The February Revolution and the rise of dual power

An International Women's Day march demands bread, peace and liberty, St Peterburg, 1917.
October 27, 2017

To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, socialist activist and historian Paul Le Blanc has written a detailed overview of this world historic event, from its background to its aftermath.

Green Left Weekly is running it over four parts, with the second part below looking at the February 1917 Revolution – the prelude to the October Bolshevik Revolution – and its aftermath.

The full piece can read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

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Socialists organised mass protest rallies in Petrograd (as Saint Petersburg was renamed after the outbreak of World War I in 1914) in February 1917. These protests took place on March 8 (February 23 according to the Russian calendar used at the time), International Women’s Day, rallying women workers to demand bread, peace, and liberty. But, as a contemporary police report stated, the women workers “got out of hand.”

They attracted the support of large numbers of male workers as well. The police proved unable to contain the growing and increasingly volatile protests. Soon 385,000 workers were on strike and many engaged in confrontations with the police in the streets.

Troops were brought in, but they proved unable to quell the disturbances that engulfed the city over the next five days. In fact, the bulk of the soldiers, who were largely peasants in uniform, joined the insurgency. Consequently, a demand for land reform — to break up the large estates of the nobles and distribute the land among landless peasants — also became a major revolutionary demand.

The workers and soldiers organised a growing network of soviets to coordinate their efforts and to establish control throughout the city.

On February 28 the last of the troops loyal to the Tsar Nicolas II surrendered, revolutionary soldiers arrested the tsar’s ministers and the tsar abdicated on behalf of himself and his son. Nicholas II wanted his brother, Grand Duke Michael, to assume the throne. Fearing the implications of the revolutionary upheaval, moderate politicians of the Duma urged Michael to do so.

However, the grand duke recognised the popular hostility to the monarchy and declined. At this point the Duma moderates, hoping to thwart the coming to power of what one of them called “the scoundrels in the factories,” established a government that became known as the Provisional Government.

Provisional government

The Provisional Government was made up of the same liberal leaders who had organised the progressive bloc in the Duma in 1915, as well as some moderate socialists.

The prime minister, Prince Georgy Lvov, was a wealthy landowner and a member of the Cadets, who favoured an immediate constitutional monarchy and ultimately a republic. Lvov was largely a figurehead; the outstanding personality in the Provisional Government until early May was Pavel Milyukov, minister of foreign affairs and the strongest leader of the Cadets since its founding in 1905. He played the principal role in formulating policy.

The most prominent of the moderate socialists was Aleksandr Kerensky, the minister of justice, who was associated with the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and had been the leader of the Trudovik (labourite) faction in the Duma. At this time the now powerful soviets of the working-class districts were under the control of Mensheviks and SRs, and they mobilised popular support for the new coalition regime.

The collapse of the tsarist regime left in its wake two centres of political authority: the traditional politicians of the Provisional Government, who had little control over the people; and the democratically-elected soviets, which exercised more political power owing to support from the great majority of workers and soldiers.

This system of dual power proved to be unstable. The instability grew as the moderate politicians proved increasingly unable to meet the rising expectations of the labouring masses.

The Provisional Government declared an end to tsarist repression and established full civil liberties. It also promised early democratic elections for a Constituent Assembly, which would decide the future structure and policies of Russia’s government.

At the same time, the new regime dodged the questions of land reform, relieving the workers’ economic distress and ending Russia’s involvement in World War I.

In Petrograd, the network of soviets quickly reorganised itself as a single soviet, a representative body of deputies elected by the workers and soldiers of the city. The Petrograd soviet immediately appointed a commission to cope with the problem of ensuring a food supply for the capital, placed detachments of revolutionary soldiers in the government offices and ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners.

The soviet ordered the arrest of Nicholas's ministers on February 28 and began publishing an official organ, Izvestia (Russian for 'the facts'). On March 1 it issued its famous Order No. 1. By the terms of this order, the soldiers of the army and the sailors of the fleet were to submit to the authority of the soviet and its committees in all political matters.

They were to obey only those orders that did not conflict with the directives of the soviet and they were to elect committees that would exercise exclusive control over all weapons. Also, they were to observe strict military discipline on duty, but harsh and contemptuous treatment by the officers was forbidden.

Disputes between soldiers' committees and officers were to be referred to the soviet for disposition; off-duty soldiers and sailors were to enjoy full civil and political rights; and saluting of officers was abolished. Subsequent efforts by the soviet to limit and nullify its own Order No. 1 were unavailing, and that order continued in force.

Growing radicalisation

The lifting of tsarist repression led to the release of thousands of experienced revolutionaries from prison or from exile in Siberia or abroad. Many of them went to Petrograd or Moscow, where they spread their radical message among the masses. They found a receptive audience in thousands of insurgent workers and soldiers.

Of special significance was the return of Vladimir Lenin to Petrograd in April 1917. Lenin had lived abroad, mainly in Switzerland, from 1900 to 1905 and again from 1907 to 1917.

He had become convinced that consistent struggles for radical democracy in Russia would encourage workers and peasants to struggle for socialism. Lenin also believed that the devastation of World War I would inspire working people throughout the world to fight for socialism.

He rallied the swelling ranks of Bolsheviks around slogans such as “Bread, Peace, Land” and “Down with the Provisional Government — All Power to the Soviets!”

His party became increasingly attractive to large numbers of bitter and disillusioned young workers, soldiers and sailors.

At the end of May 1917, maverick revolutionary Leon Trotsky returned to Petrograd from a ten-year exile abroad. He found that the program of the Bolsheviks had essentially come to include his ideas about “permanent revolution,” and he soon joined their ranks.

Much of the rank-and-file membership of the Mensheviks also went over to the Bolsheviks at this time. Among the SRs, the rank and file and some of the younger leaders turned away from Kerensky and the older leaders associated with him. Various anarchist groups also came to advocate a socialist revolution.

As the people embraced more radical political ideas, growing numbers of young workers, distrustful of the upper classes and the armed forces under the Provisional Government, began arming themselves. They organised workers’ militia groups known as the Red Guards.

Militant workers were also forming factory committees to assert their authority in a growing number of workplaces. As growing numbers of soldiers and sailors became more radical, traditional discipline and authority structures within the military disintegrated.

However, all this ferment was by no means the work of Lenin and his followers. The popularity of Bolshevik slogans and proposals was growing dramatically, but many workers still voted for the better-known moderate socialists in elections to the soviets.

On June 3, elected delegates from the soviets throughout Russia gathered in Petrograd for the first time. At this first Congress of Soviets, only 137 of the 1,090 delegates were Bolsheviks.

Declining confidence

Throughout Russia’s vast rural areas, soviets were also being organised in peasant villages. Here, too, people became disillusioned with the Provisional Government, which had refused to initiate land reform.

Many peasants were taking matters into their own hands, seizing the great estates from the landlords and dividing the land among themselves.

The government also began losing support among oppressed nationalities seeking autonomy from Russian authority. Finally, the government’s patriotic appeals for a continuation of the war effort could no longer sustain popular support, particularly as military offensives resulted in additional defeats.

As confidence in the Provisional Government declined, frequent resignations, dismissals and reshuffling within the cabinet plagued the regime.

Kerensky rose to higher positions in the government, thanks to his personal popularity and revolutionary connections. He began as minister of justice, then was appointed minister of war, and finally, in July 1917, became premier.

Before he could secure this position, however, the Provisional Government faced the sharpest challenge yet to its authority.

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