The paradox of February


Leon Trotsky

Continuing a series of extracts from Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. On 2 March 1917 a Provisional Government is formed; it has the support of the Petrograd soviet. Trotsky explains why the February revolution ended with a transfer of power to the liberal bourgeoisie.

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If you look only backward to past ages, the transfer of power to the bourgeoisie seems sufficiently regular: in all past revolutions who fought on the barricades were workers, apprentices, in part students, and the soldiers came over to their aside. But afterwards the solid bourgeoisie, having cautiously watched the barricades through their windows, gathered up the power.

But the February revolution of 1917 was distinguished from former revolutions by the incomparably higher social character and political level of the revolutionary class, by the hostile distrust of the insurrectionists toward the liberal bourgeoisie, and the consequent formation at the very moment of victory of a new organ of revolutionary power, Soviet, based upon the armed strength of the masses.

In these circumstances the transfer of power to a politically isolated and unarmed bourgeoisie demands explanation. Was not the Soviet democracy compelled by the objective situation to renounce the power in favour of the big bourgeoisie?

The bourgeoisie itself did not think so. We have already seen that it not only did not expect power from the revolution, but on the contrary foresaw in it a mortal danger to its whole social situation. The experience of 1905 had too significantly hinted to the liberals that a victory of the workers and peasants might prove no less dangerous to the bourgeoisie than to the monarchy. It would seem that the course of the February insurrection had only confirmed this foresight. However formless in many respects may have been the political ideas of the revolutionary masses in those days, the dividing line between the toilers and the bourgeoisie was at any rate implacably drawn.

Stankevich who was close to liberal circles — a friend, not an enemy of the Progressive Bloc — characterises in the following way the mood of those circles on the second day after the overturn which they had not succeeded in preventing: “Officially they celebrated, eulogised the revolution, cried ‘Hurrah!’ to the fighters for freedom, decorated themselves with red ribbons and marched under red banners... But in their souls, their conversations tête-à-tête, they were horrified...”

The power was from the very first moment in the hands of the soviet — upon that question the Duma members less than anybody else could cherish that illusion. The Octobrist deputy Shidlovsky, one of the leaders of the Progressive Bloc, relates how, “The Soviet seized all the Post and Telegraph bureaux, the wireless, all the Petrograd railroad stations, all the printing establishments, so that without its permission it was impossible to send a telegram, to leave Petrograd, or to print an appeal.”

How did it happen then that in such a situation the liberals turned out to be in power? A minority of the revolutionary class actually participates in the insurrection, but the strength of that minority lies in the support, or at least sympathy, of the majority. The active and militant minority inevitably puts forward under fire from the enemy its more revolutionary and self-sacrificing element. It is thus natural that in the February fights the worker-Bolshevik occupied the leading place. But the situation changes the moment the victory is won and its political fortification begins. The elections to the organs and institutions of the victorious revolution attract and challenge infinitely broader masses than those who battled with arms in their hands.

This is true not only of general democratic institutions like the city dumas and zemstvos, or later on, the Constituent Assembly, but also of class institutions, like the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. An overwhelming majority of the workers, Menshevik, Social Revolutionary and non-party, supported the Bolsheviks at the moment of direct grapple with Tsarism. But only a small minority of the workers understood that the Bolsheviks were different from other socialist parties.

At the same time, however, all the workers drew a sharp line between themselves and the bourgeoisie. This fact determined the political situation after the victory. The workers elected socialists, that is, those who were not only against the monarchy, but against the bourgeoisie. In doing this they made almost no distinction between the three socialist parties. And since the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries comprised infinitely larger ranks of the intelligentsia — who came pouring in from all sides — and thus got into their hands immediately an immense staff of agitators, the elections, even in shops and factories, gave them an enormous majority.

Meanwhile the socialists, having so easily arrived at the head of the soviets, were worrying about only one question: will the bourgeoisie, politically isolated, hated by the masses and hostile through and through to the revolution, consent to accept the power from our hands? Its consent must be won at any cost. And since obviously a bourgeoisie cannot renounce its bourgeois programme, we, the “socialists,” will have to renounce ours: we will have to keep still about the monarchy, the war, the land, if only the bourgeoisie will accept the gift of power. In carrying out this operation, the “socialists,” as though to ridicule themselves, continued to designate the bourgeoisie no otherwise than as their class enemy. In the ceremonial forms of their worship was thus introduced an act of arrant blasphemy.

The fundamental character of a revolution lies in its carrying the class struggle to its conclusion. A revolution is a direct struggle for power. Nevertheless, our “socialists” are not worried about getting the power away from the class enemy who does not possess it, and could not with his own forces seize it, but, just the opposite, with forcing this power upon him at any cost.