As the name suggests, the Left SRs were a radical left-wing faction of the Socialist-Revolutionary party. Their members participated in the October Revolution and aligned with the Bolsheviks at the Second Congress of Soviets. The Left SRs played an important part in shaping the new society but were crushed by the Bolsheviks after a failed uprising in 1918.
Split from the SRs
As Russia’s largest socialist party, the Socialist-Revolutionaries contained a diversity of views and were prone to differences of opinion and factionalism. World War I and the February Revolution only served to widen these divisions.
The majority of SR members were in favour of continuing the war effort – either as a patriotic gesture or a defensive measure – but the party’s radical left adopted an anti-war position, similar to the Bolsheviks.
Some moderate SR leaders became ministers in the Provisional Government during 1917. The party’s continued support for the war, along with the lack of progress on land reform and redistribution, led the Left SR faction to align with the Bolsheviks.
The split in the SR movement was finalised by the events of October 1917. Dozens of Left SRs contributed to the overthrow of the Provisional Government. The chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee, Pavel Lazimir, was a Left SR, not a Bolshevik.
The Left SR-Bolshevik alliance
On October 26th, when the Second Congress of Soviets heard that Red Guards had arrested the Provisional Government and seized power on behalf of the Soviets, moderate SR delegates stormed out of the building (and were famously consigned to the “dustbin of history” by Leon Trotsky). The Left SR delegates chose to remain. They were later expelled from the mainstream SR party so organised to form their own.
From this point, the Left SRs became independent but in most aspects, they aligned with the Bolsheviks. Shortly after the October takeover, Vladimir Lenin offered them a role in a coalition government but the Left SRs wanted a Soviet-based government (a “united revolutionary front”, one called it) and turned down the offer. In December 1917, they changed their minds and formed a coalition government with the Bolsheviks, accepting seven portfolios in the Sovnarkom.
The de facto leader of the Left SRs at this point was Maria Spiridonova, a young female activist who had once murdered a tsarist police commander on his doorstep. Under Spiridonova, the Left SRs supported most of the Bolshevik programme, though some significant points of difference emerged during the first weeks of 1918.
Differences in the coalition
Land reform, reorganisation of the peasantry and rural self-sufficiency remained at the forefront of the Left SR agenda. Lenin, however, rejected these policies as “bourgeois-tinted dreams”.
Some Left SRs were also concerned about the exclusion of Soviet and non-Bolshevik socialist voices from the government. Left SR leaders opposed the closure of the Constituent Assembly in 1918 but were outnumbered and outvoted by the Bolsheviks.
The increasing use of violence and terror also caused concerns in the party. The extra-legal powers wielded by the emerging Cheka were accepted as necessary by some Left SRs but condemned by others. Isaac Steinberg, the Left SR lawyer who served as commissar for justice in the first Sovnarkom, regularly criticised the Cheka and called for an inquiry into its conduct, with no success.
The split over Brest-Litovsk
This fragile alliance was brought to an end by the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Left SRs opposed vehemently. The Left SRs considered the March 1918 treaty a treacherous “sell-out”, evidence of the Bolsheviks’ cruel disregard for Russian peasants living in affected territories.
When the Bolsheviks accepted and ratified the Brest-Litovsk agreement in March 1918, Left SR delegates withdrew from the Sovnarkom, leaving it entirely in Bolshevik hands. They continued to participate in the Congress of Soviets.
The measures taken by the Bolsheviks in 1918 only widened the rift between the two groups. Among the Bolshevik policies bitterly opposed by the Left SRs were the imposition of state control in factories; the restoration of the death penalty; and the introduction of war communism.
In the spring of 1918, the German army occupied Ukraine and violently suppressed peasant opposition there, while the Bolshevik government did nothing. The outraged Left SRs lobbied the Fourth Congress of Soviets (July 1918) to have the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk nullified, calling for a new declaration of war against Germany. The motion was defeated by the Bolshevik majority.
The 1918 uprising
The following day, the Left SRs took action into their own hands, sending agents to assassinate the German ambassador, Count Mirbach, in Moscow. Inspired by this, a brigade of soldiers loyal to the Left SRs defied the Bolsheviks, refusing orders and even detaining Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the much-feared CHEKA.
The rebels held the upper hand in Moscow, where their troops outnumbered soldiers loyal to the Bolsheviks by almost three to one. With the city’s workers unwilling to defend the Bolsheviks, the Left SRs and their troops might have swept into the Kremlin to arrest Lenin and other members of the government. Their uprising was a spontaneous event, however. Unlike the Bolsheviks in October 1917, their leaders had made no plans or provisions for a takeover.
Though it took several days, the SR revolt was eventually crushed by Red Army and Cheka reinforcements. Around 950 Left SRs were hunted down, arrested and given a show trial in late 1918. They were treated with comparative leniency, with only 13 given short sentences in Soviet labour camps. Maria Spiridonova herself was sentenced to just one year in prison.
The Left SRs declared illegal
The onset of the Civil War and the widening of the Red Terror would bring tougher measures. The Left SRs were declared an illegal organisation in February 1919 and Spiridonova was arrested again for publicly criticising the government. Other individual Left SRs were chased into exile, where they fought with peasant militias against the Red Army during the Civil War. Some withdrew from political life but later agitated against the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s.
As a political party, the Left SRs quickly faded into political oblivion. Their bold attempt to initiate a ‘third Russian Revolution’ in 1918 was the last serious stand against Bolshevism until 1921.
A historian’s view:
“The Left SRs were hardly less radical than the Bolsheviks themselves (they tended to stress peasant interests)… It is nevertheless possible that over a period of years, the coalition could have led to mutual restraint, which might in due course have mitigated the worst features of totalitarianism… It soon became clear, however, that the Bolsheviks did not want to share power with any party.”
1. The Left SRs were a radical faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Like the SRs, they wanted land reform and worker control, but the Left SRs employed terrorism to achieve their goals.
2. This faction moved away from the mainstream Socialist Revolutionary party in 1914-17, mainly because of its support for the Russian war effort in World War I.
3. In 1917, they broke with the mainstream SR party, aligned with the Bolsheviks and participated in the October Revolution.
4. The group’s leaders later joined the Soviet government but walked out in objection to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.
5. In July 1918 the Left SRs murdered the German ambassador and launched a spontaneous attempt to seize control of Moscow and other Russian cities – but this uprising was unplanned and disorganised, so was quickly suppressed.