Left Socialist Revolutionaries

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The Left Socialist Revolutionaries (Left SRs) were an offshoot of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, a party that had arisen in 1900 as an outgrowth of nineteenth-century Russian populism. Both the SRs and their later Left SR branch espoused a socialist revolution for Russia carried out by and based upon the radical intelligentsia, the industrial workers, and the peasantry. After the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, some party leaders in the emigration, such as Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya, Andrei A. Argunov, and Nikolai D. Avksentiev, offered conditional, temporary support for the tsarist government's war efforts. Meanwhile, under the guidance of Viktor Chernov and famous populist leader Mark Natanson, the Left SRs or SRInternationalists, as they were variously called, insisted that the party maintain an internationalist opposition to the world war. These developments, mirrored along Social Democrats, caused conflicts within and almost split the party inside Russia. By mid-1915, the antiwar forces began to predominate among SR organizations that were just beginning to recover from police attacks after the war's outbreak. Much of the party's worker, peasant, soldier, and student cadres turned toward leftist internationalism, whereas prowar (defensist) support came primarily from the party's intelligentsia. By 1916, many SR (in effect Left SR) organizations poured out antigovernment and antiwar propaganda, took part in strikes, and agitated in garrisons and at the fronts. In all these activities, they cooperated closely with Bolsheviks, Left Mensheviks, and anarchists of similar outlook. This coalition and the mass movements it spurred wore down the incompetent tsarist state and overthrew it on March 12 (February 27, O.S.),1917.

As SR leaders returned to the Russian capital, they reunified leftist and rightist factions and emphasized the party's multiclass approach. Chernov, who in 1914-1915 had helped form the Left SR movement, now sided with the party moderates by approving SR participation in the Provisional Government and the Russian military offensive of June 1917. Until midsummer the party's inclusive strategy seemed to work, as huge recruitments occurred everywhere. The SRs seemed poised to wield power in revolutionary Russia. Simultaneously, leftists such as Natanson, Boris Kamkov, and Maria Spiridonova, noting the growing worker-soldier uneasiness with the party's policies, began to reshape the leftist movement and cooperated with other leftist parties such as the Bolsheviks and Left Mensheviks. In this respect, they helped recreate the wartime leftist coalition that had proved so effective against the tsarist regime. By late summer and fall, the Left SRs, acting as a de facto separate party within the SR party and working at odds with it, were doing as much as the Bolsheviks to popularize the idea of soviet and socialist power. During OctoberNovember, they opposed Bolshevik unilateralism in overthrowing the Provisional Government, instead of which they proposed a multiparty, democratic version of soviet power.

Even after the October Revolution, the Left SRs hoped for continued coexistence with other SRs within a single party, bereft, they hoped, only of the extreme right wing. When the Fourth Congress of the SR Party (November 1917) dashed those hopes by refusing any reconciliation with the leftists, the Left SRs responded by convening their own party congress and officially constituting themselves as a separate party. In pursuit of multiparty soviet power, during December 1917 they reaffirmed their block with the communists (the Bolsheviks used this term after October 1917) and entered the Soviet government, taking the commissariats of justice, land, and communications and entering the supreme military council and the secret police (Cheka ). They favored the Constituent Assembly's dismissal during January 1918 but sharply opposed other communist policies. Daily debates between communist and Left SR leaders characterized the high councils of government. When Lenin promulgated the BrestLitovsk Peace with Germany in March 1918 against heavy opposition within the soviets and his own party, the Left SRs resigned from the government but remained as a force in the soviets and the allRussian soviet executive committee.

Having failed to moderate communist policies by working within the government, the Left SRs now appealed directly to workers and peasants, combining radical social policy with democratic outlooks on the exercise of power. Dismayed by Leninist policy toward the peasantry, the economic hardships imposed by the German peace treaty, and blatant communist falsification of elections to the Fifth Congress of Soviets during early July 1918, the Left SR leadership decided to assassinate Count Mirbach, the German representative in Moscow. Often misinterpreted as an attempt to seize power, the successful but politically disastrous assassination had the goal of breaking the peace treaty. The Left SRs hoped that this act would garner wide enough support to counterbalance the communists' hold on the organs of power. Regardless, Lenin managed to placate the Germans and propagate the idea that the Left SRs had attempted an antisoviet coup d'état. Just as SRs and Mensheviks had already been hounded from the soviets, now the Left SRs suffered the same fate and, like them, entered the anticommunist underground. In response, some Left SRs formed separate parties (the Popular Communists and the Revolutionary Communists) with the goal of continuing certain Left SR policies in cooperation with the communists, with whom both groups eventually merged. Throughout the civil war, the Left SRs charted a course between the Reds and Whites as staunch supporters of soviet rather than communist power. They maintained a surprising degree of activism, inspiring and often leading workers' strikes, Red Army and Navy mutinies, and peasant uprisings. They helped create the conditions responsible for the introduction of the 1921 New Economic Policy, some of whose economic compromises they opposed. During the early 1920s they succumbed to the concerted attacks of the secret police. The Left SRs' chief merit, their reliance on processes of direct democracy, turned out to be their downfall in the contest for power with communist leaders willing to use repressive methods.

See also: civil war of 19171922; february revolution; october revolution; socialism; socialist revolutionaries


Melancon, Michael. (1990). The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian AntiWar Movement, 1914-1917. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

Mstislavskii, Sergei. (1988). Five Days That Shook the World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Radkey, Oliver. (1958). The Agrarian Foes of Bolshevism: Promise and Default of the Russian Socialist Revolutionaries, February-October 1917. New York: Columbia University Press.

Radkey, Oliver. (1963). The Sickle under the Hammer: The Russian Socialist Revolutionaries in the Early Months of Soviet Rule. New York: Columbia University Press.

Steinberg, I.N. (1935). Spiridonova: Revolutionary Terrorist. London: Methuen.

Steinberg, I.N. (1953). In the Workshop of the Revolution. New York: Rinehart.

Michael Melancon