The birth of our politics: Marxists and the 1905 RevolutionIssue: 105
Posted: 8 January 05
The events of 1905 in Russia announced the return of revolution to Europe nearly 35 years after the defeat of the Paris Commune. In the intervening period mass socialist organisations—usually calling themselves ‘social democratic’ —had emerged and developed in some of the advanced capitalist countries, above all in Germany. Debates about the nature and relevance of revolution had, of course, taken place. Just six years before the revolution erupted in Russia, the whole of the international socialist movement, grouped together in the Second International, had been gripped by the arguments for and against Eduard Bernstein’s call to abandon revolution. But although his ideas were formally rejected in the end, the whole issue had an air of abstraction. After all, no one was arguing that revolution was on the immediate agenda.
Now the question of revolution acquired a new immediacy and urgency, and sometimes in unexpected ways. Not least of the surprises was that the revolution was Russian. Marx and Engels had rightly in their time identified Tsarist Russia as the bedrock of counter-revolution in Europe. As the Great Power least affected by capitalist development, the most internally stable, and with vast reserves of manpower among its millions of peasants, Russia intervened time and again to crush revolution in European capitals. This view of Russia as Europe’s policeman lingered on in the Second International well after Marx and Engels’ deaths; 1905 marked the moment when Russia definitively made the transition from bulwark of reaction to citadel of revolution.
Even more than that, 1905 marked the opening of a new era. In retrospect, writing in 1928, Leon Trotsky observed:
It is extremely important to demarcate a special European epoch which comprises the years 1871 to 1914, or at least to 1905. This was an epoch of the organic accumulation of contradictions which, so far as the internal class relations of Europe are concerned, almost never overstepped the bounds of legal struggle and so far as international relations are concerned, adjusted themselves to the framework of an armed struggle.1
By contrast, the period that followed was an ‘explosive…new epoch, with its abrupt changes of the political flows and ebbs, with its constant spasmodic class struggle between fascism and communism…’2 The events of 1904-05, starting with war between two newly industrialising powers, Russia and Japan, and ending with the defeated country in the grip of revolution, opened a breach in the old order. After 1914 this experience of war and revolution was generalised across much of the capitalist system.
The revolution also began in unexpected ways. A march of thousands of St Petersburg workers in January 1905 to plead for reforms from the Tsar, led by a priest with connections to the police, Father Gapon, ended in a brutal massacre. This ‘Bloody Sunday’ precipitated immense and repeated strike waves, to be followed by mutinies in the army and navy, revolts by oppressed national minorities across the Tsar’s empire and growing peasant unrest. It pushed the Tsarist state onto the defensive and extracted first a promise of a consultative assembly (the so called Bulygin Duma) and then, after a huge all-Russian strike in October 1905, a manifesto from Nicolas II promising a constitution and a legislative assembly. Yet the year ended with Tsarist artillery pounding working class districts of Moscow after an armed uprising. But the sheer power of the revolutionary movement meant that even the defeat of the Moscow insurrection in December 1905 could not destroy the revolution overnight. In the following year new waves of peasant unrest broke out together with new strike waves. Only in 1907 did the Tsarist state finally suppress the last embers of the revolt (and even then it only won respite for a few years). Every sharp break in the class struggle requires revolutionaries to reassess, reorientate and often to adopt radically new methods of working. 1905 was such a break. For the first time mass strikes by workers were central to a revolution. The first workers’ council, indeed the first democratic institution in Russian history, the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, was born in October 1905. The revolution involved the experience of an open insurrection. It also put to the test revolutionary socialists who formed a small but important current at the start of the revolution. All this took place in a country that had not even experienced a bourgeois revolution.
1905 gave direct rise to two of the most fundamental developments of 20th century Marxism—Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the mass strike and Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.
Russia in 1905 experienced a strike movement without parallel either in Russian history or, most remarkably, in the experience of the most developed capitalist countries. Over 23 million strike days were ‘lost’ in that tumultuous year in Russia. This was 11 times greater than the total number of strike days in Russia in the whole of the preceding decade (1895-1904). Compare the number of strikers in Russia in 1905 with the maximum number in any one year in the whole period 1894 to 1908 in more advanced capitalist countries:
|Country||Max no strikers in any one year 1894-1908 3|
Moreover, Russia had a smaller industrial working class than the US, Germany or France. Abraham Ascher, in his history of the revolution, notes, ‘Without question, labour unrest constituted the most dramatic, pervasive, and potent form of popular defiance of the government’.4
1905 was the first great revolution in which the specific working class weapon of struggle, the mass strike, played a decisive role.5 In neither the French Revolution of 1789 nor the revolutions of 1848 across Europe was this the case. Even in the Paris Commune of 1871 strikes played only a minor role.6 The rapid expansion of capitalist industry across Europe in the decades that followed the defeat of the commune prepared the way for 1905 and the birth of the modern workers’ revolution. To put it another way, the first Russian Revolution exhibited what the great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg described as the ‘method of motion’ of working class revolution.7
Rosa Luxemburg: politics and economics in the mass strike
The prevailing assessment of the mass strike among European socialists until 1905 was far from favourable. The formation of the Second International in the 1880s and 1890s had involved a battle against anarchism, in particular against their rejection of any participation in politics. Instead a general strike would, according to some of the anarchists, starve out the bourgeoisie and lead to the complete and immediate emancipation of the workers without the requirement for any intermediate stages.8 The general strike was thus counterposed to the need to engage in day to day political activity. The two methods were held to be mutually exclusive. The socialists came to assume that ‘politics’ excluded ‘direct action’ such as the general strike. And in Germany trade union leaders were deeply hostile to even discussing the mass strike question. At their Cologne Congress in May 1905 they condemned it bitterly as a threat to the hard won organisational strength of the unions.
Yet even before 1905 reality was outgrowing the theory. The mass strike, banished as an anarchist utopia, was reappearing across Europe. In 1902 Belgian workers launched a mass strike involving 450,000 workers to win suffrage reform. Rosa Luxemburg paid close attention to this development, noting that here at least there seemed no contradiction between political activity and the mass strike.9 Between 1902 and 1904 the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Sweden and Italy all experienced general strikes.10
These developments did lead to a partial reassessment of the mass strike among socialists, but it was now conceived of as a limited one-off set piece to be used defensively to protect workers’ right to organise against ruling class attacks or to ward off any attempts to restrict democracy. It was seen only as a weapon of last resort, to be utilised not as an alternative to the parliamentary road, but as a means of clearing any obstacles that might be placed in its path.11 Moreover, it was to be both initiated and tightly controlled from above (which was largely the pattern in the general strikes between 1902 and 1904). Far from being a new departure, a new method of fighting for socialism, it was to be tamed and annexed to the old tried and trusted tactic. Even Eduard Bernstein, the arch-revisionist who argued for an open renunciation of revolution and Marxism, advocated consideration of the mass strike to defend or acquire universal suffrage.12
So one approach to the mass strike, the anarchist conception, simply equated the mass strike with revolution, dissolving the one into the other, while the other, the defensive ‘political mass strike’, severed the mass strike from revolution altogether. In the wake of 1905 Rosa Luxemburg came to argue that both these conceptions were abstract and ahistorical, that is they paid very little attention to the real conditions under which the mass strike was born and developed.13
The 1905 Revolution had a ‘profound effect’ on the German socialist movement.14 One Russian police report from later in the year recorded that ‘in…Berlin and other big German cities there was hardly a day on which there was not a meeting at which the situation in Russia was discussed; all end with collections for arms for the Russian people’.15 Vorwärts, the leading socialist paper in Germany, instituted a daily frontpage column giving the latest account of the revolution’s developments.16 Carl Schorske has noted that the events in Russia gave the debate between reform and revolution inside the German movement a ‘new concreteness’.17
In Germany 1905 was a year of intense labour conflict. While it was not on the scale of Russia, with over 500,000 workers involved in strikes or lockouts and over 7.3 million strike days, the year was the highest point of workers’ militancy in Germany between 1848 and 1917.18 In this climate the left wing inside the SPD looked to move onto the offensive and win the party to a more radical stance. It was Rosa Luxemburg who most brilliantly argued this case. She, more than any other socialist in western Europe, grasped the lessons of the Russian events and sought to show German workers how to ‘speak Russian’. Above all, she grasped how the mass strike turns the working class into a revolutionary force, how it turns workers from the object of history into its subject. This was something wholly missing even from those who now championed the defensive ‘political mass strike’.
Rosa Luxemburg was capable of such insight because she was connected to the Russian Revolution in a way that most German radicals were not. Luxemburg was not only a leading figure in the German party but was the ideological leader of an organisation of revolutionary socialists in Russian-occupied Poland,19 the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL).20 Although Luxemburg travelled (clandestinely) into Poland only in the last days of 1905, she nonetheless kept closely in touch with events there and wrote constantly for the publications of her Polish comrades, above all, their paper Czerwony Sztander (Red Flag).
Two points need to be made here. Firstly, Polish workers were exceptionally militant in 1905. In his study of the 1905 Revolution in Russian Poland,21 Robert Blobaum argues that the Polish working class displayed a higher level of strike activity even compared with Russian workers. One third of all strikes across the Russian empire occurred in the Polish kingdom and an incredible 93 percent of industrial workers in Poland struck in 1905. Indeed, the resulting explosion in working class organisation meant that by 1906-07 the degree of trade union organisation of Polish workers outdid their Austrian, Belgian or French counterparts. The intensity of labour conflict no doubt reflected the combined experience of rapid industrialisation and brutal national oppression under Tsarism. It is perhaps no coincidence that the greatest work on the mass strike in the Marxist tradition should have been written by a Polish revolutionary.
Secondly, the SDKPiL faced powerful competition for the loyalties of workers in Russian Poland. In particular, the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) argued that the re-establishment of an independent Polish state was the central priority facing Polish workers, which earned them the scathing label of ‘social patriots’ from Luxemburg. It was this political challenge that prompted one of Luxemburg’s most crucial insights. As the great political explosion in response to Bloody Sunday gave rise to a myriad of economic strikes, PPS activists in particular argued that this was a retreat from revolution. What was required was not a fight with capital, which might be Polish after all, but a political strike against Tsarism, they argued.
Many revolutionaries inside the ranks of the SDKPiL were influenced by this argument. Weren’t fights over wages or factory conditions a degeneration of the revolution, a fragmentation of the movement? In opposing this approach Luxemburg foreshadowed some of the most powerful arguments of her path-breaking pamphlet The Mass Strike of the following year. The revolutionary mass strike, she pointed out, breaks down the barrier that in ‘normal’ times separates politics and economics, which usually consists of parliamentary activity on the one hand and trade unionism on the other. Firstly, economic strikes become transformed into political strikes. In The Mass Strike she would chart how this process occurred repeatedly in Russia during 1905. So, for example, the October strike started with the struggle of the railway workers for a pension fund but developed into a challenge to Tsarism of such magnitude that it extracted a constitution from the autocracy.22 Again and again strikes started with immediate economic demands but were rapidly transformed into great political strikes.
But Luxemburg also noted something else. The reverse pattern also occurs. In other words, great political actions were followed by an eruption of strikes by workers for their most basic needs:
This first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke feeling and class-consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock…the proletarian mass, counted in millions, quite suddenly and sharply came to realise how intolerable was that social and economic existence which they had patiently endured for decades in the chains of capitalism. Thereupon there began a spontaneous general shaking of and tugging at these chains.23
Thus a ‘ceaseless reciprocal action’ between economic and political struggle takes place.24 The economic struggles mobilise new layers of workers into the movement, often the least organised and most oppressed:
After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every interval; it forms, so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength…25
Such workers are unlikely to be reached by what she calls ‘demonstration strikes’, that is strikes of limited aims and duration, usually with purely political aims. These typically draw only on those workers already won over to the left. Instead Luxemburg contrasts this with ‘fighting strikes’ that capture the imagination and set into motion the most ‘backward’ layers of the working class. Indeed, Luxemburg suggests that in a mass strike those workers who ‘are today unorganised and backward will, in the struggle, prove themselves the most radical, the most impetuous element, and not one that will have to be dragged along’.26
The rearguard, today written off by the leaders of the trade unions and the established socialist organisations, will tomorrow emerge as the vanguard, but on one condition: that there is a serious fight to transform workers’ lives.
Indeed, there is a tendency for Luxemburg to suggest that the unevenness of consciousness among workers will be ironed out and overcome through the experience of the mass strike itself. This also no doubt explains why she tends to present the insurrection, the necessity of which she fully advocates,27 as an inevitable outgrowth of the mass strike, merely an episode in the revolution. For if workers are fully united, no state run by a ruling class minority could defeat them. Equally, although in her pamphlet she notes perceptively the development of a layer of conservative trade union officials, she predicts that, should they oppose or restrain the masses in motion, they will be ‘swept aside’. Again, if the working class is able to throw off all backwardness, hesitation and illusions and act with a single will no bureaucracy could stand in its way.
In fact, in emphasising the explosive militancy of the working class as against the gospel of the peaceful, patient building up of organisation preached by the trade union and social democratic leaders, Rosa Luxemburg underestimated the role of political organisation in forging working class unity. But for this, a very different type of organisation was required to the organisations of the Second International. Rosa Luxemburg cleared the ground for a new conception of political organisation, but was not able to give it flesh.
Lenin and the role of the vanguard in the mass strike
Five years after the high point of the 1905 Revolution Lenin wrote a remarkable article that also placed the mass strike at the centre of his conception of the revolutionary process. The rather prosaically named Strike Statistics in Russia is a brilliant analysis of the strike movement for the whole of the revolutionary period 1905-07.28 Lenin originally conceived this work as preparation for a longer, never finished, history of the whole revolution. Lenin, often viewed as highly dismissive of workers’ self-activity and revolutionary potential, in fact placed both at the core of his understanding of the nature of the Russian Revolution, a conception profoundly enriched by the experience of 1905.
Neil Harding draws a parallel here between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, who are often presented as mutually opposed. Both viewed the mass strike as central to how workers’ ideas change and how society can begin to be transformed.29 As we shall see, Lenin and Luxemburg both identified the dialectic of economic and political strikes as a crucial feature of the mass strike, but Lenin also develops important differences to Luxemburg’s analysis.
Lenin deployed the strike statistics of the Tsarist authorities to rebut arguments that challenged the leading, or ‘hegemonic’, role of the working class in the revolution. These arguments came from the liberals but were echoed by sections of the left who were retreating from revolutionary politics in the wake of the defeat of 1905.
Lenin challenged three arguments: firstly, that workers overestimated their strength, that is that they pushed their militancy far beyond what their real forces could sustain; secondly, that the revolution only made real gains when the working class kept the sympathy of ‘society’ as a whole, with the counter-revolution advancing when the working class became isolated through the break-up of its alliance with the liberals; thirdly, that what caused this break-up was the combining of political demands for democratic reform, to which all the opposition subscribed, with economic demands, like the eight-hour day, which were solely in the interest of the working class.
After surveying the unprecedented magnitude of the strikes, Lenin notes that the strikes didn’t even take off in some of the less industrially developed areas until they had already passed their peak in the heartlands of the working class. St Petersburg and Warsaw comprised one third of all factory workers but accounted for two thirds of all strikers in 1905. In these two areas, every worker struck on average almost four times in the year:
Had the energy and persistence displayed in the strike struggle…been the same throughout Russia as they were in the St Petersburg and Warsaw areas, the total number of strikers would have been twice as many… In geographical terms, this may be stated as follows: the West and north west had woken up, but the centre, the east and the south were still half asleep.30
Lenin also examined the different roles played by various sections of the working class. The most militant section of the working class were the metal workers, with three times as many strikers as any other section of workers. Lenin concludes that this section played the role of vanguard overall, but also locates more precisely their role in the dynamic of the mass strikes. In January 1905 more metal workers struck than in the whole of the previous decade, with 155,000 out of 252,000 taking action that month. That was higher than in any subsequent month, including the even bigger strike wave of October 1905.31 In other words, the metal workers used their greatest expenditure of energy in initiating the whole movement. But by the end of the year a degree of exhaustion was setting in and the level of participation in the October strike was nearly a third less than January 1905.
The textile workers who constituted the main bulk of factory workers were the second most militant in 1905. Entering the struggle after the metal workers, their participation in the October strike was significantly greater than nine months earlier.32 Lenin comments that, ‘It is obvious that this unevenness of the movement was tantamount to a certain dissipation of forces owing to the fact that they were scattered, insufficiently concentrated…’ 33 Thus, far from being overstated, the revolutionary potential of the working class had yet to reach its full strength.
Lenin was also able demonstrate through the strike figures that the gains workers made economically and the political victories of the revolution derived from the scale and decisiveness of the strike movement and not the support of liberal ‘society’. 1905 was a turning point for Russian workers, with wages increasing by over 10 percent on average after being relatively stable in the preceding five years. Equally, it was the high points of the strike wave that wrested all the reforms the Tsar was forced to concede. By contrast, there were defeats when the workers did not act with sufficient force and determination, even when they received liberal support, for example in the period from July to September. Lenin comments:
The ‘general atmosphere of sympathy’ with the workers in 1905, which the liberals talk so much of as being the main cause of the workers’ victories…in no way prevented the defeat of the workers when the forces of their own strength diminished. ‘You are strong when society sympathises with you,’ the liberals say to the workers. ‘Society sympathises with you when you are strong,’ the Marxists say to the workers.34
Lenin draws up the following table, comparing economic and political strikes.35
Economic and political strikes in 1905
By quarter, comparing metal workers with textile workers
|Number of strikers (thousands)|
This demonstrates that even from the start of 1905 only a minority of the most militant sections of workers, the metal workers, were involved in purely economic strikes. By contrast, the great majority of textile workers were involved in purely economic strikes initially, but by the final three months of 1905 political strikes predominated, although still not on the scale found among metal workers. Lenin concludes:
The interdependence between the economic and political strikes is quite obvious: no really broad mass movement is possible without a close connection between the two… At the beginning of the movement, and when new sections are just entering it, the purely economic strike is the prevalent form, and…the political strike rouses and stirs the backward sections, generalises and extends the movement, and raises it to a higher level.36
Thus, instead of economic and political strikes being opposites mutually detracting from each other, they are closely connected. The liberals, echoed by some on the left, saw the combining of the two as the ‘weak aspect of the movement’. The fight for an eight-hour day in October and November 1905 in particular was held responsible for the ‘isolation’ of the workers from the bourgeois opposition, and so paved the way to defeat. Lenin didn’t contest the fact that the movement for the eight-hour day was defeated but argued that the economic demands drew more backward sections of the working class into the struggle. The development of the political movement was rooted in an intensification of the economic struggle.37
1905 Revolution: a chronology
(Note: all dates are by the old style Russian calendar that ran 13 days behind the Western calendar)
The Japanese attack on Port Arthur starts Russo-Japanese war
October and November
Liberal campaign for democratic reform at its height
Fall of Port Arthur. War going badly for Russians.
Bloody Sunday. March of workers, led by Father Gapon, to Tsar’s Winter Palace in St Petersburg ends in massacre
January and February
Strikes sweep Russia
Tsar announces plans for a consultative assembly
Barricades in streets of Lodz in Poland, over 500 killed. Mutiny of the battleship Potemkin
Treaty of Portsmouth ends war with Japan
Strike on railways, develops into an empirewide general strike
St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies established
Tsar issues manifesto promising a constitution and an elected, legislative assembly
Beginning of mass movement of peasants, some 2,000 country houses wrecked
Wave of pogroms throughout Russia
St Petersburg workers start fight for eight-hour day
Strikes to protest at the planned execution of sailors who had mutinied at Kronstadt and against the introduction of martial law in Poland
St Petersburg Soviet arrested
Barricades in Moscow
Insurrection finally crushed
Undoubtedly, the demand for an eight-hour day antagonised many elements among the bourgeoisie who might have sympathised with other aspirations of the workers. But there is also no doubt that this demand attracted many elements who had not so far been drawn into the movement.38
Abraham Ascher has disputed the claim of working class hegemony in the 1905 Revolution. He argues that from January 1905 until the great October strike the working class was too disorganised, too immersed in fighting for immediate economic improvements and too lacking in any coherent political programme to exercise dominance in the revolution. It was instead the liberals who held centre stage and it was the convergence between these two forces, workers and the liberal bourgeois opposition, in October that led to the revolution’s greatest triumph.39
Yet Lenin’s claim for the leading role of the working class rests on the argument that all the key advances came when the workers acted with greatest initiative and force. During the autumn of 1904 the liberals launched a campaign of petitions, conferences and banquets to cautiously raise calls for democratic reforms, all the time carefully avoiding mobilising the wider population for fear of alienating the autocracy. They hoped to utilise the growing military debacle of Russia’s war with Japan, where defeat followed defeat.40 This was at a time when working class militancy was at very low ebb. Little was achieved. Moreover, when the weight of revolt from below did force Nicolas II to promise a constitution in October 1905, the bourgeoisie and a substantial section of the liberals swung over to opposing the revolution. The prospect of even a share in political power for ordinary people was enough to cool the enthusiasm for revolution among Russia’s capitalists.
Finally, the claim for working class hegemony rests on the fact that it was the mass strikes themselves that increasingly encouraged and influenced other forces in society—peasants, national minorities, soldiers and sailors— to challenge Tsarism and rebel. As Lenin put it in 1912:
Mass strikes in revolutionary epochs have their objective logic. They scatter hundreds of thousands and millions of sparks in all directions—and all around there is the inflammable material of extreme bitterness, the torture of unprecedented starvation, endless tyranny, shameless and cynical mockery at the ‘pauper’, the ‘muzhik’ [peasant], the rank and file soldier.41
Lenin’s arguments have a distinctly ‘Luxemburgist’ cast to them. Yet Lenin places a greater emphasis on the role played by the vanguard section of workers, the metal workers. For Lenin, this unevenness among different sections of workers was not wholly overcome by the mass strike itself, and in this lay a crucial weakness of the revolution.
Faced with revival of the working class movement after 1911, Lenin repeatedly defended the significance of the mass strike for the fight against the autocracy. The revolutionary potential of the working class was at the very centre of his thinking about the Russian Revolution.
Trotsky, the mass strike and state power
Even before the great January strikes of 1905, the 25 year old Leon Trotsky envisaged a central role for the mass strike in the revolutionary process. In an article published after Bloody Sunday but written in late 1904,42 Trotsky drew a sharp contrast between the derisory results of the liberals’ campaign in the autumn of 1904 and the potential of the mass strike.
Trotsky insisted that the next step in any campaign to challenge Tsarism was the mass strike. It alone could release the pent up revolutionary energy of the masses. It alone could both organise the masses and draw new layers of the working class into the struggle. Only a mass strike across Russia, centered on demanding an end to the war as well as the establishment of a constituent assembly, could break the impasse to which the liberals’ campaign had been reduced by the end of 1904. The momentum and power of the mass strike would pull behind it the sympathy and support of the peasants on the one hand, and the army on the other, thus dramatically broadening the forces of the revolution. 43
This perspective was vindicated by the actual course of events within weeks of being written, when as Parvus, Trotsky’s collaborator at the time, put it, the mass strike emerged from under a priest’s cloak.44 But Trotsky’s anticipation of events did not come out of thin air. It represents a brilliant generalisation of the strikes which swept southern Russia in the middle of 1903. According to the Bolshevik historian M N Pokrovsky these strikes, the first general strikes across all industries of a region in Russia to take place, involved over 200,000 workers.45 Trotsky’s close attention to the possibilities generated by workers’ own activity was to provide him with a confident sense of the way forward.
Thus two central ideas crystallised in Trotsky’s thinking in advance of 1905. Firstly that the mass strike organises and unites the working class, and secondly that it dramatically expands the working class’s influence over other classes in society. But these insights were to be further enriched as a result of the repeated strike waves of 1905, which dwarfed those of 1903.
A new and remarkable power was born in the midst of the October strike as an urgent response to the needs of the strike movement itself-the council of workers’ deputies, or soviet. This unique institution was one of the supreme achievements of the 1905 Revolution. Meeting for the first time on 13 October, it was initially composed of just 30 to 40 delegates directly elected from the large St Petersburg factories.46 It expanded rapidly and by the second half of November the number of delegates had reached 562, covering 147 factories, 34 workshops and 16 trade unions. It was formed as a strike organisation, but the immense scale of the strike saw it hugely expand its sphere of activity. Radically democratic and with the support of the majority of the St Petersburg workers, it began to ensure food supplies were maintained, to arm workers against pogroms, it overturned press censorship, it intervened in disputes between landlords and labourers, and it even took up the case of stretcher bearers abused by the Red Cross.47 In short, it stepped into the vacuum left by the paralysis of the Tsarist government. ‘The more completely a strike renders the state. organisation obsolete, the more the organisation of the strike is obliged to assume state functions’. 48
The mass strike disorganises and weakens the state and is compelled, if it is to sustain itself and go forward, to create a new organisation that begins to intrude upon the prerogatives of the old state. Proletarian democracy thus arrived in Russia even before the promise of bourgeois democracy (soon itself to be diluted and reneged upon). The St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was the first such democratic workers’ council in history. During subsequent revolutions where workers have fought to fundamentally change society, workers’ councils have appeared, from Germany in 1918 to Hungary in 1956. Born in struggle, uniting workers’ economic and political power, the workers’ council is able to challenge the power of the old state.
Yet this does not exhaust the question of the relation between the mass strike and the state for Trotsky. Despite the dramatic victory of the October strike, the old state structure remained intact. Liberal opinion now celebrated the political mass strike as a wonderful ‘peaceful’ alternative to street fighting and barricades.49 Yet the old order soon struck back by instigating a wave of pogroms across Russia in the days immediately following 17 October. 50 Trotsky lucidly explains the limits of the mass strike:
In the struggle it is extremely important to weaken the enemy. That is what a strike does. At the same time a strike brings the army of the revolution to its feet. But neither the one nor the other, in itself, creates a state revolution. The power still has to be snatched from the hands of the old rulers and handed over to the revolution… A general strike only creates the necessary preconditions. It is quite inadequate for achieving the task itself.51
Far more sharply than Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky demonstrates how the mass strike inevitably poses, but does not automatically resolve, the question of state power:
A general strike only poses the problem of revolution but does not solve it. Revolution is first and foremost a struggle of state power. 13ut a strike is a revolutionary means of exerting pressure on the existing power. 52
Thus Trotsky’s insights supplement Rosa Luxemburg’s, while correcting some weaknesses in her account of the mass strike.
Socialism and democracy
The mass strikes in 1905 signalled the arrival of the working class as an independent force in the revolution. What potential for political and social transformation in Russia did this herald? The dominant belief in the Second International was that Russia would follow in the footsteps of the West. The task ahead was a bourgeois revolution that would create a framework of parliamentary democracy, freedom of association and the press, and so on. This would provide Russia’s youthful working class with the opportunity to develop both its organisation and consciousness, and it would continue to grow in strength with the further expansion of capitalist industry in Russia that a successful bourgeois revolution would entail.
The attention of Russian Marxists was riveted on the relation between democracy and socialism in the years before and after 1905.53 Crucially, the Russian Marxists challenged the idea that the protagonist in the Russian Revolution was an undifferentiated broad alliance of all the ‘people’ versus the autocracy. They sought to grasp the constituent parts of this broad opposition to Tsarism, to dissolve it into its component classes, whether liberal landowners, capitalists, peasants or workers, and to understand the relations between those classes in the revolution. The Russian Revolution’s potential for social transformation was bound up with these relations.
Plekhanov and the retreat from revolution
Plekhanov was known as the founder of Russian Marxism. However, the 1905 Revolution, far from radicalising him, placed him on the extreme right wing of Russian social democracy, isolated from those who once revered him, and praised only by the liberal press. He despaired at the failure of the bourgeoisie to support the revolution and at the evidence of its growing sympathy for the counter-revolution. He clutched at any sign of support for the revolution among Russian liberals and was deeply hostile to the tactics of the Bolsheviks. In fact, he was also estranged from the majority of the Mensheviks in this period, as they shifted to the left under the impact of events. Ever since Plekhanov had become a Marxist in the 1880s, he had insisted, ‘Political freedom will be won by the working class or not at all’. 54
The farther East we go in Europe the weaker, more abject and more cowardly becomes the bourgeoisie, and the more its cultural and political tasks fall to the lot of the proletariat. On its strong shoulders the Russian working class must bear and will bear the task of winning political liberty. 55
These two ideas, that Russian bourgeois liberalism was weak, and that in consequence the leading role in the bourgeois revolution fell to the youthful Russian working class, formed what Neil Harding calls the ‘orthodoxy’ of Russian Marxism. It was adhered to as much by Lenin as by Plekhanov in the 1890s and, indeed, was written into the founding manifesto of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1898.56
Plekhanov insisted that Russia was subject to the same historical processes as Western Europe. This was in opposition to the then dominant current of radicalism in Russia, populism (or Narodnism), which claimed that Russia possessed a unique historical destiny that would bypass the horrors of industrial capitalism. The peasant commune, with its collective responsibility for the land, was to be the point of departure for a distinctive Russian road to socialism. Plekhanov had himself emerged as a Marxist from a crisis in the populist movement in the late 1870s and early 1880sY He not only had to pioneer the application of Marxism to a ‘backward’ country, where a working class movement barely existed, but he had to do so almost single handedly.
His understanding of the ‘classic’ pattern of bourgeois revolution involved recognising that the bourgeoisie itself did not strike the decisive blows. Rather, the masses fought at the barricades only to find the fruit of their sacrifices reaped by the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie neither initiated nor played a consistent role in the revolution-it vacillated. Far from wanting a mechanical Russian copy of the French Revolution of 1789, Plekhanov was deeply concerned that the infant Russian working class should fight to avoid becoming mere foot soldiers under bourgeois democratic leadership, unable to assert its own interests. He insisted that the Russian working class must enter the political arena as an independent force under the banner of the socialist movement. It must at all costs avoid becoming a ‘blind tool of the liberals’.ss In this sense at least Russia’s bourgeois revolution could have a different outcome to 1789-an independent working class capable of using the resulting democratic framework to advance its own goals.
What then was Plekhanov’s assessment of the role of the Russian bourgeoisie in the revolution? Crucially, he saw it as unreliable and wavering, but not decisively counter-revolutionary. However weak and cowardly it was, however much the determination of the masses below was required to put steel in the spine of the Russian liberal bourgeoisie, Plekhanov insisted that an underlying conflict of interest between the Russian capitalists and the Tsarist autocracy would continue to push it back onto the path of revolution. This was not the case in 1905.
Plekhanov assumed that the timidity of the Russian bourgeoisie towards Tsarism was a product of its relatively underdeveloped condition, reflecting the backwardness of the Russian economy. The implication was that this would be overcome as industry developed. In fact, the reverse occurred. Russian industrial growth strengthened the Russian working class, a class whose increasing size, concentration and militancy terrified the bourgeoisie towards compromise, not insurgency. As Trotsky put it much later:
Plekhanov shut his eyes to the fundamental object lesson of the 19th century: that wherever the proletariat appeared as an independent force, the bourgeoisie shifted to the camp of counter-revolution. 59
Deeply committed to the bourgeois nature of the revolution, isolated from the real working class movement, Plekhanov found himself pleading with his fellow socialists to avoid alienating the bourgeoisie.
Karl Kautsky and the driving forces of the revolution
Karl Kautsky was the leading theoretician of German socialism at the time of the 1905 Revolution, and the supreme Marxist authority in the Second International from the 1890s to the outbreak of the First World War. He subsequently gave qualified support to Germany’s war effort in 1914, and was hostile to the Bolsheviks and the October 1917 Russian Revolution. However, Kautsky’s response to the first Russian Revolution as it was unfolding was subtle, insightful and sympathetic, and was influential on the best representatives of revolutionary Marxism in Russia.
Crucially, Kautsky rejected any simple analogy between the great bourgeois revolutions of 17th century England and 18th century France and the unfolding revolution in Russia, despite their ‘superficial resemblances’ .60 Arguing for the need to ‘penetrate beneath the political surfaces’61 he undertook a perceptive materialist analysis of the motor forces of the Russian Revolution.
‘The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution’ was Kautsky’s most complete and radical statement on the revolution. He argued that the pattern of Russian industrialisation was driven by the Tsarist state in response to its military rivalry with more advanced Western states. It had led neither to the solution of the agrarian question, where millions of peasants remained afflicted by chronic land shortages and miserable levels of productivity, nor to a robust domestic bourgeoisie. Instead it had spawned a strong, concentrated and energetic working class in factories established by foreign capital sponsored by the Tsarist state. Thus, while Russia lacked ‘the firm backbone of a bourgeois democracy’62 and liberalism was left bankrupt as a result, a situation had emerged whereby the proletariat had been elevated to the principal driving force of the revolution:
The age of bourgeois revolutions, ie of revolutions in which the bourgeoisie was the driving force, is over in Russia… the proletariat is no longer an appendage and tool of the bourgeoisie, as it was in the bourgeois revolutions, but an independent class with independent revolutionary aims.63
In response, the bourgeoisie, faced with an independent working class, has moved decisively to the camp of counter-revolution. So the proletariat allied with the peasantry, which he elsewhere described as an ‘auxiliary force’ ,64 might find itself in power in the course of the revolution. Kautsky clearly grasped the historical novelty of 1905: ‘For the first time in the history of the world, the industrial proletariat rises triumphantly as the dominant independent directing force’. 65
What then of the possibilities for social transformation contained within the revolution? Two things need to be said here. For while Kautsky is careful to say that the necessity of an alliance with the peasantry precludes the working class introducing socialism, he is concerned not to rule out further ‘surprises’. In particular he draws attention to the significant international impact of the Russian Revolution, which was far greater than that of the Paris Commune in 1871. If 1905 produced a massive echo in the western European working class this might allow further possibilities in Russia. So Kautsky leaves the door open for future radical developments in Russia.66
‘The Driving Forces…’ was a response to a questionnaire sent out by Plekhanov to leading western Marxists to solicit their views on the nature of the Russian Revolution. Clearly hoping to have his views buttressed by their authority, Plekhanov was rebuffed by none other than Kautsky, the ‘Pope of Marxism’, to his bitter consternation and much to Lenin’s elation.67 Kautsky’s judgement was that 1905 was:
...neither a bourgeois revolution in the traditional sense nor a socialist one but…a quite unique process which is taking place on the borderline between bourgeois and socialist society.68
At one point Kautsky talks of Russia ‘skipping a stage’ in its development if the proletariat were victorious in Germany.69 As Daniel Gaido has recently pointed out, the ambiguities in Kautsky’s position allowed both Lenin and Trotsky to claim Kautsky’s authority in defence of their own strategic outlooks.70
Lenin and the nature of the Russian Revolution
Like Plekhanov, Lenin saw the working class as the most consistent fighter for democracy, a class without any interest in compromise with the old order. Yet two things marked Lenin out from Plekhanov even before 1905: firstly, Lenin’s attitude towards the liberal bourgeoisie and, secondly, his preoccupation with the agrarian question.
Plekhanov had already detected a rather different outlook from the younger man early in their collaboration on the first question, remarking to Lenin sometime in the mid-1890s, ‘You turn your back on the liberals and we turn our face’.71
Time and again Lenin reiterated his belief that the liberal bourgeoisie would seek to strike a bargain with Tsarism. And indeed in the wake of the Tsar’s promised concessions on 17 October 1905 this is what happened. From a position of sympathy with workers’ struggles to win political reforms, the bourgeoisie now turned to support for the Tsar’s constitution and increasingly resorted to the weapon of the lockout against militant workers.
Secondly, Lenin identified the need to destroy every element of serfdom and landlord power in Russian society as one of the central tasks of the revolution. Indeed, where Plekhanov tended to see the aim of the revolution as establishing constitutional political forms, Lenin was radically committed to fighting for a revolution that would destroy the social basis of every survival of feudalism. 72 This led to a very different assessment of the role of the peasantry in the revolution. Plekhanov’s attitude towards the peasants is summed up in the following statement:
The proletariat and the ‘muzhik’ [peasant] are political antipodes. The historic role of the proletariat is as revolutionary as the historic role of the ‘muzhik’ is conservative.73
Plekhanov, having broken from his former Narodnik belief in the peasants as the basis of Russian socialism, had come instead to see the peasantry, with its narrow outlook, as the bedrock of Russian autocracy. Lenin, by contrast saw the peasants, with their land hunger and desperate oppression, as allies of the urban working class. So Lenin looked to a very different, and much more realistic, combination of forces to carry through the revolution than Plekhanov’s proposed union of the working class and bourgeoisie. For Lenin, only the workers and peasants had the energy, power and interest in tearing the head off the autocracy.
Moreover, Lenin repeatedly insisted that any meaningful democracy in Russia, any genuine constitutional order, could only be established after the overthrow of Tsarism, which required a successful insurrection. All concessions from the Tsar would ultimately be meaningless while Tsarism itself still survived. Hence the question of political power was decisive. Further, Lenin insisted that the old order would continue to vigorously resist even after the insurrection and that any revolutionary regime would have to take decisive measures to suppress all such resistance. This regime would thus be a ‘democratic dictatorship’ because victory can only come:
through dictatorship, because the realisation of the transformations immediately and unconditionally necessary for the proletariat and peasantry will call forth the desperate resistance of the landlords, of the big bourgeoisie and of Tsarism. Without dictatorship it would be impossible to break that resistance, it would be impossible to defeat counter-revolutionary efforts.74
Dictatorship here refers not to the internal organisation of the revolutionary regime-to an absence of democracy for the workers and peasants-but to the fact that the revolution will be based on armed force against the old order. Civil war was necessary for the revolution to triumph. The necessity for a seizure of political power through a mass uprising of workers and peasants was the central theme of all Lenin’s writings throughout 1905. Such an uprising would involve the establishment of what Lenin called a ‘provisional revolutionary government’ in which socialists should look to participate. This was in sharp contrast to the position taken by the Mensheviks at their conference in April and May 1905. They argued that since the revolution was bourgeois it would be the bourgeoisie alone that would comprise any revolutionary government. Indeed, to underscore the ‘orthodoxy’ of their position they pointed to the recent debates in the international socialist movement on the question of participation by socialists in a ‘bourgeois government’. 75 The Mensheviks thus presented themselves as more intransigent than the Bolsheviks, arguing that the working class must remain ‘the party of extreme opposition’, outside of political power with full treedom of manoeuvre to criticise and pressure a revolutionary bourgeois government.
For Lenin, to talk of fighting for revolution, yet to then abstain from taking power, was ridiculous, and could only result in the workers becoming the left wing tail of the liberal opposition, who wouldn’t hesitate to do deals with Tsarism in order to halt the revolution. The Mensheviks had failed to grasp the significance of a period of open revolution compared with a period of peaceful parliamentary politics.76 In the period since the defeat of the Paris Commune, argued Lenin, a period of retreat and reaction, many socialists had lowered their sights and abandoned any hope of
doing more than acting ‘from below’, that is pressurising the state from the outside. Now revolution brought about the need to act both from below and above, by taking political power. By this Lenin meant not ministerial positions but insurrection.
But despite Lenin’s commitment to working class leadership in the overthrow of Tsarism and participation in a provisional revolutionary government, he resisted the argument that this meant socialist revolution (although his position here was not absolutely fixed, as we shall see). So he rejected ‘the absurd and semi-anarchist ideas of giving effect to the maximum programme and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution’.
The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class consciousness and the organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible.77
What was at stake for Lenin was reform, via revolutionary methods, within the bounds of capitalism:
At best it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in the village but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the position of the workers… 78
Central to Lenin’s perspective for the revolution were two possibilities. Either the revolution would end in a compromise, with the bourgeoisie doing a deal with Tsarism, leaving the monarchy and much of the power of the landlords and so on intact; or the revolution would prove victorious and sweep away every vestige of Tsarism and the old order. The former would see an authoritarian framework in which capitalism would develop along what Lenin called a Prussian path, where the landlords would gradually transform themselves into capitalist farmers while retaining enormous political power. Only by destroying Tsarism completely could an American path of development be assured, where peasant farmers establish capitalism in a context of bourgeois democracy, thus allowing a wide arena for the political and organisational growth of the workers’ movement.79
Lenin sought to combat a tendency in other left wing currents to evade the necessity of taking power and, in consequence, to abstain from the fight for political leadership in the revolution, which could only benefit the liberals at the expense of the revolution itself. 80 The leading Menshevik ideologue, Martynov, opposed social democrats taking power as he argued that this could only mean socialist revolution and inevitable failure. And the Narodniks’ and anarchists’ denial of the inevitability of capitalist development in Russia translated into a hostility to participation in ‘bourgeois politics’.81 Thus Lenin was strongly inclined to equate the argument about an immediate transition to socialism as cover for a retreat from the political tasks of the working class in the revolution: ‘The fight against autocracy is a temporary and transient task.. .but to ignore or neglect this task in any way
would be tantamount to betraying socialism and rendering a service to reaction’.82
Because he insisted that the revolution remain within bourgeois limits, there was a contradiction in Lenin’s position. As Trotsky put it in retrospect:
For the sake of maintaining unity with the peasantry, the proletariat would be obliged to forego posing the socialist task directly during the impending revolution. But that would have meant the repudiation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship.83
In other words, Lenin placed the working class as the leading force in a revolution that would culminate in a regime in which workers had to hold back from pressing their own interests. But Lenin also displayed a capacity for flexible thinking reflecting his ability to learn trom the struggle. So in a piece he wrote in September 1905, ‘Social Democracy’s Attitude to the Peasantry’, Lenin argued:
From the democratic revolution we shall at once and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of class consciousness and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half way. 84
As Tony Cliff has argued, Lenin gave two answers to the question, what happens after the victory of the revolution? The first and predominant answer was that a period of capitalist development would follow, but there was also a second answer, which was, ‘Let’s take power and then we’ll see’.85
The defeat of the 1905 Revolution meant that the conservative shell of Lenin’s formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ was not brought into contradiction with his commitment to workers’ struggle. After the overthrow of Tsarism in February 1917 a section of the Bolshevik leadership in St Petersburg used this formula to justify conditional support for the new bourgeois regime. Lenin returned to Russia trom exile and overturned this programme in his April Theses, now declaring that the task ahead was to fight for workers’ power. Lenin did not renounce his old formulas until the concrete demands of the revolution found them wanting.
Trotsky: making the revolution permanent
Kautsky, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg all seized on the distinctive fact about the Russian Revolution-that even though Russia had yet to experience a bourgeois revolution, the Russian working class had already emerged as a powerful independent political force. But only Leon Trotsky grasped the full significance of this crucial new development. He alone argued that the revolution, if victorious, must burst the boundaries of capitalist society and lead to socialist revolution. The revolution would not stop at bourgeois democracy but would lead to workers’ complete emancipation, and so would become ‘permanent’.
Like Kautsky, Trotsky rejected arguments that proceeded by drawing simple historical analogies between the Russian Revolution and the French Revolution of 1789. ‘The 19th century has not passed in vain,’ as he expressed it. The enormous expansion of the capitalist system over the preceding century precluded any mere repeat of the great bourgeois revolutions. Taking as his starting point the fact that Russia did not develop in isolation from its more advanced neighbours, but under military pressure from them, he analysed the ‘peculiarities’ of Russian history and society. Russian industry did not emerge gradually and organically from urban handicraft production as it had in the West, but from the actions of the Tsarist state in collaboration with foreign capital in a 19th century forerunner of ’ inward investment’. The capital and technology transferred were the most advanced available, a process Trotsky would later describe as ‘combined and uneven development’.
An ossified absolutist state thus came to preside over a weak domestic bourgeoisie and exceptionally concentrated modern working class in the giant factories of St Petersburg, Moscow and Warsaw. The creation of this ‘sharply differentiated class of wage workers’ was of decisive significance, so that while ‘Russia stands on an economically low level of capitalist development, politically it has an insignificant capitalist bourgeoisie and a powerful revolutionary proletariat’ .86 As evidence for this claim Trotsky pointed to the creation of the councils of workers’ deputies, the soviets, across Russia.87
Like Lenin, Trotsky argued that, faced with a bourgeoisie that ultimately feared revolution from below more than Tsarism above it, the working class had to fight for power. Where Trotsky departed from Lenin was in his recognition that once the working class was in power two things followed. Firstly, the working class would be hegemonic over the peasantry. The peasants lacked the internal unity to act as an independent force. They would, as in the bourgeois revolutions of the past, be dependent on the cities. The only question was, which urban force would draw them behind its banner? With the bourgeoisie tied to Tsarism and thus to the landowners, this task fell to the working class: ‘The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it’. 88
Secondly, having taken political power the working class would be forced to undermine capitalism. Its political domination was incompatible with its economic exploitation.89 For example, faced with the capitalists using their control of the factories to lock out workers who demanded an eight-hour day, the workers would of necessity use their political power, their control of the state, to seize control of those factories, and in effect begin a process of socialisation.90 To do otherwise, to retreat in the face of
the capitalists’ economic muscle, could only strengthen the hands of the exploiter and must ultimately lead to the undermining of the workers’ hold on political power. The old division in the Second International parties between a minimum programme, composed of the battle for reforms in the here and now, and the maximum programme, the distant socialism of tomorrow, would be dissolved:
The very fact of the proletariat’s representatives entering the government, not as powerless hostages but as the leading force, destroys the borderline between maximum and minimum programme.91
Thus there could be no self-denying ordinance restricting either workers’ struggle or their attempts to transform society. Yet the fact remained that Russia possessed a very low level of productive forces. How could socialism be possible? Here Trotsky returned to the starting point of his analysis, the global capitalist system. It was precisely on a world scale that the material prerequisites already existed for socialism:
Without the direct state support of the European proletariat, the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting dictatorship.92
What Kautsky had described as a possibility was in fact a necessity for the Russian workers’ revolution to survive.
Here was an approach to socialist revolution in Russia that did not evade the question of winning political power in the bourgeois revolution. Trotsky grasped the way that the internal dynamic of the bourgeois revolution in Russia would place the proletariat in power, but how, once in power, the barriers to its economic domination must also be breached. Its fate would then become intertwined with that of the European and international revolution.
The lessons of 1905
In 1903 Rosa Luxemburg asked why Marxism didn’t seem to have advanced since the death of its founders. She suggested that new developments in the class struggle itself were required for Marxism to advance as a science.93 The 1905 Revolution did pose new problems and new tasks for revolutionaries and it did indeed lead to vital new insights and theories.
A deterministic conception of Marxism dominated most of the parties of the Second International, which would lead to such disaster in August 1914 when the majority capitulated to imperialism. It saw history as governed by iron economic laws excluding any genuine role for human consciousness and activity shaping society. Luxemburg’s writings on the mass strike, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and Lenin’s notion of the party laid the basis for an alternative that placed workers’ self-activity at the centre of revolutionary politics. The old approach was a recipe for passivity, the new one a call to arms.
But the full significance of this breakthrough was hidden to a significant extent. Most socialists outside of Russia responded sympathetically to the new methods of struggle displayed in the mass strike, but they saw them as relevant only to Russia, with its lack of democratic rights and basic trade union organisation: this was the argument Kautsky used against Rosa Luxemburg when she called in 1910 for mass strikes to fight for suffrage reform in Germany. Tony Cliff has argued that Trotsky’s theory ‘broke the mould of Kautskyian Marxism’94 in the sense that Trotsky broke with the prevailing method inside the Second International, a method Kautsky was instrumental in creating and reinforcing. Nevertheless, because the immediate impact of 1905 produced in Kautsky his most radical and creative work, the scale of the break was masked until further tumultuous events put him to the real test of practice and starkly revealed the gulf between ‘Kautskyism’ and revolutionary Marxism.95 In the US the International Workers of the World (IWW; or ‘Wobblies’) was founded in 1905 and drew inspiration from the Russian Revolution, but drew the conclusion that the revolution demonstrated that mass strikes, not political organisation, were the way forward.
In Russia too 1905 did not settle all the vital questions. Lenin still adhered to the formula of’ democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants’, while Trotsky (and Luxemburg) remained hostile to Lenin’s notion of the party. And they all in different ways expected victory in the future to come from a bigger, better version of 1905. The reality of the Russian Revolution of 1917 demonstrated that something more was required. Crucially, a revolutionary organisation, rooted in the most militant sections of the working class, was required to overcome that ‘dissipation of forces’ in 1905 to which Lenin had drawn attention. The unevenness of workers’ consciousness was not overcome by the mass strike
alone-it had to be argued and fought for by organised political militants.
Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg all reassessed their perspectives in the light of the 1917 Revolution in Russia and the outbreak of revolution in Germany in November 1918. Lenin in practice adopted the perspective of permanent revolution, while Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks. Rosa Luxemburg too, in the brief time she was able to participate in the German Revolution, reassessed old positions that had separated her from Lenin (a process that was still taking place when she was murdered in January 1919). She was after all a co-founder of the German Communist Party. 96
But 1905 also played a vital role in creating that organisation of political militants that could prove capable of uniting the forces of the working class in the revolution. This involved a hard struggle, not least by Lenin. In the 1905 Revolution the masses surged ahead of the revolutionaries, who were so used to being far to the left of the mass of workers. These revolutionaries had begun to assemble in socialist organisations in the face of Tsarist repression in the years prior to 1905. Lenin fought to overcome conservatism and even sectarianism among some of the core of the Bolsheviks recruited before the revolution. Many Bolsheviks were hostile
to the movement around Father Gapon, even though he led thousands of St Petersburg workers, and they were often hesitant towards the new trade unions that sprung up in the upsurge following Bloody Sunday. Leading Bolsheviks even exhibited hostility to the St Petersburg Soviet when it was formed. Lenin looked to overcome this sectarian attitude by waging both a battle of ideas to reorientate the Bolsheviks and significant organisational changes. He relentlessly fought to open the Bolsheviks up to an influx of newly radicalised workers. In contrast to some of the formulations from three years earlier in Mat is to be Done Lenin now argued, ‘The working class is instinctively, spontaneously social democratic [meaning revolutionary]’.97 To open the Bolsheviks to such workers, it was vital, argued Lenin, that new ways of organising were adopted. It was time to leave behind many of the old conspiratorial methods, so necessary before 1905, but now a hindrance:
We must not forget that so far we have had to deal too often only with revolutionaries coming from a particular social stratum, whereas now we shall have to deal with typical representatives of the masses. This change calls for a change not only in the methods of propaganda and agitation.. . but also in organisation.98
The Bolsheviks’ organisation had to become more flexible, so as to allow far greater scope for workers’ initiative. The Bolsheviks’ organisation rapidly increased in size, from a few thousand before 1905 to 46,000 by 1907 (it collapsed later as the impact of defeat hit).
The period after the October strike was known as the ‘Days of
Freedom’, because for a brief period it was possible to organise openly as revolutionaries, at least in the big urban centres.99 Lenin argued that the Bolsheviks should fully adopt the elective principle in their internal organisation, essential if new layers of workers were to find their way into not just the Bolsheviks’ ranks, but its leadership. 100 Marcel Liebman has shown that the concept of’ democratic centralism’, so widely held to be at the core of
Leninist elitism, was in fact a product of this period and not of the pre-revolutionary years of conspiratorial methods.’ol Faced with Tsarist repression, Lenin had argued that all talk of democracy was hypocrisy since it simply could not be carried out. 1905 changed that, and Lenin seized the opportunity. The reorientation required by socialists in the face of revolution was not limited to theory alone, but had to be conducted at the level of ideas and organisation. In both there was resistance that had to be overcome.
The 1905 revolution and the 21st century
1905 forms a link in a long chain of revolutions. It doesn’t furnish us with insights into every vital issue facing revolutionaries in the 21st century. So, for example, we can learn little about the nature and role of the trade union bureaucracy from Russia in 1905, where trade unions barely existed, nor can we learn about the strategy of the united front, that is of how revolutionaries should relate to reformists.
But 1905 does focus our attention on the way workers’ struggles at the point of production can develop into a frontal assault on capitalist society. 1905 powerfully underlines the way political events can detonate huge economic struggles. In January 1905 it was a confrontation in the streets between Tsarism and the workers of St Petersburg. In 1968 it was (far less bloody) clashes between Paris students and the French state, or in 1974 in Portugal it was the crisis of a colonial empire. 100 Today the war in Iraq has generated a mass political opposition that has the potential to lay the basis for a renewed working class offensive. Upturns in workers’ struggles are rarely the product of a slowly rising curve of economic struggles over a period of years. Great political events and crises often play a decisive role in igniting struggles in the workplace.
Equally, the interaction of politics and economics in the mass strikes of 1905 highlights something else. These ‘fighting strikes’, as Rosa Luxemburg called them, can mobilise whole sections of the working population. Bernard Cassen, of ATTAC in France, has challenged the anti-capitalist movement with the ‘20 million person’ question. How do we link the minority of activists to the mass of the population, those people who drive the buses, work in the supermarkets, staff the call centres? How does the movement reach them? The mass strike is that method.
Moreover, the dynamic of 1905 demonstrates how even a small working class is not only capable of fighting for democracy but in so doing it draws behind it all the oppressed of society. From Nigeria to Bolivia or Venezuela this remains a crucial lesson. To simply talk about opposition from the ‘people’ in general, or to simply see workers as one force among many others, is to ignore the question of which class has the power and capacity to most effectively fight for social transformation. The ability of workers to paralyse the economy, their concentrated nature and their common interests mean that this class has the potential to lead that power to victory. To do so, the fight for the economic emancipation of workers has to be joined to the battle for democracy.
Here the argument that workers’ militancy, if taken too far, alienates bourgeois allies needs addressing. This was the argument of the liberals in November and December 1905. It was echoed by some of the left in the years following the defeat of the revolution and it is the staple of liberal histories of the 1905 Revolution today. Yet Lenin’s point in his 1910 article holds good. The fight for the eight-hour day in November 1905 may have lost the workers the sympathy of the liberals but it won over whole new sections of the oppressed to the revolution and thus increased the likelihood of lasting victory. In 1905 many workers thought it was enough to try to put pressure on the autocracy. Only a minority understood the need to destroy it root and branch. This was even truer of the peasants in 1905-07. Lenin later estimated that, although a majority of the workers took part in the struggle, only a minority, maybe only a fifth, of the peasants did so. But large numbers of peasants and workers drew from the experience of 1905 the need to be more resolute and determined next time. Not for nothing did Lenin describe 1905 as the dress rehearsal for 1917.
Finally, the urgency for revolutionaries to break away from old methods of working when faced with new periods of struggle, and to attract new forces into their ranks, is not perhaps the first and most immediate lesson of 1905 but it is in the end the most pressing. Mass strikes, like revolution itself, no matter how powerful, do not provide a panacea. No matter how much pressure they place on the old order, or what victories they achieve, no matter how much they force the ruling class onto the defensive, they do not destroy the state machine. It remains to be overthrown, otherwise gains and reforms can be taken back and movements can be smashed. To overthrow the ruling class, the forces from below, led by the working class, have to be united and concentrated. That requires political argument carried by networks of political activists used to working together, activists who have won influence among wide layers of workers, who are capable of learning from the struggle and are able to overcome conservatism in their own ranks in order to strike the decisive blows. The importance of creating such a revolutionary political party is a task that, in the end, cannot be evaded.
1: L Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin (New York, 1996), p97.
2: As above, p97.
3: M N Pokrovsky, Brief History of Russia, vol2 (London, 1933), p15I.
4: A Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford, 1988), p136.
5: A point made by Lenin in the lecture he delivered in Switzerland on the eve of the 1917 revolution. See Lecture on the 1905 Revolution (Moscow, 1978), p8.
6: This reflected the small size of workplaces in Paris. The average of Parisian workplaces in 1860 was just 4.8 employees. I owe this point to Donny Gluckstein.
7: R Luxemburg, The Mass Strike (London, 1986), p47.
8: The classic socialist rebuttal of this anarchist conception of the general strike was F Engels, ‘The Bakuninists at Work’ (1873), see www.marxists.org/archive/marx1873/bakunin/index.htm
9: See T Cliff, ‘Belgium: Strike to Revolution?’ , International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition: Selected Writings. vol 1 (London, 2001), p155.
10: N Stone, Europe Transformed 1878
1919 (London, 1985), p107.
11: C Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905-1917 (Cambridge, Mass, 1983), pH.
12: As above, p34.
13: R Luxemburg, as above, p18.
14: C Schorske, as above, p28.
15: Quoted in A Ascher, as above, p185. 16: C Schorske, as above, P36.
17: As above, p28.
18: As above, p3I.
19: A large swathe of Poland, known as the Kingdom of Poland, was controlled by Russia. The rest of Poland was divided between Germany and Austria.
20: Robert Blobaum describes Luxemburg as the ‘head’ of the SDKPiL with Feliks Dzierzynksi as the driving organisational force on the ground. See R Blobaum, Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL (New York, 1984).
21: R Blobaum, Rewolucja: Russian Poland, 1904-1907 (New York, 1995). This is a very useful study but is largely unsympathetic to the revolutionary left.
22: R Luxemburg, as above, p50.
23: As above, P33. 24: As above, p42. 25: As above, p50. 26: As above, p69.
27: As above, p44, and especially p73.
28: V I Lenin, ‘Strike Statistics in Russia’ , Collected Works, vol 16 (Moscow, 1963), PP395-42I. See www.marxists.com/archive/lenin/works/ 1910/ssir/index.htm. Neil Harding describes this work as a ‘masterly article, perhaps the most important he had written for some years’-see N Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought. vol 1 (London, 1983), p286.
29: N Harding, as above, p290.
30: V I Lenin, as above, pp 399-400. 31: As above, p403.
32: As above.
33: As above, p404.
34: As above, pp419-420.
35: The table itself appears in V I Lenin,
as above, p414.
36: As above, p414.
37: As above, p417.
38: As above.
39: AAscher, as above, ppI50-151.
40: The Tsar and his advisers had confidently expected to crush Japan and secure domination over Manchuria in China and beyond that Korea. In fact, the Russians suffered a series of humiliating defeats on land and sea.
41: V I Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Upswing’, Collected Works. vol 18 (Moscow, 1963), pl08.
42: L Trotsky, ‘The Proletariat and the Revolution’, appeared in Trotsky’s pamphlet Up to the 9th of January and is reprinted in I Deutscher (ed) , The Age of Permanent Revolution (New York, 1964).
43: L Trotsky, ‘The Proletariat and the Revolution’ in I Deutscher (ed), as above, p49.
44: See the comments reported by Trotsky in My Life (London, 1975), p172. Parvus (1867-1924) was a brilliant Russian Marxist intellectual exiled in Germany who later abandoned revolution and supported Germany in the First World War. For more on Trotsky’s relationship with Parvus see the chapter headed ‘An Intellectual Partnership’ in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Armed (Oxford, 1979). On Parvus himself see Z Zeman and W Scharlau, The Merchant of Revolution (Oxford, 1965).
45: M N Pokrovsky, as above, p56.
46: L Trotsky, 1905 (Harmondsworth, 1973), p123. Trotsky explained that the delegates to the soviet were elected on the basis of one delegate per 500 workers, with smaller enterprises grouped together. Sometimes however, delegates were elected on the basis of only 100 or 200 workers.
47: AB above, PP238-239. 48: AB above, p267.
49: AB above, pu8.
50: See the chapter ‘The Tsar’s Men at
Work’ in L Trotsky, 1905, as above.
51: AB above, pU9.
52: AB above, p310.
53: A point Trotsky makes in ‘Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution’, included as an appendix to his Stalin (New York and London, 1946), p422.
54: These were Plekhanov’s final words in his speech at the founding congress of the Second International in 1889, quoted in T Cliff, ‘Plekhanov: The Father of Russian Marxism’ , Socialist Review, January 1957. In The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development (London, 1981), p32, Michael Lowy has suggested that this was simply an occasional passing remark. In fact it was a constantly reiterated theme.
55: Quoted in T Cliff, as above.
56: N Harding, as above, p46. Baron notes that Plekhanov’s first Marxist work, Socialism and the Political Struggle, was described by Lenin as significant for Russia as Marx’s Communist manifesto had been for the West. See S H Baron, Plekhanov: the Father of Russian Marxism (Stanford, 1966), p143.
57: S H Baron, as above, p47. 58: AB above, p109.
59: L Trotsky, ‘Three Concepts…’, as
6o: See K Kautsky ‘Revolutions, Past and Present’ (1906).
61: AB above.
62: K Kautsky, ‘The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution’, reprinted in N Harding (ed), Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879-1906 (Cambridge, 1983), P367.
63: AB above, p370.
64: See K Kautsky, ‘Revolutions, Past and Present’, as above.
65: AB above.
66: Massimo Salvadori in his study of Kautsky if anything understates his (verbal) radicalisation in 1905. He acknowledges Kautsky’s argument that the Russian Revolution might lead to upheavals in Europe briefly, but ignores Kautsky’s suggestion that this in turn might react back on the Russian Revolution and expand the frontier of potential social change. The effect, and perhaps the intention, is to underplay the break between Kautsky’s 1905-06 perspective and his hostile response to October 1917. See M Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution (London, 1979), ppI06-107.
67: Baron describes Kautsky’s reply as ‘absolutely destructive’ of Plekhanov’s position. See S H Baron, as above, p274. Lenin wrote a very favourable introduction to a rapidly translated Russian edition of Kautsky’s article. This is available in English translation in N Harding (ed), as above, PP352-356.
68: See K Kautsky, ‘Driving Forces…’, as above, p370.
69: See M Donald, Marxism and Revolution: Karl Kautsky and the Russian Marxists 1900-1924 (New Haven, 1993), p74.
70: D Gaido, ‘’‘The American Worker” and the Theory of Permanent Revolution: Karl Kautsky on Werner Sombart’s “Why is there no Socialism in the United States’.., Historical Materialism 11.4(2003), PP91-93. Kautsky’s view of the role of the peasantry was closer to Trotsky, but he lacked Trotsky’s bold conclusions about the implications. See below. 71: S H Baron, as above, p155.
72: N Harding, as above, p216. 73: T Cliff, ‘Plekhanov…’, as above.
74: Quoted in L Trotsky, ‘Three
Concepts…’, as above, p424.
75: The debates were over the entry of the socialist Millerand into the bourgeois government of Waldeck Rousseau in 1899.
76: See V I Lenin, Two Tactics in the Democratic Revolution (Beijing, 1975), p78.
77: As above, ppI6-17.
78: As above, p53. 79: As above, p42. 80: As above, p23.
81: For Lenin’s criticism on the Narodniks, see above, p43, and on the anarchists, p17.
82: As above, P91.
83: L Trotsky, ‘Three Concepts…’, as above, p425.
84: V I Lenin, ‘Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement’, Collected Works, vol 9 (Moscow, 1963), p237.
85: T Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party (London, 1986), p206.
86: L Trotsky, Results and Prospects (New York, 1978), p66.
87: As above, p59. Tony Cliff is mistaken when he writes in his biography of Lenin that Trotsky doesn’t mention the soviet in Results and Prospects (see T Cliff, Lenin: Building the Party, as above, pI67-168). Cliffs general point that Trotsky doesn’t identify the soviet as the embryo of a workers’ state does hold true for Results and Prospects, where Trotsky describes it as created for ‘the purpose of co-ordinating …revolutionary struggle’ (p60). However, in 1905, as I have shown, Trotsky does at least begin to see the soviet as an alternative, workers’ state.
88: L Trotsky, Results and Prospects, as above. p7I.
89: As above, p101.
90: As above, p78. 91: As above, p80.
92: As above, p105.
93: R Luxemburg, ‘Stagnation and Progress in Marxism’, in Mary-Alice Waters (ed), Rosa LuxemburgSpeaks (New York. 1980), p111.
94: T Cliff, Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917 (London, 1989), PPI38-139.
95: Neither Lenin nor Trotsky sided with Luxemburg when she broke with Kautsky in 1910. For a discussion of the 1910 debate between Luxemburg and Kautsky see P Anderson, ‘The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci’, New Left Review 100 (1976-77), pp61-65.
96: Also. she too in practice accepted Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution.
97: V I Lenin, ‘Reorganisation of the Party’, Collected Works. vol 10 (Moscow, 1963), p32
98: As above, PP33-34.
99: Pokrovosky notes that it was only in October, after the Tsar’s manifesto, that revolutionary newspapers started to be sold openly on the streets, for example. See above, p178.
100: See Lenin, ‘Reorganisation of the Party’, as above, pI.
101: M Liebman, ‘Lenin in 1905: A Revolution that Shook a Doctrine’. See www.marxsite.com/democratic-centralism.htm Liebman sums up the new principle of democratic centralism as ‘Freedom of discussion. Unity of action’.
102: For more on France 1968 or Portugal 1974-75, see C Harman, The Fire Last Time (London, 1987).