39) Revolutionary Flood Tide

After the massacre of January 9, the movement in St. Petersburg temporarily ebbed, as the workers of the capital cautiously took stock of the position. The May Day demonstration in St. Petersburg was not a success, with only a few hundred turning out. Nevertheless, throughout the spring and summer of 1905, the pendulum swung continually to the left. While the workers of the capital temporarily stepped back to take stock of the situation, the more backward provinces were now being roused to struggle. On May 1, 200,000 workers struck in nearly 200 towns throughout Russia. The events in Petersburg stirred the provinces into action everywhere. The textile workers were well to the fore. On May 12, a general strike broke out in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile town with 70,000 workers, lasting 72 days. By this time the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolsheviks numbered more than 400. Negotiations were conducted by elected factory delegates who met in a “meeting of Representative Delegates,” a soviet in all but name. Out of 128 delegates (of whom 23 were women) about 30 were Bolsheviks.

The Ivanovo-Voznesensk Soviet kept order in the town, issued proclamations, set up a militia, and controlled the press, thus in practice imposing freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. Daily mass meetings enabled the mass of workers to learn and exchange experiences. The peasants in the surrounding districts looked hopefully towards the Soviet to which they directed petitions. The militant unity of the proletariat and peasantry was being forged, not in words but in deeds, by the movement of the workers themselves. From May 23 the local Party got out a regular bulletin on the course of the dispute. By the end of June, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolshevik organization had grown to 600 members, with 15-20 factory organizations. In the textile town of Lodz in Poland, the funeral of a worker killed by Cossacks turned into a mass political demonstration on May 15 with slogans such as “Down with tsarism!” and “Long live the revolution!” A wave of strikes and demonstrations swept through Poland and Lithuania, culminating in the June 23 general strike and uprising in Lodz, and solidarity demonstrations in Warsaw and Odessa.

The strike wave which gripped almost all the industrial areas throughout the spring and summer assumed an increasingly political character. Whereas in March, less than 30 percent of strikes were political, between April and August the figure had risen to 50–70 percent. Everywhere, the workers’ elected representatives to the factory committees and strike committees led the way. And all that a soviet is—at its inception—is an enlarged strike committee, an organ of struggle in the fight of the workers against the employers. The Soviets in Russia, those marvelously effective, flexible, and representative organizations of the workers, were not the invention of Lenin or Trotsky. Nowhere do they feature in the writings of Marx and Engels. They were the product of the inventive genius and initiative of ordinary working men and women. The Soviets were destined to play a central role in the whole development of the revolution, particularly during and after the great October strike.

Not only the urban workers but the peasantry was also gradually being drawn into the orbit of the revolution. Throughout the summer there were peasant disturbances and strikes of agricultural laborers in the Baltic area, the Ukraine, Don, Kuban, and the Caucasus. In some areas, the peasants virtually took over whole areas and ran their own affairs. The Mensheviks tried to use this as backing for their theory of “revolutionary self-government.” But the truth was that, unless the working class took power, such local outbreaks could only have an episodic character. While the Mensheviks looked towards the Zemstvo liberals, Lenin became increasingly convinced that the only possible ally for the workers in their struggle to overthrow the autocracy consisted in the peasantry, particularly the poor peasants. His vision of the revolution was that of the broadest possible movement of the workers and peasants, to overthrow tsarism, establish a provisional revolutionary government (democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) which, without going beyond the limits of capitalism, would carry through the most radical and far-reaching democratic program, first and foremost the confiscation of the big estates and the handing over of land to the peasants.

Up till 1905, the Party’s agrarian program consisted of a series of limited demands which would alleviate the burdens on the peasantry, particularly the recovery of the otrezki, or “cut-off lands,” that is, the land which had been withheld from the peasants under the terms of the Emancipation of the Serfs Act of 1861. But now, the revolution in the urban centers was rapidly spreading to the villages. The general sentiment among the peasants was in favor of seizing the landlords’ estates. The old Party program was hopelessly antiquated. Taking cognizance of the new situation in the villages where the Party had redrafted its agrarian program to include the confiscation of all landowners’, government, church, monastic, and crown lands. The changed atmosphere in the villages opened up for the first time the possibility of social democratic work among the peasants.

Although the Party was still weak here, some circles were established in areas like Nizhegorod, Samara, Saratov, Kazan, and Tver. Lenin insisted on the establishment of purely Social Democratic groups in the villages, composed of farm laborers and rural proletarians. Only then would they seek agreements for joint work with other revolutionary-democratic groups. But the prior condition was not to blur over the distinction between workers and peasant small proprietors. An interesting pen portrait of the work of Bolshevik agitators in the villages is to be found in Sholokhov’s famous novel And Quiet Flows the Don, which describes how the Bolshevik Stockman organized a group of Cossacks around a poetry and literacy circle:

After long sifting and testing, a little group of the Cossacks began to meet regularly in Stockman’s workshop. Stockman was the heart and soul of the group and he worked straight towards a goal that only he fully understood. He ate into the simple understanding and conceptions like a worm into wood, instilling repugnance and hatred towards the existing system. At first he found himself confronted with the cold steel of distrust, but he was not to be repulsed. Even that could be worn away.246

This ferment in the villages had important repercussions in the armed forces, which were overwhelmingly of peasant composition. However, as so often happened in the history of revolutions, the revolt flared up first in the fleet, with its more proletarian class makeup. The Party’s work among soldiers and sailors was even more difficult than work among the peasants. On the eve of the 1905 Revolution, there were only three organized Party groups in the armed forces. However, in the course of the revolution, this number increased to a total of 27 groups.247 Military defeats created an explosive mood of discontent in the ranks, making them ever more receptive to Social Democratic agitation. News of the annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, (May 14–15, 1905) had an especially electrifying effect on the sailors. As so often happens in naval mutinies, the leading role was played by the petty officers, normally drawn from the most able and intelligent of the sailors, whose close proximity to the officers gave rise to a deep-seated contempt for the latter. The tensions and conflicts aroused by the arrogance and incompetence of the naval officers became increasingly unbearable when they were related to matters of life and death, in time of war. Precisely such a clash between the petty officers and officers led to the outbreak of the famous mutiny on the battleship Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky on June 14, 1905, immortalized in Eisenstein’s classic film The Battleship Potemkin.

The immediate issue was the bad food. But the underlying cause was the general discontent with the conduct of the war, and the piling up of unbearable contradictions over decades and generations. The Black Sea fleet had set out for the southern port of Odessa precisely when that city was in the grip of a general strike. No amount of military discipline and police surveillance could prevent the bacilli of revolution from reaching the ships anchored only a few miles away. The mutinying crew arrested all the officers, except the commander and six others who were killed. The sailors elected a committee from their midst which took the bold initiative of sailing into Odessa to appeal for support from the workers. A great crowd assembled around the corpse of the able seaman Grigory Valulinchuk, killed by an officer. A massive demonstration took place, and mass meetings were held in which Social Democratic agitators participated. This showed both the strong and the weak side of the spontaneous, elemental movement of the masses. All the elements were present for a decisive linking-up of the army with the revolutionary people. But in the absence of a conscious leadership, the “floating republic” could only have the character of an episodic development, which nevertheless was an anticipation of the going over of the soldiers and sailors to the side of the Soviets in 1917.

These events left the Odessa authorities thunderstruck. For a time they did not know what to do. In practice, power was in the hands of the workers. But they acted with no clear perspective, no overall policy or plan. This allowed the authorities time to concentrate their forces against Odessa. A naval force was sent against the Potemkin, but the mutineers succeeded in escaping to Rumania. The revolution in Odessa was brutally suppressed. The mutiny on the Potemkin therefore failed to lead to an insurrection, which was implicit in the situation. But it did not pass off without leaving its imprint. Terrified at the scale of the mass movement and the signs of inner decomposition in the armed forces, the government announced the holding of elections to the State Duma (parliament). Ten days later peace was concluded with Japan under humiliating terms. From a strictly military point of view, despite her earlier reverses, Russia had everything to gain from continuing the war. Japan’s reserves of men and money were nearly exhausted. Not the military strength of Japan but the threat of revolution at home led to the conclusion of peace. The rapid termination of the war was essential for the preservation of the autocracy.


246 Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don, 259.

247 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 90.

40) The Bulygin Duma

The weakness of the autocracy was shown by the August 6 Manifesto promising a parliament or Duma (the Bulygin Duma). The ending of the war and the announcement of elections was greeted with elation by the bourgeois liberals. “The Japanese,” proclaimed one of them, “will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will!”248 However, closer acquaintance with the details of Bulygin’s proposals soon poured cold water over this precipitate and naïve optimism. Bulygin, the creature of the autocracy, had worked out what Lenin described as “the most reactionary constitution in Europe.” It gave the vote to the landowners, bourgeois, property-owning peasants, and the urban middle class, while the workers, the village poor, women, and servicemen—that is to say, the overwhelming majority of the population—were excluded. To add insult to injury, the Duma would only have consultative powers! The whole elaborate construction was a lie and a deceit behind which everything would continue as before.

From this moment on, the Duma occupied a central position in the tactical discussions of all Social Democratic tendencies. The Bolsheviks immediately came out in favor of a policy of “active boycott.” The position of the Mensheviks was ambiguous. In the Caucasus, focal point for the most backward and opportunist wing of Menshevism, they openly called for participation. However, in general, the mood of the Menshevik rank and file was against this. The Bolsheviks proposed a united front to the Mensheviks and the Social Democratic organizations of the nationalities for a boycott campaign. At local level, the Bolsheviks and Menshevik workers acted in unison. The petty-bourgeois Social Revolutionaries also supported the boycott. Even the liberals of the “Union of Unions” were compelled to come out in opposition, at least in words.

The government’s granting of autonomy to the universities, in itself an apparently secondary measure, represented a major turning point. The doors of the establishments of higher education were suddenly thrown open and through them poured the masses, thirsting for ideas, and eager to participate in the arena of public debate. Up to this point, the students had been involved in a passive student strike, refusing to turn up to classes. This was on the point of being broken when the whole movement took an entirely different direction. Throughout the autumn, the campuses and lecture theaters were the focal points of heated discussions. Beginning with the students, these debates became known to the workers who soon understood that here, at last, was a place they could meet and discuss unmolested by the police. “Alongside the students’ uniforms in the lecture theaters,” wrote an eyewitness, “ordinary clothes and, above all, workers’ overalls were to be seen with ever increasing frequency.”249

The explosion on the campuses showed that the pendulum was still swinging rapidly to the left, with new layers being drawn into the struggle. This was the fundamental consideration which determined the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the question of a boycott at this stage, although at the Third Congress Lenin was very careful to insist that the party should keep its options open on this question. More than anyone else, Lenin understood the need for extreme flexibility on all tactical and organizational questions and not to get carried away by ultraleft moods which would only serve to separate the advanced elements from the majority of the class.

In the given situation, the boycott of the Bulygin Duma project was absolutely correct. The revolutionary wave was still gathering in strength. The terms of the new constitution fell so far short of the expectations aroused that even a section of the liberals were opposed. The democratic aspirations of the masses collided against the solid wall of the bureaucratic-police regime. Only by the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism and a clean break with the past could the ground be cleared for the introduction of a genuine democracy. The exact nature of the transformation and the role of the different classes in the revolution were the subject of heated debate within the ranks of the workers’ movement, which will be dealt with later. But to all but the blindest reformist, it was evident that on the order of the day stood, not parliamentarianism but a revolutionary general strike and armed insurrection to overthrow the autocracy. This perspective was amply corroborated by the high tide of the revolution which was ushered in by the October strike in St. Petersburg and culminated in the December uprising in Moscow.


248 Pares, A History of Russia, 485.

249 Martov and others, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 1, 73.

41) The October Strike and the Soviet

By late summer the strike wave appeared to have subsided. The conclusion of peace with Japan, the Bulygin Duma and a series of other concessions seemed to have brought it to a close. But this appearance was deceptive. The movement was far from exhausted. The September-October strike movement was sparked off not by the most experienced and advanced sections of the class, but by the more backward layers. The summer months saw a decline in strikes in the big factories, but an increase in strikes of the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of the class—sawmill and brickyard workers, slaughterhouse workers, spinning assistants, pharmacists, postmen, waiters, bakers, even domestic servants. The proletarian army was calling up its reserves. Wave after wave joined in the struggle. A new impulse came from the Moscow printers’ strike which led to a general strike in Moscow on September 27. Beginning with a small dispute at the Sytin printworks in Moscow, the printers’ strike spread to 50 printshops within a few days and then rapidly became general throughout the city.

Just when the movement in Moscow appeared to be dying down, there was a new upsurge in St. Petersburg. On October 2, a sympathy strike of the printers was followed by a railway strike in Moscow on October 6. The railway workers struck and elected delegates. By October 10 there was an all-out railway strike. By mid-October, three quarters of a million railwaymen were on strike. The strikes became general, involving Moscow, Kharkov, Revel, Smolensk, Lodz, Minsk, Petersburg, Vilna, Odessa, Kazan, Tiflis, and other major centers. On October 16 Finland joined in. The rail strike became 100 percent, and the movement then spread swiftly to the post offices, telephones, telegrams, service employees, and professional workers. The strike rapidly took on a political character. This is what compelled the tsar on October 17 to issue a manifesto prompted by Count Witte. Two days later the general strike came to an end.

The role of the strike in general is to make the working class aware of itself as a living social force. The general strike is the highest expression of this. Lenin was fond of quoting the words of a German song: “All the wheels stand still if your mighty arms so will!” By participating in the strike movement, especially where this achieves an active form with mass participation, the workers acquire a feeling of their own strength through unity. The strike is a levelling phenomenon, serving to bind together the most advanced, politically conscious workers with the broadest layers of the class, who are aroused in action from the inertia of “normal” times. In the autumn of 1905, the revolution acquired an unprecedented sweep. At the head of the movement stood the proletariat, wielding its classical weapon of struggle—the general strike.

“In its extent and acuteness,” as Lenin later recalled, “the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection.”250

The working class, by making its power felt, drew behind it big sections of the middle class. The intelligentsia joined in the strike. “In many places juries refused to sit, lawyers to plead, doctors to attend patients. Justices of the peace closed down their courts.”251 The strike was accompanied by mass meetings where the workers thrashed out tactics and discussed strategy and politics. Increasingly, soldiers began to participate in these meetings, expressing solidarity with the people. The workers were beginning to organize militias for self-defense, to combat pogroms and keep order. In some places, the workers’ fighting squads went onto the offensive. There were clashes with Cossacks in Yekaterinoslav and barricades in Odessa.

Under certain conditions a general strike can lead to the wresting of serious concessions from the ruling class. But in the given context of Russia in 1905 a general strike must necessarily lead to the seizure of power or else lead to defeat. The general strike posed the question of power, but, in and of itself, could not resolve it. For that, it was necessary that the movement should be guided by a revolutionary party prepared to set before itself the most advanced tasks. The rapid development of the forces of Marxism in Russia, and the ease with which they placed themselves at the head of the mass workers’ movement in 1905, can only be understood in the context of a politically virgin proletariat with no long history of reformist trade unions and parties. Very swiftly, the Russian Marxists were able to win over the best class fighters in the factories who in turn enabled them to play a dominant role in the mass movement. That revolutionary Marxism should have proven so successful in a backward country such as Russia seems to be a paradox. But the contradiction is more apparent than real. The very backwardness of Russia—that is to say, the belatedness of its economic and social development—meant not only that the social contradictions were sharper and more glaring, but also that the working class was entirely fresh and unencumbered by prejudices, routine and the kind of deadening conservative traditions that flow from the bureaucracy of the mass trade unions and reformist parties in the “advanced” capitalist countries.

This fact largely explains the speed with which the Social Democrats passed from tiny propaganda circles to a mass force embracing hundreds of thousands in the space of just a few months. The Russian working class was politically virgin with no history of bourgeois or reformist organizations. Just as Russian industry did not have to pass through the long and painful process of organic development through manufacturing and handicrafts to large scale industry, so the Russian working class did not have to reproduce the slow and painful development of the British, French, and German workers, through a phase of trade unionism and reformism, but were able to move straight to the position of revolutionary Marxism. Dialectically, it transformed itself from the most backward to the most advanced class in Europe. Nevertheless, the winning over of the masses was not an automatic process. It demanded not only correct ideas and perspectives, but flexible tactics and the ability to connect with the living movement of the working class as it was in reality, and not in the imagination of sectarians.

To many of the Bolshevik activists, the question of insurrection was seen in exclusively technical terms, as an organizational question, a viewpoint which was connected to an exaggerated appraisal of the independent significance of the “apparat” and an underestimation of the political side, the need to win the masses through patient propaganda and agitation. This, however, is precisely the main point. Each party had its own armed fighting detachments or militias, not only the Social Democrats, but also the Social Revolutionaries. The need to form fighting detachments was, in the given conditions, self-evident. But it had to be linked to the mass movement via the Soviets. In fact, without fighting detachments soviets would be toothless “paper tigers,” but without the mass movement expressed in the medium of the elected soviets, the armed detachments could have had no significance. It was necessary to win the masses over in action, by means of timely slogans and correct tactics, to demonstrate in practice the superiority of Marxism on the basis of the concrete struggle and experience of the masses. In other words, the problem before the Party was to win over the mass movement and not to counterpose itself to it.

The whole question of the relationship of the Party and the mass movement can be reduced in the last analysis to the difference between the finished scientific program of Marxism and the necessarily unfinished, incomplete, and contradictory movement of the masses. Whoever is incapable of finding a bridge between these two aspects will forever be incapable of building a mass movement. Naturally, Lenin explained, the Social Democrats will fight for influence within the Soviets, and attempt to win them over. But the broad base of the Soviets, representing the big majority of workers, not only the advanced layers, but even the most backward layers in the factories, Social Democratic and nonparty, atheists and religious, literate and illiterate, skilled and unskilled, was a big plus in the revolutionary struggle against tsarism. Lenin was confident that, out of the experience of the struggle itself, the masses would, in time, draw the necessary conclusions and come to understand the validity of the Marxist program. The duty of the revolutionary vanguard was to “patiently explain,” and not to present ultimatums to the masses. The method of Lenin recalls the revolutionary realism of Marx who pointed out that “one real step forward of the movement is worth a hundred correct programs.”

In Russia, under the prevailing conditions, there was no opportunity for the creation of a mass reformist labor movement with a privileged labor aristocracy and an ossified bureaucracy at its head. The attempt to establish tame, government-controlled “Zubatov” unions came to nothing. After January 9, many of these unions became swiftly transformed by the masses into genuine organs of struggle. In all these events a key role was played by the Soviets. These embryonic organs of workers’ power began life as extended strike committees. The Soviets themselves first arose in the heat of the all-Russian October general strike. In the absence of well-established mass trade unions, the striking workers moved to elect delegates who began to come together in improvised strike committees, which were generalized to include all sections of the class. The creation of the Soviets in 1905 is a marvelous example of the creative genius of ordinary working people, once they enter the arena of struggle. Nowhere does the idea of soviets feature in the writings of the great Marxist thinkers prior to 1905. They were not foreseen in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, and they were not the creation of any political party, but the spontaneous creations of the workers in struggle, the product of the initiative and creative genius of the working class. In the first place they represented committees of struggle, assemblies of delegates drawn from the factories.252

There are many other examples.

The idea of elected plant delegates was already raised by the Shidlovsky commission. This gave the workers an initial experience. Thus on October 11 when the strike reached St. Petersburg they spontaneously elected delegates, including some from the Putilov and Obukhov plants. The system for the election to the Soviets was as follows: there was one delegate elected for every 500 workers (this was the same formula as for the Shidlovsky commission). Small workshops combined to send a delegate. On October 13 the first meeting of the Soviet took place at the Technical Institute with 40 people present, some of these were ex-Shidlovsky delegates. A Menshevik (Zborodsky) chaired the first meeting. Thereafter the number of delegates increased continuously; there were 80 to 90 at the second meeting from 40 big plants. At the third meeting 226 were present from 96 factories and five trade unions. Also present at the meetings were three representatives each of the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Social Revolutionaries. In other words, the Soviet comprised of delegates from the shop floor, unions, and socialist parties. The Soviet proceeded to elect an executive committee of 22 members—two each from the seven city districts and two each from the four biggest trade unions.

The Petersburg Soviet was the most authoritative and influential in Russia. Very soon, the Soviet embraced practically the whole of the Petersburg proletariat, and set the tone for the rest of the country. At its peak the Petersburg Soviet gathered together 562 deputies from a total of 147 factories, 34 artisan associations, and 16 trade unions. 351 of its delegates were metal workers, the pretorian guard of the Russian proletariat. The Bolsheviks were represented on the executive committee by Khostolovksy and Bogdanov. But the leading political figure in the Soviet was undoubtedly Leon Trotsky. Throughout the October general strike and November lockout all eyes were on the St. Petersburg Soviet. Here was an extremely broad, democratic and flexible organ of struggle. In the course of the struggle, the Soviets gradually increased their functions and representative scope. Through the Soviet, the workers made use of the newly found, newly conquered freedom of the press by the simple expedient of taking over the printing presses. They compelled the introduction of the eight-hour day and even instituted workers’ control of production in some factories. They formed a workers’ militia and even arrested unpopular police officers. In addition to numerous other tasks the Soviet published Izvestiya Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov as its public organ.

Following the example of St. Petersburg, workers took the initiative of forming soviets in other parts of Russia. By the autumn the Soviets had been set up in more than 50 other towns and cities including Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav, Odessa, Rostov on Don, Novorossiysk, and Baku. The Moscow Soviet was only formed on 21 November. At its first meeting there were 180 delegates representing about 80,000 workers. It originally existed side by side with a so-called strike committee mainly composed of petty bourgeois elements dominated by SRs and assorted middle class “democrats.” However, by November this committee fused with the Soviet. In the great majority of cases the Social Democrats predominated, but the petty bourgeois democrats were also represented by the Social Revolutionary Party who, as we have seen, were present in the executive committee of the Petersburg Soviet.

In general, the consciousness of the masses develops slowly and unevenly. Although in a revolution it is enormously accelerated, the process of the awakening of the masses remains contradictory. Different layers draw different conclusions at different times. Thus, as late as November the tsar was still receiving petitions from striking workers from the provinces begging him to intervene on their behalf. This shows not only the uneven development of consciousness, but also the colossal difference between Moscow and Petersburg and the provinces. The contradiction is still more glaring between the consciousness of the town worker and the peasants. The movement that began in the towns was beginning to spread to the villages. By the end of 1905 peasant disturbances had broken out in 37 percent of European Russia, especially in the central Black Earth zone, Latvia, Southern Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. An attempt was made to organize a Peasants’ Union in the summer. The peasants expressed their greetings for “our brother factory workers.” But in their consciousness the peasants lagged far behind the workers. The villages were still considerably influenced by liberal illusions, reflecting the half-awakened state of mind of the rural masses. Under such conditions the leadership of the Peasants’ Union fell into the hands of the Social Revolutionaries and liberals, a phenomenon which was repeated later in February 1917.

In Moscow a soviet of soldiers’ deputies was set up and in Tver province a peasants’ soviet was formed. In Sevastopol, there were also sailors and soldiers present in the local workers’ soviet. But these were rare exceptions. The place where the revolution was beginning to penetrate the minds of the peasants was the army. Under the hammer blows of military defeats and the influence of the general revolutionary movement, the armed forces were in a state of ferment. Social Democratic influence was strong among sections of the sailors, traditionally the most working class section of the armed forces. A mutiny in Sevastopol in November led by Lieutenant Schmidt was brutally suppressed by the tsarist authorities. However, a whole series of mutinies in the army posed the question of the military in an especially sharp form. This had a very great symptomatic importance, because the army was overwhelmingly peasant in composition. One of the principal weaknesses of the 1905 Revolution was the lack of a firm base among the peasants. The rural masses were lagging behind the towns and this fact proved a fatal weakness in the December uprising. Elements of a peasant-soldier revolt were present, but not on a sufficient scale to make a fundamental difference to the outcome. By the time the conflagration had spread to the villages the movement in the towns was already on a downswing.

From distant exile, Lenin greeted the formation of the Soviets which, in a brilliant anticipation, he characterized as embryonic organs of workers’ power.

“I may be wrong,” he wrote, “but I believe (on the strength of the incomplete and only ‘paper’ information at my disposal) that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government (which would amount to the same thing, only in another form).”253

This, in essence, was what actually occurred in October 1917.


250 LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, 27.

251 Trotsky, 1905, 111.

252 Nor is this observation limited to the question of the Soviets. Marx derived his idea of what a workers’ state would be like from the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris took power. The program of the Commune was summed up by Marx in The Civil War in France, and later provided the basis for Lenin’s State and Revolution.

253 LCW, Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, vol. 10, 21.

42) The Bolsheviks and the Soviet

Under conditions where the movement was acquiring a colossal sweep, the need to penetrate new layers, to adopt new methods of agitation, presented a big challenge to the party. A shakeup was required to take full advantage of the situation. Every day mass meetings in the cities were taking place all over Russia. Big opportunities opened up for the Social Democracy who virtually had the field to themselves. Their only real rivals were the Social Revolutionaries, who had a certain presence, and the petty-bourgeois nationalist organizations such as the PSP in Poland and the Jewish Bund. The anarchists in Petersburg were too insignificant to be represented in the Soviet executive. The same was true throughout the country, with the sole exception of Byelostok, where they had the majority. The bourgeois liberals had no base among the masses and made virtually no attempts to gain one. Their whole strategy was based on wheeling and dealing in order to extract a compromise from the regime.

The party was rapidly gaining ground among the most advanced elements. But in order to carry through the revolution, this is insufficient. It is necessary to win the masses. For this task, flexible tactics are necessary, in order that the relatively small forces of the proletarian vanguard can find a road to the majority of workers who have not yet drawn all the necessary conclusions. An absolutely key question for the linking up of the small number of organized Marxists to the broad mass of workers in struggle was the attitude towards the Petersburg Soviet. As we have seen, Lenin, despite being separated from the field of action by thousands of miles, was able immediately to grasp the significance of this striking new phenomenon. The same was not true of his followers in Petersburg. Displaying a complete lack of “feel” for the real movement of the working class, the Bolshevik central committee members in Petersburg were uneasy at the thought of a “nonparty” mass organization existing side by side with the party. Instead of seeing the Soviet as an important field of action, they regarded it with hostility, as a rival.

Because of the supposedly nonparty nature of the Soviet and its chairman, Khrustalyov, the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks went so far as to organize a campaign against the Soviet. They persuaded the federated council, consisting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, to put an ultimatum to the Soviet that it must place itself under the leadership of the RSDLP. However, this proposal was rejected by the rank and file of a joint conference of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on October 26. The Mensheviks opposed it; the Bolsheviks then went ahead on their own. On October 24, they had moved a resolution along the same lines in meetings at the Semyanikov and other metal factories, demanding that the Soviet accept the Social Democratic program and tactics and demanding that it must define its political stance. In the first issue of the legal Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn’ an article appeared under the title On the question of the Soviet of Deputies which complained of the “extremely strange situation when the ‘Soviet’ does not stand in any dependent relationship to the party”.254

The Bolshevik CC published a resolution which was made binding upon all Bolsheviks throughout Russia, insisting that the Soviets must accept the party program. They adopted the kind of formalistic line of reasoning characteristic of sectarians at all periods: if the Soviet wanted to be a political organization then the Social Democrats must demand that it adopts the Social Democratic program, but if that was accepted then there would be no point in having a second Social Democratic organization parallel to the party itself. Therefore the Soviet should be wound up. This was tantamount to demanding that all members of the Soviet join the Social Democratic party. To be sure the editors of Novaya Zhizn’ stated that they were not 100 percent in agreement with the article, but the agitation against the Soviet continued just the same. On October 29, the Nevsky district committee declared inadmissible for Social Democrats to participate in any kind of “workers’ parliament” like the Soviet. A meeting of the Semyonov works adopted the same line. This position completely ignored the need to establish a firm link between the advanced workers who stood on the ideas of Marxism and the mass of the politically untutored workers. It was tantamount to demanding that the working class as a whole should enter into the Marxist party, a completely unrealistic conception which, if pressed, could only lead to the isolation of the minority of advanced workers from the rest of the class.

The crass formalism of this line of argument was conveyed in a number of articles in Novaya Zhizn’, notably one which appeared in issue 6 over the signature of Mendeleyev, where we read the following:

“The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies must not exist as a political organization and the social democrats must withdraw from it, since its existence acts negatively upon the development of the social democratic movement. The Soviet of Delegates can remain as a trade union organization, or it cannot remain at all.” The same author goes on to propose that the Bolsheviks should present the Soviet with an ultimatum: either accept the program of the RSDLP or else disband! The Bolshevik leaders justified their hostility to the Soviet on the grounds that it represented “the subordination of consciousness to spontaneity.”255

They went so far as to move a resolution on these lines in the Soviet. When it was turned down, the Bolshevik delegates, led by CC members Bogdanov and Knuyants, walked out. The other delegates merely shrugged their shoulders and proceeded to the next point on the agenda.

The mistakes of the committeemen and women played into the hands of the Mensheviks. Their more flexible attitude permitted them to take initiatives in setting up soviets, where they immediately won a head start over the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks regarded the Soviets not as a provisional revolutionary government, to use Lenin’s expression, but as a “revolutionary self-government.” This was an analogy with the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune. However, the analogy was not with the strong side of these historical precedents, but precisely the mistakes of the Commune. The other Menshevik idea of a “labor congress,” was also a nonrevolutionary conception, which saw the Soviet, not as an organ of struggle through which the workers could take power, but as the starting point for a mass labor party, something like the British Labour Party. The slogan of a “labor congress” which was later taken up by Axelrod in particular, reflected the same idea. Thus, despite their success in participating in the Soviet, the Mensheviks’ entire approach was of a reformist, not revolutionary character.

From afar, Lenin followed the activities of his followers with a mixture of frustration and dismay. His unerring instinct and insight into the workers’ movement enabled him to grasp quickly the significance of the Soviets. But his colleagues did not share his understanding of the way in which the masses move. It took Lenin’s decisive intervention to straighten things out. In the meantime the Bolsheviks lost a lot of ground to the Mensheviks in the Soviets, and precious time and opportunities were lost. He must have torn his hair out when he learned of the behavior of his co-thinkers in St. Petersburg. Burning with impatience from Stockholm in early November, when he was en route to Russia, Lenin attempted, gently but firmly, to correct the mistakes of the Petersburg Bolsheviks. In the fifth issue of Novaya Zhizn’, an article signed by a prominent member of the Central Committee, B.M. Knuyants (Radin), posed the alternative of “Soviet or Party.” Answering Knuyants’ question Lenin retorted: “I think it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies and the Party.” Significantly, the editors did not publish the letter, which only saw the light of day in 1940.

“The only question—and a highly important one,” Lenin continues, “is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the RSDLP.” Then, in a phrase which must have caused consternation among the committeemen, he adds: “I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party.” Lenin goes on to explain the elementary fact that the trade unions and the Soviets should strive to embrace all sections of the working class, irrespective of nationality, race, creed or political affiliation. Only the quasi-fascist Black Hundreds should be excluded, and that within these organizations of the masses, the Marxists should fight to win a majority for their ideas, program, and tactics.

“We do not shut ourselves off from the revolutionary people,” wrote Lenin, but “submit to their judgment every step and every decision we take. We rely fully and solely on the free initiative of the working masses themselves.”256

This is Lenin speaking: a very long way from the malicious caricature of a sectarian or a “Blanquist conspirator,” manipulating the masses from behind the scenes!

The October strike gave a mighty impetus to the revolt of the oppressed nationalities. Finland, the Baltic region, and large areas of the Caucasus became virtual no-go areas, especially after the announcement of reforms in the tsar’s October Manifesto. The “liberal” prime minister, Witte, wrote in worried terms to the tsar about the situation in Finland: “During the second half of last October events took place in Finland which have no precedent in almost a hundred years since the province has been under Russian rule. A political general strike was organized. A well-armed and organized ‘national guard’ [militia] made its appearance, which in many areas took over the role of the lawful police, ordering it to lay down its arms. Certain governors have been forced, under threats by the representatives of the local political parties, to resign their posts.” Count Witte’s daily correspondence with the tsar revealed increasing alarm at the revolutionary situation. Under pressure from Witte the tsar had released the October Manifesto. Now it was becoming clear that, far from halting the revolution, the concessions had merely given it a fresh impetus. If Witte expected a sympathetic hearing from the tsar, he was doomed to be disappointed. Nicholas wrote back: “Is it possible for these 162 anarchists to subvert the Army? They should all be hanged.” This was the tsar’s only comment in relation to Witte’s letter.

Witte’s comments on Finland were confirmed by other reports submitted to the tsar. One of these, written by the Governor General of Warsaw, contains the following assessment of the situation in Poland:

The fantastic mood of Polish society and the hostility toward Russians has acquired a hitherto unprecedented dimension . . . The October Manifesto did not call for specific activities, but on the contrary, provoked such serious happenings that the town of Warsaw and the surrounding regions took on the aspect of a single rebellious camp. Mass meetings in the streets and squares with orators calling for uprising. Catholic priests organizing “patriotic demonstrations” in the villages singing revolutionary songs and carrying red and black flags with the Polish eagle and revolutionary slogans.257

The Ukraine was also in a state of turbulence, with mass protest meetings in Kiev and Odessa in October. All the factors were maturing for the passing of power into the hands of the working class. The revolutionary movement in the villages was on the increase. In the last three months of 1905, 1,590 cases of peasant disturbances were reported. Splits were beginning to open up in the ranks of the autocracy. While Witte pleaded with the tsar to grant reform from above to head off revolution from below, General Trepov, the virtual dictator of Petersburg, issued the famous command to his troops: “Spare no cartridges!”

The weakness of the regime, faced with an explosion of popular anger, is revealed in the panicky tone of Witte’s letters to the tsar, and the continual complaints about the lack of troops. Finally, even the thick-headed Nicholas was compelled to come to terms with reality and grudgingly concede the need to hold elections to a State Duma. The tsar’s Manifesto of October 17 was hailed by Lenin as “the first victory of the revolution.” It was greeted by scenes of wild rejoicing on the streets. Crowds of excited people gathered in the city centers to discuss the situation. On 18, 19, and 20, October, with no preordained plan, the workers marched to the jails with red flags to demand the release of political prisoners. In Moscow, the jails were forcibly opened up and the prisoners carried shoulder-high through the streets. The position of the Bolsheviks was not to place any trust in paper promises and to carry on for a Constituent Assembly. Despite the mood of euphoria, Lenin hammered home the idea that the Manifesto was only a tactical retreat and warned against constitutional illusions and playing at parliamentarianism:

There is talk of liberty, of popular representation: some hold forth on a Constituent Assembly. But what is being constantly, hourly and minutely lost sight of is that, without serious guarantees, all these fine things are but hollow phrases. A serious guarantee can be provided only by a victorious rising of the people, only by the complete domination of the armed proletariat and the peasantry over all representatives of tsarist power who, under pressure by the people, have retreated a pace but are far from having yielded to the people, and far from having been overthrown by the people. Until that aim is achieved there can be no real liberty, no genuine popular representation, or a really Constituent Assembly with the power to set up a new order in Russia.

The regime was playing for time, offering concessions in order to defuse the situation, while behind the scenes preparing a counterstroke. A similar situation arises at a certain point in every revolution. It can be characterized as the phase of democratic illusions. People imagine that the problem has been resolved, that the revolution is over, when in reality it is only just beginning. The decisive battle lies in the future. The October Manifesto solved nothing fundamental, but it provided the excuse for the liberals to detach themselves from the revolution. As Lenin and Trotsky had foreseen, the bourgeoisie, which had all along been striving to get a deal with tsarism at the expense of the workers and peasants, now treacherously deserted the revolutionary camp. The big capitalists and landowners united in a reactionary bloc—the so-called Union of October 17, the “Octobrists,” which threw all its weight behind tsarist reaction. At the same time, the “liberal” section of the bourgeoisie founded the Constitutional Democrat Party, the “Cadets,” which came out in favor of a “constitutional monarchy,” in effect acting as a left flank for the autocracy, covering up the bloody reality of tsarist rule with pseudodemocratic constitutional phrase-mongering. Lenin was particularly scathing in his attacks on this “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie, sparing no opportunity to denounce them for their cowardice and treachery.

“What is a constitution?” wrote Lenin. “A sheet of paper with the peoples’ rights recorded on it. What is the guarantee of these rights being really recognized? It lies in the strength of those classes of the people that have become aware of these rights and have been able to win them.”258

Lenin coolly analyzed the balance of forces at the given moment and concluded: “The autocracy is no longer strong enough to come out against the revolution openly. The revolution is not yet strong enough to deal the enemy a decisive blow. This fluctuation of almost evenly balanced forces inevitably engenders confusion among the authorities, makes for transitions from repression to concession, to laws providing for freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.”259

As Lenin had foreseen, what the autocracy gave with the left hand, it now prepared to take back with the right. The conquests achieved by the general strike heightened the confidence of the working class. Prisoners were released from jails, but the freedom conquered from below had a fundamentally unstable and fragile character. Only by decisively overthrowing the regime could genuine political and social emancipation be assured.

The going over of the liberals effectively cleared the deck for action. It was now a question of “either . . . or” for the revolution. Only an armed uprising, led by the proletariat, drawing behind it the peasant masses, the nationalities, and all oppressed layers of society could show the way out. The illusion of a constitutional reform was now exploded. The October Manifesto was a clear attempt on the part of the old regime to draw a line in the sand of revolution: “Thus far and no further!” Such reforms as had been achieved had been conquered not by the liberal wheeler-dealers, but exclusively by the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. Far from drawing in its horns after the October Manifesto, Lenin urged the working class to summon up all its forces for a decisive showdown. Behind the façade of a proffered constitution, the autocracy was prepared for a bloody settling of accounts. The task of the revolutionaries in this situation was, while clearly understanding that the really decisive battles lay in the future, to grasp the opportunity with both hands, and make full use of the newly won freedoms to build the party rapidly, extend its influence within all spheres of social life, and prepare for the decisive battle. Lenin based himself on the idea of an uprising as the only guarantee. The arming of the people was linked to the fight for basic demands such as the reduction of the working day to eight hours and the freeing of all political prisoners. Lenin’s revolutionary realism was born out by subsequent events.


254 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 104.

255 Quoted by O. Anweiler, Los Soviets, 84 and 85.

256 LCW, Our Tasks in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies—Letter to the Editors, vol. 10, 19 and 27.

257 Quoted in V.P. Semenikov and A.M. Pankratova, Revolyutsiya 1905 Goda—a Collection of Government Documents, 22–23 and 224–25.

258 LCW, Between Two Battles, vol. 9, 460.

259 LCW, The All-Russian Political Strike, vol. 9, 394–95.