Fidelity to February: The People’s revolution

In days where revolution can seem more remote than ever, Dan Swain explores the height of the February revolution and reflects on its relevance to revolutionary politics today

(Photo via wikimedia)

In 1917 Russia was a vast empire covering much of modern day Poland in the west, Armenia and Azerbaijan in the south, and Kazakhstan and Siberia in the east. It had been ruled for centuries by an autocratic monarchy that gave little space to any democratic institutions. While Europe’s other empires had all, to one degree or another, rebalanced the relationship between their monarchies and parliaments, granting greater power to institutions which were at least formally democratic, the Russian Tsar retained the status of ‘supreme autocrat’.

In the space of five days in February 100 years ago, all of this changed. The people of Russia removed the Tsar from power, and replaced his rule with not one, but two democratic institutions. In doing so, they set the stage for a dramatic year of revolution.

This year will be marked by countless conferences, articles, books and reminiscences about what remains one of the biggest sources of inspiration, fear, and fascination in history. This article, however, will consider its first, dramatic months. How was it that one of Europe’s great ruling powers fell from grace so rapidly that they not merely ended a monarchy, but made it possible to usher in an entirely new system of social life?

1. The Stage

To say that Russia had been staunchly autocratic is not to say it lacked a revolutionary tradition. Throughout the 19th century different varieties of radicals had tried to drag concessions out of the Tsar. The ‘Decembrist’ movement of 1825 had tried to enforce a democratic constitution. National liberation movements, particularly in Poland, had tried to achieve independence from the Empire. Later generations of radical liberals had turned to the peasants, going to the countryside to work and live among them. These ‘narodniks’ (from narod, meaning people) divided into those who aimed to spread propaganda in the countryside, and those, less patient, who advocated political assassination. The chronicler of the revolution Victor Serge notes that:

between 1872 and 1882 there were six attempted assassinations (three of these successful) against high officials, four against police chiefs, four against Tsar Alexander II, nine executions of informers and twenty- four cases of armed resistance to the police. Thirty-one revolutionaries were hanged or shot.

This generation of revolutionaries acted as much out of despair as hope. Alexander Herzen, a deep influence on the narodniks and on early Russian socialism, wrote in 1851:

Detached from the life of the common people by European civilisation and cut off from Europe by despotism, [the Russian] is too weak to overthrow it and the only thing left is flight… We are slaves because we have not the means of liberating ourselves. Anyway we’ll accept nothing from the enemy… Russia will never revolt with the sole objective of getting rid of Tsar Nicholas and obtaining as reward for victory Tsarist representatives, Tsarist courts, or Tsarist laws.

The regime was intolerable, but apparently immoveable. But into this impasse came a new force: the working class movement. One reform that the Tsar had permitted, more from economic necessity than any political will, was to abolish serfdom in 1861. This had meant peasants were no longer tied to land owned by their lord, but became owners of land in their own right. Of course, for many this meant being gradually driven off the land as it was bought up by landlords, and pushed into the cities. As industrial production began to increase in the late 19th century, these people, now proletarians in the classic sense, filled the factories.

Alongside a growing proletariat came parties that sought to represent, mobilise and emancipate it. At the Second International’s Paris Congress in 1889, Georgi Plekhanov, representing the first explicitly social-democratic group in Russia, announced that “the Russian revolution will triumph as the revolution of the working class – else not at all”. In the late 1880s ‘Unions of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class’ began to appear in many towns and cities, and in 1894 the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Party was held in Minsk. It did not take long, though, for divisions to arise, firstly over how much to focus on political issues, and secondly over the kind of organisation that was necessary. In 1902 this resulted in division into Bolsheviks (‘majoritarians’) and Mensheviks (‘minoritarians’).

Alongside the Social Democratic Party and its factions was the rise of the Socialist Revolutionary Party (SRs), whose members would go on to play important roles throughout
1917. The SRs continued the narodnik tradition of looking to the people as a whole, and thus attempted to build a party of the working class, peasantry and intellectuals all at once. Serge suggests, however, that:

whereas Social Democracy demands that these enter the service of the proletariat, and only gives them a hearing to the extent that they speak for the proletarian cause, in the Socialist Revolutionary party it is the intellectuals as such who are given a decisive role. Narodnik theory teaches, in effect, that conscious individual personalities, ‘endowed with critical thinking’ and constituting a minority elite, have a crucial influence over the destinies of society.

Thus they continued the tradition of high profile assassinations and individual terrorism, and were met with repression. The SRs thus populated the prisons as much as supporters of Social Democracy did.

And then came 1905.

The previous year, in the hopes of securing his rule and extending his territory, the Tsar had initiated a disastrous imperial war with Japan. This war was to end in utter humiliating defeat, which sparked off protests and strikes across the country. In January 1905, struggles between management and workers broke out at the Putilov works in St. Petersburg. The workers were aided by a radical priest known as Father Gapon. Gapon, apparently in the sincere belief that he would listen, organised a petition to the Tsar, calling for an eight-hour day, political and religious freedoms, and the right to strike. The petitioners were met with machine guns and cavalry charges, in a massacre which became known as Bloody Sunday.

Following Bloody Sunday trade unions began to spring up across the empire. General strikes were called, which in some places (notably Warsaw) took on the character of an insurrection. Over the course of 1905 strikes and protests spread across the empire, and new and varied institutions and organisations sprung up – trade unions, strike committees, and, most importantly, on 13 October , the St. Petersburg Soviet, a democratic workers’ council, organised on the basis of one deputy per 500 workers. Four days later, the ruling powers moved to catch up with this enthusiasm for democracy, and established a parliament – the Duma. Any further revolutionary change, though, was halted. The revolutionary movement was violently suppressed. The following year, the Tsar made it clear that he retained power over the Duma as ‘supreme autocrat’. In the coming years he dissolved it on several occasions.

In 1914, the First World War broke out, providing the revolutionary movement with a test most of them failed. For the Tsar and his supporters, this was an opportunity to whip
up nationalist sentiment. For the revolutionaries, this was a chance to agitate against both the war and the imperial interests it defended. Sadly, both the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries fell in behind the war, refusing to oppose it. Plekhanov, by this time a Menshevik, became a particularly vocal supporter of the war. The Bolsheviks, on the other hand, adopted Lenin’s slogan: “turn the imperialist war into civil war”. In November, the five Bolshevik deputies in the Duma were arrested and deported to Siberia.

Though bolstered by an initial burst of enthusiasm for the war, by the beginning of 1917 the Russian state was in deep crisis. Grain increased in price by a factor of ten, while landowners increasingly hoarded grain in order to push up prices. While most peasants were fighting in the war, landowners had asserted control over large tracts of previously communal land. While the war took its toll on ordinary people, it became increasingly unpopular among soldiers and the wider population. An estimated 1.5 million soldiers had deserted over the course of 1916. By the end of January 1917, the food shortages reached a state of deep crisis, with only ten days of grain left for the city of St. Petersburg. As food queues formed, some women took action into their own hands by breaking in and stealing bread. In February, the Bolsheviks called strikes against the arrest of their five members of the Duma. The Mensheviks, too, called strikes explicitly in favour of the Duma, while the Bolsheviks, emboldened, called for the overthrow of the Tsar.

2. The Drama

The revolution began on International Women’s Day. It is quite striking how often this is overlooked by mainstream accounts of the revolution, preferring to talk passively, as if demonstrations merely happened. Yet the dates chosen for these demonstrations surely matters. Those who demonstrated that day certainly did not believe they were beginning an insurrection, or even foresaw it as a likely outcome. But they knew that the occasion was worth marking, an opportunity to do something, to be on the streets, to demonstrate their dissatisfaction and their power. The choice of day indicates how international the working class had become. International Women’s Day had first been held in 1909 to remember a strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the United States. It had then been taken up by the Socialist International as part of a general strategy for promoting women’s suffrage and the rights of women, and was first marked in Russia before the outbreak of war. It also indicates the centrality of women to the events, demanding not just bread, but also a voice of their own.

International Women’s Day was not the only anniversary marked by protest in early 1917. In January, the Bolshevik party had organised strikes on the anniversary of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre. Around 30,000 struck in Moscow, while 145,000 struck in St. Petersburg, with smaller strikes taking place across the Empire. Of course, at one level, these were simply convenient dates  – reasons to mobilise and motivate people and to get them on the streets, to help demonstrate their power to themselves and to the authorities. Yet perhaps there is also something important about the way such anniversaries invoked a historical memory, reaching back into the past in order to be able to project forward, confronting and exorcising a defeat alongside imagining a victory.

In any case, the unrest went further than most expected. Groups of textile workers went on strike, while 128,000 demonstrated on the streets of St. Petersburg. By the next day 200,000 workers were on strike, nearly half of St. Petersburg’s workers, with demands becoming increasingly specific, shifting to the overthrow of the autocratic regime. Clashes with the police become increasingly frequent, while fraternisation begins between protestors and the military. As Trotsky wrote:

The police are fierce, implacable, hated and hating foes. To win them over is out of the question. Beat them up and kill them. It is different with the soldiers: the crowd makes every effort to avoid hostile encounters with them; on the contrary, seeks ways to dispose them in its favour, convince, attract, fraternise, merge them in itself.

Reports of unrest reached the Tsar. He had already been warned earlier that month about the possibility of unrest, and urged to share power with the Duma. The Tsar ignored that warning, and he failed to recognise the significance of the protests. His telegram from the front was unequivocal. The police must ensure the unrest stops. By this point, though, this meant only one thing, as the following response from a police chief makes clear:

This telegram, how could I say it, to be frank and sincere, was for me like a sledge‑hammer blow. ‘To stop as of tomorrow.’ How? What was I going to do? How ‘stop’? When they asked for bread, we gave bread and that was the end of it. But when the flags are inscribed ‘down with autocracy’ it’s no longer a question of bread. But what then? The Tsar had ordered – we had to shoot.

On the morning of Sunday 26 February, the state began to fight back in a more systematic way. One hundred revolutionary leaders, from a range of parties, were arrested, while troops opened fire on workers in Petrograd, killing 169 and injuring over 1000. Outraged at this, soldiers from another regiment try to stop them. By nightfall the same day, 66,000 soldiers, who 24 hours earlier were ordered to fire on the protestors, had instead joined the cause of the protestors.

On 27 February, the Tsar’s advisor convened a meeting of the Duma. Even at this stage, the goal was to somehow salvage the Imperial power, and keep the Tsar in place. The Duma formed a committee, which resolved that the only possible resolution was shared power between the Tsar and a Prime Minister. The Tsar refused, and abdicated in favour of his brother Mikhail. Mikhail too refused the throne, and with that, it was over. “Like the chewed stump of a fag, we spat their dynasty out”, wrote the poet Mayakovsky. For Trotsky, “the last day of February was the first day after the victory: a day of raptures, embraces joyful tears, voluble outpourings; but at the same time a day of final blows at the enemy.” People gathered in the streets to celebrate the first days of spring, and the possibilities of rebirth.

How had this happened? Trotsky quotes a liberal officer reflecting on events:

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

Historical writing often has a hard time dealing with events like February. Either it is the master plan of a few great masterminds, or the random reflex of a blind, faceless mass. But
the people in February had faces. No doubt the revolution felt and looked spontaneous even to many who participated in it. This sense is heightened by the fact that many who might have taken credit were in prison or exile. Yet to call it spontaneous is also to fail to do justice to the actions of individuals who knew exactly what they were doing. Someone chanted ‘down with autocracy’ in the middle of a bread queue. Actual people went to fraternise with the soldiers, and actual soldiers, confronted with orders they couldn’t obey, didn’t obey them.

Alongside these dramatic moments of decision, though, is the more patient activity of revolutionaries, who had been organising, debating and explaining in the workers’ movement for the past decade. These individuals had helped, both practically and theoretical, people to recognise their own collective power and collective interests. They had called the demonstrations, on which, even when revolution looked remote, people (as the late John Berger put it) “begin to recognise that the function of their class need no longer be limited: that it, too, like the demonstrations itself, can create its own function.” In this sense, the revolution was, as Trotsky put it, the result of

an independent and deep process of growth, not only of hatred for the rulers, but of critical understanding of their impotence, an accumulation of experience and creative consciousness which the revolutionary insurrection and its victory only completed.

Thus the people made the revolution – but the people itself had been formed by the experience of struggle and conflict; from isolated, powerless individuals into a powerful, self-conscious collective, capable of bringing down the regime, and replacing it with something else.

3. The Results

Just as in 1905, the revolution gave birth to two democratic institutions. Unlike in 1905, the power of the state to limit the ambitions of either was broken. The Provisional Committee of the Duma, having failed to convince either the Tsar or his brother to share power, proceeded to form a Provisional Government, with the express intention of carrying out a transition to democracy. Even for many of the revolutionaries, this was the logical step – Russia had finally had its democratic revolution, it had finally caught up with the rest of Europe, and so it required a government to match them. But at almost exactly the same time, another centre of power was forming. Harking back to the memory of 1905, the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies was formed, and in the days that followed further Soviets were established in other towns and cities. This created the situation Trotsky called dual power.

The Provisional Government found themselves in a peculiar position. As the historian Christopher Hill puts it, “the members of this government had not created the revolution: they merely occupied the vacant seats of authority.” Nevertheless, in recognition of the depth of feeling, this government introduced a series of sweeping political reforms. In a letter of 2 March, printed in the first issue of Izvestia, the newspaper of the Soviet, the government announced its activity would be guided by principles which included:

  • An immediate amnesty for political and religious prisoners (including terrorist acts and military revolts).
  • Freedom of speech, press, and assembly, and the right to form unions and to strike; the abolition of all restrictions based on class, religion, and nationality.
  • A constituent assembly elected on the basis of direct suffrage and secret ballot to determine the government and constitution of the country.
  • The replacement of the police with a people’s militia, accountable to elected local government.
  • Civil rights for soldiers, including those who took part in the revolution.

Writing later that year, Lenin himself declared that Russia was now the most democratic state in Europe. Another exile, Alexandra Kollontai, was one of the first to return, and recalled her arrival:

On Russian soil stood a soldier. A bright red ribbon fluttered on his chest. “Your identity papers, please, citizenness!” “I have none. I am a political refugee.” “Your name?” I identified myself. A young officer was summoned. Yes, my name was on the list of political refugees who were to be freely admitted into the country by order of the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Soviet. The young officer helped me out of the sleigh and kissed my hand, almost reverently. I was standing on the republican soil of liberated Russia! Could that be possible? It was one of the happiest hours of my whole life.

One reason for the depth of these reforms was that the Provisional Government depended, in large part, on the consent of the Soviet. Elections to the Executive Committee of the Soviet had become dominated by the Mensheviks and the SRs, with the Bolsheviks a clear minority. Dominated by a stagist approach, the Executive Committee had authorised and defended the Provisional Government. This, wrote Trotsky, was the great paradox of the February Revolution:

the socialists, having so easily arrived at the head of the soviets, were worrying about only one question: Will the bourgeoisie, politically isolated, hated by the masses and hostile through and through to the revolution, consent to accept the power from our hands?

While these two institutions shared power, only one offered a way beyond the current state of affairs. This is first true in the case of the war. The war had undoubtedly been one of the catalysts of the revolution itself. It had been the incubator of the crisis in which the revolution exploded and at the same time it had united the ruling classes behind a common, external foe. It had formed the ruling class, as Lenin put it, into ‘one bloody clot’, united in their support for the war effort and their defence of Russian imperial interests.

And with the Tsar gone, the bloody clot remained at the top of society, and continued to defend the status quo. While the provisional government was willing to grant all manner of freedoms, and to turn a blind eye to the mutiny behind the revolution, it could not countenance ending the war. On the 2 March, the new foreign minister Miliukov explained to French journalists: “The Russian revolution was made in order to remove the obstacles on Russia’s road to victory.” This fantasy stood in sharp contrast to the words
of one soldier:

When we heard that the Tsar had abdicated, we all thought it meant that the war was over … The Tsar sent us to war, and what is the use of freedom if I have got to rot in the trenches again?

While the Provisional Government supported continuing the war, the Executive Committee of the Soviet dithered. The Mensheviks met to take a position on the war, but did not announce what it was! Eventually, the Soviet reached an uneasy balance between support for peace alongside a ‘defensive’ war in order to protect the newly free and democratic Russia. In their minds, the distinction between this defensive war and the imperialist war preferred by Miliukov et al. must have been significant. To the soldiers at the front, it wouldn’t have felt very different. Nonetheless, despite not being prepared to end the war, the Soviet did have the power to do so. One of its first acts, encouraged by the Bolsheviks, had been to assert its own authority over the army, and establish a military section, encouraging the army to elect its own delegates and representatives.

The Soviet thus offered a way out the war, even if at that point its leadership did not take it. It also, however, offered a way out of Russia’s predicament in a broader sense. As an institution based on a deep form of democracy and rooted in the lives of workers and soldiers, it also offered the opportunity to deepen the revolution. While the provisional government could pass political reforms from above, the Soviet was capable of transforming social life in communities and workplaces. It was, at least potentially, a form capable of acting, as Marx argued the Paris Commune did

as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule. With labour emancipated, every man becomes a working man, and productive labour ceases to be a class attribute.

That, at least, was the wager made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

4. Rehearsals and Re-enactments

For those of who believe that these were not just unfortunate events of the past but simultaneously beacons for the future, what does fidelity to February mean today? For one thing, it means being honest about it. In a way, those of us who also claim fidelity to October are better placed for this. In much of the mainstream commentary of this anniversary year there will be a fairly clear dichotomy – February good, October bad. February was a popular revolution, establishing democratic norms and a legitimate government, which October abolished.

Yet February, too, was a revolution. It had its fair share of violence and bloodshed on both sides. As Trotsky remarked, “the liberals had no other ground for calling the February revolution bloodless except that it gave them the power.” And it was an uprising against a way of things which had been seen as legitimate and normal. It was, indeed, a democratic revolution, but no vote was taken, no consultation was held. It began in one city, and radiated out into the rest of the country. While much of the rest of the population greeted it happily, no one asked them. As Trotsky said:

The revolution was carried out upon the initiative and by the strength of one city, constituting approximately about 1/75 of the population of the country. You may say, if you will, that this most gigantic democratic act was achieved in a most undemocratic manner… This casts a sharp light on the question of the function of democratic forms in general, and in a revolutionary epoch in particular. Revolutions have always struck such blows at the judicial fetishism of the popular will, and the blows have been more ruthless the deeper, bolder and more democratic the revolutions.

This is perhaps overstating the case, but the point is sound. Any revolution, even the most democratic, involves a break with existing legal and constitutional norms, and involves the determined action of a minority. Revolutions have centres. They start somewhere, with some people, and they displace the fetishized form of democratic institutions in favour of deeper ones.

Writing from afar, Lenin observed that both the events of 1905 and the subsequent reaction had played a fundamental role in laying the ground for the events of February:

This eight-day revolution was “performed”, if we may use a metaphorical expression, as though after a dozen major and minor rehearsals; the “actors” knew each other, their parts, their places and their setting in every detail, through and through, down to every more or less important shade of political trend and mode of action.

Perhaps, then, fidelity to February means being prepared for our own rehearsals, to identify the stages and arenas in which we can act out and prepare for our own dramas. If the actors in the February revolution were well rehearsed and prepared, the same cannot be said of us today. Indeed, we are often accused not of rehearsing, but re-enacting. Not preparing for
our own performance, but merely re- staging other people’s, while the rest of the world moves on, leaving us looking more and more like anachronistic enthusiasts. If this criticism stings us, it is probably because there is much truth in it. We have often been more concerned with re-enactment than rehearsal, ready for last year’s performance and not this year’s.

At the same time, we should be aware how any rehearsal can quickly, and dramatically, become the real thing. And this is where the metaphor stretches to breaking point. We do not have the luxury of weeks of rehearsals before opening night. The real thing can come when we least expect it. And so, while we look for our own opportunities for rehearsals and preparations, this should not make us turn away from a sincere examination of the past. After all, what else is there for us to examine? What else is there to do but to confront the past honestly and directly while being at the same time urgently focused on the future?


  1. Good overview. One correction: the Bolshevik-Menshevik split happened in 1903, not 1902, during the Russian SDLP’s Second Congress.


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