Invaluable Lessons of the February Revolution in Russia

Demonstrators with placards Feb 1917

The February Revolution was a popular uprising of workers, peasants, women and soldiers which overthrew the rule of the Tsar that had been maintained in Russia for centuries. The intense eight days that brought about such a revolutionary change began on 8th March, 1917, or 23rd February according to the Russian calendar of that time.

Petrograd Soviet meeting 1917The year 1917 had begun with massive strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers in all major Russian towns. On International Women’s Day, working women and men came out on to the streets in an unprecedented scale. Over the next few days, the political strikes and demonstrations took on the character of a popular revolutionary uprising, with red banners bearing the slogans “Down with the Tsar!”, “Down with the war!” and “We want bread!”

The Soviets

A soviet of workers’ deputies is a council of tried and tested fighters of the working class, selected and elected by the workers themselves from among their peers. Such a form of popular political organisation of industrial workers had emerged in St. Petersburg (later named Petrograd) during the uprising of 1905.

The idea of Soviets lived in the minds of the workers and they put it into effect as soon as tsardom was overthrown. While in 1905 it was Soviets only of Workers’ Deputies that were formed, in February 1917, at the initiative of the Bolsheviks, there arose Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, strengthening the bonds between the workers and peasants..

The Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ Deputies emerged in the very early days of the February Revolution. Elections to the Soviet began spontaneously at individual factories and within a few days spread to all the factories in the capital. About 300 people attended a meeting at the Tauride Palace and elected a provisional executive committee. Within a few days, elected representatives from factories and the military joined the soviet. The number of elected deputies rose to 3,000 in two weeks. A similar process also took place in Moscow and other cities.

The Petrograd Soviet proclaimed itself the organ of the workers and soldiers, and up to the First Congress of Soviets in June, 1917, it acted as the virtual all-Russian centre of the revolutionary movement. It appointed special delegates to organise district Soviets and began the formation of a militia (100 volunteers for every 1,000 workers). On 14th March (1st March according to the Old Russian calendar), the Petrograd Soviet issued its “Order No. 1 to the Petrograd Garrison”. It ordered, “The Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies has decreed:

“Committees to be elected immediately in all companies, battalions … from the elected representatives of the rank and file of the above mentioned units.

“In all political actions, troop units are subordinate to the Soviet … and to the committees thereof.

“The orders of the military commission of the state Duma are to be obeyed, with the exception of those instances in which they contradict the orders and decrees of the Soviet.

“All types of arms … must be placed at the disposal of company and battalion committees, and under their control, and are not, in any case, to be issued to officers, even upon demand…”

On 16th March, the Soviet appointed several commissions—on food, military affairs, public order and the press.

Source: An Illustrated History of the Great October Socialist Revolution: 1917; Moscow, USSR, 1988. First published on March 1st (Russian calendar old, March 14th new calendar)

On 12th March, soldiers in the capital city of Petrograd refused to fire upon the workers who were demonstrating on the streets. Women protestors played a key role in persuading the soldiers to join the demonstration. The news of soldiers refusing to fire on the people spread far and wide. It inspired hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants to rise in revolt all over the country.

There emerged in the Russian capital a Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, made up of representatives of factories, mills, soldiers who had revolted and of communist parties and groups. The Soviet (workers’ council) appointed commissars to establish the people’s authority in the wards of Petrograd. It called upon the entire population of the capital to organize local committees in their wards and take into their hands the management of local affairs (See Box the on “The Soviets”). Workers and rebel soldiers began to arrest tsarist ministers and army generals. They freed political prisoners who then joined the revolution. Peasants began to take control of the grain stores from the big landlords.

On 15th March (2nd March in the Old Russian calendar), Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate all powers. The rule of the Tsar was overthrown and replaced by a Provisional Government formed by parties represented in the Duma (the Russian Parliament).

An unusual situation was created by the February Revolution, that of dual power. On one side was the bourgeoisie which wanted to prolong Russia’s involvement in the inter-imperialist war. On the other side stood the working class and the majority of working population and soldiers, organised in their Soviets of Deputies, demanding an end to war.

Lenin on The Dual Power

The basic question of every revolution is that of state power. Unless this question is understood, there can be no intelligent participation in the revolution, not to speak of guidance of the revolution.

The highly remarkable feature of our revolution is that it has brought about a dual power. This fact must be grasped first and foremost: unless it is understood, we cannot advance. …

What is this dual power? Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

What is the class composition of this other government? It consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms). What is the political nature of this government? It is a revolutionary dictatorship, i.e., a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America. …

This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871. The fundamental characteristics of this type are:

(i) the source of power is not a law previously discussed and enacted by parliament, but the direct initiative of the people from below, in their local areas—direct “seizure”, to use a current expression;

(ii) the replacement of the police and the army, which are institutions divorced from the people and set against the people, by the direct arming of the whole people; order in the state under such a power is maintained by the armed workers and peasants themselves, by the armed people themselves;

(iii) officialdom, the bureaucracy, are either similarly replaced by the direct rule of the people themselves or at least placed under special control; they not only become elected officials, but are also subject to recall at the people’s first demand; they are reduced to the position of simple agents; from a privileged group holding “jobs” remunerated on a high, bourgeois scale, they become workers of a special “arm of the service”, whose remuneration does not exceed the ordinary pay of a competent worker.

Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 24, pages 38-41.

Neither was the bourgeoisie having the political strength to get rid of the soviets nor were the soviets prepared to get rid of the provisional government. Thus there was a temporary stalemate. (See the Box on “Lenin on Dual Power”)

Historical Background

Russia had gone through a revolutionary period in 1905-07. Taking advantage of the weakness of the Tsar, who had suffered defeat on the battlefields of Manchuria, the working class and peasants succeeded in wresting one concession after another. After concluding a peace agreement with Japan, the Tsar launched a counter-revolutionary offensive to crush the popular uprising. The period 1908-12 witnessed the retreat of revolution.

Russia at that time was experiencing the growth of capitalism in industry and agriculture, alongside semi-feudal relations of exploitation of peasants by big landlords. There were three major political forces. The tsarist monarchy was the organ of the feudal landlords, the aristocratic bureaucracy and military caste. The Cadets and Octobrist parties, subsequently called the Constitutional Democratic Party, represented the industrial bourgeoisie and capitalist landlords, supported by the British and French imperialists. The communists, organised in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), represented the growing proletariat. There were also some parties of the intermediate strata, such as the Socialist-Revolutionary Party, which vacillated between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Signs of a fresh rise in the tide of revolution started to appear in 1912, when massive political strikes broke out in April and May, against the shooting down of 500 workers in the Lena goldfields by the Tsarist armed police. The May Day strikes and demonstrations that year involved over 400,000 workers, raising revolutionary slogans of a democratic republic, an 8-hour working day, and confiscation of landed estates.

The First World War broke out in 1914. It was a war between rival groups of imperialist powers. On one side was an alliance of the British and French colonial powers, with Tsarist Russia providing them with millions of soldiers. On the other side was an alliance of rising German imperialism with the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish empires. It was a war being fought between the biggest robber barons of the world to re-divide territories, markets and spheres of influence among themselves. Workers and peasants of different countries were being made to kill one another for the benefit of their exploiters. The capitalists of each country were concealing the true aims of the war. Each imperialist government declared that it was waging war in defence of its country.

Winter Palace protest

In Russia, about 11 million peasants and 4 million workers were torn from their economic pursuits and drafted into the army. Many mills and factories closed down. The crop area diminished due to a shortage of labourers. The population and the soldiers at the front went hungry, barefoot and naked. The war was eating up the resources of the country. While making a show of opposition to the Tsar, the Constitutional Democratic Party was supporting the foreign policy of the regime. Industrial capitalists were making fortunes out of the war, and so were capitalist landlords who were exploiting the shortage of food.

The international organisation of communist parties, which called themselves social-democratic labour parties at that time, was the Second International. It was dominated by parties which supported their “own” bourgeoisie in the inter-imperialist war. Such parties in Britain, France, Germany and other European countries called on workers to support the war and kill their class brothers for the sake of “defence of the fatherland”. The German Social-Democratic Party called for the defence of Germany from the “Russian barbarians”.

The Bolshevik Party

The movement for socialism and communism developed in Russia during the latter half of the 19th century. It grew in the course of a concerted ideological struggle against the Narodniks and the “legal Marxists”.

The Narodniks preached that the principal role in the revolution would be played by the peasantry, and not by the working class; and they substituted the struggle of individual heroes to the struggle of the masses of people. The “legal Marxists”, who wanted to adapt the working-class movement to the interests of the bourgeoisie, denied the very core of Marxism, namely, the doctrine of the proletarian revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Comrade Lenin fought a tenacious struggle against both these tendencies. He advanced the idea of a revolutionary alliance of the workers and peasants, under the leadership of the working class, as the principal means of overthrowing tsardom, the landlords and the bourgeoisie.

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), founded in 1898, was characterised by conflicting lines of thought and action within it until 1911. The line of the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, was towards the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy by an armed mass uprising, establishment of the hegemony of the proletariat by winning over the peasantry and isolating the constitutional-democratic bourgeoisie, so as to bury capitalism and build socialism. The line of the Mensheviks was towards “reforming” the tsarist regime, forming an alliance with the constitutional-democratic forces and establishing the hegemony of the bourgeoisie, so as to limit the revolution to the boundaries of bourgeois democracy.

At a conference of RSDLP in January 1912, all the revolutionary elements united around the Bolshevik line and the diehard followers of the Menshevik line left the Party. A party of a new type emerged, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik), later renamed the Communist Party of Soviet Union (Bolshevik).

The Bolshevik Party was united like steel around one revolutionary line on the basis of democratic centralism. Armed with a splendid mass workers’ paper called Pravda, the Party recruited and trained a new generation of revolutionary workers. This had a profound influence on the development of the proletarian class struggle, contributing to a rise in the revolutionary tide starting in 1912.

When the war broke out in 1914, the Bolshevik Party did not confine itself merely to issuing resolutions against it. It tenaciously campaigned and organised against the war. It carried out mass agitation and propaganda through legal and illegal channels, which resonated with the anger of the masses.

In such conditions, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (Bolshevik) stood up against the social-chauvinism of the Second International. The Bolsheviks stood up to defend the slogan of the Communist Manifesto – Workers of all countries, Unite! They called on the workers, peasants and soldiers of Russia to turn the unprincipled predatory war between bourgeois imperialist states into a revolutionary civil war against the rule of the bourgeoisie. (See the Box on “The Bolshevik Party”)

The erudite Marxists of numerous European social-democratic parties ridiculed Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, considering it impossible for the working class and other toiling people to turn the inter-imperialist war into a revolutionary civil war. However, the Bolshevik Party stuck to the revolutionary path, swimming against the tide of opportunism and social-chauvinism that was dominating the international working class movement at that time.

Under the leadership of Comrade Lenin, the Bolshevik Party succeeded in spearheading an organised and politically conscious movement of the working class, which gave rise to a new organ of power at the base of society, called the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The Party organised systematic propaganda among the soldiers of the tsarist army and led the clandestine work of building soviets of soldiers’ deputies. It also led the work of building soviets among agricultural labourers and poor peasants.

It was the combined revolutionary energy of the workers, peasants, soldiers, women and youth which led to the overthrow of the tsarist monarchy. However, the Russian bourgeoisie, backed by the British and French imperialists, maneuvered to gain control of the Provisional Government.

The provisional bourgeois government was trying to maintain its rule over the masses by granting some civil liberties and releasing political prisoners who had been incarcerated by the monarchy. The Soviets existed alongside the provisional government, as the embryo of a proletarian State, an instrument to advance the interests of the toiling masses of people striving for peace, bread and freedom.

Preparation for the Next Stage

The Bolshevik Party made a scientific sober assessment of what the February Revolution had achieved, and what it had failed to achieve. The Party assessed the overthrow of the Tsarist monarchy as a major achievement. It recognised that political power had not come into the hands of the working class and toiling majority of people. The crucial condition for the revolution to be taken to its logical conclusion had not been achieved.

Not only did the Party recognise this reality but it also analysed that insufficient class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat was the reason why the soviets had not taken power in their hands. During the war, about 40% of the regular workers had been drafted into the army. Large numbers of small property owners, artisans and shopkeepers had taken their place in the factories. Intoxicated by the first success of the revolution, many of these petty-bourgeois sections of the working people consented to the surrender of power to the bourgeoisie. They came under the influence of political leaders of the petty bourgeoisie and the Menshevik deserters from the Bolshevik Party. Such leaders preached class collaboration and spread illusions about the bourgeois provisional government. These factors led to the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies surrendering power to the bourgeoisie.

It is because of such an assessment, based on scientific analysis of the facts, that the Bolshevik Party was able to prepare the conditions for the subsequent victory of the proletariat in the October Revolution.

Based on its analysis of the outcome of the February Revolution, the Bolshevik Party set itself the task of patiently explaining to the working masses that the Provisional Government was bourgeois and imperialist in character; and that it would not fulfill the demands for peace, land and bread. Hence all power had to pass into the hands of the Soviets. This was the content of Lenin’s celebrated April Theses, which he presented to the All-Russia Conference of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies on 4th April, 1917.

Lenin pointed out in his April Theses: “The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses.”

Following the line of action advocated in the April Theses, the Bolshevik Party worked to convince the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies that having overthrown the Tsar, the revolution must necessarily and immediately proceed to the next stage. That is the stage of the revolutionary proletariat establishing its power in alliance with the toiling and oppressed majority of the population.

Explaining the principal distinction between the two kinds of state power, Lenin wrote, “It is quite easy (as history proves) to revert from a parliamentary bourgeois republic to a monarchy, for all the machinery of oppression—the army, the police, and the bureaucracy—is left intact. The Commune and the Soviet smash that machinery and do away with it.

The parliamentary bourgeois republic hampers and stifles the independent political life of the masses, their direct participation in the democratic organisation of the life of the state from the bottom up. The opposite is the case with the Soviets.”

The Bolshevik Party carried out the painstaking and patient work of convincing the politically active elements among the workers, peasants and soldiers of the necessity to become the collective masters and rulers of Russia. It thereby created the subjective conditions for the ultimate transfer of all power to the Soviets later that year, in what is called the Great October Socialist Revolution.


The victory of the proletarian revolution in Russia was brought about by the collective action of the working class and its allies, led by a vanguard Communist Party that was unswerving in its revolutionary line of thought and action.

The experience of Russia in 1917 proved that there is no gap, no extended period of time, between the democratic and socialist stages of revolution. Proletarian leadership of the revolution will ensure that the process of social, political and economic transformations will not be left in the middle but taken to its logical conclusion of eliminating all forms of exploitation and class distinctions in society.

How rapidly the revolution advances from its bourgeois-democratic tasks to its socialist tasks depends on nothing other than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat. This conclusion of Leninism was proved in practice by the rapid advance achieved in Russia from the first revolution of 1917, which put an end to the monarchy, to the second revolution which brought the proletariat to the position of ruling class and initiated profound socialist transformations.

A key problem solved by the Bolsheviks is: By what must the bourgeois parliament be replaced? Or to put it another way, what is the institution into whose hands the revolution must vest power? The Bolshevik Party solved this through its practical work of building popular representative bodies at the base of society and imbuing them with revolutionary political consciousness. When the time was ripe, the Party gave the call and the Soviets took power in their hands.

To learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution means that we Indian communists must smash the myth that the working class in our country is not capable of taking power in its hands. It means to play a leading role in the work of building committees among the workers, peasants and soldiers for their political empowerment. It means to build and strengthen the vanguard party of the proletariat, as the revolutionary party of the Leninist type, in which all Indian communists can militate.

Facts show that it is bourgeois power which has been consolidated in India since political independence. Political power was transferred in 1947 through an act of the British Parliament, from the hands of the British imperialists into the hands of the big capitalists of our country, who were allied with the big landlords and other parasitic elements that benefited from the colonial plunder. The State has remained the organ of dividing and ruling over the toiling masses, which the colonialists left behind. The proletariat and vast majority of working people remain powerless.

Deviating from the Leninist line of preparing the proletariat to capture political power in alliance with the toiling peasants and oppressed majority of the population, the Indian Communist Movement succumbed to the revisionist line of “parliamentary path to socialism”, propagated in the fifties by the Communist Party of Soviet Union headed by Khrushchev. This was the path which the Bolsheviks had rejected and defeated in 1917. It is the path of relying on the bourgeoisie and its parliamentary democracy to allegedly achieve the aims of the working class, a path that serves to preserve the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

The revolutionaries among Indian communists attempted in the sixties to break out of the stranglehold of Soviet revisionism and the parliamentary path to socialism. However, their attempt got diverted by the Chinese revisionist line of relying on the peasantry and on underground guerilla warfare in the countryside to encircle the cities, leaving the proletariat under the influence of bourgeois parliamentary illusions.

An important lesson of the Russian Revolution is that the power of the bourgeoisie cannot be overthrown through the action of a few heroes, however brave they may be. The heroism of the Bolsheviks lies in their successful work of making the proletariat conscious and organised to take power in its hands, in alliance with the toiling peasants and all other oppressed.

To learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution means that we Indian communists must reject bourgeois parliamentarism as well as individual terrorism and the line of encircling the cities from the countryside. We must lead the work of building committees and councils among the workers, peasants, women and youth, to politicise, unite and organise the masses of exploited people to wage their immediate struggles with the perspective of preparing to take power in their hands.

To learn the lessons of the Russian Revolution means to wage an uncompromising struggle against all forms of conciliation with social-democracy and national chauvinism, as the Bolshevik Party did 100 years ago. We must oppose the war plans of our “own” bourgeoisie and its jingoist propaganda against Pakistan. We must oppose all forms of conciliation with the slogan of “defence of national unity and territorial integrity of India”. This is the slogan with which the ruling class has been justifying state terrorism and brutal suppression of democratic, human and national rights within the country.

In sum, to be guided by the lessons of history means to set our political aim as nothing less than the establishment of a new State of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which alone can liberate India from the imperialist system, from capitalism and all remnants of colonialism, feudalism and the caste system.


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