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Workers Vanguard No. 874

4 August 2006

The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the February Revolution to the July Days

Part One

We print below, edited for publication, the first part of a class given by comrade T. Marlow, which was one in a series of educationals on Leon Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution (1932) held in January of this year as a Spartacist League young cadre school.

It was in the course of the year 1917 that Leon Trotsky, co-leader with V.I. Lenin of the October Revolution, came over to the Bolshevik Party. Trotsky had declared his political solidarity with the Bolsheviks to the party’s leaders upon his return to Russia in May 1917. Having facilitated the fusion of the Inter-Borough Group of United Social Democrats (known as the “Mezhrayontsi”) with the Bolshevik Party, Trotsky formally joined the Bolsheviks as part of this fusion in July.

Trotsky titled the first chapter of his History of the Russian Revolution “Peculiarities of Russia’s Development”; his summary of the 1917 February Revolution is “The Paradox of the February Revolution.” These two themes continue throughout the events that occurred in Russia in 1917, which culminated in the October Revolution. The first goes back to Trotsky’s brilliant prognosis, Results and Prospects (1906), which forecast not only the possibility, but the necessity for the Russian proletariat to seize power, leading behind it the mass of the peasants. This work, begun in 1904, was completed shortly after the 1905 Revolution, which shook the rotting edifice of the tsarist monarchy to its core. But it did not overthrow the monarchy. That task would have to wait until 12 years later, which is the second of Trotsky’s themes. Its completion in the conquest of state power by the Bolsheviks occurred a mere eight months after the February Revolution deposed Tsar Nicholas Romanov and his dynasty.

A key outgrowth of 1905 was the creation of the soviets (workers councils). These were formed spontaneously by the insurgent workers and had not been called for by any of the left parties, the Bolsheviks included. Their significance as the most democratic and flexible form of mass organization of the working class quickly became apparent. Soviets reappeared in 1917 during the February Revolution with an added important difference—not only the workers but also the soldiers were represented in the soviets. As Trotsky notes in his History:

“As a matter of fact, thanks to the tradition of 1905, the soviets sprang up as though from under the earth, and immediately became incomparably more powerful than all the other organisations which later tried to compete with them (the municipalities, the co-operatives, and in part the trade unions). As for the peasantry, a class by its very nature scattered, thanks to the war and revolution it was exactly at that moment organised as never before. The war had assembled the peasants into an army, and the revolution had given the army a political character! No fewer than eight million peasants were united in companies and squadrons, which had immediately created their revolutionary representation and could through it at any moment be brought to their feet by a telephone call.”

The politicization of the peasants—driven at bottom by their desire for a sweeping agrarian revolution—was critical. Without the support, overt or tacit, of the peasants, the proletarian revolution could not hope to succeed and survive in backward Russia, with its overwhelmingly agrarian population.

War and Revolution

The strains of World War I really laid the basis for the downfall of the monarchy. Trotsky’s chapter on the tsar and the tsarina is one of my favorites: to put it mildly, Nicholas was a dim bulb on the family tree, totally isolated and deliberately ignorant of what was going on in his country (except for his generous support to Black Hundred pogromists, reports of whose activities he eagerly consumed). But with or without the will of the dynasty, Russia could not have avoided participation in the interimperialist conflict. Trotsky placed Russia’s participation in WWI somewhere between that of France (a full-blown imperialist power) and China (with its comprador bourgeoisie subservient to the big powers). In his History, he adds:

“Russia paid in this way for her right to be an ally of advanced countries, to import capital and pay interest on it—that is, essentially, for her right to be a privileged colony of her allies—but at the same time for her right to oppress and rob Turkey, Persia, Galicia, and in general the countries weaker and more backward than herself.”

Russia did not do well in the war. There were some successes against the Austrians, but as Trotsky notes, this was less due to the skill of the Russians than to: “The disintegrating Hapsburg monarchy had long ago hung out a sign for an undertaker, not demanding any high qualifications of him.”

When it came to the Germans, things went rather badly for Russia. In August 1915, that is, one year after the war began, General Ruszky reported to the Council of Ministers: “The contemporary demands of military technique are beyond our powers; in any case we cannot keep up with the Germans” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). Two years later, in the aftermath of the revolutionary upheaval and repression of the July Days, and the failure of then-Minister of War Kerensky’s June offensive, this same general would rail: “People followed the old banners as sacred things and went to their deaths…. But to what have the red banners brought us? To the surrender of armies in whole corps.” The decrepit generals and the bourgeoisie would blame Russia’s collapse on the Bolsheviks, whom they slanderously claimed were acting as paid agents of Germany.

By Trotsky’s reckoning, some 15 million men, mostly peasants, were mobilized for the war, out of which 5.5 million were counted as killed, wounded or captured; some 2.5 million were killed. Trotsky encapsulated the situation as follows: “‘Everything for the war!’ said the ministers, deputies, generals, journalists. ‘Yes,’ the soldier began to think in the trenches, ‘they are all ready to fight to the last drop...of my blood’.”

The extraordinary casualty rates were due both to incompetent military command and a pervasive lack of supplies, including weapons and ammunition, and even boots. Meanwhile, the capitalists were making huge profits selling (often inferior) goods to the government, paid for by exactions on the working class and also by more and more loans from the City of London and the French Bourse (stock market). Rodzianko, Lord Chamberlain under Tsar Nicholas II, later President of the State Duma (Russian Parliament), and one of the leaders of the Russian big bourgeoisie, got rich by providing low quality, essentially useless wood to be used for rifle stocks. As an aside, one might note that Halliburton has a long line of predecessors! Trotsky speaks of the “shower of gold” coming from the top that funded the lavish parties of the rich, while the lower classes were desperate to find even bread.

What broke the back of the dynasty was that the army no longer wanted to fight, and units were increasingly either abandoning the front in mass desertions or refusing to carry out orders. A powerful indication was when the Cossack regiments in Petrograd refused to suppress a workers demonstration in the Vyborg district—the proletarian core of Petrograd. As Trotsky relates in the History:

“…the officers first charged through the crowd. Behind them, filling the whole width of the Prospect, galloped the Cossacks. Decisive moment! But the horsemen, cautiously, in a long ribbon, rode through the corridor just made by the officers. ‘Some of them smiled,’ Kayurov recalls, ‘and one of them gave the workers a good wink.’”

If the Cossacks were winking at the workers, the tsar was in trouble.

The February Revolution

Trotsky’s chronology in Volume One of the History of the Russian Revolution gives a vivid idea of the tempo of events: on February 23, a demonstration for International Women’s Day demanding bread sparks the revolution. By February 25, there is a general strike in Petrograd. The next day, the tsar dissolves the Duma—but neither this, nor the shooting of demonstrators, are to any avail. On the next day, there is a mutiny in the Guard regiments and the formation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. By February 28, the tsar’s ministers are arrested. Attempts to arrange an orderly succession failed—none of the grand dukes wanted to feel the rope, so richly deserved by Tsar Nicholas Romanov, around their own necks.

The revolution came as a surprise not only to the abysmally clueless monarch but also to the assorted political parties. Its spontaneity carried dangers. As Trotsky noted:

“A revolutionary uprising that spreads over a number of days can develop victoriously only in case it ascends step by step, and scores one success after another. A pause in its growth is dangerous; a prolonged marking of time, fatal. But even successes by themselves are not enough; the masses must know about them in time, and have time to understand their value. It is possible to let slip a victory at the very moment when it is within arm’s reach. This has happened in history.”

It was only on February 25 that the Bolsheviks decided to issue a leaflet calling for an all-Russian general strike—when Petrograd was facing an armed uprising. What was clearly lacking was political leadership: “The leaders were watching the movement from above; they hesitated, they lagged—in other words, they did not lead. They dragged after the movement” (Trotsky’s History).

Hence the paradox of the February Revolution: the tsar was overthrown by a massive upsurge of the Petrograd workers, with the support or indulgence of the garrison troops, and the soviets emerged with the real power. Yet the Provisional Government which was formed was dominated by monarchists—its leader was Prince Lvov—and even the Kadets (a bourgeois and landlord party favoring a constitutional monarchy) were considered to be on the left wing! The workers had toppled the monarchy, but the political power which they rightly possessed was handed off to the bourgeoisie like a hand grenade whose pin was already pulled.

How to explain this? On the face of it, the overthrow of the monarchy had been accomplished without the leadership of a revolutionary party. But as Trotsky points out, this is a misleading view. First, there had been the experience of 1905. Subsequent to that, despite the period of deep reaction, the Bolshevik Party was steeling its cadres in all arenas of work, both legal and underground. By 1912, the working class had recovered some fighting spirit, and a series of strikes occurred. The influence of the Bolsheviks within the proletariat was steadily growing. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that the proletariat could have conquered power in the urban centers of Petrograd and Moscow (as was later threatened in the July Days in 1917). The question was how long they could have held it—without a shift in the attitude of the peasantry, one would likely have had a repeat of the defeat of the Paris Commune of 1871.

The world war changed that. Despite the initial burst of patriotism in August 1914, in which the Bolsheviks were shunned by the masses and repressed by the government, the seeds planted by the Bolsheviks through their intervention into the workers’ upsurges from 1912 to 1914 eventually found fertile ground. After August 1914, the defeats on the military front, and the corresponding economic suffering in the rear that was brought about during two and a half years of imperialist carnage, had weakened support for the monarchy to zero. As Trotsky points out, even though the Bolsheviks as a party were repressed to the point of organizational collapse, the individual cadres were still alive and able to engage fellow workers on the shop floor. That is, if the Bolsheviks as a party were not in the leadership per se of the February Revolution, their ideas and agitators certainly played a critical role.

Dual Power

This brings us to the period of dual power. The downfall of the monarchy was brought about through the forces of the Petrograd proletariat and the active support (or neutrality) of the military garrison. The cringing liberals had no role, and the big bourgeoisie sought to cover their power with some regurgitated monarchical order. The Provisional Government was headed by Prince Lvov, with a sprinkling of Kadets representing the bourgeoisie and with the deputy chairman of the Petrograd Soviet, Kerensky, assuming the post of Minister of Justice in contravention of a Soviet Executive Committee decision that its members not enter the government. In reality, the power belonged to the Soviet, but its leadership was dominated by the Mensheviks and, especially, the Social Revolutionaries (SRs, a leftist party based on the peasantry); the Bolsheviks were a minority, even among the workers. The soviets of February reflected the consciousness of February, which accounts for the position of the SRs, who were the predominant party of the peasants and hence the soldiers.

As Trotsky noted, the Soviet leadership was ceding power:

“The bourgeoisie received the power behind the backs of the people. It had no support in the toiling classes. But along with the power it received a simulacrum of support second-hand. The Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, lifted aloft by the masses, delivered as if from themselves a testimonial of confidence to the bourgeoisie.”

When the Compromiser leadership crawled before the bourgeoisie, begging it to take the power, they were politically consistent—the Mensheviks thought that the Russian Revolution never could go beyond the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie. Even the sharp Miliukov (head of the Kadets) was astonished and proclaimed his praise to the Mensheviks’ betrayal: “Yes, I was listening and I was thinking how far forward our workers’ movement has progressed since the days of 1905” (quoted in Trotsky’s History).

So here you have an official government, representing the bourgeoisie and committed to the imperialist war aims of the Romanovs and the Entente (the alliance of Britain, France and Russia in WWI), and side by side with it the Soviet, created by the insurgent workers and soldiers. Does this mean that there existed two actual governments or a state power of multiple classes? If that were true it would certainly violate the Marxist conception of the state. But it isn’t true. If anything, the history of Russia between February and October was continual conflict between the Provisional Government and the Soviet—despite and also because of the backsliding of the latter’s Menshevik and SR leaders. Lenin, as usual, got to the core of the issue in his article on the dual power in April 1917:

“The basic question of every revolution is that of state power. Unless this question is understood, there can be no intelligent participation in the revolution, not to speak of guidance of the revolution.

“The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. We must know how to supplement and amend old ‘formulas,’ for example, those of Bolshevism, for while they have been found to be correct on the whole, their concrete realisation has turned out to be different. Nobody previously thought, or could have thought, of a dual power.

“What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.”

—V.I. Lenin, “The Dual Power”

Referring to the Menshevik/SR leaders of the soviets and their capitulations, Lenin adds:

“They refuse to recognise the obvious truth that inasmuch as these Soviets exist, inasmuch as they are a power, we have in Russia a state of the type of the Paris Commune.

“I have emphasised the words ‘inasmuch as,’ for it is only an incipient power. By direct agreement with the bourgeois Provisional Government and by a series of actual concessions, it has itself surrendered and is surrendering its positions to the bourgeoisie.”

In several instances, the soviets intervened and took actions which are normally the prerogative of the (bourgeois) state power. The first Minister of War in the Provisional Government, Guchkov, complained: “The government, alas, has no real power; the troops, the railroads, the post and telegraph are in the hands of the Soviet. The simple fact is that the Provisional Government exists only so long as the Soviet permits it” (quoted in Trotsky’s History). However, this did not alter the fact that the Provisional Government was bourgeois, that it was pursuing the imperialist war aims of the bourgeoisie, and that the economy of Russia was still operating on a capitalist basis. The Provisional Government sought to strangle the Soviet in order to exercise its state power unfettered. Please recall Lenin’s description of the Soviets as an incipient power. Dual power was inherently an unstable situation, during which the contending classes marshaled their forces for the confrontation which would decide which class would rule. In other words, it would take another revolution to put state power in the hands of the Soviets. And that is what would happen in October.



Workers Vanguard No. 874

WV 874

4 August 2006


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