Class identity during the 1917 Russian Revolution

Written by Lewis Wiley. Edited by Emma Ward.

Class identity and rebellion go hand-in-hand, especially when looking through a Marxist lens. Class struggle clearly underpinned the February and October Revolutions in 1917, and that struggle was born out of class identity: what it was to be a member of the peasantry and the working class. Working class identity facilitated the formation of one body, able to carry out significant economic strikes, which helped topple the Tsarist regime. The gradual inclusion of politics into peasant identity and their subsequent awakening also enabled this. Later in 1917, differing working class identities caused the Bolshevik-Menshevik split and were intrinsic to the fall of the Provisional Government. Class identity was one of the main driving forces that caused the ideological, economic and political downfall of the Romanov dynasty, and later the Provisional Government.

In the early 20th century Russia was centuries behind the likes of Britain socio-economically: it still had a feudal society, relying massively on peasants working on the land. There was a gradual expansion of the working class, but nothing compared to industrious nations elsewhere. The peasantry, who made up the body of Russia, seemed to know nothing about politics. Their apathy was intrinsic to their identity, and possibly a reason for Lenin to discount them as a political weapon and instead focus on moulding the growing working classes. However, in the build up to February 1917 the peasants’ favoured party, the Social Revolutionaries, started to gradually transform the peasantry into an empowered and politically-minded class who would help to shape the future of Russia. This change in peasant identity was incredibly important; demanding control of land which had been worked by the same families for generations – but never owned – gave them a revolutionary zeal. They forcibly seized control of the land after the new Provisional Government failed to fulfil their demands. In 1917 we see a true change in peasant class identity: their political awakening and subsequent involvement were crucial to the February and October Revolutions.

Evidence of peasant political awakening is further highlighted by peasants speaking out at political assemblies, stating things like “If this is a peasant assembly, then the peasants ought to speak!”. With hums of approval abound, clearly the peasants had become active revolutionaries and their very identities changed. Also there were ‘martyrs’ who embodied (new) peasant class ideals and demands, with one woman, Breshkovskaya even being known as ‘the grandmother of the revolution’. This change in identity is evidently huge from a previously politically apathetic class, and massively important to the two revolutions.

Following on from the lesser known contributions of the peasantry, working class identity and their struggle is what the 1917 revolutions symbolise for most people. Compared with the peasantry, there was much more political awareness in the more industrial urban areas, and worker activism was evident from the economic strikes (already a tried and tested formula). On the 24th February 1917, 200,000 workers were on strike. The sheer scale of this strike showed that worker identity, despite the Bolshevik/Menshevik debacle, was notably whole. Striking workers helped to disrupt the economic workings of the Tsarist autocracy and the Provisional Government entirely: one of the essential tools when conducting a revolt. Class identity played a huge part of the revolution, without it there simply would not have been any organisation, and as such no revolution.

The Soviets, which represented working class identity and views, were Lenin and Trotsky’s weapons for the October Revolution. Workers trusted the Soviets implicitly and so were distrustful of the interim Provisional Government. The Provisional Government also realised it could not get any industries to work without the Soviets’ backing. Lenin knew this and so exploited it as any revolutionary would. However, his ideology was essential to the October Revolution, a wholly Bolshevik uprising. Seizing power in the name of the proletariat attracted downtrodden soldiers and sailors, and obviously the working classes. Interestingly there was infighting within the working classes over differing ideologies (Menshevik vs Bolshevik), but portraying the Mensheviks as bourgeois agents allowed the Bolsheviks to gain superiority and Lenin to assume total control, creating his ‘Vanguard of the Proletariat’. The identity and facets of the Bolsheviks helped garner support for the October Revolution and mobilise the working class into a whole, a politically effective movement with the power to change Russia for seven decades.

We cannot discount the importance of class identity during the two 1917 Revolutions, for it is easy to look at is as a wholly working class uprising, but it was so much more. Whilst the urban working classes were essential for the continuation of the revolt, the peasantry became a mobilised and politically awakened force, ready to have their demands heard. Class identity underpinned both the February and October Revolutions, gelling together groups of likeminded people willing to fight autocracy and an ineffective and fruitless interim government.