The russian february revolution of 1917: Anarchist resonances

On International Women’s Day, February 23, 1917, after almost three years of war, women textile workers in Petrograd illegally struck over a food shortage. Soon other workers joined in the strike. By the end of the day, 75,000 workers were on strike. On the following day, 200,000 workers struck. The next, the strike was general, with almost 400,000 participating, including students, teachers, and white-collar workers across Petrograd.

Then on February 27, the military garrisons in Petrograd revolted, coming over to the side of the revolution and opening the armories to the workers. Over the next few days, the revolution spread to neighboring cities and garrisons. By March 2, the Tsar abdicated the throne. (International Socialist Review)

The Russian February Revolution of 1917 was the first of two political revolutions in the country that year and it brought to an end a centuries old royal dynasty and opened the stage for radical social change.

For most of the 20th century, anti-capitalist movements would in large part define themselves in relation to the Soviet revolution of October.  For anarchists, libertarians and other anti-authoritarians, that revolution would end in tragedy.  But the February events held out other possibilities, possibilities that are captured in two texts below, originally published on Robert Graham’s Anarchism Weblog.

The first is an excerpt from Voline’s The Unknown Revolution, in which he describes the February Revolution as one freed of political vanguard party control, that is, as a spontaneous uprising that issued forth from a serious of circumstances and the responses to them by opposing forces, that ended in the overthrow of the monarchy.  If there was a history of radical political organising that preceded the events, the latter unpredictably overflowed efforts at political party domestication.  In other words, events, at each stage, were not politically controlled, but they would lead nevertheless to the beginnings of a social revolution; a libertarian revolution prefigured and then destroyed when centralised, hierarchical political power sabotaged and destroyed collective self-management.

The second text is from the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalists of the time, in which they set forth their approach to revolution, with their ultimate goal being anarchist communism.

(This will be the first of a series of posts that we hope to dedicate to the Russian Revolution, on this the occasion of its centenary).


Voline: The February 1917 Revolution in Russia

The February Revolution

On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.

Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: “Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!”

Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd — except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: “Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!”

Finally — and this was the key point of the episode — nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.

Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.

In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.

But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.

This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.

Shouts of “Down with Tsarism!”, “Down with the War!”, and “Long live the Revolution!” rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.

Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.

During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot. In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.

Tsar Nicholas II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.

The decisive action occurred on February 27, 1917.

From early morning, whole regiments of the Petrograd garrison, no longer hesitant, mutinied, left their barracks, arms in hand, and took over certain strategic points in the capital, after brief skirmishes with the police. The Revolution gained ground.

At a given moment, a dense mass of demonstrators, defiant and grimly threatening, and partially armed, assembled in Znamenskaya Square and in the vicinity of the Nikolaievsky railway station. The Government sent two cavalry regiments from the Imperial Guard, the soldiers it still could trust, as well as a strong detachment of police, both on foot and mounted. The troops were supposed to support and assist the police.

After the usual summons [warning the demonstrators to disperse], the police commander gave an order to charge the crowd. But now another last-moment “miracle” occurred. The officer commanding the Guard cavalrymen raised his sabre, and with a cry of “Charge the police!” launched his two regiments against them. In almost no time the latter were beaten, thrown back, overwhelmed.

Soon the last resistance of the police was broken. The revolutionary troops seized the Government arsenal and occupied all vital points in the city. Surrounded by a delirious multitude, the regiments drew themselves up, with flags unfurled, before the Tauride palace, where the Duma — the poor Fourth Duma — was sitting, and put themselves at its disposal.

Shortly afterward the last regiments of the garrison of Petrograd and its suburbs joined the movement. Tsarism had no more armed forces in the vicinity of the capital. The population was free. The Revolution had triumphed.

The events which presently followed are well known.

A provisional government, composed of influential members of the Duma, was formed and ardently acclaimed by the people.

The provinces enthusiastically joined the Revolution.

Some troops were hastily withdrawn from the front, and were sent by order of the Tsar to the rebel-held capital, but were unable to reach it. For the railroad workers refused to transport them further when they drew near the city. Then the soldiers refused to obey their officers and went over to the Revolution. Some returned to the front; others simply dispersed.

Tsar Nikolai himself, returning to Petrograd by railroad, had his train stopped at Dno station and then had it take him back to Pskov. There he was joined by a delegation from the Duma and by military personages who had joined the Revolution. He could do nothing but accept the situation. After some trifling negotiations he signed his abdication, for himself and his son Alexis, on March 2.

For a moment, the provisional government sought to present the throne to the ex-Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, but he declined the offer, declaring that the fate of the country and the dynasty should be put into the hands of a regularly convoked Constituent Assembly.

The front hailed the accomplished Revolution.

Tsarism had fallen. Formation of the Constituent Assembly was the order of the day. While waiting for it to be called, the provisional government became the official authority — “recognized and responsible”. The first act of the victorious Revolution was over.

We have recounted the facts of this February revolution in some detail in order to bring out in relief the main point:

Once more, the action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party.  Supported by the people in arms — the Army — it was victorious. The element of organization had to be introduced — and was introduced — immediately afterward.

(In any case, because of the repression, all of the central organizations of the political parties of the left, as well as their leaders, were, at the time of the Revolution, far from Russia. Martov of the Social Democratic Party, Tchernoff of the Social Revolutionary Party, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Losovsky, Rykov, Bukharin, et al, were all living abroad. It was not until after the February Revolution that they returned home).

Another significant point also emerges from these events.

Again, immediate and specific impetus was given to the Revolution by the absolute impossibility of Russia continuing the war — an impossibility which naturally was intensified by the obstinacy of the Government. This impossibility resulted from the inextricable chaos into which the war had plunged the nation.

(For the full text of Voline’s work, can be found at The Anarchist Library, as Book 1 and Book 2)


The Russian Revolution: An Anarcho-Syndicalist Approach (1917)

Declaration of the Petrograd Union of Anarcho-Syndicalist Propaganda

The present moment represents a turning point in the history of mankind. The world war, which has already been raging for three years, has revealed with striking clarity the total collapse of the foundations on which contemporary society rests. The clearest testimony to the downfall of the capitalist order is the popular revolution which has erupted throughout Russia and which continues to develop in the direction of a fundamental social upending. In addition, there is the ferment among the proletariat of other capitalist countries, which must sooner or later assume the proportions of a mass revolutionary upheaval. These historical events are of the first importance. They show that the advance guard of the international proletariat, which has been seeking a way out of the intolerable situation arising from the three year war launched by the imperialist bourgeoisie of the great powers, is suddenly faced with the prospect of a full scale social revolution, which hitherto seemed a matter for the distant future.

The need for basic social and economic reconstruction is now felt particularly keenly by the proletariat of Russia. The great disorganization of the economic life of the country, the complete bankruptcy towards which Russia is rapidly moving and which is unavoidable if the inviolability of capitalist forms is to be allowed to persist, requires the immediate organization by the working masses themselves of new forms of economic relations. No social reforms carried out from above by a bourgeois, semi-socialist or even completely socialist Provisional Government or Constituent Assembly can alleviate the economic plight which is growing worse each day. Popular organizations — organizations of the workers and peasants — must not rely on reforms from above but must undertake a direct and fundamental reorganization of contemporary social and economic relationships.

Such an organization is already present to a significant extent. On the very morrow of the overthrow of the house of Romanovs there began a feverish organization of labour at the grass roots level. The Anarcho-Syndicalists, having always set great hopes on the creative spirit of the masses and on their capacity for self-organization during a revolutionary situation, were not disappointed in their expectations. The whole expanse of Russia is now covered by an intricate network of popular organizations: soviets of peasants’, workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, industrial unions, factory committees, unions of landless peasants, etc., etc. And with each day the conviction is growing among the toiling masses that only the people themselves, through their own non-party organizations, can accomplish the task of a fundamental social and economic reconstruction.

The state has already been dealt its first crushing blow. It must now be replaced by an all Russian federation of free cities and free communes, by urban and rural communes united from the bottom up in local, district, and regional federations. Such a political reconstruction will provide a radical solution to the question of full autonomy for small territorial units.

It will also point the way to the solution of complex national questions, which could not be solved as long as the state — even if ‘democratic’ in allowing a measure of autonomy to the nationalities — was preserved. The soviets of workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ deputies, expressing the political will of the masses, must take upon themselves the execution of this political reconstruction of the country on the basis of the widest introduction of federalism.

But the execution of a second and even more important task, that of a total economic reconstruction, must be left to other popular organizations better fitted for the purpose: industrial unions and other economic organizations of workers and peasants. The confiscation of the land, workers’ control over production and further steps towards the complete socialization of the land and the factories can be undertaken only by federations of unions of labouring peasants, industrial unions, factory committees, control commissions and the like in local districts throughout the country. Only an all-Russian union of these organizations of producers, around which will also be mobilized all able bodied elements from the parasitic and intermediary classes of the population, can be capable of reconstructing the whole economic life of the country on new foundations. And this process of fundamental economic reconstruction will develop only to the extent that the importance of political organizations declines while that of economic organizations of producers grows, organizations which can remove the useless political forms of human existence.

The social revolution, which the Russian urban and rural proletariat is working hand in hand to carry out, will be anti-statist in its methods of struggle, syndicalist in its economic content and federalist in its political tasks. Its triumph will thus herald the creation of a social system that will naturally and relatively painlessly evolve in the direction of the full realization of the anarchist communist ideal.


Closely related to the Anarcho-Syndicalist conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution is our position on the question of the war. A durable peace among nations cannot be established from above by the imperialist governments. It can only be the result of a victorious uprising of the proletariat of all the belligerent countries, which will make an end to the predatory competition of the capitalists and prepare the way for the unity of free peoples. Thus the continuation and deepening of the revolution in Russia — its transformation into a social revolution — is a factor of enormous international significance. An ‘offensive’, allegedly launched with the aim of liberation, can only benefit the capitalists of both sides, who are interested in a ‘victorious’ conclusion of the war. It cannot benefit the people, who everywhere yearn for an end to war for all time as well as for the overthrow of the capitalist yoke.

The Anarcho-Syndicalists, now as well as before the overthrow of the autocracy, are well aware that ‘the main enemy is within your own country’, and that the slogan of domestic peace is equivalent to a surrender of all the gains won by the people to the counter-revolution. Only through the continuation and deepening of the Russian Revolution can the conditions be created for the kind of peace that will foster a revolutionary outbreak among the proletarian masses of Germany. Those proletarian masses are already freeing themselves from the noxious influence of the Social Imperialists [pro-war Social Democrats], who have been throwing the revolutionary internationalists in prison and subjecting them to every other form of persecution. Only the final triumph of the Russian Revolution will make possible an international revolution, and only the success of the international revolution can in turn secure the new social order in Russia.

The forms and nature of the activity undertaken by the Anarcho-Syndicalists in Russia flow logically from their conception of the content and tasks of the Russian Revolution. The Anarcho-Syndicalists do not form a separate political party because they believe that the liberation of the working masses must be the task only of workers’ and peasants’ non-party organizations. They enter all such organizations and spread propaganda about their philosophy and their ideal of a stateless commune, which in essence merely represents the deepening and systematization of the beliefs and methods of struggle put forward by the working masses themselves. Adopting the position that the basic purpose of any social upheaval must be economic reconstruction, the Anarcho-Syndicalists will apply their energies above all to work in those mass economic organizations which must carry out the reorganization of production and consumption on completely new lines.

June 4, 1917


Yiddish-Anarchist song “In ale gasn/Hey, hey, daloy politsey!”(“Down with the Police”)


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