The Russian people entered an autumn of difficulties as a result of four years of war. An enervated Russian economy could not handle the extractions demanded by the Tsarist military to prosecute its sector of World War I. As famine stalked the land, the small capitalist class demonstrated its nastiness. Weakened by English capital and the feudal organization of Russian society, the bourgeoisie had neither liberalism nor noblesse oblige. Representative of this bourgeois class was the industrialist Pavel Ryabushinsky, who longed for the "gaunt hand of famine" to seize the Revolution by the throat and throttle it.
Ryabushinsky was not a marginal figure. His family controlled the textile industry, with 4,500 employees and a turnover of around 8 million rubles in 1914. Their position in the textile business was improved by their ownership of the Moscow Commercial Bank (capital stock of 25 million rubles). In 1915, Pavel Ryabushinsky was elected Chairman of the Moscow Stock Exchange Commission, and thereafter head of the War Industry Committee. He was a major backer of the attempted military coup by Kornilov, and he tried his best to distort the meaning of that putsch. "In order to defend the state," he said, "force can only be countered by force." But the state was not in danger, only who controlled it, and there was no attempt by the radicals to use force in their aims at this time. With Kornilov's defeat, the capitalists went back to their well-known methods. Russian capital moved with speed to cut down the Soviets and to strengthen their position: their various moves (such as a slow-down of production) resulted in an increased misery for the population and acute danger for the millions of under-armed Russians at the front. In September 1917, the bread ration for the citizens of Petrograd and Moscow fell to 200 grams per day. Stocks of foodstuff deteriorated, and the Kerensky government proposed nothing in the way of relief.
Instead, the Menshevik regime proposed to concede more to the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie at the expense of the people. Their ideological guru, Plekhanov (who made his career as the main interpreter of Marx for the Russian people), told the Assembly of States that the radicals should forgo any transformative change. The first priority was to support the growth of Russian capitalism, Plekhanov argued, because only after capitalism could Russia consider a transition to socialism. "Russia is now undergoing a capitalist revolution," he told the Assembly. "When a country is undergoing a capitalist revolution, the seizure of power, of complete political power by the working class is utterly inappropriate. And if the proletariat does not wish to injure its own interests, and the bourgeoisie does not want to injure its own interests, both classes should bona fide seek ways of economic and political agreement." In other words, Plekhanov argued that Russia must first go through a capitalist stage where the bourgeoisie shares political power (in a position of dominance over the proletariat), and only then seek socialism. Plekhanov invoked the "unhappy memory of Lenin" because he advocated "an immediate seizure of power" by the proletariat. This distorted Lenin's views, but to no consequence. The Mensheviks wanted to maintain their unity with the industrial and commercial bourgeoisie, and their distance from the Bolsheviks.
As Plekhanov spoke inside the Assembly, Moscow's working-class went out on strike against it. Four hundred thousand people followed the Bolshevik Party's call for a twenty-four hour protest. Petrograd's Soviet too began to move toward the Bolsheviks.
The Bolsheviks refused to compromise or collaborate with the bourgeoisie on the principle that capital would not be able to nor would want to give relief to the vast mass of the population. The Mensheviks claimed that they were doing all they could, but Lenin wrote a pamphlet that proved them wrong. In The Impending Catastrophe and How to Prevent It, Lenin offered a series of reforms that, if implemented properly, would lift the heavy hand of famine from Russia. He called for the nationalization of banks and land, of the creation of consumer societies, and what not. These were not radical in themselves, although, as Lenin noted, these reforms would take steps toward socialism.
In an Assembly debate, the Menshevik leader Tseretelli challenged any single party to rule the government. This was a mock challenge, because the Mensheviks had begun to spread the word that Russia's problems were intractable, and that no one could solve them. Lenin rose and said that the Bolsheviks, very much in the minority, would bear the responsibility. The delegates laughed at him. His claim was a declaration of principle, as Isaac Deutscher wrote, not a matter of immediate purpose. Lenin demonstrated to the masses that the Bolsheviks had a plan, and their views were in accord with the rising tide of opinion within Russia. Lenin did not want to council adventurism. He asked his Party "patiently to explain their attitude to the masses," and to gain a majority within the Soviets (which were still controlled by the Mensheviks).
The Mensheviks and their dominant class allies refused to acknowledge the Bolshevik proposals. It was in this context that Lenin wrote his (now little read) essay, "On Compromise." The enemies of the Bolsheviks, Lenin wrote, say that the Party is against compromise. This is not true. The Bolsheviks were against compromise with their class enemies, but not with the broad masses of the population, and with the various political parties that still held the allegiance of the masses. In August the Bolsheviks took power over the principle Soviets, mainly as a result of their strong program. The tide had turned in the Bolshevik favor, and yet Lenin did not argue for maximum power. The Party still had sections that did not want to move too fast. Lenin acknowledged that. He asked for a "voluntary compromise" not with "our direct and main class enemy, the bourgeoisie," but "to our nearest adversaries, the 'ruling' petty-bourgeois democratic parties, the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks." Even here there was a caveat, "We may offer a compromise to these parties only by way of exception and only by virtue of the particular situation, which will obviously last only a very short time." All power must vest with the Soviets, and a government of Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks responsible to the Soviets. "The compromise would amount to the following," Lenin wrote, "The Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realized), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods of fighting for this demand."
If the Mensheviks adopted the Bolshevik reform package, and if they forced their ministers to be disciplined by the Soviets, then the Bolsheviks would not call for an insurrection. That was the nature of Lenin's compromise. Lenin urged his own Party, "In my opinion, the Bolsheviks, who are partisans of world revolution and revolutionary methods, may and should consent to this compromise only for the sake of the revolution's peaceful development – an opportunity that is extremely rare in history and extremely valuable, an opportunity that only occurs once in a while." From this, Lenin drew a theoretical lesson: "The task of a truly revolutionary party is not to declare that it is impossible to renounce all compromises, but to be able, through all compromises, when they are unavoidable, to remain true to its principles, to its class, to its revolutionary purpose, to its task of paving the way for revolution and educating the mass of the people for victory in the revolution."
The Mensheviks rejected the compromise. They sent the military out to get the Bolsheviks, and initiated the forcible overthrow of the state. In the middle of September, Lenin noted that the slogan "All Power to the Soviets" no longer indicated the path of peace; it was now "equivalent to a call for an uprising."
No. 4 is next; on the actual mechanics of the insurrection and revolution.