Vercammen, François. “Stages of the 1917 Revolution” (1992)


In this piece, François Vercammen details the chronology of the Russian Revolution and the dynamics of the various factions involved in it from February 1917 to the outbreak of civil war.
Source: François Vercammen, “The Stages of the 1917 Revolution,” October 1917: Coup d’état or social Revolution? The Legitimacy of the Russian Revolution, Notebooks for Study and Research, International institute for Research and Education, n. 17-18, 1992. Includes some additions on the political forces from

Stages of the 1917 Revolution

During February 1917. in the midst of war, the autocratic Tsarist regime in Russia was overthrown by mass demonstrations. Eight months later, in October. the working class — supported by a popular uprising in the whole country — conquered political power and began to construct a new, socialist society. The 20th century was transformed.
As predicted by some and feared by others, the World War of 1914 gave birth to revolution, workers found a way to organize themselves: through the formation of soviets (councils) — in the factories-in their neighborhoods, and on a city-wide level — as well as through a red guard (revolutionary militia). Even at the front. the soldiers elected their own committees and their officers! Later. during the summer of 1917. the peasantry, in its turn, joined in. Thus the entire social base of the regime was eliminated.

The crisis of the regime

The 1917 revolution was the final climax to an endemic crisis that shook Russian society during the second half of the 19th century. A great military power in Europe (but also an imposing force in Asia), it was a society trapped in economic backwardness whereas further West the capitalist mode of production triumphed. The Tsarist state had tried to use its power to bring about certain changes: agrarian reform, democratization of the administrative apparatus, modernization of the educational system, social legislation, recognition of the right to form workers’ industrial organizations “from the top”, cultural autonomy for the nationalities of the empire, etc. But each tentative reform was only partial and timid. and it was always followed by a counter-reform — all the more brutal since it was necessary to regain control of temporarily ‘liberated” social and political forces.
“Too little and too late”: The crisis exploded in its totality for the first time in 1905. That revolution failed, but the reversal was only partial. In 1914 the declaration of war put a stop to a new wave of revolutionary strikes. Three years later history took its revenge: the world conflict became a powerful catalyst for all the suffering. the frustrations, and the hopes accumulated over the years.
Economic crisis: the regime was no longer able to Feed its population. Political-institutional crisis: the autocratic state lost all legitimacy. Agrarian crisis: the hunger for land on the part of the peasantry was reinforced by the general difficulty of daily life. Crisis for the nationalities: they were increasingly suffocated by forced Russification.

The revolution of February 1917

Intolerable poverty during the winter of 1916-17 sparked off the revolution in February. Women —workers and housewives — lit the spark with their International Women’s Day. Starting with textile workers, the strike extended rapidly and spontaneously to the entire proletariat of Petrograd —the capital of Russia at the time. In a few days the mass strike had been transformed into an insurrection, with the military garrison coming over to the revolution. The demand for “bread” was quickly joined by demands for “immediate peace” and “down with the Tsar”. In the maelstrom of the insurrection

Dual power

Between the end of February and the end of October 1917, Russia lived through a very specific kind of revolutionary situation: dual power. Sufficiently resolute to turn out the Tsarist regime in February, the working class was not immediately ready to take “full” power. But it covered the factories and cities with a dense network of councils which quickly expanded to include the army and, finally, the countryside. In essence a counter-power, these soviets — more and more numerous, better and better coordinated — threatened at any moment to overthrow the bourgeoisie.
Two of these soviet structures played a decisive role: those which, elected on a territorial basis exercised a political power “in society” from the outset, and the factory councils, which embodied the dynamic power of the working class.
These councils, resulting from the urgent needs of the masses, also reflected their level of consciousness and their political prejudices. in order for the task of taking power to become clearly posed it was necessary for a revolutionary party to put it forward, to make it a priority. The organization capable of doing this was the Bolshevik Party. But that group remained a minority among the workers and in the soviets until September 1917. Thus, the history of dual power is also the history of a struggle between different political parties — representing the workers and popular movements — over this decisive question of the revolution: for or against the taking of power by the soviets.

The changing relationship of forces: February-June

At the outset, different reformist currents (Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries. workerists) dominated these structures of self-organization. They led the soviets and, very quickly (by May 1917) were also taking part in the provisional (bourgeois) government. They attempted to contain the pressure of the masses through the politics of class collaboration.
The evolution of the situation within the workers councils during this period of dual power is, from that time forward, tightly linked to an intensifying class struggle.
At the beginning of April, 1917, the first congress of the Soviets — declared to be “pan-Russian” but in reality limited largely to St. Petersburg — had 480 delegates from the capital, 138 from local councils––and 46 from the army. It agreed to support the bourgeois-liberal government of Prince Lvov (demanding, however, to exercise control over that government!). It supported continuing the military effort; at the same time calling for an extension of the movement for workers’ councils into all countries.
At the end of April, the government again tried to promote a pro-war policy, provoking large demonstrations and a strong strike movement for immediate economic demands. The pendulum was swinging to the left. At the (first) congress of factory committees in Petrograd, the Bolsheviks already had a majority because of their support for the call for an unconditional 8-hour work day”, and -workers’ control” 1. by a vote of 421 to 335). Paradoxically, at the top echelons of the state and on the level of the national soviet structures, this leftward shift first translated itself — to the detriment of the liberals —by reinforcing the position of the reformists (Mensheviks, Social-Revolutionaries). Initially, they entered into a coalition government “between the classes,” which they led from that point on.
At the beginning of June, the real first congress of workers and soldiers deputies met. With its 1090 elected delegates of which 822 were properly mandated and had the right to vote) it represented some 20 million people. Elected on the basis of universal suffrage, the congress constituted the most representative and democratic body that Russia had ever known. Based on a deep political pluralism, it debated, over three weeks (June 3-30), all of the vital questions facing the population. The delegates included 283 SRs (Social-Revolutionaries), 248 Mensheviks, 105 Bolsheviks, and 73 unaffiliated individuals, with the rest divided between different small socialist groups. Its executive committee, which had the character of a virtual “counter-government”, was composed of 104 Mensheviks, 100 SRs, 35 Bolsheviks. and 18 socialists from other currents. After a short time it combined forces with the Executive Committee of the All-Russian Peasant Congress, which was held separately, and where the SRs held an absolute monopoly,
The coalition government, very popular at the outset, rapidly discredited itself. Similar causes bring similar results, but flavored with an awakening class consciousness: the popular masses intervened directly one more time in the political arena, with their own methods of struggle. Aware of the pressures developing at the base, the Executive Committee of the workers’ councils, under reformist leadership, tried to take over the movement by allowing a demonstration. On June 18, in Petrograd, it was nevertheless the slogans of the Bolsheviks —especially All Power to the Soviets” (still under the leadership of the reformists) — which was by far the most popular.

Revolution and counterrevolution: July-August

The new relationship of forces was tested during the “July days”, the initiative had been taken with the demonstration of June 18. The proletariat in the capital interpreted this first victory as a beginning of the final offensive. Going further than the Bolshevik party intended, the masses wanted to overthrow the government. However, this vanguard of the mass movement had failed to grasp the real situation. It was too far out in front. As a result, at the beginning of July, the pendulum swung sharply back again. quite far to the right. The bourgeoisie wanted to find a way to begin snuffing out the fire of the revolution. The man of the moment was named Kerensky.
Having become prime minister. Kerensky struck hard at the Bolshevik Party and the other revolutionary organizations. He tried to re-establish the cohesion of the army. He restored the death penalty, dissolved the insurgent regimes. and named General Kornilov to head the general staff. All of this was based on the “legality” of the workers councils and on their higher bodies; Kerensky was attempting to transform their subversive reality! The (reformist) Executive Committee of the Workers Councils actively collaborated with this political approach, helping to empty the soviets of their revolutionary content. They became discredited in the eyes of the vanguard workers.
Kerensky thus organized a general offensive against the conquests which the masses had imposed after February. In addition, he postponed indefinitely the realization of popular demands — always acknowledging them but. . . always postponing them for future consideration. The dual power was eroded, without totally disappearing as such. The Bolshevik Party experienced grave difficulties, but maintained its majority position among the working class (as demonstrated by the municipal elections which the party won at the end of August).
Some in “high places” believed that the hour for a radical counterrevolution had arrived: the military coup d’Etat. Kornilov turned his back on Kerensky and took his chances at the end of August, 1917 (similar events spring to mind; Allende and Pinochet, September 1973 in Chile; or Ebert-Noske and Kapp. Germany, 1920). In three days, the “army” with which Kerensky attacked the capital was routed. The soviets of Petrograd had taken the lead in the resistance. In this way they recaptured their place at the center of the workers’ counter-power.

The revolution of October 1917

At the start of September the pendulum swung to the left just as sharply as it had swung right at the beginning of July.
Within the workers’ councils. the Bolshevik Party became a majority — first in Petrograd and Moscow. Within the party, Lenin, still in exile in Finland, put the seizure of power and the organization of the insurrection on the order of the day. He posed the question: When? How?
Between April and September the party learned to struggle for a majority within the soviets using the methods of workers’ democracy. From that point on it was through revolutionary initiative that these organs of workers’ democracy would become the new state apparatus.
Faced with this turning point, the Bolshevik Party suffered a grave internal crisis before a clear line could emerge. A ‘right” current, led by Zinoviev and Kamenev — constituting the majority at first in the central committee — hesitated, put off the moment for action, and wanted to reject the idea of insurrection. Between Lenin and Trotsky, both partisans of immediate preparation for the uprising, there developed, at times, a debate over the precise tactic that should be followed in pursuit of it. The left wing of the party finally gained the upper hand in the central committee on October 10th.
The national Congress of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ councils was called for the end of the month. At the same time, The Military Revolutionary Committee, an organ of the Petrograd Soviet, with Trotsky at its head, responded to a provocation by the district military commandant, Polkovnikov (who wanted to dissolve the city garrison which was completely behind the revolution). Thus the insurrection began as a measure of self-defence. In a few hours the bourgeois apparatus of repression was dismantled in Petrograd. Political power was within reach. It was up to the national congress of workers councils to make a final decision. Its political composition was now transformed from what it had been in June of 1917. Out of 650 delegates, the reformist bloc (the right-wing Mensheviks and SRs) controlled less than 100. The Bolsheviks, for their part, had an absolute majority of around 390 delegates. They were joined by the left-wing Mensheviks and left SRs. The reformists, a minority, walked out of the Í congress, shifting to the side of the counter-revolution.
A new executive committee of the workers’ councils — a real legislative body for the new soviet power — was elected on a pluralist basis: 67 Bolsheviks, 29 left SRs, with 20 seats given to different revolutionary groups. The executive committee, in turn, elected the first government of the new workers’ state. “We begin the construction of a new socialist order,’’ declared Lenin.
A joyous and painless revolution at the outset! But ; it would have to pass through terrible trials during the civil war years, 1918-1920, before consolidating itself.

The parties of the revolution

The democratic self-organization of the popular masses is a fundamental and model aspect of the Russian Revolution. But this did not determine, by itself, the question of what politics would actually be pursued by the “counter-power”.
This self-organization encompassed a plurality of parties, with their specific programs, tactics, activities, etc. During the Russian revolution it was the interaction between these parties and the territorial councils which determined the outcome (the trade union movement was, for its part, extremely weak, and the activities of the factory committees remained subordinate, although important).
The political parties organized themselves very late and in a particular fashion (one which reflects the social reality of that epoch in Russia: a despotic state, paternalistic and totalitarian at the same time, overwhelming, suffocating or absorbing “civil society”).
The Kadets: In 1917, aside from various monarchist groups which had become marginalized, the Kadets (“Constitutional Democrats”), constituted the main party of the dominant classes. This party formed the first provisional government, in the wake of the February 1917 revolution. Muliukov — professor, historian, and ideologue — was, along with Gutchkov, its principal leader.
The Workerists: Kerensky led, in 1917, the Popular Socialists, or Trudoviks (workerists). By then quite weak numerically, the party had known its hour of glory in the pseudo-parliaments of 1906-1914. There it represented the peasant masses who had been awakened to political life after 1905. This party grouped together political personalities, relying on jthe aspirations and dissatisfactions of the conservative petty-bourgeoisie in the provinces and in the countryside. Kerensky himself became a figure on whom the big bourgeoisie could rely.
The parties of the Second International: Three parties, all of which were members of the Second International, contested for the allegience of the worker and peasant masses: The Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks, and the Social-Revolutionaries (SRs). All claimed to be socialist, that is to say Marxist, and revolutionary. Except for small minorities, each had. in 1914, adopted a hostile attitude toward the imperialist war. Therefore, the process of political clarification was complicated. It was necessary for these parties to be tested in the fire of battle during the eight months of dual power. The events of the summer of 1917 were conclusive: splits between left and the right wings of SRs and Mensheviks; revolutionary j unity within the Bolshevik party. This did not j eliminate a certain continuing degree of political I confusion among the rank and file and in the periphery of each of these parties, and also between them.
The SRs: Officially reconstituted in 1902, this party rested on a long revolutionary tradition which originated in the middle of the 19th century. It had been a strong political adversary to the RSDLP j (Russian Social Democratic Labour Party). Completely hegemonic in the peasant movement, the SRs also had a strong influence in big urban enterprises.
[The Socialist-Revolutionary Party (called SRs for short) inherited many ideas and practices from the People’s Will party and the Narodniki, many of who were now members of the SRs. They believed in the separate path theory which stipulated that Russia could leap from feudalism to Socialism without need for capitalism and stressing that the peasantry was the revolutionary class, not the urban workers.
The party also inherited the tactics of the People’s Will; called direct struggle, believing that revolution would be borne through terrorism. This tactic developed into a moralistic rite among some members of the party, describing death in pursuit of a “holy cause”, where sacrifices made to accomplish terrorist acts showed the “highest peak of the human spirit”.
The agrarian programme of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, called the “socialisation of the land”, envisaged the abolition of private ownership of the land, which was to be transferred to the village commune on the basis of the labour principle and egalitarian tenure, and also the development of co-operatives.
At times, the Bolsheviks entered into temporary agreements with the Socialist- Revolutionaries for the struggle against tsarism.
In 1905 the Maximalists sprung off the SR party due to differences in tactics, the SRs aimed towards political assassination, while the Maximalists aimed towards class assassination.
SRs, like the People’s Will, sentenced government officials to execution. In 1902 the SRs assassinated the Minister of Interior, D.S. Sipiagin, subsequently carrying out hundreds of assassinations until crushed by the czar in 1908-09,]
Poorly organized and confused politically, the SRs helped — between February and August, 1917 — to guarantee an indispensable social base for the class collaborationist government, of which the Mensheviks constituted a political head.
During the summer of 1917, the SRs split between a left, revolutionary wing (Spiridonova, Kamkov), very close to the positions of the Bolsheviks, and a reformist right-wing (Chernov, Gotz), collaborating closely with the Mensheviks. By the end of 1917, the left SRs largely surpassed the right in influence.
[Russian Social Democratic Labour Party: Rossiiskaia Sotsial-Demokraticheskaia Rabochaia Partiia: A Marxist political party, formed in 1898 in Minsk. At the first congress, the Tsarist Oknara arrested all its members.
Banded together in opposition to the Narodniki revolutionaries, the Social-Democrats (SDs) presented a Marxist program of uniting and organising both the peasantry and workers towards Socialist revolution. While the SDs regarded workers as the only wholly revolutionary class in Russia, some of the peasantry were considered revolutionary, though the wealthy peasants (the kulaks) were seen as reactionary.
The RSDLP had Marxist theory which described to them what capitalism would become before it actually happened in Russia. This would help lead to the inevitable split in the party over stagism: with some arguing that reformism is necessary before revolution, and by the same logic, that captialism is necessary before socialism. In 1903 the Second Congress of the party met in Belgium and England with this dispute comming to the forefront. After the congress the party split into the Bolshinstvo (Bolshevik — majority party) and Menshinstvo (Menshevik — minority party), with the Mensheviks believing in Stagism/Reformism, while the Bolsheviks demanded outright revolution. After the 1905 revolution, the Bolsheviks became the minority, and would remain so until September, 1917.
The name R.S.D.L.P. was sometimes used by both groups until 1917. Where this is the case it is noted R.S.D.L.P. (M) or R.S.D.L.P. (B) for the Mensheviki and Bolsheviki parties respectively.]
The Mensheviks: They formed after 1903 as the “revolutionary right” wing of the RSDLP.
[During the 1905-07 revolution the Mensheviks opposed the working class and peasantry who were in open revolt. They believed that Socialism should only be achieved firstly through a bourgeois revolution (via reformism); following this revolution, they felt the working class and peasantry would then be able to revolt against the bourgeois, and establish Socialism.
After the successful bourgeois revolution of February 1917, most Mensheviks joined the provisional government, strongly subscribing to the theory of Stagism. After the October Revolution the Mensheviks opposed the Soviet government, primarily through bureaucratic lobbying, though some members later joined the white armies.]
The showdown of 1917 was not the only time that their majority (Dan, Lieber, Tseretelli) engaged in incurably class-collaborationist politics. They would pay the price in a left split, led by Martov and Martynov. These two, genuine “centrists”, opposed the war, had a base in the workers councils. and favoured a socialist revolution in 1917. But they hesitated and vacillated when confronted with the key problem of the revolution: the seizure and exercise of power.
The Bolsheviks: A faction within the RSDLP until 1912, the Bolsheviks became the key revolutionary party in 1913-1914, gaining the allegiance of worker I cadres in the cities and the leadership of a general t strike in Petrograd. The consolidation, implantation, j and growth of the party came at the cost of internal struggles and debates: In 1914 there was a departure of | the right-wing national chauvinists; in March and April 1917 the growth of a new opportunist wing (Stalin-Kamenev-Zinoviev), a majority — ready to support the liberal government, to accept the continuation of the war — which was opposed by the radical theses of Lenin. In July there was a struggle against an ultra-left current in favor of immediately i seizing power and a fight against sectarianism on the part of an older layer of cadre who were reluctant to fuse with other currents (including Trotsky’s). In August there was a debate about revolutionary initiatives and shifting the foundation for workers democracy from the territorial councils to the factory committees. Finally, in October, there was the debate with the right wing of the party over insurrection, a discussion which was replayed again and again, in many different keys, during subsequent years.
But in October, the Bolsheviks were a party of the masses which engaged in the struggle for power — a party recognized and supported by the popular movement.
The Mezhrayontsi: Trotsky, on the basis of his own revolutionary positions, had been a member of — or had been dragged along by — the Menshevik faction. He broke with them in August 1914. In July 1917, he rejoined the Bolsheviks, along with the Mezhrayontsi (the “interdistrict” or “intercraft” committees).
Active and influential in Petrograd, this revolutionary Marxist group was a small minority: 60 to 80 members in 1915, 150 on the eve of February 1917, 300 in April (the Bolsheviks were 16,000 at that time in Petrograd), 4,000 in July — when the Bolshevik Party could count 180,000 members throughout the country.
The minority currents: The phenomenon of the “intercraft” committees underlines the existence of many revolutionary currents and groups, marginal on the scale of the entire country but important at times in one city, one workplace, one sector. Among them were the anarchists, the revolutionary’ syndicalists, the “maximalists” (an ultraleft split from the SRs), the Menshevik Internationalists (Martov, Martynov), the United Social-Democratic Internationalists (small but influential because of the journal Novy Zhizn — New Life — of Maxim Gorky).

The international counter-revolution

The victory of October 1917 had powerful international repercussions. The call for an immediate end to the slaughter of the war and for the punishment of those responsible — the ruling classes of Europe — raised hopes in the trenches and combativity in the workplace.
The governments signed an armistice in November 1918. But many countries were already undergoing revolutionary crises — imperial Germany first of all. 1 Along with Tsarist Russia, Prussian militarism was the principal barrier against subversion on the European continent after 1789 (the French revolution). The country was destabilized by a rapid succession of struggles. Between 1918 and 1923, the German proletariat tried to “speak Russian”. But it lacked a revolutionary party at its head, with the same combativity and organizational tradition. The revolutionary wave was crushed for the first time in January 1919. It reappeared no less powerfully in 1920, then in 1921 and 1923.
A union was conceivable between the USSR — a vast country with rich agricultural lands, but backward and living under precarious circumstances — and a socialist Germany — powerful, industrial, situated in the heart of Europe with a large proletariat constituting a mortal enemy to European reaction. Confronted with this potential “socialist bloc”, a large imperialist coalition came together. It consisted of the German army (defeated but still imposing), a Russian army (out of power, but with which the White generals, that is the counter-revolutionaries, launched a civil war), and the military forces of France, England, and the United States — the “victors” in the war. This coalition invaded the USSR.
In the political arena, the activity of social democracy, having passed to the side of the capitalist system, was decisive. Dominant within the world working class, it cut off solidarity, discredited the USSR, and blocked the development of a revolutionary movement in Western Europe. It had a single goal: to crush the socialist revolution and restabilize the bourgeois order. The USSR was devastated by the civil war. In Finland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy, the proletariat was defeated — at times with the aide of private armies of a new type: the “Freikorps” in Germany, the “fascists” in Italy.
In the USSR, six years of uninterrupted war from 1914 to 1920, provoked an economic, social, and human disaster. The workers’ state, completely isolated, stood fast. But the construction of socialism suffered badly under these frighteningly difficult conditions.

The end of a cycle

1917-1923: The first cycle of the international revolution came to an end. Another cycle began, one of capitalist stabilization on a world scale. In the USSR the situation was favorable for the emergence of a privileged bureaucracy with Stalin at its head. Lenin dying, undertook a “last struggle” against the bureaucracy between 1921 and 1923. In Western Europe social-democracy (the “stinking corpse” a Rosa Luxemburg called it) renewed itself. It (re)gained the leadership of the workers’ movement in most countries. Mass trade unions were consolidated during the 1920s, as a result of reforms imposed on the bourgeoisie — which feared revolution and mass struggle.