The February 1917 revolution: How Russian workers toppled a dictator

Russia’s year of revolution began in February with an uprising that brought down the Tsarist regime, writes Feiyi Zhang on the 100th anniversary

Russia in 1917 produced the most thoroughly democratic society seen in human history to date, moving towards a socialist society based on real human liberation.

The revolution was a genuine “festival of the oppressed” that put downtrodden peasants and workers suffering appalling conditions in control of a major country for the first time.

Women won the right to divorce and abortion on demand as well as the vote. Russia became the first country in the world to decriminalise homosexuality, decades before the rest of the world.

Conservative historians and the mainstream media often present the revolution as manipulated from above by a handful of leaders.

But Leon Trotsky, one of the leaders the revolution, argued that, “The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

Russia went through two revolutions in 1917, in February and October. The February Revolution saw millions of workers and peasants overthrow the 300 year old tyranny of the Romanov monarchy. It opened the flood-gates for a revolutionary process of workers discovering their own power. By the end of October Russia’s workers and peasants stood over society and ruled it.

For these reasons the Russian Revolution needs to be celebrated and learnt from as the highest expression of the creative potential of workers to organise society from below.

Women spark the revolution

No one thought that when female textile workers called a strike against bread rationing on International Women’s Day, February 23, that this would mark the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

The horror of the First World War and declining living standards underpinned an explosion of workers struggle.

Despite the opposition of the established revolutionary parties, female workers in the radical Vyborg district of Petrograd (now St Petersburg) went out on strike. They sent an appeal for support to other factories. At least 90,000 workers joined them to strike that day.

The following day, rather than subsiding, the strike spread. Half of the industrial workers of Petrograd went on strike. Workers met to discuss how to spread the movement.

Enormous crowds poured through the capital city, Petrograd, surging towards the city centre. The slogan of “bread” was crowded out with the slogans of “down with autocracy” and “down with war”.

The government sent out police and soldiers against the crowds. But the workers fraternised with the soldiers and urged them to support their demands.

On the second day of the strike, the workers scored their first victory as Cossack soldiers, lined up to prevent them getting any further, allowed workers to crawl underneath their horses’ bellies to break the cordon and reach the city centre.

On the fourth day of the protests, some troops were ordered to shoot down the striking workers. When other soldiers heard this, they rushed out to try to stop them. As the mutiny spread and more and more groups of soldiers sided with the workers, the Tsarist monarchy was dealt a death blow by revolt in their own army. After just five days the movement had won, with the Tsar forced to abdicate.

Crisis and First World War

Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued, “It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph”.

The central burning issue sparking the revolt in February was the worsening horror of the First World War.

As one of the great powers at the time, Russia was drawn into the war.

But it was still a largely peasant based economy with an army badly equipped to fight a modern war.

The majority of the population had originally been overtaken with the wave of nationalism at the beginning of the war in 1914.

Yet this had disintegrated just a year later, as millions of Russian peasants and workers were dragged into a brutal slaughterhouse.

By 1917 the suffering of soldiers had reached its limit. Of the 15.5 million men who had been called up, it is estimated that 7.2 to 8.5 million were killed, wounded, or were missing.

Soldiers reached the point of lynching unpopular officers and deserting en masse from the front.

The Internal Security Administration reported in October 1916, “Everyone who comes near the army must carry away a complete and convincing impression of the utter moral disintegration of the troops”.

The war also created a terminal crisis in the Russian economy. The whole economy was subordinated to feeding the war, consuming as much as 50 per cent of production.

Industrialists grew less and less willing to grant anything to workers and the government answered every protest and strike with repression.

The soviets

In the process of overthrowing the monarchy, workers organised into what they called soviets.

This was a form of democracy unimaginable under normal periods of capitalism.

Each 1000 workers and each company of soldiers elected their own representative.

Delegates could be immediately recalled and replaced if their constituency disagreed with any of their decisions.

Rather than being forced to work under the order of bosses, workers used their collective power to organise society themselves.

Workers first formed soviets out of the mass strikes during the failed revolution in 1905 in Russia. They re-emerged in February 1917 as a way to organise and co-ordinate the strike movement.

But in the process of this activity, the soviets began to take control over running the economy and controlling production in the factories.

Trotsky wrote in his famous History of the Russian Revolution that, “From the moment of its formation, the soviet, in the person of its Executive Committee, begins to function as a sovereign. It elects a temporary food commission and places it in charge of the mutineers and the garrison in general…

“In order to remove financial resources from the hands of the officials of the old power, the soviet decides to occupy the state bank, the treasury, the mint and the printing office with a revolutionary guard.”

When the Tsar fell, the workers’ soviets held effective power. One moderate politician wrote:

“the soviet seized all the post and telegraph bureaus, the wireless, all the Petrograd railway stations, all the printing establishments, so that without its permission it was impossible to send a telegram, to leave Petrograd, or to the print an appeal.”

In the space of a few days there was no town in Russia that did not have a soviet.

Dual power

An unstable situation came out of the February Revolution. Workers had overthrown the monarchy and controlled production in many places, challenging the control of the factory owners.

But most workers still thought that a parliamentary democracy was the most they could achieve. This often occurs in revolutions. Workers’ actions, which saw them in effective control of society through the soviets, ran ahead of their ideas about what was possible.

The soviets in fact handed political power back to a “provisional government” made up of capitalists who promised to establish a parliamentary system.

Workers still overwhelmingly looked to the more moderate of the workers’ parties, the Mensheviks, instead of the revolutionary Bolshevik Party.

The Menshevik leader in the soviet, Tsereteli, declared that, “a compromise with the bourgeoisie” was necessary.

He argued that, “There can be no other road for the revolution. It’s true that we have all the power, and that the government would go if we lifted a finger, but that would mean disaster for the revolution.”

However the revolution was not over. Alongside the provisional government, the soviets still held power in workplaces.

All of the problems which had led to the revolution in the first place were to continue through 1917 as the government refused to end the war and the economic crisis grew.

But now workers had a sense of their immense power and increasingly flocked to the soviets with all their grievances as they saw them as representing their interests.

The role of the Bolsheviks

Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky wrote that, “No one, positively no one—we can assert this categorically upon the basis of all data—then thought that February 23 was to mark the beginning of a decisive drive against absolutism”.

However, years of agitation and revolutionary work by the Bolsheviks did have an influence.

Whilst the February Revolution was not sparked or directed by any party or organisation, it was led by workers in the radical Vyborg district who carried the lessons of past struggles.

They were able to lead, to argue, to interpret events and to convince others.

This included their experience of the failed revolution of 1905. Trotsky argued that the key leaders in February were, “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin”—the Bolsheviks.

The inherently unstable situation of dual power resulted in a socialist revolution in October 1917 when workers under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party overthrew the provisional government to deliver all power to the soviets.

Without Bolshevik leadership the socialist revolution in October would not have been possible.

As Trump provokes a new wave of radical movements across the globe in response to his racism and military madness, the need for organisation and revolutionary socialist politics is just as relevant a century later.

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