Russia’s 1917 revolution: When workers took power

The October revolution is derided by establishment figures. But it saw workers overthrow capitalism and establish real democratic control of society, writes David Glanz.

This year is the centenary of the Russian revolutions and everyone who wants to defend the current order—from pro-Trump reactionaries to liberal intellectuals—will be out to belittle and denigrate the achievements of 1917.

They will quickly pass over the first revolution in February*, which overthrew the monarchy, and concentrate their fire on the second revolution in October, which overthrew the rule of capitalism.

In doing so they will paint the revolution as a coup that led, inevitably, to dictatorship.

Their message: to dream of overturning capitalism is not just unrealistic but dangerous.

As former Labor MP turned Murdoch lapdog Gary Johns wrote in The Australian in January: “The story of February to October 1917 is the story of how Russia blew its chance to become democratic … The Leninist Bolsheviks did not topple the tsar: they toppled the people.”

This is to turn history on its head, for it was the sustained, widespread and self-sacrificing participation of the poor of Russia—the so-called “dark people”—that brought down the tsar’s empire and the rule of the capitalists and the landlords. It was a deeply democratic process.

As the American socialist and journalist John Reed, reporting from St Petersburg in October, wrote: “It was the masses of the people, workers, soldiers, and peasants which forced every change in the course of the Revolution.”

1917: revolt breaks out

By 1917 the number of Russian soldiers who had died in the trenches was approaching 1.7 million or 1 per cent of the population, with another five million wounded.

The vast majority of those casualties were from among the peasantry. Back home, their families were desperate for an end to feudal oppression by the nobility who controlled the land.

In the factories of St Petersburg (then known as Petrograd) and Moscow, workers were suffering under harsh discipline, longer hours and greater work intensity, leading to a huge rise in industrial accidents. Those who protested risked being sent to the front.

The situation was unsustainable. Women workers in St Petersburg made the decisive move. Thousands, along with housewives, surged on to the streets on International Women’s Day on 23 February (8 March in the west), demanding an end to hunger—and that male workers should join them.

The next day, 200,000 were on strike—half of all factory workers in the city.

Sickened by the war, whole regiments of soldiers went over to the side of the workers.

The Romanov Empire that had ruled for more than three centuries crumbled in days. On 3 March the tsar (emperor) abdicated.

Power was transferred to a Provisional Government made up of representatives of the wealthy who had reluctantly gone along with the dismissal of the tsar, all the better to win the war and tame the militancy of the workers.


In the factories, however, workers deepened the revolution, driving out hated bosses, tearing up the humiliating rule books and setting up factory committees, which sometimes took control of workplaces where employers had fled.

On 27 February the St Petersburg soviet was convened. Soviets (councils) were made up of delegates elected from workplaces or barracks, responsible to their workmates or fellow soldiers and recallable if they did not carry out their wishes.

Soviets had first emerged in the defeated revolution of 1905. This time they were to spread nationwide, with soldiers, sailors and peasants instituting their own soviets.

There were now two centres of power in the country—the Provisional Government and the soviets.

In a sign of the workers’ and soldiers’ confidence, the St Petersburg soviet on 1 March issued Order No.1, central to which was that soldiers and sailors should obey their officers and the Provisional Government only if their orders did not contradict the decrees of the St Petersburg Soviet.

But while the soviets had economic and military sway, they lacked ultimate political control. Initially, most workers, taking their lead from the moderate socialist parties, were prepared to tolerate this situation of dual power.

As a resolution from the workers at the Izhora works put it: “All measures of the Provisional Government that destroy the remnants of the autocracy and strengthen the freedom of the people must be fully supported by the democracy.

“All measures that lead to conciliation with the old regime and that are directed against the people must meet with decisive protest and counteraction.”

It was a tension that would ultimately bring down the Provisional Government, which during its eight months of existence was to prioritise the needs of the capitalists, landlords and generals over the demands of the workers and peasants.

Capitalist or socialist revolution?

The moderate socialists argued that the best outcome that could be expected would be a capitalist society with a parliamentary system. Socialists should support the Provisional Government and continue the war in the name of defending the revolution. Many key leaders of Lenin’s Bolshevik party were caught up in this prevarication.

The situation changed only when Lenin arrived back from exile in April. He dropped a theoretical bomb into the debate.

Lenin argued: “The … country is passing from the first stage of the revolution—which , owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie—to its second stage, which must place power in the hand of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”

There should be no support for the Provisional Government and the war. From now on the Bolshevik slogan was to be “All Power to the Soviets”. The socialist revolution was now firmly on the agenda.

By April, Russia was radicalising fast. Within weeks of Lenin winning over the party, the Provisional Government declared itself ready to continue the war until victory. Workers and soldiers poured on to the streets in anger, marching behind the Bolshevik slogans.

But the Bolsheviks were still far from having majority support. Millions of workers and peasants had moved into political action for the first time and they gravitated around the largest moderate socialist parties.

Lenin argued among his supporters for patience.

Workers and peasants would have to learn through their own experience that overthrowing the tsar was not enough, becoming more radical as they tested each party in turn to see if it could help them deliver the core demands of the revolution: Peace, Bread and Land.

This approach was vindicated in July after the Provisional Government launched a new but short-lived offensive against the German and Austrian armies.

Workers and soldiers in St Petersburg were white-hot with rage. This is not what they had risen up for in February.

Some half a million flooded central St Petersburg, demanding that power be transferred to the soviets.

The Bolsheviks helped lead the demonstrations but urged caution, arguing that the rest of the country was still not ready for soviet government. If St Petersburg went alone, it would be isolated.

It was the right position but it came at a heavy short-term cost. For the moment, the right wing of the movement was back in the ascendancy, driving the Bolsheviks underground.

Workers were disarmed, and revolutionary military units in St Petersburg were disbanded or sent to the war front. The Provisional Government introduced a law introducing the death penalty for rebellion in the trenches.

The commander-in-chief of the Russian military, General Lavr Kornilov, sensed the opportunity to roll back the revolution even further. With the support of the new head of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky, a moderate socialist, he marched his army on St Petersburg to “bring order”.

At the last moment Kerensky realised that he would be swept away by Kornilov, too, and called on the St Petersburg soviet for help.

Just a few weeks earlier the Bolsheviks were facing persecution, with Lenin driven into hiding. Now in August they rallied workers and soldiers of all parties in a united front against Kornilov, arguing for unity against reaction.

In doing so they were showing workers and soldiers still loyal to the moderate socialists that the Bolsheviks could deliver what the moderates could not.

As Lenin put it: “We … are fighting against Kornilov, just as Kerensky’s troops do, but we do not support Kerensky. On the contrary, we expose his weakness.”

With Kornilov routed, support for the Bolsheviks began to grow rapidly. The situation was coming to a head.

Was the October Revolution a coup?

Critics of the revolution focus on the final transfer of power to the soviets—the storming of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg on 25 October and the arrest of the Provisional Government ministers.

This, they argue, is evidence that the Bolsheviks seized control through a coup, the military action of few thousand of Lenin’s supporters.

This is to ignore the rising tide of revolutionary radicalism that was gripping tens of millions of Russia’s poor. The factory committees, directly organising in the workplace, provided the most sensitive barometer of rank-and-file workers’ opinions.

In St Petersburg, the heart of the revolution with the biggest industrial workforce, the Bolsheviks had overwhelming majority support at the city’s first conference of factory committees, held from 31 May to 5 June.

The Bolsheviks were still in the minority elsewhere, but workers were becoming more militant.

Tony Cliff, the founder of the tendency of which Solidarity is a member, wrote: “Lockouts and shutdowns often precipitated physical clashes between labour and management …

“The director of a car plant in Moscow and his assistant were … taken away in a wheelbarrow … The workers in a Kharkov foundry seized their director, poured a bucket of heavy oil mixed with lead over his head, and carried the unfortunate man out of the plant amid shouts of ‘Hooray’.”

The defeat of the Kornilov coup in August was decisive. Almost immediately the Bolsheviks won a majority in the St Petersburg soviet, soon followed by the soviets in Moscow, Kiev, Odessa and other cities.

The Congress of Soviets of the North voted by a huge majority for all power to the soviets, as did the first All-Russian Conference of Factory-Shop Committees.

This tide of radicalism was fuelled by the fact that the Provisional Government would not and could not grant the core demands of the revolution.

John Reed wrote: “On the front the Army Committees were always running foul of officers who could not get used to treating their men like human beings.

“In the rear the Land Committees elected by the peasants were being jailed for trying to carry out Government regulations concerning the land.

“And the workmen in the factories were fighting blacklists and lock-outs.

“Nay, furthermore, returning political exiles were being excluded from the country as ‘undesirable’ citizens; and in some cases men who returned from abroad to their villages were prosecuted and imprisoned for revolutionary acts committed in 1905.”

Growing numbers of workers and soldiers began to agree with the Bolsheviks that the soviets had to take power.

As Victor Serge, an anarchist who went on to join the Bolsheviks, wrote: “In front of the Bolshevik poster the wretched folk passing by in the street stop and exclaim: ‘That’s just it!’ … This voice is their own.”

Bolshevik party membership grew massively—from 10,000 in February to 80,000 in April, and from 200,000 at the end of July to 250,000 by November.

Coups are plotted in secret. The October insurrection was openly debated in newspapers, in Bolshevik committees, in meetings of soviets, and in the streets. The Provisional Government was fully aware of preparations for the uprising. It did them no good.

A week before the seizure of power, the St Petersburg garrison of 60,000 men declared that it no longer recognised the Provisional Government. “The Petrograd Soviet is our government. We will obey only the orders of the Petrograd Soviet, through the Military Revolutionary Committee.”

The actual moment of insurrection, which was necessary to confirm the sovereignty of the soviets, was a formality because there were few left prepared to defend the regime.

As Julius Martov, the leader of the Menshevik Party, which had initially been far more popular than the Bolshevik Party, said: “What we have before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat—almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.”

From Lenin to Stalin?

The conventional view—and we will hear it many times again this year—is that because Lenin’s Bolsheviks turned their backs on parliamentary democracy, they sowed the seeds of Stalin’s terror a decade later.

But Stalin’s demolition of democracy, his reversal of the gains of the revolution for women, gays and lesbians, national minorities and Jews, and his use of force against workers and peasants to develop the Russian economy—“Socialism in one country”—was a fundamental break with the aims of the October revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky had long argued that workers’ revolution in a backward country like Russia needed, first, the support of the peasants, and second the support of the international working class.

Their assumption was that revolution would spread to the advanced economies, in particular Germany.

It was a fair one.

The October revolution not only ended the First World War. It triggered revolutionary upheavals across Europe and beyond, leading to the fall of the German and the Austro-Hungarian empires.

However, while workers elsewhere shook the rich and powerful to their core they failed to overthrow them.

In Russia, the revolution endured three years of attack from pro-monarchist (“white”) forces and foreign armies. It survived but at enormous human and economic cost.

Isolated and weakened, the revolution’s leaders played for time. Stalin’s ascent to power represented their overthrow and the destruction of everything the masses had fought for from February to October.

None of this can erase from history the fact that, in 1917, Russia’s workers and peasants overthrew the existing order, not once but twice.

In doing so they scaled the highest point of human history to date—the first and so far only seizure of power on a national scale by the oppressed and downtrodden.

It is a history that our rulers today view with revulsion. It is one that we need to embrace with passion.

*Russia in 1917 still used the Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the (modern) Gregorian calendar. So the dates of the two revolutions were, in Russia, February and October, and elsewhere, March and November. This article uses the Julian calendar.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Why revolution is the only route to real change

Radical parties that have tried to introduce sweeping change through parliament have continually failed, argues James Supple, because the system is set up to stop them

Workers and the alternative to capitalism

The history of workers’ struggles shows the possibility of a socialism based on mass democratic control of society, writes Judy Cox.

How colonial war led to revolution in Portugal

The revolution in Portugal beginning 50 years ago in 1974 with a revolt in the army, saw workers take control of hundreds of factories, writes Luke Ottavi