The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

April 20-21:
The Workers’ First Clash with the Counter-Revolution

Apr 24, 2017

In the middle of April, two months after the revolution of February 1917, demonstrations against the war began. These were motivated by opposition to the declarations of Miliukov, a liberal minister, in favor of Russia’s conquest of Constantinople. By this time, a fraction of the working class, behind the Bolshevik Party, began to think about the overthrow of the Provisional Government, while the bourgeoisie and its supporters mobilized their forces to defend it. This is how Trotsky described the events of April 20 (May 3 by our calendar):

“Today the Petrograd Committee of the Bolsheviks had called for the demonstration. In spite of the counter-agitation of the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, immense masses of workers advanced to the center from the Vyborg side, and later too from other districts. The Executive Committee sent to meet the demonstrators their most authoritative pacifiers with Chkeidze (one of the leaders of the Mensheviks) at their head. But the workers firmly intended to speak their word - and they had a word to speak. A well-known liberal journalist described in Rech this demonstration of workers on the Nevsky: ‘About a hundred armed men marched in front; after them solid phalanxes of unarmed men and women, a thousand strong. Living chains on both sides. Songs. Their faces amazed me. All those thousands had but one face, the stunned ecstatic face of the early Christian monks. Implacable, pitiless, ready for murder, inquisition, and death.’ The liberal journalist had looked the workers’ revolution in the eye, and felt for a second its intense determination....

“Today as yesterday the demonstrators did not come out to overthrow the government, although a majority of them, we may guess, had already seriously thought about this problem....”

In response, the regime mobilized its own forces on April 21: “The Nevsky, the chief artery of the bourgeoisie, was converted into a solid Kadet meeting. A considerable demonstration headed by the members of the Kadet Central Committee marched to the Mariinsky Palace (seat of the government). Everywhere could be seen brand-new placards, fresh from the sign-painters: ‘Full Confidence to the Provisional Government!” “Long Live Miliukov!” The ministers looked like guests of honor. They had their own ‘people,’ and this was the more noticeable since emissaries of the Soviet were doing their utmost to help them, dispersing revolutionary meetings, steering workers’ and soldiers’ demonstrations towards the suburbs, and restraining the barracks and factories from going out.

“Under the flag of defense of the government, the first open and broad mobilization of counter-revolutionary forces took place. In the center of the town appeared trucks with armed officers, cadets and students. The Cavaliers of St. George were sent out. The gilded youth organized a mock trial on the Nevsky, establishing on the spot the existence of both Leninists and of ‘German spies.’ There were skirmishes and casualties. The first bloody encounter began, according to reports, with an attempt of officers to snatch from the workers a banner with a slogan against the Provisional Government. The encounters became more and more fierce; shots were interchanged, and towards afternoon they became almost continuous. Nobody knew exactly who was shooting or why, but there were already victims of this disorderly shooting, partly malicious, partly the result of panic....

“No, that day was not in the least like a manifestation of national unity. Two worlds stood face to face. The patriotic columns called into the streets against the workers and soldiers by the Kadet Party consisted exclusively of the bourgeois layers of the population – officers, officials, intelligentsia. Two human floods – one for Constantinople, one for Peace – had issued from different parts of town.”