A look at the idea of spontaneity within the Russian Revolution of 1917
Though all the revolutionary groupings in Russia welcomed the February Revolution of 1917 , they also disclaimed responsibility in bringing it about. This included the few underground Bolsheviks who were active in the events. From these denials came a theory of the spontaneous nature of the Revolution. As E. H. Carr writes in The Bolshevik Revolution:
“The February Revolution of 1917 which overthrew the Romanov dynasty was the spontaneous outbreak of a multitude exasperated by the privations of the War and by manifest inequality in the distribution of burdens. It was welcomed and utilised by a broad stratum of the bourgeoisie and of the official class, which had lost confidence in the autocratic system of government and especially in the persons of the Tsar and of his advisers; it was from this section of the population that the first Provisional Government was drawn. The revolutionary parties played no part in the making of the Revolution . They did not expect it, and were at first somewhat nonplussed by it”.
Katkov in his Russia 1917: the February Revolution disagrees with this view. Whilst concurring that the revolutionary parties were more or less passive he points out that the word ‘stikhiyny’-spontaneous- suggests to a greater degree than its English counterpart that the hardships of the war led to:“ the degree of cohesion and purposefulness necessary for effective political action”. ‘Spontaneous’ as defined by Carr, he feels, indicates a predisposition of the masses to organise mass demonstrations as at St. Petersburg. He argues that if such a predisposition for action had existed, why was it not manifested in other parts of the Russian Empire where exactly the same conditions were prevailing. He argues further that if this predisposition existed why was there not a continuation of the actions among the workers in the months to come. However these criticisms seem pedantic when tallied up with eyewitness accounts , as for example Trotsky’s.
Set against the spontaneity theory is one of conspiracy. There is no evidence of any liberal group calling on workers to strike. True, the Gachkov circle had made plans for a palace coup in March but these were forestalled by the events, and it was exactly that, a palace coup, completely unconnected to any notion of a popular rising. The liberals did contribute to the general atmosphere by their flood of anti-government propaganda, but no more beyond this, apart from the involvement of some of the St Persburg garrison officers in the proposed coup which may have undermined the morale of the officers as a whole.
Neither can the theory that government agents provocateurs incited a rising that became a revolution be given credibility.True, Protopopov’s agents had infiltrated workers’ circles. They sought to promote defeatist ideas in the War Industries Committees in order to discredit them in the eyes of the public. There was no plan to mobilise workers on the streets. In fact Protopopov feared the thought of casualties on the streets of St Petersburg.
It could be argued that the February Revolution was not just the action of the masses and that a confluence with the liberal elements who were rejecting Tsarist autocracy led to the Revolution’s fruition and outcome. But these two forces. While they may have worked alongside each other, had no unity of goals or actions. While they were both moving to the overthrow of the Tsar, they often found themselves in opposition.
Rosa Luxembourg has defined a spontaneous revolution as one initiated by the masses and not led by a revolutionary elite or party. From accounts of February, we can see that workers went into struggle, not with the aim of creating revolution, but with certain objectives in mind, and without the leadership of he organised revolutionary minorities. In this sense the beginnings of the revolution could be described as spontaneous. The first actions on February 23rd were, it should be remembered,, organised around International Women’s Day. Leaflets were distributed by the Mezhraiontsy group ( this group, which numbered Trotsky amongst its adherents , was formed of members of both Mensheviks and Bolsheviks and opposed to the split in the Russian Social Democratic Party) saying that workers, particularly women, were victimised by the war. Despite its inflammatory language, the leaflet was intended to be merely educational. It was not meant to bring workers out in the streets.
The Bolsheviks for their part, regarded the build-up of organisational strength of their party as vital, and refused to divert unnecessary energy for relatively insignificant propaganda. Some Bolshevik rank and filers resented this, calling for bolder action, including a strike. One Bolshevik factory worker organised a meeting of women workers to explain the meaning of Women’s Day, but he urged them to refrain from action and only follow the directions of the Bolshevik Party. However all the revolutionary groups underestimated the mood of the workers. As Trotsky himself admitted: “ The revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being undertaken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat”.
Meetings took place in the Vyborg district, and a mass of women marched to the Municipal Duma demanding bread. About 90,000 workers, both women and men, then came out on strike. Women workers went from the textile factories to the large metal factories calling on the men to join their strike.
The Bolsheviks in the factories were put on the spot. They knew their Central Committee was reluctant to take direct action. On the other hand they did not want to be isolated. As the Bolshevik Kaiurov ( who had advised the women workers the day before) said : “ I was extremely indignant with the actions of the strikers. Not only did they blatantly ignore the decisions of the Party district committee, but also just the night before I had appealed to the women workers to maintain restraint and discipline. And suddenly this strike. It appeared that there were no goals and purposes, if we discount the ever-increasing bread lines, which were essentially the reason for the strike.” After consultation with Socialist-Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, it was decided to come out with the slogans ‘Down with the War’ and ‘Give Us Bread’. Kaiurov recalled that: “ My proposal was adopted that once we decide to act with protest, we must immediately lead all the workers without exception into the streets and we ourselves must stand at the head of the strike and demonstration”.
The same scenario was repeated in other factories. So while the revolution began spontaneously in St Petersburg it began to be transformed into a highly political demonstration led by experienced elements among the workers. By the evening some Vyborg Bolsheviks had met and came to several important decisions including an intensification of propaganda activities among workers and a three day general strike. They were acting independently of Shliapnikov, the local Party leader, who disapproved of these actions on the grounds of lack of resources and numbers. The strike movement itself created a number of workers who had a sense of direction, independent of any political organisation. In the absence of any clear instructions from the Party organisation, cooperation on a rank and file level between SRs, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks and these non-party militants took place and the unity of their action was formed.
Bloody Sunday on February 26th strengthened the determination of the mass of workers to continue the struggle, whilst it temporarily weakened the willof the leaders. Forty people were killed and forty wounded in Znamenskaya Square by machine guns operated by officers rising to 150 casualties during the day. The Party people were more exasperated than encouraged by these events. The Bolsheviks had little confidence in the movement, which they had not incited but only followed, because it was alien to the method of armed insurrection, which alone, according to them, could succeed.
Kazhurov, a leading Bolshevik, said:” The revolution is petering out. The demonstrators are disarmed, no one can do anything to the governmentnow that it has taken decisive action”. When Chugurin proposed ‘armed commandos’ Shlyapnikov opposed it, fearing that some thoughtless act would exasperate the soldiers with the workers. It would be better to continue the work of propaganda to “win over the soldiers and paralyse Tsarism.”. Convinced that a revolution could not succeed, badly informed of the latest writing of Lenin which indicated the opposite, and underestimating the movement, especially because it was anonymous and because they had no control over it, the Bolshevik leaders, despite their aptitude at organising among the masses, confessed their inability to take the political initiative unless they had instructions.
As for the Mensheviks “Reaction is increasing; the uneasiness in the factories is secondary. It is clear that the workers and the soldiers don’t have the same objectives. One shouldn’t daydream about the revolution, but prepare for better days by means of a systematic propaganda in the factories”.
It was precisely the soldiers mutinies, again with no incitement from any of the revolutionary parties, which provided the spark for the tinder of the women’s and workers’ protests and turned it into a revolutionary conflagration. Now open looting of bakeries and bread shops began.
In response to Nicholas’s orders of 25th February to quell the disturbances with the utmost severity, the troops at first disregarded officers’ orders and then openly mutinied joining the crowds to attack the police who were disarmed, and went into hiding if not beaten up or killed. With full insurrection by the 28th almost all the troops had come over and Moscow was to follow on March 1st.