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.


Every historic event, but especially one of world historic importance, has to be understood in the specific historical context of its time. We have tried to demonstrate here that the conditions which brought about the beginning of the Russian Revolution were, for the most part, unique to their time and place. We should not expect to see them repeated. Even so this does not stop us from drawing from what happened some lines of thought which are critical to revolutionary theory.

The first of these is that the Revolution of 1917 would not have been carried out with such dramatic force if the working class did not retain in their consciousness the memory of the 1905 Revolution. This is why, in the very midst of the street meetings, with fighting against the police still going on, the cry for a revival of the soviet went up. The revolutionary minorities of all parties and organisations played their part here by keeping alive this memory for the working class via their annual commemorative strikes and demonstrations.

Secondly (and this was also based on 1905, albeit from a more negative experience), from the beginning it was widely recognised that whilst there could be no dialogue with the police, the key was winning over the Petrograd garrison. Burdzhalov sums it up thus;

"Although the movement was uncoordinated and lacked a single leadership, the insurgents adhered to a common tactic. They left factories and plants for the street, united into powerful demonstrations, and worked to draw the armed force of the autocracy to their side".[42]

Without the arms that the conscripts brought to the revolutionaries the contest would have had the same outcome as in 1905. Getting those arms was one of the decisive factors in determining the collective purpose of the mass movement. We can call all this "spontaneous" but as Trotsky pointed out in his History of the Russian Revolution "the mystic doctrine of spontaneousness (sic) explains nothing".[43] We need to look at this more closely. Writing two years after the event, Lenin pointed out that "Spontaneous outbreaks become inevitable as the revolution matures. There has never been a revolution in which this has not been the case, nor can there be such a revolution".[44]

As the quotation from Lenin at the top of this article maintains, even the most perceptive of revolutionaries can never be certain when that might be. Burdzhalov talks only of the movement "lacking a single leadership", not that it lacked leadership altogether. In fact he points out that Bolsheviks, Inter-district Group members, some Left SRs and some anarchists all worked in broadly the same direction within the mass movement of February 1917. The important fact is that they had been working inside the working class for years and had earned positions of trust from where they were able to give the wider movement direction. They did not just spring up when the system started to collapse. Even the International Women's Day demonstration was instigated and prepared by members of the Bolshevik and Inter-district Group women's circles. The Bolsheviks could not produce a leaflet for it, as their press had been destroyed, but the Inter-district Group did. It could have been produced by any one of the organisations who had opposed the war from the beginning.

"Dear women comrades, are we going to put up with thus in silence much longer, now and then venting our rage on small shop owners? After all they are not to blame for the people's suffering, they are being ruined themselves. The government is to blame! It started the war and cannot end it. The government is ruining the country and causing us to go hungry. The capitalists are to blame! The war brings them profits. Its high time to cry out to them: "Enough!". Down with the criminal government and the whole gang of robbers and murderers! Long live peace!"[45]

The spontaneous movement may have lacked a single leadership but it did not lack "leaders". They often took the initiative and those initiatives were already defined by the long struggle against Tsarism and the war. The fact is that these revolutionaries were already part of a living movement and did not just turn up at the last minute. Professor Smith confirms this. He tells us that metalworking factories of Vyborg were the "most strike-prone" section of the working class throughout the First World War. Here despite the repeated arrest of many Bolshevik activists and "in spite of an influx of new workers, a core of skilled, experienced workers remained intact. These workers were members or sympathisers of the Bolshevik Party".[46]

In the balance between spontaneity and organisation Burdzhalov's conclusion on February 1917 strikes the right note.

"The workers who came out on to the streets of Petrograd on February 23 had a well-defined aim and previous revolutionary experience. They acted with a certain consistency. They quit work, assembled for political meetings, went out into the streets, "removed" workers from other enterprises, and after fusing with them in a general demonstration, went to the center of the town. Although they came out alone, the workers drew other elements of the toiling people, soldiers above all, into the struggle.

The workers' movement took place under the influence of Bolshevik ideas. Although it had been prepared by the party's entire previous activity, it immediately assumed such vast dimensions and aroused so many of the masses to struggle that it was impossible for them to guide the movement that had broken out; however, they tried to influence it as much as possible, to strengthen its organization, and to lead it in a more reliable manner towards the designated goal".[47]

By the final days of February (in the old calendar) the problem facing the revolutionary working class was how to avoid their victory over Tsarism being turned into defeat by the combined forces of social democracy and the conservative forces of capitalism. We have already seen how the workers were vastly under-represented in their own soviet. The early domination of the Soviet by the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, who had looked on in horror at the battles in the streets, threatened to hand the revolution over to the propertied classes as represented by the Provisional Government. And just to underline how the real revolutionaries were sidelined by the machinations in the Tauride Palace, let's remind ourselves that it was the one million strong contingent of working women of Petrograd whose initiative started the revolution. Hany of them were delegates in the Soviet at the end of that tumultuous week? Sadly, none. In several senses the working class revolution had only just begun …