Spontaneity and revolution: A critique

A debate on the nature of the February 1917 revolution in Russia
February 1917 demonstration

IN HIS article on the 1917 February Revolution (“February’s forgotten vanguard: The myth of Russia’s spontaneous revolution,” ISR 75, January-February 2011) Jason Yanowitz has combed what was a fairly obscure academic debate on the February Revolution’s degree of spontaneity, and using these sources provides an account of the important role socialist militants and organizations, including joint committees of the left, played in the day-to-day street battles that led to the fall of Tsarism. Many historians, even some on the left, as Jason notes, have underplayed, and in many cases dismissed as nonexistent, the role of socialists in the mass protests of February. Jason’s piece fills out and corrects this picture.

“February’s forgotten vanguard” takes issue with the position of most mainstream and left historians, from William Chamberlin to Tony Cliff, who contend that February was a purely spontaneous, unplanned affair in which the Russian masses “rose up in a rage”—catching the left organizations off guard and incapable of offering a lead—to bring down a hated regime whose grip on power had been weakening for years. “All versions of the spontaneity thesis,” Yanowitz contends, and in this group he includes (incorrectly, we will argue) Trotsky, “place socialists on the sidelines in the revolt against the Tsar.” According to Yanowitz, “Characterizing the February Revolution as ‘spontaneous’ obscures much and reveals little.”

Jason’s contention is that it makes no sense for there to have been an active, vibrant, and growing socialist movement among workers in Petrograd in the years leading up to February (which he documents in detail), only for them to be incapacitated during February and incapable of playing any role in it.

The main body of Yanowitz’ article takes on what he describes as three myths about February: One—revolutionaries were unprepared for February, did not expect it, and were caught off guard by it; two—revolutionaries were “too few in number, too scattered, and too flawed to play an effective role in events”; and finally, three—the fact that revolutionaries had a weak initial showing in the newly-formed workers’ council, the Petrograd Soviet, and that the Soviet, dominated by moderates, supported the formation of a new bourgeois provisional government, is proof that the revolutionaries could not have led the February Revolution.

There are a number of flaws in Yanowitz’s thesis. First, he offers no definition of spontaneity, or any analysis of how Marxists have used the term. As a result, the entire premise of the article (February was not spontaneous) stands on unnecessarily shaky ground.

Second, he lumps Trotsky (whose analysis of February in his masterful History of the Russian Revolution, we are told, is “a bit weak”) together with bourgeois commentators who have insisted on the purely spontaneous character of the February Revolution. Yet Trotsky’s analysis is quite different from theirs, and explicitly rejects the “spontaneity” thesis. Nevertheless, according to Jason, Trotsky’s statement that the February Revolution was led by “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin” is a “vague, somewhat metaphysical formulation.” (It should be noted that this position is identical to that of historian James White, a writer wholly unsympathetic to Trotsky, who calls Trotsky’s analysis of those who led the February Revolution the “theory of ghostly leadership by the Bolsheviks.”)

Three, in his zeal to assert the important role organized socialists played in the revolution, Yanowitz goes too far and exaggerates the role socialists played in the revolution. By denying any role for spontaneity in the revolution, he fails to take into account the depths of the revolution—its basis in the arousal of the masses, the devastating impact of the First World War on Russian society (including mass hunger and breakdown of transportation) and the crisis and decay at the top of society. All these factors contributed to the conditions making Russia ripe for revolution, independently of revolutionaries. By overemphasizing the activity of socialists in the February revolution, Yanowitz blurs the difference between the first revolution (February), and the second (October), the former which contained stronger spontaneous elements (and therefore led to the dominance of the soviets by reformists, because action leapt ahead of mass consciousness), and the latter, which was a planned affair led centrally by the Bolshevik Party with a soviet majority.

Without a close reading of his footnotes, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that Yanowitz has presented us with new evidence for a case he has marshaled, when in fact he draws both the key points of his argument—as well as its structure—from an academic debate conducted between several bourgeois historians, including Michael Melancon, James White, and D.A. Longley, spanning a several year period beginning in the late 1980s over precisely the question of whether or not February was spontaneous. The essential outline of Yanowitz’s argument, as he notes in a footnote, is to be found in a 2000 essay by Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution: Anonymous Spontaneity or Socialist Agency?” Yanowitz even uses the same Chamberlin quote as Melancon as to the spontaneous and leaderless character of February. Yanowitz’s article would have benefitted from an analysis of this debate, its strengths and its weaknesses from a Marxist perspective. But this is a secondary issue.

Myth 1: Did somebody order a revolution?
Jason disputes the argument of Trotsky and others that the Bolsheviks were caught unawares by February. Jason attempts to refute this argument by detailing the ways in which socialists of all stripes had been propagandizing, preparing, and agitating for revolution, and that they fully expected it to come. He cites speeches and letters by Lenin and Krupskaya indicating a sense that impending revolution was in the air. 

But only the most shallow historian (and certainly no Marxist) would make the claim that being “caught unawares” by the revolution in Russia meant not expecting it to come at all.

In fact, Trotsky makes the same point as Jason in his History:

The revolution caught them [revolutionaries] unawares only with regard to the exact moment. Generally speaking, both sides, the revolutionary and the governmental, were carefully preparing for it, had been preparing for years, had always been preparing. As for the Bolsheviks, all their activity since 1905 was nothing but preparation for a second revolution.

Knowing a revolution is coming, however, is not the same thing as knowing what demonstration, what strike, or what outburst is going to be the trigger that begins it. Such is the nature of revolution that it cannot be conjured by revolutionaries, though they can work for it. The dialectics of a revolutionary outbreak are such that it is impossible to predict the precise forces, mechanisms, and order of events that will produce them—though the contradictory combination of political, economic, and social crises can reveal the conditions in which one can be expected. Moreover, every revolutionary organization grows and develops for the most part in non-revolutionary situations. That is why it is entirely possible, at least initially, for revolutionaries who have worked all their lives for revolution, to be “caught unawares” when one actually starts.

Lenin was quite clear on this question when he wrote in 1918:

How could we guarantee that two months later the tsarist monarchy would be overthrown in the course of a few days? We in this country, which has experienced two revolutions, know and realize that the progress of the revolution cannot be foretold, and that revolution cannot be called forth. We can only work for the revolution if you work consistently, if you work devotedly, if this work is linked up with the interests of the oppressed masses, who make up the majority, revolution will come; but where, how, at what moment, from what immediate cause, cannot be foretold.

All reports from this period, and from subsequent memoirs, point to the fact that no one at the outbreak of the February demonstrations was as yet aware that these would become the decisive confrontation with Tsarism—though they knew that the day of reckoning was coming. So Trotsky is right on that score. This should not surprise us. There is no way to foretell ahead of time that one demonstration will take on a qualitatively different character than the ones that preceded it. It was only on the second day of street battles, when the crowds got bigger and the confrontations more serious, that the realization began to set in that “this could be it.”

Yanowitz himself acknowledges that the position of the Petrograd Bolsheviks on what in hindsight was the first day of the revolution, February 23, was to urge caution and restraint to the women textile workers who wanted to call a general strike and street demonstrations, and that more decisive action should be reserved for a future date. In his memoirs, the worker Kayurov, a leading Vyborg Bolshevik, “was extremely indignant” toward the women textile workers, for “blatantly ignoring the instructions of the party’s district committee.”

The Bolsheviks were in fact “caught unawares” by events as they initially unfolded, and had to quickly adapt, as Trotsky writes:

In the following morning, however [February 23], in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. “With reluctance,” writes Kayurov, “the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers, Mensheviks, and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.” Such was Kayurov’s decision, and the Vyborg committee had to agree to it. “The idea of going into the streets had long been ripening among the workers; only at that moment nobody imagined where it would lead.”

So from the very first paragraph of Trotsky’s chapter on the February Revolution, he gives quite a clear idea of both the way in which the “spontaneous” movement leapt ahead of the revolutionaries, whose leadership at that point was to try to dial down the scale of the struggle, and then how, having failed in this endeavor, they quickly readjusted their orientation. It was only after readjusting to events they did not control that the Petrograd Bolsheviks were able to provide any leadership in the day-to-day battles that brought down the Tsar.

Myth 2: What role did socialists play?
The second myth Yanowitz sets up to refute is that revolutionaries were too weak, disorganized, and politically unprepared to play a significant role in February. Here Jason provides lots of evidence to show that socialists of various stripes, but in particular the Bolsheviks of the highly industrial Vyborg District and the group called the Mezhiarontsy (inter-district committee), which later joined the Bolshevik Party, helped lead workers out of the factories, helped rally people in the streets, met daily to discuss plans and slogans, produced leaflets, and so on.

All of this is illuminating, but less definitive than Jason thinks. First, the fact that socialists had meetings, participated in protests, devised slogans they hoped would be taken up, and printed leaflets, does not actually prove that any of the socialist parties led the revolution. For one thing, it is not possible to prove in the chaotic development of events what impact a particular slogan or leaflet had; or who was the first to think of it and disseminate it, since a lot of things were communicated and spread verbally in the heat of the moment. For every leaflet that may have found a willing ear, there were also leaflets that had no impact at all. (An obvious example is one cited by Jason—that the Bolshevik’s competing call for soviets to be organized at the Finland Station rather than at Smolny was completely ignored).

Indeed, one could make a case, as the historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa does, that the joint cooperation on the ground between different socialist organizations acted as substitute for higher up party leadership that was missing or lagged behind in this period. “In the absence of any definite instructions from the central party organizations,” he writes, “interparty cooperation in the factories played a more important part in the strike movement during the February Revolution.”

The fact remains that it was the less experienced, less organized, women textile workers, angry over the shortages of bread and the war, who decided to start a general strike. They sounded the first tocsin. Descriptions by key historians of the way in which events unfolded on the first day indicate a strong degree of spontaneous response to the women’s call, as this description of how the strike began and spread on February 23 in the Lorenz Works (cited in Burdzhalov) shows:

A worker named Ziablikov ran onto the floor and informed them that the women workers were on strike and had taken to the streets. Somebody yelled “Stop work!” In a few minutes the workers of the Lorenz Works had poured onto the Kamennoostrovskii Prospekt, turned over a streetcar, headed for the Langenzippen Works, broke into the shops, and pulled workers off the job. A large demonstration headed for Troitskaia Square.

Descriptions of the revolution like this abound. We can but only agree with Burdzhalov when he writes, “The actions of workers on February 23, 1917, were not foreseen, they did not unfold according to a definite plan, and they were not directed from a single center. They consisted of a great number of skirmishes and clashes, largely independent of one another.”

But when it became clear that mass strikes had broken out in spite of Bolshevik caution, things shifted. As Burdzhalov writes:

In the light of unfolding events, such considerations as “the time was not yet ripe” for a general strike or for street demonstrations lost their meaning. The question arose: how should the revolutionaries evaluate the new situation and react tdeo events? Bolshevik workers in each enterprise had to settle that question quickly, and, furthermore, on their own, for no directives had come from the party centers by the morning of February 23.

This complex dynamic tells us a lot more about the process of February than simply insisting that revolutionaries played a leading role in events, precluding any spontaneity. It indicates that it was not the party centers that led, but individuals and local district organizations of revolutionaries, and in some cases, only after being initially “caught unawares” by events.

There was never a point during February that all the leading bodies of the Bolshevik Party were on the same page about the unfolding events. Virtually every account of February affirms Trotsky’s argument that while the Vyborg (and to some extent the Petersburg) committee of the Bolsheviks provided leadership in the struggle, the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee, consisting of three members including Alexander Shliapnikov, played a pretty dismal role. Throughout, it seems clear that there was tension between the Bureau and the other committees, who felt that the Bureau was too conservative and too aloof from events.

Trotsky is very clear that the Vyborg committee played an important role in events (not ghostly at all), but that the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee dragged behind events:

In view of the arrest of the [Bolshevik] Petrograd Committee [on February 26], the guidance of the entire work in the city fell into the hands of the Vyborg rayon. Maybe this was just as well. The upper leadership in the party was hopelessly slow. Only on the morning of the 25th, the Bureau of the Bolshevik Central Committee at last decided to issue a handbill calling for an all-Russian General strike. At the moment of issue, if indeed it ever did issue, the general strike in Petrograd was facing an armed uprising. 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 nearer one comes to the factories, the greater the decisiveness.

This assessment of the Russian Bureau of the Central Committee is confirmed by the memoirs of several of the Vyborg Bolshevik leaders. “The atmosphere was exuberant,” writes the Vyborg Bolshevik Sveshnikov of the February 24 protests, “but we felt the absence of common leadership, and bad communication from other districts. The correct revolutionary direction of the Russian Bureau was really needed.”

On February 25, according to Hasegawa, “estrangement between the Bolshevik Russia Bureau of the Central Committee and the lower echelons of the party deepened.” When some Vyborg District Committee members pushed for the Bureau to issue a call for insurrection, Shliapnikov instead issued a proclamation that made no concrete proposals for action other than calling people into the streets (which they had already done). When Vyborg Bolsheviks demanded arms, Shliapnykov refused, insisting that armed workers might “provoke” the soldiers, and that they should obtain weapons by drawing soldiers into the revolution—as if the two things needed to be counterposed. The fact of the matter was that workers were already figuring out how to obtain weapons and were using them to fight the police. Hasegawa concludes that the Russian Bureau, in stark contrast to the Vyborg Committee, stood somewhat aloof from the movement and, as Trotsky argues, “dragged after the movement.”

According to Yanowitz, February was not spontaneous because socialists knew a revolution was coming, produced leaflets, held meetings to discuss what to do next, and were out in the streets trying to exert some control over events as they unfolded. This, in our opinion, does not fully settle the question. There was a great deal of spontaneity—if by that we mean action improvised on the spot that in turn leads to developments and opens possibilities for action not initially seen by its participants—in the events of the February days.

Myth 3: If revolutionaries led it, how come the reformists and the bourgeoisie got the upper hand?
On February 27, there were competing calls for a soviet. The Vyborg Bolsheviks’ call was ignored. The call to form a soviet at the Duma (former toothless parliament) headquarters, issued by the Mensheviks, was followed. Jason gives two reasons for this: One, the latter call was “widely publicized” and “legitimate looking”; two, the soldiers went to the Duma, so the workers had to follow.

The outcome speaks loudly for the idea that the Bolsheviks did not have the organizational or political pull–that is, they did not have the allegiance of enough of the revolution’s participants, particularly the soldiers—to shape the outcome at this stage, though that would change. They were forced to follow the other call.

The reasons were several, and are summed up by Trotsky in a later essay:

The working class was at that time extremely heterogeneous socially and politically. During the years of the war it had been renewed by 30-40 percent from the ranks of the petty bourgeoisie, often reactionary, at the expense of backward peasants, at the expense of women and youth. The Bolshevik party in March 1917 was followed by an insignificant minority of the working class and furthermore there was discord within the party itself. The overwhelming majority of the workers supported the Mensheviks and the “Socialists-Revolutionists” i.e., conservative social-patriots. The situation was even less favorable with regard to the army and the peasantry. We must add to this: the general low level of culture in the country, the lack of political experience among the broadest layers of the proletariat, especially in the provinces, let alone the peasants and soldiers.

Jason quotes a Bolshevik worker Skalov explaining why, in spite of the Vyborg Bolsheviks’ call for the soviet to be convened in the Finland Station, he directed workers to the Tauride Palace, the site for the soviet called by the Mensheviks.

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... [emphasis added]

This quote confirms Trotsky’s analysis and refutes Jason’s. The Bolshevik Party at this time was small (especially in comparison to the size of the revolutionary demonstrations), politically disoriented, and incapable of providing a clear political lead; in fact, before Lenin’s return, it was split four ways over which way the Russian Revolution should go. In addition, the struggle had brought into its fold millions of people whose actions were far more militant than their politics at this stage. They were not as politically developed as the core of working-class militants who had been organizing and agitating for revolution.

Jason describes Trotsky’s formulation that workers largely tempered by the party of Lenin made the revolution, though no party led it, as a “somewhat metaphysical formulation.” But there is nothing at all metaphysical in his analysis: Workers had passed through 1905; they had been subject to revolutionary propaganda, as had the soldiers; and that therefore there were among the masses politically experienced and educated workers who could give a lead. This is what explains the influence of the party, though not its leadership at this stage, over the revolutionary process.

Jason quotes only one part of Trotsky’s final paragraph: “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.” This seems clear enough. Party members and workers influenced by the party played a leading role in the revolution—especially in the Vyborg District. But Jason leaves out the second part of the point Trotsky is trying to make: “This leadership proved sufficient to guarantee the victory of the insurrection, but it was not adequate to transfer immediately into the hands of the proletarian vanguard the leadership of the revolution.”

It is important to make a distinction between the leadership role revolutionaries played in the street protests, and their ability to translate that role into political leadership of the revolutionary movement. The outcome of February—the formation of soviets with a tiny Bolshevik minority, certainly does not lend any credence to the idea that the Bolshevik Party was able to exert political leadership over the revolutionary upsurge in February, which is not surprising, given that, as Trotsky points out, consciousness lags behind action in a revolution, the Bolsheviks were a tiny minority of the Petrograd working class, and the party at this time did not speak with a single voice.

Spontaneity and revolution
Jason’s article would have been strengthened considerably had it provided a clear definition or framework in which to understand spontaneity. There is first of all the question of how the bourgeois historians who have debated this question utilize the term (completely unplanned and leaderless). More importantly, there is the way spontaneity has been discussed and understood among Marxists. By spontaneous uprising, do we mean an unplanned and unorganized outburst that happens “by itself”? Is spontaneity a relative term on a spectrum, as in relatively unplanned and disorganized vs. relatively planned and organized? Is there such a thing as spontaneity at all?

The closest thing to a definition of spontaneity in his article is not a serious one. “It is worth noting,” he tells us in a footnote, “that banners generally don’t write themselves spontaneously.” Strangely, in the same footnote he describes how a young activist makes a red banner using his girlfriend’s dress.

Clearly, demonstrations don’t “organize themselves,” and strikes don’t just happen. The definition of spontaneity implied here renders it a meaningless term. On the other hand, quickly improvising a banner using a red skirt strikes us as a perfect example of spontaneity, in the sense of improvising on the spur of the moment.

A serious definition must acknowledge that there is, as Gramsci writes, no such thing as “pure spontaneity” in history. “Every ‘spontaneous’ movement” Gramsci argues, “contains rudimentary elements of conscious leadership, of discipline.”

Duncan Hallas makes a similar argument:

Spontaneity is a fact. But what does it mean? Simply that groups of workers who are not active with any political or even trade union organization take action on their own behalf or in support of others. From the point of view of organizations the action is “spontaneous”; from the point of view of the workers concerned it is conscious and deliberate.

Trotsky, too, in his criticism of the argument that the February revolution was a purely spontaneous affair, cites favorably the “pointed remark of a liberal official trying to summarize his February observations”:

It is customary to say that the movement began spontaneously, the soldiers themselves went into the street. I cannot at all agree with this. After all, what does the word “spontaneously” mean? ... Spontaneous conception is still more out of place in sociology than in natural science. Owing to the fact that none of the revolutionary leaders with a name was able to hang his label on the movement, it becomes not impersonal but merely nameless.

For the Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, spontaneity does not mean a complete lack of organization, but a movement or struggle that proceeds without a central plan.

“[P]ure” spontaneity exists only in books containing fairy tales about the workers movement—but not in its real history. What is understood by “spontaneity of the masses” are movements thathave not been planned out in detail ahead of time by some central authority…. [Our emphasis]

Mandel continues:

In one case, we will be able to detect in “spontaneous” action the fruits of years of “underground activity” by a trade-union opposition, or a rank-and-file group; in another case, the result of contacts that, for a rather long period of time, have patiently—and without apparent success—been nurtured by shop colleagues in a neighboring city (or a neighboring factory) where the “left-wingers” are stronger. In the class struggle too there is no such thing as a goose “spontaneously” falling from heaven already cooked.”

In what sense, then, have Marxists used the term, albeit in a qualified way? To denote the relative degree, or lack thereof, of conscious, planned organization, and leadership in a revolutionary process. Generally speaking, Marxists have emphasized that the degree of spontaneity is more prominent in the early phases of a revolutionary process, in particular, in that phase in which a decaying order, rife with insoluble contradictions, crumbles under the weight of mass struggle, and where that mass struggle is less differentiated between the various potentially competing class and political forces.

In the later phases of the struggle, the competing class and political forces become more clearly delineated, and the struggle becomes more conscious, more deliberate, and more organized.

In his chapter on the “Art of Insurrection,” Trotsky puts it this way:

History testifies, to be sure, that in certain conditions a popular insurrection can be victorious even without a conspiracy. Arising “spontaneously” out of the universal indignation, the scattered protests, demonstrations, strikes, street fights, an insurrection can draw in a part of the army, paralyze the forces of the enemy, and overthrow the old power. To a certain degree this is what happened in February 1917 in Russia. Approximately the same picture is presented by the development of the German and Austro-Hungarian revolutions of the autumn of 1918. Since in these events there was no party at the head of the insurrectionaries imbued through and through with the interests and aims of the insurrection, its victory had inevitably to transfer the power to those parties which up to the last moment had been opposing it.

To overthrow the old power is one thing; to take the power in one’s own hands is another. [emphasis added]

“Characterizing the February Revolution as ‘spontaneous’ obscures much and reveals little,” writes Yanowitz in his conclusion. But characterizing it, as he does, as a movement led by socialist parties, also obscures much about the character of the revolution. He writes:

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.

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.

This makes it appear as though the February Revolution was like October: foreseen, planned, and executed by revolutionaries: mostly piston-box and very little steam. What is missing here is the inherent uncertainty of a revolutionary process that begins as a wave of mass protest—one whose outbreak and whose outcome no one can predict, and one whose course is full of twists and turns based upon the initiative and creativity of countless, mostly nameless people, and on the push-back from the state that creates a two-and-fro in the struggle, a swirl of events that are extremely difficult to judge in the moment.

Trotsky draws out how difficult it was for revolutionaries at the juncture of the struggle on the fourth day of protests —when it was clear that the state was going to unleash armed soldiers on the protesters—to figure out where the movement was heading, while everything hinged on whether the troops would obey or disobey their orders. In this description one also recalls more recent events in Cairo, when revolutionaries, in the face of a concerted violent attack on the Tahrir occupation, thought for a moment that perhaps the movement would be defeated:

Hungry, tired, chilled, with a mighty historic responsibility upon their shoulders, the Vyborg leaders gather outside the city limits, amid vegetable gardens, to exchange impressions of the day and plan the course ... of what? Of a new demonstration? But where will an unarmed demonstration lead, now the government has decided to go the limit? This question bores into their minds. “One thing seems evident: the insurrection is dissolving.” Here we recognize the voice of Kayurov, already familiar to us, and at first it seems hardly his voice. The barometer falls so low before the storm.

In the hours when hesitation seized even those revolutionists closest to the mass, the movement itself had gone much farther than its participants realized.

Trotsky describes how even later on the evening of the 26th—“twelve hours before the victory”—the Vyborg committee meeting was debating whether or not it was time to call off the strike. It is “far easier to recognize victory the day after,” writes Trotsky, “than the day before.”

For Lenin, a revolutionary who never downplayed the importance of organization and leadership, the degree of spontaneity of the revolution was an indication of its deep-rootedness. Revolutions such as February were outbursts of indignation, anger, and cumulative bitterness, no doubt fertilized by revolutionary propaganda and agitation, but deeply rooted in social contradictions and mass discontent. Under these circumstances, the Bolsheviks, scattered, small in comparison to the size of the outburst, with some of its best leaders in exile, prison, or the army, “tried to influence it [the revolution] as much as possible.”

In his zeal to prove socialist leadership in the February revolution, Yanowitz has written a one-sided account that makes it appear that left socialists led the revolution from beginning to end. By attempting to underplay the reticence of the Bolsheviks on the first day; by blurring the question as to the character of the first day of protests (either they were seen as the first day of revolution, or they were not, and all evidence points to the latter); and by making it appear as though the mere fact of socialist involvement, regular meetings, and efforts by them to give each day’s protest direction meant that political parties “led” the February revolution, Yanowitz fails to take into account the cumulative anger, the latent creativity and potential for self-activity of the working class that burst forth in February—or the countless workers, wives, youth, and soldiers who found their voices and their legs in the heat of battle, but who were not before then necessarily active or very political.

Yurenev, the leader of the Mezhiarontsy, has the right measure of caution over the argument that revolutionaries led the February Revolution:

[N]one of the active participants of those events foresaw all the grandeur that they would acquire, nor the complete collapse of tsarism. The difference between pre-February and post-February attitudes has become blurred in the minds of some comrades today, and they now believe that the February Revolution was the work of one or other of the committees or parties. The very same soldiers and, (to a lesser extent), workers who, in the first months of the war, were completely behind the defencists [the pro-war socialists] on all important political questions, made the February Revolution. The continuous activity of the proletariat created the atmosphere in which the reserve regiments of the tsar’s guard “disintegrated.”

In February the spontaneous element was more dominant, and in October—when the Bolshevik Party was able to set a date for the insurrection and centrally direct it—the more organized, planned element was predominant. In neither case, however, are both elements missing. February did not happen without any planning and organization, and October did not happen without some degree of spontaneity (because even a planned insurrection must deal on the spot with an enemy that is not static, but reacts). But it would be a mistake to blur this important distinction that the denial of spontaneity in February forces us toward.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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