Alexander Kerensky tried to ride the crest of a revolutionary wave and fell. He was head of Russia’s government for little more than four months before he was booted out by workers in 1917.
But that government was constantly in crisis, always on the edge of falling apart.
A militant revolutionary movement and a rival power, the soviets—councils made of ordinary workers, soldiers and peasants—threatened its authority. Kerensky tried in vain to rescue it.
Although a lawyer, he was a member of the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs), whose members were mainly peasants.
The SRs fought to transfer ownership of land to the peasantry and took part in the revolution when it began. But its leaders didn’t believe the revolution could do more than set up a capitalist parliament.
When the Tsarist government fell, Kerensky and others rushed to hand power over to capitalist politicians.
Russia’s big landlords and factory owners rewarded Kerensky by making him justice minister.
As both a government minister and vice chair of the powerful Petrograd soviet, Kerensky seemed the ideal candidate to bring the workers into line.
Kerensky told workers at one of the first meetings of the Petrograd soviet that he took the position to represent them in the new capitalist government.
In reality, the capitalist ministers relied on him to make their government seem acceptable to revolutionary workers.
The government soon hit its first crisis. Workers were calling for ever more radical demands, above all the end of Russia’s involvement in the First World War.
When ministers promised Britain and France that Russia would stay in the war, soldiers took to the streets demanding the overthrow of the government.
The crisis showed the power of the soviets and the weakness of the government.
The capitalists tried to prop their government up by bringing in more socialists like Kerensky to form a coalition.
Some of the socialists thought they could channel the power of the soviets into the government. Kerensky even said, “The soviets will die a natural death.”
Many workers supported the idea, hoping that socialists in the government would end the war.
Instead the ministers ended up justifying and prolonging it. Kerensky, now defence minister, even took charge of organising an offensive.
The government collapsed again in July, and Kerensky became leader of a new coalition. He tried to focus all power at the top of the government.
But when Russian general Laver Kornilov attempted a right wing coup against the government, Kerensky had to arm the workers to defend it. As soon as the threat was seen off, Kerensky tried again.
The tension between propping up a capitalist government and trying to stay ahead of a growing workers’ movement split the SRs. The revolution was a decisive confrontation between capitalists and workers—it was impossible to balance between the two.
A breakaway group, the Left SRs, made the right decision and sided with the soviets.
Kerensky jumped the other way and paid the price. He was overthrown by a second workers’ revolution in October.
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