1917: An anti-war revolution
Translated on Bordered by Silence
Translator: Text from the April 2017 issue of Canons Rompus, a revolutionary anti-war journal published in France. Not tied to a specific ideology, this journal engages a critique of the state by analyzing the role of the military in politics, society, and the economy. This text is interesting in that, departing somewhat from their usual anti-war stance, it appears to say that the Russian withdrawal from World War 1 represented an abandonment of internationalist principles and led to the consolidation of the Leninist “revolutions are the internal business of states” ideology that continues to operate today (in the pro-Assad opposition to the Syrian revolution, for instance).
Exactly one hundred years ago, in March 1917, the Russian revolution began.
This revolution, lead primarily by farmers, workers, and soldiers, set off a world-wide revolutionary wave and kept the working class' hopes alive for decades...
We want to draw attention to the role played by war in sparking the revolution and in its continuation, as well as on the importance of the question of peace, starting in the very first street demonstrations.
A more and more unbearable war
In the first issue of Canons Rompus , we saw how little opposition there was to the start of World War 1, with the exception of some left “socialists” who would soon be called “communists”. In Tsarist Russia, on the other hand, in contrast to the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Workers Party adopted a unanimous position against the war, in spite of its being split between Mancheviks and Bolcheviks since 1903.
War broke out none the less, and in its early days, Russia, mobilizing 14 million soldiers, had a few victories against a German army largely focused on its western fronts. However, the defeats soon began to pile on, as the German army occupied Poland and Lithuania in 1915. Russian losses over the course of the war are estimated at 1 800 000 dead and more than 5 million wounded (without counting civilian causalities, which are difficult to calculate but are estimated at 1 500 000).
The front lines got bogged down and the difficulties increased: the supply chain was very poor (there are examples of soldiers attacking with cartridges that weren't made for their rifles), and discipline was severe, with cruelty and corporal punishment being the norm. The officers were drawn almost exclusively from the landed nobility, while the soldiers were almost all peasants. The cold, especially terrible in the winter of 1916-1917, made the situation worse. Several mutinies broke out towards the end of 1916, but they were quickly and harshly repressed.
Behind the front, the winter of 1916 was marked by famine. The war industry was extremely poorly organized, agricultural production was a catastrophe, and the price of goods rose steadily. In February 1917, strikes broke out, notably in Petrograd  and in the Poutilov armaments factory.
The February Revolution in Petrograd
On February 23, International Women's Day , there was a women's march calling for bread and peace. Striking workers joined them and there were clashes with repressive forces. Strikes spread over the following days, as did street protests, which saw hundreds of thousands of people participate. The clashes led to deaths on both sides. Police stations were pillaged to cries of “down with war”. On the 27th, the Tsar ordered to put an end to it: the hardened repression caused hundreds of deaths. However, starting in the evening, the military regiments joined the insurgents and armed the crowd: this movement accelerated and on March 2nd, the whole Petrograd garrison (some 160 000 men) joined the uprising and the Tsar abdicated.
The Petrograd soviet formed on the 27th and was soon imitated throughout Russia. It's first “order” (prikaze 1) abolished corporal punishment in the army and called for the development of soldier's committees in each military battalion.
Continuing the war
A kind of double power emerged in the country: on one side, the provisional government, lead by the “liberals” and later the mencheviks (moderate “socialists”); and on the other the many soviets and councils of workers, soldiers and farmers.
But minister Milioukov of the provisional government announced to France and Great-Britain that the revolution “changes nothing in the treaties”: which meant the war would continue. Riots and several mutinies broke out immediately.
In the summer of 1917, the contradictions between the revolution and war were revealed to be insurmountable: how can you institute the 8-hour day and keep up the war effort? Can a constitutive assembly be called while millions of men are on the front? And yet this is the moment the government chose to launch a major offensive against Germany. Total failure: 400 000 dead in just a few weeks.
News of this slaughter was greeted with massive desertions. Countless mutinies broke out, assassinating their officers, and soldiers' soviets formed everywhere. On July 3, the soldiers stationed in Petrograd refused to travel to the front. They demonstrated, calling for power to the workers and soldiers' soviets. At the same time, many factories were taken over by their workers and lands were occupied throughout Russia, especially by deserting soldiers who brought back the “revolutionary spirit” with them from the front.
Repression and an attempted coup d'etat
The repression came down in accordance with the seriousness of the threat to the bougeoisie: executions, the dissolution of regiments, the imprisonment of several Bolcheviks (Lenin fled, shaving off his beard!). This effort to retake control was accompanied by the reintroduction of corporal punishment in the army, the death penalty, and by banning all political meetings.
Kornilov, a nationalist general, decided to take advantage of the situation to seize power and completely liquidate the revolution. He attempted a coup at the end of August. Petrograd was defended by the workers and soldiers committees under the direction of the soviet, the provisional government being in complete dissarray. The people armed themselves again and Kornilov was soon defeated.
This brought about a new revolutionary wave that lead to the Bolcheviks seizing power on October 24.
The first decree from the new authority was the famous Declaration on Peace, which consisted of a proposal for an immediate armistice and a proposal for general peace. The armistice was signed on December 15. Secret diplomatic treaties were made public. The peace negotiations began, immediately “pushed on”, by the German side, through the invasion of Ukraine. Peace was signed on March 3, 1918 , in Brest-Livosk, in spite of disagreements among the Bolcheviks: should a separate peace be signed with Germany to build socialism in Russia (Lenin and Trotsky), or should the war continue, to support revolution in Germany and around the world (Radek, Boukharine)?
The decision to sign a peace treaty with Germany, dictated in part by strategic concerns, carried heavy consequences for the coming century: it meant privileging a socialism built “in a single country”, rather than encouraging revolutionary internationalism (as the participants in the 1915 Zimmerwald conference wanted) . It meant replacing the power of the Tsar with that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which would gradually impose a totalitarian state.
The Russian revolution nonetheless encouraged countless revolts by soldiers (the most famous in France being the mutiny of the Black Sea flotilla that refused to fight the revolutionaries in Ukraine) and inspired communist revolutions, notably in Germany and Hungary. These revolutions, left on their own without needed Russian support, were crushed and the Komintern, founded in 1924, was more an instrument of Soviet diplomacy than a true revolutionary international.
1] Canons Rompus could be translated as ruptured barrels
2] Author's footnote: The name St-Petersbourg was considered too German and the city was rechristened Petrograd at the start of the war. Later, it would become Leningrad before regaining its “original” name in 1991
3] Author: At the time, the Russian calender was 13 days behind the Gregorian calender. The dates in this article use the old calender.
4] International gathering of anti-militarist socialist parties in Switzerland