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Was there a parliamentary alternative to revolution?

This article is over 6 years, 7 months old
Workers in revolt lost faith in the capitalist parliament—and looked towards a better system
Issue 2573
Members of the Provisional Government
Members of the Provisional Government

The February Revolution in Russia in 1917 shifted society leftwards and discredited bourgeois democracy.

As historian Mike Haynes put it, “At no point in 1917 could unambiguously pro-capitalist parties have come anywhere near achieving a respectable minority vote in any electoral test.”

Yet many in Russia at the time, including the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Menshevik parties, argued that the revolution must be a bourgeois one.

They wanted compromise with a capitalist class that was organising to smash the revolution.

The Provisional Government set up after February aimed to bring in more democratic freedoms, not to transform society. But the revolution pushed beyond those limits as class antagonisms intensified.

The revolution was partly driven by a desire to end the war. But most of the Russian ruling class remained committed to it.

Bosses tried to placate workers with workplace reforms—and became more hostile when their plan failed. Peasants hoped that the revolution would give them land, but landowners organised to block it.

Those who argued for a bourgeois revolution effectively backed the bosses and landlords. Menshevik Skobelev argued, “The transfer of enterprises into the hands of the people would not at the present time assist the revolution.”

The interests of the ruling class conflicted with the revolution, but bourgeois democracy couldn’t offer a solution. The crisis was too acute to simply move to a stable capitalist system.

Many industrialists hoped for a successful coup by General Kornilov. But the Provisional Government fell apart after the coup failed in September. Attempts at new coalitions were paralysed by divisions on whether the bourgeoisie, in particular the main capitalist party the Cadets, should be included.


The experience of the failures of compromise, and sharp arguments, won more workers to backing the Bolsheviks. The Soviets, or workers’ councils, easily seized power in Petrograd on 24-25 October partly because the Provisional Government no longer had support.

The Second Congress of Soviets met on 25 October.

Menshevik Martov argued for a socialist coalition. But the representatives of the main Menshevik groups walked out along with right wing SRs. Haynes wrote how this left Martov “plaintively echoing his call for unity with those who had left”.

The rail union Vikzhel demanded talks between all sides to develop a new coalition government.

The Mensheviks and SRs first demanded that the Bolsheviks be excluded, then that Bolshevik leaders Lenin and Trotsky be excluded.

The SRs and Mensheviks refused to negotiate a meaningful coalition. And the class conflicts at the heart of society stopped any deal being done.

On 28 October officers and cadets staged an insurrection against the revolution. This pushed Vikzhel to declare that those on the right “do not want compromise” but “total capitulation”.

There was no capitalist democratic alternative in Russia in 1917. And the Soviet insurrection didn’t cause the revolution’s defeat.

The revolution failed because it didn’t spread. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, its failure would be “because social democracy in the West consists of miserable and wretched cowards who will look quietly on and let the Russians bleed to death”.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution

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