Reading Guide: The October Insurrection 1917

The following series of articles provides in-depth analyses and first-hand accounts of the events immediately preceding, during and after the greatest event in human history: the October Revolution, in addition to reflections on its aftermath.

“Insurrection is an art quite as much as war or any other.” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Insurrection)

“All the objective conditions exist for a successful insurrection. We have the exceptional advantage of a situation in which only our victory in the insurrection can put an end to that most painful thing on earth, vacillation, which has worn the people out; in which only our victory in the insurrection will give the peasants land immediately; a situation in which only our victory in the insurrection can foil the game of a separate peace directed against the revolution – foil it by publicly proposing a fuller, juster and earlier peace, a peace that will benefit the revolution.” (V I Lenin, Marxism and Insurrection)

“The November [October] revolution was also forced on its leaders from below. But it had the fortune to find in Lenin a leader who, unlike the Miliukovs and Kerenskys, understood what it was all about. The genius of Lenin was as the interpreter rather than as the creator of the revolution.” (E H Carr, Sunday Times)

October insurrection 2 WikimediaOctober insurrection / Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Less than two months separated the Kornilov affair and the October insurrection. Since the workers and soldiers had been roused into an organised defence of the revolution, conditions were becoming overwhelmingly favourable for the Bolsheviks to take power.

The defeat of Kornilov’s putsch raised the Bolshevik Party to the level of unequivocal leaders of the Russian workers, soldiers and peasants. Alexander Kerensky initially saw the removal of Kornilov and the collapse of another coalition government as an opportunity to consolidate his own dictatorship. The Mensheviks and Right Social-Revolutionaries then agreed with him to hold a ‘Democratic Conference’ in mid-September. But the event proved to be an even bigger farce than the State Conference a month earlier, and demonstrated what was already painfully obvious to most – that Kerensky’s government had no real base of support in society.

Meanwhile, by September, the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow were in the hands of the Bolsheviks, who won a majority of delegates in both. Russian forces at the front were in a ruinous condition and morale was collapsing completely. When the Germans attacked the Gulf of Finland in early October, putting revolutionary Petrograd in mortal danger, Baltic sailors were heard over the radios exclaiming: “In the hour when the waves of the Baltic are stained with the blood of our brothers, while the waters are closing over their bodies, we raise our voice: ... Oppressed people of the whole world! Lift the banner of revolt!” The vulnerable Russian capital was threatened with famine and the masses were desperate for change.

In this period, Lenin, both from afar and on his secret return to Petrograd, was arguing unshakeably for an armed insurrection of workers and soldiers to overthrow Kerensky’s government. Trotsky was released from prison in the days after Kornilov’s coup disintegrated, after which he formally joined the Bolsheviks and was elected to their central committee. After a month of agitating for Soviet power in the capital, on the 8th October [O.S.] he was elected Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, the position he had first held in the 1905 Revolution.

With the threat of a German advance on Petrograd as a convenient excuse, the government attempted to flee Petrograd, whose workers and soldiers posed a far more immediate threat to them. Under popular pressure, however, their plan to move the state apparatus collapsed and they instead convoked a “pre-parliament” council with a “democratic majority” of reformists and Bolsheviks. This council was ostensibly to prepare for the constituent assembly whose elections would take place later, but was in reality another organisation being set up in an effort to rival Soviet power. The Bolsheviks made a mockery of the charade by withdrawing their representatives en bloc. On 21st September [O.S.] the Petrograd Soviet passed a resolution calling for a second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets. Given the threat that a conference would go ahead anyway over their heads, the reformist Soviet Central Executive Committee agreed and set the date as 20th October [O.S.]. By October, the All-Russia Congress of Factory Committees passed a resolution calling for peasants and soldiers to support workers’ control of production and distribution. Around the country, control of infrastructure and distribution had quite organically been falling into the hands of the local Soviets already.

On 10th October [O.S.], Lenin moved a motion to the Bolshevik Central Committee for planning of the insurrection to commence. It passed almost unanimously with Trotsky’s support. The two voters against, Kamenev and Zinoviev, then leaked the plan through the petty-bourgeois press. Kerensky was later to try and arrest its organisers as a result, but to no avail. The Congress of the Soviets was to act as a marker for the date of the insurrection, ratifying Soviet power with delegate votes from across Russia. The Military Revolutionary Committees, which had been formed in the days of Kornilov’s attack and were with the Bolsheviks, were to organise the action. Trotsky, as Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, played a leading organisational role. By late October stage was set, the masses were with the Bolsheviks and the time was ripe.

Thus the most popular revolution in history would be carried through to a victorious conclusion and the workers of the former Tsarist Empire would achieve power. As bourgeois historian E H Carr wrote in 1935, “It was not the work of a band of fanatics or agitators inciting the masses to violence. Again and again the masses drove their hesitating and temporising leaders further and further down the path of revolution. The makers and heroes of the revolution were in fact, as the Bolshevik legend proclaims, the proletarian and the peasant...”

This reading guide, the final one of the series, provides detailed historical and eye-witness accounts, analysis, theory and agitational material from the time which concern the October Revolution. It accompanies the other guides to specific periods of 1917 we have already published, as well as the longer, broader reading guide prepared by Alan Woods at the start of the year.


Red October: Remembering the Russian Revolution by Dmitry Davydov

- This brief introductory piece sweeps through the events of 1917 to hone in on the October Revolution, focussing in particular on the nature of the insurrection and workers’ power.

September and the Calling of a Soviet Congress

The History of the Russian Revolution Volume 3: Chapters 38-40 by Leon Trotsky

- The third and final volume of Trotsky’s History deals with the lead up to October and the insurrection itself. These first chapters discuss two problems the Revolution had to solve – the role of the peasantry and the problem of nationalities – before recounting the events of September.

Ten Days That Shook the World: The Coming Storm (second half) by John Reed

- John Reed’s eyes and ears were wide open in the time he spent in Petrograd in 1917, and here they allow him to convey the mood amongst various camps during the September period with vivid clarity.

The Impending Catastrophe and How to Combat It by V I Lenin

- This Lenin pamphlet from September deals with the worsening conditions for the Russian people at the time and proposes concrete transitional demands to combat the situation, which all necessitated Soviet (and therefore Bolshevik) power to be carried through.

The Bolsheviks Must Assume State Power by V I Lenin

- This letter to the Petrograd and Moscow central committees of the Bolsheviks urges them to take the power open to them via the Soviets as soon as possible.

Lessons of the Revolution by V I Lenin

- Writing in September, Lenin draws some general lessons from the Revolution up to that point.

Six Red Months in Russia: Chapters 3-6 by Louise Bryant

- Here Bryant charts events from the time of her arrival in Petrograd to the Democratic Conference from her own distinctive viewpoint.

Preparing for Insurrection

Insurrection by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

- This article, usually credited to Marx but actually written by Engels based on Marx’s notes and discussions between the two, uses the example of the revolutions in 1848 to explain the art of insurrection.

Marxism and Insurrection by V I Lenin

- Here Lenin demolishes the view that treating insurrection an art instrumental to the victory of the class struggle was somehow a deviation from Marx’s own theories. Indeed, he states it would be a betrayal of Marxism to treat it otherwise.

The History of the Russian Revolution Volume 3: Chapters 41-43 by Leon Trotsky

- In these chapters, Trotsky deals with the Military Revolutionary Committee which organised the insurrection, Lenin’s role and the question of how to go about the act of insurrection.

Ten Days That Shook the World: On the Eve by John Reed

- Reed describes in this chapter of his account how the provisional government was on its knees even before the insurrection.

Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power? by V I Lenin

- Lenin’s now-famous pamphlet answers the suggestions of the petty-bourgeois and bourgeois that the Bolsheviks would not have enough of a base in society to keep hold of power even if they took it. This pamphlet was written in September, long before the Bolsheviks agreed to plan the insurrection, demonstrating the far-sightedness of Lenin’s thinking.

The Tasks of the Revolution by V I Lenin

- Here Lenin reiterates in brief the immediately achievable tasks of the Revolution.

To the Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers! by V I Lenin

- Lenin issues a call directly to the masses over the heads of the more conservative elements within the Bolshevik leadership.

The Crisis Has Matured by V I Lenin

- Written in the second half of October, Lenin explains that the political and economic crisis in Russia has now reached a point where the insurrection is a matter of utmost urgency.

Letter to the Bolshevik Central Committee by V I Lenin

- Here Lenin calls on the Bolshevik leadership to take action against the treacherous behaviour of Kamenev and Zinoviev in leaking the plan for insurrection to the class enemies of the Bolsheviks.

Meeting of the Bolshevik Central Committee October 23rd (10th)

- These minutes note the passing of Lenin’s resolution calling for the armed uprising against Kerensky’s government.

Letter to Comrades by V I Lenin

- This letter to member of the Bolshevik Party addresses vacillations of certain party members over the question of insurrection and Soviet power.

The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk: Part 2 by Leon Trotsky

- This part of Trotsky’s contemporary booklet covers in broad strokes the period from September, including the Democratic conference, to October the winning over of wavering elements of the soldiers to the side of insurrection and the insurrection itself.

Six Red Months in Russia: Chapter 7 by Louise Bryant

- In this chapter Bryant discusses the meetings of pre-parliament and the sham Council of the Russian Republic, and its actions in the lead-up to the insurrection.

My Life: From July to October (last part) by Leon Trotsky

- Here Trotsky describes the rising of the tide with the Bolsheviks and their winning of the Petrograd Soviet in the run-up to the insurrection from his own experience.

The Lessons of October: On the Eve of the October Revolution – The Aftermath by Leon Trotsky

- This chapter of Trotsky’s famous pamphlet deals with how the Bolsheviks prepared for insurrection in the days before it.

Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution: The Year of the Revolution – Section 6 by Alan Woods

- Alan Woods’ comprehensive history of the Bolsheviks here moves on to the Bolsheviks’ winning of a majority in the Soviets and then the preparations for the October insurrection.

The October Revolution

The History of the Russian Revolution Volume 3: Chapters 44-46 by Leon Trotsky

- Here Trotsky covers the action of the insurrection itself, from the taking of Petrograd and the arresting of the coalition government to an overview of the whole action.

My Life: The Deciding Night by Leon Trotsky

- Here Trotsky gives an astonishing eye-witness account of the insurrection as one of its leaders and perhaps its principal actor.

Ten Days That Shook the World: The Fall of the Provisional Government – The Committee for Salvation by John Reed

- These chapters cover the beginning of the ten days themselves, from the start of the insurrection to the establishing of Bolshevik power in Petrograd

Smolny on the Night of the Storm by Anatoly Lunacharsky

- Lunacharsky, a leading Bolshevik activist who, like Trotsky, joined the party late via the Inter-district Committee group, provides vivid recollections of the insurrection’s engine room on the night it began.

The October Days by Nadezhda Krupskaya

- Lenin’s wife and Bolshevik Party activist Krupskaya describes in detail Lenin’s activity from August right through to the October Revolution and its aftermath.

Six Red Months in Russia: Chapter 8 by Louise Bryant

- This chapter of her memoir provides Bryant’s own perspective of the insurrection itself.

Reply to Questions from Peasants by V I Lenin

- This note from Lenin attempts to clarify for groups of peasants who do not yet fully understand the situation where the state power lies.

To All Party Members and to All the Working Classes of Russia by V I Lenin

- In this statement, Lenin reiterates the installation of Soviet power and warns that the first task now is for all Bolsheviks and workers to defend and consolidate this power against attempted counter-attacks, sabotages and the divisive propaganda of the bourgeois.

To the Citizens of Russia!

- The formal announcement that the Kerensky government has been overthrown and the Soviets have taken power.

The Lessons of October: The October Insurrection and Soviet Legality by Leon Trotsky

- Here Trotsky outlines the authority of the Soviets which made the October insurrection both necessary and fundamentally democratic. He also demonstrates the hollowness of illusions in constitutional legality, which even some Bolsheviks attempted to place before the progress of the revolution in October 1917.

Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution: The Year of the Revolution – Section 7 by Alan Woods

- Woods finishes by explaining the democratic nature of the insurrection, giving a brief account of the event itself and an account of the Soviet Congress.

Immediate Aftermath

The History of the Russian Revolution Volume 3: Chapter 47 by Leon Trotsky

- In the final chapter of his book, Trotsky describes the Soviet Congress which ran alongside the insurrection and ratified it with votes from the All-Russian delegates.

Ten Days That Shook the World: The Revolutionary Front – The Peasants’ Congress by John Reed

- The rest of the ten days were a week of exhaustive struggle, beginning with the consolidation of the forces on the side of insurrection, continuing through a counter-revolutionary backlash led by Kerensky, and ending with the All-Russia Peasants’ Congress, as John Reed describes.

The History of the Russian Revolution to Brest-Litovsk by Leon Trotsky

- In this part of his booklet, Trotsky deals with the formation of the Soviet government and the first days of the new power.

Draft Resolution on Freedom of the Press by V I Lenin

- Lenin’s resolution explains how a real free press will work under workers’ control.

The Salaries of High-Ranking Officials and Employees by V I Lenin

- This decree, which was carried through for the most part, capped the upper limit of officials’ salaries to be more in line with the average wage of a skilled worker.

Draft Decree on the Right of Recall by V I Lenin

- This decree ensured that any state official at every level was fully accountable by being subject to recall by their electorate.

Draft of a Manifesto to the Peasantry by V I Lenin

- This manifesto seeks to pose demands in the peasants’ interests which will win their support, principally their right to the land.

The Program for Peace by Leon Trotsky

- Written in November 1917, this program outlines the steps the Bolsheviks would have to take to secure a general democratic peace for the Russian masses.

My Life: In Power by Leon Trotsky

- In this chapter of his autobiography, Trotsky gives a more personal account of the first day of power.

Reflections on 1917

The History of the Russian Revolution Volume 3: Conclusion by Leon Trotsky

- The conclusion to Trotsky’s mighty work gives a brief overview of the events of 1917, and touches upon their legacy.

Women Fighters in the Days of the Great October Revolution by Alexandra Kollontai

- Kollontai retrospectively details the women who played a leading role in the Revolution.

In Defence of October by Leon Trotsky

- This speech delivered in 1932 explains the process of revolution in 1917 and defends October against bourgeois slanders.

Russian Revolution: 50 Years After by Ted Grant

- Ted Grant looks back on the Revolution during a period when the Stalinist Soviet Union found itself mired in stagnation.

The Meaning of October by Alan Woods

- In this article Alan Woods gives an overview of 1917 and recaps briefly the events of the years which led to the Revolution.

What the Russian Revolution Achieved and Why It Degenerated by Alan Woods

- Here Woods answers some of the falsifications levelled at the Revolution, gives examples of its achievement and explains the bureaucratic degeneration it later suffered.

If you found these reading guides useful or inspiring, check out for a comprehensive interactive guide to the Bolshevik Revolution as a whole. The website has links to the #1917Live Twitter feed giving hour-by-hour covering of the Revolution’s events in real-time. The International Marxist Tendency is also holding numerous events around the world this month to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution, so check out this calendar to find one near you. And it’s one thing to read about a revolution 100 years ago, but if you’ve been inspired to get involved in revolutionary events today, join us!