A hundred years ago, as John Reed's celebrated book announced, 1917 was the year that shook the world. The Russian revolution, which took place from February to October in the Julian calendar, shattered the omnipotence of feudal-capitalist Russia and ushered in the first workers’ state.
During late February (Julian calendar) or early March (Gregorian calendar) 1917 saw the collapse of the Imperial Russian empire, the abdication of Czar Nicholas II, the establishment of a Provisional Government and a battle of wills between the working class and the repressive state apparatus of the capitalists and landlords.
Lenin saw the February Revolution as only the first stage (the overthrow of Czarist autocracy) to be followed by a second stage where power would transfer from the bourgeoisie to workers and peasants.
Before the 1917 revolution the Czar ruled Russia by absolute autocracy, buttressed by the Orthodox Church and feudal aristocracy who monopolized the land. This nobility subjected some four-fifths of the population to work the land for them for centuries in serf-like conditions.
A segment of the feudal class, after the 17th century, aspired to create capitalism in Russia to match the capitalist industrialisation of Germany, France and Britain. However the development of capitalism was retarded by the absolutism of the Czar, wary that capitalist class forces had overthrown some monarchies in Western Europe.
Whilst capitalism remained relatively small in Russia it was expanding and technically compared favourably to the advanced capitalist states. In fact foreign investors, mainly French and British, owned a large part of Russian industry.
1905 Revolution - a dress rehearsal
The burgeoning capitalism in Russia combined with losing a war against Japan intensified resentment amongst soldiers, workers and peasants. Out of this hostility emerged Soviets (Councils) of workers, peasants and soldiers in Petrograd which campaigned for workers’ economic and political rights, peasants’ desire for land and soldiers’ unwillingness to be cannon fodder.
The revolt began with the Bloody Sunday massacre in January 1905, when Czarist soldiers killed 800 workers in a mass procession. This sparked an outbreak of mutinies amongst soldiers, peasant riots and mass worker strikes throughout the country.
The revolution eventually failed with an uprising in Moscow, December 1905. The revolt instigated and led by the Bolsheviks finally severed the association between them and the Mensheviks.
The Mensheviks claimed the revolt had 'gone too far' whereas the Bolsheviks confirmed their belief that only an independent mass struggle of workers could carry out the revolution. Lenin saw in this mass uprising of the 1905 Revolution against the Czarist regime the "great dress rehearsal" for 1917.
Russia's entry into World War One on the side of Britain and France against Germany once again intensified the class antagonisms within the Czar's empire. The war inflicted horrendous suffering on both soldiers at the front and peasants and workers at home. Both groups suffered appalling living conditions, diseases and hunger.
Massive inflation caused by the war had hit the working class worst. Workers at the Putilov factory, in Petrograd, declared a major strike on the 22 February (Julian calendar). This was followed by women textile workers who on 23 February (8 March in the Gregorian calendar), on International Women's Day, called a strike in a number of factories throughout Petrograd.
Major demonstrations took place in this city that became the catalyst for the revolution which took place over the following five days. The strike grew in size during this time into a general strike with the majority of the rank-and-file soldiers refusing to put it down and instead joined the workers.
By the 28 February the Czar and his government had collapsed. The vacuum was taken up by the formation of a Provisional Government, composed of the Constitutional Democrats - Kadets (a small and big capitalist based party), elements of the nobility, wealthy landlords and supported by the Social Revolutionaries (a peasant based party) and the Mensheviks (a Social Democratic party).
Alongside the new Provisional Government was the Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Soviets who represented their interests.
What emerged was a situation of dual power.
Eventually differences broke out between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks over whether the Soviets would agree to allow the Provisional Government to establish a 'capitalist democracy'. When Lenin made his famous return to Russia from exile, in April 1917 he put forth his equally famous April Theses.
These theses outlined the path for the revolution and Lenin was not one for equivocation. The decisive language of the first three points demonstrated Lenin would not compromise at this point in time of the revolutionary struggle:
1) In our attitude towards the war, which under the new government of Lvov and Co. unquestionably remains on Russia’s part a predatory imperialist war owing to the capitalist nature of that government, not the slightest concession to “revolutionary defencism” is permissible.
2) The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.
3) No support for the Provisional Government; the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear, particularly of those relating to the renunciation of annexations. Exposure in place of the impermissible, illusion-breeding “demand” that this government, a government of capitalists, should cease to be an imperialist government.
The Bolsheviks and Lenin called for an end to Russia's participation in the war, termination of the Provisional Government and "All power to the Soviets". With the simple but revolutionary slogan, "bread, land and peace", the Bolsheviks were able to successfully challenge and overthrow the capitalist class and their Provisional Government. This second stage became famously known as the Great October Revolution.
In November another article will outline and examine in detail the events of the 1917, October Revolution.