Dual power: Russia 1917 Part 2

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This article was first published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 67 in April 1987. We republish it now, in 2017, in a series celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the beginning of the most important struggle for socialism, peace and progress in history.

The success of the February 1917 revolution in Russia was followed by a situation of dual power. The bourgeoisie set up a Provisional Government, the working class and peasantry formed their own organisations, the Soviets (councils). The struggle between the two antagonistic powers was to be the crucial question for the next 8 months of the revolution.

The Provisional Government

Formally, power lay with the Provisional Government. On 26 February, as the tempo of the revolution seemed to slacken, the Tsar ordered the dissolution of the only existing national representative body, the Duma (Parliament). The next day the deputies were preparing to disperse when it became clear that the insurrection was gaining strength. The deputies from the bourgeois parties and the right Mensheviks hurriedly formed a Provisional Committee.

The Committee tried to make a deal with the Tsar. On 2 March the Committee sent an envoy (Guchkov) to attempt to persuade the Tsar to abdicate in favour of his nephew, Grand Duke Mikhail. When Guchkov read the act of abdication to a crowd of workers and soldiers, they did not reward him with the expected gratitude. He was immediately arrested by the workers and threatened with execution. The Duke himself, when told that the Government could only guarantee him his crown and not his head, prudently preferred to preserve the latter.

The Tsarist dynasty had ended with a whimper, because of its own cowardice. With the utmost reluctance, the Committee then formed the Provisional Government, which took office on 3 March.

The most important posts were in the hands of conservative bourgeois parties. Filling a minor post was the only 'socialist', Kerensky.

The first measures of the Provisional Government seemed very radical: complete amnesty for all political offences; freedom of speech, press, assembly, strikes and trade union association; and abolition of all caste, religious and national limitations. The police were to be replaced by an elected people's militia. Local administrative bodies were to be chosen by direct equal and general ballot. It also declared its intention to hold elections for a Constituent Assembly.

In fact, the Provisional Government was simply yielding before established facts – political prisoners had already been released by popular action, and the police force driven into hiding. It did not call for the soldiers who had made the revolution to have the right to elect their officers; and the suffrage for the civil administration was for males only.

It avoided the issues affecting the popular masses who had made the revolution: an improvement in the position of the working class; land for the peasantry; and an end to the war.

The Soviets

During the 1905 Revolution the people had formed Soviets as an alternative government. The idea was quickly revived. The Soviet organised the food supplies for Petrograd, controlled the army and communications and withheld financial resources from the old regime.

Above all, the Soviet had the support of the Army. On 1 March it issued Order No 1. Committees were to be elected by all units of the armed forces. Every unit was to obey the Soviets. Off-duty soldiers were to have the same political and civil rights as other citizens; and officers were forbidden to strike soldiers, or to use the humiliating form of address, ‘Ty'.

The Soviet Leadership

At first neither the composition of the Soviet nor its leadership truly reflected the revolutionary mood of the people. The soldiers had (proportionally) six times as many delegates as the factory workers; and many members of the intelligentsia who had done little fighting managed to insinuate themselves into the Soviet.

On 27 February, the leadership of the Soviet, the Executive Committee, was formed by right-wing Mensheviks. As deputies in the Tsarist Duma they had access to suitable meeting rooms in the Duma building (the Tauride Palace); others released from prison earlier that day headed straight for the Tauride. Bolsheviks released at the same time made a different choice: they went to the Vyborg District to join in the fighting.

Why didn't the mass of workers and soldiers seize power directly through the Soviets? There were two related reasons: the bourgeoisie was class conscious and well organised; the workers and peasants were not, as yet.

The Crafty Bourgeois

The ruling classes knew how to appear to be revolutionary with a capital R. 'People who had no more to do with the revolution than last year's snows,' noticed the journalist Sukhanov, 'now overflowed with love of liberty.'

The intoxicating mood of the first weeks of the revolution meant that the people gladly welcomed everyone who said they were in favour of the revolution. At the political meetings which went on night and day, audiences were not so much interested in what was said as in the revolutionary enthusiasm of the speakers.

So a communist soldier watched an amazing scene at one of the naval bases. An elderly officer almost certainly loyal to the Tsar until a few days previously declared himself to be a 'Christian socialist', shouting in a hysterical voice ‘long Live the great Russian revolution!'. All the sailors sprang to their feet the deceitful officer got more applause than anyone.

Why the Revolution Succeeded So Easily

This was the price of the ease with which the revolution succeeded. Only in the capital city, Petrograd, was there an active revolutionary movement. Elsewhere, the old administration gave way without a struggle. In the second city, Moscow, street demonstrations took place only after the victory in Petrograd; there were no barricades, and no shooting in the streets. There was virtually no movement at all in the countryside. The revolution succeeded so quickly and, as it seemed, so radically, ‘. . . as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings have merged, and in a strikingly "harmonious" manner.' (Lenin, 'Letters from Afar First Letter' CW23 p303).

Lenin considered this to be 'The First Stage of the First Revolution'. The next stage would see class interests assert themselves more and more strongly, with a corresponding increase in tension between the Provisional Government and the Soviets. The strength of popular feeling was so great that in this struggle the openly bourgeois parties were of little significance the political battles were fought out between three parties which all considered themselves to be 'socialist': the Socialist Revolutionaries; the Mensheviks; and the Bolsheviks. How did each of these parties propose to resolve the situation of dual power?

The Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs)

For the first 5 months of the revolution, the SRs were apparently by far the strongest party. They had more delegates (400 out of 2,500) to the Petrograd Soviet than the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks put together. In Petrograd, they drew their support from two main sources the soldiers, who were mainly peasants, and the petty bourgeoisie; in Moscow, they also had a strong attraction for the peasant-workers who formed a much larger proportion (27%) of the workforce than in Petrograd.

The petty bourgeoisie  professional people, white-collar workers, and small traders joined the SRs in large numbers. The upper middle classes did so because their traditional party, the Kadets, was too obviously conservative; the lower, a powerless social class, because the SRs' vague radicalism seemed to promise an improvement in their position without a struggle.

The SRs were 'Socialist' in name only, as they considered the socialisation of industry premature under Russian conditions; and their claim to be 'Revolutionaries' was equally misleading. They did not desire the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, only a substantial series of concessions by the bourgeoisie to the peasantry and workers.

Outside the towns, the SRs had widespread support among the peasantry and the rural intelligentsia, based on their agrarian programme demanding that land was to belong ‘to all the people', a central feature of the SR programme since its first party congress (1906).

The Mensheviks

At its first effective congress, July-August 1903, the Russian socialist movement split into two groups. The majority, the Bolsheviks (literally ‘Majorityites') wanted a centralised, disciplined organisation of committed revolutionaries; the minority, the Mensheviks, (‘Minorityites') thought that a loose organisation, which included well-intentioned sympathisers, would suffice.

This expressed different political conceptions of the Russian revolution. The Mensheviks considered that in a backward, mainly agricultural country such as Russia, the conditions were not ripe for a struggle for socialism. The working class was to support the liberal bourgeoisie in a struggle against Tsarism, to ensure the victory of capitalism which alone could create the material preconditions for socialism. Thus the working class party did not need to be organised for a direct struggle for power, only to support the bourgeoisie. The Mensheviks feared and distrusted the peasantry as a 'dark force' of ignorance and reaction.

In 1917, the Mensheviks' position was very similar to that of the SRs: the Soviets should pressurise the Provisional Government into making concessions to the working class and peasantry, but their ultimate objective was a democratic capitalist republic.

In the towns they were supported by the backward workers and the labour aristocracy which, compared to Europe, was an insignificant social group. Nationally, the Mensheviks' power base was Georgia, an area in which small traders and middle peasants predominated.

The Bolsheviks

Since 1903, the Bolsheviks had consistently argued for a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the peasantry, recognising that the bourgeoisie would not carry through the struggle against Tsarism. Because of its opposition to the war, it had suffered severe repression. Nonetheless, in 1917 it had substantial support among the factory workers in Petrograd. Yet it was a tiny minority in the Soviets, lagging well behind the Mensheviks. Although its programme expressed the interests of the peasantry, it had as yet little direct influence outside the towns.

At the outbreak of the revolution it had no centralised leadership inside Russia. During the revolutionary days, Bolshevik workers, especially in the Vyborg District, played a leading role, but acting as collectively-minded class-conscious workers rather than being directed by a party centre.

With the fall of the dynasty, Lenin, in exile in Switzerland wrote 5 'Letters from Afar' (7-26 March), explaining the tasks of the party. Essentially, the Provisional Government should not be trusted, as it would not bring peace, bread, freedom and land. At first the Bolshevik Party in Russia adopted the same position. Its paper, Pravda (‘Truth') reappeared on 5 March under the editorship of Molotov, denouncing the Provisional Government as 'a government of capitalists and landowners'. Vyborg District party resolutions called for the recognition of the Soviet as a provisional revolutionary government.

However, from 13 March, when Stalin and Kamenev took over the editorship of Pravda and under the influence of the middle-class elements of the Party leadership, the party veered sharply right, towards the Mensheviks. The Provisional Government was now to be supported 'insofar as' it took measures favourable to the working class and peasantry.

The struggle to decide the vital issues of the revolution peace, land and freedom was only just beginning, yet the only previously consistent revolutionary party seemed to be joining the ranks of the opportunists. How did the Bolshevik Party rearm itself? How did the masses react to the growing struggle for power between the Provisional Government and the Soviets?


THE SOCIALIST REVOLUTIONARIES formed early 1906, mainly supported by the peasantry and the rural intelligentsia, demanded the socialisation of the land: the Soviet should force the Provisional Government to make concessions. Its left, internationalist wing, was strongly opposed to the war.

THE MENSHEVIKS formed August 1903, based on the labour aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie, and especially strong in Georgia. Supported the Provisional Government, as it did not consider the working class strong enough to take power. Its left wing was internationalist and supported radical democratic measures.

THE BOLSHEVIKS formed August 1903, communists: supported by the working class and the oppressed; for an alliance of the working class and peasantry to take power via the Soviets.