118) The February Revolution

The year 1917 was ushered in by a strike wave in Petrograd, after a short lull in November–December 1916. In January alone, 270,000 were on strike, 177,000 in Petrograd, according to the figures of the Factory Inspectorate. The war created an ever more unbearable situation for the masses. Upon the nightmare of war superimposed the horrors of a deep economic crisis. By December 1916, 39 Petrograd factories were at a standstill for lack of fuel and 11 more because of power cuts. The railways were on the point of collapse. There was no meat, and a shortage of flour. Hunger stalked the land and bread queues became a normal condition of life. To all this must be added the constant news of military defeats and the whiff of scandal emanating from the court, the Rasputin clique, and the Black Hundred monarchist-landlord government. A regime dominated by aristocratic crooks, speculators, and assorted riffraff openly paraded its rottenness before an increasingly disaffected people. The bourgeois liberals of the “Progressive Bloc” pleaded with Tsar Nicholas for reform, trying to frighten him with revolution.

Beneath the surface, the mood of the masses had been slowly changing. Trotsky described this process as the “molecular process of revolution.” It is a process that proceeds so gradually that it is frequently imperceptible, even to revolutionaries, who sometimes draw the wrong conclusions from the appearance of apathy and the absence of surface manifestations of the accumulated frustration, rage, and bitterness. It is very similar to the gradual building up of pressure beneath the earth’s surface prior to an earthquake. This process is also invisible to the superficial observer who looks no further than the surface, without taking into account the seething processes that are unfolding in the bowels of the earth. When the eruption takes place, it produces general astonishment. All kinds of “learned” people proffer explanations, which usually go no further than the immediate cause, which really explains nothing at all. Thus, the February Revolution is said to be caused by the scarcity of bread. This explanation overlooks the fact that, in the years following the October Revolution, the shortage of bread was far worse than before as a consequence of the civil war provoked by the counterrevolution and the invasion of 21 foreign armies of intervention. Why did this not produce a new revolution? This question is never asked, and cannot be answered if we persist in confusing the immediate incident that sparked off the movement with its deeper underlying causes, that is, to confuse accident with necessity, like the old school textbooks that asserted that the First World War was caused by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and not by the accumulation of contradictions between the main imperialist powers before 1914.

The strike of January 9 was the biggest strike Petrograd had seen for the whole of the war. The strike was general in the Vyborg and Nevsky districts. It hit the war industries especially hard. About 145,000 workers were involved, in a kind of “dry run” for revolution. The strike was accompanied with mass meetings and demonstrations. Petrograd resembled an armed camp, occupied by troops and police, but police measures were no longer sufficient to hold back the revolution. The bourgeois liberals, from their point of view, tried to stave off revolution by pleading with the tsar for reforms. Rodzianko begged the tsar to prolong the life of the Duma and organize a government reshuffle. The Menshevik-dominated Labor Group of the War Industry Committees called on the Petrograd workers on February 14—the opening day of the Duma—to go to the Tauride Palace to show their “solidarity” with the Duma and back the liberal opposition. The Bolshevik Bureau denounced this policy of class collaboration and called for a one-day strike on the anniversary of the trial of the Bolshevik deputies. 90,000 workers in 58 factories responded to the strike call. The Putilov workers demonstrated with the slogans: “Down with the War!” “Down with the government!” “Long live the Republic!” No one bothered to go to the Tauride Palace. Rodzianko confessed that the Duma was reduced “to the role almost of a passive onlooker” as the demonstrators filed past almost under their noses along the Nevsky Prospekt.

These successive “dry runs”—“progressive approximation” would be an even more accurate expression—showed that the mood of the masses had reached boiling point. Delegates from Putilov visited all the other factories in the Narva and Vyborg districts. This sparked off a general movement. There were bread riots with a notable participation of women.

The strike at the giant Putilov factory, initially started on February 18 by a few hundred workers in one of the shops over a claim for higher wages and the rehiring of some sacked fellow-workers, took the organized workers and revolutionaries by surprise. 30,000 workers of this giant firm set up a strike committee, came out onto the streets, and appealed to the other workers for support. On February 22, the Putilov management responded by a lockout. This turned out to be a big mistake, as thousands of angry workers were massing on the streets, at a time when many working-class women were queuing in the freezing streets for a meager ration of bread. The combination proved more explosive than the shells produced by the Putilov plant. By coincidence, the next day, February 23, was International Women’s Day. This gave added impetus to the mass movement. The lightning speed with which the women and young people, formerly backward and unorganized layers, moved again caught the activists by surprise. As the Soviet historian E.N. Burdzhalov put it, working class youths

marched in the front rank of the demonstrators, were present at meetings, took part in clashes with the police, [and] . . . acted as scouts of the revolution, being the first to tell [adult] workers when troops and police were gathering, etc.622

On February 24, 200,000 workers—more than half of the Petrograd working class—were on strike. There were massive factory meetings and demonstrations, as the workers cast off the old fear and stood up to face their tormentors. The revolution had begun. Once it had started, the movement developed a momentum all of its own, carrying all before it. Massive demonstrations accompanied the strikes that spread like wildfire from the Vyborg district to the other industrial areas. Crowds of people swept past the police and troops to reach the city center, even crossing the frozen river Neva, shouting “Bread!” “Peace!” and “Down with the Autocracy!”

On Thursday, February 23, meetings were held to protest against the war, the high cost of living, the bad conditions of women workers. This in turn developed into a new strike wave. The women played a key role. They marched on the factories, calling the workers out. Mass street demonstrations ensued. Flags and placards appeared with revolutionary slogans: “Down with the war!” “Down with hunger!” “Long live the revolution!” Street orators and agitators appeared as if from nowhere. Many were Bolsheviks, but others were ordinary workers, both men and women, who, after years of enforced silence had suddenly discovered that they had a tongue in their head and a mind that thinks.

That morning, a 25-year old sailor, Fyodr Fyodorovich Ilyin (Raskolnikov) looked out of the window and thought “Today is Woman’s Day. Will something happen in the streets today?” Something did happen. 128,000 workers were on strike. The whole city was seething with life.

As things turned out, ‘Women’s Day’ was fated to be the first day of the revolution. Working women, driven to despair by their hard conditions, a prey to the torments of hunger, were the first to come out on to the streets demanding ‘bread, freedom and peace’.

On that day, when we were shut up in our quarters, we were able to look out from the window upon a most unusual scene. The trams were not running, which meant the streets were uncharacteristically empty and quiet. But at the corner of Bolshoi Prospekt and Gavanskaya Street groups of working women kept assembling. Mounted policemen tried to disperse them, roughly pushing them apart with the muzzles of their horses and hitting them with the flats of their drawn swords. When the tsarist oprichniki623 rode on to the pavement the crowd would, without losing its composure, break up for the moment, heaping curses and threats upon them; but as soon as the mounted policemen had returned to the roadway, the crowd would close up again into a solid mass. In some of the groups we could see men, but the overwhelming majority consisted of working women and workers’ wives.624

On February 25, some 30 to 35 workers’ leaders met in the office of the Petrograd Union of Workers’ Cooperatives to set up a soviet. Although half were arrested the same evening, two days later, when the tide had already turned, a number of them proclaimed themselves the Provisional Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet. The Menshevik Duma deputy N.S. Chkheidze was elected chairman, although he obviously represented no factory. But then, the majority of the 150 or so present at the inaugural meeting of the Soviet had equally dubious credentials. It defined its aims as “to organize the people’s forces and to struggle to consolidate political liberty and popular government.” On the evening of the same day, Nicholas issued a peremptory order to Khabalov instructing him to “end the disorders in the capital by tomorrow.” The following afternoon the troops opened fire. A police report stated that “only when loaded cartridges were fired into the heart of the crowd was it possible to disperse the mob, who however for the most part hid in the courtyards of nearby houses and then reemerged into the streets when the firing had ceased.” When the masses lose their fear of death, then the game is up. Yet even now, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd did not grasp the real nature of the situation. V. Kayurov, a member of the Bolshevik committee in the Vyborg district, concluded that “one thing seems evident: the insurrection is dissolving.”625 In reality, it was only just beginning.

Within a few days, from February 25 to 27, Petrograd was in the grip of a general strike. A general strike poses the question of power point blank, but in and of itself cannot solve it. The question arises from the situation itself: Who rules? Who is the master of the house? Inevitably, the final issue is decided by force. Recovering from its initial paralysis, the regime began to react. The tsar personally issued the order: “I order you to put an end to the disorder in the capital tomorrow without fail.” The soldiers and police were ordered directly by Nicholas the Bloody to fire on demonstrators. On February 26, the shooting began. Most of the soldiers fired in the air, but the police, always more backward and reactionary than the soldiers, fired into the crowds. Many were killed and injured. This was a decisive turning point in the consciousness of the soldiers. That very day, the Pavlovsk regiment, ordered to fire on workers, instead opened fire on the police. On paper, the regime had ample forces at its disposal. But in the moment of truth, these forces just melted away. The desperate calls for reinforcements went unanswered. Trotsky reproduces a questionnaire sent by General Ivanov to General Khabalov:

Ivanov’s question: How many troops are in order and how many are misbehaving?

Khabalov’s reply: I have at my disposal in the Admiralty building four companies of the Guard, five squadrons of cavalry and Cossacks, and two batteries; the rest of the troops have gone over to the revolutionists, or by agreement with them are remaining neutral. Soldiers are wandering through the towns singly or in bands disarming officers.

Q: Which railroad stations are guarded?

R: All the stations are in the hands of the revolutionists and strictly guarded by them.

Q: In what parts of the city is order preserved?

R: The whole city is in the hands of the revolutionists. The telephone is not working, there is no communication between different parts of the city.

Q: What authorities are governing the different parts of the city?

R: I cannot answer this question.

Q: Are all the ministries functioning properly?

R: The ministers have been arrested by the revolutionists.

Q: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?

R: None whatever.

Q: What technical and supply institutions of the War Department are now in your control?

R: I have none.

Q: What quantity of provisions is at your disposal?

R: There are no provisions at my disposal. In the city on February 5 there were 5,600,000 pounds of flour in store.

Q: Have many weapons, artillery and military stores fallen into the hands of the mutineers?

R: All the artillery establishments are in the hands of the revolutionists.

Q: What military forces and staffs are in your control?

R: The chief of the Staff of the District is in my personal control. With the other district administrations I have no connections.”626

There was widespread fraternization between troops and strikers. Workers went to the barracks to appeal to their brothers in uniform. At Bolshevik headquarters there were continuous and often heated discussions on tactics, in a situation which was changing, not by the day but by the hour. Shlyapnikov argued against the setting up of armed detachments, placing all emphasis on winning over the troops. Chugurin and others argued that both tasks were necessary, and so on. In the event, the situation was moving far faster than the debates of the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd. The workers were, in effect, taking over the city, making up for the lack of arms and military training with sheer heroism and weight of numbers.

After February 27 most of the capital was in the hands of the workers and soldiers, including bridges, arsenals, railway stations, the telegraph, and the post office. In the moment of truth, the mighty forces which the regime possessed on paper evaporated into thin air. By the night of the 28th, Khabalov was left entirely without troops—a general without an army. The ministers of the tsar’s last government were led away to the Peter and Paul Fortress, prisoners of the revolution! Basing themselves on the experience of 1905, the workers set up Soviets to take over the running of society. Power was in the hands of the working class and soldiers.

One thing is absolutely clear. The overthrow of tsarism was accomplished by the working class, which drew behind it the peasantry in the shape of the army. In fact, the revolution was accomplished in a single city—Petrograd— which accounted for just one-seventy-fifth of the population of Russia. Here, in a most striking way, we see the decisive weight of the proletariat over the peasantry, of the town over the countryside. The February Revolution was relatively peaceful because no serious force was prepared to defend the old regime. Once the proletariat began to move, there was nothing to stop it. In relation to the February Revolution Trotsky wrote:

It would be no exaggeration to say that Petrograd achieved the February Revolution. The rest of the country adhered to it. There was no struggle anywhere except in Petrograd. There were not to be found anywhere in the country any groups of the population, any parties, institutions, or military units which were ready to fight for the old regime. This shows how ill-founded was the belated talk of the reactionaries to the effect that if there had been cavalry of the Guard in the Petersburg garrison, or if Ivanov had brought a reliable brigade from the front, the fate of the monarchy would have been different. Neither at the front nor at the rear was there a brigade or regiment to be found which was prepared to do battle for Nicholas II.627

The workers now had power in their hands, but, as Lenin later explained, were not sufficiently organized and conscious to carry the revolution through to the end. This was the central paradox of the February Revolution. The class which carried through the revolution was none other than the workers, pulling behind them the peasantry dressed in a grey soldiers’ greatcoat. Then how was this a bourgeois revolution? True, in its immediate program and demands, the objective content of the February Revolution was bourgeois-democratic. But what role did the bourgeoisie play in it? A counterrevolutionary role, which was only thwarted because the liberal politicians, like the autocracy itself, lacked the material means to put it into effect. Grasping the impossibility of drowning the revolution in blood, they hastily improvised a “Provisional Government” in order to attempt to gain control of the movement and derail it. The Provisional Government emerged out of the provisional committee of the Duma which gave itself a title that says it all: “Committee for the Reestablishment of Order and Relations with Public Institutions and Personages.” The committee was headed by Mikhail Rodzianko, the former Speaker of the Duma, who admitted that he viewed the tsar’s abdication with “unspeakable sadness.” Another prominent member of the Progressive Bloc was Shulgin, who wished machine guns had been made available to him to deal with the mob. Shulgin accidentally let slip the real reasons for the formation of the Provisional Government, when he remarked: “if we do not take power, others will take it for us, those rotters who have already elected all sorts of scoundrels in the factories.”628

The “scoundrels in the factories” were the members of the workers’ councils (“soviets”), those broadly based committees of struggle, democratically elected in the workplaces, which immediately made their appearance. The workers took up where they had left off in 1906. In the course of the revolution they rediscovered all the old traditions and set up elected councils in every factory. In fact, power was already in their hands in February. The problem was the lack of a party and a leadership that stood for revolution. The reformist leaders who found themselves thrust into the foreground in the beginning of the revolution, and who made up the bulk of the Soviet Executive Committee, had no perspective of taking power, but fell over themselves in their haste to hand over power to the bourgeoisie, although the latter had played no role in the revolution and were terrified by it.

The liberals had no real mass base of support in society. The only reason the Provisional Government could survive was that it was propped up by leaders of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. The representatives of big business knew that they could only hold the line by leaning on the support of the Soviet leaders. This would, after all, be only a temporary arrangement. The masses would soon tire of this madness. The movement would die down, and then they could simply give the “socialists” a kick in the teeth. But for the time being, they were a necessary evil to be put up with, for fear of worse. They therefore swallowed their indignation and made the necessary overtures. The reformist leaders held a hastily convened meeting at the Tauride Palace with the members of the Labor Group of the Central War Industry Committees, the Menshevik Duma deputies, and assorted journalists and intellectuals of the Menshevik camp. The Mensheviks immediately come out with a class collaborationist stance. That was only to be expected, since it was the logical outcome of their whole previous evolution. Their OC published a declaration on March 1 calling for a Provisional Government “which will provide the conditions for the organization of the new free Russia.” The workers had shed their blood to conquer power, while the bourgeoisie watched, terrified, from the sidelines. Yet the Mensheviks—the elected representatives of the “scoundrels in the factories”—wished to hand over power to the bourgeoisie!

The workers and soldiers distrusted the bourgeoisie but trusted their leaders, especially those with the most radical and “left” image, like Kerensky. This middle-class careerist with a lawyer’s rhetoric and a flair for theatrical demagogy was perfectly cut out to embody the first shapeless, confused and naïve stages of the awakening of the masses. Kerensky was allowed by the Soviet to participate as a member of the Provisional Government. Here we have the central paradox of the February Revolution: that it brought to power those who played absolutely no role in its success and who feared it as the devil fears holy water—the Cadets and their Octobrist allies in the Duma. On March 2, the Provisional Government was constituted. It was made up mainly of big landlords and industrialists. Prince Lvov was designated as chairman of the council of ministers. The Foreign Minister was the chief of the Cadet Party, Milyukov. The Finance Minister was the wealthy sugar manufacturer and landowner Tereshchenko. Trade and Industry was in the hands of the textile manufacturer Konovalov. War and Navy went to the Octobrist Guchkov. Agriculture was given to the Cadet Shingarev. To this reactionary gang of rogues, the Soviet handed the government of Russia!

The petty-bourgeois leaders of the Soviets had no confidence in the ability of the masses to carry through the revolution. Profoundly convinced that the bourgeoisie was the only class qualified to rule, they were anxious to hand over the power conquered by the workers and soldiers to the “enlightened” section of capital at the earliest opportunity. The Mensheviks and SRs strove to convince the masses that to rule without the capitalists was to “destroy the people’s revolution” (!). (Izvestiya 3/2/17) They constantly harped on the theme that the working class was too weak to carry through the revolution and must not “isolate” itself. Potresov put the Menshevik position bluntly when he said that “at the moment of the bourgeois revolution, the (class) best prepared, socially and psychologically, to solve national problems, is (the) bourgeoisie.” On March 7, the Petrograd Menshevik organ Rabochaya Gazeta wrote: “Members of the Provisional Government! The proletariat and the army await your orders to consolidate the revolution and make Russia a democracy.”629

Such a thought, however, was very far from the minds of the bourgeois leaders of the Provisional Government. Their first instinct, as we have seen, was to resort to repression, but that was now impossible. Therefore, they were compelled to maneuver and play for time. So they “gave” to the masses only what the workers and soldiers had already conquered in struggle. The sole aim of the liberals was to halt the revolution by making cosmetic changes from the top which would preserve as much of the old regime as possible. That old regime, severely undermined, bruised and shaken, was still in existence in the shape of the economic power of the landlords, bankers, and capitalists, the huge bureaucracy, the officer caste, the Duma and—the monarchy. The liberal bourgeoisie was so terrified of the revolution that it clung like grim death to the monarchy as the firmest bulwark of property and order. In order to preserve the monarchy the Provisional Government was manoeuvering to replace Nicholas II with his son under the regency of his brother Prince Mikhail, hoping to substitute one Romanov for another. In this grotesque comedy of errors, the workers, who had shed their blood to overthrow the Romanovs, handed power to their leaders, who, in turn, handed it to the bourgeois liberals, who, in turn, offered it back to the Romanovs!

All this was not lost on the workers and soldiers, especially the activists, whose attitude to the bourgeois politicians in the Provisional Government was characterized by a gnawing feeling of distrust. But they trusted their leaders, the Mensheviks and SRs, the “moderate socialists” who made up the majority of the Soviet Executive Committee and who were constantly telling them that they must be patient, that the first task was to consolidate democracy, prepare to convene the Constituent Assembly, and so on. The masses listened and considered. Perhaps we should wait and see. Our leaders know best. Yet the gnawing feeling of distrust was to grow more intense with every passing day.


622 Quoted in Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 59.

623 The oprichniki were the private bodyguards of Ivan the Terrible, the bloody ruler of 16th century Muscovy. They were notorious for their bloodthirsty activities.

624 F. F. Raskolnikov, Kronstadt and Petrograd in 1917, 1.

625 Keep, Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, 60.

626 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 105–6.

627 Ibid., 158.

628 Marcel Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 119–20.

629 Quoted in Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 121 and 120.

119) The Bolsheviks in February

The Bolsheviks had lost a lot of ground since 1914, and had also lately been badly hit by repression. According to the Istoriya, the strength of the Party in February was approximately as follows:


about 2,000


about 600







Rostov area



between 120–150


between 150–200








between 180–200

When we bear in mind that we are talking about a huge country with a population in the region of 150 million, we see that, in the beginning of the revolution, the Party represented a very small number. But against this we must take other factors into account. The quality of the Bolshevik cadres was undoubtedly superior to those of the other tendencies. Mostly working-class in composition, they would have had a better training, and a higher level of discipline than the Mensheviks and SRs. A high proportion of them would have been what we might call the “natural leaders” in their workshops, the most conscious and militant elements who enjoyed the trust of their fellow workers. Each one would be in touch with a much larger number. Above all, they could base themselves on the Bolshevik tradition left over from 1912–14, especially in big industrial centers. Organizationally, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were in a far worse state. In principle, the Bolsheviks had the edge over other tendencies. Sukhanov, who after all was a Menshevik, refers to them as the main workers’ tendency in Petrograd in February. But against this must be weighed the quality of the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd. In February the leading cadres were Shlyapnikov, Zalutsky, and the young student, Molotov.

In the first volume of his informative and closely-observed history of the revolution, the left Menshevik Sukhanov, who also attended the meetings, says of the Petrograd Bolshevik leaders that “their flatfootedness or, more properly, their incapacity to think their way into the political problem and formulate it, had a depressing effect on us.”

Sukhanov gives the following appraisal of Shlyapnikov, who was one of the leading elements:

A party patriot, and, one might say, a fanatic, ready to appraise the entire revolution from the standpoint of the success of the Bolshevik Party, an experienced conspirator, an excellent technical organizer and a good practical member of the professional movement, but definitely not a politician, capable of grasping and generalizing the essence of the given circumstances. If there was any political thought present here, then it was the pattern of the old-time party resolutions of a general character, but this responsible leader of the most influential workers’ organization possessed neither independent thought, nor the ability or desire to work out the essence of the moment in all its concreteness.630

The Menshevik Sukhanov no doubt underestimates the qualities of Shlyapnikov, which are presented in a one-sided manner. Nevertheless, there is at least a grain of truth in this pen-portrait which sums up many of the mental traits of a typical Bolshevik “committeeman.” As in 1905, the latter quickly lost their bearings when confronted with a new situation and lagged behind the movement until Lenin rearmed the party with the perspective of a new revolution. This fact has long been concealed by the writings of Soviet histories. For example, they claim that the Party issued a leaflet on February 26. But more recent investigations have shown that the Petrograd Committee published its first leaflet on February 27. But by this time Petrograd was already in the grip of a general strike and the spread of mutinies in the army and navy had sealed the fate of the regime. In other words, the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd was following the movement, not leading it.

How did the party react to the February events? According to the voluminous history of the CPSU produced under Khrushchev, on the morning of February 25, the Bolshevik Bureau met and decided to take energetic steps to spread the movement throughout the country. But other accounts present a somewhat different picture. The February Revolution caught not only Lenin, but the whole party by surprise. At the beginning of the revolution, the party was still in a weak position. So weak that, as Marcel Liebman points out in his perceptive study, the Petrograd Committee was not even capable of issuing a leaflet on the occasion of the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in January 1917. Yet in the space of a few months the Bolshevik Party’s membership had grown by more than ten times, transforming it into the decisive force in the working class. The growth of the Bolshevik Party in 1917 must represent the most spectacular transformation in the entire history of political parties. Yet in the initial phase of the revolution, the party showed itself to be woefully unprepared. The upsurge of the masses caught it off guard.

“Lacking a vigorous and clear-sighted leadership,” writes Marcel Liebman, “the Bolsheviks of the capital had reacted to the first workers’ demonstrations with much reserve, and even with a suspiciousness that recalls their attitude in January 1905. They were somewhat isolated in the factories where they worked.”

At the beginning of the revolution, they did not give a good account of themselves. So far out of step were the Bolsheviks in Petrograd that at first they tried to restrain the movement on Women’s Day. V.N. Kayurov, a member of the key Vyborg District Committee, recalls how he intervened in a meeting of militant women workers on February 22:

I explained the meaning of “Women’s Day” and of the women’s movement in general, and when I had to talk about the present moment I endeavored first and foremost to urge the women to refrain from any partial demonstrations and to act only on the instructions of the Party Committee.

But the women workers were in no mood to wait. Kayurov learned with “astonishment” and “indignation” that the party’s slogans had been ignored.

“I was angered by the behavior of the strikers,” he wrote. “In the first place they had obviously ignored the decisions taken by the Party’s district committee, and then by me. The previous evening I had called on the working women to show restraint and discipline—and now, out of the blue, there was this strike.”631

In his History, Trotsky asserts that “for Bolshevism, the first months of the revolution had been a period of bewilderment and vacillation.”632 There is plenty of evidence to back this assertion. The most experienced and politically mature leaders were in prison, in Siberia, or abroad. The Petrograd leadership, as we have seen, was ill-prepared for the tasks that loomed before it. The Russian Bureau was made up of Shlyapnikov, Molotov, and Zalutsky, who maintained contact with Lenin by letter. A member of the Vyborg District Committee, V.N. Kayurov, recalled that they

received absolutely no guidance from the leading organs of the Party. The Petrograd committee had been arrested, and Comrade Shlyapnikov representing the Central Committee, was unable to give [them] directions for future activity.633

Having been caught off guard at first, once the scope of the workers’ action became clear, the Bolsheviks began to react, supporting the strike and working to extend it. More and more workers were becoming incorporated into the strike movement. By February 25 there were 300,000 on strike in Petrograd. The strike wave had turned imperceptibly into a general political strike: trams, small workshops, printers, shops, all were swept up into action begun by the women workers. Leaflets were issued with slogans: “Everyone in struggle! Onto the streets!” “Down with the tsarist monarchy!” “Down with the war!”

Gradually, the Bolsheviks in Petrograd recovered from their initial disorientation and got down to work. On the day the shooting started, three Bolshevik CC members were arrested. The Vyborg Local Committee assumed the function of leadership in Petrograd. From the morning of February 27 onwards, all the forces of the Petrograd organization were sent out to the factories and barracks. Arsenals were raided. The Bolshevik V. Alexeyev organized the young workers of the Putilov plant into an assault group to attack the police, to seize their weapons. On the evening of the 27th, the Bolshevik leadership, consisting mainly of the Vyborg Committee, met to discuss what action was needed to transform the general strike into an armed insurrection. The order was given to fraternize with the troops and disarm the police, to raid the arms stores and arsenals, and arm workers. The workers needed no urging!

Once they had recovered from their initial unpreparedness, the Petrograd Bolsheviks took a more offensive stance. They denounced pacts with the bourgeois liberals, flayed the defensists and called on the workers to take immediate action. The workers went to the barracks, fraternized with the troops, and were everywhere received with enthusiastic solidarity. The mood of the troops, some of whom were ex-Putilov workers, was revolutionary. The troops came over, one regiment after another. The same story was unfolding in Moscow. Together with the workers, the insurgent troops occupied the central arsenal in Petrograd. 40,000 rifles and 30,000 revolvers were instantly at the disposal of the workers. The going-over of the army was not an accident, but the result of years of harsh experience of the trenches, and beyond that the accumulated discontent of the long-suffering Russian peasant, brought to a head by the war. But the role of countless individual and nameless heroes cannot be underestimated.

The line usually put by bourgeois historians is that, whereas the October Revolution was a mere “coup,” the February Revolution was an elemental, spontaneous movement of the masses. The implied conclusion is that the first was a bad thing, the conspiracy of a small minority, leading inexorably to dictatorship, while the second . . . well, of course, as a revolution, one should not really approve, but then the tsarist regime was not entirely OK, and it did, after all, represent a democratic movement—a movement of the majority. Both these versions are false. The October Revolution was neither a coup nor a conspiracy, but the organized expression of the will of the overwhelming majority which had striven for nine months to find a solution to its problems through Soviet power. On the other hand, the description of the February Revolution as a merely “spontaneous” affair is equally one-sided and superficial. One can say this only in the sense that no party had organized it. But this is insufficient. It conveys the impression of a kind of blind upsurge, like a stampede of cattle which occurs without rhyme or reason. The use of the word “spontaneous” in this context explains nothing, and is merely a cover for the lack of explanation, or, worse still, a contempt for the “ignorant masses” whose actions are attributed to mere herd instinct.

The Bolshevik Party as such could in no sense be said to have led the February Revolution. Yet somebody led it. Somebody took the initiative, called the strikes, organized the demonstrations. Every worker knows that even a strike of a couple of hours has a leadership. Someone always takes the initiative. Someone has to walk through the door of the manager’s office to present the workers’ demands. That person is chosen by the workers. And the choice is not “spontaneous” (that is, accidental). The workers will inevitably choose the most conscious, the most fearless, the most committed man or woman on the shop floor to represent them. That person has a history which did not commence yesterday. He or she is known to the workers as someone who knows what they are talking about. These are the natural leaders of the working class. As a rule, though not always, most of them will be organized in the unions and left-wing political parties. In the case of Russia, they were mainly Bolsheviks.

Although they were still numerically small, the Bolsheviks by this time had some hundreds of members in the key factories: about 75–80 in the Old Lessner factory, around 30 in the “Russo-Baltic” and “Izhorsky” shipyards, and smaller groups in other factories. In the Putilov works, with its 26,000 employees, there were 150 Bolsheviks. These were still very small numbers, but with their revolutionary, uncompromising class policies, individual Bolsheviks undoubtedly played a role out of all proportion to their numerical strength in the February events. Without waiting for a lead from the party, the worker-Bolsheviks in the factories and barracks moved into action, providing decisive leadership to the strikers and demonstrators. Their past political activity provided them with a political capital that placed them head and shoulders above the raw masses that surrounded them.

There can be no doubt that individual Bolshevik workers, as the most organized and militant elements in the factories, played a key role, giving a revolutionary class content to the slogans of the movement and an organized form without waiting for orders from the Bolshevik leadership. They had not read much theory, and in most cases simply remembered the basic party slogans on the war, the land, the republic, and the eight-hour day. But this limited stock of ideas, linked to a basic class instinct and revolutionary spirit, was enough to give them a colossal superiority and make them into giants in their workplaces and on the streets. The party agitator now came into his own.

These local leaders were sufficiently able to lead the workers to the overthrow of tsarism, but no more than that. In order to have gone further, they would have required a firm and clear guidance from the party leadership. But the Bolshevik leadership in Petersburg, still clinging to the inadequate and outmoded slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” had no perspective of the assumption of power by the working class. Even the most radical of them did not look further than the establishment of a bourgeois republic. The overthrow of tsarism therefore left them confused and disoriented. Thus, while the leading role in the February uprising was played in large measure by Bolshevik workers, the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd lost the initiative as a result of their initial hesitations. As Lenin so often repeated, the workers and the rank and file proved far more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party.

As in the factories, so in the barracks, many of the “natural leaders” of the soldiers were Bolsheviks, who now came into their own, like the ex-Putilov men who joined the army during the war. The decisive sections of the advance guard were under the influence of the Bolsheviks. The years had not passed in vain. Most of these would have been Bolsheviks, trained in the revolutionary school of 1905 and 1912–14. But the masses were a different matter altogether. The war had transformed the composition of the factories by drawing in a large number of formerly backward, unorganized, and inexperienced layers. In order for the heavy, multi-millioned masses to draw all the necessary conclusions, a further experience was necessary. It is natural for people to take the line of least resistance, even in a revolution. For this very reason the masses always cling obstinately to their traditional mass organizations. The thinking of the masses is very economical: why discard an old tool before trying to make it work? The only difference in Russia in 1917 was that the broad masses had neither a clearly recognized party nor a mass trade union, but only a vague idea of the “Social Democrats.” True, the most advanced workers were Bolsheviks and in the period immediately before the war had been in the majority—of the organized workers at least. But the masses newly awakened to political life could not immediately distinguish between the left and right wing. They were not immediately concerned with the niceties of programmatic details but were moved by a general desire for change. They were capable of carrying out a revolution but not of preventing power from slipping out of their hands. Their actions were far in advance of their consciousness. It required the experience of great events and the patient work of the Bolsheviks for the consciousness of the masses to be brought up to the level demanded by the real situation.

This also explains why the lines of demarcation separating Bolshevik and Menshevik workers were not so clear. Suddenly, the differences between them seemed less important. Did they not both defend a bourgeois-democratic republic? In any case, there was a strong urge for unity as a result of the revolution itself. The Menshevik workers, swept along by the revolutionary wave, fought side by side with the Bolsheviks. The idea of unity in action of all revolutionary groups was widespread at this time. At rank-and-file level, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and even SR workers collaborated in action without any difficulty. In many areas, not for the first time, Social Democratic groups fused spontaneously. This fact is highly significant. It shows just how tenacious the idea of unity is in the working class and also just how complex the task of building a revolutionary party is.

Even though in 1912–14, the Bolsheviks had succeeded in winning over four-fifths of the organized workers in Russia, even though during the war the Mensheviks had played hardly any role, yet in the heady days of February–April, the two factions were again merged into a single organization in every province except Moscow and Petrograd. Indeed, in many areas, they remained united right up to the October Revolution. Such was the power of the banner of the old, traditional party, the RSDLP, despite all that had gone before. Even in Russia in 1917, Lenin’s struggle to separate out the genuine revolutionary tendency was not accomplished either easily or at one blow. In Russia, as in every other country, the mass forces of Bolshevism and the future Communist International did not drop from the sky, but were formed out of a struggle of contradictory trends within the existing traditional organizations of the working class (the Social Democracy) which, only after a long period of struggle with many vicissitudes, resulted in a split and the formation of a new party. This process, the stages of which we have attempted to outline in the present work, only really ended in October 1917, when the revolutionary wing finally won over a decisive majority in the Soviets and led the working class to the seizure of power.


630 N. Sukhanov, Zapiski o revolutsii, vol. 1, 50 and 94.

631 See Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 117 and 118.

632 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 300.

633 Quoted in Liebman, Leninism under Lenin, 117.