Magazine of the Socialist Party, Australian section of the CWI

February 1917: The fall of the Tsar

2017 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Russian revolution. Throughout the year, The Socialist will publish material to commemorate and celebrate this truly historic event. This article gives a background to the February revolution which opened nine months of titanic class struggle and culminated in the coming to power of the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party which was headed by Lenin and Trotsky.


Revolution broke out first in Russia because the First World War placed the greatest burdens on what was industrially the most backward nation in Europe. In Lenin’s words, “capitalism broke at its weakest link.”

The outbreak of the war had initially cut across a revolutionary movement which was developing in Russia in July/August 1914. From having the support of 80 percent of the active workers, the Bolsheviks, who opposed the imperialist war, were driven underground, as backward layers of the working class, mobilized by the war, embraced the ideas of patriotism.

The “unity of the nation” produced at the beginning of an imperialist war is really only a mask. As war drags on, it exposes all that is rotten in society, sharpening all the social contradictions. So it was in Tsarist Russia. The war only postponed the struggle, deepening the eventual revolutionary upheavals.

Fifteen million, overwhelmingly peasants, were drafted into the army, where they faced a uniformity of misery. This made them open to the ideas of the working class. By 1917 over 800,000 workers were concentrated in defence industries in Moscow, and 300,000 in Petrograd, mainly in huge factories employing thousands. In contrast with previous struggles in Russia, the cities and countryside were brought together in their determination to be done with Tsarist autocracy.

Every revolution begins at the top as the ruling class, with no clear way forward, split over what course of action to take. In January 1916, a strike wave developed against food shortages and speculators. Feeling the movement building up from below, a section of the ruling class favoured making limited concessions.

During late 1916, the mystic monk Rasputin was murdered and plots were laid for a ‘palace coup’ to remove the Tsar and the Tsarina. The signs of splits in the ruling class opened the floodgates of revolution. The tensions brought about by the war, of five million dead or wounded, of the army’s bread ration being cut by a third between December 1916 and February 1917, of the shortages of food in the towns, burst to the surface.

The February Revolution began on the 23rd (dates are on the old Russian calendar; add 13 days for the modern calendar) with a strike by women textile workers in Petrograd. On International Women’s Day, 90,000 were on strike, including many soldiers’ wives. They marched to the Duma (a truncated parliament) demanding bread, which as Trotsky commented was like demanding milk from a he-goat. On the following day half of the industrial workers of Petrograd joined the strike.

As the strikes grew, the slogans rapidly changed to direct political challenges to the regime: “Down with the aristocracy! Down with the war!”

Yet none of the workers’ organizations initially called for the strikes. Indeed, the most brilliant Bolshevik organization, the committee in the industrial Vyborg area, feeling the tension, but not believing the time was right for an insurrection which they saw could develop from the strikes, initially opposed the call for strikes on February 23. Thus, one of the most oppressed and least organized layers, perhaps not as burdened by consideration of where their strike could lead, but burning with desire to take action, opened the floodgates of revolution.

The police tried to break up the crowds, aided by Cossacks (cavalry), some mounted police, and occasionally by infantry. The crowds fought the police, but tried to neutralize the Cossacks and win over the soldiers in action.

On the 25th, cadet officers fired on demonstrating workers, killing 16. On the 27th there were further demonstrations and troops were called out to suppress them.

After clashes with the workers, the troops began to mutiny. In some places the workers had succeeded in uniting with the soldiers, penetrating the barracks and receiving rifles.

Already too late

The 1,000-year-old monarchy fell under these hammer blows. As in the Spanish revolution of 1936, when unarmed workers stormed the barracks in Barcelona, Madrid and Valencia, and were joined by some soldiers, the real power, “armed bodies of men”, was in the hands of the workers.

The response of the ruling clique, revolution staring them in the face, was akin to Nero ‘fiddling while Rome burned’. Rodzianko, conservative president of the Duma, sent a telegram to the Tsar on the 27th: “The situation is becoming worse; measures must be taken immediately, for tomorrow will be too late”. In reality it was already too late. But when the Tsar received the telegram he commented: “Once again the fat-bellied Rodzianko has written me a lot of nonsense, which I won’t even bother to answer”.

The next day the Tsar telegraphed his wife before leaving for the capital by train: “In my thoughts I am always with you. Magnificent weather. I hope you are well and calm”. But the rail workers rerouted and blocked the Tsar’s train, while in Tauride Palace (the former house of the Duma) the soviet of workers’ deputies was already in session.

Starting where the experience of the defeated revolution of 1905 left off, the workers and soldiers had immediately organized Soviets – committees of workers, soldiers and sailors democratically elected directly from the workplace, barracks, or ships, with no privileges and subject to recall by their electors. From the outset, the soviets had a wider scope than in 1905, above all incorporating delegates from the soldiers’ and sailors’ organizations.

Reflecting the intense pressure of the movement of the masses, at one of its first sittings, on March 1, the Soviet issued the famous ‘Order No. 1’ which included the following:

“The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies has decreed:

Committees to be elected immediately in all companies, battalions … from the elected representatives of the rank and file of the above-mentioned units.

In all political actions, troop units are subordinate to the Soviet … and to the committees thereof.

The orders of the military commission of the state Duma are to be obeyed, with the exception of those instances in which they contradict the orders and decrees of the Soviet [Editor’s emphasis]

All types of arms … must be placed at the disposal of company and battalion committees, and under their control, and are not, in any case, to be issued to officers, even upon demand…”

The Soviets had the overwhelming support of the workers, soldiers and sailors. All that was required was to link up the Soviets on an all-Russia basis, a declaration by the workers’ leadership that all power would henceforth be vested in the Soviets, the arrest of the old ministers, and workers’ power could have been established peacefully without further struggle.

Provisional government

But as the Communist and Socialist parties, aided by the anarchists, were to do in Spain in 1936, the leaders of the Soviet, at the outset of the reformist Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, handed power back to the capitalists. Without Marxist leadership, this led to bloody defeat in Spain.

In Russia, the Menshevik and SR leaders handed power to an unelected “Provisional government” dominated by the liberal capitalist Constitutional Democrats (Kadets). They rationalized their cowardice with high-sounding phrases. They argued the workers cannot take power but must support the party of the liberal bourgeoisie. Pointing to Russia’s backwardness they argued that the immediate revolution was a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ one as in France in 1789. By this they meant that the tasks of the revolution were overcoming feudalism, distributing land to the peasants, establishing a democratic regime, and clearing the way for modern development.

No Marxist in Russia disagreed that these were the tasks. The question was, should people defer to the capitalists to carry them out? Lenin constantly warned against any illusions in ‘liberal’ capitalists, and for the independence of the working class, seeing the working class in alliance with the peasants as the force that would overthrow the remnants of feudalism. Trotsky, in his brilliant theory of permanent revolution which was borne out in the course of 1917, went further, explaining that in the epoch of imperialism, the bourgeois-democratic tasks could only be resolved under the leadership of the working class moving in the direction of socialism.

The Mensheviks claimed to be for socialism, but only in the distant future. The Russian capitalists were linked through the banks by a thousand links to the class of feudal landowners. This ruled out any thoroughgoing land reform which was the fundamental task of the bourgeois-democratic or capitalist revolution in Russia. On the other hand, the Russian capitalists were tied hand and foot to foreign, mainly Anglo-French, capital from which they drew the lion’s share of their investment.

This in turn made a just and democratic peace in the war impossible as long as power remained in the hands of the landlords and the capitalists.

While the Kadets had been opposed to the Tsarist regime, which placed obstacles in the way of the free development of capitalism, they were a million times more afraid of the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants. When finally confronted with the fact of a victorious revolution, they first tried to negotiate with the Tsar to set up a constitutional monarchy, and resisted at every stage attempts to actually tackle the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

This paradox of February 1917, of the masses moving towards seizing power, not being fully conscious of the situation and the tasks, and the movement being side-tracked by the reformist leaders, is not unique. It is present in every great revolutionary upheaval, as it was in Spain in 1936 and in Portugal in 1974.

So how did the Mensheviks and the SRs become the leadership of the Soviets? By its very nature revolution draws into activity not only the advanced layer, but also stirs up the mass. They learn very rapidly in the course of the revolution. But in the first instance the majority will seek the line of least resistance. In Russia, they tended to support the Menshevik and SR leaders who said: “the revolution has overthrown the autocracy; now all that is needed is to wait for the Constituent Assembly (democratic government) to be convened to resolve the issues of the war, land, etc.”.

Their patriotic position in the war, combined with mild opposition to the Tsarist intelligentsia, meant that lower ranking officers and less politically active layers of the working class initially supported the Mensheviks and the SRs. It helped that they had not faced the same hounding which the Bolsheviks suffered during the war. They had the best-known faces in the eyes of the masses. At the outbreak of the revolution they had the speakers to address meetings, journalists to write papers etc., while the main Bolshevik leaders were in emigration, exile or in prison.

In his classic History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky asked the question:

“Who led the February Revolution? The revolution fell like thunder from the sky, says the president of the Social Revolutionary Party, Zenzinov.” Trotsky then records an account of the Menshevik leader, Skobelev, who was to become a minister in the Provisional government within a month, declaring on the 25th of February that the “disorders had the character of plundering which it was necessary to put down.”
“How was it with the Bolsheviks?… Kayurov, one of the leaders of the Vyborg section, asserts categorically: ‘absolutely no guiding initiative from the party centers was felt.’

At this stage all the principal Bolshevik leaders were in exile or abroad. Trotsky concludes that while there were no clear leaders, the revolution was not “spontaneous”, but was a product of specific conditions that had developed, of the conditions in Russia, the experience of the 1905 revolution, and the presence in the factories and among the soldiers of a scattering of “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party of Lenin … 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.”

This was added to by the confusion which existed amongst the Bolshevik leaders who were in Petrograd. The resumption of the Bolshevik paper Pravda was warmly welcomed by the workers, its second issue selling 100,000 copies. But its attitude to the Provisional government was unclear. While some articles correctly attacked it as a regime of capitalists and landlords, others were ambivalent.

The position of the Bolsheviks was further confused with the return from exile of Kamenev, Stalin and Muranov on March 13, who immediately took over the editing of Pravda and turned its line sharply to the right. On the 14th of March Stalin made the cautious appeal to “maintain the rights that have been won in order to finally beat down the old powers and move the Russian revolution forward”, a position which echoed that of the reformist leaders of the Soviet, to “support the Provisional government insofar as it struggles against reaction, defends democracy etc.” This position earned Lenin’s sharp rebuke that “it was like asking brothel keepers to give up sin”!

The next day Kamenev wrote an article which advocated national defence of the regime of the Provisional government: “we shall stoutly defend our own liberty.” These policies amounted to seeing the Bolsheviks as the loyal ‘left opposition’ in a capitalist government, in a similar manner to the idea of ‘Popular Front’ blocks between the workers’ and ‘radical’ capitalist parties put forward by ‘Communist’ parties after the second world war.

When these issues of Pravda reached the factories, they aroused a storm of indignation among the workers which forced Stalin and Kamenev to be more cautious, but they still refrained from any fundamental attack on the Provisional government or its war policy.

No support

In reality there were only two people who understood the situation, Lenin in Switzerland and Trotsky in New York. Writing on March 4, with only scanty information, Lenin grasped the character of the Provisional government: “the new government that had seized power in Petrograd, or, more correctly wrested it from the proletariat, which has waged a victorious, heroic fierce struggle, consists of liberal bourgeois and landlords. Only a workers’ government … can give the people peace, bread and full freedom”.

Two days later he sent a telegram: “Our tactics; no trust in and no support of the new government; Kenersky [the one SR in the government] is especially suspect; arming of the proletariat is the only guarantee, immediate elections to the Petrograd City Council; no rapprochement with other parties”.

As early as February 28, receiving only confused reports of ‘disturbances’ and ‘bread riots’, Trotsky wrote: “We are witnessing the beginning of the second Russian revolution.” When the composition of the Provisional government and its appeals for ‘order’ became known he wrote: “The powerful avalanche of the revolution is in full swing, and no human force will stem it.”

The Mensheviks and SR leaders denounced Lenin’s thesis as “sectarian, ultra-left and adventurist.” Characterizing the revolution as “democratic and not socialist” they effectively postponed the struggle for socialism to a distant future. The policy of ‘popular frontism’ that would later be used by the Stalinists in Spain was merely a resurrection of the Menshevik idea of class collaboration and the theory of ‘stages’.

The fatal flaw of Menshevism (and of the Stalinists and their modern co-thinkers) is in not seeing that the only way of carrying through the progressive tasks of the old bourgeois-democratic revolutions today is by transfer of power to the working class. That was precisely the position put forward by Lenin in the spring of 1917, summed up in the slogan “All power to the Soviets”, and that Trotsky had worked out in his theory of permanent revolution – based on the experience of the 1905 revolution.

The magnificent movement of workers, soldiers and sailors in the February revolution had smashed the old Tsarist regime, and placed power in the hands of the reformist leaders. Petrified, they sought compromise with the bourgeoisie. This opened a period of dual power, that is of two opposing forces: the provisional government of representatives of the capitalists attempting to restore “order”, and the soviets, which despite their leaders represented the desire of the workers to overthrow capitalism.

This was to last until the “July Days”, when, given time by the reformist leaders of the Soviets, the capitalists inflicted a defeat on the workers. But it was only a temporary setback. An attempted coup by General Kornilov in August was defeated by the arming of the workers by the Bolsheviks. Very rapidly the Menshevik-SR leadership of the soviets was discredited, the Bolsheviks gained a majority in the Soviets, and in October, only nine months after the fall of Tsarism, power was firmly in the hands of the working class.

By Kevin Ramage