'From the slow river into a rapid'

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International Women’s Day, 1917: the start of the February Revolution

In February 1917 Russian workers toppled the hated emperor, beginning a process of mass revolt that would lead just eight months later to the overthrow of the entire state machinery. Esme Choonara explains how discontent turned into revolution.

Thousands of workers in the streets, soldiers in mutiny, police stations burned, the prisons opened. These were the incredible events of February 1917 that sparked the Russian Revolution.

The author and journalist Arthur Ransome wrote of these events, “Revolution turns the slow river of political development into a rapid in which the slightest action has an immediate effect.”

So it was that the seismic events of 1917 were initiated not by the great Bolshevik leaders such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, who would come to play such a decisive role later that year, but by hundreds of women textile workers who walked out on strike on International Women’s Day. The women strikers ignored directives from above not to take action and sent delegates to the neighbouring metal factories to call out other workers. By the end of the day 90,000 workers were on strike in Petrograd, Russia’s capital.

No one at the time had any idea that these actions would spark an astonishing movement that would change the history not just of Russia but the world, and would continue to inspire admiration, condemnation and controversy a century later.

From 23 to 27 February (in the Russian calendar of the time — these dates fall in March in today’s calendar) the workers of Petrograd spread their strikes from factory to factory, occupied the streets and repeatedly defied the repressive force of a vicious and desperate autocracy. Workers were joined on their protests by family members, students and other young people, and their numbers continued to swell.

The state responded by sending in armed police and sections of the army, but the workers responded by appealing to the rank and file soldiers not to fire on the masses and to join them in the struggle. Police reports at the time complained that the demonstrators “showed extreme defiance towards the military patrols, at whom, when asked to disperse, they threw stones and lumps of ice dug up from the street”.

Sections of the army began to turn a blind eye to the actions of the masses, and then groups of soldiers started to mutiny and came out in support of the revolution. After just five days the uprising had sparked the collapse of the old Tsarist regime and ushered in a new revolutionary era. The strikes and demonstrations then spread to Moscow and across Russia — drawing thousands more into the process.

Although no one had expected the February Revolution — Lenin himself had said only a month earlier that he did not expect to see a revolution in his lifetime — the discontent that provoked it was easy to understand.

For decades Russian workers and peasants had faced growing poverty and starvation while the rich flaunted their decadent lifestyles. The Romanov family that had ruled the Russian Empire since the 17th century was increasingly despised. The Tsarist regime was in crisis and had come to rely on the mystical rantings of Rasputin, a Siberian monk.

The class divisions and the suffering of the masses were hugely magnified by Russia’s entry into the First World War. The war was initially greeted with a wave of patriotism, but this soon disintegrated as the reality of the mass slaughter became clear. The Russian army was ill-equipped for combat in a war involving modern European armies. It suffered many disastrous defeats — with a devastating effect on Russia’s beleaguered population. Conservative estimates suggest that around 2 million Russians were killed in the fighting along with many more civilians. Thousands more were wounded or captured.

The Russian soldiers were largely conscripted peasants, dragged off the land and sent to fight without sufficient food, proper equipment or decent boots. The generals tried to deal with the many military routs and the growing number of deserters by flogging the soldiers — provoking even more bitterness among the troops. Trotsky records that many soldiers in the trenches began to realise that the generals “are willing to fight to the last…drop of my blood”. Left wing voices and revolutionaries in the army, in particular the Bolsheviks who had opposed the imperialist war from the outset, started to get a greater hearing among rank and file troops.

The war affected the whole of Russian society. The cost of the war was felt most sharply by the 15 million conscripts and their families. But conscripting peasants also caused a crisis in food production. The war effort monopolised transport links, which meant that what food there was often didn’t reach the towns and cities. Food shortages became common and in the days before the February Revolution thousands in Petrograd had to queue for the chance to get a loaf of bread. Strikes had already shaken the capital in the first few weeks of 1917 as class conflict grew.

The revolution sprang from this ferment — a crisis of the rulers alongside the growing misery of the masses and class divisions that were becoming ever clearer. The slogans of the revolution were not therefore just economic — for bread or for wages, but also for an end to war and the abolition of the monarchy.

True to form, the ruling class simultaneously hated and underestimated the revolution. Just hours before being forced out, the Tsar was dismissing the revolutionaries as “hooligan mobs”. Right wing historians always downplay the self-activity of the masses in historic events — dismissing them as manipulated by other forces or ignoring them altogether. We see this in much modern writing, but the first revisionist accounts of the Russian Revolution were actually written at the time — as the incredible events were downplayed as a coup or a mere protest by an ignorant mob.

However, the February Revolution was in fact the opening moment of a process in which the masses of workers and other oppressed and exploited people would go on to repeatedly fight to defend their gains in a struggle to determine which forces would rule Russia.

Even as the decisive February events were in progress, workers and soldiers recreated the same organs of direct democracy seen in the previous Russian Revolution of 1905 — the soviets. These were multi-party councils of elected delegates of workers and soldiers. They directed the work of the revolution and quickly became the real centres of power in Russia.

However, although the revolution had forced out the Tsar, it wasn’t yet strong enough to put power directly into the hands of the workers. The soviets voted to give formal power to a provisional government made up overwhelmingly from the capitalist class. This class had played a cowardly and treacherous role in the revolution–supporting the old regime until it became clear that it was collapsing. Now they adopted the rhetoric of support for the revolution in order to limit its advances and prevent a total overhaul of society.

So the February Revolution, for all its audacity and bravery, handed over power to the capitalists and was therefore unable to solve the issues that had caused the explosion of activity in the first place — the hated war, the food shortages, conditions in the factories, access to land for the poorer peasants.

American journalist John Reed summarised the situation: “The propertied classes wanted merely a political revolution, which would take power from the Tsar and give it to them… On the other hand, the masses of the people wanted real industrial and agrarian democracy.”

Why didn’t the revolution give power to the workers who had led it? Lenin identified two factors: the inexperience of the revolutionary forces and the disproportionate influence of peasants in the soviets. The revolution was still in its earliest days, and it was not yet clear to most of the workers and other revolutionaries that the capitalist class could not be trusted or that only workers’ power would halt the war and solve their problems.

The workers were the best organised sections of the revolution, and as a collective class at the heart of industry, in a position to challenge for power, but they were outnumbered in the soviets by the soldiers’ representatives. The soldiers as we have seen were largely drawn from the peasantry and these were less steeled in class conflict than the workers, and their class position gave them a different outlook.

It was also the case that for all the left parties involved in February, their theory prescribed that power should pass to the capitalists. All the parties, including both the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, had up to this point argued that Russia would need to follow Western Europe in first having a revolution to establish a period of capitalist development before they could hope for a workers’ revolution.

In fact, the events of February had shown that the capitalists were not a revolutionary class in Russia in 1917. They had also shown that workers, although numerically a minority at the time, held enormous economic and social power in Russia and could create the basis for a radical new society. However, in the earliest days of the revolution, before Lenin’s return to Russia, only a handful of activists raised the idea that the revolution should push on to put all power into the hands of the workers and soldiers.

Despite these limitations, the workers and soldiers who had made the February Revolution were not about to forget all the issues that had driven their struggle. The soviets remained the centre of their democratic organisation and debate. There in effect existed two centres of power in Russia after February — the provisional government and the soviets, bizarrely both operating out of the same building. But this dual power — with different class compositions and different agendas — was inherently unstable and could not last indefinitely. One would have to give way to the other.

It would take the twists and turns of the next few months for the majority of workers to learn about their own power and the treachery of the capitalists. This process, bound together with the conscious intervention by the Bolshevik Party, in particular by Lenin, would eventually resolve the contradictions and push the revolution forward to its conclusion as workers took power in October. Through these dramatic months the Bolsheviks went from being a minority in the soviets in February to winning a majority in October when they led the insurrection.

But where were the Bolsheviks in February? Many, including Lenin, were in exile abroad. Trotsky, who became one of the key leaders of the October Revolution, was also abroad — he didn’t officially join the Bolshevik Party until July 1917. Many more Bolsheviks were in prison or in labour camps. In the first days of the February Revolution the official leadership in Petrograd was arrested.

In reality the Bolsheviks, like the other left parties, played little or no official role in the February Revolution. The uprising by the working class took them by surprise. By the time they finally issued a leaflet on the third day of the revolution calling for a general strike, the mass strike in Petrograd was already developing into an armed uprising!

However, years of agitation and revolutionary work by the Bolsheviks did have an influence. Trotsky makes this point in his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution where he argues that although many people talked of the spontaneity of the revolution, in reality it was led by those workers and soldiers who carried the lessons of past struggles, who were able to lead, to argue, to interpret events and to convince others. Trotsky argued that these organic leaders were “Conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”.

Today, of course, the world looks very different from Russia in February 1917. In Europe at least, we don’t have a dictatorial monarchy or three years of industrialised mass warfare or bread riots. However, we do live in a world that is sharply divided by class and characterised by crisis and instability.

There are many things we can learn from the experiences in Russia a century ago. First must be the inspiring resilience and creativity of mass struggle. Second is the power that workers have not just to collectively resist, but also to create the basis for a vastly more democratic and equitable society.

The unexpected path of the Russian Revolution shows also that history is not the result of some predictable gradual progress, but of clashes, struggles, setbacks and lurches forward. The February Revolution meant that, in John Reed’s words, Russia “at one bound leaped from the Middle Ages to the 20th century”.

Finally, we should remember that struggles, revolutionary or not, are not summonsed by revolutionaries but break out unannounced and are often unexpected. Every struggle, however, throws up arguments about the way forward, who to trust, what tactics to use and what demands to pursue. Socialists organised in a revolutionary party and rooted in the working class can be involved in those arguments — to point the blame at our rulers and not migrants, for example — and try to take the struggles forward, while also using them to draw out the wider problems we face.

Struggles will inevitably erupt from the very fact of living in a world of inequality, exploitation and oppression. But how those struggles end — and where they lead — is not pre-determined. Events in revolutionary Russia a hundred years ago show us that there is no short cut to getting rid of the destruction and misery of capitalism.

Further reading

» The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
» All Power to the Soviets: Lenin, 1914-1917 by Tony Cliff
» Socialist Review will be running an article every month this year to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution
» To find more articles on 1917 go to: socialistreview.org.uk/tags/russian-revolution

Esme Choonara is the author of A Rebel’s Guide to Trotsky (Bookmarks, 2007)