Ninety years ago, the working class of Russia, led by the immortal workers of what is now St Petersburg, rose in a revolution that overthrew the 1,000-year dictatorial rule of the Tsar.
23 February 1917 (8 March in the new style Gregorian calendar) marked the beginning of the socialist revolution in Russia that sparked a revolutionary wave that would travel around the world. Peter Taaffe analyses the lessons of February for the working class today and how the leadership of the Bolshevik party, particularly Lenin and Trotsky, was decisive in ensuring the victory of the revolution in October.
February revolution 1917 – what lessons for today?
This began a process of revolution and counter-revolution over the next nine months which in October 1917 resulted in the first democratic working-class, socialist revolution in history.
The February revolution stands between the first Russian revolution of 1905-1907 and the third and conclusive revolution of October 1917. The representatives of big business today and their hirelings in the universities, the superficial professors of ’history’, either ignore this great event or seek to prove that February was the ’real’ Russian revolution which ’went off the rails’ and ended in the ’putsch’ of October 1917.
Of course, Britain today is not Russia of 1917, an economically and culturally deprived society, with the working class a minority in a sea of peasants. Yet, under the whip of a serious economic crisis, a social rupture can develop in the most ’advanced’ as well as the most backward societies. The recent upheaval on world stock exchanges is a harbinger of a more disturbed economic and social situation for world capitalism, which could produce in a different form the conditions of Russia 90 years ago.
One of the most vital lessons of the February revolution and its aftermath is that had the leaders of the most conscious workers’ party at that stage, the Bolsheviks (the majority), pursued the policies of the workers’ leaders today, no Russian revolution would have taken place. In 1917, Russia was passing through the greatest social crisis in its history. If there had been no Bolshevik party, led by Lenin and Trotsky, the colossal revolutionary energy of the workers and the peasants would have been fruitlessly spent in sporadic explosions. The class struggle is the prime mover in history but it needs a correct programme, a firm party and a trustworthy and courageous leadership ready to go to the end in the struggle against capitalism and landlordism, as happened in Russia.
The honour of beginning the revolution fell to the working-class women of St Petersburg. On 22 February (according to the old style Julian calendar, which is 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar used in the West), the major plant of the city, the Putilov factory, announced a great strike. In the city at this stage there were roughly 390,000 factory workers, employed in huge industrial units such as the Putilov factory. Approximately one-third of these workers were women and the working class had been hit hardest by the massive inflation at the time.
On 23 February, the women textile workers, without prior agreement from any party, went on strike in several factories, which led to mass demonstrations in the city. This opened the floodgates of revolution, which unfolded over the next five days.
Role of the working class
One of the unmistakable features of a revolution is the direct intervention of the mass of the working class and the poor – usually discontented but forced into submission by capitalism in ’normal’ periods – in determining their own fate. This has been seen in all revolutions, for instance in France in 1968, when ten million workers came out in the greatest general strike against the wishes of their ’leaders’; and occupied the factories. The same happened in the marvellous Portuguese revolution, which began in 1974.
In the testing of wills between the working class and tsarism on the streets of Petrograd (St Petersburg), the repressive state apparatus of landlordism and capitalism dissolved in the heat of the revolution. This was marked by the coming over to the side of the workers, or a certain ’neutrality’ of the formerly most brutal tsarist forces such as the Cossacks.
The First World War, with five million Russian victims killed or injured, undoubtedly played a decisive role in speeding up enormously the subsequent phases of the revolution until October 1917. Later revolutions, such as Spain 1931-37, evolved over a more protracted period. The February revolution was achieved, largely from below, by workers and soldiers – many of them peasants under arms – which struck a mortal blow at tsarism.
But they themselves were not conscious of their own power. Many times in history, the working masses have overthrown a regime but have not enjoyed the fruits of their victory because they have not recognised their role. Therefore, in Russia power fell into the hands of a coalition of capitalist liberals, Mensheviks (the original minority in the Russian workers’ movement) and the Social Revolutionaries, a party of the middle class of the towns and the rural areas.
The February revolution was, in effect, the beginning of the socialist revolution in Russia and worldwide. But only Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, in exile in Switzerland, and Trotsky in New York recognised this. Even the Bolshevik leadership in Petrograd, while they did not enter the government (which would have been unacceptable to the ranks of the Bolshevik party and the working class of the city), nevertheless gave support to the coalition government from the outside. This government was similar to what became known later as the ’popular front’, which derailed the Spanish revolution of 1931-37 and was employed by the Stalinists in France and elsewhere.
Initially, the Petrograd workers and the rank-and-file Bolsheviks were hostile to the coalition, which had gathered power into its hands. But from the middle of March, under the influence of Kamenev, a leader of the Bolsheviks, and Stalin, who had arrived from exile, the Bolshevik party swung decisively to the right.
Stalin wrote and said: "The Provisional Government must be supported because…" This is very similar to the position of Bertinotti and other leaders of Rifondazione Comunista (RC) in Italy in relation to the first ’Olive Tree’ coalition which existed between 1996-1998, which they initially ’supported’ from the outside.
The consequence was that the RC leaders were covered with the odium arising from the attacks on the working class made by this coalition, which pursued neo-liberal policies and paved the way for the Berlusconi government.
In opposition to such an approach, Lenin telegraphed from Switzerland to the Bolshevik leaders in Petrograd: "Our tactic; absolute lack of confidence; no support to the new government; suspect Kerensky especially; arming of the working class the sole guarantee; immediate elections to the Petrograd Duma; no rapprochement with other parties." Then he pointedly declared: "The least support for the Provisional Government is a betrayal."
What would he have said of his alleged ’heirs’ in the RC and elsewhere today who now support capitalist coalitions ’from the inside’, serving as ministers and embracing the neo-liberal programme as, unfortunately, the RC in Italy has done in propping up the Prodi government? Bertinotti has shamefully taken the position of president of the Chamber of Deputies, equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Commons in Britain. He did this while commenting that this was a position that he could "no longer refuse".
Why could he not refuse? When Lenin arrived at the Finland station in Petrograd in April 1917, a young naval commander, speaking in the name of the service, "expressed the hope that Lenin might become a member of the Provisional Government". This was treated with scorn by Lenin who turned his back on the coalition dignitaries and addressed the workers who had come to greet him, with the words: "The Russian Revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the world socialist revolution!"
Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, himself declared from the outset his intention to carry through drastic attacks on the living standards of the Italian workers, all in the cause of ’reforming’ the Italian state and renovating Italian capitalism.
Yet Bertinotti in April 2006, just after the elections, stated: "We will support a government with Romano Prodi as prime minister and our party will take part in it. A very important step has been made; we defeated Berlusconi. Now we intend to rule Italy towards a change and to help the rise of a new political subject of the alternative left in Italy, which is now stronger after this election outcome and commits us to building an Italian European left section."
Events in Italy in the last period are a direct refutation of this and other arguments of the RC leaders justifying entry into a capitalist coalition government. They have tried to bolster this with the argument that they would be a "check on the right" and act in the interests of the Italian working class. There is absolutely nothing new in these arguments; Stalin and Kamenev supported the post-February coalition government ’critically’ with very similar arguments.
This was directly contrary to the position adopted by Lenin and Trotsky in 1917. Lenin’s policy led, nine months later, to the October revolution and the ’ten days that shook the world’, the reverberations of October amongst the working class internationally.
Bertinotti’s policy – of acceding to Prodi’s attacks on the working class – has already led to the disenchantment of broad sections of the workers and young people. It is certain to lead to disaster, the return of Berlusconi or something worse, unless checked by a revolt of the RC members, combined with mass action by the Italian working class.
Unlike the workers’ leaders today who are seduced and corrupted by the lure of easy popularity and ministerial careers, Lenin was not afraid of being in a minority. The Bolsheviks had 1% or 2% share of the vote in the soviets in February, and only 4% by the time he arrived in April. Yet at one stage prior to the First World War, the Bolsheviks had had the support of four-fifths of the organised working class.
But a revolution like February is usually made by a courageous and conscious minority with the broad support of the mass of workers. Once it is triumphant this broad mass enters the political arena and, as in February 1917, following the example of the 1905-07 revolution they created their own independent class organisation in the form of soviets – workers, soldiers and peasants’ councils.
In fact, a ’double sovereignty’ was created in Russia in February 1917 that lasted right up to the October revolution. This ’dual power’ or elements of it is visible in all revolutionary upheavals. On the one side, the ’government’ still retains state forces but it is challenged by the independent power and organisation of the working class.
The struggle between these forces constitutes the essence of the revolutionary and counter-revolutionary processes between February and October 1917. Lenin and the Bolsheviks under his leadership strove to maintain loyalty to the revolutionary programme, irreconcilable hostility to the capitalists and a decisive rupture with those who were not prepared to struggle to the end against capitalism and landlordism.
But this earned the Bolsheviks the undying hatred of the capitalists and all those parties who wanted to remain within the framework of the system. The entire press, including the papers of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries, carried on a vicious campaign against the Bolsheviks, just as the British media and press did against the miners in 1984-85, or against the Liverpool Militants in their heroic struggle of 1983-87.
Thousands of tons of newsprint were filled with reports that the Bolsheviks were linked to the tsarist police, that they received carloads of gold from Germany, that Lenin was a German spy, etc. In the first months after the February revolution, this abuse even affected the masses, with sailors and soldiers threatening to bayonet Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders.
However, the Bolsheviks, under the direction of Lenin, ignored the ’parliamentary babblers’ and directed all their attention to the mass of the working class and, in particular, to the most oppressed tens of millions who were moving to the left in disillusionment with the ’official’ coalition soviet parties.
It was this, the constant stressing of the independent approach of the working class and its organisations; clear delineation of the revolutionary party and masses from the reformist and semi-reformist opportunist parties, which led to the growth of the Bolsheviks. The contrast between Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and the leaders and ex-leaders of the workers’ organisations today could not be clearer.
Of course, this was in a period of revolution, which is not the case in most countries of the world today. However, the preparation for such a situation is carried out in the period before such sharp and abrupt changes actually take place. This is the role of a far-sighted Marxist leadership and organisation.
Throughout the world today, the working class is being led into a trap by the philosophy of coalitionism or the ’lesser evil’. This is merely a variation of the ideas seen in February 1917. It means that the workers must always play second fiddle to capitalist parties. They must tail-end the alternative bosses’ party in the US, the Democrats. They are urged to give support by the likes of the RC to Prodi in the mistaken belief that future ’concessions’ can be extracted. This is, of course, only if they swallow the toxic medicine today in the form of cuts and privatisation.
The February revolution is also important in relation to the momentous events that are unfolding in Latin America today. In Venezuela, following the victory of Hugo Chávez in the presidential elections with more than two-thirds of the vote, the workers’ movement has undoubtedly swung towards the left.
Hugo Chávez has praised Trotsky, claims to stand on Trotsky’s ideas of the ’permanent revolution’ – which in Russia led directly from the February overturn to the victory in October 1917 – and has proposed the nationalisation or partial nationalisation of the energy and other industries.
We and the left internationally support these steps of the Venezuelan government and people. However, Chávez says that his government will proceed by what can only be perceived as ’instalments’ towards a break with capitalism at some unspecified future date. George Galloway, commenting on this, mistakenly claimed in an article in the guardian that this represents a greater advance – is more ’red’ – then even the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s.
However, in Chile, 40% of industry had been taken over and the masses had created basic rank-and-file organisations (cordones – committees). Serious land reform had been undertaken and the masses were clamouring for arms and a section even had them. Yet because power and ownership of industry had not been taken out of the hands of the capitalists, Pinochet and the army generals were able to crush not just Allende but the Chilean working class and usher in the dark night of his dictatorship. This is a warning to Hugo Chávez and the Venezuelan workers and peasants.
The Russian workers succeeded not by ’piecemeal’ policies between February and October. In fact, the gains of the February revolution were systematically undermined because the government coalition refused to break with landlordism and capitalism. It took the experience of the next nine months, together with the agitation and work of the Bolsheviks, to convince the Russian workers of the need for an abrupt overturn – a social revolution – which then took place in October 1917.
Although Chávez has the support of the mass of the people today, Venezuelan landlordism and capitalism has not been broken. In fact, the private sector, fuelled by the sixfold increase in oil prices since Chávez came to power, is doing very well. However, rampant inflation could in time alienate the middle class, as well as sections of the poor, and undermine the enthusiasm of even the poor masses for the revolution, driving them into the arms of reaction.
Ultimately, the only way to defeat the threat of counter-revolution is to follow the policy of Lenin after February – intransigent opposition to capitalism and landlordism and decisive measures to break the power of big business.
The great events of February 1917 are not dead history. We pay tribute to the courageous working class of Petrograd in this great social overturn by learning the real lessons of these events for today.
Special feature from The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, England and Wales.