February’s forgotten vanguard

The myth of Russia’s spontaneous revolution

ON INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day, February 23, 1917, after almost three years of brutal war, women textile workers in Petrograd illegally struck over a food shortage. Soon other workers joined in the strike. By the end of the day, 75,000 workers were on strike. On the following day, 200,000 workers struck. The next, the strike was general, with almost 400,000 participating, including students, teachers, and white-collar workers across Petrograd.1

Then on February 27, the military garrisons in Petrograd revolted, coming over to the side of the revolution and opening the armories to the workers. The police hid. Over the next few days, the revolution spread to neighboring cities and garrisons. By March 2, it was over. The Tsar abdicated the throne. His brother abdicated the following day. Three hundred years of autocracy had ended. The workers formed soviets, or workers’ councils; the bourgeoisie, the Provisional Government. Over the next several months, two classes struggled for power, until the October Revolution overthrew the Provisional Government and created the first workers’ state.

How did a centuries-old dynasty end in a little over a week?

In his fourteen-volume History of Soviet Russia, British historian E.H. Carr wrote:

The February Revolution of 1917…was the spontaneous outbreak of a multitude exasperated by the privations of the war…. The revolutionary parties played no direct part in the making of the revolution. They did not expect it, and were at first somewhat nonplussed by it. The creation at the moment of the revolution of a Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was a spontaneous act of groups of workers without central direction.2

This is the conventional explanation—confronted with an idiotic Tsar, a bumbling cabinet, and a devastating war, the Russian people spontaneously rose up in rage.

There’s remarkable unanimity about this argument from political forces that rarely agree. In his classic Western history, William Chamberlin wrote, “The collapse of the Romanov autocracy…was one of the most leaderless, spontaneous, anonymous revolutions of all times.”3 The Russian anarchist Voline noted, “[T]he action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party.”4 In his biography of Lenin, British Marxist Tony Cliff wrote, “The revolution was completely spontaneous and unplanned.”5

Perhaps the most famous account of February comes from Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.6 While generally a tour de force of historical materialism, Trotsky’s account of February is a bit weak. On the one hand, he doesn’t think it was spontaneous (“The mystic doctrine of spontaneousness explains nothing.”)7. On the other hand, when explaining the mechanisms at work, he puts forth many of the same arguments as those who argue the spontaneity thesis: incompetent revolutionaries, caught unaware, unable to play a useful role. A sampling from his chapters on February: “It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution”; “overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat—the women textile workers”; “the leaders were watching the movement from above; they hesitated, they lagged—in other words, they did not lead. They dragged after the movement”; “The masses had almost no leadership from above. The newspapers were silenced by the strike”; “leaders tried to hold it back.”8

Why were these leaders so bad? Trotsky writes:

The most authoritative revolutionists, the leaders of the left parties, were abroad, and, some of them, in prison and exile. The more dangerous a party was to the old regime, the more cruelly beheaded it appeared at the moment of revolution…. The leaders accidentally present, for the very reason that they had been accustomed to act under unconditionally authoritative supervisors, did not consider themselves and were not considered by others capable of playing a guiding role in revolutionary events…. In the party of the Bolsheviks the insurrection had its nearest organization, but a headless organization with a scattered staff and with weak illegal nuclei. And nevertheless the revolution, which nobody in those days was expecting, unfolded.9

And yet the revolution happened. To explain it, Trotsky provides vague, somewhat metaphysical formulations:

In order correctly to appraise the situation and determine the moment for a blow at the enemy, it was necessary that the masses or their guiding layers should make their examination of historical events and have their criteria for estimating them. In other words, it was necessary that there should be not masses in the abstract, but masses of Petrograd workers and Russian workers in general, who had passed through the revolution of 1905, through the Moscow insurrection of December 1905, shattered against the Semenovsky regiment of the Guard. It was necessary that throughout this mass should be scattered workers who had thought over the experience of 1905, criticized the constitutional illusions of the liberals and Mensheviks, assimilated the perspectives of the revolution, meditated hundreds of times about the question of the army, watched attentively what was going on in its midst—workers capable of making revolutionary inferences from what they observed and communicating them to others. And finally, it was necessary that there should be in the troops of the garrison itself progressive soldiers, seized, or at least touched, in the past by revolutionary propaganda.

In every factory, in each guild, in each company, in each tavern, in the military hospital, at the transfer stations, even in the depopulated villages, the molecular work of revolutionary thought was in progress…. Elements of experience, criticism, initiative, self-sacrifice, seeped down through the mass and created, invisibly to a superficial glance but no less decisively, an inner mechanics of the revolutionary movement as a conscious process….

To the question, who led the February revolution? We can then answer definitely enough: Conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.10

That is, the workers who made the revolution learned politics from their lived experience and from the Bolsheviks but were either acting outside of party direction or were not members of the party. This both dismisses other groups involved in February and downplays the role of the Bolsheviks on the scene who were far more than just teachers of theory. They were active participants in the class battles, not just before and after February, but during the overthrow of the Tsar as well.

Both Trotsky’s and the more conventional explanations miss the real story of what it took to end Tsarist rule in February, discarding valuable lessons for those interested in the process of revolutionary change. All versions of the spontaneity thesis incorrectly place socialists on the sidelines in the revolt against the Tsar.

This should strike us as strange. Historians of all political stripes agree that Russian socialists built organization over many years, struggled on the shop floor, and agitated for revolutionary change, including the overthrow of the Tsar. Yet, according to the standard narratives, despite dedicating their lives to this purpose, despite working in the very factories that led the revolution, these same activists were caught completely unaware. Then, during the revolution itself, they were useless, confused, and even, in Carr’s words, “nonplussed.” But, right after the Tsar fell, they got back out there, organizing to ensure workers’ control of society and acquiring leadership in the class. We are left with February as a moment of complete discontinuity.

This article takes a different view. After discussing the political and economic situation the left faced leading up to February, I will go through the major flaws of the spontaneity argument. In reality, socialists were involved at every stage of the revolutionary process in Russia.

Revolutionaries and the First World War
Although many of the people we think of as the leaders of the various socialist parties were in exile in February, only returning in the following months, there was still an organized socialist presence in Petrograd.11 There were five main groups that played a catalytic role in February. They didn’t just appear in 1917; they’d been organizing for years.

The groups, in descending order of size, were the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Mezhraiontsy, Socialist Revolutionaries, and various anarchists groups. Not every worker or soldier thought of themselves as aligned with one of these groups, but they provided day-to-day political direction.

The Bolsheviks organized for the self-emancipation of the working class, believing it was the only class with both the interest and power to end exploitation. They expected workers to lead a revolution to overthrow the Tsar and join with peasants to fight for the rights of all toilers. By 1917, the Bolsheviks had multiple layers of political organization operating in Petrograd. The All-Russia Bureau of the Central Committee was responsible for on-the-ground leadership for Bolsheviks throughout Russia. For Petrograd, there was the Petrograd Committee, which provided citywide leadership. Then, at the district level, were district committees, most notably, the Vyborg District Committee.12 At the time of the revolution, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd had about 3,000 members in 110 cells, mainly based in the factories.13

The Mensheviks generally believed that workers had to struggle side by side with the bourgeoisie to defeat the Tsar. While the right wing was pro-war and united closely with the bourgeoisie in February, the left was internationalist and acted on the side of the working class during the revolution. The left had four hundred to five hundred members with twenty-five to thirty workplace fractions.14

The Mezhraiontsy (inter-district committee) existed essentially only in Petrograd. It was a breakaway faction of Social Democrats, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, who were solidly internationalist. They sought unity of the Social Democratic movement. Trotsky joined this group when he returned to Russia in April. In February, they had a few hundred members, seven district committees, sixteen factory cells, and two campus branches.15

The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) oriented on the peasantry. They saw the largest toiling class in Russia as the main motor of revolution, and, at various points in their history, they relied heavily on terrorism to challenge the government. Like the Mensheviks, the SRs divided into two broad camps over the question of the war. The right was solidly pro-war.16 The much smaller antiwar left oriented on the army and collaborated with other socialists. At the time of the revolution, many SRs had recently been arrested, though in the previous year, they had five hundred to six hundred members in thirty cells, mainly concentrated in a few factories. Nonetheless, individual SRs linked up with revolutionary groups in February (notably, the Mezhraiontsy).17

Finally, there were anarchists—individuals and small groups of anarchists who also coordinated activities. Their politics ranged from syndicalist to pure individualism.18

In the years leading up to February, even as they had fierce debates, these groups also worked together, collaborating at the shop-floor level around strong opposition to both the war and the autocracy.19 They faced intense repression from the very start of the war in 1914 (made all the worse because class struggle collapsed as workers initially embraced patriotism). The average career of an underground activist was reduced to three months.20

As the group with the largest influence among the working class, the Bolsheviks presented the largest target for state repression. However, they were also best positioned to weather the storm. Indeed, Menshevik journals of the time bemoaned their own lack of influence.21 In 1912, the Bolsheviks had six deputies elected to the Duma, their legal campaigns (workers’ insurance plans in particular) brought them into contact with almost the entire working class of Petrograd. It was then that they declared themselves a separate party. Between 1910 and 1914, their Petrograd numbers went from six hundred to six thousand. After the Tsar sent 1,500 Petrograd Bolsheviks to the front, the party shrank to around one hundred members in the city.22 But after the initial war fever faded, the Bolsheviks again grew. Throughout 1915 and 1916, there were waves of mass arrests. Because of their roots in the factories, the Bolsheviks were able to rebuild every time. All groups faced repression. The government was most successful in attacking the SRs.23 But the cadre of all groups continued to organize and develop networks in the factories.

Metals and chemicals were the only commodities whose output increased after 1914 and the growth all went to immediate war aims. The weakness of Russia’s rail transport system resulted in a vicious circle of steel and fuel shortages—the economy could not move enough fuel to make steel to extend the rail lines to get to the coal that they did have.24 By the end of 1915, Russia’s loss of territory further diminished its industrial capacity by 20 percent. Additionally, Russian imports declined 65 percent from 1914 to 1915.25 Mineral extraction was down 53 percent; wood, 38 percent; silk and paper, 20 percent; food, 22 percent; and cotton, 18 percent.26 By October 1916, meat was 2.3 times its pre-war cost; rye flour, 2.4 times; wheat, 2.7 times; sugar, 2.4 times; and butter, 8.5 times. Clothing was four to five times more expensive.27

Meanwhile, the needs of war production increased the size and concentration of the working class in cities and heavy industry. The population of Petrograd expanded 10 percent during the war.28 Metal workers grew from 40 percent to 60 percent of the workforce, while the number of textile workers shrank from 16 percent to 11 percent.29 Only 55 percent of workers in January 1917 had been in factories at the start of the war. Housing grew scarce, forcing working-class families to live on average twenty to an apartment, while rents tripled. Skilled labor was in such demand that the Petrograd Association of Factory Owners abandoned its blacklist of revolutionaries.30

By 1916, desperate for more troops, the Tsar abandoned his policy of keeping radicals out of the army, and, as a result, started sending some of the best revolutionary organizers to the front.31 Because the early months of the war had decimated experienced officers, these revolutionaries went to a front where the corps was 90 percent new officers, ripe for agitation.32 By February, many officers were openly hostile to the Tsar.33 With this backdrop—a shattered economy, a growing working class, and an enraged army—revolutionary organizations grew.

The Bolsheviks issued leaflets, started a journal, and continued to campaign against the state. They also used various legal formations, including insurance organizations, workers’ cooperatives, and cultural and educational clubs and circles. By the end of 1916, there were 86 sick-fund organizations, most of them organized by the Bolsheviks, with 176,000 members (or 45 percent of the working class) in Petrograd.34 A layer of revolutionaries in Moscow and Petrograd carried on aboveground, “legal” lives.35

Many young workers joined the Bolsheviks and were quite active. Seeing the cracks in Russian society, they had a general perspective of growth amid the chaos of war and were quite active. For example, I.K. Naumov, a worker at the New Parviainen Machine Construction Factory, was only twenty-two in 1917, yet had already been to jail and was a member of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee and the Vyborg District Committee. After February, he was a delegate to all three city party conferences in 1917, a factory delegate to the Petrograd Soviet, and a member of the Central Soviet of Factory Committees.36

The story was similar with other groups. On the northern fronts, SRs printed and distributed antiwar propaganda.37 In Kronstadt, they circulated literature among sailors.38 In Petrograd, they worked with other socialists, in particular, the Mezhraiontsy who managed to keep a press going throughout the war and were extremely active in shop floor organizing.39

As Russia began to suffer defeats in the war, class struggle picked up in 1915 and socialists were there. In one 1915 report, the Okhrana (secret police) attributed a major strike to “(1) the presence of a Social Democratic organization and its intensive activity, and (2) the excessive increases in the cost of necessities.”40

With the war grinding on, socialists increased their activity. The left in Russia had a tradition of calling one-day general strikes on dates important to the socialist movement—holidays (such as May Day), memorials of massacres (such as Bloody Sunday, the January 9 massacre that sparked the 1905 revolution), or in protest of government persecution (such as when Bolshevik Duma members were tried for treason in early 1915).

Often these strikes would develop in Petrograd through “calling out”—one plant would go on strike, march to other factories, and demand that the workers there come out on strike as well. Petrograd’s high density of workers and factories made this an effective tactic. Thus, socialists targeted the largest factories for organizing, as they acted like motors for citywide class struggle. The secret police grew increasingly worried about all this activity, noting the expanding size “of the revolutionary underground…by means of an influx of new members and the return from exile and from military service of old party members.” They also took note that the Bolsheviks “decided to reach out to the Mezhraoinka…and do not rule out…the possibility of a bloc with the Narodniks [SRs].”41

Despite this record, historians have weaved a spontaneity narrative that usually rests on some combination of three major myths about the February Revolution:42

  • Ignorance: No socialists thought revolution was a near-term possibility (and hence were not positioned to play a role in quickening it).
  • Incompetence: Socialists spent the days of February playing catch up, never able to intervene effectively in events.
  • Isolation: It’s because of their poor showing in February that the post-Tsarist situation was so unfavorable: revolutionary socialists had little representation in the initial Soviets and the bourgeoisie was able to form the Provisional Government.

Myth 1: Ignorance

We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.
—Lenin, January, 191743

Historians often cite this line from Lenin’s address to young workers in Switzerland. Examining the psychology behind this statement is beyond this article, though others have done so.44 However, he was referring to a European-wide revolution and was not at all pessimistic about the possibilities. The sentences right before his famous declaration read:

We must not be deceived by the present grave-like stillness in Europe. Europe is pregnant with revolution. The monstrous horrors of the imperialist war, the suffering caused by the high cost of living everywhere engender a revolutionary mood; and the ruling classes, the bourgeoisie, and its servitors, the governments are more and more moving into a blind alley from which they can never extricate themselves without tremendous upheavals.

Just as in Russia in 1905, a popular uprising against the Tsarist government began under the leadership of the proletariat with the aim of achieving a democratic republic, so, in Europe, the coming years, precisely because of this predatory war, will lead to popular uprisings under the leadership of the proletariat against the power of finance capital, against the big banks, against the capitalists; and these upheavals cannot end otherwise than with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, with the victory of socialism.45

Although he was reluctant to provide a timetable, Lenin saw the war quickening the process of revolution. For good reasons, the Bolshevik perspectives on Russia were anything but depressed.

In the years leading up to war, the working class saw renewed combativeness and confidence after years of reaction. In 1912, 36 percent of Russian factory workers took part in strikes. In 1913, 45 percent did. In the first half of 1914, 68 percent of the workers took part in strikes.46 Right before the start of the war, there was a major strike in Petrograd which one historian described this way:

Many thousands of workers had then clashed with the police—at times fighting them with clubs, or hailing them with rocks from behind improvised barricades. Women and children had joined in building these barricades—out of telephone and telegraph poles, overturned wagons, boxes, and armoires. No sooner was a demonstration dispersed, or a barricade destroyed, than the workers, after evacuating their wounded, would regroup, and clashes would start all over again. Whole districts were without light, their gas and kerosene lamps having been destroyed.47

The government only restored order on July 15, four days before the war began. Strike activity fell from 1,300,000 participants in the first part of the year to involving only 9,500 for the rest of 1914 because of increased repression combined with an initial wave of patriotism.48

But as the effects of the war rippled through society, strikes picked up again. In 1915, 28 percent of factory workers took part in strikes; in 1916, 50 percent and in just the first two months of 1917, 35 percent (over four times the pace of 1916).49

As the war ground on, strikers began making more political demands. The government defined economic strikes as those whose principle demands could be satisfied by management. Political strikes required changes by the autocracy. For example, a strike against a particularly vile foreman was economic; those protesting a government massacre were deemed political. While political strikes were always illegal, economic strikes were technically legal (although “fomenting,” “instigating,” or “organizing” them was illegal).50 In an autocracy, it was easy to blur the line. In the face of high inflation, workers striking for enormous raises against companies with war contracts were inherently political; their demands could only be satisfied if the government was willing to pay for war production. In the first half of 1914, 74 percent of strikes were political (more than all of 1912 and 1913 combined). In 1915, 29 percent of strikes made explicitly political demands. In 1916, this went up a little to 32 percent. But in the first two months of 1917, 85 percent of strikes made political demands.51

Sometimes, revolutionaries would get ahead of events. In August 1915, the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee called for a general strike, the creation of a people’s militia, armed attacks on police headquarters, confiscation of essential foodstuffs, organization of a soviet of workers’ deputies, and recruitment of the soldiers and officers into a general strike. Although these demands were well ahead of the masses’ political consciousness, they were almost a blueprint for what was to come eighteen months later.52

In the months leading to February, the situation grew increasingly volatile. In August 1916, in Ivanovo, police fired on a demonstration of textile workers, killing thirty and wounding fifty-three. When news reached Petrograd, workers struck. Over the course of two days, 22,500 workers at twenty-three factories came out. One historian described the scene:

In Mozhaiskaia Street near the barracks of the Semenovsky Regiment, a crowd of women, joined by the newly recruited soldiers of the Eger Regiment, attacked the police and wounded twenty policemen. Military police had to be brought in to restore order.

The authorities reacted to the strike movement in August swiftly. From August 29 to September 2 the police arrested underground revolutionaries and activists in the insurance movement. In the Putilov Factory alone thirty workers were arrested, including twenty-three Bolsheviks (five of whom were members of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee), six Socialists Revolutionaries, and one Menshevik. The mass arrest provoked a citywide general strike.53

All this activity helped shape socialist perspectives on what was possible.

Another example: Bolsheviks organized a strike to defend Baltic Bolshevik sailors on trial. It started on October 26, 1916, and lasted for three days, with 80,000 out on the final day. At first, the Tsar responded by locking out workers. He then backed down and removed the threat of the death penalty.54 This victory, during wartime, showed the Bolsheviks the influence they now had. With events like this in mind, the Bolsheviks reestablished a Russian Bureau of the Central Committee when three comrades who had been in exile were sneaked back into the country.55 Soon, all the socialist groups began to speak of impending revolution in their propaganda.56

Recognizing the need for more formal structures to improve collaboration, the Bolsheviks, left SRs, left Mensheviks and the Mezhraiontsy formed an information bureau in mid-November 1916 to, according to the Okhrana, “lead upcoming demonstrations.”57

The first demonstration they planned was on January 9, 1917, to commemorate 1905’s Bloody Sunday. Forty percent of Petrograd’s workers, 140,000 strikers, took part in the one-day strike. The event was twice as large as the previous year’s, with some Army regiments even cheering on the marchers. Nonetheless, there were weaknesses that day. Most strikers were not politically engaged, choosing to stay home instead of participating in demonstrations. The police easily dispersed the few demonstrations that did occur.58

By early 1917, the war economy was making Petrograd workers miserable. Inflation was rampant, wages couldn’t keep up, housing was hard to find, and work hours were longer. Then the city started to run out of food, and rations kept being cut. While the people starved, freshly baked white bread was always available in expensive restaurants.59 On January 20, a government report took note of all the socialist activity: “[More] and more the mood of the mass of workers is rising under the influence of uninterrupted and systematic…revolutionary agitation.”60

From January 1 through February 22 (the day before the revolution began), there were 260 strikes involving 320,517 workers (an average of 5.6 a day). With workers insisting on raises of 50 to 100 percent, the distinction between economic and political strikes quickly broke down, as no factory was in a position to meet such demands without government aid.61 All this activity led the government in early February to revise its plan for dealing with civil unrest in Petrograd, creating a new three-stage escalating approach.62 While the information bureau continued to meet and plan joint activity, the left socialists also formed a larger bloc with forces to their right.63

The Bolshevik leadership in exile received reports from Russia that allowed them, even though they were not there, to know that revolution was a near-term possibility. In Switzerland, Krupskaya, long-time Bolshevik and married to Lenin, wrote to a friend on February 6, seventeen days before the revolution:

You’ll have to get to Russia right away or else you won’t get in on “the beginning.” In all seriousness, the letters from Russia are filled with good news. Just yesterday one came from an old friend, a highly experienced person, who wrote: “The difficult period is passing, a turn for the better can be seen in the mood of the workers and educated young people. Organization is poor because all the adults are either at the front or subject to call-up. The influx of women and adolescents into the workforce is lowering organizational capacity but not the mood. Even so the organizations are growing.64

A week before the revolution, the Moscow Okhrana reported:

The state of extreme agitation of the working mass and in social circles, the aggravation of the bread shortage in Moscow, and the activities of revolutionary circles could create, under a new onslaught of strikes and demonstrations, a much more serious threat to official order and to public security.65

The police response was to step up arrests, rounding up ever more socialists. Implicit in this action was their belief that socialists were instigating much of the activity, that they didn’t simply face a bunch of disparate spontaneous actions. Those not arrested kept meeting, planning, organizing, and agitating. Meanwhile, Okhrana reports grew increasingly alarmed in the face of rising hunger. “The underground revolutionary parties are preparing a revolution,” noted one report, “but a revolution, if it takes place, will be spontaneous, quite likely a hunger riot.”66

Another assessment read:

Resentment is felt worse in large families, where children are starving in the most literal sense of the word, and where no other words are heard except, “Peace, immediate peace, peace at all costs.” And these mothers, exhausted from standing endlessly at the tail of queues, and having suffered so much in watching their half-starving and sick children, are perhaps much closer to a revolution than [members of the Duma], and of course, they are much more dangerous, since they are the stockpiles of flammable material, needing only a spark to set them afire.67

The day before the revolution began, one police officer filed this report:

The masses of workers are extremely agitated by the shortage of food. Almost all the police officers hear every day complaints that they have not eaten bread for two, three days or more. Therefore it is easy to expect major street disturbances. The acuteness of the situation reached such a point that some who were fortunate enough to be able to buy two loaves of bread cross themselves and cry from joy.68

This same day, management at the Putilov Factory locked out 26,700 workers after almost a week of escalating strikes at the plant.69 Looking at the weeks leading up to February 23, what emerges is a pattern of continuous, coordinated, socialist organizing against the government and its policies. Socialists saw the government as weakening and were looking for openings.

Myth 2: Incompetence

[It was a] spontaneous revolution in which none of the Socialist parties and factions played a significant role.
—Murray Bookchin70

This is the meat of the argument: even if socialists were there and knew a revolution was imminent, they were too few in number, too scattered, and too flawed to play an effective role in events. Instead, a few angry, isolated women workers spontaneously struck and sparked an uprising. A detailed look at the first few days of revolution paints a different picture.

February 23
Why did women workers wait until February 23 to go out? It wasn’t a coincidence, but part of a larger plan. It was International Women’s Day, a socialist holiday first proposed by Clara Zetkin in 1910.71 It’s the next one of note after Bloody Sunday.

In response to the rise in class struggle, the Mezhrai?ontsy began agitating in December to prepare for February 23.72 They decided to raise slogans around the issue of bread and an end to the war. However, this was not the unanimous approach of revolutionaries. In particular, the Bolsheviks were split on the question. In early February, they issued a proclamation stating, “Let each day in the history of the workers’ movement become a call to demonstrate. [Let] the trial of workers’ [Duma] deputies, the Lena massacre, the first of May, the July shootings, the October days, January 9, and the like serve as a summons to mass action.”73

Instead of mass strikes for February 23, the Russian Bureau pushed for targeting May Day (about eight weeks later) for big strikes, arguing to use February 23 for preparatory actions and smaller demonstrations. This, incidentally, is an argument used to show that the Bolsheviks were out of touch. “They even urged people not to strike,” goes the refrain.74 In fact, all socialists saw an increasing possibility for revolution and sought to build mass activity. They differed over short-term timing. Each action prior to an insurrection can serve both to further class confidence and combativeness as well as provide a gauge to socialists about the current nature of mass consciousness. When events proved the Central Committee wrong on their assumptions about the degree of mass confidence, they shifted, as we will see.

The morning of the February 23, a police officer arrested a member of the Mezhraiontsy who was distributing leaflets calling for a strike to honor International Women’s Day. Although records are sketchy, this was presumably part of a general plan of agitation. Between the difficulty of finding a printing press and the danger of openly opposing the autocracy, distributing leaflets was generally not a casual, spur-of-the-moment activity.75

A few hours later, women workers at five textile plants walked out and headed to nearby factories to call out other workers, in the Petrograd tradition. Why these women? They were among the few textile workers who participated in strikes during the war. The day before, they had met with some Bolsheviks for a study group on the meaning of International Women’s Day.76

The Erickson plant was one of the first factories where the women marched. As they approached, Erickson socialists had an emergency meeting to decide on a policy for relating to the strike. An SR worker described the scene:

We quickly assembled at the office of the workers’ medical fund—ten or twelve of us, the leading core of the plant. We raised the question: should we strike? If we strike, should we take to the streets to demonstrate and call out other plants? We queried each other about the moods at other factories, and whether a decision had been made anywhere to strike and take to the streets. Despite the absence of assurance that other factories would go out, the decision to strike, and take to the streets and utter the slogans “Down with the autocracy!” “Down with the war!” “Give us bread!” was unusually quick and unanimous. Young boys were the first to hear of the decision to go out. Shouting joyfully, they ran through the workshops: “Stop work! To the meeting!77

A plant-wide meeting, with political motivations for the strike, followed. The workers went on strike and called out the workers at Arsenal next.78

This was repeated elsewhere. I. Gordienko, a Bolshevik worker at the Nobel Machine Construction Factory, recalled the following scene:

On the morning of February 23 one could hear women’s voices in the lane which the windows of our department overlooked: “Down with the war! Down with high prices! Down with hunger! Bread for the workers!” Myself and several comrades were at the windows in a flash…. The gates of No. 1 Bol’shaya Sampsion’evskaya Manufaktura were wide open. Masses of women workers filled the lane, and their mood was militant. Those who caught sight of us began to wave their arms, shouting: “Come out! Quit work!” Snowballs flew through the window. We decided to join the demonstration…. A brief meeting took place outside the main office near the gates, and we poured out into the street…. The comrades in front were seized by the arm amidst shouts of “Hurray!”, and we set off with them down Bol’shoi Sampsion’evsky Prospekt.79

At a machine factory, shop floor Bolsheviks led workers out. A. Taimi took the floor, and addressed the questions of bread, the war, and revolution:

And of course, as soon as I began to speak about these questions that were uppermost in everyone’s mind, the crowd was transformed; it came alive, moved and buzzed…. When I proposed we join other factories on strike and take to the streets, hundreds of hands were raised. In a few minutes we came out of the factory and headed for Nevsky Prospekt.80

Workers moved through the district, headed for the city center. At one factory, management locked the gates, so workers knocked them down. They disabled trains and attacked cops as they went. There was some looting of bakeries and food shops. Police finally dispersed the demonstrators around 7 p.m.81

In retrospect, it’s easy to label this day, “the start of the revolution.” However, only a minority of workers struck, around 25 percent. The January 9 strike was larger.82 If the traditional view of out-to-lunch revolutionaries is correct, socialists should have seen the day as just a one-off strike—unplanned, undisciplined, and unaccountable.

But when socialists met that night to assess the day and plan next actions, they felt they faced a new situation. Unlike January 9, most strikers took part in demonstrations instead of just going home. They pushed militantly to get to Nevsky, the largest, most opulent boulevard in Petrograd, taking up the slogans put forward by socialists that directly linked the war, hunger, and ending autocracy.83 The Okhrana grappled with the changes as well, writing that day:

[T]he shortage of bread is driving the working masses into the streets, and the idea than an uprising is the only means to escape from the food crisis is becoming more and more popular among the masses. Now everyone on the street in lines for bread and other essentials is saying an uprising is imminent and inevitable; soldiers, sailors, and intellectual circles are talking about it.84

Discipline in the Army showed cracks with Cossacks passively refusing to attack crowds.85 The ruling class was paralyzed, with the Duma and Tsar unable to balance the pressures of war and the shortage of food. One attendee of a Bolshevik Vyborg district-wide meeting, N.F. Sveshnikov, wrote that it:

dragged on until late evening and adopted a series of important decisions, such as strengthening agitation and forming ties among soldiers, acquiring weapons, continuing the strike, and organizing a demonstration on Nevsky on February 25. It was recommend that all the comrades go the factories in the morning, not take up work, and after a brief meeting lead as many workers as possible to an antiwar demonstration to Kazan Cathedral…. Our agitation was facilitated wonderfully by the objective course of things. To overthrow the autocracy, was in everyone’s mind, a perfectly comprehensible act.86

The decision to have workers converge on Nevsky Prospekt was important for two reasons: one, it would bring workers from around the city together to feel their collective power, and two, it was the domain of the wealthy. Explains one historian, “[It] was the symbol of the wealth and power of the privileged. People who could not afford proper attire usually did not venture into it.”87 Unlike January 9, socialists saw an opening for further escalating activity. They planned to increase agitation on February 24 in hopes of a massive showing for the 25th. This was despite a smaller demonstration than for Bloody Sunday.

February 24
The day started with political meetings at the factories. Consistently the different socialist groups united to lead these.88 An Okhrana agent described one worker addressing the crowd at the Stetinin factory:

Comrades, as you all know, yesterday, February 23, the entire Vyborg district did not work. So, comrades, we must quit our work today, support union with other comrades and go to get bread by ourselves…. Comrades, remember this also. Down with the government! Down with the war! Comrades, arm yourselves with everything possible—bolts, screws, rocks, and go out of the factory and start smashing the first shops you find.89

Socialist agitation helped expand the strike, with the factories that struck the day before staying out and new ones joining in.90 The strike doubled in size, and it became the largest strike in Petrograd since the start of the war. The mood was increasingly militant. For example, at 7 a.m. at the Franco-Russian factory, workers held a meeting where speakers spoke for and against the strike. Management ordered workers to return to the factory, but at 3 p.m. only fifty of 6,656 workers were there.91 On just the second day of the strike, the Mezhraiontsy distributed a leaflet calling for the end of the war and the establishment of a Social Democratic republic.92 It read, in part:

Hunger will not be eliminated by sacking shops or marching on the Duma. Revolution alone will lead us out of the blind alley of war and destruction. Get ready, comrades! Our enemy is awake. It’s been two days already since 30,000 Putilovites were thrown into the street, demanding their discharged comrades be reinstated. Organize comrades! The day of reckoning with your inveterate enemy is at hand.93

This was one of many leaflets to be distributed over the week. They were printed by the thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, and passed from worker to worker, or read out to groups.94 During the day, there were four rallies at Kazan Square, each broken up by police, each bigger than the last.95 In one case, Cossacks attacked the police to defend strikers.96 In a magnificent understatement, a police report characterized the days’ events as “very alarming.”97

That evening, district Bolsheviks met to plan for strikes the next day.98 In addition, the Russian Bureau, which met several times during the day, voted to expand slogans to target the army and to make contact with comrades in Moscow to coordinate activity.99

February 25
Again, activity began at the factories with political meetings to prepare for the day’s events, including agitating for the mass march to Nevsky.100 A Bolshevik, A. Kondrat’ev, described a rally at the New Parvianinen factory. Workers sat everywhere, on ceiling trusses, on top of half finished products:

The speakers were Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries. The slogan was to march to Nevsky…. One speaker ended with the revolutionary verse: “Out of the way, obsolete world, rotten from top to bottom. Young Russia is on the march!” The atmosphere was tense…. There was comradely enthusiasm. We would live or die together in the struggle.101

Workers headed out, joined up with other strikers, and moved toward Nevsky. As the day progressed, strikes spread outside of factories “to the most unorganized sector of the working class—the workers of small factories, store clerks, waiters, and waitresses, cooks and cabdrivers. An Okhrana agent reported the conversation of the cabdrivers: “Tomorrow the cabbies will not take the general public, but only the leaders of the disorder.” Even the more conservative city workers, electricians, water, gas, postal, tram drivers, and printers, struck. Some 15,000 students joined the strike.”102 Successfully banned only a few days before, revolutionary songs were now heard in public.103 Meanwhile, the Duma met to discuss the problem of “irresponsible elements” leading the masses and what they could do about it.104

That evening, revolutionaries met. The Okhrana had an agent on the Bolshevik’s Vyborg District Committee, and he filed this report, outlining the committee’s assessment of the day:

Since military units did not block the crowd and in some cases even took measures to paralyze the police, the masses grew confident they would not be punished. Now, after two days of parading the streets unhindered, with revolutionary elements raising the slogans “Down with the war!” and “Down with the government!” the people are encouraged to think that a revolution has begun, that success is on the masses’ side, that the authorities are powerless to suppress the movement because the military refused to support them. They believe final victory is near because military units will, tomorrow, if not today, openly side with the revolutionary forces and the incipient movement will not subside and will grow uninterruptedly until final victory and the government is overthrown.105

On the first day, Bolsheviks met, saw a new situation, and voted to step up agitation. On the second, they began making links with other cities, saw the strikes double, and workers’ confidence grow. On the third day, they saw actions they had planned thirty-six hours prior take place and felt they were moving toward revolution. From the police archives that day:

The Petrograd organization of the RSDRP [Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party] at the end of two days of disturbances that have taken place in Petrograd, decided to use the movement that had broken out to advance the aims of the party, take over the leadership of the masses participating in it, and give it a clearly revolutionary direction. Toward this end the said organization has proposed: (1) to publish a leaflet today, February 25 (draft appended); (2) to convene the committee tomorrow morning, February 26, to resolve the question as to what is the best and most expedient way to control the masses of striking workers already aroused but as yet insufficiently organized. Moreover, it was proposed to start erecting barricades on Monday, February 27, disconnect all electrical equipment, and shut off the water supply and telephones should the government take measures to suppress disorders.106

Socialists in general agreed on agitating for continuing the strike and set the morning of February 27 as the date to elect factory representatives to a soviet.107 Another police report noted that troops sent to crush workers were instead fraternizing with them, sometimes even encouraging the strikers. It continued, “If a moment is lost and the leadership is transferred to the high echelons of the revolutionary underground, the events will take the widest scale.”108

The Petersburg Committee distributed a leaflet to the membership that read, in part:

Strikes, mass meetings, and demonstrations will strengthen, not weaken this organization. Take advantage of every opportunity, each suitable day. As much as possible be with the masses, delivering your revolutionary slogans. Let the lackeys of capital call our activities strike provocations and a bunch of hot air—our salvation lies in immediate universal struggle; do not postpone it to a later date…. One simple action must grow into a national revolution that could foster revolution in other countries. We have a struggle in front of us, but victory awaits us. Everyone must be under the red banners of revolution! Down with the Tsarist monarchy! Long live a democratic republic! Long live the eight-hour day! All landowners’ estates to the people! Down with the war! Long live the brotherhood of workers of the entire world!109

They also distributed a leaflet to the soldiers, urging them to join with the workers:

Brother Soldiers! For the third day we, workers of Petrograd, are openly demanding the destruction of the autocracy, which has caused the people to shed blood, made our country hungry, and condemned our wives, children, mothers and brothers to ruin. Remember, comrade soldiers, only the brotherly union of the working class and revolutionary army will emancipate the enslaved people and end the fratricidal senseless war. Down with the Tsarist monarchy! Long live the brotherly union of the revolutionary army and the people.110

In response, the police stepped up their repression. During the night, they arrested the entire Bolshevik Petrograd District Committee along with 100 other revolutionaries. Among the documents that the police seized from the Petrograd Committee was a resolution that, describes one historian, “recommended the creation of factory committees, whose members were to form an informational bureau, which would then serve as the kernel of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers Deputies; according to the Bolshevik [Petrograd Committee], all of this was to be done ‘on the example of 1905.’”111 The Vyborg District Committee stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the arrests. They debated whether it was time to arm the workers or if that would prematurely provoke the army.112 They voted to urge comrades to recruit more factory workers to the party and continue their agitation against the Tsar.113

February 26
On Sunday, the sun rose over a quiet city. But during the night, the army set up machine guns at key intersections in the city.114 The Mezhraiontsy distributed two leaflets that morning—one targeting workers, urging them to ignore orders to return to work, and the other, to soldiers, asking them to follow the example of the Cossacks and defend the workers.115 Because factories were closed for the Sabbath, workers couldn’t use them as organizing points. Instead, they met in the major streets in their districts and headed for Nevsky. There were four major shooting incidents, all perpetrated by the Tsar’s elite troops, the “training detachments.”116 This came after the Tsar cabled the capital and ordered whatever force necessary to stop the demonstrations. Kayurov described the shooting in Vyborg on workers approaching Nevsky Prospekt:

Suddenly scattered shooting broke out. Then we heard the chatter of machine guns, and saw people running toward us, their faces distorted with terror. An appalling scene awaited us on Nevsky. A few people were hugging the pavement. [Everywhere you looked], police and other armed forces were shooting in all directions. It could only mean the uprising was being routed. The unarmed demonstrators could not retaliate against the government that had resorted to decisive measures. Ambulances raced along Nevsky, carrying off the dead and wounded. People did not disperse but pressed closer to building, while youths taunted the police from around corners.117

Another witness to attacks that day:

A group of demonstrators carrying a red flag and singing “La Marseillaise” moved from the left along the Catherine Canal. These were young students, both male and female. We welcomed them and merged into a single group…when suddenly there was a deafening rattle, tra-ta-ta-ta! Machine-gun fire!...An officer yelled: “Anyone who wants to live had better lie down!”…Two corpses and many wounded lay on the bridge…. Hangmen, damned bloodsuckers!”118

At this point, socialists provided crucial backbone to the movement. What would happen tomorrow when the factories tried to open again? Would workers meekly return to their jobs or press their advantage? Revolutionaries discussed strategy and next steps.

According to a police agent report, a meeting of twenty-eight Bolsheviks and Mezhraiontsy adopted a resolution to step up agitation among the soldiers, continue strikes and demonstrations, and “carry them to the ultimate extreme.” To build an armory, they decided to form small squads to mug cops and steal their guns.119

Another police agent filed his report after a gathering of fifty, noting the resolve of the revolutionaries to keep momentum:

It should be borne in mind that tomorrow that the workers will appear at the factories, but only to assemble, agree what to do, and again move into the streets in an organized and planned fashion in hopes of achieving complete success. At present the factories are serving as vast clubhouses. Therefore, temporarily closing the factories, even for two or three days, would deprive the masses of information centers where experienced speakers electrify crowds, regulate actions in individual factories, and coordinate and organize the demonstrations. [emphasis added]120

“They are planning to form a soviet of workers’ deputies,” the agent continued. “Elections to it will evidently take place at the factories tomorrow morning and already by evening, it may be operative. This is another reason why all factories must be shut down to prevent meetings tomorrow morning.”121

Around 2 a.m., about forty members of the Vyborg District Committee (now operating as city-wide leadership) voted to agitate for continuing the strike, publishing a leaflet around dawn that read:

Working people no longer will endure violence, discontent and ruin…. May the soldiers, our brothers and children, march in our ranks with their rifles in their hands. Then the final hour of the Romanov monarchy will have struck! Down with the Tsarist monarchy! Long live the People’s Republic! All landlords’ estates to the people! The eight-hour workday for working people! Long live the Russian Social Democratic party! Long live a provisional revolutionary government! Down with butchery.122

The Mezhraiontsy stayed up printing a leaflet, the first to appear the next morning. It read, in part:

We Bolsheviks, Menshevik Social Democrats, and Socialist Revolutionaries summon the proletariat of Petersburg and all Russia to organization and feverish mobilization of our forces. Comrades! In the factories organize illegal strike committees. Link one district to another. Organize collections for the illegal press and for arms. Prepare yourselves, comrades. The hour of decisive struggle is near!123

February 27
This was the day of the soldiers’ uprising. So far, socialists had played a key role in agitating and unifying workers. A major lesson socialists drew from the defeat of 1905 was the need to win over the army to unite with the workers. Given that perspective, what did they do to agitate among the soldiers?

The evidence is contradictory. On the one hand, there are writings, from the two officers who led the first army regiment to mutiny that day, saying no revolutionary parties played a role, that it was just their spontaneous initiative. They published this later in 1917.124

On the other hand, when you look at the day’s events, a different picture emerges.

One must ignore a lot of advance planning in order to characterize the uprising as spontaneous. For example, there were at least two socialist strategy meetings before they named February 27 as the date for the mutiny. Additionally, a police agent serving with the Second Baltic Fleet Marines, who were stationed in Petrograd, filed a report on February 25, 36 hours before the uprising, stating that the group planned to mutiny at 6 a.m. on February 27, seize weapons, arrest officers, and take “further action.” This in fact did happen; it was the first mutiny of the day. And two of its three leaders were organized socialists (SRs).125

Then there’s the progress of the mutiny itself. The first four regiments to revolt all had barracks near each other. As they marched into the city to spread the news of their mutiny, they could have headed right to the Vyborg district, the stronghold of the revolutionary socialists or left to Nevsky, the destination for the previous days demonstrations. They turned right. At the same time they were marching toward the Vyborg district, workers in the Vyborg were marching toward them. They met up right near the bridge into the district.

Mikhail Slonimisky, a famous Russian writer who was in the Sixth Engineer Battalion, described a young soldier from the Volynsky Regiment, marching next to him down the street:

“We’re going forward into the unknown!”…He uttered these words enthusiastically with pathos and with great hope…. We indeed were marching forward into the unknown. The school for engineer ensigns, where I was destined to receive my first rank as an officer, now succumbed. A gendarme at the entrance to the school office fired a shot, but the rifle was instantly torn from his hands and he, pale and encircled by angry soldiers, begged, “Don’t kill me! I didn’t know you were having a revolution.”126

After milling about in the Vyborg, a large section of the workers and soldiers marched back the way the soldiers had come, freed over 900 people from a prison, burned down police headquarters, marched on the city armory, killed the general guarding it, and seized 70,000 weapons, which were handed out to workers. With “RSDLP,” for Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party, stenciled on their sides and flying red flags, armored cars began moving around the city under revolutionary control.127 That night, workers agreed to provide shelter to many soldiers and created a public kitchen to feed the army.128

Officers feared using their troops because whenever they fraternized with workers, they mutinied. Over the next forty-eight hours, the entire Petrograd garrison, 170,000 soldiers, came over to the revolution.129 During that time, there was relentless propaganda aimed toward the soldiers at barracks all over the city. What happened inside those barracks? We don’t know. But the Menshevik-Internationalist Nikolai Sukhanov wrote in his memoirs:

One thing is certain: there were great numbers of politically conscious and party elements in all the units of the Petersburg garrison…[who] not only were capable of taking up the movement, becoming its center and lending it the inspiration of political generalization, but their doing so was inevitable.130

A couple days later, when soldiers elected representatives to the soviet, despite peasants forming the majority of the army, six out of the ten elected were members of revolutionary socialist parties, and another three were former workers (not peasants).131

Myth 3: Isolation

The February revolution…was the work of the masses who were not led by a revolutionary party. They were powerful enough to overthrow Tsarism and create the soviets, but not mature enough to prevent the coming to power of the Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov.
—Tony Cliff 132

The last argument usually made to defend the spontaneity thesis is: If the revolutionary socialists really had leadership in the revolution, they should have had leadership of the soviet and prevented the bourgeois Provisional Government from forming. Instead, the Bolsheviks only got 10 percent of the initial seats in the soviet and the bourgeoisie was able to transform the Duma into the Provisional Government.

It’s true that the bourgeoisie wins the day in February, but the interesting question is: Why? After all, even if one doesn’t think much of the socialists’ role in February, it’s not as if the bourgeoisie picked up guns, headed out into the streets, and led the charge to overthrow the Tsar. They backed into a leadership position. We can explain this by looking at the founding of the Petrograd Soviet. There were at least three separate calls for a soviet.

The first came from a group of mainly moderate Mensheviks and some SRs (notably Kerensky) at 2 p.m. on February 27 (at this point, about 15 percent of soldiers had mutinied). These were the right-wing Mensheviks, not the left Mensheviks fighting in the streets. They issued a call for elections to a soviet to meet at the Tauride Palace, the seat of the Duma. They wanted the soviet to act as a pressure group on the bourgeoisie.133

At the same time, the Mensheviks were issuing their appeal, the Mezhraiontsy called for general insurrection and workers’ and soldiers’ soviets. Their leaflet stated, “The die is cast. You cannot retreat. You have nowhere to go. In case of defeat a merciless reprisal from the Tsarist autocracy will wait for the rebels.”

They sent agitators to the most radical workers districts. They held another meeting at 5 p.m., issued two more leaflets, including one that read:

The place of the Tsarist government is being taken by the Provisional Revolutionary Government. It must be created by the representatives of the proletariat and the army. Comrades! Immediately undertake conducting elections to the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The army is already conducting elections of their representatives. Tomorrow the Provisional Revolutionary Government will finally be formed.134

The Mezhraiontsy and SRs worked late into the night distributing more than 30,000 leaflets.

Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Russian Bureau didn’t call for a soviet. On the third day of strikes (February 25), they issued a leaflet that called for a Provisional Revolutionary Government but didn’t mention soviets (and could be interpreted to counter pose the two), although they did state that workers, peasants, and soldiers must run the new state.135 However, that same day, another call went out, this one from the Bolshevik Vyborg District Committee (and possibly other socialists). Known as the Finland Station document, it read:

Comrades, the long-awaited hour has arrived! The people are taking power into their own hands, the revolution has begun; do not lose a single moment, create a Provisional Revolutionary Government today. Only organization can strengthen our forces. First of all, elect deputies, have them make contact with one another and create, under the protection of the armed forces, a Soviet of Deputies. Bring over to our side all soldiers still lagging behind, go to the barracks themselves and summon them. Let the Finland Station be the centre where the revolutionary headquarters will gather. Seize all buildings that can serve as strongholds for our struggle. Comrade soldiers and workers! Elect deputies, forge them into an organization for the victory over autocracy!136

Here we have competing calls for soviets, one from the right wing and two from the left. The ones from the left, calling on workers and soldiers to meet in the Vyborg district, the heart of the strength of the working class, failed. No one showed up.137

But the Bolsheviks didn’t just sit around at Finland Station, talking to each other, pretending to be a soviet. They recognized that the Menshevik Soviet was reflecting the will of the class, so they shifted. S. Skalov, a Bolshevik worker, explained why he led a group of insurgents to the Duma on February 27:

I felt that I acted correctly when I didn’t go to the Finland Station…. When we went to the…Palace…we saw a note, I can’t remember from what organization it came, inviting all workers to gather at the Finland Station. By such self-isolation we would immediately have opposed our own very weak organizational forces to those of the State Duma and by this would have untied its hands, giving it full freedom of action and independence, with all the consequences…. We could not go against the Duma on [the] 27th, nor was there any reason to. We were too weak organizationally, our leading comrades were in jails, exile and emigration. Therefore, it was necessary to go to the Duma, to pull it into the revolutionary current… to create revolutionary chaos, to terrorize all initiative of the Duma directed against revolutionary action; and this was possible only by being inside the Duma, filling up, so to speak, all its cracks with revolutionary reality.138

Why did he find so many workers at the Duma? There are two main reasons.

One, the Mensheviks, who were socialists, had a legitimate-looking call that was widely publicized. Their call was printed in the only paper to appear that day and was distributed all over the city. Although the more politically active workers saw the difference between the two soviets, most workers electing representatives were not familiar with all the issues.139

Two, that’s where the soldiers—the armed defenders of the revolution—were. In the chaos of the moment, soldiers were drawn to the Duma as the seat of legitimate, non-Tsarist government. They wanted legislative approval for their mutiny, which was a capital offense.140 Meanwhile, workers feared the Tsar returning. At one factory, the workers elected a spinner who had been active in 1905. He begged to be let off the hook, explaining he now had a wife and didn’t want to be exiled again. At the Thornton Mills, the workers decided to elect a factory committee as a slate, explaining that, “they are, by the way, all single’.”141 In that atmosphere, there was a natural impulse to go where the soldiers were.

Regardless of where the soviet met, workers were not yet ready for a workers’ government. On March 1, the Vyborg Committee of the Bolsheviks passed a resolution demanding that all power be concentrated in the hands of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, i.e., that the soviet declare itself the Provisional Revolutionary Government. The following day, they issued a leaflet of the resolution, and sent agitators out to push for its implementation.142 They failed. Instead, the soviet voted overwhelmingly for dual power, to recognize the bourgeoisie’s Provisional Government, and to work with it.

Left socialists knew that the situation had to ripen. A left SR leader described his feelings sitting in the soviet, after this vote:

The most sensitive [of the Bolshevik delegates] refrained from speaking. For was this the place, at this [moment], to [express] one’s disbelief? Not to convince but only to darken human joy, joy that for many was the first…I envied these people who believed so sincerely that it was all over, that the revolution was completed—the last bullets will be fired, and a whole new way of life will begin to flow in a broad powerful current, and we will gather in the fruits of the February exploits…But I could not help feeling that it was not so, that ahead lay a difficult path…one through which it would not be so easy to cut with a single blow, as the first knot had been cut in the February Insurrection.143

Thus began dual power. When returning to Russia a month later, Lenin delivered one of his most important speeches, “The tasks for the proletariat in the present revolution” (also known as the “April Theses”). Lenin called for many changes in both the structure and focus of the party given “the unprecedentedly large masses of proletarians who have just awakened to political life.” He argued that “the specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organization of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”

In less than eight months, the majority of the working class came to agree with all the major positions in the April Theses, including rejection of the Provisional Government, an end to the war, redistribution of land, and control of production by the soviets.144 But in March, none of these demands were immediate prospects. It was still the first stage that Lenin described, where the initial euphoria, hope and sense of cross-class unity had yet to give way to a sharpened understanding of the opposing class interests at play. In March, 20 percent of strikes challenged management control of production. By September, 97 percent did.145

Characterizing the February Revolution as “spontaneous” obscures much and reveals little. There are many possibilities between complete spontaneity and the October model. In most cases, all actions before revolutionary victory are preparatory (by definition). No serious socialist party would designate a demonstration ahead of time as initiating the final drive to power. To do so would be ultra-left sectarianism.

But when historians have analyzed February, the standard has been different. Yet revolutionaries can make many contributions toward quickening and sharpening the drive for working-class self-emancipation. February was the product of concerted, concentrated effort by revolutionary socialist cadre from a number of groups. They planned for it. They agitated for it. They were accountable to each other and their organizations. They tried to generalize and extend every action of workers. And over the course of months, they saw the combativeness and confidence of the Petrograd working class increase.146

So, they targeted a series of socialist holidays for strikes and demonstrations. In February, when they detected that the masses were more confident, that the army’s discipline was weakening, and that the government was paralyzed, they pushed. They met repeatedly during the days of the revolution to discuss events, debate next steps, and coordinate further activity. They issued leaflets calling for actions that later occurred—including the initial strike, its generalization, and the soldiers’ uprising. Each morning they met at the factories and politically motivated next actions with the rest of the workers, who then voted to do them.

These workers did what activists do. They weren’t the “stars” of the movement. They were socialist workers from numerous organizations with a general plan and strategy combined with the experience and knowledge to adjust to a rapidly changing situation. These were not the infallible leaders of Stalinist mythology, nor were they the faceless masses of anarchist lore, but they were real cadre. When they came into contact with objective revolutionary conditions (conditions which they were part of forming over the course of years), they brought (largely) Marxist politics to bear with stunning results. Collectively, they were Trotsky’s “piston box.”147

This was the start of a process that led to October. It was not possible to go straight to workers’ power in February. The working class needed the experience of the next several months—to see the betrayals of the bourgeoisie as they continued the war and attacked the workers, as well as to gain a sense of their own power from running factory committees and soviets. This is why dual power springs up again and again in revolutionary situations. The working class may be ready to do away with the old rulers, but they are not immediately ready to become the new ones.

The Bolsheviks were integral to that process—they were the one party that had been uncompromising on the self-emancipation of the world’s working class. Even revolutionary stalwarts like Trotsky had to be convinced of Bolshevik perspectives over many months. In August, the Mezhraiontsy, who had grown to 3,000, voted to join the Bolshevik Party. Some of their leadership—most famously, Trotsky—joined the Bolshevik Central Committee. The rest is history, but that history is better understood by correctly assessing February.

  1. Police report approximately 75,000 strikers on February 23. For an accounting of the spreading strike wave, see E. N. Burdzhalov,Russia’s Second Revolution: The February 1917 Uprising in Petrograd (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 113–25. A note on dates: at the time of the revolution, Russia was still using the Julian calendar. All dates in this article use that calendar. A note on transliteration: obviously, proper names in Russia are not natively expressed in the Roman alphabet. There are many competing systems of transliteration. To reduce confusion and improve legibility, I have tried to normalize the spelling of words throughout, including in quotations, without notice. Finally, some notes of thanks: to Joel Geier, Paul D’Amato, and Ahmed Shawki for feedback and criticism on this article, and an extra-large thanks to Annie Zirin for both her feedback on the article and support in getting it written. The article was improved by their input. Any remaining errors are, sadly, mine alone.
  2. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution 1917–1923 (New York: Macmillan, 1951), v1, 70.
  3. Among the few works addressing this argument is Michael Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution: Anonymous Spontaneity or Socialist Agency?”, Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, No. 1408 (June 2000). I’m indebted to Melancon for his research and have synthesized many of his arguments with other work. That said, I suspect he would disagree with some of my conclusions. Among our difference is that he places more emphasis on SR activity in February than I think is warranted. Other crucial works for understanding February are Burdzhalov’s and Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The February Revolution: Petrograd 1917 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981). Hasegawa’s book does a wonderful job of recreating the day-to-day drama of the revolution. It’s well worth the time to read.
  4. Voline, The Unknown Revolution (Detroit: Black and Red, 1974), 136.
  5. Tony Cliff, All Power to the Soviets (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2004), 89.
  6. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008).
  7. Trotsky, 110.
  8. Trotsky, 75, 76, 83, 87, 107, 87.
  9. Trotsky, 106–7. This theme is prevalent throughout his discussion of February. For example: “The art of revolutionary leadership in its most critical moments consists nine-tenths in knowing how to sense the mood of the masses…An unexcelled ability to detect the mood of the masses was Lenin’s great power. But Lenin was not in Petrograd…But even the central Bolshevik staff, composed of Shlianpnikov, Zalutsky, and Molotov, was amazing in its helplessness and lack of initiative. In fact, the districts and barracks were left to themselves.” (87)
  10. Trotsky, 110–11.
  11. Among those abroad, imprisoned or exiled were Bolsheviks (including Lenin, Sverdlov, Zinoviev, and Kamenev), Mensheviks (including Martov, Chkheidze, and Plekhanov), SRs (including Chernov and Spiridonova), and others who would play a prominent role in the rest of 1917, like Trotsky, Lunacharsky, and Rakovsky.
  12. Like Venice, Petrograd is a series of interconnected islands or districts.
  13. Hasegawa, 117.
  14. Plekhanov is the most well known case of a Menshevik embracing social patriotism. He called for victory over Germany in the First World War. For a broader discussion of Menshevik political tendencies, see Hasegawa, 121–33.
  15. Little has been written on the Mezhraiontsy. The most commonly cited piece has, to my knowledge, never been translated into English. It was published in 1924 as part of the Commission on the History of the Russian Communist Party and the October evolution (commonly known as Istpart) and potentially suffers from the bias and weaknesses of such work. Yurenev, Konstantin K. “Mezhraionka (1911–1917 gg.),” Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya, 1924, nos. 1 and 2. Also see Hasegawa, 134–5.
  16. One member, Boris Savinov, said of the war, “We demand nothing. We simply acknowledge that the task for which the government is struggling at the present moment is our task as well. And all the time during the war we shall disarm ourselves, lay down our arms, and with all our means cooperate for the success of our task.” Hasegawa, 135.
  17. Hasegawa, 136, and Michael Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1990), 222.
  18. I was unable to locate much specific information on anarchists in the February Revolution. However, for a general overview of anarchist activity in Russia, see Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967). Hasegawa mentions them in passing (getting arrested, plotting bombings), 119, 262.
  19. For a further discussion, see Melancon, “‘Marching Together!’: Left Bloc Activities in the Russian Revolutionary Movement, 1900 to February 1917,” Slavic Review, v49, n2. (Summer, 1990), 239–252.
  20. David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime: From the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917(London: Macmillan, 1983), 79. Also available at http://classiques.uqac.ca/contemporains/....
  21. Leopold Haimson, “The Problem of Social Stability in Urban Russia, 1905–1917 (Part One),” Slavic Review, v23, n4, (December, 1964), 631.
  22. Hasegawa, 106–7.
  23. For more on SR repression, see Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 191–6.
  24. Burdzhalov, 21.
  25. Burdzhalov, 18.
  26. Figures are for 1916, relative to 1913. Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 44–5.
  27. Burdzhalov, 20.
  28. Hasegawa, 68.
  29. Mandel, 60.
  30. Hasegawa, 87. Amid all of this, the working class of Petrograd maintained a high cohesion and sense as a class with distinct interests. Writes David Mandel, “One of the most important characteristics of the political culture of the skilled metalworkers was what Buzinov termed ‘class isolation from the exploiters.’ The essence of the ‘conscious worker’s’ agitation was ‘to hammer a wedge between workers and owners. In strikingly parallel fashion, S-sky observed that the workers would disagree with much that they found in the liberal press because ‘liberalism is for the upper classes, and they, the workers, are essentially different.’ This aspiration toward ‘class isolation’ from census society was more than the desire for self-determination. It stemmed also from a deeply held sense of the irreconcilability of the interests of worker and the propertied classes, a position that expressed itself in the desire to keep all workers’ organizations under the sole control of workers and, where this was not feasible, to gain at least an equal footing with representatives of census society. Thus, a police survey of the labor movement during November 1915 in Petrograd observed that the most discussed issue of the period had been consumer cooperatives and that at meetings on this, worker orators ‘expressed the desire to do without any material aid from the industrialists, who were gladly offering material support in the founding of co-operatives.” Mandel, 30.
  31. Hasegawa, 167.
  32. The high death rate of officers was partially fueled by their practice of leading charges in trench warfare. Hasegawa, 169.
  33. Burdzhalov, 32.
  34. Hasegawa, 87–8.
  35. Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Socialist Revolutionaries all managed this feat. Michael Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 196.
  36. Mandel, 56.
  37. Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 121.
  38. Ibid., 128.
  39. Hasegawa, 133–4.
  40. Burdzhalov, 23.
  41. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 6.
  42. A note on sources: Much of the spontaneous thesis rests on memoirs written in the 1920s. For example, historians quote Kayurov, who was part of the Vyborg District Committee, “No one thought of such an imminent possibility of revolution” and “absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centers was felt.” Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 4; Cliff, 90; Trotsky, 106. There are other memoirs with similar accounts. But I think they miss the real story. If we stop at their interpretation, we are left unable to explain many other reports, including those written at the time. I’ve tried to draw mainly on material created at the time of the events such as leaflets, letters, newspapers, and secret police (Okhrana) reports. I found the latter particularly valuable because they were usually filed by provocateurs integrated into the various socialist parties (often in their leadership). These provide us a unique window into the general thoughts of various socialist leadership bodies. Obviously police agents had their own axes to grind, but elements of their reports can be substantiated with other information (e.g., they might have filed reports saying, “tomorrow, slogans for a constituent assembly will be raised by the Bolsheviks” and the next day, such slogans appeared). Absent a time machine, their reports are among the best sources available. Nonetheless, such reports must be judiciously and independently corroborated as much as possible. With the opening of the Soviet Union’s archive, there is probably much new material for historians to discover. For some background on early Soviet historiography from a Western academic’s point of view, see James White, “Early Soviet Historical Interpretations of the Russian Revolution 1918-24,” Soviet Studies, v37, n3, (July 1985), 330–352. There is also scholarship on the February Revolution that I don’t address, such as Marc Ferro, The Russian Revolution of February 1917 (New York: Prentice Hall, 1972). In “A Case of Publication Standards: M. Ferro’s Book in Translation,” D.A. Longley skewers this book as rife with inaccuracies and mistranslations (Soviet Studies, v26, n1 [Jan., 1974], 120–123). I also ignore various other sources whose authors refer to theories that are, at best, silly, such as the role of freemasonry or weather in the revolution.
  43. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), v23, 253. Also available online at http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/...
  44. Paul Le Blanc, Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (New York: Humanities Press, 1990), 242.
  45. Lenin, “Lecture…,” 253.
  46. Koenker and Rosenberg, 58.
  47. Hasegawa, 10.
  48. Factory workers in this context were employed either at mechanized enterprises or firms employing more than fifteen workers. Koenker and Rosenberg, 58.
  49. Koenker and Rosenberg, 58, 69, and 70.
  50. For more discussion on this, see Koenker and Rosenberg, 16–7.
  51. Koenker and Rosenberg, 75.
  52. Hasegawa, 111.
  53. In June, police killed twelve and wounded forty-five textile workers in another part of the country. That massacre did not provoke a reaction among Petrograd workers at the time, but two months later, workers were ready. Hasegawa, 93.
  54. Burdzhalov, 53.
  55. Alexander Shliapnikov came back into the country and then recruited Viacheslav Molotov (of cocktail fame) and Petr Zalutsky to form the Russian Bureau (Hasegawa, 120). For one interpretation of Shliapnikov’s role in February, see Barbara Allen, Worker, Trade Unionist, Revolutionary: A Political Biography of Alexander Shliapnikov, 1905–1922 (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2001), Chapter 3. Although I think she underemphasizes the role of socialists in February, I am grateful to Dr. Allen for making her work available to me as well as taking the time to answer my questions about Shliapnikov.
  56. Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 228.
  57. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 9.
  58. Hasegawa, 204.
  59. Hasegawa, 201.
  60. Quoted by Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 11.
  61. Hasegawa, 202.
  62. Hasegawa explains: “In the first, police alone would cope with a disorder, with minimal assistance from the Cossacks. Since this stage was not considered a military situation, the gradonachal’nik would remain the commander of the security forces. If the police could not handle the situation, the second stage—a military one—would be declared. The commander of troops in Petrograd would take over the command of all security forces from the gradonachal’nik, while in each district the commander of a guard battalion would replace the precinct police chief and command both police and soldiers. Guard battalions would be mobilized to assigned positions to safeguard public buildings, banks, palaces, and railway stations from insurgents.…If measures taken in the second stag proved to be insufficient…infantry and guard unites would then launch an all-out attack on the recalcitrant crowds, using firearms and machine guns. It was presumed that this last stage would be sufficient t suppress any disturbance.” Hasegawa, 164–5.
  63. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 18.
  64. Burdzhalov, 87. It’s worth noting that this clear statement of the immediacy of revolution is in stark contrast to Lenin’s famous words a few weeks prior.
  65. Melancon, The Socialist Revolutionaries and the Russian Anti-War Movement, 219.
  66. Hasegawa, 201.
  67. Hasegawa, 201.
  68. Hasegawa, 217.
  69. I was unable to find anything written about what the Putilov workers did during the first days of the revolution. On the one hand, since they were locked out, they were denied a gathering spot but on the other hand, they were among the most militant workers in all of Russia. It strains credulity to think they played no role in the events that followed. Hasegawa, 210–11.
  70. Murray Bookchin’s introduction to Ida Mett, The Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 (1938, republished by Solidarity Press, 1967). Also available at http://libcom.org/library/thekronstadtco...
  71. Hasegawa, 215.
  72. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 17.
  73. Quoted in Ibid., 15.
  74. See, for example, Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism (Oakland, CA.: AK Press, 2004), 123.
  75. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 15. While some have argued that the leaflets merely called for celebrating International Women’s Day, not for strikes, Melancon makes a convincing argument to the contrary. Michael Melancon, “International Women’s Day, the Finland Station Proclamation, and the February Revolution: A Reply to Longley and White,” Soviet Studies, v42, n3. (July, 1990), 583–589.
  76. Hasegawa, 216–7, and Burdzhalov, 106–7. In his 1920s memoir, Kayurov states that in addition to discussing the significance of International Women’s Day, he urged these women not to strike. And yet out they went. There are other records of Bolsheviks holding study groups (see Burdzhalov, 104–105) and I wonder if Kayurov is understating his role. At the time, he was a member of the Vyborg District Committee, which had argued for targeting International Women’s Day (as opposed to the Russian Bureau and the Petrograd Committee who preferred building for May Day).
  77. Burdzhalov, 107.
  78. Burdzhalov, 108, and Hasegawa, 218.
  79. Burdzhalov, 107.
  80. Burdzhalov, 109.
  81. Mandel, 82, and Burdzhalov, 109.
  82. Burdzhalov, 110.
  83. Hasegawa, 222.
  84. Burdzhalov, 118.
  85. Hasegawa, 225.
  86. Burdzhalov, 120.
  87. Hasegawa, 66.
  88. Hasegawa cites various examples of this (233, 236, 241).
  89. Hasegawa, 233.
  90. Hasegawa, 236.
  91. Hasegawa, 238.
  92. Hasegawa, 237.
  93. Burdzhalov, 137, and Hasegawa, 240.
  94. Michael Melancon, “Who Wrote What and When?: Proclamations of the February Revolution in Petrograd, 23 February–1 March 1917”, Soviet Studies, v40, n3. (July, 1988), 495.
  95. Hasegawa, 239.
  96. Hasegawa, 243.
  97. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 20.
  98. Hasegawa, 228.
  99. Hasegawa, 239, and Burdzhalov, 135.
  100. Hasegawa, 261.
  101. Quoted (with ellipses) by Burdzhalov, 126.
  102. Hasegawa, 251. At demonstrations that day, new banners appeared. It’s worth noting, banners generally don’t write themselves spontaneously. Mezhraiontsy told a comrade to make a red banner, but he had no money. Finally he went to his girlfriend and expropriated a red skirt. He made two banners out of it, sewing on them: “Down with Autocracy” and “Down with War. Long Live Revolution.” Hasegawa, 248, and Burdzhalov, 129.
  103. Hasegawa, 251.
  104. For more on the Duma’s panic, see Hasegawa, 225–8. Kadet leadership also met to discuss what they could do to prevent socialist leadership of the masses. Burdzhalov, 140.
  105. Burdzhalov, 133.
  106. Burdzhalov, 135.
  107. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 21.
  108. Hasegawa, 262–3, and Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 23. Given the day, these were valid concerns. After letting workers cross bridges, Cossacks killed a police captain in Kazan Square to protect strikers from attack. In another demonstration, workers convinced soldiers to lower their guns and join the crowd. Hasegawa, 252–5.
  109. Many leaflets ended with different versions of these slogans. Burdzhalov, 136.
  110. Hasegawa, 271, and Burdzhalov, 137.
  111. Michael Melancon, “Who Wrote What?”, 487.
  112. Shliapnikov in particular was worried about moving too fast. Hasegawa, 259.
  113. Burdzhalov, 136.
  114. Burdzhalov, 151.
  115. Trotsky argues this was too little, too late: “The first proclamation to the army was released only on the 26th by one of the social democratic organizations close to the Bolsheviks [i.e., the Mezhraiontsy]. This proclamation, rather hesitant in character‚ not even containing an appeal to come over to the people‚ was distributed throughout all the city districts on the morning of the 27th. However, testifies Yurenev, the leader of this organization, ‘the tempo of the revolutionary events was such that our slogans were already lagging behind it. By the time the leaflets had penetrated into the thick of the troops, the latter had already come over.’ As for the Bolshevik center‚ Shliapnikov, at the demand of Chugurin, one of the best worker-leaders of the February Days, finally wrote an appeal to the soldiers on the morning of the 27th. Was it ever published? At best, it might have come in at the finish. It could not possibly have influenced the events of February 27.” But these were not the first leaflets appealing to soldiers, nor were they particularly timid. Trotsky relies on recollections from the 1920s, not the leaflets themselves, which were probably unavailable to him as he wrote in exile. The 1920s testimony was tainted by the political conditions of Civil War–era Russia (Trotsky, 88). But even if Trotsky was correct, his criticism is misplaced. Are we really supposed to condemn revolutionaries for taking a few days before targeting the army in a concerted way? Prior to February 26, the order of the day was to draw as many workers into activity as possible, precisely to give the army confidence that this was more than just a flash in the pan. After the first day of strikes, the revolutionaries were aware of what was possible but they also knew that mass consciousness would take longer than twenty-four hours to develop.
  116. Hasegawa, 268.
  117. Burdzhalov, 152.
  118. As quoted (with ellipses) by Burdzhalov, 153–4. Another example of how quickly ideas can change in a revolutionary moment: one of these regiments was twelve hours away from mutiny. Hasegawa, 581.
  119. Burdzhalov, 159–60.
  120. Burdzhalov, 160.
  121. Burdzhalov, 184. Note, this is Limonin, whom Cliff quotes as evidence that the socialists played no role.
  122. Burdzhalov, 162.
  123. Melancon, “Who Wrote What?”, 480–1.
  124. Hasegawa provides various citations on 278. In fairness, I should note that Hasegawa’s book is also in complete disagreement with my arguments: “The insurrection resulted from the independent decisions of the soldiers, not from the influence of the workers’ propaganda in the barracks. The worker-activists concentrated their propaganda activities on the barracks of the Moscow Regiment in the Vyborg District. The insurrection began in the Volynsky Regiment, least influenced by the workers’ propaganda activities. The soldiers of the Moscow Regiment did not join the insurrection until much later on this day.”
  125. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 21–3.
  126. Burdzhalov, 165, and Hasegawa, 281–2.
  127. Burdzhalov, 172.
  128. After delegating a group to arrange food, the Soviet issued a statement that read, in part, “Comrades! The soldiers who stand with the people have been on the streets, hungry, since morning. The Soviet of Workers’ Soldiers’ and People’s Deputies is doing everything in its power to feed them. But it is difficult to arrange for food at once. The Soviet turns to you, citizens, asking you to share whatever you have with the soldiers.” Canteens appeared around the city. Hasegawa, 282–287, and Burdzhalov, 191.
  129. Hasegawa, 292.
  130. This is buttressed by a report on February 28. A member of the Mezhraiontsy referred to the role of “propagandists…in the collapse of the army.” Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 26.
  131. Hasegawa, 399.
  132. Tony Cliff, Trotsky: The Darker the Night, the Brighter the Star, Volume 4, 1927–1940 (London: Bookmarks, 1993), 166. Also available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/wo...
  133. Kerensky and others issue an appeal under the name, the Provisional Executive Committee of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, “Citizens! The representatives of the workers, soldiers, and other people of Petrograd, who are meeting in the State Duma, announce that the first meeting of their representatives will be held tonight at seven o’clock in the evening at a room of the State Duma. All troops that took the side of the people immediately elect their own representatives, one person per one company. Factories elect their own deputies, one person per one thousand people. Factories with fewer than a thousand workers elect one deputy from each factory.” Hasegawa, 330–1. (The 1:1000 ratio was based on elections to the War Industries Committee.)
  134. Hasegawa, 332.
  135. It’s interesting the degree to which during the chaos of revolution that the various levels of the Bolshevik Party were at cross-purposes (or at least on different pages). Hasegawa, 328.
  136. Melancon, “Who Wrote What?”, 489.
  137. Hasegawa, 333–4.
  138. Mandel, 103.
  139. Hasegawa notes that the Soviet represented all of Petrograd’s workers, including non-factory workers. The Vyborg Metal workers, who were among the most militant and active section of Petrograd workers, overwhelmingly elected Bolsheviks as representatives. For a larger exploration of these issues, see Hasegawa, 379–409.
  140. Hasegawa, 314.
  141. Mandel, 102.
  142. Burdzhalov, 242.
  143. Mandel, 101.
  144. Lenin, “The Tasks for the Proletariat in the Present Revolution,” Collected Works, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), v24, 19–26 (also available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/wo...). Obviously, the rest of 1917 is beyond the scope of this article. A good starting place is Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. For more on workers’ consciousness and caution, see Mandel, 99–104.
  145. Koenker and Rosenberg, 275.
  146. Melancon puts it this way: “Socialists had no specific plans in advance to launch revolutionary disturbances on 23 February and bring them to fruition on 27 February. What they did have, as overwhelming evidence indicates, was an orientation to promote strikes and demonstrations and, if they showed promise, to prolong them and push them toward revolution.” Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 35.
  147. In the introduction to his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky famously writes, “Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the role of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” Trotsky, xvi. One might ask at this point, “Why the persistence of the spontaneity interpretation?”
    This could be an article in its own right. Different political forces had different motivations for celebrating February as spontaneous. Here are my hypotheses, though for each of these, more work is needed: Cold warriors and liberal academics treated February as the “good” revolution, the real hope for the Russia people, until the evil Bolsheviks took it all away in a coup in October. For anarchists, February shows that organizations (especially, “vanguard” parties) were neither involved nor necessary and their (later) involvement proved disastrous. For early Stalinists, February poses the problem that most of their great leaders were out of the country, only returning in the ensuing months. It’s additionally inconvenient that socialists outside the Bolshevik Party were so critical to events (in particular, the Mezhraiontsy). Later, the crucial role of the Bolshevik Party throughout the entire revolutionary (and the ignoring or defaming of other forces) became the party line. Indeed, Stalinist historiography takes so many twists and turns that a footnote cannot contain them. For Trotsky and many Trotskyists, it was important to show that the Bolshevik Party wasn’t infallible, and among the examples used was the February Revolution—Bolsheviks were there but were at best, useless. At the same time, they emphasized, rightly, that it took Leninist organization to complete the Russian Revolution and defeat the bourgeoisie. For socialists in the Cold War, the spontaneity thesis provided hope that even if they were isolated, revolution could break out around them. For some additional discussion on this, see Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution,” 1-4 and D.A. Longley, “Iakovlev’s Question, or the Historiography of the Problem of Spontaneity and Leadership in the Russian Revolution of February 1917,” in Revolution in Russia: Reassessments of 1917, ed. E. R. Frankel et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 365–87.


Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

Issue contents

Top story



  • Crimes of war

    Bill Roberts reviews Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse
  • Expanding the LGBTQ agenda

    Keegan O'Brien reviews Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock
  • Subliminal racism repackaged

    Paul Pryse reviews Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López