How Kornilov was defeated

July 12, 2013

Jen Roesch describes one of the decisive turning points in the 1917 revolution.

THE BOLSHEVIKS' popularity grew through late July and August. By its Sixth Congress that began July 26, the party claimed 240,000 members.

This popularity was fed by the growing sentiment that the second coalition government, led by Alexander Kerensky, wasn't prepared to defend the revolution against the right. Kerensky was viewed as too conciliatory to the generals and the capitalists. Many saw the soviets themselves as compromised and weak, as Kerensky took more power into his own hands.

Bolshevik resolutions began to be passed in the soviets. Peasant seizures of land increased. Soldiers continued to desert in large numbers, and the militancy of Russia's factory workers grew.

These developments deeply worried both the liberals and conservatives among the capitalist class, the officers and the landowners. Many had hoped an alliance of the moderate parties could constrain and channel the revolution into the formation of a stable bourgeois government. But these forces, too, were becoming impatient, and began to look to a military solution.

Their view was stated simply by Pavel Milyukov, the leader of the Kadets. He told his party's central committee, "We should no longer commit ourselves to the revolution. Quite the opposite: we need to prepare and accumulate the strength to fight it."

Kerensky found himself in a difficult position. He feared that attempts at repression would only draw the masses back into the streets and threaten to bring down the government. At the same time, he couldn't unite his government around a reform program that could blunt the anger of the workers, soldiers and peasants.

So he attempted a difficult balancing act. Kerensky found himself increasingly isolated. On one side stood the Bolsheviks, who increasingly spoke for the mass of workers and soldiers. On the other was the capitalists, officers and landowners, who were rapidly turning their back on his government.

THESE DYNAMICS were revealed with great clarity at the Moscow State Conference, held August 12-14, which Kerensky had called as a consultative body designed to rally support.

The Russian Revolution

In 2007, Socialist Worker marked the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 with a yearlong series outlining its course and consequences.

The Bolsheviks called for a general strike to protest the conference. Though narrowly opposed by the Moscow soviet, the strike was still enormously successful. A member of the Bolsheviks' Moscow Committee recorded that "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 confirmed: "The delegates coming to the Conference could not ride on the tramways, nor lunch in the restaurants."

As Leon Trotsky described: "In spite of the resolutions of the soviets...the masses followed the Bolsheviks. Four hundred thousand 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."

Inside the conference, the forces of the right dominated. Gen. Kornilov emerged as the leading figure around which the right-wing forces were gathering.

Kerensky himself had appointed Kornilov commander of the armed forces in early July. Kornilov had attracted the attention of the right when he re-imposed the death penalty in the army. He also sought to extend harsh measures away from the front lines, calling for martial law in the factories, railways and the mines.

Kornilov was rightly seen by the masses as the face of counter-revolution. Kerensky had embraced Kornilov's strict measures within the military, but shied away from a full assault on the soviets, which is what Kornilov's program would have amounted to.

Kerensky departed the conference isolated and dejected. As a result, he moved away from the road of the middle ground. On August 17, he gave the order for Kornilov's demands to be implemented.

This set the stage for a confrontation between the forces of the revolution and those of the counter-revolution.

Kornilov began to station his forces on the road to the capital of Petrograd, with Kerensky's approval. At the last moment, however, Kerensky belatedly realized that Kornilov's victory would mean not only the defeat of the Bolsheviks, but also of his own government.

On August 27, he issued a proclamation announcing that Kornilov was moving against Petrograd with the aim of establishing a dictatorship. He demanded that Kornilov immediately resign his post. He then shut himself behind closed doors with advisers and demanded power to form an all-powerful six-man directory.

AMONG THE masses, a different process was unfolding: the practical defense of Petrograd through a popular mobilization.

On August 27, the soviet executive committee met all night. It discussed two questions: what position to take on Kerensky's government given his obvious collusion with Kornilov and the defense of Petrograd. The executive committee formed a military defense body, the Committee for Struggle against the Counter-Revolution.

Whether or not the Bolsheviks would form an alliance with the parties that had persecuted and jailed them was a decisive question. The Menshevik Sukhanov explained:

The committee, making defense preparations, had to mobilize the worker-soldier masses. But the masses, insofar as they were organized, were organized by the Bolsheviks and followed them. At that time, theirs was the only organization that was large, welded together by an elementary discipline, and linked with the democratic lowest levels of the capital. Without it, the committee was impotent.

Without the Bolsheviks, it could only have passed the time with appeals and idle speeches by orators who had lost their authority. With the Bolsheviks, the committee had at its disposal the full power of the organized workers and soldiers.

In a letter written while in hiding, Lenin advised the Bolsheviks: "We shall fight, we are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky's troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness. There is the difference...the war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in."

However sharp and clear these guidelines, the fact is that they arrived after the crisis had passed. In the intervening days, the Bolsheviks and the working class of Petrograd had thrown themselves into the struggle.

With the official government paralyzed, the Committee for Struggle became the command center for the defense of Petrograd. To this was joined an extraordinary mobilization of the masses from below. Ad-hoc revolutionary committees sprang up everywhere. Between August 27 and 30, more than 240 were created across Russia. Local organizations led the fight in every arena.

The Bolsheviks demanded the arming of the workers and formed workers' militias. Lines of workers signed up to become "Red Guards," and the Bolshevik Military Organization took the lead in their training and deployment. Unarmed workers dug trenches, erected barbed wire fencing around the approaches to the city and built barricades.

At the Putilov works, workers labored through the night to finish construction of weapons that were then sent to the field without testing. Metal workers accompanied the weapons to the field and adjusted them on the spot.

The railway and telegraph workers played a particularly decisive role. Trotsky writes:

The railroad workers in those days 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...The telegraphers also held up the orders of Kornilov. Information unfavorable to the Kornilovists was immediately multiplied, distributed, pasted up, passed from mouth to mouth.

As Trotsky commented, "The generals had been accustomed during the years of war to think of transport and communications as technical questions. They found out now that these were political questions."

Teams of agitators were sent out to argue with Kornilov's troops. Many of the soldiers had not been told why they were being sent towards Petrograd, and they turned on their officers. In one division, the troops raised a red flag inscribed "Land and Freedom" and arrested their officer.

WITHIN FOUR days, the Kornilov plot had collapsed. His forces disintegrated as the workers and soldiers again took the center stage of revolution. Trotsky explained the astonishing collapse of the coup:

Their number seemed enormous to judge by telegrams, speeches of greeting, newspaper articles. But strange to say, now when the hour had come to reveal themselves, they had disappeared.

In many cases, the cause did not lie in personal cowardice. There were plenty of brave men among the Kornilov officers. But their bravery could find no point of application. From the moment the masses got into motion, the solitary individual had no access to events. Not only the weighty industrialists, bankers, professors, engineers, but also students and even fighting officers, found themselves pushed away, thrown aside, elbowed out. They watched the events developing before them as though from a balcony.

The historian Alexander Rabinowitch described the defense of Petrograd against Kornilov as a spontaneous mass upheaval, "It would be difficult to find, in recent history, a more powerful, effective display of largely spontaneous and unified mass political action," he wrote.

Trotsky, too, describes the moment as one in which the mass, democratic character of the revolution was regenerated:

The lower soviet organizations in their turn did not await any summons from above. The principal effort was concentrated in the workers' districts. During the hours of greatest vacillation in the government, and of wearisome negotiations between the executive committee and Kerensky, the district soviets were drawing more closely together and passing resolutions: to declare the inter-district conferences continuous; to place their representatives in the staff organized by the executive committee; to form a workers' militia; to establish the control of the district soviets over the government commissars; to organize flying brigades for the detention of counter-revolutionary agitators.

In the total, these resolutions meant an appropriation not only of very considerable governmental functions, but also of the functions of the Petrograd soviet. The logic of the situation compelled the soviet institutions to draw in their skirts and make room for the lower ranks. The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction.

Again, the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organization was revealed. Although paralyzed above by the leadership of the compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment, under pressure from the masses.

But within this "spontaneous" uprising, it was revealed that the Bolshevik organizers were prepared to take the initiative to defend the revolution. As working-class leaders, they played a key role in uniting workers and soldiers in the defense of the city.

Trotsky records that "everywhere, committees for revolutionary defense were organized, into which the Bolsheviks entered only as a minority. This did not hinder the Bolsheviks from assuming the leading role...They smashed down the barriers blocking them from the Menshevik workers and especially from the Socialist Revolutionary soldiers, and carried them along in their wake."

When a group of sailors visited Trotsky and other imprisoned revolutionaries, they asked if it was not time to arrest Kerensky. "No, not yet," was the answer. "Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward, we will settle with Kerensky."

With the defeat of Kornilov, a radicalized and mobilized working class confronted the question of the direction and aims of the revolution. Throughout the crisis, the Bolsheviks had never stopped pointing out that it was Kerensky who had paved the way for Kornilov. Many workers and soldiers saw with their own eyes that it was the Bolsheviks who had most resolutely and energetically defended the city.

On September 1, the day when Kornilov was arrested, the Petrograd Soviet of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies adopted a resolution calling for a transfer of power to the revolutionary proletariat and peasants, and the proclamation of a democratic republic. The stage was set for the next and final stage of the revolution.

This article first appeared in the September 7, 2007, edition of Socialist Worker.

Further Reading

From the archives