February 1917: The workers’ councils open the way to the proletarian revolution

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The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a mass movement of the exploited, the largest, the most conscious and the richest in experience, initiatives and creativity ever seen in history. Millions of proletarians overcame their isolation and unified consciously, gave themselves the means to act collectively as a single force, created their instruments to overturn the bourgeois state and take power: the workers’ councils (soviets). Over and above the overthrow of the old Tsarist regime, since it took place in the context of an international wave of working class revolt against the first world war, this movement announced nothing less than the beginning of the world proletarian revolution.

The bourgeoisie has made no mistake in spending decades concocting the shabbiest lies about this historic event. 90 years after the soviets took power in Russia, the propagandists of the ruling class continue to sing the same hymn to the virtues of bourgeois parliamentary ‘democracy’ and spew out the worst falsifications about the reality of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia. In fact, despite a whole number of quibbles, these historians of the bourgeois order have unceasingly presented the February 1917 revolution as a movement for ‘democracy’, hijacked by the Bolshevik ‘coup d’etat’. February 1917 was an authentic ‘democratic festival’, October 1917 a vulgar ‘coup d’etat’, a Bolshevik manipulation of the backward masses of Tsarist Russia. This shameless brainwashing is the product of the fear and rage felt by the world bourgeoisie faced by the collective work and solidarity, the conscious action of the exploited class, daring to raise its head and put in question the existing order. The shock waves from this proletarian earthquake still haunt the memory of the bourgeoisie, which has done everything possible, then as now, to separate the working class from its historic experience. Today, falsifying the nature of the Russian revolution and degrading the essence of the workers’ councils is part of capitalism’s odious campaign on the ‘death of communism’, identifying the proletarian revolution with its executioner, Stalinism. This is the misleading idea that revolution can only lead to the Gulag. Faced with this torrent of calumnies and mystifying propaganda, the defence of the Russian revolution is a duty for revolutionaries in order to help the working class rid itself of all the ideological muck spilled by the bourgeoisie, and re-appropriate the whole richness of this vital experience.

February 1917: first episode in the world proletarian revolution

The workers’ rising in St Petersburg (Petrograd) in Russia did not come like a bolt from the blue. It was in continuity with the economic strikes launched by the Russian workers since 1915 in reaction against the savagery of the world butchery, against hunger, misery, excessive exploitation and the permanent terror of war. These strikes and revolts were in no way a specificity of the Russian proletariat, but an integral part of the struggles and demonstrations of the international proletariat. A similar wave of workers’ agitation developed in Germany, Austria and Britain. At the front, especially in the Russian and German armies, there were mutinies, mass desertions, fraternisation between soldiers on the two sides. In fact, after allowing themselves to be carried away by the government’s patriotic venom and ‘democratic’ illusions, after being led astray by the treason of the majority of the social democratic parties and unions, the international proletariat raised its head and started to come out of the fog of chauvinist intoxication. The internationalists were at the head of the movement - the Bolsheviks, the Spartacists, all the lefts of the 2nd International who had intransigently denounced the war since its outbreak in August 1914 as an imperialist pillage, as a manifestation of the collapse of world capitalism, and as a signal for the proletariat to complete its historic mission: the international socialist revolution. This historic challenge would be raised internationally by the working class from 1917 to 1923. The vanguard of this vast proletarian movement, which stopped the war and opened the possibility of the world revolution, was the Russian proletariat in February 1917. The outbreak of the Russian revolution was not, then, a national affair or an isolated phenomenon - that is to say, a late bourgeois revolution, limited to the overthrow of feudal absolutism. It was the highest moment of the world proletarian response to the war, and more profoundly to the entry of the capitalist system into its decadence.

The formation of the workers’ councils: specific organs of the revolution

From 22nd to 27th February, the workers of St Petersburg launched an insurrection in response to the historic problem represented by the world war. Started by the textile workers - overcoming the hesitations of revolutionary organisations - the strike involved almost all the factories in the capital in 3 days. On the 25th there were 240,000 workers who had stopped work and, far from remaining passive on their shop floors, meetings and street demonstrations proliferated, where their slogans, in the first hours, demanded “bread”, soon reinforced by the calls “down with the war”, “down with autocracy”.

On the evening of the 27th February, the insurrection, lead by the armed proletariat, reigned supreme in the capital, while strikes and workers’ demonstrations were starting in Moscow, spreading in the following days to other towns in the province, Samara, Saratov, Kharkov... Isolated, incapable of using the army, profoundly undermined by the war, the Tsarist regime was forced to abdicate.

Once having broken the first chains, the workers did not want to retreat and, in order not to advance blindly, they revived the experience of 1905 by creating soviets which had appeared spontaneously during this first great mass strike. These workers’ councils were the direct emanation of thousands of workers’ assemblies, who centralised their action through elected and instantly revocable delegates.

Trotsky had, after 1905, already shown what a workers’ council was: “What was the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies? The Soviet came into being as a response to an objective need - a need born of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people ... which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control.” (Trotsky, 1905). This “finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, as Lenin said, rendered the permanent organisation in unions null and void. In the period in which the revolution is on the historical agenda, struggles explode spontaneously and tend to generalise to all sectors of production. So the spontaneous way the workers’ councils arise results directly from the explosive, rather than planned or programmed, character of the revolutionary struggle.

The workers’ councils in the Russian revolution were not the simple passive product of exceptional objective conditions, but also the product of a collective coming to consciousness. The movement of the councils itself carried the means for the self-education of the masses. The workers’ councils mingled the economic and political aspects of the struggle against the established order. As Trotsky wrote: “in that lies its strength. Every week brings something new to the masses. Every two months creates an epoch. At the end of February, the insurrection. At the end of April, a demonstration of the armed workers and soldiers in Petrograd. At the beginning of July, a new assault, far broader in scope and under more resolute slogans. At the end of August, Kornilov’s attempt at an overthrow beaten off by the masses. At the end of October, conquest of power by the Bolsheviks. Under these events, so striking in their rhythm, molecular processes were taking place, welding the heterogeneous elements of the working class into one political whole.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, ‘Shifts in the Masses’) “Meetings were held in the trenches, on village squares, in the factories. For months, in Petrograd and in the whole of Russia, every street corner became a public tribune.” (ibid).

The role of the Bolshevik Party in the workers’ councils

Although the Russian proletariat gave itself the means for its combat by forming the workers’ councils, as early as February it encountered an extremely dangerous situation. The forces of the international bourgeoisie immediately attempted to turn the situation to its advantage. Unable to crush the movement in blood, they tried to orient it towards bourgeois ‘democratic’ objectives. On the one hand they formed an official Provisional Government with the aim of continuing the war. On the other hand, the soviets were invaded by Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries straight away.

These latter, of whom the majority had passed into the bourgeois camp during the war, enjoyed an enormous confidence among the workers at the start of the February revolution. They were naturally put on the Executive of the Soviet. From this strategic position they used all means to try and sabotage and destroy the soviets.

From a situation of “dual power” in February, a situation of “dual powerlessness” had emerged in May and June 1917, with the Executive of the Soviets serving as a mask for the bourgeoisie to realise its objectives: the re-establishment of order at home and at the front in order to continue the imperialist butchery. Menshevik and Social Revolutionary demagogues made ever more promises of peace, “the solution to the agrarian problem”, the 8 hour day etc., without ever putting them into practice.

Even if the workers, at least those in Petrograd, were convinced that only the power of the soviets would be able to respond to their aspirations, and although they saw that their demands were not being taken into consideration, elsewhere and, among the soldiers, there was still a strong belief in the “conciliators”, in the partisans of a so-called bourgeois revolution.

It fell to Lenin in his April Theses, two months after the opening of the movement, to unveil an audacious platform to rearm the Bolshevik Party, which had also drifted towards conciliation with the Provisional Government. His theses clearly explained where the proletariat was going, and formulated the perspectives of the party:

In our attitude towards the war, ...not the slightest concession to ‘revolutionary defencism’ is permissible...

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...

Not a parliamentary republic - to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step - but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country from top to bottom.

Armed with this solid compass, the Bolshevik Party was able to make proposals for action corresponding to the needs and possibilities at each moment of the revolutionary process, keeping in mind the perspective of taking power, and to do this by the work of “persistent and patient explanation” (Lenin, op cit). And through this struggle for the masses to take control of their organisations against bourgeois sabotage, after several political crises in April, June and especially in July, it became possible to renew the Soviets, within which the Bolsheviks became the majority.

The decisive activity of the Bolsheviks had the central axis of developing consciousness in the class, based on confidence in the masses’ capacity for criticism and analysis, confidence in their capacity for unity and self-organisation. The Bolsheviks never pretended to make the masses submit to a preconceived ‘plan of action’, raising the masses as one raises an army. “The chief strength of Lenin lay in his understanding the inner logic of the movement, and guiding his policy by it. He did not impose his plan on the masses; he helped the masses to recognise and realise their own plan.” (Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, “Rearming the Party”).

From September the Bolsheviks clearly posed the question of the insurrection in the assemblies of the workers and soldiers. “The insurrection was decided, so to speak, for a fixed date, the 25th of October. It was not fixed by a secret meeting, but openly and publicly, and the triumphant revolution took place precisely on the 25th of October” (ibid). It raised an unequalled enthusiasm among the workers of the entire world, becoming the “beacon” which lit the future for all the exploited.

Today, the destruction of the political and economic power of the ruling class is still an imperious necessity. The dictatorship of the proletariat, organised in sovereign councils, remains the only way to open the way to a communist society. This is what proletarians need to re-appropriate in the light of the experience of 1917. SB (Originally published in WR203, March 1997)