Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2554

Will only downtrodden workers fight back?

This article is over 6 years, 9 months old
Issue 2554
Russian troops marching in 1917
Russian troops marching in 1917

War and hunger sparked the Russian Revolution in 1917, but will only such desperate conditions lead to a revolution?

After the Russian Revolution the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin described the conditions necessary for such an upheaval to take place.

“It is only when the ‘lower classes’ do not want to live in the old way and the ‘upper classes’ cannot carry on in the old way that the revolution can triumph,” he wrote.

In Russia these conditions developed in the context of the First World War.

The combination of mass killings on the front line and hardship at home caused a political crisis for the ruling class.

A woman worker summed up the situation during a food riot in 1916. “They are slaughtering our husbands and our sons in the war and at home they want to starve us to death,” she said.

This intensified the anger over the total lack of democracy.


Mutiny wracked the armed forces. The February revolution saw a revolt by sailors at the Kronstadt naval base against their officers.

Later the peasant-based army saw mass desertions and refusals to fight.

But it’s not true that workers were passive before the war.

The years leading up to it saw huge struggles.

As revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, “In July 1914, while the diplomats were driving the last nail into the cross designed for the crucifixion of Europe, Petrograd was boiling like a revolutionary cauldron.”

The declaration of war choked off the development of a revolutionary movement.

The number of strikes dropped rapidly when Russia entered the war.

Marxist historian SA Smith shows that in “1915 there were 1,928 strikes. And in January-February 1917 there were 718 strikes involving 548,300 workers.”

These figures were dwarfed by those for 1905.

But this was only temporary. Soon strikes returned—on a higher and more political level than in 1914.

War, hunger and demands for political change came together explosively. Not all workers opposed the war, but many did.

War reveals the reality of class relations in the most bitter and brutal way.

But that does not mean it is necessary for a revolution to take place.

The 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and others did not take place directly during wars.

Nor is it true that the more starving and desperate workers are, the more likely they are to revolt.

The most appalling conditions and experiences can lead to passivity and resignation, not insurrection.


During the First World War the most militant workers tended to be the most skilled and better paid, and they were also less likely to be sent to the front.

Elsewhere in Europe some of the most determined strikes during and after the war were led by the metalworkers in Germany and Italy.

The danger for revolutionaries is to say that there are specific conditions which must be met before a revolution is possible.

That would lead to looking at the world in a simplistic and dogmatic way.

The job of revolutionaries is to find the key arguments that can gain traction with the workers and spur them on to fight for their own interests.

This is part of a series of weekly articles on the Russian Revolution. Read our coverage at

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance