The Spark

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

August-September:
Kornilov’s Failed Putsch

Sep 4, 2017

This article continues our series on the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The workers in Petrograd rise up to protect their revolution.

General Kornilov, whom Kerensky had promoted to head of the armed forces, proclaimed himself to be the savior of Holy Russia, hoping to establish a personal dictatorship and put an end to the revolution. And Kerensky, knowing what awaited him, saw no other way out than to appeal to the support of the proletariat of the capital and its organizations, including the Bolshevik Party. Without waiting, the Kronstadt sailors, who had disembarked in Petrograd to confront the fearsome Cossacks of the Savage Division, started by freeing Trotsky and other leaders of the Bolshevik Party from prison. In 48 hours, these leaders would coordinate a general strike and a mobilization of the soviets against the coup d'état. The U.S. journalist Albert Rhys Williams recounts this in his first-hand account Through the Russian Revolution:

“The bourgeoisie backed by the Allies and the General Staff were equally determined that the war should go on. Continuing the war would give three things to the bourgeoisie: (1) It would continue to give them enormous profits out of army contracts. (2) In case of victory it would give them, as their share in the loot, the Straits and Constantinople. (3) It would give them a chance of staving off the ever more insistent demands of the masses for land and factories.

They were following the wisdom of Catherine the Great who said: ‘The way to save our empire from the encroachment of the people is to engage in war and thus substitute national passions for social aspirations.’ Now the social aspirations of the Russian masses were endangering the bourgeois empires of land and capital. But if the war could go on, the day of reckoning with the masses would be postponed. The energies absorbed in carrying on the war could not be used in carrying on the Revolution. ‘On with the war to a victorious end!’ became the rallying cry of the bourgeoisie.

But the Kerensky government no longer could control the soldiers. They no longer responded to the eloquence of this romantic man of words. The bourgeoisie set out to find a Man of the Sword. … ‘Russia must have a strong man who will tolerate no revolutionary nonsense, but who will rule with an iron hand,’ they said. ‘Let us have a Dictator.’

For their Man on Horseback they picked the Cossack General, Kornilov. At the conference in Moscow, he had won the hearts of the bourgeoisie by calling for a policy of blood and iron. On his own initiative he had introduced capital punishment in the army. With machine guns he had destroyed battalions of refractory soldiers and placed their stiffened corpses in rows along the fences. He declared that only drastic medicine of this kind could cure the ills of Russia.

On September 9th [August 27th by our calendar], Kornilov issued a proclamation declaring: ‘Our great country is dying. Under pressure of the Bolshevik majority in the Soviet, the Kerensky government is acting in complete accord with the plans of the German General Staff. Let all who believe in God and the temples pray to the Lord to manifest the miracle of saving our native land.’ He drew 70,000 picked troops from the front. Many of them were Muslims – his Turkoman bodyguard, his Tartar horsemen, and Circassian mountaineers. On the hilts of their swords, the officers swore that when Petrograd was taken, the atheist Socialists would be forced to finish building the great mosque or be shot. With airplanes, British armored cars, and the blood-thirsty Savage Division, he advanced on Petrograd in the name of God and Allah.

But he did not take it.

In the name of the Soviets and the Revolution, the masses rose as one man to the defense of the capital. Kornilov was declared a traitor and an outlaw. Arsenals were opened and guns put in the hands of the workingmen. Red Guards patrolled the streets, trenches were dug, barricades hastily erected. Muslim Socialists rode into the Savage Division and in the name of Marx and Mohammed exhorted the mountaineers not to advance against the Revolution. Their pleas and arguments prevailed. The forces of Kornilov melted away and the ‘Dictator’ was captured without firing a single shot. The bourgeoisie were depressed as the White Hope of the Counter-Revolution went down so easily before the blows of the Revolution.

The proletarians were correspondingly elated. They saw the strength and unity of their forces.

They felt anew the solidarity binding together all sections of the toiling masses. Trench and factory acclaimed one another. Soldiers and workingmen paid special tribute to the sailors for the big part they played in this affair.”

The demonstration had been made: in order to save the revolution, it was necessary to quickly put an end to the power of the bourgeoisie, concentrating power in the hands of the working class and the poor peasants.