Socialist Worker

Was the Russian Revolution completely spontaneous?

Workers and soldiers spontaneously rose up against the Tsar many times—but it took organisation to carry this through to victory

Issue No. 2541

Workers demonstrate in 1917. But was their revolution spontaneous?

Workers demonstrate in 1917. But was their revolution 'spontaneous'?


For many establishment historians, the question of who organised the Russian Revolution decides whether it was legitimate.

They say that the October revolution of 1917, when workers seized power, was a “coup” because the Bolshevik party led it.

They contrast this with the revolution in February that toppled the Tsar, supposedly spontaneously.

Revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s detailed History of the Russian Revolution shows up the crudeness of this division—and the motives for maintaining it.

Workers and soldiers won the February revolution. But as Trotsky wrote, “There still remains the great question— who led the revolution?”

For most commentators these questions “were solved most simply by the universal formula— nobody led the revolution, it happened of itself”.

This “mystic doctrine of spontaneousness” suited “those gentlemen who had yesterday been peacefully governing, judging, convicting, defending, trading, or commanding, and today were hastening to make up to the revolution”.

It comforted those socialists who “slept through the revolution”.

Organisations

And it was half true. The action of workers and soldiers themselves was crucial. Most political organisations either had no influence among workers or no wish for a revolution.

The Bolsheviks were the exception, but fierce repression had left them “headless”—leaders in exile, activists scattered, publications banned.

Yet for workers and soldiers scattered across the country to rise up at the same time without organisation would have been an astonishing coincidence.

To keep the fight up for five days in the face of opposition from the state, the media and virtually all the political parties would have been even more of a feat.

Workers and soldiers weren’t just a formless mass. In each workplace or garrison they were shaped by experiences, collective discussions and leaders.

The workers had learned from waves of strikes, betrayals by liberal reformers and crucially the 1905 revolution that was crushed by the army. The soldiers knew enough to blame their suffering on their own rulers, and to reach out to workers as their allies.

Organised revolutionaries and their publications had shaped these debates.

Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam

Leon Trotsky

Trotsky concluded that “conscious and tempered workers educated for the most part by the party” had “led the revolution”.

But despite beating the Tsar, workers and soldiers weren’t in a position to stop supporters of capitalism and war from stealing the revolution.

Getting it back would take much sharper debates—and a much greater degree of organisation.

The “conscious and tempered workers” poured into the Bolsheviks, and this made all the difference.

To defeat the Tsar was possible with an uprising in the capital alone. To beat the whole Russian state would take an uprising across Russia. The Bolsheviks’ influence helped stop workers in the capital going too early, or those elsewhere going too late.

And a degree of secrecy was necessary in organising the storming of the state’s headquarters. If this had been left to “spontaneity”, the state would have had warning to prepare its defences—if it happened at all.

Crucially, the party ensured that the argument against going backwards was won among workers, despite the best efforts of the generals, bosses and reformist socialists.

This made the Russian Revolution’s outcome so different to other revolutions before and since.

Trotsky concluded, “Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.”

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read more of our coverage at tinyurl.com/sw1917

22 February (6 March in the modern ‘New Style’ calendar)

The Tsar leaves for the General Headquarters in Mogilev. Meanwhile, the bosses of the Putilov Plant lock-out striking workers

The February revolution begins on 23 February, after women textile workers inititiate a massive strike in the capital Petrograd


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