The Red Guard was built by the working class during the process of the Russian Revolution. It has its origins in the revolution of 1905. It reappears during the revolution of 1917 and becomes semi-clandestine for a short period, after the uprisings in July; it returns to the scene and strengthens as a resistance e against Kornilov’s coup; and it is legalized on the eve of the seizure of power, in which it has a decisive role.

By Américo Gomes.

 

It was the Red Guard that guaranteed, in the October insurrection, the occupation of public buildings and the Winter Palace, base of Kerensky’s government. It ensured essential services, as well as the security of Soviet leaders at the Smolny Institute. It was the armed workers that showed initiative, resolution, and determination during the uprising.

Lenin gave great importance to the establishment of the Red Guard. In “Letters from Afar”, from March 11 (to 24) of 1917 (which was not supposed to be public), he demanded the workers to establish their militias as quickly as possible and to not let the police be restored.

Prevent restoration of the police force! Do not let the local government bodies slip out of your hands! Set up a militia that will really embrace the entire people, be really universal, and be led by the proletariat!- such is the task of the day, such is the slogan of the moment which equally conforms with the properly understood interests of furthering the class struggle, furthering the revolutionary movement, and the democratic instinct of every worker, of every peasant, of every exploited toiler who cannot help hating the policemen, the rural police patrols, the village constables, the command of landlords […] with power over the people.

A genuine people’s militia, i.e., one that, first, consists of the entire population, of all adult citizens of both sexes; and, second, one that combines the functions of a people’s army with police functions, with the functions of the chief and fundamental organ of public order and public administration.”[1]

Establishment of the Guard from the factories

The “workers’ guards” emerged from factories and working-class neighborhoods, for the class’ self-defense. They often had the role of the police, because the state repression apparatuses were disintegrating. They obtained their weapons by robbing tsarist arsenals (the disappearance of thirty thousand revolvers and forty thousand rifles during the February revolution was reported), the disarmament of the bourgeois police, and donations from regiments and factories that sympathizes with the revolution.

In the factories, armed workers dismissed chiefs, managers, and engineers, by detaining them when necessary. They repressed the sabotage made by landowners and administrators who conspired against the revolution. They trained in the surrounding areas with limited resources, with a regime of substitution [or alternation], and they received their wages according to that. They guarded factories and neighborhoods all day and night. All their members were volunteers, and hundreds of them were young-aged.

After the formal establishment of the Red Guards, for a worker to be admitted it was necessary to be presented by a socialist party, a factory committee, or a union. If he had three absences, he was excluded. A court of workers judged infractions and indiscipline, such as using weapons without authorization. All guards had an identification card with a number. Commanders were proposed by factory committees, workers’ organizations, and the district Soviets, and elected by their peers.[2]

Factories like Putilov had entire battalions with technicians, drivers, telegraphers, artillery officers, and maintenance staff. They carried their weapons everywhere, even when they were working on lathes and drills. In the working-class neighborhoods like Viborg, the local Soviet (council) was in charge of requisitions and material acquisition.

Given the circumstances, the Guard had many weaknesses: most of its members were poorly prepared, the armament and ammunition were few; consequently, the training was insufficient and irregular, the communication service had many gaps [or failures], and medical care was precarious.

But the presence of Bolshevik communists in their detachments gave them political determination. In addition, the daily contact between workers, soldiers, and sailors filled some of the technical weaknesses.

In Moscow, due to the obstacles that the reformist organizations (Mensheviks and socialist revolutionaries) put to their establishment, it was more difficult to create them. This had consequences at the moment of revolution: in this city, the seizure of power was bloodier than in Petrograd. Most of the work had to be done clandestinely by the Bolsheviks.

If the emergence of workers’ guards was more or less spontaneous, their centralization was not. The Bolsheviks had a policy for this. The metal worker Alexander Schliapnikov made history as the one who carried out this task in Petrograd, systematizing the spontaneous organization and unifying it in what would become the Red Guard.

The history of the Red Guard is to a considerable extent the history of the dual power. With its inner contradictions and conflicts, the dual power helped the workers to create a considerable armed force even before the insurrection.”[3]

Comings and goings of the military organization

The July Days began with workers “incomparably” more determined, threatening, and homogeneous than in February. But the Bolsheviks believed that it was not the time to rise up, specifically because the interior of the country was not convinced of revolution; and even in the capital the experience with the reformists was not completed yet. They were right, and despite the vanguard’s radical nature, the movement had to step back.

With this setback, the government arrested the workers and soldiers’ representatives, confiscated their weapons, and isolated the neighborhoods of the city. Many Red Guards were openly and forcedly disarmed.

But the workers did not surrender all their weapons. They hid them – some were buried – and the Guard’s detachments became clandestine, each time more convinced by the Bolsheviks.

When Kornilov’s uprising and his bourgeois coup attempt “through the right” against the interim government were carried out, in August, everything changed. To defend itself, the government needed the workers, so they were rearmed to confront the coup. They occupied and guarded factories, neighborhoods, roads and stations, and train lines. Those who did not have weapons dug trenches, built redoubts, and wired fences.

Putilov became the center of the resistance in the neighborhood of Peterhof. In Viborg, they distributed ammunitions and weapons all night long. Factories worked day and night assembling new cannons for the proletarians. The Schluselburg’s gunpowder factory directly supplied grenades and explosives to the Red Guard “against Kornilov!”. The railway union armed its members, occupied the roads and organized barricades; the metal-working factories set up a Defense Committee; the drivers arranged transportation for workers’ militias. Soviets, such as the one in Kronstadt, that were dismantled in July, were now reorganized.

Another step forward

When the Bolsheviks won the majority of the Petrograd Soviet, the Red Guard gained legality. It became the Soviet’s official body.

One month before the uprising, military exercises were already openly carried out, especially shooting, in dozens of factories. On September, weapons management was taught in 79 factories in Petrograd. In many of them, all the workers were armed.[4]

At the time of the seizure of power, the Red Guard was more organized and trained. The building of the Smolny Institute, the center of the revolution and the Soviets, was protected by the Red Guard. Its General Headquarters remained in the Viborg’s Soviet, a district completely under the revolutionary workers’ control, where the enemy did not dare to appear.

Formally, the Red Guard was independent of parties. But the closer the seizure of power was, the more the Bolsheviks controlled it. They were its central core, they had the command in its hands.

On October 22, at the Petrograd’s Red Guard Conference, one hundred delegates represented approximately 20,000 combatants.[5] Divided into battalions of 400 to 600 members, each of them with three companies, some even with armored cars. The statutes adopted in this Conference define the Guard as “an organization of the armed forces of the proletariat for the struggle against counter-revolution and the defense of the conquests of the revolution.”[6]

The core of the plan for the seizure of power consisted of bringing together the Baltic’s seamen with the Viborg’s workers for the final actions. The sailors would arrive at the Finland station, located in this working district, and from there the insurrection would extend to other districts, with the Guard’s detachments and the garrison’s regiments occupying bridges, to finally enter the city center to take the Winter Palace.

The Art of Insurrection

“Now, insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other, and subject to certain rules of proceeding, which, when neglected, will produce the ruin of the party neglecting them.”[7]

In this text, published in 1852, Engels already warned: “Firstly, never play with insurrection unless you are fully prepared to face the consequences of your play. Insurrection is a calculus with very indefinite magnitudes, the value of which may change every day.

The forces opposed to you have all the advantage of organization, discipline, and habitual authority: unless you bring strong odds against them, you are defeated and ruined.

Secondly, the insurrectionary career once entered upon, act with the greatest determination, and on the offensive. The defensive is the death of every armed rising; it is lost before it measures itself with its enemies.”

Lenin and Trotsky were fully convinced of this and were also determined to differentiate themselves from the reformists who called them “Blanquists,” reminding that they denied “the conscious preparation of an overturn, the plan, the conspiracy,” and defended the maintenance of the capitalist society. They defended as well the text of Louis August Blanc, Manual for an Armed Insurrection, published in 1861, for being the result of “observations and reflections upon the failures of the many insurrections he witnessed,” and this led to certain tactical rules without which the victory of the insurrection becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible – although they should be modified in accordance with “social conditions and military technique” but which are not, in any case, “putschist” or “adventurist” rules.[8]

Blanqui’s mistake was to believe that this insurrection would be only a military problem and that by following certain rules it would be [necessarily] victorious.

To Lenin: “To be successful, insurrection must rely not upon conspiracy and not upon a party, but upon the advanced class. That is the first point. Insurrection must rely upon a revolutionary upsurge of the people. That is the second point. Insurrection must rely upon that turning-point in the history of the growing revolution when the activity of the advanced ranks of the people is at its height, and when the vacillations in the ranks of the enemy and in the ranks of the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution are strongest. That is the third point. And these three conditions for raising the question of insurrection distinguish Marxism from Blanquism.”

Based on that: “once these conditions exist, however, to refuse to treat insurrection as an art is a betrayal of Marxism and a betrayal of the revolution.”[9]

For Trotsky: “Conspiracy does not take the place of insurrection. An active minority of the proletariat, no matter how well organized, cannot seize the power regardless of the general conditions of the country. In this point, History has condemned Blanquism. But only in this. His affirmative theorem retains all its force. In order to conquest the power, the proletariat needs more than a spontaneous insurrection. It needs a suitable organization; it needs a plan: it needs a conspiracy. Such is the Leninist view of this question.[10]

The seizure of power, by both its historical significance and its methods, is, in fact, a coup carried out by conspirators. It must be based on a mass insurrection so it is not just a superstructural action.

The uprising

In August, after the coup attempt by the generals, there was a strengthening of the Soviets and of the Bolsheviks, and an increasing crisis of the government. The soldiers no longer wanted to go to war. The Soviet supported them and refused to accept the government’s proposal of withdrawing the troops from Petrograd to send them to the frontline: after all, they were the most loyal to the revolution and would be replaced by more conservative troops from the interior of the country.

To get out of this impasse, the reformists presented a proposal to the Soviet to create a “Committee of Revolutionary Defense” in which the workers would participate to analyze the proposals presented by Kerensky’s government. They wanted to pass three proposals for the movement of troops and to obtain legitimacy for it.

That is why they were surprised when the Bolsheviks accepted this proposal so easily. They did not understand that the Bolsheviks saw that it was who directed the Committee that would decide how to carry out the defense of the capital, which was of their interest.

The Bolsheviks’ goal was to transform these bodies into organizations of insurrection subordinated to the Soviet, but because of their composition, legality, and operation, they could accomplish the role of Main Headquarters of the revolution. This organization adopted the name of Military-Revolutionary Committee (MRC) and it was regulated on October 9.

The following day, the Bolshevik Central Committee, in a secret meeting, adopted Lenin’s resolution about the armed insurrection as a goal to be put into practice immediately.

In order to “camouflage” the Committee, a social-revolutionary left-wing was sent to the frontline; “the young and modest Lazimir“, who had already adhered to the Bolsheviks. With him, Trotsky organized the plan to seize the power, approved by the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. It was not explicit but the Mensheviks were against, so Trotsky requested to register their position against this project in acts. He included the control of the defense of the city, warehouses, communications, and other things; “everyone understood what the talk was about – but at the same time it could not be broken through… What had formerly served the purpose of compromise was now leading to civil war.”[11]

After that, the Executive Committee officially created the Red Guard. Thus, the workers’ armament, which was abandoned and persecuted, became official and legal. The arsenals relied on workers’ control for the delivery of weapons.

The MRC started operating on October 20, composed by left-wing Bolsheviks and social-revolutionaries. It relied on Trotsky, Podvoisky, Antonov-Ovseenko, Laschevich, Sadovski, and Mezhonoshin, and it reported to Sverdlov on the main issues. This was the true insurrection’s Headquarters. The soldiers of the Red Guard became subordinate to the Military-Revolutionary Committee.

The garrison’s regiments, institutions, stores, and warehouses were designated as commissioners. Only the orders issued by the commissioners were fulfilled. The most trusted soldiers remained on the Guards. On the eve of the insurrection, an order to arrest the officers who did not recognize the MRC’s authority was issued. What happened?

Sverdlov set up an intense information service linking the working-class neighborhoods, factories, and military garrisons through the Soviets and party committees, to know everything that was happening, the stages, and all the episodes of the struggle. “The enemy must not be allowed to catch the masses unaware.” Dzerzhinsky became the head of the telegraph center; he occupied it with the Keksholm regiment.

The bourgeois repression was trying intensely to capture Lenin. He was hidden in Viborg, the working-class neighborhood that was the base of the Red Guards’ Headquarters.

Trotsky initially called to seize the power in the Executive Committee of the Soviets. The reformists were opposed to this and accused him of a “coup-attempt”, but the government did not have the strength to arrest him. Government institutions were being occupied one after another, without resistance. They took the Telephone Central Office, and then the State Bank, with only 40 sailors.

At 10 o’clock in the morning, on October 24, the Smolny announced to the whole country that: “The provisional government was overthrown. The power passed into the hands of the Military-Revolutionary Committee”. But the government still existed in the Winter Palace, military headquarters, provinces; and the Congress of Soviets was not yet established.

At noon, troops loyal to the MRC occupied the streets around the Mariinsky Palace, where the Council of the Republic, or pre-parliament, was installed. They were the Lithuania and Keksholm Regiments. The members ran away with rapidly, no one was imprisoned. Among them were the ones that would later organize the White Army in the civil war.

At 2:30 pm, an extraordinary session of the Petrograd Soviet is inaugurated with Trotsky’s report. Lenin, after four months in clandestinity, appeared in the session.

The goal was to take the Winter Palace. But the Kronstadt’s sailors had not arrived by noon yet, so this was postponed until 3 o’clock. With this delay, reinforcements had to be sent to the ones already in position. The seizure of power had to be postponed again. Podvoisky and Antonov-Ovseenko refused to reprogram it, but Trotsky wanted the Palace to be occupied when the All-Russian Congress of Soviets was already established and the whole capital was in the hands of the Military-Revolutionary Committee, so they delayed the beginning of the Congress.

The delays were the result of all sorts of things, from lack of red lantern that announced the fortress of Peter and Paul, or their siege, fortress’ soldiers who refused to open fire on the palace (they had to appeal to Kronstadt’s sailors who did not know how to operate those cannons, which is why the shots started from the Aurora cruiser), and they were afraid of causing many deaths.

Lenin, furious, demanded the immediate occupation of the Palace; Podvoisky strongly argued with him. They opened fire. Out of thirty-five shots, only two hit the target, and they only injured the masonry lining.

Finally, Antonov-Ovseenko managed to take the Palace through an assault, with the resisting forces practically extinct. At 2.10 am on October 25 to 26, Antonov-Ovseenko arrested the members of the government. The ritual was enclosed with the takeover of the last redoubt of a definitively dismantled regime.[12]

The Military-Revolutionary Committee, absolute owner of the capital, declared that it would deliver the power only to the true representatives of the people: the National Congress of Soviets.

After the revolution

Right after the seizure of power, the Red Guard continued to play a fundamental role defending the newly founded Soviet State against the coup carried out by the bourgeoisie and imperialism.

The first of these attempts was the Kerensky-Krasnov’s uprising, also in October of 1917, disrupted by the Red Guard of Petrograd, Moscow, and Kharkov, under the Antonov-Ovseenko’s command, and supported by the Kronstadt’s sailors and the Yan Berzin’s Lethal Division.

On July of 1918, the SRs left, who did not accept the Brest-Litovsk agreement, carried out another attempt. Moscow was practically without any troops, as they had been sent to the frontline. They were defeated by the Red Guard, the regiment of the Latvian policemen commanded by Colonel Vatzetis, and a unit of internationalists, Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war converted to the revolution, commanded by Bela Kun.[13]

During the civil war, the Guard was also involved in many battles against the White Army, in Don, Ukraine, and Kiev, on the South Frontline. But Denikin was defeating them in Donetz and Karkov. When he was 300 km away from Moscow, in February 1920, he was finally defeated by Tukhachevsky, the V Army, and red cavalry.

In Petrograd, Trotsky defeated Yudenich, struggling street-by-street and house by house, with battalions of Red Guards and women detachments.[14]

Dissolution

However, with the development of the civil war and the need of an increasingly centralized army, Trotsky’s proposal lead to the Red Guard’s dissolution, along with the peasants detachments and guerrilla organizations, given that the counter-revolutionary forces were defeating them, and because it was necessary to plan and to have troops with centralized organization and discipline.[15]

The alcohol

Victor Serge states that, during a period, the imperialist bourgeoisie discovered the most deadly weapon for the revolution: alcohol. Before drowning the revolution in blood, he tried to drown it in wine. The people began to loot the wine cellars and warehouses of the palaces, restaurants, hotels, and everywhere. To contain them it was necessary to form selected detachments of Red Guards and sailors who put machine guns in cellars to prevent access.

Still, many of these capitulated to the pleasures of wine. Because of this, the troop had to be replaced urgently. “The problem was particularly serious with the cellars at the Winter Palace. The Preobrazhensky regiment, which had been put in charge of guarding them, got drunk and became quite useless. The Pavlovsky regiment, our sure revolutionary shield, went the same way. Teams of soldiers were sent, picked from various regiments: they too got drunk. The workers’ committees attempted no further resistance. The crowd had to be dispersed by armoured cars, whose crews were soon reeling too. By nightfall, it had become a wild orgy. ‘Let’s drink up the Romanov’s leftovers’, they said gaily in the crowd. Order was restored in the end by sailors fresh from Helsinki, men of iron who had been more used to killing than to drinking. In the suburb of Vassili-Ostrov, the Finland regiment, which was led by anarcho-syndicalist elements, decided to shoot the looters on the spot and blow up the wine-cellars.[16]

Many times, alcohol consumption was premeditated by the imperialist bourgeoisie: “Alcohol suddenly made its appearance at the front in enormous quantities. Huge tanks full of it arrived, labelled Paraffin or Benzine.” There were dozens of wagons sent to the Red Army, labelled as oat, wood, or anything else.

***

Translation: Misty M.

Notes:

[1] LENIN, V.I. Letters from Afar, March 11, 1917. “Concerning a Proletarian Militia”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/lfafar/third.htm#v23pp64h-320

[2] SERGE, Victor. Year One of the Russian Revolution. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one

[3] TROTSKY, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: “The Art of Insurrection”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch43.htm

[4] SERGE, Victor. Year One of the Russian Revolution. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/

[5] DEUTCHER, Isaac. Trotsky: The Prophet Unarmed. Deutscher quotes that they were not more than 4.000 in Petrograd and 3.000 in Moscow. Trotsky, in many passages, states that they never got to 20.000 with an active role. Leonard Shapiro, in “From Lenin to Stalin,” talks about 70.000, and some authors consider 200.000. Available at https://rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/isaac-deutscher-the-prophet-unarmed-trotsky-1921-1929.pdf

[6] TROTSKY, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: “The Art of Insurrection”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch43.htm

[7] ENGLES, Frederick. Insurrection. Published in Revolution and Counter-revolution in Germany. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/germany/ch17.htm

[8] LENIN, V. I. Marxism and Insurrection, A Letter to the Central Committee, September 26-27, 1917. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/13.htm. A text wrote on September 13-14, 1917, on the eve of insurrection, but it was published in 1921.

[9] LENIN, V. I. Marxism and Insurrection, A Letter to the Central Committee, September 26-27, 1917. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/sep/13.htm. The text was written on September 13-14, 1917, on the eve of insurrection, but it was published in 1921.

[10] TROTSKY, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: “The Art of Insurrection”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch43.htm

[11] TROTSKY, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: “The Military-Revolutionary Committee”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch41.htm

[12] TROTSKY, Leon. The History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3: “The October Insurrection”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch46.htm

[13] TROTSKY, Leon. The Military Writings, volume 1, 1918. How the Revolution Armed. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/

[14] DEUTCHER, Isaac. Trotsky: The Prophet Unarmed. Available at https://rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/isaac-deutscher-the-prophet-unarmed-trotsky-1921-1929.pdf

[15] “The Path of the Red Army”. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1918/military/

[16] ANTONOV-OVSEENKO, Vladimir in Year One of the Russian Revolution of Victor Serge. Available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/serge/1930/year-one/