The Guardian • Issue #1954

Lessons from the 104th anniversary of the February Revolution

The 8th of March marked the 104th Anniversary of the February Revolution in Russia. The revolution is important for us to analyse as communists because of its consequences for the October Revolution and the historical issues it raises for us in terms of how we think about the party in relation to spontaneous mass uprisings.

The February Revolution started with an International Working Women’s Day action on the 8th of March, 1917 (the 23rd of February on the Gregorian calendar). Working women in the then capital Petrograd (St Petersburg) went on strike demanding “peace, land and bread.” The strike soon spread to all sections of the working class and by the 10th of March (the 25th of February) had spread out to the districts of St Petersburg.

The protestors clashed with police and destroyed symbols of Tsarist authority. But this was no chaotic mob; several factories elected their own delegates to the Petrograd Soviet, which met for the first time on the 12th of March (the 27th of February). The Soviet model had been conceived in 1905 but had been crushed and many of its leaders exiled by the Tsarist regime.

On the 15th of March, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated the throne, ending 300 years of Tsarism in Russia. A provisional government was immediately established to govern the empire until elections could be held later that year. The government was moderate and ineffective at addressing the needs of desperate workers. By July, workers were revolting once more, demanding that the Soviets take power. The rebellion was crushed but unrest continued until October when the Russian working class seized power during the October Revolution.

The February Revolution had several overlapping causes. The short term spark for the action on the 23rd of February was devastating shortages of food and fuel in the capital and throughout the empire. One contemporary account recalls a city in total darkness, as only the rich could afford to fuel for fires in the midst of the Russian winter. Since 1915 the cities had been racked with period uprisings against shortages of bread and meat. By 1917, the Tsar had authorised grain to be requisitioned from 31 of the provinces to feed soldiers on the front line. This was only a manifestation of many years of brutal repression and incompetent governance.

Although there is some debate among historians on this point, it is hard to argue that the  February Revolution was anything but a spontaneous uprising of the working class. French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser argued that there are moments in history that act as “archimedean points” – points at which the contradictions and crises of history reach such a boiling point that communists must be ready to guide the ideological direction of the working class to revolution and the establishment of a socialist order.

The February Revolution was one of those points. It is important because of what it shows us about what happens when revolt occurs without sufficient class consciousness. Many prominent Bolsheviks were in exile in the period leading up to the Revolution, and during this time the party remained small. Their absence shows in the liberal tendencies of what Soviet historiography of this period calls the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution.

As communists today, the lesson we can draw is that we must be engaged with and working among the working class, to raise class consciousness among them so that when spontaneous revolt occurs, there is a strong theoretical foundation on which to build a workers’ state.

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