The Spark

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

Russian Revolution:
The July Days

Jul 17, 2017

This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, taken from the words of participants.

As Trotsky writes, “The demonstration of June 18th had revealed to everybody that the government was without support. ‘Why don’t they get busy up there?’ the soldiers and workers would ask, having in mind not only the compromise leaders but also the governing bodies of the Bolsheviks.” However, the Bolsheviks thought that an insurrection of the proletariat would be premature. Outside of Petrograd and Moscow, the masses had not become entirely conscious of the stalemate to which the opportunist policy of the SRs and Mensheviks had led. Therefore, the Bolsheviks struggled to contain Petrograd's impatience.

“On the morning of July 3rd, several thousand machine-gunners, after breaking up a meeting of the company and regimental committees of their regiment, elected a chairman of their own and demanded immediate consideration of the question of an armed manifestation.” A worker from the Renault factory recounts: “After dinner, a number of machine gun men came running with the request that we give them some motor trucks. … They promptly loaded the trucks with ‘Maxims’ (machine guns) and drove down the Nevsky. At this point we could no longer restrain our workers.” At the Putilov Factory, “to shouts of encouragement, the machine-gunners told how they had received an order to go to the front on the 4th of July, but they had decided ‘to go not to the German front, against the German proletariat, but against their own capitalist ministers.’”

The Bolshevik worker Shliapnikov also reports: “Workers converged from all sides on the Bolshoi Sampsonievsky Prospekt, forming a crowd of demonstrators over ten thousand strong. Revolutionary songs began, red banners and kerchiefs were waved. The police locked themselves up in their station. Speakers got up appealing for armed struggle and the overthrow of czarism. Trams in the Vyborg district were halted and for over an hour workers moved through the streets to the sound of revolutionary songs.”

Repeated clashes with the police and the cossacks did not discourage the demonstrators. Trotsky writes: “By seven o’clock, the industrial life of the capital was at a complete standstill. Factory after factory came out, lined up and armed its detachment of the Red Guard.”

For their part, the Bolsheviks decided not to simply allow the repression to pour down on the workers and soldiers, but to take the head of the demonstrations that would take place the following day, which strengthened the confidence of all.

The Role of the Bolshevik Party

On July 4th, a half-million people took part in an armed demonstration: “The ‘mutinous’ troops came out of the barracks in companies and battalions, taking possession of the streets and squares,” Trotsky writes. “Today’s movement was more impressive and organized than yesterday’s: the guiding hand of the party was evident. But the feeling too was hotter today. The soldiers and workers were out for a solution of the crisis.”

It wasn't long before provocations began to break out. “Merchants furiously attacked the workers in those parts of the town where they felt strong, and ruthlessly beat them up.” Machine gun shots fired from windows fell on the procession. Cossacks charged the crowd. Among the Kronstadt sailors, the Bolshevik Raskolnikov recounts: “The soldiers seized their rifles. Disorderly firing began in all directions. Several were killed and wounded. … The procession again moved forward with music, but not a trace was left of its holiday spirit.” Trotsky adds: “Rifles no longer rested peacefully on the left shoulder, but were held ready for action.”

However, the demonstrators soon realized that they were in an impossible situation. Trotsky writes: “The masses ebbed back into the suburbs, and they cherished no intention of renewing the struggle on the following day. They felt that the problem of ‘Power to the Soviets’ was considerably more complicated than had appeared. … Many still cherished the illusion that everything could be obtained by words and demonstrations – that by frightening the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries you could get them to carry out a common policy with the Bolsheviks.”

The Proletariat Lost a Battle But Was Not Defeated

On July 5th, the troops ransacked the editorial office of Pravda, the Bolshevik newspaper. On the morning of the 6th, while work was gradually resuming, “A young worker, Voinov, who was distributing the Pravda Leaflet, published in place of the destroyed Bolshevik paper, was killed in the streets …. The elements of the reaction, the Black Hundreds, were acquiring a taste for the putting down of revolts. Plundering, violence, and in some places shooting continued in different parts of the city.”

Nevertheless, the Bolshevik Party, by taking the head of the Petrograd proletariat, was able to avoid the worst. The proletariat had lost a battle, but its forces were for the most part intact. Trotsky concludes: “The value of a close-knit vanguard was first fully manifested in the July Days, when the party – at great cost – defended the proletariat from defeat, and safeguarded its own future revolution.”

For the bourgeoisie, the July Days were supposed to be the prelude to crushing the revolutionary proletariat. For the proletariat, they were to be the prelude to its seizure of power four months later, in October.