The February Revolution was a spontaneous eruption (not led
by any one party) that destroyed the three hundred year power of Tsarism in a
few days. The old order was wrecked, the Tsar resigned – what was to take its
Many revolutionaries thought their main task was over. They
had overthrown a system that had defied change for generations. All they had to
do was set up the ‘normal, civilised’ institutions that existed in the rest of
Europe – democracy and a Parliament accountable to the people.
But capitalism was far from being in a ‘normal, civilised’
phase. It was in the throes of World War. Tsarism had been overthrown because
of social problems – the devastating massacres of the First World War, the
associated famine among the civilian population and the age-old injustices to
the peasantry who still had no land to call their own. All the social issues
were inflamed by War. They had not gone away. In the April Theses, Lenin
reoriented the Bolsheviks towards socialist revolution as the only solution for
the mass of the population.
Who was actually running the show after the Tsar had fled?
The February Revolution was essentially the act of the Petrograd working class
and the peasants, now soldiers in Petrograd barracks. They set up Soviets,
organs of workers’ and peasants’ power. They were the real power in the land.
But these Soviets were dominated in the first days by reformists
of different stripes. They believed the tasks of the revolution had basically
been accomplished. All that was needed was consolidation. So they handed back
power to a totally unelected Provisional Government, composed of various
politicians who had historically opposed Tsarism. Russia after February was in
a situation of dual power.
At this time the
Bolsheviks were a tiny minority. They had 8,000 members; Trotsky estimates they
had 3% support in the Soviets in the beginning of the revolution. How were they
to make headway in a situation where Russia was on a knife-edge and could move
forward towards revolution or back to counter-revolution in months?
They had two things going for them. First Lenin had rearmed
the Party and pointed to the need for socialist revolution. And secondly the
Provisional Government was totally incapable of solving the problems of working
- They wanted peace – but the allies in the west were
demanding an offensive. Anglo-French imperialism wanted Russian soldiers to lay
down their lives so they could gain a respite on the Western Front.
- They wanted bread – but the chaos of war meant the bread
ration in the big cities was cut and cut.
- The peasants wanted land – but the old Tsarist state
apparatus still ruled in the villages.
So the Bolsheviks formulated transitional demands:
to express the needs of the masses and point the way to a
new and better society. The Bolsheviks did not just abstractly argue that
socialism was necessary. They used these demands to skilfully intervene in the
movement and to show that simple, basic needs were incompatible with the
continued existence of capitalism.
After April the Provisional Government consisted of
ministers from openly capitalist parties and ministers from the reformist,
nominally socialist, parties that dominated the Soviets.
The Bolsheviks did not just denounce the reformists as
frauds. Instead they put them on the spot. They launched the demand, ‘Down with
the cabinet ministers,’ a demand upon the reformists to break the coalition
between capitalists and the representatives of the workers and peasants and to
run the country in the interests of those the reformists purported to
They also first raised the slogan, ‘All power to the
Soviets.’ At this stage the Soviets were firmly under the control of the
reformists. The Bolsheviks were demanding that the reformists push the
capitalist politicians to one side and govern in the interest of the workers
and peasants. The Bolsheviks were going with the grain of what the masses
thought needed doing and directing them towards the socialist goal.
In June the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets met. The
Bolsheviks had the support of about one fifth of the delegates. The Bolshevik
supporters, specially among the soldiers, wanted to demonstrate against the
futile offensive demanded by Britain and France. The Soviet Congress demanded
the demonstration be cancelled.
Then the reformists pushed their luck too far. They called
for a demonstration on June 18th to show the strength of ‘democracy’. 400,000
people turned up. The vast majority were carrying banners with Bolshevik
Through correct perspectives and skilful tactics the
Bolsheviks had made the breakthrough from sect to the only serious opposition Party
to the Provisional Government and the reformists in the Soviet, and to the
chaos of capitalism.