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Collection « Les sciences sociales contemporaines »

The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime.
From the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917

Une édition électronique réalisée à partir du livre de Mark-David Mandel, The Petrograd Workers and the Fall of the Old Regime. From the February Revolution to the July Days, 1917. London: MACMILLAN, Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd., in association with the Centre for Russian and East European Studies University of Birmingham. 1st edition, 1983. Reprinted, 1990, 220 pp. + 10 pp. Une édition numérique réalisée par Marcelle Bergeron, bénévole, professeure retraitée de l'École polyvalente Dominique-Racine de Chicoutimi.


No historical event arouses political passions as much as revolution, and no statement about the upheaval of 1917 provokes more controversy than the assertion that it was a proletarian revolution, a view which one scholar recently consigned in less than a paragraph to 'the realm of revolutionary mythology'. [1] And yet, a systematic study of working-class attitudes and activity in Petrograd, the heart of the revolution, leads one inexorably to the conclusion that this was indeed a workers' revolution. It was, of course, not only that; so complex and multi-faceted an event cannot be reduced to any simple formula. The Russian Revolution was, among other things, a soldiers' mutiny, a peasant rebellion, a movement of national minorities. Moreover, the autocracy's demise in February was facilitated by the krizis verkhov, the disaffection of the upper classes that had ripened towards the end of 1916, embracing even the most conservative elements of society, the landowners organised in the United Nobility, as well as significant strata of the bureaucracy and officer staff, who, if not quite of a revolutionary turn of mind, were stiff little inclined to join battle to save the discredited regime. Nevertheless, in the struggle for state power that culminated in the Bolshevik-led Soviet seizure of power in Petrograd, it was the working class that led the way, providing the mass movement with direction, organisation and a vastly disproportionate part of the active revolutionary forces. 

This book is the first part of a study of a largely uncharted area of the Russian Revolution. Its aim is to offer a coherent account and analysis of the attitudes and behaviour of Petrograd’s industrial workers relative to three issues of the revolution that were uppermost in their minds: the war, economic regulation, and the question that eventually subsumed all others – state power. 

Until recently Western scholarly work on this period has focused largely on leaders and institutions. Although in the past few years writers have begun to turn their attention to the lower strata of society, studies of the working class that systematically utilise the extensive primary sources now available are still few and far between. [2] 

This paucity of monographs on the workers in the Western literature on the revolution invites reflection on some of the assumptions that have predominated in the historiography. To the extent that the urban masses have entered the picture in past studies, they have appeared principally as an elemental, basically anarchistic force which the ultimate victors of the battle at the summits of power were able to harness and manipulate to their ends. Rarely is anything approaching political consciousness attributed to the workers, and even more rarely to the great man of workers that supported the Bolsheviks and soviet power. 

Unfortunately, the view of popular involvement in revolutions as essentially irrational is still widely held in the social sciences. One writer has argued that it differs little from the acts of lunatics and criminals. [3] Historians of the Russian Revolution have similarly explained the workers' radicalism in terms of 'instinctive distrust of authority in any form', 'apocalyptic hopes', [4] 'visions of a proletarian paradise', [5] 'blind embracing of maximalist slogans', [6] and the like. Little or no attempt has been made to investigate the relationship between the workers' day-to-day experience in the factories and in the larger society and the goals they pursued. Even less has the assumption that these goals originated exclusively from outside the working class been subjected to empirical scrutiny. 

A corollary of this is the oft-made claim that it was the most recent immigrants from the countryside, uprooted, disoriented and unschooled in political struggle, who were most susceptible to Bolshevik propaganda. [7] A more general formulation of this thesis – that socially unintegrated, 'anomic' individuals, and especially such marginal urban populations as recent immigrants from the village to the factory, are the tinder of revolution – has long been part of the sociological folklore of revolution and has only recently come under fire as a result of the growing number of studies of popular participation in revolutions. [8] 

Not surprisingly, Soviet students of the revolution have written far more extensively on the working class and especially since the 1950s (though much less in the past five years) have produced a number of impressive monographs based upon a wealth of hitherto unavailable materials. Yet, they have not been immune from at least one of the aforementioned assumptions. For all their eulogising of the working class as the leading force of the revolution, in the last analysis they too portray the workers basically as objects, if not of their elemental drives and instincts, then of the leadership provided by the Bolshevik party. True, the workers follow this leadership as a result of conscious decisions based upon their increasingly 'correct' understanding of the objective situation. But this process of radicalisation is generally conceived in such lineal, unproblematic and inevitable terms that in the end we are left with very little understanding of its underlying dynamics. Thus, the overwhelming support of the Petrograd workers for the moderate socialists and dual power in the early part of the revolution is dismissed as essentially 'unconscious', the product of the 'petty bourgeois wave' that swept the working class during the war. [9] The possibility that this position may have, in fact, been quite reasonable from the workers' point of view in the post-February period is hardly entertained. 

It is these as well as other assumptions examined in this study that have left the immediate experience of the workers, and especially their capacity to interpret and act upon this experience, at the margins of history. It is my hope that this book will contribute towards the correction of this imbalance. 

A systematic investigation of the evidence has confirmed me in the view that the workers' participation in the revolution was fundamentally a response to their own experience both in the factory and in the broader societal setting. Even – or rather, especially – the least politically aware and experienced workers, the women and the recent rural immigrants, were not moved by even the most eloquent 'agitation' unless they were able to see a correspondence between the analysis and goals put forward and their own immediate experience. 

The growth of support in the working class for the Bolsheviks was, thus, not the result of the party's successful tapping of the workers' irrational impulses but rather an expression of the growing correspondence between the latter's aspirations and the party's programme and strategy. The progressive radicalisation of the Petrograd workers in 1917 was not an elemental drive toward utopia, not a chiliastic movement, but a cautious and often painful development of consciousness. This was an essentially rational process in the basic sense that it involved much realistic mulling over of means and ends. 

This is not to argue that the revolution was a coldly calculating affair on the workers' part. Culture, as a sort of lens moulded by historical experience through which the workers interpreted and responded to their immediate experiences, is a non-rational factor that must be an integral part of any analysis of working-class politics. Moreover, the revolution of 1917 did not lack its share of idealism. Affective elements such as class honour, rage, as well as the workers' long-term socialist ideals played no small role. The point is, however, that these factors alone would hardly have proven sufficient to move the rank-and-file worker, struggling at his or her lathe to eke out a living, to support, let alone participate in, so uncertain and perilous a venture as the seizure of state power. 

The evolution of working-class attitudes between February and October must be viewed fundamentally in terms of the workers' desire to safeguard the gains of the February Revolution as they conceived it – a democratic republic, an active search for a just peace, and a decent standard of living – in the face of a perceived counterrevolutionary threat from the propertied classes. The demands embodied in the October Insurrection – peace, workers' control and national regulation of the economy, and a firm policy towards the counterrevolution – were first and foremost solutions to concrete problems rooted in the objective conditions of the workers' lives, just as the seizure of power itself was perceived as a defensive response forced upon the workers by the imminent threat of political defeat and economic ruin. 

It follows from this that if the evolution of working-class politics in 1917 is to be fully understood it must be viewed within the framework of the shifting relations between classes. This, in fact, is the basis for the periodisation of this study. 

The period from the February Revolution to the April crisis marked the so-called 'honeymoon' of the revolution when a certain sense of national unity prevailed, and the workers, though distrustful of the propertied classes, supported the dual power system of soviet control and conditional support for the census government. ('Census society' in contemporary usage referred to the propertied classes and the non-socialist intelligentsia. 'Democracy' or 'revolutionary democracy', on the other hand, referred to the nizy (the lower classes – workers, soldiers, peasants and the 'democratic' intelligentsia). In Russia, all of democracy adhered to one or another brand of socialism. 

During the second period, from the April crisis to the July Days, the polarisation that had characterised pre-revolutionary urban society again broke through the veneer of national unity. A majority of Petrograd's workers, suspecting the entrepreneurs of sabotage, alarmed at the growing outspokenness of the census leaders against the soviets, and dissatisfied with the government's foreign policy, began to demand the transfer of power to the soviets - in effect, a dictatorship of 'revolutionary democracy'. But the situation took a bad turn when the moderate socialist leadership of the soviets, as a party to the coalition government, responded with repression to the workers' pressure on it to take power. The soviets, until now vehicles for the realisation of the workers' aspirations, had become obstacles (though the soviets as such, as institutions, were never abandoned). The workers suddenly found themselves isolated by an alliance of the propertied classes and that part of democracy still supporting the Soviet leadership – the intelligentsia, most of the peasantry, and a part of the workers and soldiers, especially outside the capital. It was a political cul-de-sac. To move forward would have meant a split in democracy and civil war. 

The July Days and their aftermath, therefore, forced the workers to confront new and frightening issues; if the revolution was not to go down in defeat, could civil war be avoided? And could they go it alone and hope to succeed under such unfavourable odds? The Bolsheviks' winning over of the soviets in the major urban centres during the autumn, representing a certain 'unity from below', reduced the fears of isolation but did not eliminate them. Attachment to the idea of unity within the socialist camp was still strong among broad strata of workers, and the prospect of a split filled them with foreboding. The intelligentsia would certainly be hostile to a soviet regime, and the peasantry was only beginning to become disillusioned in the coalition. The workers hesitated. 

But the political and economic situation had become so unbearable that it required only the initiative of the more decisive elements of the working class for the rest to follow and rally to the new soviet government. Many workers still hoped that democratic unity could be restored and civil war avoided, but this hope was abandoned once it became evident that the moderate socialists, arguing that Russia was not ripe for working-class hegemony and the socialist experiments that were bound to follow, would have no part in a soviet dictatorship. Moreover, the entrance of the Left SRs (Social Revolutionaries) into the government, signifying an alliance between the workers and at least part of the peasantry, moderated this sense of isolation. October had finally torn Russian society apart, pitting the nizy against the wealthy and educated verkhi (upper classes) and setting the stage for a bitter and protracted civil war. 

The present volume traces these developments to the July Days, a crucial watershed in the revolution that dramatically revealed the split that had developed within the socialist camp, placing in doubt the essentially peaceful perspectives hitherto dominant among the workers. A second volume to follow will examine the process of reorientation among the workers in the new and perplexing post-July situation, culminating in the October Revolution and the outbreak of full-scale civil war in the spring of 1918. 

In my use of sources, in matters pertaining directly to the workers' consciousness and activity, I have relied as far as possible on materials emanating from the workers. I have tried to let the workers speak for themselves in order to allow the reader to enter the atmosphere of the period and the minds of the actors and to make his or her own interpretation of the evidence and draw conclusions. In this way I also hope to lend credence to the contention that the workers were not only no less conscious actors than educated society, but the level of political sophistication among certain elements compared very favourably with that of even the most 'cultured' members of the society, and that the working class as a whole was a crucial creative factor in the development of the revolution. Apart from this methodological concern, these working-class sources, almost all untranslated and not easily accessible to the reader, add life to what otherwise might be a rather dry account of one of the most dramatic episodes of modem history. 

The most valuable type of data in this respect are the direct statements of workers 'at the bench' or in their capacity as elected representatives. These can be found in letters to the press, meeting and conference protocols, newspaper reports and memoirs. In the case of elected delegates and published letters, we are often dealing with a more literate stratum of workers. Nevertheless, these people were in close daily contact with the factories and subject to immediate recall by simple majority vote. Even letters were often collectively written and put to the vote of the factory meeting. Election results to factory committees, district and central soviets, dumas (city government), unions and the Constituent Assembly, constitute another important direct source. 

One of the more abundant types of data are the resolutions of workers' meetings, the use of which requires special comment. The fact that key parts and even entire resolutions often followed closely upon the wording of central party organs obviously limits their value as original formulations of workers' attitudes. However, a number of circumstances must be kept in mind. First, this was a time of very broad political freedom and, except for a few periods of doldrums, one of great popular interest in the 'burning questions' of the day. Published protocols of factory meetings and archival material show that the typical factory assembly began with a report on a specific issue or on the 'current moment', presented by one or more of the factory's delegates to the Petrograd or district soviet or by special outside speakers. After this, representatives of the various party fractions in the factory were heard. Then followed the debate or preniya, often described as 'lengthy and heated', during which workers from the floor could express their views and ask questions. Unfortunately, the secretaries apparently did not feel the need to record these debates, but the very fact that they took place is evidence that the rank-and-file workers had at least a basic sense of the issues. At the conclusion of the meeting, each fraction or bloc would present its resolution. The one receiving a majority of hands was then sent to the press or the Soviet. In this way, even a centrally prepared resolution was at the least an indication of which of the main political positions the majority of workers found most attractive. 

Other resolutions, however, were written by local party workers from the factory or district, and though usually based upon central party policy, did reflect more closely local issues, attitudes and moods. Thus, resolutions from specific factories tended to show a strong element of consistency in the nature of their concerns and the degree of militancy. One must also bear in mind that in 1917 the relationship between leadership and rank-and-file was by no means one-sided. Local leaders not only had to take the mass mood into account but they themselves were often infected by it, at times even to the detriment of central party policy. A notable example of this is the behaviour of local Bolshevik leaders in the July Days and their less than enthusiastic abandonment of the popular slogan 'All power to the soviets', despite official party policy. The Menshevik – Internationalists and Left SRs had similar cause to complain after October when they found the Bolshevik demand for a government responsible exclusively to the soviets tacked onto supposedly internationalist resolutions for an all-socialist coalition. 

It is not clear how often resolutions were amended from the floor, but this did occur. In some cases, entire resolutions were offered from the floor and accepted over the opposition of the leadership. The fact resolutions were usually written in more literary style (the flowery that language of many resolutions betrays the style of the self-taught worker-intelligent (roughly – intellectual)) should not of itself be taken to mean that they did not express actual attitudes held by workers, if, perhaps, on a less articulate level. Buzinov, a Petrograd worker and SR, described the relationship between the worker agitators and the 'masses' in the following terms: 

The 'self-made' agitator said what was in the head of each person but for which the others, less developed, could not find expression in words. After each of his words, the workers could only exclaim: That's it! That’s exactly what I wanted to say. [10] 

These resolutions, moreover, were taken quite seriously by contemporaries familar with the labour situation. In October, for example, Izvestya, the organ of the Soviet, and the Left SR Znamya truda published an analysis of 169 local resolutions on the issue of state power in an attempt to show the mass attitude. [11] A. L. Popov, a Menshevik-Internationalist, published a collection of documents on the October Revolution in 1918 that consisted almost exclusively of these resolutions. He did not even bother to question their validity as expressions of the workers' positions, even though some of the issues he dealt with were quite subtle. [12] 

At least, then, the resolutions can show which political tendency the workers preferred and what issues were in the air. At the most, where this is justified, they can be used as expressions of more specific attitudes and moods. 

Another source of information on the workers are political intelligence reports, doklady s mest, presented by local delegates at various conferences and party meetings. These were often somewhat coloured by the delegates' personal inclinations, but in the end there was no one to fool but oneself. Press reports, including correspondence sent in by workers from the factories, are another contemporary source. 

Leaving the contemporary materials, one comes to the memoirs, the most valuable, of course, being those of workers written as close as possible to the events described. Of the memoirs of non-workers, those of Sukhanov, an editor of the Menshevik-Internationalist Novaya zhizn' are undoubtedly the most enlightening, though his acquaintance with the higher circles of Soviet leadership in 1917 was far deeper than his knowledge of the factory masses. 

In the late 1920s under the sponsorship of Gorky, a series of factory histories was commissioned. This was soon terminated under Stalin's rule but was resumed in the late 1950s. These works, which utilise archival and memoir material inaccessible to Western scholars, are of very uneven value but, used in conjunction with more reliable sources, take on a certain significance. 

I am well aware of the often limited and partisan nature of my sources, a problem for any social scientist but especially serious for a student of a revolution that tore society asunder. I have made allowance for this, frequently pointing out the particular bias to the reader. I have also not relied on any single type of source in making a major point. 

I did not set out to prove a theory and have not selected evidence with that in mind. My purpose was to shed light on the nature of working-class participation in the revolution – to describe and explain how the workers acted and what thoughts lay behind these actions. I have sought to do this on the basis of all the evidence available to me. 

It is impossible to write about important historical events, especially one so controversial and deeply political as the Russian Revolution, without having one's own point of view. I have not tried to conceal my sympathy for the workers of Petrograd and their struggles. But this should not be misconstrued as evidence of a parti pris. A study that employs the terms 'proletarian' and 'capitalist' is not necessarily less objective than one that uses 'worker' and 'entrepreneur', though it may violate the sometimes superficial canons of scholarly neutrality.

[1] J. Keep, The Russian Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1976) p. xiv.

[2] For an insightful critical review of the most recent work on the social history of the revolution, see R. Suny, 'Toward a Social History of the October Revolution', American Historical Review, vol. 88, no 1 (1983), pp. 31-52.

[3] C. Johnson, Revolutionary Change (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1966) p.152.

[4] Keep, Russian Revolution, pp. 77 and 68.

[5] P. Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (London: Thames and Hudson, 1973) p.142.

[6] In L. H. Haimson (ed.), The Mensheviks (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975) p. 7.

[7] See, for example, S. P. Melgunov, The Bolshevik Seizure of Power (Santa Barbara: ABC:CAO, 1972) pp. 22-3.

[8] See, for example, Johnson, Revolutionary Change, and S. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968).

[9] See, for example G. L. Sobolev, Revolyutsionnoe soznanie rabochikh i soldat Petrograda v 1917g. Period dvoevlasdya (M.-L., 1973) p. 182.

[10] A. Buzinov, Za Nevskoi zastavoi (M.-L.. 1930) p. 103.

[11] Izvestiya (3 Oct 1917); Znamya truda (4 October 1917).

[12] A. L. Popov, Oktyabr'skii perevorot (Petrograd, 1919).

Retour au texte de l'auteur: Jean-Marc Fontan, sociologue, UQAM Dernière mise à jour de cette page le mardi 17 juillet 2007 9:56
Par Jean-Marie Tremblay, sociologue
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