At the beginning of September 1917 the commander of the Russian Army, general Lavr Kornilov, tried to crush the revolution.
If his coup had succeeded it would have been a bloodbath. Its failure owes a lot to revolutionary strategy, and paved the way to the October Revolution when workers seized power.
They hoped to win an exit from the carnage of the First World War and their exploitation by the rich.
But the new Provisional Government, though led by Alexander Kerensky of the Socialist Revolutionary party and backed by most of the left, continued the war and the bosses’ rule.
It coexisted uneasily with new soviets—workers’ councils with a power of their own.
Frustrated by Kerensky, many workers started looking to the Bolsheviks, the one party that called for an end to the war, seizing the land from the landlords and tearing down capitalism.
Kerensky responded in July by jailing or driving underground the Bolshevik leadership, smearing them as German spies and banning their newspaper.
But even his betrayal of the revolution wasn’t enough for Russia’s rich or their imperialist allies. They feared their official enemy, Germany’s ruler kaiser Wilhelm, less than they did the workers of Russia.
Socialist journalist John Reed described a dinner party before the coup.
“During tea we asked the eleven people at the table whether they preferred ‘Wilhelm or the Bolsheviki’,” he wrote. “The vote was ten to one for Wilhelm.”
Shaken by the revolution, many would be satisfied by nothing short of the violent liquidation of the class that led it.
The British spy Albert Stopford wrote in his diary, “We shall have to wade in blood before the liberation of Russia is to be attained.”
Kerensky sought to cut a deal with these reactionaries. But they allowed no compromise, and his efforts merely sealed his own fate.
He installed Kornilov as the leader of the armed forces in June. Shortly before the coup, with rumours flying, he promoted a general known to be sympathetic to Kornilov.
Kerensky wasn’t being naive. He was in on the plot.
He too wanted to be rid of the revolutionary movement and the Bolsheviks. He thought the coup plotters could help him do that, and would need him at the head of their future regime.
Kerensky even boasted of turning down offers to lead the coup himself, revealing the level of communication between him and the right wing generals.
A major military defeat provided Kornilov with the pretext to act. The German army took the city of Riga on 1 September.
Under the cover of retreat, Kornilov sent generals loyal to him to “training sessions” away from the front to brief. On 8 September he declared his break from the government.
Initially the Provisional Government issued orders that Kornilov must be obeyed.
But the affair exposed the government’s weakness. It had self-declared authority, but by now little else. Kornilov had no reason to work with it, and it had no means to resist him.
The soviets, and the workers behind them, held real power.
But Kerensky had exhausted his credibility with workers and soldiers, and couldn’t mobilise them without the help of other left parties.
Once it became clear that Kornilov wasn’t interested in sharing power, Kerensky appealed to the left parties to join the Provisional Government and fight to defeat Kornilov.
The Bolsheviks were able to operate in the open once again.
Their strategy, under the leadership of Lenin, was one of the earliest examples of what is known as the united front.
Lenin wrote to the Bolshevik Central Committee on 12 September, “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.”
The Bolsheviks united with Kerensky and those loyal to him against Kornilov, but maintained their political independence and their opposition to his rule. Both sides of this were crucial.
On the one hand, they couldn’t throw their support behind Kerensky as a “lesser evil”. This would strengthen one of their mortal enemies, and undermine the struggle against the war and the bosses after the coup.
It would also undermine their own credibility with militant workers, who only looked to the Bolsheviks because they offered an alternative to Kerensky’s betrayals.
On the other hand, rotten as Kerensky was, they couldn’t dismiss the threat of Kornilov. A successful coup would be a terrible defeat for the whole working class.
And large sections of the working class were still loyal to the Provisional Government. They weren’t ready to join a Bolshevik-led offensive against both Kornilov and Kerensky—yet.
Lenin saw that by organising a united front, the Bolsheviks could both defeat the coup and increase their influence within the working class at the expense of Kerensky’s.
Leon Trotsky, a leading socialist who had recently joined the Bolsheviks, explained this to revolutionary sailors who visited him in jail.
“Isn’t it time to arrest the government?” they asked.
“No, not yet,” Trotsky replied. “Use Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov. Afterward we will settle with Kerensky.”
Lenin wrote, “We are changing the form of our struggle against Kerensky.
“Without in the least relaxing our hostility towards him, without taking back a single word said against him, without renouncing the task of overthrowing him, we say that we must take into account the present situation.
“The war against Kornilov must be conducted in a revolutionary way, by drawing the masses in, by arousing them, by inflaming them”.
Even the Bolsheviks’ political opponents on the left recognised the key role they played—and the respect this earned them among workers.
Nikolai Sukhanov of the pro-government Menshevik party wrote, “The Bolsheviks were working stubbornly and without let-up. They were among the masses, at the factory benches, every day without a pause. Tens of speakers, big and little, were speaking in Petersburg, at the factories and in the barracks, every blessed day.
“For the masses they had become their own people, because they were always there, taking the lead in details as well as in the most important affairs of the factory or barracks.
“The mass lived and breathed together with the Bolsheviks. It was in the hands of the party of Lenin and Trotsky.”
Crucially, the Bolsheviks had argued for the arming of the workers within the soviets.
Trotsky was released from prison to take a leading position on a new Military Revolutionary Committee set up by the Petrograd soviet.
Factory committees armed over 40,000 workers across Petrograd. They formed Red Army units. Munitions factories produced grenades and cannon to defend the revolution.
Trotsky records a munitions worker saying, “In those days we worked sixteen hours a day” and “got together about 100 cannon”.
When Kornilov advanced on Petrograd, rail workers tore up tracks and misdirected trains. Telegraph workers informed the Red Army of the movements of Kornilov’s troops.
Kornilov had sought to poison his troops’ minds against both the Provisional Government and the Petrograd workers.
On 27 August he declared, “Under the pressure of the Bolshevik majority of the Soviets, the Provisional Government acts in complete harmony with the plans of the German general staff.”
But the soviets in outlying towns provided proof that this was not the case.
News unfavourable to Kornilov was flyposted on his army’s route. As the army neared the city it became increasingly unwilling to take orders from the officers.
The coup was defeated with few shots being fired.
This was followed by open revolt in the army.
One general described “an increase of attacks on officers by soldiers, shootings, and throwing of grenades through the windows of officers’ meetings, etc.”
Lynching officers became so widespread that the Menshevik-led soviet executive had to issue statements such as, “Use self-restraint, soldiers! Put an end to lynchings!”
The “Kornilov affair” had exposed the government’s links to the generals, and left Kerensky’s reputation in tatters.It also strengthened the hand of the Bolsheviks, and set the stage for October.