SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 206 March 2017

The character of the February revolution

This article by LEON TROTSKY explains the historical background to the second Russian revolution (February 1917), the weakness of the capitalists, their desire to derail the revolution and the central role of the working class in shaping events. Trotsky calls for united revolutionary action across national borders, and immediate, fundamental land reform in Russia. The article was first published in Die Zukunft (The Future), a Yiddish language socialist paper in New York, April 1917, with the title: 1905-1917, The Immediate Tasks of the Present Revolution. The translation here – by Pete Dickenson, and for the first time in English – is from the Russian version of Trotsky Complete Works, Volume 3, Part 1, Moscow-Leningrad 1924.

The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 ended the stormy period of the formation of European nation states. An era of political stagnation began. In the bowels of capitalist societies antagonisms accumulated, unprecedented in history; but none of them were revealed in a sharp form. The great artistry of the ruling classes was that they glossed over the contradictions, smoothed over the cracks and put off to the future all the great questions. Possibilism, adapting to circumstances, became a powerful tradition. In such an environment the psychology of two generations was formed. Revolution was considered to be an obsolete method of political ‘barbarism’, belonging entirely to the past. Revolutionaries seemed fantasists, remnants of political forms long passed by.

The Russo-Japanese war and the Russian revolution of 1905 dealt a sharp blow to possibilist prejudices. These events echoed around the world. In Austria, the Russian revolution immediately led to the winning of universal suffrage. In Germany, the political conservatism of the Social Democracy was shaken, and at its Jena Congress the party adopted the idea of the general strike ‘in principle’. In France, revolutionary syndicalism reared its head, in opposition to deeply opportunist and unprincipled French parliamentarianism. In Britain a workers’ party was formed.(1)

But it did not come to an open conflict between the proletariat and the state in Europe. Whereas in the East, in Asia, Persia, Turkey and China, the Russian events found a mighty response and directly led to revolutions, in Europe they produced only a psychological jolt, after which everything remained as before. The Russian revolution was strangled by the combined forces of tsarism and European capitalist reaction. Its collapse revived the spirit of opportunism everywhere. The period between 1907 and 1914 was in the labour movement a time of narrow-minded conservatism and the most limited of struggles. But for revolutionaries, history was preparing a brilliant revenge.

A bourgeois revolution?

On this occasion, Russia took the initiative. Some people, reasoning with certain formulas or not reasoning at all, believe that the whole question in Russia can be summed up by this: that the ‘bourgeois revolution’ is proceeding. In reality, this only raises the question, what is this bourgeois revolution? What are its inner forces and future prospects?

In the great French revolution at the end of the 18th century, the main driving force was the petty bourgeoisie, holding under its influence the peasant masses. Where is the petty bourgeoisie in Russia? Its economic role is negligible. Russian capitalism began to develop from the outset in the highest of centralised forms. The Russian proletariat militantly opposed the Russian bourgeoisie, class against class, as far back as the eve of the first Russian revolution in 1905. Thus, there are profound differences between the Russian revolution and French revolution at the end of the 18th century. With historical analogies alone not much will be achieved here; you need to look at the living forces and determine their line of development.

Between our revolution and the uprising of the ‘Third Estate’ in France [in 1789] lies, exactly in between, the German revolution of 1848. The latter, it seems, also was a bourgeois revolution. But the German bourgeoisie by then did not have the strength to fulfil its revolutionary mission. Characterising the events of the year 1848, Marx wrote:

"The German bourgeoisie evolved to be sluggish, cowardly and slow, to such an extent that at the moment when it finally rose up against feudalism and absolutism, it saw in front of it the threat of the proletariat and of those layers of bourgeois society, whose interests and outlook were close to the proletariat.

"The Prussian bourgeoisie was not the same as the French bourgeoisie in 1789, ie that class which considered itself an entirely new society in its struggle against the dominant forces of the old order, with the regal power and the monarchy. The German bourgeoisie had already degenerated as a separate class, which stood, in equal measure, against the crown and against the people. It was hostile to both and indecisive in relation to each of its adversaries, because it belonged itself to the same old society…

"Not because it stood at the helm of the revolution, with the people behind it, but because it was pushed there by the people… Without faith in itself or belief in the people, grumbling against the upper strata, trembling before the masses, egotistical on both fronts and conscious of its egotism, revolutionary against the conservatives, conservative against the revolutionaries.

"Not trusting its own slogans, using phrases instead of ideas, frightened by the global storm but exploiting it… vulgar for lacking originality, original only in its vulgarity, profiteering from its own lusts, without initiative, without faith in itself or the people, without a world historical mission – an accursed old man who, it turned out, was condemned to lead and, in his own senile interests, to take advantage of the first youthful movement of the mighty people – without eyes, without ears, without teeth, without everything. Thus stood the Prussian bourgeoisie at the helm of the Prussian state after the March revolution".(2)

Timorous liberals, militant workers

Reading this description, written by the hand of the great master, do we not recognise our bourgeoisie and its leaders? Our bourgeoisie came onto the political arena even later than the German. The Russian proletariat is much stronger, more independent and conscious than the German proletariat was in 1848. General European development has long ago put the question of the social revolution on the agenda. All these circumstances have taken from the liberal Russian bourgeoisie the last remnants of self-belief and trust in the people.

You have to be surprised that the tsar slighted the liberal bourgeoisie with such shamelessness. He convenes the Duma when he needs a new loan and when he gets it he dismisses the deputies and sends them home. Responding to their demand for a ‘ministry of public trust’ he immediately appoints the wildest reactionaries. The court camarilla continually provoked Guchkov and Miliukov,(3) the better to prove it was not afraid of them. And from its point of view it was right.

It knew that however strong the hatred of the representatives of liberal bourgeoisie towards the gang at the court, they could not make up their mind to begin a revolutionary struggle against it, out of fear of the working masses. "If the road to victory went through revolution", Miliukov declared several months ago, "then we would renounce the victory". As far as the liberal bourgeoisie were concerned, [Tsar] Nikolai could sleep peacefully. He knew that their weakness paralysed their hatred towards him.

It was a completely different matter with the proletariat. On the eve of the war, it was in a state of extreme revolutionary agitation. The number of workers participating in the political and economic strikes in 1914 was comparable to the numbers in 1905. In the summer of 1914, when Poincaré came to St Petersburg [renamed Petrograd in September 1914] to make final preparations for the imminent European conflict, the French president had the opportunity to see in the capital the first barricades of the second Russian revolution. The movement of 1912-14 had developed on a far more powerful scale, drawing on the experience of the stormiest and most decisive decade in Russian history.

Like ten years earlier, the declaration of war immediately cut across the development of the revolutionary movement. The disintegration of the [Second] International very badly affected the vanguard of the proletariat. Thirty-one months of war passed before the working masses took to the streets of Petrograd, months of defeats, of government scandals, of the Sukhomlinov and Rasputin affairs, of the high cost of living, of general collapse and hunger.(4)

They came out against the will of the entire 6th March liberal bourgeoisie.(5) On the eve of the general strike, the press called on the workers not to disrupt the normal flow of production so as not to harm military operations. But this did not deter the starving women. They took to the streets with the slogan ‘bread and peace’. The workers of the capital supported them. The general strike immediately pushed the conflict between the Duma and the ministers into the background. The proletarian masses brought the life of the city to a halt. They filled the streets and showed that, for them, the issue was not about a demonstration but an open revolutionary struggle with the government.

A void in state power

The support of the army determined the fate of the revolution in its first stage. The Petrograd workers were at this point still not organised, and not sufficiently linked to the proletariat of the rest of Russia to be able to take power into their own hands. But they were strong enough to put the tsar and his ministers into the dustbin. There was thus a void in state power. Only at that moment did the Progressive Bloc appear on the scene.

Rodzianko, Guchkov, Miliukov – the same ones who had fought to the last moment with all their power against the revolution – were compelled to lend a hand to the state, at the time when the revolution had overthrown the old order. "Not because", as Marx wrote, "they stood at the helm of the revolution with the people behind them, but because they were pushed there by the people".

To this was added further strong pressure from London and Paris. The danger that Russia, paralysed by ‘anarchy’, would quit the war, not only frustrated the plans for the great spring offensive (the third), but could also embarrass the American bourgeoisie on the eve of its entry into the war. It was necessary to act in this way so that Russia would immediately appear to have a ‘credible’ government, which would declare, in the name of the revolution, that the new Russia would assume all the financial and diplomatic obligations of the old regime and, above all, continue the war to a ‘victorious conclusion’. Such a government could be created only by the Progressive Bloc.

The government of [Prince] Lvov introduced freedom of the press and assembly and declared an amnesty. But these measures did not resolve any of the basic issues that led to the revolution, and were conceded only to provide an outlet for the people’s anger. The war remained. So did high prices, famine and financial crisis. And the agrarian question remained in all its sharpness.

Revolution uncontained

The working masses will now arise, section after section, demanding an improvement in working conditions and protesting against the war. The peasant masses will rise up in villages and, without waiting for the decision of a Constituent Assembly, will begin to eject the big landowners from their estates. All efforts to eliminate the class struggle, using the danger of a counter-revolutionary coup d'état as an excuse, will come to nothing. Philistines think that revolutions are made by revolutionaries, who can stop it at any point, according to their wishes. The logic of the class struggle and of revolutionary collisions remains for the philistines a book sealed with seven seals.

To bring together the proletariat of all countries, in united revolutionary action, is the main task of the Social Democracy. In contrast to the government of bourgeois-imperialist liberalism, the working class fights under the banner of peace. The sooner the Russian proletariat convinces the German working masses that the revolution is for peace and for national self-determination, the sooner the anger of the German proletariat will break out into open insurrection. The struggle of the Russian Social Democracy for peace is directed against bourgeois liberalism. Such a fight can strengthen the revolution and transfer it to European soil.

The confiscation of the lands of the Romanovs, the landowners and the monasteries is the second condition to strengthen the revolution. Political philistines, in particular those who consider themselves socialists, are trying to discount the chances of a republic in Russia because of the number of peasants who cannot read and write. But this proves only their own political illiteracy. If the revolution gives to the Russian peasants the land belonging to the tsar and the landowners, the peasants will use all their might to protect their property against the monarchist counter-revolution.


1. The Labour Party was formed in 1906 although its forerunner, the Labour Representation Committee, had existed since 1900, and the Independent Labour Party earlier than that.

2. According to research by David Riazanov, who was the head of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow after the October revolution, the quote is actually from Friedrich Engels. For a fuller version and context see: Marx and Engels: The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution, December 1848, Articles from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, The Pelican Marx Vol. 1: Revolutions of 1848, 1973.

3. Alexander Guchkov led the Octobrist Party, Pavel Miliukov the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets), both of which supported the war and the monarchy.

4. Vladimir Sukhomlinov was the war minister until he was dismissed in 1916, accused of abuse of power and treason. He was released after six months, reputedly after the intervention of Rasputin and the tsarina. This caused a great scandal, possibly more damaging to the regime than the Rasputin affair itself.

5. The ‘6th March liberal bourgeoisie’ refers to the leaders of the Progressive Bloc, formed by Miliukov, Guchkov and Rodzianko, and their supporters.

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