Saturday, March 11, 2017

2584. The Story of the Russian February 1917 Revolution

By  Kevin Murphy, Jacobin, March 8, 2017
The Petrograd Soviet Assembly in 1917. Photo: Wikipedia
That the most important strike in world history started with women textile workers in Petrograd on International Women’s Day 1917 (February 23 in the old Julian calendar) was no coincidence. Working up to thirteen hours a day while their husbands and sons were at the front, these women were saddled with a life of singlehandedly supporting their families and waiting in line for hours in the subzero cold in hopes of getting bread. As Tsuyoshi Hasegawa states in his definitive study of the February Revolution, “No propaganda was necessary to incite these women to action.”
Russia’s deep social crisis stemmed from the tsarist regime’s failure to enact any meaningful reforms and the economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of Russian society. Russia was ruled by an autocrat, Tsar Nicholas II, who repeatedly dismissed the Duma, a powerless electoral body that by law was dominated by men of property.
On the eve of the war, strike activity rivaled that of the 1905 Revolution and workers erected barricades on the streets of the capital. The war gave tsarism a temporary reprieve, but mounting military defeats and some seven million casualties brought unprecedented accusations of regime corruption from virtually every section of society. So deep was the rot that the future prime minister, Prince Lvov, led a conspiracy — though without taking action — to deport the tsar and incarcerate the tsarina in a monastery. Rasputin, a charlatan monk who had gained enormous influence in the tsar’s court, was murdered not by anarchists but by monarchists in December 1916.
On the Left, the Bolsheviks were the dominant force in a wider milieu of revolutionaries leading the largest strike wave in world history (the pro-war segments of moderate socialists often refrained from strike action).
For years they’d battled tsarism. Thirty political strikes had been launched in the half-decade since the 1912 Lena Goldfield massacre of 270 workers, and they’d braved round after round of tsarist secret police (Okhrana) arrests. The breakdown of arrested revolutionaries in 1915 and 1916 registers the relative strength of the Left in Petrograd: Bolsheviks 743, non-party 553, Socialist Revolutionaries (SR) 98, Mensheviks, 79, Mezhraionsty 51, anarchists 39. With some six hundred Bolshevik members in metal, engineering, and textile factories in Vyborg, the district was by far the most militant throughout the war.
On January 9, 1917, the twelfth anniversary of the bloody Sunday massacre that sparked the 1905 Revolution, 142,000 workers struck. When the Duma opened on February 14, another 84,000 workers walked out, an action led by pro-war Mensheviks.
Mounting food shortages caused the government to conduct grain requisitioning in the countryside. As Petrograd bakeries closed and supplies dwindled to a several weeks’ supply, tsarist authorities exacerbated the crisis by claiming there were no shortages. The Okhrana reported numerous clashes between police and working women on Petrograd bread lines. Mothers “watching their half-starving and sick children are perhaps much closer to the revolution than Messrs. Miliukov, Rodichev and Co. and of course they are much more dangerous.”
On February 22, the Bolshevik Kaiurov addressed a Vyborg women’s meeting, urging women not to strike on International Women’s Day and to listen to “the instructions of the party.” Much to Kaiurov’s chagrin — he would later write that he was “indignant” that Bolshevik women ignored party directives — five textile mills struck the next morning.
Women instigators in the Neva Thread Mills shouted, “Into the streets! Stop! We’ve had it!” pushed the doors open, and led hundreds of women to nearby metal and engineering works. Pelting the Nobel Engineering factory with snowballs, throngs of women convinced workers there to join, waving their arms and yelling, “Come Out! Stop Work!” Women also marched to Erikson works, where Kaiurov and other Bolsheviks met briefly with factory SRs and Mensheviks and unanimously decided to convince other workers to join.
Police reported crowds of women and younger workers demanding “Bread” and singing revolutionary songs. Women grabbed red banners from men during the march: “It’s our holiday. We’ll carry the banners.” At Liteinyi Bridge, despite repeated charges by the demonstrators, police blocked them from marching to the city center. By late afternoon hundreds of workers crossed the ice and were attacked by police. In the center “one thousand, predominantly women and youths” reached Nevsky Prospect but were dispersed. The Okhrana reported that demonstrations were so provocative that it was “necessary to reinforce police details everywhere.”
Sixty thousand of the 78,000 strikers were from the Vyborg district. Although anti-war and anti-tsar slogans were raised, the most prominent demand was for bread. Indeed, tsarist authorities considered this just yet another bread riot, although they were alarmed at the hesitation of their trusted Cossack troops to charge the demonstrators. That night, Vyborg Bolsheviks met and voted to organize a three-day general strike with marches to Nevsky.
The next day, the strike movement doubled to 158,000, making it the largest political strike of the war. Seventy-five thousand Vyborg workers struck, as did twenty thousand each from the Petrograd, Vassilevski, and Moscow districts, plus nine thousand from Narva. Working-class youth street fighters took the lead, battling police and troops at bridges and for control of Nevsky in the city center.
At the Aviaz factory, Menshevik and SR speakers called for the removal of the government, pleaded with workers not to engage in irresponsible acts, and urged them to march to the Tauride Palace, where Duma members desperately tried to persuade tsarism to make concessions. Bolsheviks in Erikson implored workers to march to the Kazan square and to arm themselves with knives, hardware, and ice for the impending battles with police.
A mass of 40,000 demonstrators fought police and soldiers on the Liteinyi Bridge, but were again rebuffed. 2,500 Erikson workers were confronted by Cossacks on Sampsonievsky Prospect. Officers charged through the crowd, but the Cossacks followed cautiously through the corridor just opened by the officers. “Some of them smiled,” Kaiurov recalls, “and one of them gave the workers a good wink.” In many places women took the initiative: “We have husbands, fathers, and brothers at the front . . . you too have mothers, wives, sisters, children. We are demanding bread and an end to the war.”
Demonstrators made no attempt to fraternize with the hated police. Youths stopped street cars, sang revolutionary songs, and threw ice and bolts at the police. After several thousand workers crossed the ice, fierce battles raged between the demonstrators and police for control of Nevsky. Meanwhile, workers managed to hold rallies at the traditional revolutionary sites of Kazan and at the famous “hippopotamus” statueof Alexander III in Znamenskaya Square. The demands became more political as speakers not only demanded bread but also denounced the war and autocracy.
On the 25th, the strike became general, with over 240,000 factory workers joined by office workers, teachers, waiters and waitresses, university students, and even high school students. Cab drivers vowed they would only drive the “leaders” of the revolt.
Again workers began by rallying at their factories. At a boisterous Parvianen Factory meeting in Vyborg, Bolshevik, Menshevik, and SRs orators urged workers to march to Nevsky. One speaker ended with the revolutionary verse: “Out of the way, obsolete world, rotten from top to bottom. Young Russia is on the march!”
Demonstrators engaged in seventeen violent clashes with the police, and soldiers and workers managed to free comrades grabbed by the police. Rebels gained the upper hand, overwhelming tsarist forces on many bridges or crossing the ice to the center. Taking control of Nevsky, demonstrators again rallied at Znamenskaia. Police and Cossacks whipped the crowd, but when the police chief charged he was cut down — by a Cossack saber. Women workers again played a crucial role: “Put down your bayonets,” they urged. “Join us.”
By evening, the Vyborg side was controlled by the rebels. Demonstrators had sacked the police stations, captured revolvers and sabers from tsarist sentinels, and forced the police and gendarmes to flee.
The rebellion pushed Tsar Nicholas II to the brink. “I command the disorders in the capital end tomorrow,” he proclaimed, and ordered the commander of the Petrograd garrison, Khabalov, to disperse crowds with firepower. Khabalov was skeptical (“How could they be stopped the next day?”), but accepted the directive. At city hall, the minister of interior, Protopopov, urged the autocracy’s defenders to suppress the disorders: “Pray and hope for victory,” he said. Early the next morning, proclamations were posted banning demonstrations and warning that the edict would be enforced with arms.
Early on Sunday the 26th, police arrested the core of the Bolshevik Petersburg Committee and other socialists. Factories were closed, bridges were raised, and the city center was transformed into an armed camp. Khabalov telegraphed headquarters that “it has been quiet in city since morning.” Shortly after this report thousands of workers crossed the ice and appeared on Nevsky singing revolutionary songs and shouting slogans, but soldiers systematically fired on them.
Detachments from Volynsky Regiment were tasked with preventing rallies in Znamenskaya Square. Mounted patrols whipped the crowd, but failed to disperse them. The commander then ordered troops to fire. Although some soldiers shot into the air, fifty demonstrators were killed in and around Znamenskaya, and dispersed workers hid inside houses and rushed into cafes. Most of the slaughter was carried out by crack loyalist units used to train noncommissioned officers.
Yet the bloodletting didn’t quash the rebellion.
A police report describes the rebels’ astounding level of resilience and sacrifice:
In the course of the disorders it was observed as a general phenomenon, that the rioting mobs showed extreme defiance towards the military patrols, at whom, when asked to disperse, they threw stones and lumps of ice dug up from the street. When preliminary shots were fired into the air, the crowd not only did not disperse but answered these volleys with laughter. Only when loaded cartridges were fired into the very midst of the crowd, was it found possible to disperse the mob, the participants . . . would hide in the yards of nearby houses, and as soon as the shooting stopped come out again into the street.
Workers appealed to the soldiers to put down their arms, attempted conversions that involved a struggle for the very heart of the soldier. As Trotsky remarked, the contacts “between working men and women and the soldiers, under the steady crackling of rifles and machine-guns, the fate of the government, of the war, of the country, is being decided.”
On the evening of the 26th, the Vyborg Bolshevik leaders met in a vegetable garden on the outskirts of the city. Many suggested that it was time to call off the revolt, only to be outvoted. The most vociferous advocate for continuing the battle was later discovered to be an Okhrana agent. From a military perspective the revolution should have ground to a halt after the 26th. But the police could not crush the rebellion without the support of thousands of soldiers.
The previous afternoon workers had approached the Pavlovsky barracks: “Tell your comrades that the Pavlovsky, too, are shooting at us — we saw soldiers in your uniform on the Nevsky.” The soldiers “all looked distressed and pale.” Similar pleas resounded throughout the barracks of other regiments. That evening, Pavlovsky soldiers became the first to join the rebels (though, realizing they were isolated, they returned to their barracks and thirty-nine leaders were promptly arrested).
Early on the 27th, the revolt reached the Volynsky regiment, whose training corps had fired on demonstrators at Znamenskaya Square. Four hundred mutinied, telling their lieutenant, “We will no longer shoot and we also do not wish to shed our brother’s blood in vain.” When he responded by reading the tsar’s order to suppress the rebellion, he was summarily shot. Other Volynsky soldiers joined the rebellion and then moved to the nearby barracks of the Preobrazhensky and Lithuanians regiments, who also mutinied.
One participant later described the scene: “A truck packed with soldiers, rifles in hand, parted the crowd as it roared down Sampsonievsky. Red flags waved from the bayonets of rifles, something never seen before . . . the news the truck brought — that troops had mutinied — spread like wildfire.” While a punitive detachment led by General Kutepov went unchecked for hours — firing on demonstrators and trucks filled with workers — by evening, Kutepov wrote, “a large part of my force mixed with the crowd.”
That morning, General Khabalov had strutted around the city barracks threatening soldiers with the death penalty if they rebelled. That evening, General Ivanov, whose troops were en route to support the tsar’s loyalists, telegraphed Khabalov to assess the situation.
Ivanov: In what parts of the city is order preserved?
Khabalov: The whole city is in the hands of revolutionists.
Ivanov: Are all the ministries functioning properly?
Khabalov: The ministries have been arrested by the revolutionists.
Ivanov: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?
Khabalov: None whatever.
Ivanov: What technical and supply institutions of the War Department are now in your control?
Khabalov: I have none.
Apprised of the situation, General Ivanov decided to retreat. The military phase of the revolution was over.
The paradox of the February Revolution was that while it swept away tsarism, it replaced it with a government of unelected liberals who were horrified by the very revolution that had placed them in power. On the 27th “were heard sighs . . . It’s come, or indeed frank expressions of fear for life,” wrote a liberal Duma deputy. This was interrupted briefly by joyful, but inaccurate, news that “the disorders will soon be put down.” Another observer noted that “they were horrified, they shuddered, they felt themselves captive in hands of hostile elements traveling an unknown road.”
During the revolution, “the position of the bourgeoisie was quite clear; it was in position on the one hand of keeping their distance from the revolution and betraying it to tsarism, and on the other of exploiting it for their own purposes.” This was the assessment of Sukhanov, a leader of the Petrograd Soviet who was sympathetic to the Mensheviks and would play a crucial role in handing power over to the liberals.
He would get plenty of help from more moderate socialists. The Menshevik leader Skobelev approached Rodzianko, chairman of the Fourth Duma, to secure a room in the Tauride Palace. His purpose was to organize a soviet of workers’ deputies, in order to maintain order. Kerensky allayed Rodzianko’s fears that the soviet might be dangerous, telling him, “somebody must take charge of the workers.”
Unlike the workers’ soviet of 1905 that emerged as an instrument of class struggle, the soviet formed on February 27 was established after the revolt, and leading members in its executive committee were almost exclusively intellectuals who had not actively participated in the revolution.
There were other shortcomings as well: representatives for the 150,000 soldiers in Petrograd were vastly overrepresented in this workers’ and soldiers’ soviet. It was overwhelmingly male, the handful of women delegates among the 1,200 delegates (eventually almost 3,000) woefully underrepresented. The soviet didn’t even discuss the March 19 women’s suffrage demonstration, in which 25,000 participated, including thousands of working-class women.
The Petrograd Soviet did approve the famous Order Number 1 — which empowered soldiers to elect their own committees to run their units and to obey officers and the Provisional Government only if the orders did not contradict those of the soviet — but this order was enacted on the initiative of radical soldiers themselves.
Still, the soviet’s formation forced the liberals and their SR ally Kerensky to act. Rodzianko argued that “if we don’t take power, others will,” because there was already “elected some sort of scoundrels in the factories.” “Unless we formed a provisional government at once,” Kerensky wrote, ”the soviet would proclaim itself the supreme authority of the Revolution.” Under the plan, a self-nominated group calling themselves the Provisional Committee would act as a counter to the soviet. But the plotters were not very confident in their own plan; they let the Menshevik and SR leaders of the soviet do their dirty work.
The Menshevik algebra of revolution mandated that the “government that was to take the place of Tsarism must be exclusively bourgeois,” Sukhanov wrote. “The entire state machinery . . . could only obey Miliukov.”
Negotiations between the soviet executive and the unelected liberal leaders took place on March 1. “Miliukov perfectly understood that the Executive Committee was in a perfect position either to give power to the bourgeois government or not give it,” but, Sukhanov added, “the power destined to replace tsarism must be only a bourgeois power . . . We must steer course by this principle. Otherwise the uprising will not succeed and the revolution will collapse.”
Soviet leaders were willing to drop even the minimal “three whales” program that all the revolutionary groups had agreed to (the eight-hour day, the confiscation of landed estates, and a democratic republic) if the liberals would only take power. Frightened by the prospect of having to rule, Miliukov stubbornly insisted on making a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy.
Incredibly, the socialists conceded and allowed the tsar’s brother, Michael, to decide for himself whether he should rule. Receiving no assurances of his personal safety, the Grand Duke politely declined. All these backroom negotiations were, of course, conducted outside the purview of the workers and soldiers.
The “dual power” system that emerged from these discussions — the soviet on one side and the unelected Provisional Government on the other — would last for eight months.
Ziva Galili has described these negotiations as “the Mensheviks’ finest hour.” Trotsky likened it to a vaudeville play divided by halves: “In one, the revolutionists were begging the liberals to save the revolution; in the other, the liberals were begging the monarchy to save liberalism.”
So why did the workers and soldiers, who had fought so valiantly to overthrow tsarism, allow the soviet to hand power over to a new government that represented the men of property? For one, most workers had yet to sort out the policies of the various socialist parties. Additionally, the Bolsheviks themselves were not very clear about what they were fighting for, in part because they had retained a (quickly outdated) understanding of the revolution as bourgeois-democratic, in which a provisional revolutionary government would rule. What this meant in practice, particularly after the Provisional Government’s formation, was open to different interpretations.
Although Bolshevik militants played a critical role throughout the revolutionary days, they often did so in spite of their leaders. Women textile members struck in February over the objections of party leaders who considered the time “not yet ripe” for militant action.
The leadership of the Bolshevik Bureau (Shliapnikov, Molotov, and Zalutsky) was also lacking. Even after the February 23 strike, Shliapnikov argued it was premature to call for a general strike. The Bureau failed to produce a leaflet to give to the troops and refused demands to arm the workers for impending battles.
Most of the initiative came from either the Vyborg district committee, who acted as de facto leaders for the city party organization, or from rank-and-file members — especially on the first day, when women ignored party leaders and played a decisive role in sparking the strike movement.
Throughout March, confusion and division roiled the Bolsheviks. When the Petrograd Soviet handed over political power to the bourgeoisie on March 1, not one of the eleven Bolsheviks in the executive committee opposed it. When left Bolsheviks delegates in the soviet put forward a motion calling for the soviet to form a government, only nineteen voted in favor, and many Bolsheviks voted against. On March 5, the Petersburg Committee supported the soviet call for workers to return to their jobs, even though the eight-hour day, one of the revolutionary movement’s main demands, had yet to be instituted.
The party bureau under Shliapnikov moved close to the radicals in Vyborg, who were calling for the soviet to rule. But when Kamenev, Stalin, and Muranov returned from Siberian exile and took over the bureau on March 12, the party’s policies veered sharply to the right — to the delight of Menshevik and SR leaders and to the ire of many party militants in the factories, some of whom urged the expulsion of the new triumvirate.
Lenin was among the irate. On March 7, he wrote from Switzerland, “This new government is already bound hand and foot by imperialist capital, by the imperialist policy of war and plunder.” Kamenev, by contrast, argued in Pravda on March 15 that “free people” will “stand firmly at their posts, will reply bullet for bullet, shell for shell.” And in late March, Stalin spoke in favor of unifying with the Mensheviks and argued that the Provisional Government “has taken the role of fortifier of the conquests of the revolution.”
Lenin was so concerned with the leadership’s right turn that on March 30, he wrote that he preferred an “immediate split with anyone in our Party, whoever it may be, to making concessions to the social-patriotism of Kerensky and Co.” No lawyer was needed to clarify Lenin’s words or about whom he was speaking. “Kamenev must realize that he bears a world-historic responsibility.”
The essence of Leninism from 1905 emphasized total distrust of liberalism as a counterrevolutionary force and a sharp critique of those socialists hell bent on trying to appease it. And yet Lenin’s own 1905 formulation that called for a provisional revolutionary government to carry out a bourgeois revolution had contrasted with what he termed Trotsky’s “absurd and semi-anarchist ideas” calling for a “socialist revolution.” Lenin himself now moved toward this absurd idea for socialism while conservative Old Bolsheviks understandably accused him “Trotskyism.”
In many ways the coup d’etat of early March was typical of those over the last century — a small unelected clique usurping power for their own class purposes at the expense of a movement that placed them in power. There were two major differences, however. One was that there was a party of the working masses that would fight relentlessly for its interests. And second, there were soviets.
The Russian Revolution had only just begun.

2583. A Guide to the Russian February 1917 Revolution

By Eric Blanc, Jacobin, March 8, 2017
A February 1917 protest in Petrograd. Photo: Wikipedia.  
One hundred years ago today working people in war-torn Russia rose up against the hated tsarist autocracy. In late February 1917, strikes and demonstrations escalated into an uprising that clashed with — and eventually won over — the regime’s armed forces. Paradoxically, though the insurrection was led by a broad front of workers and socialists, a small group of liberals ended up in power.
How did the upheaval unfold? What was the role of the different parties? And why did a new revolution happen in October? To celebrate the centennial anniversary of the February Revolution, we’ve put together an introductory guide to this watershed event.

What Caused the Revolution?

By 1917, the tsarist regime had managed to alienate itself from almost every major social group in the country. In many ways, the autocracy was lucky to have survived as long as it did.
Decades of capitalist modernization gave rise to forces that tsarism could not keep in check. First and foremost was the working class. Though wage earners were a minority, their concentration in the big cities and workplaces gave them a political weight far beyond their numbers. Deprived of basic rights and freedoms, and subjected to intense exploitation, workers across the empire turned to radical politics.
During the 1905 Revolution they came within inches of toppling tsarism — only through brutal governmental repression was the revolutionary wave beaten back. By 1914 the country was again on the verge of insurrection, but Russia’s entry into World War I on August 1 postponed a new revolutionary outbreak for a few more years.
By far the largest social class in Russia was the peasantry. Demanding “Land and Freedom,” they too rose up in 1905–7, seizing estates, expelling landlords, and creating autonomous rural republics. Political life in the countryside eventually quieted down. Yet peasant protest was again on the upswing by 1916. A police report from the era tells the story: “In the villages one sees revolutionary ferment, similar to that of 1906–7: everywhere political questions are discussed, resolutions are passed against landowners and merchants, cells of various organizations are being established.”
The liberal upper class had more of a love-hate relationship with the regime. On the one hand, it generally opposed the most brutal and backwards aspects of tsarism, and it hoped to transform Russia into a stable constitutional monarchy. On the other, fear of the growing labor movement tended to push the propertied classes back into the arms of the tsarist state.
Still, seeking to avoid another revolution, liberal politicians begged the regime to reform itself before it was too late. However, because Tsar Nicholas II refused to consent to their proposals — and since the monarchy was increasingly discredited by the debauchery of its mystic adviser Rasputin — even the ever-waffling liberals had become open critics by 1917.
Russia’s declaration of war in August 1914 had briefly boosted the government’s popular support, but this soon evaporated. Millions of soldiers, mostly peasant in origin, lost their lives on the battlefront. Economic crisis set in and strikes spread in the factories. In 1916, native peoples in tsarist Central Asia revolted against the Russian state and bread riots by working-class women erupted across the empire. On February 22, 1917, the day before the February Revolution began, a Petrograd police report took note of the explosive situation:
The masses of workers are extremely agitated by the shortage of food. Almost all the police officers hear every day complaints that they have not eaten bread for two, three days or more. Therefore it is easy to expect major street disturbances. The acuteness of the situation reached such a point that some who were fortunate enough to be able to buy two loaves of bread cross themselves and cry from joy.

How Did the Uprising Begin?

The revolution began in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, February 23. (The Julian calendar of tsarist Russia was thirteen days behind the modern one.) Women textile workers in the Vyborg district seized the initiative by refusing to work and took to the streets to demand bread. They called on the neighboring workplaces to join them in striking — and when words were not sufficient, they turned to hurling rocks and scrap iron. By the end of the day, tens of thousands had joined the strikes and demonstrations. Bread, peace, and the end of autocracy were the demands.
In his famous history of 1917, Leon Trotsky observed that popular participation was the motor that drove the revolution forward:
At those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new regime. . . . The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
Strikes and demonstrations snowballed on February 24. By the next day, Petrograd was paralyzed by a general strike. One socialist recalled the mood: “The atmosphere was tense . . . There was comradely enthusiasm. We would live or die together in the struggle.” When workers converged on the Nevsky Prospect — the capital’s main street — they were immediately confronted with the state’s armed forces. A report by a tsarist secret police agent describes what happened next:
Since military units did not block the crowd and in some cases even took measures to paralyze the police, the masses grew confident they would not be punished. Now, after two days of parading the streets unhindered, with revolutionary elements raising the slogans “Down with the war!” and “Down with the government!” the people are encouraged to think that a revolution has begun, that success is on the masses’ side, that the authorities are powerless to suppress the movement because the military refused to support them.
Some in the imperial elite still hoped that the protests would simply die down. Empress Alexandra wrote to her husband Tsar Nicholas II:
The strikers and rioters in the city are now in a more defiant mood than ever. The disturbances are created by hoodlums. Youngsters and girls are running around shouting they have no bread; they do this just to create some excitement. If the weather were cold they would all probably be staying at home. But the thing will pass and quiet down.
Those in the regime with a firmer grasp of reality took a more proactive approach. Hoping to drown the revolution in blood, the authorities ordered troops to open fire on the protesters the next day.

What Role Did the Soldiers Play?

The first cracks in military discipline emerged on February 25. A Bolshevik participant described one particularly dramatic moment of fraternization:
The tips of the bayonets were touching the breasts of the first row of demonstrators. Behind could be heard the singing of revolutionary songs, in front there was confusion. Women, with tears in their eyes, were crying out to the soldiers, “Comrades, take away your bayonets, join us!” The soldiers were moved. They threw swift glances at their own comrades. The next moment one bayonet is slowly raised, is slowly lifted above the shoulders of the approaching demonstrators. There is thunderous applause.
But what would happen now that the troops had been ordered to fire into the crowds?
At first, it seemed as if the government’s plan to crush the revolution would succeed. When workers returned to the city center on February 26, most of the soldiers obeyed their officers’ commands to disperse the demonstrations with gunfire. By the end of the day, hundreds of protesters had been killed. Demoralized by the massacre, one socialist leader that evening concluded that “the revolution is petering out . . . no one can do anything to the government now that it has taken decisive action.”
Events on February 27 showed that this pessimism was unfounded. Rank-and-file soldiers, the vast majority of whom were of peasant origin, had reached their breaking point. Disgusted at the role they had been forced to play in the previous day’s killings — and fired up by their own longstanding grievances — soldiers in the Volynskii Regiment mutinied that morning. Refusing to fire on any more protesters, the soldiers instead shot their commanding officer. Like the female textile workers on the 23rd, Volynskii soldiers fanned out across the city to spread the mutiny to their peers. By the afternoon, the army in Petrograd had imploded. Insurgent workers and mutinous soldiers now controlled the streets.
Moderate liberal leader Mikhail Rodzianko telegraphed the tsar to describe the situation:
The government is powerless to stop the disorders. The troops of the garrison cannot be relied upon. The reserve battalions of the Guard regiments are in the grips of rebellion, their officers are being killed. Having joined the mobs and the revolt of the people, they are marching on the offices of the Ministry of the Interior and the Imperial Duma.
A telegram report from General Khabalov to General Ivanov painted a similar picture:
I: In what parts of the city is order preserved?
K: The whole city is in the hands of the revolutionists. The telephone is not working, there is no communication between different parts of the city.

I: What authorities are governing the different parts of the city?
K: I cannot answer this question.

I: Are all the ministries functioning properly?
K: The ministers have been arrested by the revolutionists.

I: What police forces are at your disposal at the present moment?
K: None whatever.
It should be pointed out that these events contradict the widespread misconception that February was a peaceful revolution or that tsarism simply “fell” due to lack of popular support. The state did not “collapse” — it was overthrown.

Was the Revolution Spontaneous?

Liberal writers have generally portrayed the February events as “leaderless” and “spontaneous.” This notion fits in well with the narrative that February was a legitimate popular revolution whereas October was a conspiratorial plot imposed by a ruthless Bolshevik minority. The New York Times, for instance, recently wrote that “the February Revolution was largely spontaneous and unorganized . . . with no clear leaders” — October, in contrast, was a “coup.”
The problem with this account is not only that it dismisses the democratic dynamics of the October Revolution. Nor is its flaw solely that no mass movements are ever truly leaderless — even when formal organizations are not involved, some individuals or groups always take the initiative. The issue goes deeper: contrary to the “spontaneity” narrative, socialist organizations and leaders did in fact play a critical role in shaping the February Revolution.
By early 1917, virtually everybody in Petrograd saw that a mass uprising was imminent. Socialists initiated strikes and deepened their organizing efforts inside the army, in the schools, and in the factories. Through countless leaflets and speeches they stepped up their calls for the tsar’s overthrow. On February 20, a government official lamented that “more and more the mood of the mass of workers is rising under the influence of uninterrupted and systematic revolutionary agitation.”
Historians have debated the extent to which socialist agitation to commemorate International Women’s Day was directly responsible for the outbreak of revolution on February 23. On that day, the inter-district Marxist group’s leaflet declared:
The government is guilty, it began this war and cannot end it. It is tearing the country apart, it is its fault that you are going hungry. The capitalists are guilty — it is being waged for their profit. . . . Enough! Down with the criminal government, and all its gang of plunderers and murderers. Long live peace. . . . Down with the autocracy! Long live the Provisional Revolutionary Government!
Though the evidence for the 23rd itself is inconclusive, socialist agitation indisputably paved the way for the insurrection — and, once it began, organized socialists played a determining role in its outcome. Over the following days, they led street demonstrations, sparked strikes, built banners, spoke in mass meetings, agitated inside the army, and coordinated armed actions. In the words of historian Michael Melancon:
Socialists had no specific plans in advance to launch revolutionary disturbances on February 23 and bring them to fruition on February 27. What they did have, as overwhelming evidence indicates, was an orientation to promote strikes and demonstrations and, if they showed promise, to prolong them and push them toward revolution. Direct and organized socialist involvement and intervention occurred at every single stage.
Socialist intervention was critical not only for the eventual victory of the February Revolution, but also for the particular shape of governmental authority that replaced tsarism. The course of events in Petrograd was in large part determined by conflicts between socialists over the fundamental strategic choice of 1917: whether to promote the “hegemony of the proletariat” or an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie.

What Did the Socialists Want?

In February — and throughout 1917 — the socialist movement was split between radicals and moderates. The left socialists included Bolsheviks, non-factional Marxists, left Socialist Revolutionaries, and left Mensheviks. Of these groups, the Bolsheviks were the largest and they would soon become the country’s leading radical force. Their message was simple: the only way to meet the needs of the people and lead the democratic revolution “to the end” was for workers, leading an alliance with the peasants, to seize power.
Rejecting calls for a bloc with liberals, Bolsheviks declared that a regime of workers and soldiers was needed to bring peace, bread, agrarian reform, the eight-hour day, and a democratically elected Constituent Assembly. By taking power, they argued, Russia’s workers would unleash a world socialist revolution. A February 27 Bolshevik proclamation gives a good sense of their stance:
The immediate urgent task of the Provisional Revolutionary Government is to establish relations with the proletariat of the belligerent countries with a view to the struggle of the proletariat of all countries against their oppressors and their slave masters, against the governments of Tsarist type and the capitalist cliques, and with a view to the immediate cessation of the bloody slaughter inflicted on the enslaved people.
During the first days of insurrection, the radicals held the initiative. But their call on workers to gather at the Finland Station to form their own provisional revolutionary government fell flat. Instead, the crowds responded to the moderate socialists’ February 25 proposal to assemble at the Tauride Palace and (as had been done during 1905) elect representatives to a new representative workers’ council: the Soviet.
Of the moderates, the Mensheviks were the most influential. Unlike the Bolsheviks, they viewed the bourgeoisie as an indispensable ally of the proletariat in the fight for social change and democracy. An alliance with liberalism, they felt, was needed to defeat the threat of a right-wing counterrevolution. In the words of Georgian Menshevik leader Noe Zhordania, “one must try to grasp the essence of the current revolution at the head of which stand three main forces: 1) the proletariat 2) the progressive bourgeoisie and 3) the army . . . It is impossible to subordinate today’s tactics to the interests of one class.”
In line with this approach, moderate socialists rejected the leftist proposal for the new Soviet to take all power into its own hands. According to the Mensheviks, workers should not take part in government until the moment of socialist revolution, the conditions for which were not ripe in underdeveloped agrarian Russia. In the final days of February, Menshevik leaders successfully convinced the Soviet to sanction the establishment of a purely bourgeois administration.

What Did the Liberals Do?

Russia’s liberal leaders did not want a revolution. During the first days of the upheaval, they refused to take part in or support the struggle. Instead, they begged the tsar to reform the government in order to placate the mob and re-establish order. But Tsar Nicholas — aptly described by one Russian poet as “stubborn, but without will” — rejected their pleas. On February 27, Nicholas commented that “again, this fat Rodzianko has written me lots of nonsense, to which I shall not even deign to reply.”
Left with no other option, the liberals finally decided to side with the revolution in order to contain it. Their top leaders established a Provisional Committee on February 27 that declared itself to be the supreme governmental authority. This body, however, was left adrift since the liberals had no support among the insurgent workers and soldiers. To effectively rule, you need an armed apparatus — and in Petrograd those with arms placed their support in the Soviet.
Luckily for the liberals, moderate socialists had no desire to establish a workers’ government. Equally anxious to fill the power vacuum, Soviet and liberal leaders met on the evening of March 1. The latter were obliged to accept the Soviet’s terms for conditional support: the new Provisional Government would have to grant political freedom and legal equality for all, abolish the police and establish a people’s militia, release all political prisoners, refrain from reprisals against mutinous soldiers, and convene a Constituent Assembly as soon as possible.
These were important victories. But the crucial questions of war and land reform were conspicuously absent from the agreement. So too was the question of the monarchy, which the liberals still hoped to preserve as a bulwark of “law and order.” Tsar Nicholas II abdicated on March 2 and proposed to hand the throne over to his brother Mikhail Alexandrovich. Protests from below convinced Mikhail to wisely decline the offer on the following day.
After a centuries-long reign, the Romanov dynasty had finally been toppled. A soldiers’ journal expressed the popular euphoria: “There are times when one wants to embrace the whole world in joyful ecstasy and kiss everyone without end.” A British reporter for the Manchester Guardian similarly observed that “the whole country is wild with joy, waving red flags and singing Marseillaise. It has surpassed my wildest dreams and I can hardly believe it is true.”

Why Did “Dual Power” Fail?

By early March, the basic structure of “dual power” had been established in the capital and across the empire. The Provisional Government nominally ruled the land, but the Soviets held more real power and authority. Elected by nobody, and isolated from the lower classes, the administration’s survival depended on the support given to it by the moderate socialist leaderships. In the eyes of most politically active workers and soldiers, the Soviets were the sole legitimate authority — the bourgeois regime would be supported only insofar as it obeyed the instructions from below. Workers and their representatives would thus have to exercise a strict “control” over the government to ensure that their demands were met.
Initially, the Mensheviks held firm to this oppositional stance and sought to use their strength to push the government in a progressive direction. In the first weeks of the revolution they rejected the liberals’ attempts to maintain monarchal rule; they asserted the Soviet’s political control over the army ranks; and they initiated a major international campaign to pressure the Russian and foreign governments to take concrete steps towards ending the war. To quote Marc Ferro, “the Soviet placed the [liberal] Duma Committee at the helm, but in order to direct it at will aimed a pistol at its head.”
The viability of the Menshevik “dual power” plan hinged on two factors: the bourgeoisie’s ability to meet the people’s urgent demands and the proletariat’s ability to refrain from pushing too far, too fast. Events would soon show that neither class behaved in the way the Mensheviks had hoped. Despite the Soviet’s campaign for peace, Russian liberals — backed by French and British imperialism — continued the war and declared that no major social reforms would be implemented until military victory. When news of the administration’s war plans became public in April, anti-government demonstrations and riots broke out in the capital, against the wishes of the Soviet leadership.
This “April Crisis” made it clear that the current Provisional Government lacked popular legitimacy to govern. A restructuring of the administration — and Menshevik strategy — was required. Forced to choose between their principled opposition to participation in a capitalist government and their commitment to an alliance with liberals, the Mensheviks chose the latter.
The moderate socialists’ decision to enter the Provisional Government in May marked a major turning point. By tying their fates to a paralyzing governmental alliance with liberal politicians, they quickly alienated themselves from their mass base and set the stage for the rise of forces calling for a more radical break. As historian Michael Melancon notes:
Suspicion toward or outright opposition to a bourgeois-oriented government or a coalitional socialist-bourgeois government did not arise in association with Bolshevik agitation but existed from the outset as part of the outlook of most socialists and their laboring constituencies. Bolshevik agitation’s role was in placing that party in a position to reap organizational benefits from the existing popular attitudes toward the Provisional Government when it failed to live up to what were perceived as minimal demands made upon it and when SR and Menshevik leaders disastrously associated themselves and their parties with it.
Though Bolshevik policy and tactics evolved over the course of the year, their basic message generally remained consistent from February onwards: to end the war and meet the people’s demands, workers and their allies had to seize the full reigns of power. The famous call “All Power to the Soviets!” concentrated this push for a break with the bourgeoisie. In the fall of 1917, the Bolsheviks and allied radicals won a majority in the country’s Soviets. In October they took power.

Friday, March 10, 2017

2582. Remembering Lynne Stewart

Jeff Mackler, Socialist Action, March 7, 2017
Lynne Stewart with her husband Ralph Pointer. Photo: Louis Lanzano/AP.
A few minutes ago my dear friend and comrade Ralph Poynter called to say that his lifelong companion, Lynne Stewart, passed away. She was 77, of Irish origin, and a born fighter who unswervingly devoted herself to humanity’s cause.

Just a few weeks earlier Lynne pledged to meet me in NY in a couple of months, over dinner to be sure, when we would dance once again to demonstrate that her life still had some time to go …  and for joy.

A few years earlier, when prospects looked bleak to win her freedom based on “compassionate release,” Lynne insisted that she would prevail and that she would celebrate with us in San Francisco to the tunes of a brass band. Sure enough, a brass band did appear at Lynne’s welcome home San Francisco rally, and she and Ralph, surrounded by her loving friends, danced in the streets at 15th and Valencia. It was a victory well worth the effort, allowing Lynne a couple of more years to fight on against all that is evil in this barbarous capitalist world, and to smile at every inch we collectively gained as we fought back.  
Lynne was always surrounded by family and loved ones, with children from her first marriage, and Ralph’s too, as well kids together, and grandkids—all filled with admiration for Grandma Lynne—all the recipient of Lynne’s warmth, dedication, mindfulness and love.

Lynne was fond of saying, including to The New York Times reporter who interviewed her at her home a few weeks before her death, that she had no intention of leaving this earth quietly. Quoting Dillon Thomas she told The Times, whose reporter followed the next day with a contemptuous hate piece  recounting his corporate master’s ire for everything wonderful in Lynne life and struggles, that she had no intention of “going gently into that good night.”

That was Lynne’s credo, her detractors notwithstanding. Always the poet’s words in mind, Lynne insisted:

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Funds are urgently needed to cover final family expenses. Give generously comrades and friends. We are honoring Lynne’s gift to us all and to all who rage against injustice everywhere.

 Lynne Stewart Organization, 1070 Dean St., Brooklyn, NY 11216. 1st floor. (Make checks payable to Lynne Stewart Org.)

By Jeff Mackler, March 6, 2017
This morning I spoke with Lynne Stewart’s husband, Ralph Poynter, at their home in Brooklyn, N.Y. We managed to do the call via video camera, where Ralph and the family were surrounding Lynne, who had just had a second series of mini-strokes that rendered her unable to speak but able to hear what were perhaps my last words of love and solidarity. Lynne opened her eyes in acknowledgment, bravely trying to muster a smile.
Lynne’s cancer has now spread throughout her body, including her brain. Ralph explained that her days are numbered and she is unlikely to make it to her next scheduled medical appointment on March 16.
Lynne and I go back some 63 years, to 1954-58 when we were students at Jamaica High School in Queens, N.Y. We relished singing the Jamaica High School song together at many a solidarity meeting. Decades later, we taught school in NYC, and were union activists in the late 1960s, when we opposed the 1968 racist school strike led by the AFT’s reactionary leader, Albert Shanker. In those days, young Lynne, now 77, was often seen unconventionally riding on the back of Ralph’s motorcycle, on her way to this or that protest.
Another several decades later, when Lynne faced frame-up charges of conspiracy to aid and abet terrorism stemming from her issuing a press release on behalf of her client, the famous blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rachman, we engaged once again to try to win her freedom. After a long legal battle, when I headed Lynne’s defense committee on the West Coast, Lynne was cruelly sentenced to 10 years in a Texas prison, after vindictive federal prosecutors appealed a federal court judge’s sentence of some 18 months.
After she had served three years in prison, we mounted a campaign that won the support of 70,000 social activists across the country. Lynne, cancer ridden, was finally granted “compassionate release” following her prison doctors’ diagnosis that she had less then a year to live. Lynne beat the odds and spent almost three years in freedom, continuing her lifelong commitment to defending all those victims of capitalist injustice.
Lynne was among [unjustly imprisoned political activist and writer] Mumia Abu-Jamal’s most ardent supporters. Lynne’s court cases included some of the seminal Weatherman cases in the 1970s as well as an amazing victory on behalf of Larry Davis, who defended himself against a multiple cop shooting invasion of his house, where a number of the shoot-first police were killed.
Pilloried by the corporate media, who mocked her every success in the rigged criminal “justice” system, Lynne never bent to her accusers’ contempt for an attorney for those on the other side of the class line, as Lynne aptly described it, no matter how unpopular her client.
Lynne’s life was one of dedication to all the people’s causes. I valued her friendship, her humor, her sparkle, and her hatred for all that is evil and yet love for all that is beautiful. Only Lynne began or ended her speeches by reading from one of the world’s great poets, whose universal appeal to what is best in all of us, rang true.
No doubt we will remember Lynne well when we in the Bay Area plan to memorialize her lifelong achievements. Meanwhile, her family is in dire need of financial support as these last days painfully proceed and the months before. Here’s an appeal by Ralph and the family’s long-term friend, Betty Davis.
Please send your generous contribution as per the information below.
In solidarity and with the greatest admiration for a comrade and friend whose life set the bar high for all of us who cherish human freedom and dignity.
Jeff Mackler is the past West Coast coordinator of the Lynne Stewart Defense Committee and director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

2581. Lynne Stewart: People's Attorney and Former Political Prisoner Dies at 77

By Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, March 8, 2017

Lynn Stewart on civil liberties (2002)

Radical civil rights attorney Lynne Stewart died Tuesday at her home in Brooklyn from complications of cancer and a recent series of strokes. She was 77 years old.
A former teacher and librarian, Stewart was known as a people’s lawyer who represented the poor and revolutionaries. Many considered her a political prisoner herself when she was given a 10-year sentence for distributing press releases on behalf of one of her clients, Omar Abdel-Rahman, an Egyptian cleric known as the "blind Sheikh," who was convicted of conspiring to blow up the United Nations and other New York City landmarks.
Democracy Now! first interviewed Stewart about the case in 2002.
We were also at the courthouse in 2006 when Stewart was first sentenced.
In 2009, Stewart spoke to Democracy Now! in her last broadcast interview before beginning her prison sentence, explaining the background to the case and why she had been charged.
“We found out later that the Clinton administration, under Janet Reno, had the option to prosecute me, and they declined to do so, based on the notion that without lawyers like me or the late Bill Kunstler or many that I could name, the cause of justice is not well served. They need the gadflies.
So, at any rate, they made me sign onto the agreement again not to do this. They did not stop me from representing him. I continued to represent him.
And it was only after 9/11, in April of 2002, that John Ashcroft came to New York, announced the indictment of me, my paralegal and the interpreter for the case, on grounds of materially aiding a terrorist organization. One of the footnotes to the case, of course, is that Ashcroft also appeared on nationwide television with Letterman that night ballyhooing the great work of Bush’s Justice Department in indicting.
In 2010, Stewart was re-sentenced to a 10-year term, nearly five times her original sentence, after an appeals court ruled her original punishment was too light.
Attorney Leonard Weinglass said Stewart’s sentence would "mark this era as the era of the war on terrorists, which includes the war on lawyers who defend those who are accused of terrorism. To put her behind bars when no one was injured, no one was harmed, when those who produced the torture memos, those who produced the war are going free and even prospering is really the irony of our time."
While held in federal prison for nearly four years, Stewart suffered from stage IV breast cancer that metastasized, spreading to her lymph nodes, shoulder, bones, and lungs. She was given 18 months to live.
Calls to grant her compassionate release came at a time when the Federal Bureau of Prisons faced increasing criticism for refusing to release terminally ill prisoners. In 2013, we spoke to former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and Democracy Now! producer RenĂ©e Feltz, who went to Texas to interview Lynne Stewart in federal prison, the first face-to-face interview granted to a reporter.
We also interviewed Stewart’s husband, Ralph Poynter, and her daughter, Dr. Zenobia Brown, who is a hospice and palliative care specialist with a master’s in public health. Poynter cleared up a common misconception about Stewart’s comments after her original sentencing.
RALPH POYNTER: What she had said, "As many of my clients have said to me when they received a sentence that was less than possible—possibly expected, 'I can do that standing on my head.'" Now that’s a big difference than saying, "I can do that standing on my head." And if you go back and review the tapes, it is very clear what she said. And she began by thanking the judge. And all of this has been skipped by the media, who has lied about what Lynne said.
After months of campaigning, a judge granted Stewart’s release, and on New Year’s Day, 2014, Democracy Now! was at the airport when she triumphantly returned to New York, and was met by her family and friends.
CROWD: We love Lynne! We love Lynne!
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, how do you feel?
LYNNE STEWART: Beyond joy. Beyond joy.
AMY GOODMAN: Lynne, did you think this day would come?
LYNNE STEWART: Well, somehow or other, yes, but not as wonderful as it has come—
AMY GOODMAN: And how are you—
LYNNE STEWART: —or as suddenly. It’s like bursting on me, you know? I mean, yesterday at this time, I was deep in the dungeons, and here I am in my beloved New York. It’s just wonderful. I can’t tell you.