In this year of celebrating the centenary of the great October Revolution in Russia, it is often forgotten that anarchists and rank-and-file Bolsheviks attempted a social revolution in July 1917 - but that the Bolshevik leadership was unprepared and so it disrupted the attempt. By doing so, the red elite was clearly signaling its willingness to risk losing the impetus of revolution entirely and so permanently surrendering the initiative to the reactionaries purely because they felt they weren't sufficiently in charge of events - a telling character flaw that would become devastatingly dominant in the subsequent Bolshevik dictatorship.
Things began to heat up in June 1917, as anarchist participants in the events Senya Fleshin and Molly Steimer later wrote: “As is known, the government of [the Social Revolutionary Alexander] Kerensky was moving quicker and quicker to the right, into the arms of the bourgeoisie and reaction. The workers responded with a protest demonstration, aimed against both the war which keeps dragging on, and against the generally treacherous policy of the right SRs. Anarchists take an active part in all of these protests; their black flags fly in the foreground. Armed, with their ranks closed, singing the anarchist anthem, they march in the streets of Petrograd."
The Bolshevik leaders warned the garrisons against taking to the streets, and yet on 3 July 1917 there was finally a rising in Petrograd, centred on revolutionary workers, soldiers and Kronstadt sailors. The immediate cause of the rising was the government’s unpopular call for a new offensive in World War I, and the fears of the anarchist-dominated 1st Machine-gun Regiment that it would be sent to the northern front as a means of containing their revolutionary zeal. The Bolsheviks vacillated on the question, provoking a split between the party leadership and what historian Marc Ferro calls “the vanguard, where Bolsheviks co-operated with anarchists, and in July there was conflict”. Many Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin were in the countryside when the revolt broke out. Among the most notable of the agitators was the Belorussian anarchist-communist tinsmith Iosif Solomonovich Bleikhman (1868-1921). Converted to anarchism while in the United States in 1904, he was jailed by the Tsarist regime on his return to Russia, only being liberated along with many political prisoners during the bourgeois February 1917 Revolution which toppled the Tsar and installed Kerensky. Bleikhman became a leading light in the Petrograd Anarchist Communist Federation (PACF), which was founded in April 1917, and a writer for its paper Burevestnik (Stormy Petrel) and for Kommuna (Commune), paper of the Petrograd Anarchist Federation (PAF), which had been founded in 1906, surviving in clandestinity for a decade.
The Bolshevik leader Lev Trotsky condescendingly describes Bleikhman – calling him Bleichman – but is unable to avoid the fact that Bleikhman’s fiery oratory matched the aspirations of the revolutionary soldiers in particular: "… the anarchist Bleichman, a small but colourful figure on the background of 1917, with a very modest equipment of ideas but a certain feeling for the masses – sincere in his limited and ever inflammable intelligence – his shirt open at the breast and curly hair flying out at all sides. Bleichman was greeted at such meetings with a certain amount of semi-ironical sympathy. The workers, it is true, treated him somewhat coolly, but the soldiers smiled delightedly at his speeches, nudging each other with their elbows and egging the orator on with pithy comments. They plainly liked his eccentric looks, his unreasoning decisiveness, and his Jewish-American accent sharp as vinegar. By the end of June, Bleichman was swimming in all these impromptu meetings like a fish in a river. His opinion he had always with him: It is necessary to come out with arms in our hands. Organisation? ‘The street will organise us.’ The task? ‘To overthrow the Provisional Government just as it overthrew the czar although no party was then demanding it.’ These speeches perfectly met the feelings of the machine-gunners – and not theirs alone. Many of the Bolsheviks did not conceal their satisfaction when the lower ranks pushed forward against their official admonition."
In other words, the rank-and-file Bolsheviks, like the soldiers, were more in tune with anarchist-communism than with Bolshevism. Of course, Bleikhman, as a PACF militant, believed firmly in organisation, but was indicating that the revolution was not the preserve of specific organisations, but rather of the popular classes as a whole – an idea that was anathema to the Bolsheviks who had made a fetish of the dominant role of the hierarchical vanguard party. Bleikhman addressed a large gathering of soldiers (including the machine-gunners), sailors and workers, saying, according to Ferro, "We want to overthrow the government, not to hand power to the bourgeois soviet, but to take it ourselves."
Ferro said the slogans that won the day, however, continued to back the soviets. He quotes an unpublished Petrograd archive document that “displays the grassroots unity of anarchists and Bolsheviks” who set up a joint Provisional Revolutionary Committee (VRK) on the eve of the revolt: "One witness said that Bleikhman was spoiling for a fight, being in an excited condition, and telling the soldiers that they could count on the workers and sailors, for they would join in if there were a rising. The soldiers who were there said, ‘Yes, go ahead, we’re ready for it.’ The machine-gunners were nervous, for they had to strike the first blow…"
However, it failed to detain Kerensky and the demonstration petered out as participants started to return home, confused by the in-fighting in Bolshevik ranks. Some regiments were against pressing the advantage, although the Kronstadt sailors still had their blood up, so the following morning, Bleikhman again led an armed column on the Tauride Palace where both the Petrograd Soviet and the Provisional Government’s Duma were headquartered, this time joined by the famous Left SR Maria Spiridonova. At the Tauride, as Ferro notes, demands were put forward for the release of an anarchist sailor arrested at the PAF headquarters Villa Durnovo, and for the Soviet to take power from the government. Trotsky was heckled by sailors angry at his support for the dithering Soviet. Fighting broke out between insurrectionaries and loyalist troops. But three regiments brought in from the front to defend the Soviet (and ironically, by doing so, the government) finally routed the rebels.
The “July Days” were followed by state repression and the arrest of anarchists and Bolsheviks. Ferro inaccurately claims that the anarchists disappeared “as a motive force” after the revolt was defeated, but in the aftermath, many Bolsheviks as well as anarchists were forced into hiding or even exile (Lenin himself was battling against the smear that he was a German spy). The right-wing Kadets and the industrialists gained in confidence. Ferro quotes the anarchist historian of the revolution, Voline, describing the white reaction: "In the name of the [bourgeois February] Revolution, the secret police has come to life again, the individual’s liberties have been suppressed, and the old atrocities of the police chiefs will be started again… in the name of the Revolution, the gates have been opened to the most hideous counter-revolution."
Fleshin and Steimer recalled the insurrection so: “Then came the famous July Days. Of course, Bolsheviks now omit to mention that anarchists were at the time fighting, taking soldiers out [into protests] and made speeches against Kerensky’s gangs alongside them, and then paid for that with prison terms. And only anarchists, of all the revolutionary organisations. The July defeat drove anarchists and Bolsheviks underground. [The PAF newspaper] Commune is published clandestinely. But Voline still delivers his lectures on the Vyborg side [Petrograd's factory district] with huge attendance by workers; it is still possible to hold rallies.”
Archibald writes: “The government began hunting down the Bolsheviks and anarchists. Some of the Bolsheviks, including Marusya's friend [the Bolshevik] Alexandra Kollontai, ended up in prison while others escaped to nearby Finland. Bleikhman was given sanctuary by the Kronstadt sailors who protected him from arrest. Marusya decided it was a good time to return to Ukraine and help revive the anarchist movement there. In July 1917 she arrived back in Aleksandrovsk [Oleksandrivsk, Ukraine], after an eight-year odyssey which had taken her around the world.” She would go on to command a Black Guard detachment that liberated four Ukrainian cities and installed left-wing revolutionary soviets, helping create the space in which the Revolutionary Insurgent Army of Ukraine (RPAU) would rise and initiate the anarchist-inspired Ukrainian Revolution.
The July Days events merely hardened the resolve of many to overthrow the Provisional Government, and underlined the growing gulf between the Provisional Government and large sectors of the popular classes, and the deepening polarisation inherent in dual power between the soviets and the government. Subsequent moves by General Lavr Kornilov, supreme commander of the armed forces from July, to seize power and create a dictatorship created further distrust and spurred the growth of the Red Guards, Black Guards and military soviets. When the social revolution finally succeeded in October 1917, anarchists again played key roles.
Despite their near-fatal vacillation during the July Days, the Bolshevik leadership was now confident that the Provisional Government could be overthrown, a view shared by many anarchists. A series of meetings in the Bolshevik Party saw Lenin win support for the idea of an insurrection, which was subsequently endorsed by the Petrograd Soviet. The uprising was organised through the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, headed by Trotsky, and made up of forty-eight Bolsheviks, fourteen Left SRs, and four anarchists: Vladimir “Bill” Shatov, Anatoli Zhelezniakov, Efim Yartchuk and Henri Bogatski.
On the night of the 25th of October, the Military Revolutionary Committee and its allies made their move. Petrograd and its Winter Palace were famously taken after brief fighting – the anarchist Anatolyi Zhelezniakov leading a contingent of sailors in the assault – and while the rising in Moscow was bloodier, it too was as successful. Fleshin and Steimer recalled: “But then comes October. Again, anarchists are alongside the Communists, everywhere, in the [Winter] Palace Square, at the storming of the Pavel Military School. Anarchist Anatoli Zhelezniakov is one of the chief dispersers of Chernov’s talk shop [the Constituent Assembly], anarchists are at Tsarskoye Selo [a suburb south of the city, now called Pushkin], where Kerensky is finally repulsed [during the Kerensky-Krasnov uprising]. Anarchist [Iustin] Zhuk – a political convict who served his hard labour sentence in Shlisselburg – leads a Shlisselburg workers’ detachment to guard the Smolny [Soviet headquarters] and then to Tsarskoye Selo to meet Kerensky."
The day after the storming of the Wnter Palace, Lenin was able to announce to the Second Congress of Soviets, then meeting in Petrograd, with Zhelezniakov as a Kronstadt Soviet delegate, that the Provisional Government had fallen and that the soviets were now in power. Several attempts to overthrow the Petrograd Soviet, and restore the Provisional Government were swiftly defeated by Red Guards and Black Guards. The anarchist-dominated Dvinsk Regiment, for example, decisively defeated an attempt at counter-revolution by the Kadets. It was a moment of incredible hope, when all the future seemed open. The soviets and factory committees were in charge, the Red Guards and Black Guards patrolled the streets, “workers’ control” and even self-management seemed the model of the future, and the old Russia, with its autocracy and repression and hunger seemed dead at last, blasted away by the blaze of revolution.
Writing the best eye-witness account of the Russian Revolution, the book Ten Days that Shook the World, US communist John Reed, who was close to the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, riding to Petrograd in a truck loaded with Red Guards and driven by a grizzled worker, recalled dawn breaking that fateful day: "The road was crowded with the proletarian army going home, and new reserves were pouring out to take their places … Across the horizon spread the glittering lights of the capital, immeasurably more splendid by night than by day, like a dike of jewels on the barren plain. The old workman who drove held the wheel in one hand, while with the other he swept the far-gleaming capital in an exultant gesture. ‘Mine!’ he cried, his face all alight. ‘All mine now! My Petrograd!’"