One century ago, in February 1917, the Russian masses rose up to overthrow the hated and rotten Tsarist regime. This marked the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Alan Woods examines the events surrounding the February Revolution, including the establishment of the Provisional Government and the stance of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
The First World War was becoming a catastrophe for Russia. From the front line there was news of defeat after defeat. The breakdown of the economy produced a shortage of bread. Crowds of half-starved and desperate women queued outside shops for bread that never arrived. But at the top of Russian society things were very different.
A degenerate and absolutist clique ruled the land with an iron hand. Wealthy aristocrats and bankers held parties where the champagne flowed like water. Serving officers who should have been at the front line, where their men were suffering unspeakable horrors, were regular guests at these haunts where high-class prostitutes rubbed shoulders with millionaires and courtiers.
The whiff of scandal spread its intolerable stench out from the tsar’s court to every corner of society, every factory and every filthy waterlogged trench. The attempt to forestall revolution by a palace coup through the assassination of the degenerate monk Rasputin ended in failure. The liberal bourgeois opposition in the Duma begged the tsar to introduce change from the top, to win the people’s confidence in order to prevent revolution from below – to no avail. Nicholas replied disdainfully: “What is all this talk about the people’s confidence? Let the people merit my confidence.”
But beneath the surface of apparent tranquility the molecular process of revolution was proceeding apace. The year 1917 was ushered in by a strike wave in Petrograd, after a short lull in November-December 1916. In January alone, 270,000 were on strike, 177,000 in Petrograd. The strike was accompanied by mass meetings and demonstrations. This was the beginning of a general movement of the masses.
The tipping point was reached on 23rd February – the date of International Women’s Day under the old Julian calendar used by Russia up to 1918 and which is used for all dates in this article.
That morning a 25-year old sailor, Fyodr Raskolnikov looked out of the window and thought, “Today is Women’s Day. Will something happen in the streets today?” Something did happen. Mass meetings protested against the war, the high cost of living and the bad conditions of women workers. Women marched on the factories, calling the workers out. The whole city of Petrograd was seething with life. The lightning speed with which the women and young people moved caught even the activists by surprise.
The next day, 200,000 workers—more than half of the Petrograd working class—were on strike. There were massive factory meetings and demonstrations. Crowds of people swept past the police and troops to reach the city centre shouting “Bread!” “Peace!” and “Down with the Autocracy!” The revolution had begun and immediately acquired a tremendous impetus, sweeping all before it.
The tsar had personally signed the order to fire on demonstrators to “put an end to the disorder in the capital tomorrow without fail.” On 25th February, some troops were ordered to open fire on unarmed demonstrators. At first the soldiers fired in the air. The Pavlovsk regiment was then ordered to fire on workers but instead opened fire on the police. This was a decisive turning point. The powerful forces the state thought were at its disposal melted away like the snow in spring.
On paper, the regime had ample forces at its disposal but, at the moment of truth, the regime found itself suspended in mid-air. Once the proletariat began to move, there was nothing to stop it. The February revolution (as it is known, although, under the post-1918 calendar, it actually took place in March) was relatively peaceful because no serious force was prepared to defend the old regime. There was widespread fraternisation between troops and strikers. Workers went to the barracks to appeal to their brothers in uniform.
Even the Cossacks, a special elite force used to repress protests, proved to be unreliable. The mounted Cossacks remained passive as the workers pressed forward, even passing beneath the bellies of the horses. One demonstrator noted that as he passed under a horse, the Cossack looked at him and winked. That small incident tells us everything we need to know.
After 27th February, most of the capital was in the hands of the workers and soldiers, including bridges, arsenals, railway stations, the telegraph and the post office. Basing themselves on the experience of 1905, the workers set up soviets (workers’ councils) to take over the running of society. By March, the now-powerless Tsar Nicholas had abdicated and the Romanov dynasty had passed into history. Power was in the hands of the working class and soldiers but, lacking the necessary leadership, they did not carry the revolution through to the end. This was the central paradox of the February revolution.
The reformist leaders (the SRs and Mensheviks) who made up the bulk of the Soviet Executive Committee, had no perspective of taking power but instead fell over themselves in their haste to hand over power to the bourgeoisie, although the latter had played no role in the revolution and were terrified by it. Profoundly convinced that the bourgeoisie was the only class qualified to rule, they were anxious to give the power conquered by the workers and soldiers to the “enlightened” section of the bourgeoisie at the earliest opportunity.
However, these liberals had no real mass base of support in society. These representatives of big business already knew that they could only hold the line by leaning on the support of the Soviet leaders. The old order expected that this would be just a temporary arrangement. The masses would soon tire of this madness. The movement would die down and then they could simply give the “socialists” a kick in the teeth and restore order. But for the time being, they were a necessary evil to be put up with, for fear of something worse.
The bourgeois liberals hastily moved to take control. A committee, headed by Mikhail Rodzianko, the former Speaker of the Duma, proclaimed itself the Provisional Government of Russia. Another prominent member of this committee, Shulgin accidentally let slip the real reasons for the formation of the Provisional Government, when he remarked: “if we do not take power, others will take it for us, those scoundrels who have already elected all sorts of scoundrels in the factories.” The “scoundrels” he referred to were the members of the workers’ councils (“soviets”), those broadly-based committees of struggle, democratically elected in the workplaces, which immediately made their appearance.
On 2nd March, the Provisional Government was formally constituted. It was mainly made up of big landlords and industrialists. Prince Lvov was designated as chairman of the council of ministers. The Foreign Minister was the chief of the Cadet party, Milyukov. The Finance Minister was the wealthy sugar manufacturer and landowner Tereshchenko. Trade and Industry was in the hands of the textile manufacturer Konovalov. War and Navy went to the Octobrist Guchkov. Agriculture was given to the Cadet Shingarev.
To this reactionary gang of rogues, the Soviet handed the government of Russia! The aim of the liberals was to halt the revolution by making cosmetic changes from the top which would preserve as much of the old regime as possible. In this grotesque comedy of errors, the workers, who had shed their blood to overthrow the Romanovs, handed power to their leaders, who, in turn, handed it to the bourgeois liberals, who, in turn, offered it back to the Romanovs.
All this was not lost on the workers and soldiers, especially the activists, whose attitude to the bourgeois politicians in the Provisional Government was characterised by a growing feeling of distrust. But they trusted their leaders, the Mensheviks and SRs, the “moderate socialists” who made up the majority of the Soviet Executive Committee and who were constantly telling them that they must be patient, that the first task was to consolidate democracy, prepare to convene the Constituent Assembly and so on.
The Menshevik and SR leaders who dominated the Soviet initially had a number of advantages over the Bolsheviks. They had the “big names” from the Duma (parliamentary) group, people known to the masses through the legal press during the war years. They also offered what appeared to be an easy way out to the mass of politically untutored workers and peasants who now flooded onto the scene, intoxicated with democratic illusions.
The Mensheviks and SRs clung to the bourgeois liberals. The latter clung to what remained of the old order. The workers and peasants, only recently awakened to political life, were striving to find their way and as yet lacked the experience and self-confidence to rely on their own strength. The Menshevik orators and “big names” overawed them and silenced their doubts.
In the name of “unity” and “defence of democracy”, unity of all “progressive forces”, etc., they used the argument that the working class could not transform society “on its own” and echoed the dismal litany traditionally rattled off by the reformist leaders then as now to convince the workers that they are powerless to change society and must forever put up with the rule of Capital. They argued the Soviet would “put pressure on the bourgeois liberals” to act in the workers’ interests. In this way was born the abortion of “dual power”.
The Bolsheviks in February
The growth of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 must represent the most spectacular transformation in the entire history of political parties. In February the Party represented a very small number – probably no more than 8,000, in a huge country with a population in the region of 150 million. Yet, by October the Bolsheviks were strong enough to lead millions of workers and peasants to the seizure of power.
The rank and file Bolshevik workers in the factories displayed a healthy skepticism and distrust of the Provisional Government from the outset. But the arrival of the exiles Kamenev and Stalin from Siberia instantly imparted a sharp rightward slant to the political positions taken by the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. This was immediately reflected in the pages of their paper. In Pravda on March 14, two days after his return, Kamenev wrote an editorial in which he asked: “What purpose would it serve to speed things up, when things were already taking place at such a rapid pace?” Stalin held the same position as Kamenev, only more cautiously.
Stalin and Kamenev had capitulated to the enormous pressure of “public opinion.” The position they advocated effectively eradicated the lines of demarcation between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. So much so, that the Bolshevik March Conference actually considered the question of fusion. Indeed, if the Stalin-Kamenev line had been accepted, there would have been no serious reason to maintain the existence of two separate parties.
Stalin had once described the differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism as “a storm in a tea-cup”. In the minutes of the March Party Conference we read the following: “Stalin: There is no use running ahead and anticipating disagreements. There is no party life without disagreements. We will live down trivial disagreements within the party. But there is one question—it is impossible to unite what cannot be united. We will have a single party with those who agree on Zimmerwald and Kienthal…”
If this opportunist line had not been corrected it would have dealt a death blow to the revolution. In order to convince the party to change course, Lenin had to wage a ferocious struggle that was continued throughout 1917 and finally ended in victory.
But this was not achieved immediately or easily. From far-off Switzerland Lenin watched with growing anxiety the evolution of the line pursued by the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd.
Immediately on hearing the news of the tsar’s overthrow he telegraphed Petrograd on March 6: “Our tactic: no trust in and no support of the new government; Kerensky is particularly suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties.” Lenin bombarded Pravda with letters and articles demanding that the workers break with the bourgeois liberals and take power into their own hands.
As soon as Pravda had recommenced publication, Lenin started to send his famous Letters from Afar. Reading these articles and comparing them to the speeches at the March conference, we seem to be in two different worlds. When Lenin’s letters reached the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd, they were aghast. A bitter conflict now opened up between Lenin and his closest comrades.
The Bolshevik leaders were so embarrassed by Lenin’s letters that they hesitated for several days before publishing. Even then, they printed only one of the two, which was censored to cut out all those passages where Lenin opposed any agreement with the Mensheviks. The same fate awaited the remainder of Lenin’s articles. They were just not published or issued in a mutilated form.
In Pravda No. 27, Kamenev wrote: “As for Comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us to be unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.” This accurately conveys the opinions of Kamenev, Stalin and most of the other “Old Bolsheviks” in the spring of 1917.
Out of all the leaders of the Social Democracy at that time, only one held a position that completely matched that defended by Lenin. That man was Leon Trotsky, with whom Lenin had clashed so frequently in the past. When Trotsky first heard of the February revolution, he was still in exile in New York. Immediately he wrote a series of articles in the paper Novy Mir.
The logic of events had pushed Lenin and Trotsky together. Independently, and starting from different directions, they came to the same conclusion: the bourgeoisie cannot solve the problems of Russia. The workers must take power.
At a time when the “Old Bolsheviks”, against Lenin’s explicit advice, were moving closer to the Mensheviks, Lenin’s ideas seemed to them to be pure “Trotskyism”, and in a way they were not wrong.
“All Power to the Soviets"
The line usually put by bourgeois historians is that the October revolution was a mere “coup “carried out by a conspiratorial minority led by Lenin, whereas the February Revolution was an elemental, spontaneous movement of the masses. The implied conclusion is that the later revolution was a bad thing, leading inexorably to dictatorship, while the first was a revolution “for democracy” —a movement of the whole of society. Both these versions are false.
Those historians who specialize in being wise after the event now claim that if the February revolution had not been “ruined” by the Bolsheviks in Russia it would have blossomed into a democratic paradise and all the subsequent problems would have been avoided. This is entirely false. The Kornilov episode later that year showed exactly where the abortion of dual power was leading. The Provisional Government was merely a facade behind which the forces of reaction were gathering. The choice before the Russian people was not democracy or dictatorship but one where either the workers or the Russian reactionaries would take power.
The truth is that the Russian workers and peasants already had power in their hands in February. Had the soviet leadership acted decisively, the revolution would have taken place peacefully, without civil war, because they had the support of the overwhelming majority of society. The only reason why a peaceful revolution was not immediately achieved in Russia was because of the cowardice and treachery of the reformist leaders in the soviets.
The Bolsheviks were in a minority in the soviets, which were dominated by the reformist parties, the SRs and Mensheviks. That is why Lenin put forward the slogan ‘All power to the soviets.’ The central task was not the seizure of power but the winning over of the majority who had illusions in the reformists.
From March right up to the eve of the October insurrection, Lenin insistently demanded that the reformist leaders of the soviets should take power into their own hands, arguing that this would guarantee a peaceful transformation of society. He guaranteed that, if the reformist leaders were to take power, the Bolsheviks would limit themselves to the peaceful struggle for a majority inside the soviets.
The Mensheviks and SRs refused to take power because they firmly believed that the bourgeoisie must rule. As a result, the initiative inevitably passed over to the forces of reaction. Behind the shirt-tails of the Russian popular front (the Provisional Government) the ruling class was regrouping and preparing its revenge. The result was the reaction of the "July Days." The workers suffered a defeat, the Bolsheviks were suppressed and Lenin was forced to go into hiding in Finland.
This prepared the ground for counter-revolution. General Kornilov marched on Petrograd to crush the revolution. The Bolsheviks advanced the slogan of the united front to defeat Kornilov. This was the turning point of the Russian revolution. Through the use of timely transitional demands (peace, bread and land, all power to the soviets) and flexible tactics (the united front) the Bolsheviks won over the majority of the workers and soldiers in the soviets. Only then did Lenin advance the slogan of the seizure of power, which led to the victory of the Bolsheviks in October, on 7 November 1917 in the modern calendar.
The October revolution, far from being a coup, was the most popular and democratic revolution in history. If the Bolsheviks had not taken power when they did the Russian revolution would have gone down to defeat like the Paris Commune. Russian fascism would have come to power five years before Mussolini. Instead, the Russian workers and peasants took power into their hands through the Soviets and opened up a new and inspiring vista before the human race. Rosa Luxemburg’s final judgement on the Bolshevik Party can stand as the last word of the history of the greatest revolutionary party in history:
“What is in order is to distinguish the essential from the non-essential, the kernel from the accidental excrescences in the policies of the Bolsheviks. In the present period, when we face decisive final struggles in all the world, the most important problem of socialism was and is the burning question of our time. It is not a matter of this or that secondary question of tactics, but of the capacity for action of the proletariat, the strength to act, the will to power of socialism as such. In this, Lenin and Trotsky and their friends were the first, those who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’
“This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realisation of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labour in the entire world. In Russia the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to Bolshevism.”