against the conspiracy of the bourgeoisie. Although yesterday they had opposed the protest strike, today they were summoning the workers and soldiers to prepare for a struggle. The contemptuous indignation of the masses did not prevent them from responding to the summons with a fighting eagerness which frightened the Compromisers more than it pleased them. This arrant duplicity, almost amounting to an open treachery in two directions, would have been incomprehensible if the Compromisers had still been consciously carrying out their policy; as a matter of fact they were merely suffering its consequences.

Big events were clearly in the air, But apparently nobody had settled upon the days of the Conference for an overturn. At any rate no confirmation of the rumors to which Kerensky subsequently referred has been found either in documents, or in the compromisist literature, or in the memoirs of the Right Wing. It was still merely a matter of getting ready. According to Miliukov – and his testimony coincides with the further development of events – Kornilov himself had already before the Conference chosen the date for his action: August 27. This date of course was known to but few. The half-informed, however, as always in such circumstances, kept advancing the day of the great event, and rumors forerunning it poured in upon the authorities from all sides. It seemed from moment to moment as though the blow would fall.

Indeed, the very mood of excitement among the bourgeois and officer circles in Moscow might have led, if not to an attempted overturn, at least to counter-revolutionary manifestations designed as a test of power. Still more probable would have been an attempt to create out of the members of the Conference some sort of center for the salvation of the fatherland in competition with the soviets. The right press had spoken openly of this. But things did not even go that far: the masses prevented it, Even if perhaps some had cherished the thought of hastening the decisive hour, the strike compelled them to pause and say to themselves: We cannot catch the revolution unawares; the workers and soldiers are on their guard; we must postpone action. Even that universal popular procession to the Ivarsky shrine which had been planned by the priests and Liberals in agreement with Kornilov, was called off.

As soon as it became clear that there was no immediate danger, the Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks hastened to pretend that nothing special had happened. They even refused to continue admitting Bolsheviks into the barracks, although the barracks insistently continued to demand Bolshevik orators. “The Moor has done his duty,” Tseretelli and Dan and Khinchuk, president of the Moscow soviet, must have said to each other with a foxy smile. But the Bolsheviks had not the slightest intention of falling into the position of the Moor. They were stilt only intending to carry their work through to the end.


EVERY class society has need of unity in the governmental will. The dual power is in its essence a régime of social crisis signifying an utter dividedness of the nation. It contains within itself potential or actual civil war. Nobody any longer wanted the dual power. On the contrary, all were searching for a strong, single-minded, “iron” government. The July government of Kerensky had been endowed with unlimited powers. The design had been by common consent to establish above the democracy and the bourgeoisie, who were paralyzing each other, a “real” sovereign power. This idea of a master of destiny rising above all classes, is nothing but Bonapartism. If you stick two forks into a cork symmetrically, it will, under very great oscillations from side to side, keep its balance even on a pin point: that is the mechanical model of the Bonapartist superarbiter. The degree of solidity of such a power, setting aside international conditions, is determined by the stability of equilibrium of the two antagonistic classes within the country. In the middle of May at a session of the Petersburg soviet, Trotsky had defined Kerensky as “the mathematical center of Russian Bonapartism.” The immateriality of this description shows that it was not a question of personality but of function. At the beginning of July, as you will remember, all the ministers, acting upon instructions from their parties, had resigned in order to permit Kerensky to form a government. On the 21st of July this experiment was repeated in a more demonstrative form. The two hostile camps invoked Kerensky, each seeing in him a part of itself, and both swearing fealty to him. Trotsky wrote while in prison: “Led by politicians who are afraid of their own shadow, the Soviet did not dare take the power. The Kadet party, representing all the propertied cliques, could not yet seize the power. It remained to find a great conciliator, a mediator, a court of arbitration.”

In a manifesto to the people issued by Kerensky in his own name, he declared: “I, as head of the government ... consider that I have no right to hesitate if the changes (in the structure of the government) increase my responsibility in the matters of supreme administration.” That is the unadulterated phraseology of Bonapartism. But nevertheless, although supported from both right and left, it never got beyond phraseology. What is the reason for this?

In order that the Little Corsican might lift himself above a young bourgeois nation, it was necessary that the revolution should already have accomplished its fundamental task – the transfer of land to the peasants – and that a victorious army should have been created on the new social foundation. In the 18th century a revolution had no farther to go: it could only from that point recoil and go backward. In this recoil, however, its fundamental conquests were in danger. They must be defended at any cost. The deepening but still very immature antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat kept the nation, shaken as it was to its foundations, in a state of extreme tension. A national “judge” was in those conditions indispensable. Napoleon guaranteed to the big bourgeois the possibility to get rich, to the peasants their pieces of land, to the sons of peasants and the hoboes a chance for looting in the wars. The judge held a sword in his hand and himself also fulfilled the duties of bailiff. The Bonapartism of the first Bonaparte was solidly founded.

The revolution of 1848 did not give the peasants the land, and could not do so. That was not a great revolution, replacing one social régime with another, but a political re-shuffle within the framework of the same social régime. Napoleon III did not have under him a victorious army. The two chief elements of classical Bonapartism were thus lacking. But there were other favorable conditions, and no less real, The proletariat, which had been maturing for half a century, showed its threatening force in June, but was incapable of seizing the power. The bourgeoisie feared the proletariat and its own bloody victory over them. The peasant proprietors feared the June insurrection, and wanted the state to protect them from those who wished to divide the land. And finally a powerful industrial boom, extending with slight moments of lull over two decades, had opened before the bourgeoisie unheard of sources of wealth. These conditions proved sufficient for an epigone Bonapartism.

In the policies of Bismarck, who also stood “above classes,” there were, as has been often pointed out, indubitable Bonapartist elements, although disguised by legitimism. The stability of the Bismarck régime was guaranteed by the fact that, having arisen after an impotent revolution, it offered a solution, or a half-solution, of such a mighty national problem as the unification of Germany. It brought victory in three wars, indemnities, and a mighty up-growth of capitalism. That was enough to last several decades.

The misfortune of the Russian candidates for Bonaparte lay not at all in their dissimilarity to the first Napoleon, or even to Bismarck. History knows how to make use of substitutes, But they were confronted by a great revolution which had not yet solved its problems or exhausted its force The bourgeoisie was trying to compel the peasant, still without land, to fight for the estates of the landlords. The war had given nothing but defeats. There was not the shadow of an industrial boom; on the contrary the breakdown of industry was producing ever new devastations. If the proletariat had retreated, it was only to close up its ranks. The peasantry were only drawing back for their last assault upon the lords. The oppressed nationalities were assuming the offensive against a Russifying despotism. in search of peace, the army was coming closer and closer to the workers and their party. The lower ranks were uniting, the upper weakening. There was no equilibrium. The revolution was still full-blooded. No wonder Bonapartism proved anaemic.

Marx and Engels compared the rôle of a Bonapartist régime in the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, with the rôle of the old absolute monarchy in the struggle between the feudal lords and the bourgeoisie. Traits of similarity are indubitable, but they stop just where the social content of the power begins to appear. The rôle of court of arbitration between the elements of the old and the new society was possible at a certain period owing to the fact that the two exploiting régimes both needed defense against the exploited. But between feudal lords and peasant serfs no “impartial” mediation was possible. While reconciling the interests of the landlords to those of a youthful capitalism, the tzarist autocracy functioned in relation to the peasants, not as a mediator, but as an authorized representative of the exploiting classes.

Similarly Bonapartism was not a court of arbitration between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It was in reality the most concentrated dominion of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. Having climbed up with his boots on the neck of the people, whatever Bonaparte happened to come along could not fail to adopt a policy of protection of property, rent and profits. The peculiarities of a régime do not go beyond its means of defense. The watchman does not now stand at the gate, but sits on the roof of the house, yet his function is the same. The independence of Bonapartism is to an enormous degree external, decorative, a matter of show. Its appropriate symbol was the mantle of the emperor.

While skilfully exploiting the fear of the bourgeoisie before the workers, Bismarck remained in all his political and social reforms the unchanging plenipotentiary of the possessing classes, whom he never betrayed. Nevertheless, the growing pressure of the proletariat indubitably permitted him to rise above the Junkerdom, and the capitalists in the quality of a weighty bureaucratic arbiter: that was his essential function.

The soviet régime permits a very considerable independence of the government in relation to proletariat and peasantry, and consequently a “mediation” between them insofar as their interests, although giving rise to debates and conflicts, remain fundamentally reconcilable. But it would not be easy to find an “impartial” court of arbitration between the soviet state and a bourgeois state, at least so far as concerns the fundamental interests of each. On the international arena the Soviet Union is prevented from adhering to the League of Nations by those same social causes which within the national borders make impossible anything but a pretended “impartiality” of any government In the struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat.

While lacking the force of Bonapartism, Kerenskyism had all its vices. It lifted itself above the nation only to demoralize the nation with its own impotence. Whereas in words the leaders of the bourgeoisie and the democracy promised to “obey” Kerensky, in reality Kerensky, the omnipotent arbiter, obeyed Miliukov – and more especially Buchanan. Kerensky waged the imperialist war, protected the landlord’s property from attack, and postponed social reforms to happier days. If his government was weak, this was for the same reason that the bourgeoisie in general could not get its people into power. However, with all the insignificance of the “government of salvation” its conservatively capitalistic character grew manifestly with the growth of its “independence.”

Their understanding that the régime of Kerensky was the inevitable form of bourgeois rulership for the given period, did not prevent the bourgeois politicians from being extremely dissatisfied with Kerensky, nor from preparing to get rid of him as quickly as possible. There was no disagreement among the possessing classes that the national arbiter put forward by the petty bourgeois democracy must be opposed by a figure from their own ranks. But why Kornilov, exactly? Because the candidate for Bonaparte must correspond to the character of the Russian bourgeoisie. He must be backward, isolated from the people, ungifted, and on the decline. In an army which had seen almost nothing but humiliating defeats, it was not easy to find a popular general. Kornilov was arrived at by a process of elimination of other candidates still less suitable.

Thus the Compromisers and Liberals could neither seriously unite in a coalition, nor agree upon a single candidate for savior. They were prevented from doing so by the uncompleted tasks of the revolution. The Liberals did not trust the democrats, the democrats did not trust the Liberals. Kerensky, it is true, opened his arms wide to the bourgeoisie, but Kornilov made it clearly understood that at the first opportunity he would twist the neck of the democracy. The clash between Kornilov and Kerensky, inevitably resulting from the preceding development, was a translation of the contradictions of the dual power into the explosive language of personal ambition.

Just as in the midst of the Petrograd proletariat and garrison there was formed, toward the beginning of July, an impatient wing dissatisfied with the too cautious policy of the Bolsheviks, so among the possessing classes there accumulated, towards the beginning of August, an impatience of the watchful – waiting policy of the Kadet leaders. This mood expressed itself, for example, at the Kadet congress, where demands were voiced for the overthrow of Kerensky. A still keener political impatience was to be seen outside the framework of the Kadet party – in the military staffs where they lived in continual dread of the soldiers, in the banks where they were drowning in the waters of inflation, in the manors of the landlords where the roofs were burning over the heads of the nobility. “Long live Kornilov!” became a slogan of hope, of despair, and of thirst for revenge.

While agreeing throughout to the program of Kornilov, Kerensky quarrelled about the date: “We cannot do everything at once.” While recognizing the necessity of getting rid of Kerensky, Miliukov answered his impatient followers: “It is still, I suggest, a little too soon.” Just as out of the eagerness of the Petrograd masses arose the semi-insurrection of July, so out of the impatience of the property owners arose the Kornilov insurrection of August. And just as the Bolsheviks found themselves obliged to take the side of an armed insurrection, in order if possible to guarantee its success, and in any case to prevent its extermination, so the Kadets found themselves obliged, for like purposes, to take part in the Kornilov insurrection. Within these limits, there is an astonishing symmetry in the two situations. But inside this symmetrical framework there is a complete contrast of goals, methods and results. It will develop fully in the course of the coming events.


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Last updated on: 25 December 2014