February 1917: Anatomy of a Revolution

During the 1930s, Stalin nationalized the Soviet economy and reinstituted the strict policies of wartime to create a command economy. He demanded laborers build the heavy industrial base that would create a modern industrialized economy, forced the peasants into mass collective farms that led to millions of deaths during the Great Famine (1932–1933), and provoked a mass migration of millions of peasants to the Russian urban centers (1928–1932). By 1934, Stalin declared the revolution was over.

Read this article. Make a timeline as you read and consider the long-term impact of the revolution on world history.

Soviet and Duma

Although the formal abdication of the Tsar did not come for another three days, the regime was effectively finished on February 28. However, sweeping away a hated old order is only the first task of a revolution. It immediately poses the question of what is to replace it. February 1917 would pose that question but it would not find an answer for another eight months. The working class had done the bulk of the fighting and dying on the streets[27] but they were not yet politically united behind any single idea about what was to come next. Liberal bourgeois histories usually lament that the democratic revolution of February 1917 was stolen by those wicked Bolsheviks in October but we can dismiss this as just class propaganda. In fact it was the other way around. The liberals and constitutional monarchists of the Kadets and the Progressive Bloc in the Duma huddled in their salons, discussing the horrors that were taking place on the streets. When the Tsar had simply ordered the dismissal of the Duma they were even more paralysed as they still did not want to act "illegally"!

It was only on February 27, when some soldiers and workers converged on the Duma's seat in the Tauride Palace, that its ex-members hastily decided to form a "Provisional Committee" (which would soon metamorphose into the Provisional Government). Their aim was quite clear as expressed by the Kadet, Kogan, who announced that "a revolution has begun and we must do everything to prevent 'irresponsible elements' from leading it". A monarchist deputy, Shulgin, pointed out that the workers were already forming soviets;

"… if we don't take power, others will take it, those who have already elected some sort of scoundrels in the factories".[28]

As Shulgin feared, those "scoundrels" aka the revolutionary working class, were already finding another solution to the political vacuum that the workers themselves had created. The legacy of 1905 had not been forgotten. As early as 25 February, shouts had gone up at the mass meeting in Znamenskaia Square, "Let's elect a soviet of workers' deputies". A Bolshevik worker present there later recorded

"On a teetering box by a lamp post, holding onto the grey pillars with one hand, stood a tall, broad-shouldered man with an animated face who looked like both a worker and a student. Gesticulating with one hand he cried "Comrades, the long-awaited hour has finally come. The people have risen against their oppressors. Don't lose a minute, form neighbourhood workers' soviets and draw soldier representatives into them"".[29]

And in factories across the city elections of factory committees and delegates had begun even before a central soviet had been proclaimed. Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks supported the move though with different perspectives. In September 1915, after a year of defeats the Russian liberal bourgeoisie, headed by the industrialist and monarchist Guchkov, had dreamed up the War Industries Committee to help organise supplies for the war. They were only papering over the cracks that had already appeared in the Tsarist state. The pro-war "defensist" Mensheviks had supported this (it fitted their notion of a gradual democratic revolution to see the bourgeoisie now playing "their real role" in the state) and under Gvozdev and Bogdanov they created a Workers Group to support the War Industries Committee. The Bolsheviks refused to participate in this and instead made their first call for a workers' soviet.

In February 1917 the same difference in perspective was still to be found between Bolsheviks and the Menshevik majority when the Petrograd Soviet came into existence. For the Mensheviks the Soviet was only there to assist the "bourgeois revolution", as epitomised in the Provisional Government, but for the Bolsheviks it was the political expression of an independent working class who had made the revolution. They were against any cooperation with the Duma. As yet though, they and other revolutionary elements, were in the minority.

So why did the Bolsheviks have so little influence in the formation of the Executive Committee of the Soviet when it was first formed? Bourgeois histories often argue that this was because the Bolsheviks played little part in the events of February. This is demonstrably untrue as the many memoirs of Bolshevik workers to the events testify. Marc Ferro tells us that on February 25th "the Bolsheviks were the main organisers of the strikes and parades".[30] Marcel Liebman probably sums it up most accurately;

"The Bolshevik militants were not inactive ... they closely followed the events and took part in them. But they were unable to take the lead in the movement or put forward a clear programme of action"...[31]

This was hardly surprising given that their principal leaders were in exile, their next most experienced leaders (the Bolshevik Duma faction) had been banished to Siberia and even the Petrograd Committee had been arrested. Thus when, on 27 February, a crowd of 25,000, many of them soldiers from the nearby Preobrazhensky and Volinsky barracks, marched on the Tauride Palace (where the Duma sat) once again demanding "leaders" there were few Bolsheviks present. Furthermore street fighting was still going on and the left wing socialists and anarchists were still largely involved in that. As we saw earlier the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee had been released that day but decided to concentrate on ensuring the victory of the workers in the street and mostly remained in Vyborg. This allowed the Mensheviks led by Gvozdev, the pro-war leader of the Workers' Group of the War Industries Committee, to proclaim that they had set up a "Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies" in the Tauride Palace and appealed to workers to elect delegates to it that very evening. Shlyapnikov did get to the Tauride Place by 7.00 p.m. – the proposed start time of the first Soviet sitting. He saw amidst the chaos that the workers and particularly Bolshevik workers were not well represented. He thus tried to delay the convening of the Soviet but the meeting went ahead with about 250, of which only 50 according to Shlyapnikov, were accredited workers' delegates.

It wasn't simply due to a Menshevik plot. With fighting still going (and many workers not yet aware that there was a soviet to elect) the representational arrangements at this stage were ad hoc and haphazard. There was supposed to be one delegate for every 1000 factworkers, and one delegate for each regiment. However, any smaller factories in which the Mensheviks predominated sent one delegate whatever the size of their workforce. The regiments elected far more delegates than they should have. Some were even represented by officers (commissioned and non-commissioned) who had gone over to the revolution. As the soldier element was two thirds of the Soviet, it can be seen that the working class as a whole was under-represented in the first days of the Petrograd Soviet.

The Soviet Executive that was then formed did not represent the working class as such since it was initially just selected from the representatives of the political organisations (with Mensheviks awarding themselves the biggest number of seats on the Executive). The Menshevik strategy was clear from the start. The mass of workers had no confidence in a Provisional Government drawn from the old Tsarist Duma. After all it was elected on the basis of a quota system intended to deny proper representation to either peasants or workers. When Milyukov, the Constitutional Democrat (Kadet) leader read out the list of new ministers there was some laughter and incredulity as no-one had heard of most of them, but the most telling comment came from an anonymous voice from the crowd, who asked "Who elected you?".

This lack of credibility was to be papered over by the Mensheviks (and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) who took their lead from them). They ensured that, at least in formal terms, the Soviet lent its support to the Provisional Government. Mensheviks, Right-wing SRs and bourgeois liberals were all agreed on one thing – the war to defend Russia's imperialist interests must go on. Opposed to these "defensists" were the Bolsheviks, many anarchists, the Inter-District group and the Left SRs who had all been amongst the mass movement of February and continued to campaign for an end to the war. Whilst the former put their faith in a Provisional Government with dodgy credentials, the latter increasingly looked to the Soviet to take power and end the war. This dichotomy formed the backdrop to the unending class war of the next eight months of 1917.