Spontaneity and Revolution: A reply to Paul D'Amato

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

I WANT to thank Paul for the seriousness and thoroughness of his response. I think that a debate about the relationship between left organizations and the working class in the February revolution is very valuable. 

While feeling my article “fills out and corrects the picture” of “many historians...underplay[ing]...the role of socialists in mass protests in February,” he spends several thousand words arguing the opposite. Paul contends that my article is weak for three major reasons: one, I mischaracterize Trotsky’s arguments; two, I never define “spontaneity”; and three, I overstate the role of socialists in the February Revolution. Along the way, he makes several other points but these are the main substantive ones.1

Writing this response was an odd task because Paul does not dispute most of what I present. I don’t know whether he accepts this evidence, but it challenges the standard Marxist narrative of February. In particular: Organized socialists (Bolsheviks, the Mezhraiontsy, Menshevik Internationalists, and Left Socialist Revolutionaries) all participated in a rising wave of militancy in the years leading up to the Tsar’s overthrow. This wave was interrupted by the start of World War One, but soon regained ground (brought to a higher level by the horrors of the war).

Different revolutionary groups varied in their approach to International Women’s Day. The Mezhraiontsy saw it as the next step after the January 9 Bloody Sunday memorial protests. The Bolsheviks, after a debate, thought it was better to target May Day (about eight weeks later) and build in the interim.

Even if the initial strike of women workers was spontaneous, what followed—its expansion into a general strike, a soldiers’ uprising and the ending of autocracy—was not. Each additional step included political intervention by socialist organizations.

Seeing women textile workers “calling out” other workers, socialists of different organizations called for supporting walkouts. They did this on the spot, exercising the “thinking on their feet” expected of revolutionary cadre who have built for years in factories.

From the first day of protests, socialists felt there was a qualitative change in the character of class consciousness and confidence. Whereas on January 9, workers had struck but then just largely had gone home, on February 23, many more strikers participated in street demonstrations. Wrote one member of the Vyborg committee of their meeting that first night, “Our agitation was facilitated wonderfully by the objective course of things. To overthrow the autocracy, was in everyone’s mind, a perfectly comprehensible act.”2

In the subsequent days, socialists (of various parties) continued to meet and organize and do whatever they thought could best push forward the struggle.

Whether I mischaracterize Trotsky’s arguments or properly explore competing definitions of spontaneity does not change the above. Revolutionary socialists from various parties took active part in the February Revolution.

Marxists have gotten this wrong. Tony Cliff argued that it was “completely spontaneous and unplanned.” Kayurov wrote “no guiding leadership from the party centers was felt.” John Molyneux favorably quoted Carr’s “revolutionary parties played no direct part in the making of the revolution.”3 Ahmed Shawki previously wrote in this magazine, “The women textile workers of Petrograd came out on strike and dragged behind the Bolshevik-led metal workers of the Vyborg district.”4 Socialist Worker newspaper has written: “Even the Bolsheviks—the most militant and committed to revolutionary socialism among several left-wing parties in Russia—were taken by surprise, though individual members, on their own initiative, played a central role in spreading the protests in the first days. [emphasis added]”5 For many years, I too had an understanding of February that dismissed the role of organized socialists. As Trotsky wrote, “Hypotheses are formed which easily become legend.”6However, new evidence demands new understanding. The February Revolution was not a moment when party discipline disappeared or all socialists became individual operators.

What Trotsky wrote
For the record, I think Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution is a fantastic work. It’s a joy to read and the best example of Marxist history I know of. But that does not mean the book is the final word. Paul seems to agree with all of Trotsky’s characterizations of February down the line. Indeed, much of his dispute with me seems to boil down to, “Well, Trotsky said X, and you say Y, but Trotsky said X, so X must be right.” My article had a few paragraphs about Trotsky’s History; his response is largely devoted to disagreeing with that section.

But Paul’s error is that he doesn’t actually refute the bulk of my evidence; he simply (re)presents Trotsky’s history. However it’s the evidence I present that can’t be squared with Trotsky’s account. In fairness, I must note that Trotsky wrote in exile, under adverse conditions and without access to all the material we now have. This leads to various errors, small and large. We do Trotsky a disservice by not exploring these.

In his History, there may be a phrase here or there that says something different or adds a shade of grey, but viewed in its entirety, Trotsky’s chapters on February dismiss the role of organized socialists. Insofar as there were any active socialists, his writing creates the impression that they acted without party discipline or direction.

He consistently criticizes the attitude of revolutionaries to International Women’s Day. He writes, “Not a single organization called for strikes on that day.” But, we now know, according to police records, a worker was arrested that morning distributing a Mezhraiontsy leaflet calling for International Women’s Day strikes.7 Another activist’s memoir mentions that the left Menshevik “Initiative Group and other party organizations also distributed illegal proclamations through out the factories.”8

Trotsky further relates, “They [the Bolsheviks] decided not to call for strikes but to prepare for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future.”9However, there is nothing indefinite about a specific date, May Day.10 This was the day the Bolsheviks chose to target as the next major socialist holiday after Bloody Sunday. Kayurov, who Trotsky quotes extensively, writes about this in his memoirs. It turns out picking May Day was a tactical mistake, but one they immediately corrected when events proved them wrong. (In terms of judging the depth of socialist connection to the working class, it’s also significant that the textile workers who first walked out wanted to meet with revolutionary socialists the day before).

Relying primarily on Kayurov’s account, Trotsky ends up misrepresenting the attitudes and actions of socialists during the revolution. He wrote that “the Vyborg committee had to agree to [joining the strike].”11 As I show in my article, multiple memoirs recount how socialists of different organizations (Bolsheviks, SRs, and Mezhraiontsy) all quickly took up the call of the women strikers to walk out. After all, this is what they lived for. They were not unwilling. Here’s one example from I. Gordienko, a Bolshevik worker at the Nobel Machine Construction Factory:

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.12

Trotsky focuses very little on the specific activity of revolutionary organizations and when he does, it’s often inaccurate. He states: “The first proclamation to the army was released only on the 26th by one of the Social Democratic organizations close to the Bolsheviks [the Mezhraiontsy].”13 This is both misleading and untrue. Misleading because by the 25th, at least the Bolsheviks had targeted multiple barracks for verbal agitation by comrades.14Not true because on February 25, the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks distributed a leaflet to soldiers urging them to join with 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.15

Later, Trotsky describes the Vyborg District Committee as ready to toss in the towel (Paul quotes this too):

The shooting of demonstrators increased the uncertainty among the leaders. The very scale of the movement began to seem dangerous. Even at the meeting of the Vyborg committee the evening of the 26th – that is, twelve hours before the victory – arose discussions as to whether it was not time to end the strike.16

But early on the 27th (as workers gathered at their factories), the Vyborg District Committee issued a leaflet that is hardly the words of people about to give up:

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.17

Meanwhile, lest we forget about other socialists, the Mezhraiontsy stayed up printing a leaflet, the first to appear on the 27th. 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!18

There are also multiple police reports of Vyborg meetings and attitudes of socialists that reveal far more confidence. For example:

It should be borne in mind that tomorrow [February 27] 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 [i.e., revolutionaries –JY] electrify crowds, regulate actions in individual factories, and coordinate and organize the demonstrations.19


They are planning to form a soviet of workers’ deputies…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.”20

In general, Trotsky’s telling account has the effect of downplaying the role oforganized socialists during these amazing days of worker and soldier self-activity. Trotsky correctly notes, “Liberalism…has whole-heartedly fathered the theory of a spontaneous and impersonal [February] revolution.”21 But his account leaves intact the myth of a party-less revolution. He concludes that the revolution was led by “workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin.”22 This is an unusually vague formulation for Trotsky. It’s as if democratic centralism collapsed on the eve of revolution. Given the totality of material available to us today, I think that leaves us with an incomplete picture of February.

What socialists did
Although a full chronicling of Marxist theories of spontaneity would have been well beyond the scope of my article, I agree with Paul that I should have explored the issue more directly. Let’s take the working definition he provides from Duncan Hallas:

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.23 [emphasis added]

Oddly, given that Trotsky downplays organizational participation and influence, this definition means his descriptions of February would lead one to believe the revolution was almost completely spontaneous—a conclusion he explicitly rejects.

Regardless, such a conclusion requires ignoring all the actual effort of revolutionary socialists coordinating their work through organizations (including coalitions they formed in the months leading up to February). Indeed, the actual record is much closer to how Hallas goes on to describe spontaneity and its relationship to the party:

Pistons without propellants are useless. Steam unchannelled has only a limited effect. Spontaneity and organization are not alternatives; they are different aspects of the process by which increasing numbers of workers can become conscious of the reality of their situation and of their power to change it. The growth of that process depends on a dialogue, on organized militants who listen as well as argue, who understand the limitations of a party as well as its strengths and who are able to find connections between the actual consciousness of their fellows and the politics necessary to realize the aspirations buried in that consciousness.24

Paul objects to how I qualify the level of spontaneity in February for many reasons, including that no one knew the initial demonstration would lead to the Tsar’s downfall. As I discuss in my article, all revolutionaries saw an escalating combativeness and confidence in the Petrograd working class, a change they detected by the fall of 1916. Some socialist groups thought targeting February 23 made sense, others wanted to wait until May Day.

Paul continues:

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.”

In reality, as early as the first day, socialists believed this was a different situation than even on January 9, when most striking workers had gone home instead of taking part in demonstrations. That’s why the socialist organizations sent their members back to the factories the next day to give speeches urging an expansion of the walk out. But assume for a moment it took a day to decide something qualitatively different was going on. In what way does that mean they were not deeply involved in the struggle?

Paul then writes:

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. [emphasis in original]

Here, I grow confused. Now he is arguing that Bolsheviks did provide leadership? I think we are in vigorous agreement, however the list of socialist organizations involved was larger than just the Bolsheviks (though they were the largest). All of these groups took part in most of the key events of the revolution.

But, we are told the Bolshevik Russian Bureau of the Central Committee failed miserably, particularly Shliapnikov:

When Vyborg Bolsheviks demanded arms, Shliapnikov refused, insisting that that armed workers might “provoke” the soldiers, and that they should obtain weapons by drawing soldiers into the revolution—as if they two things needed to be counterposed.

This tactical question is not as cut-and-dried as Paul believes. Acquiring mass quantities of arms would have required attacking the armories which were guarded by soldiers. Once they had guns, the workers’ likely targets would have been other soldiers. Instead, Shliapnikov argued for winning over the soldiers. In the event, after the army mutinied, one of the first places soldiers and workers marched to was an armory where they killed the general leading the guard and distributed 70,000 weapons. More generally, despite any criticisms of the Bureau, it’s clear it was in close consultation with the Vyborg Bolsheviks throughout events. As I note in my article, on February 24, the Bureau “voted to expand slogans to target the army and to make contact with comrades in Moscow to coordinate activity.”

However, writes D’Amato:

[T]he 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.

Obviously, I cannot prove that these actions of socialists were decisive. All we have are a number of correlations—socialists argued for walking out in solidarity with women strikers, workers did so; socialists targeted the barracks, the soldiers revolted; socialists pleaded with Cossacks to hold their fire, they held their fire. As the situation heated up, the Okhrana, clearly thinking socialist activity did matter, decided to arrest the entire Bolshevik Petrograd committee. None of these events is decisive, none of these is without complication, but taken together, they provide a far richer picture that the account we’ve typically given. February was the product of a mass uprising mixed with and improved by revolutionary socialist activity.

Paul answers by referring to the initial composition of the Soviet elected on February 27 arguing that:

Bolsheviks did not have the organizational or political pull—that is, it did not have the allegiance of the enough of the revolution’s participants, particularly the soldiers—to shape the outcome at this stage.

Just because the working class was not yet ready for state power does not mean that the Bolsheviks exerted no “political pull.” The goal at this stage of the struggle was ending the autocracy. It was not creating soviet power. The working class of Petrograd was ready to overthrow the Tsar. Insofar as revolutionary organizations reflected and helped build on that readiness, they found fertile ground for their ideas.

Once the Tsar was gone, a new set of questions arose and it took several months for the working class to be ready for self-rule. When the Bolsheviks argued on March 2 for the soviet to declare itself the Provisional Revolutionary Government, they failed. The soviet voted overwhelmingly for dual power.25 Such was the state of class consciousness at this stage of the struggle. As noted in my article, in March, 20 percent of strikes challenged management control of production. By September, 97 percent did.26

In addition to ignoring much of the new evidence I present, Paul leaves untouched the key problem with his view: if socialists really were so pathetic in the February events, one must explain why. How did these same cadre who had organized heroically for years suddenly fail so miserably in February and then recover so brilliantly in the coming months?

We should not conflate an initial act of the uprising—women textile workers spontaneously striking—with all that followed. I think it is clear the histories that relegate revolutionary socialist organizations to the sidelines in February are inaccurate.

Correction to original article: In reviewing my article (and the source materials on which it is based), I discovered a potential error of attribution on my part. In the English-language writing on February, many quotes appear from a collection of police agent reports (only available in Russian, as far as I know). I may have conflated a report on the contents of a February 25th Vyborg District Committee meeting with one from an agent on that committee stating his assessment of the situation.27 I believe the full impact of this error is minor, as the members of the committee were meeting to arrive at political assessments and the agent’s job was to collate that information with other intelligence and provide reports to Okhrana headquarters. His assessment was likely the Committee’s as well, given the rest of the Committee’s actions that day and the next. Trotsky also quotes from what seems to be the same report, though he seems to attribute it to the 26th. I think that too is an error but without learning Russian and getting the Russian originals, I can’t be sure.

  1. Rather than clutter my main response with all the minor issues, I’ll deal with them here, grouped into three categories. First, they misstate portions of my argument (“he fails to take into account…the devastating impact of First World War on Russian society”;”[he] blurs the difference between the first revolution (February), and the second (October)” and “den[ies] any role for spontaneity”; and “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.’”). In terms of the First World War, I devote an entire section of the article (entitled “Revolutionaries and the First World War”, see pages 38-40) to outlining the effects of the war on class consciousness precisely because it informed socialists’ perspectives on what was possible, particularly after the collapse in struggle at the beginning of the war. In terms of February versus October, I don’t know how much clearer I could be about the differences between the two beyond what I originally wrote. These are sentences that appear between ones they quote: “There are many possibilities between complete spontaneity and the October model. In most cases, all actions before revolutionary victory are preparatory (by definition)… revolutionaries can make many contributions toward quickening and sharpening the drive for working-class self-emancipation.” As to under-quoting Trotsky, I don’t ignore his argument; I disagree with it. The difference is over the definition of “this leadership”—Trotsky ascribes it to a faceless mass of workers influenced by the Bolsheviks; I argue it was members of multiple socialist organizations. Second, Paul makes some strange claims, including: that I am pretending to have some novel information because I cite my sources in endnotes (it seems like a reasonable place for them), that I echo arguments made by James White, who he calls “wholly unsympathetic to Trotsky” (this substitutes guilt by association for actual debate), and that I should have spent more time discussing the debate in academic literature (that might be an interesting article, but it would be different than the one I set out to write). Finally, there are various minor errors in their response, but I don’t think these are crucial. For example, they quote Trotsky, “The revolution caught them [revolutionaries] unawares only with regard to the exact moment.” Actually, the antecedent for “them” is the Tsar’s Council of Ministers (mentioned in the previous paragraph). They write that women workers “decided to start a general strike.” But, as far as I know, there’s no evidence for this. They walked out and hoped to get other workers to join them. They also seem to imply that October was “mostly piston-box and very little steam” (i.e., mostly the party and very little the masses) but I’m assuming I’m misunderstanding them because that would be tantamount to calling October a coup d’état, a conclusion I believe we all reject.
  2. E. N. Burdzhalov, Russia’s Second Revolution: The February 1917 Uprising in Petrograd (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 120.
  3. John Molyneux, Marxism and the Party (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003), 79.
  4. Ahmed Shawki, “80 years since the Russian Revolution,” International Socialist Review, No. 3 (Winter 1997).
  5. Alan Maass, “How the Russian Revolution was won,” Socialist Worker, November 19, 2004.
  6. Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 83.
  7. Michael S. Melancon, “Rethinking Russia’s February Revolution: Anonymous spontaneity or socialist agency?”, Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, No. 1408 (June 2000), 15.
  8. Ibid., 16.
  9. Trotsky, 75.
  10. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, The February Revolution (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1981), 216.
  11. Trotsky, 75.
  12. Burdzhalov, 107.
  13. Trotsky, 87-8.
  14. Burdzhalov, 136-7.
  15. Hasegawa, 271, and Burdzhalov, 137.
  16. Trotsky, 84-5.
  17. Burdzhalov, 162. He is quoting Shliapnikov’s memoirs.
  18. Michael Melancon, “Who Wrote What and When?: Proclamations of the February Revolution in Petrograd, 23 February–1 March 1917,” Soviet Studies 40, 480–1.
  19. Burdzhalov, 160. On page 23, Melancon identifies the agent’s name.
  20. Burdzhalov, 184.
  21. Trotsky, 111.
  22. Ibid..
  23. Duncan Hallas, “Toward a revolutionary socialist party,” Party and Class (London: Pluto Press, 1971).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Burdzhalov, 242.
  26. Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 1917(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 275.
  27. This is the report from the 25th that begins “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…”

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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