49)‘Woe to the Vanquished’

The ancient Romans had a chilling way of describing the fate of conquered peoples: “Vae victis!”—“Woe to the vanquished!” The fate of the working people in every defeated revolution in history completely confirms this grim observation. The Russian revolution of 1905 was no exception. The regime sensed that the immediate danger was past and stepped up repression. The democratic promises of October were rapidly consigned to the rubbish bin. A bloody regime of terror was everywhere unleashed—in the Baltic states, Poland, the Caucasus. Punitive expeditions spread terror through the villages, killing, raping, and burning houses.

“Liberally plied with vodka,” writes Orlando Figes, “the Cossacks committed terrible atrocities against the peasant population. Women and girls were raped in front of their menfolk. Hundreds of peasants were hanged from the trees without any pretense of a trial. In all it has been estimated that the tsarist regime executed 15,000 people, shot or wounded at least 20,000, and deported or exiled 45,000, between mid-October and the opening of the first State Duma in April 1906.”301

For months on end, the orgy of reaction raged on unabated. By April 1906, apart from the 15,000 who had been shot or hanged, a further 75,000 were languishing in tsarist prisons. Special trains manned by tsarist execution squads advanced slowly along the Moscow-Kazan railway line into the frozen depths of Siberia, extracting a frightful revenge on the workers. The Bolsheviks suffered proportionately more than other trends from this repression, as they had the greater number of militant revolutionary workers. Their organization among the Siberian railway workers was virtually wiped out. Among those murdered was A.I. Popov, central committee member and leader of the revolutionary movement in Siberia. The following lines, written to his mother from the death cell, movingly convey the spirit of these fighters:

I leave this world of darkness and repression with complete peace of mind, giving way to other, younger forces. If we have achieved little, they will finish off what we started. I die fully convinced that our bodies will provide a firm foundation upon which will arise a better future for my long-suffering native land.302

Under the hammer blows of reaction, the Social Democratic organizations were gradually being pulverized. Many activists were arrested or killed. Others had to go underground, change town, or flee abroad. In order to hasten the strangling of the revolution, the government utilized the services of special auxiliaries recruited from the ranks of the lumpenproletariat, that “passively rotting scum” as Marx called them, which on more than one occasion has furnished material for the purposes of counterrevolution. The Black Hundred gangs spread terror in the villages, usually in the form of anti-Semitic pogroms.

Kerensky, who at that time was practicing as a lawyer and occasionally acted for the defense of accused revolutionaries, recalls that:

Reprisals in the aftermath of the 1905 Revolution went on from late 1906 to the early part of 1909. After peasant and other uprisings had been crushed by punitive expeditions, it was a question of hunting out the remnants of revolutionary organizations—gangs, as they were called. The victims were handed over to military tribunals. It was a campaign of systematic judicial terror.

Many political cases were judged by district military tribunals. The chief military prosecutor at that time, General Pavlov, was a merciless man who expected the judges to fulfill their “duty” without paying any attention to the arguments of the defense. Pavlov did not last long. Expecting attempts on his life, he took every precaution. He never left the Main Military Court building, where he had an apartment with a garden surrounded by a tall fence. That did not save him. He fell victim to a terrorist’s bullet in his own garden. But individual terrorism is impotent against the state. One reactionary official is replaced by another. The repression is further intensified.

A particularly savage revenge was inflicted on the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia, where the rising of the workers and peasants against the German landlords had a ferocious character. Starting in December, in the course of a six-month campaign, punitive expeditions killed 1,200 people, destroyed tens of thousands of homes, and flogged thousands of workers and peasants. At the end of 1906 and the beginning of 1907 the so-called Tukum Republic trial was held in Riga. Fifteen dragoons had been killed during an uprising in Tukum in 1905. Kerensky, who was one of the defense counsels, recalls what happened. A certain General Koshelev, one of the special military judges in the Baltic provinces, presided over the trial. He was a sadist who had a habit of studying pornographic photographs in court during the hearing of cases in which the accused could be sentenced to death. At the trial it soon became obvious that Koshelev was not interested in trying to establish the truth, but only in selecting 15 of the defendants to be killed as a retaliation for the dead dragoons. All 15 were hanged. The tsar was delighted at the results of his Baltic expedition and commended his officers for “acting splendidly.”303

Despite everything, it took fully 18 months to liquidate the revolutionary movement. It proved extremely difficult to extinguish the flame of revolt. No sooner had order been restored in one area, than the movement flared up elsewhere. New layers were constantly entering into struggle while others were abandoning the arena, exhausted and defeated. The general picture that was emerging was still unclear, and remained so throughout the course of 1906. At the start of 1906, the strike movement, though less than the last quarter of 1905, was still considerable. January-March saw 260,000 workers on strike. Significantly, two-thirds of these conflicts were political strikes. In the spring of 1906, there were symptoms of a new revolutionary upturn. The second quarter saw a further upswing of the strike movement—479,000 workers out—more than even the summer of 1905. Again, there were both economic and political strikes. And not all of them ended in defeat. Out of 222,000 involved in economic strikes, 86,000 ended in victory, 58,000 ended in compromise, and only 78,000 were defeated. As late as the summer of 1906, it appeared that the strike wave, far from slackening, was gaining in intensity. In 1906 as a whole there were more than one million workers involved in strike action.

Did the December defeat in Moscow signify the decisive turning point in the destiny of the revolution? Was the general line of the movement ascending or descending? With the wisdom of hindsight, the answer seems obvious, but this was by no means the case at the time. The movement of the masses was far from uniform. The villages lagged behind the towns, and only began to move on a big scale in the course of 1906. The bloody repression in the villages did not prevent the emergence of new peasant movements—Saratov, Chernigorsk, Kharkov, Mogilev, one after the other entered the fray. One factor was precisely the return of sacked workers to the villages. The proletarianized ex-peasant, educated in the hard school of factory life and steeled by the experience of strikes and insurrection, served as a spur to the movement in the villages, providing the necessary leaven to his rural brothers and sisters. With the wisdom of hindsight (the cheapest of all forms of wisdom), these were only the after-echo of a movement which had already passed its peak. But this was by no means evident to those who were actively participating in the struggle at the time. Above all the most consistently revolutionary wing of the movement represented by the Bolsheviks were in no hurry to sign the death certificate of the revolution.

The working class also had other reserves. The national question, as foreseen by Lenin, rapidly came to the fore and acquired an extreme intensity. The burning sense of national injustice that had long smouldered beneath the surface burst into flame in Poland, Finland, the Caucasus, and the Baltic states. All this led Lenin to believe that the revolution had not yet exhausted its potential. To determine the precise nature of the situation, its inner dynamics and perspective, was of decisive importance for determining the correct tactics and slogans needed to preserve and strengthen the links between the masses and the proletarian vanguard. But this task, never straightforward, is rendered a thousand times more difficult in the heat of a revolution, when the moods of the masses can change with lightning speed. It was precisely this question—“through what stage are we passing?”—which provoked the sharpest conflicts in the ranks of the revolutionaries in this period. Among the working class there were contradictory moods. Could the revolutionary wave in the countryside ignite again the movement in the towns? To this question no clear answer could be given. Lenin certainly regarded it as a possibility and worked out his tactics accordingly.


301 O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 202.

302 Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, 164.

303 A. Kerensky, Memoirs. Russia and History’s Turning Point, 76.

50) The Struggle Against Unemployment

Throughout 1906, the working class found itself in an increasingly difficult position, faced not only with physical repression but also with economic terrorism. Having recovered their nerve, the employers went on to the offensive, extracting revenge for the fright they had suffered. Lockouts and sackings were on the order of the day as the bosses took back the gains of the previous period. In the prevailing conditions, it was necessary to look for any opening, no matter how limited, and to exploit each and every legal loophole. The Party had to pay serious attention to any legal organizations which would provide a platform for agitation and propaganda: workers’ insurance, educational and cultural societies, and so on. An absolutely crucial question was work in the trade unions. Driven on to the defensive, the workers rallied to the legal trade unions. There was a big increase in union membership. By early 1907, there were more than 600 trade unions in Russia, with 245,000 members. On the other hand, the spread of unemployment as a result of the economic crisis placed on the order of the day the question of work among the unemployed.

The employers resorted to savage reprisals in order to destroy the gains won by the workers in the revolution. In the mass dismissals that affected all sectors in 1907 to 1909, 36 percent of employees in the engineering industry had been sacked by January 1908. St. Petersburg Metals closed its shell shop; the Neva shipyards sacked 300 workers in 1908 and a further 700 in 1909. The heaviest blows fell upon the more advanced skilled sections of the class, mainly those under Social Democratic influence. This key group had already been singled out for the employers’ attention during the October 1905 lockout, and it continued until April 1906. The lockout, which was organized by the St. Petersburg employers in cahoots with the tsarist authorities, was aimed at teaching the workers of St. Petersburg, and particularly their natural leaders, a harsh lesson.

Under the conditions of mass sackings, which followed the December defeat, the struggle against unemployment assumed a great importance. The Social Democrats succeeded in organizing a successful movement against unemployment, particularly in St. Petersburg but also to some extent in other industrial centers, such as Moscow and Odessa. Whereas most of the other centers were suppressed by the end of 1906, the movement in St. Petersburg was only finally broken up by the secret police and gendarmes in 1908. In Petersburg an “unemployed workers council” (Soviet bezrabotnykh) was formed by the local Social Democrats, but from the beginning it was always linked to the employed workers. The workers in the big factories sent delegates to this Soviet. Other unemployed workers’ councils were formed in Tiflis, Moscow, Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Baku, Taganrog. But the one that set the pace for the others was the St. Petersburg Unemployed Council.

The work of the Petersburg Unemployed Council was documented in The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, a pamphlet written by the Bolshevik worker Sergei Malishev, who played an active role in the movement of the unemployed and was elected chairman of the Kostroma Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in 1905. The origins of this are to be found in the stormy events of 1905 when the employers used the weapon of the lockout to combat the strike movement. Realizing that the only way to fight for the cause of the unemployed was by closely linking them with the workers in the factories, a commission of unemployed was organized by the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, with open departments in all the working class districts of St. Petersburg. Later, the commission adopted the resolution of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies to deduct 1 percent from the wages of all the workers at the factories, mills and other institutions for the unemployed. They also organized a voluntary collection at all meetings and gatherings. Thus, the struggle of the unemployed was closely linked to the struggle of the brothers and sisters who remained at work. This position, which constitutes the cornerstone of Marxist tactics in the struggle against unemployment, was suggested by Lenin: it is interesting to note Lenin’s attitude towards the unemployed campaign. When he heard about the initiative taken on this question Lenin initially had some doubts as to whether the Unemployed Council alone could fulfill its program by its own efforts:

“Through this organization alone,” said Lenin, “you cannot influence the bourgeoisie; you will not be strong enough, and the unemployed workers themselves may not be able to develop this work on a broad proletarian class basis. Therefore, you must immediately extend the Unemployed Council to include representatives of those employed in all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg. You must now begin to agitate in the factories and mills for this purpose, and immediately arrange for the election of these representatives. The Unemployed Council must consist not only of 30 representatives of the unemployed, but of 100 or 150 representatives from all districts, from all the factories and mills. This will provide the unemployed with a genuine proletarian leading body which will really be able to exert pressure successfully on the City Duma and on the bourgeoisie generally.”

Lenin’s proposal to link the unemployed struggle to the workers who remained at work was accepted by the Council and formed the basis of its tactics.

The St. Petersburg Unemployed Council took charge of the movement of the unemployed, beginning with a register of all the locked out workers. In the words of Malishev: “This registration revealed an interesting fact—that 54 percent of the workers who have been locked out were highly skilled workers, metal workers; 18 percent were joiners, carpenters, stonemasons and other skilled occupations; and that only 21 percent were common laborers. Those figures showed that the capitalists vented their wrath on those who fought in the front ranks of the working class.”304 The fact that the most skilled sections were singled out for attack is well documented. A survey by the Union of Metalworkers reveals that in 1908 the employers used the excuse of the economic crisis to get rid of the most skilled, highly paid, longest-serving metalworkers, who were regarded with much justice as the most militant section. Basing himself on this and other material, Robert McKean concludes:

They threw onto the streets the old, the sick and “the disturbers of internal order” as well. During 1908, layoffs and filtering of operatives spread to printing and textiles. Reductions in rates of pay of 30 percent or higher assumed wide dimensions throughout heavy and light industry in the years 1907 to 1911. In the pressure-gauge shop of the Langenzippen metalworking and casting plant wages were cut by half; in the boiler shop of the Baltic shipyards by 40 percent. Workers’ factory commissions or committees were disbanded (as at Neva shipyards); shop delegates arrested or sacked (the Pipe works); meetings banned (St. Petersburg Metals). Fines and searches, which were thoroughly detested by workers, were swiftly reintroduced at many plants as early as 1907 and 1908—among others at the Franco-Russian Society, Odner, Neva Shipyards, Pipeworks, Obukhov, San Galli, and St. Petersburg Metal. Less frequent was a direct and immediate assault on the 8 or 9 hour day, operatives’ most prized conquest of the revolution.305

During the course of 1906, the position of the unemployed became increasingly desperate. The outlook of the unemployed workers of St. Petersburg was graphically conveyed by Malishev:

Strolling along the Nevsky, we watched the well fed, contented bourgeoisie. Some—of higher rank—rode in magnificent carriages, with coats of arms and with one or two splendid horses; others, a lower estate—a bourgeois crowd—moved on foot along the Nevsky, filling the center of the city, along Sadovaya, along the Gostin Road. They went into the stores, filled with goods, came out with armfuls of purchases, and youngsters, laden with these purchases, dragged after them to their homes. All that there was in these stores, stands, and warehouses, produced by the proletariat, was quite accessible to the bourgeoisie. We also went several blocks up along the Nevsky but we could only look into the Soloviev store. We could not go in and buy even a quarter of a pound of sausage because the merchant Soloviev’s well-fed salesmen would not want to sell such small portions, and, further, the price of sausage did not fit the size of our pocket. To relieve our feelings we swore roundly, linked arms and turned away from this smug Nevsky. We went along narrow alleys and finally, at Bassein Street, found a cheap restaurant where the two of us filled up on some kind of tripe for two kopecks.

The main problem, of course, was that most of the sacked workers had been blacklisted. Individuals and entire groups of “undesirables” were turned out of the factories and mills. All that the unemployed had in the way of clothes and other valuables were sold or pawned. The position of the unemployed and their families was desperate. The collections raised by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies raised some money, but the sums were so small that they changed nothing fundamental. Dining rooms were opened by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and by some liberal groups in some workers’ districts to provide some tens of thousands of dinners. However, after the October Manifesto the well-heeled liberals began to turn their backs on this and other working class activities. The workers were left to their own devices. To combat the problem of unemployment the Bolshevik group began to organize a campaign in favor of a program of useful public works and unemployment benefit.

The approach of the Bolsheviks was expressed by a speaker at one congress, quoted by Malishev:

“The Bolshevik group, in whose name I speak now,” said the comrade, “supports the unemployed movement and helps us organize ourselves into a strong organization. It is essential to organize all the unemployed and set up a leading body—an Unemployed Council. This council, with the help of the unemployed, must start a struggle for bettering the condition of the unemployed, not only through the distribution of dinners and 30 kopecks a day, but chiefly by getting the City Duma to organize large-scale public work for the unemployed. The unemployed are not paupers, they do not want charity. They demand bread and work. The question must be so presented that our demands to the City Duma win the support of all the workers in the factories and mills. The City must organize public work. There is quite enough work of that kind to be had in the city and it is now being given to various contractors who give the city administrators large bribes. The most highly skilled workers of all trades are to be found among the unemployed. They can do all types of work. The City has a number of contracts essential for public welfare; for instance, construction of tramways. The City has decided to replace horse power by electric cars, and it will not be able to do this unless the streets are paved. That opens up the possibility of providing public work for the unemployed. We must take steps to see that the City provides this public work; therefore I move that all the proposals which I have suggested be taken up by the meeting, adopted, and immediately carried out, because hunger and poverty will not wait.”306

In order to organize the unemployed campaign it was decided to organize an Unemployed Council by holding elections at the dining rooms where the unemployed were getting their dinners and a group of worker-Bolsheviks were assigned to carry out the agitation for it and get the elections carried through. The Council drew up an appeal to the City Duma. It was decided to include 30 delegates from the large factories and mills in the Unemployed Council and elections were held among the employed in all the factories, mills, and workshops. Delegates were elected by the unemployed at general meetings on the basis of one for every 250 workers, and from factories and mill districts. These made up the District Councils. The latter managed the dining rooms, collected money in the factories and mills, registered the unemployed, gave material help and generally conducted the campaign on unemployment, on the basis of the slogan “For bread and work!” A petition to the St. Petersburg City Council was drafted by the Unemployed Council and worded in the most forceful language. The petition was then discussed by the Unemployed Council, voted on, and sent to all the factories and mills of St. Petersburg and its vicinities to be discussed by the workers who were then asked to sign it.

The text of the petition read as follows:

Owing to unemployment, numberless workers’ families are now without bread. The workers do not want charities, or dole. We demand work. The masters refuse to give us work. They say they have no contracts. But the City has contracts and can provide work for the unemployed. We think that the way the City disposes of the public funds is scandalous. Public funds should be used for public needs and our need today is—work. Therefore, we demand that the City Duma immediately organize public work for all the needy. We demand not charity, but our rights, and we will not be satisfied with charity. The public work that we demand must be started immediately. All the unemployed of St. Petersburg must be allowed to do this work; every unemployed worker must receive an adequate wage. We have been delegated to insist on the fulfillment of our demands. The masses who have sent this will not be content with less. If you do not accede to our demands we will report your refusal to the unemployed and then you will not have us to deal with, but those who sent us, the masses of unemployed.307

Speakers were dispatched to all the main factories to defend the petition, speaking at lunch hour breaks, during the change of shifts, and also holding factory gate meetings on the question of unemployment. Despite the fact that, after the mass sackings, only the less class-conscious workers remained at work, the petition received widespread support and sympathy. The whole thrust of the antiunemployment struggle was designed to link the unemployed workers to their brothers and sisters who remained at work and who alone had the power to help them to solve their problem. In addition to this, the Council attempted to enlist the support of sympathetic sections of the middle class.


304 Quoted in S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, 16 and 8.

305 R.B. McKean, St. Petersburg Between the Revolutions, 8–9.

306 S. Malishev, The Unemployed Councils in St. Petersburg 1906, 11–12 and 14.

307 Quoted in Malishev, Unemployed Councils, 18.

51) Revolutionary Tactics

Whereas the Bolsheviks approached the unemployed struggle from a revolutionary and class point of view, the Mensheviks, typically, attempted to water down the demands of the unemployed movement in order not to alienate their liberal friends. They demanded the deletion of the rather threatening final paragraph of the petition, and also demanded that the unemployed delegation be restrained from entering into the City Duma. They also strongly opposed the election of representatives from the factories and mills to the Unemployed Council. However, divisions opened up in the ranks of the Mensheviks, leading to a split which gave the supporters of the petition a majority. On April 12, 1906, the unemployed workers’ delegation made up of 30 people (15 from the unemployed and 15 from the factories) presented themselves at the St. Petersburg City Duma. At this stage, the revolutionary wave had still not sufficiently subsided to give the Duma the necessary self-confidence to refuse to meet the delegation. Fearing the reaction of the masses, the City Duma decided to admit the delegation and acceded to its demands as far as possible. However, this decision was not known to the delegation as it entered the Council chamber. Realizing the worst fears of the Mensheviks, the unemployed representatives in the Council chamber did not mince words:

“We ask nothing of you; we demand!” said one of the speakers. “We think that all the money at your disposal rightfully belongs to us. If you do not give work to the unemployed nothing remains for us but to rob you,” said another speaker. “You have not seen the unemployed,” cried one of the representatives of the delegation, a young worker. “I live with them, I can tell you how they live, I can tell you what they, who sent me here, said: ‘Go, talk to the town councillors and the City Duma, and if they will not listen to you, we ourselves will go and grab them by the throat.”308

Frightened at the prospect of disorder, the town councillors were compelled to listen in silence to such incendiary speeches as this. When their “guests” had finished, they suggested that the delegates leave the hall. But the latter declared that they would not leave until they had received an answer to their demands. Then the town councillors announced an intermission, cleared out the general public, and then resumed the session with the unemployed delegation present. Finally, under the direct pressure of mass action the gentlemen of the City Duma decided to retreat and conceded all the main demands of the unemployed. A large number of the unemployed had been thrown on the streets and found shelter in lodging homes, but their children had been sent away to stay with comrades who remained at work. Families were thus broken up. It was decided that some action would have to be taken to help the unemployed to pay their rent. The question of helping the unemployed to redeem their belongings from the pawn shops, particularly sewing machines and underwear, was also discussed by the Duma and decided in the affirmative.

The generosity of the City Duma was not entirely disinterested. Even at this moment a new strike movement was developing in St. Petersburg. The strikes were mainly of a political, rather than economic character. The solidarity of the workers with the unemployed bore important fruit; the latter participated actively in the struggle of the striking workers. In return for the solidarity shown by the workers in the previous months, the unemployed, together with the strikers in the Vyborg district, organized financial assistance for the strikers. However, with the ebb of the strike movement, the Black Hundreds and the liberals recovered their nerve and systematically set about sabotaging the reforms which they had previously granted. The program of public works was obstructed as far as possible and the funds were gradually cut off. The Unemployed Council thereupon presented a new list of demands to the City Duma:

1) The eight-hour day. 2) Prohibition of overtime. 3) The establishment of a daily wage. 4) The observance of all necessary sanitary and hygienic conditions at work. 5) Employment to be given to the registered unemployed at the indication of the Unemployed Council. 6) The right to control all the internal affairs in the workshops by workers’ representatives.

Agitation around these demands was carried out by the Bolsheviks through their paper Volna (The Wave) which systematically set out to expose the conduct of the Cadets and liberals. However, the Duma refused to make any new grants. There were rumors that the Ministry of the Interior had sent instructions to the City Duma not to make many concessions to the unemployed. The impatience and anger of the unemployed grew. On June 10, 1906, the Unemployed Council drew up a leaflet which denounced this state of affairs:

The Unemployed Council does not hide from the masses the Duma is only procrastinating, playing with the unemployed, and has no intention whatever of keeping its promises. But the Council has not broken its contract with the Duma because to do that would mean to play into the hands of those who want to provoke the workers into premature action. This is exactly what the enemies of the working class, thirsting for proletarian blood, are waiting for.

At present, the provocation of the unemployed has increased to the highest degree. The Minister for the Interior has given special orders to the Duma and to the town councillors not to make concessions to the unemployed. His aim is quite clear—to provoke the unemployed to premature action at a time when their employed comrades are not ready to help them, and the Duma, of course, does readily what the Ministry wants it to do. However, we shall not allow ourselves to be provoked by the Duma.309

The aim of this resolution was to combat the influence of ultraleft elements (anarchists and Social Revolutionaries) who were taking advantage of the frustration felt by the unemployed in order to advocate provocative actions with potentially disastrous results. By once more putting pressure on the Duma through mass action, the Council succeeded in gaining further concessions. The public work achieved helped to hold the class together and prevent further disintegration at a time when reaction reached its blackest point. At the same time, the correct tactics pursued by the Bolsheviks developed the revolutionary consciousness of the class. However, of necessity, such victories were short lived. In the second half of 1907, reaction gained the upper hand. The majority of the Bolsheviks were arrested. Others were forced to flee abroad. The majority of the organizers and leaders of the Unemployed Council were also arrested or were forced to go underground. From his prison cell in the first half of 1908 Sergei Malishev learned that the tsarist government had finally put an end to the public works schemes in St. Petersburg. When the government proceeded to close the public workshops on Kagarinsky Wharf, before the gendarmes set about their work, they called out a battery of light artillery, in case of any emergency.


308 Ibid., 23.

309 Ibid., 40.

52) Reunification

Despite the remorseless advance of reaction, the RSDLP still maintained its structures and its basic cadres intact throughout 1906 and even maintained an open organization. In his memoirs, Osip Piatnitsky describes the Moscow organization where he worked in 1906, from which it is clear that the elective principle was still in place at that time:

Some of the districts were divided into subdistricts. The districts and subdistricts were connected with the factory meetings (now cells) and with the factory committees and commissions (now cell bureaux). The representatives of the district factory committees heard the reports of the district and Moscow Committees, elected a district committee, and sent representatives to the city conferences at which the Moscow Committee was elected from 1906 to nearly the end of 1907.310

Under the prevailing conditions the importance of work in legal and semilegal organizations of all kinds is self-evident. The party participated in all manner of work, not just the trade unions, but co-ops, workers’ insurance societies, and also cultural activities, which served to maintain its links with the masses. Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks made great use of clubs, which acted as fronts for the work of the revolutionaries.

“The most important centers of party work were our clubs,” recalls Eva Broido.

In them we concentrated all our propaganda activities: our propaganda was distributed from them, and then the workers came to hear lectures on current affairs. There, too, our members in the Duma came to report to us on their work. Virtually all the organizational work was centered on these clubs—general and special party meetings were held there, party publications were distributed from there, these were the “addresses” of the local district and subdistrict branches, there all local news was collected, from there speakers were sent to factory meetings. And these were also the places where enlightened workers—men and women—could meet for friendly exchange of ideas and to read books and newspapers. All clubs aimed above all at having good libraries. And eventually they also encouraged art, there were music and song groups and the like.

The revolution aroused in the minds of the workers a thirst for ideas of all sorts, not just political in the narrow sense, but science, literature, art and culture in general. Broido explains:

At first clubs were exclusively political, but soon their character changed. Propaganda meetings gave place to lectures and discussions of a more general nature, the clubs became “colleges” of Marxism. Representatives of all club committees combined to work out systematic courses of lectures, to provide and distribute the necessary books and to supply book catalogues. Soon, groups of workers asked for courses on scientific subjects. And already in the winter of 1906–7 the programs included physics, mathematics, and technology alongside economics, historical materialism, and the history of socialism and the labor movement.

In addition to the clubs there were many “evening schools”; they grew in number as the clubs attracted the attention of the police and were often closed down. These evening schools included some courses for the illiterate and were often attended by working-class men and women who were already playing influential roles in the movement.311

The clubs carried on a precarious, semilegal existence right up to the outbreak of the First World War.

The revolution pushed the workers of both factions of the RSDLP together. Throughout the latter half of 1905 there had been a continuous and spontaneous process of unity from below. Without waiting for a lead from the top, Bolshevik and Menshevik Party organizations simply merged. This fact partly expressed the workers’ natural instinct for unity, but also the fact, as we have already seen, that the Menshevik leaders had been pushed to the left by pressure from their own rank and file. By December 1905 the two leaderships had effectively re-united. There was now one united Central Committee. A unification Congress was announced and the first issue of a joint organ published, called Partiniye Izvestiya (Party News). On the editorial board there were three Bolsheviks (Lenin, Lunacharsky, and V.A. Bazarov), and three Mensheviks (Dan, Martov, and Martynov). But the December events had knocked the fighting spirit out of the Menshevik leaders, who were already moving back to the right, placing a large question mark over prospects for unity.

Lenin was in favor of organizational unity, but did not for a moment abandon the ideological struggle, maintaining a firm position on all the basic questions of tactics and perspectives. This was entirely characteristic of Lenin’s whole approach—extreme flexibility on all organizational and tactical questions combined with an absolutely implacable attitude on all questions of principle and theory. However, we must be careful not to read into the history of Bolshevism intentions and ideas derived from our knowledge of subsequent events. For many years, the official Soviet histories presented the role of Lenin as that of an all-seeing, all-knowing Leader who foresaw everything in advance and guided the party with a sure hand towards the goal of ultimate victory. From this kind of hagiography, no understanding of the real Lenin can be gained. The whole history of Bolshevism remains shrouded in mystery, like a fairy story or a religious myth. It was neither. In fact, far from having an absolutely clear idea of where he was going at this time, Lenin was still very unsure as to how things were going to turn out. Of course, he was very clear on the need to stand firm on the basic ideas and revolutionary principles of Marxism, and also on the need to maintain the Bolsheviks as the consistently revolutionary wing of the RSDLP. But his support for reunification was neither a sham nor a maneuver. On the basis of the revolution, the Mensheviks had moved far to the left, and it was not at all clear how this would end up. Lenin was not yet clear in his own mind that it would be necessary to make a complete break, and did not finally come to this conclusion until 1912. It is entirely false to present the picture in any other way.

In fact, while the Party was formally united, from the outset it was divided into two opposing tendencies—the revolutionary and the opportunist wings. Reformism or revolution, class collaboration or an independent proletarian policy: these were the basic questions which separated Bolshevism from Menshevism. The basic differences immediately emerged over the attitude to the Duma and to the bourgeois parties. The Mensheviks stood for capitulation to the liberal bourgeoisie, which in practice had gone over to constitutional Monarchism and surrendered to the autocracy. For two months a heated discussion raged over different resolutions. The main working class centers supported the Bolshevik platform. But this was a very different Party to that of the past. Even the debates of the Third Congress one year earlier now seemed like ancient history. It was as if a whole epoch had been compressed into 12 months. There could be no question of maintaining the old narrow circle structures and mentality. The committeemen were increasingly elbowed aside by fresh workers and youth. The revolution had mobilized millions around the banner of Social Democracy. It was impossible and undesirable to maintain the old setup where delegates had been elected from narrow groups of professional revolutionaries (the “committees”). Now the Party had to be organized on a much wider basis, and on strictly democratic principles. The size of the Party is revealed by the ratio of members to delegates at the Fourth Party Congress—one to every 300 members.

The Fourth “Unity” Congress was held from April 10 to 25, 1906, in Stockholm, whence they had been invited by the Swedish Social Democrats. The general conditions of reaction undoubtedly gave rise to a distortion in the representation of the rival factions. Some Bolshevik branches were unable to send delegates through financial difficulties. Repression created other difficulties. As a general rule, the areas dominated by the Mensheviks, that is, small-scale industry and small towns, were less hard hit by reaction, which had a disproportionate effect on the Bolsheviks. Arrests, imprisonment and general disruption of party branches meant that the Bolsheviks were underrepresented at the Fourth Congress, which was dominated by the Mensheviks. There were a total of 112 delegates with full voting rights and 22 consultative, representing 62 organizations. Also present were the representatives of national Social Democratic organizations (Poland and Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, Ukraine, and the Bund, and also the Bulgarian SDRP). The Bolsheviks had 46, the Mensheviks 62. In addition there was a small number of conciliators. Trotsky was in prison. Among the Bolshevik delegation—Lenin, Krassin, Gusev, Lunacharsky, Shaumyan, Bubnov, Krupskaya, Lyadov, A.I. Rykov, A.P. Smirnov, Frunze, Dzerzhinsky, and an obscure young Georgian with the alias Koba, later known to history by the name of Stalin.

The main issues debated at the Stockholm congress were the agrarian program, the current situation and the tasks of the proletariat, attitude to the Duma, armed uprising, the partisan movement, the trade unions, the nature of the Social Democratic organizations, and the Party rules. The Mensheviks lost no time in seizing the advantage afforded by their majority. In a report of the congress written in May 1906, Lenin recalls that:

The elections at the Congress took only a few minutes. Virtually, everything had been arranged before the general sessions. The Mensheviks took all five seats on the editorial board of the Central Organ. As for the Central Committee, we agreed to elect three persons to it, the other seven being Mensheviks. What the position of these three will be, as a kind of supervisors and guardians of the rights of the opposition, is something that only the future can tell.312


310 O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, 101–2.

311 Eva Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, 133 in both quotes.

312 LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, 375.

53) The Debate on the Land Question

Central to the whole discussion was the agrarian question—an issue upon which the whole fate of the Russian Revolution hinged. The experience of the revolution showed the inadequacy of the old agrarian program based on the otrezki (the cut-off lands). Lenin was in favor of adopting a much more radical agrarian program based on the slogan of confiscation of land from the feudal landowners. This slogan was absolutely central to Lenin’s perspectives for the Russian Revolution. It was the slogan of a “people’s revolution”—a thoroughgoing revolutionary transformation, led by the working class in alliance with the poor peasants. The basic task would be a radical solution of the landlords’ estates land problem by means of a complete agrarian revolution leading to confiscation to be carried out by peasant committees to smash the power of the landlords and, depending on circumstances—i.e., triumph of the armed uprising—a democratic republic and the nationalization of the land.

Lenin advocated a revolution to clear out all the accumulated rubbish of feudalism. It was based on the perspective of a revolutionary struggle against the autocracy and armed insurrection, not class collaboration with liberals and parliamentary cretinism. The Mensheviks opposed calling on peasants to seize the land in favor of pettifogging reformism of the worst kind. In place of the revolutionary initiative of the masses, they favored parliamentary maneuvers and deals with the liberals behind the backs of the masses. Their policy on the land question flowed from their general reformist line. In contrast, Lenin pointed out that the land question would be solved by revolutionary means or not at all. In opposition to the reformist demand for the municipalization of land (presumably under the rule of the autocracy!), he put forward the demand for the nationalization of the land. However, Lenin was careful to point out—contrary to the prejudice of the Narodniks, who mistakenly saw in this the overthrow of capitalism—that land nationalization is a bourgeois demand, which does not in itself signify the abolition of bourgeois property, but only of landlord-feudal property. As to the class forces of the revolution, Lenin spelled this out a thousand times: the bourgeois liberals were a counterrevolutionary force. The bourgeois-democratic revolution could only be carried out by an alliance of workers and poor peasants (semiproletarian masses of town and countryside). Actually, the nationalization of the land in the context of the bourgeois-democratic revolution means the most radical “clearing of the decks” for the free development of capitalism. Together with the revolutionary overthrow of the autocracy, and its replacement by a democratically elected Constituent Assembly, it would mean the establishment of a bourgeois democratic regime under the most favorable conditions for the working class. The possibility of carrying out the socialist revolution in backward Russia before Western Europe never occurred to Lenin—or anyone else at this time, except for Trotsky.

Plekhanov also adamantly rejected the demand for nationalization. Resorting to demagogic arguments, Plekhanov accused Lenin of putting forward the same arguments of the Social Revolutionaries, and argued that the demand for the division of the landlords’ estates was reactionary:

I say that the peasant idea of a general distribution of the land is a reactionary feature. And precisely in view of this reactionary feature, which has been refuted throughout our whole political history, I pronounce myself against the nationalization of the land. So how can this feature be cited in evidence against me? Lenin is looking at nationalization through the eyes of a Social Revolutionary. He has even begun to take over their terminology—for example, he is holding forth about the notorious people’s creativity.

With his customary irony, he went on:

It is pleasant to recall old friends, but it is unpleasant to see Social Democrats defending Narodnik positions. The agrarian history of Russia is more similar to the history of India, Egypt, China and other Eastern despotisms, than to the history of Western Europe . . . In order to smash despotism, it is necessary to eliminate its economic basis. Therefore I am against nationalization now; when we argued this against the Social Revolutionaries, Lenin found that my arguments were correct. Lenin says “we will render nationalization harmless,” but, in order to render nationalization harmless, it is necessary to find a guarantee against restoration; but such a guarantee does not exist and cannot exist. Remember the history of France; remember the history of Britain; in each of these countries after a broad revolutionary swing, restoration followed. The same thing can happen to us; and our program must be such that in carrying it out, it must cause the least harm in the case of restoration.

And Plekhanov concludes:

And that is why I reject nationalization. Lenin’s draft is closely linked to the utopia of the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, and that is why those of us who have no taste for such a utopia must speak out against it. Municipalization is another matter.313

Plekhanov’s comments at least had the merit of clarity. When he accuses Lenin of linking his radical agrarian program to the seizure of power by the revolutionaries, he is not far from the truth, although he presents it in the form of a caricature. The essence of Lenin’s solution to the agrarian problem was precisely a revolution in which the proletariat would base itself on a thoroughgoing peasant revolution to overthrow tsarism and institute a democratic republic. This demanded that the party should stand for the most radical program of revolutionary democratic demands, and above all a revolutionary solution to the land problem. By contrast, Plekhanov and the Mensheviks attempted to frighten the Party with the philistine idea that revolution inevitably produces counterrevolution. Here we have in an extreme form the notion that the working class must do nothing to “provoke” the counterrevolution, and, by extension, must cling to the shirttails of the liberals. Lenin answered that the only full guarantee against the danger of restoration was the complete victory of the revolution. In this little episode is encapsulated two entirely different perspectives, two entirely different psychologies even.

In his reply to the discussion on the agrarian question, Plekhanov summed up in a nutshell the Menshevik position. He accused Lenin of Blanquism:

This is how matters stand—between Lenin and me there are extremely serious differences of opinion. These differences must not be glossed over. They must be clarified in all their importance and extent. Our party is living through a serious moment. The decisions that you will take today or tomorrow on the disputed questions will determine to a significant extent the fate of our entire party and therefore of our entire country. And for that very reason, comrade Lenin’s draft expresses not only his private opinion on the agrarian question, but the whole character of his revolutionary thinking.

Blanquism or Marxism—that is the question which we will decide today. Comrade Lenin himself admitted that his agrarian draft was closely link to his idea of seizure of power. And I am very grateful for his sincerity.

Now comes the crunch. Plekhanov revealed the attitude of the Mensheviks towards the seizure of power by the workers and peasants with these words:

After October 17 the seizure of power ceased being a utopia, comrade Lenin? But you spoke of this even before October 17, and just as before October 17 I answered you. October 17 changes nothing in our evaluation of the idea of the seizure of power. Our standpoint consists in this, that the seizure of power is compulsory for us when we are making a proletarian revolution. But since the revolution now impending can only be petty bourgeois, we are duty bound to refuse to seize power.314

Such was the argument of the Mensheviks in 1906–7. The revolution was a bourgeois revolution: the tasks before it were bourgeois-democratic; the conditions for socialism were absent in Russia. Therefore, any attempt by the workers to seize power was adventurism; the task of the workers was to seek alliance with the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois parties, to assist them to carry through the bourgeois revolution.

What was Lenin’s reply to Plekhanov? He made no attempt to deny that the revolution was bourgeois-democratic, certainly not that it was possible to build socialism in Russia alone. All the Russian Marxists, the Mensheviks, Lenin, and Trotsky were agreed on these questions. It was ABC that the conditions for a socialist transformation were absent in Russia, but had matured in the West. Replying to Plekhanov’s dark warnings of “the danger of restoration,” Lenin explained:

If we mean a real, fully effective, economic guarantee against restoration, that is, a guarantee that would create the economic conditions precluding restoration, then we shall have to say: the only guarantee against restoration is a socialist revolution in the West. There can be no other guarantee in the full sense of the term. Without this condition, in whichever other way the problem is solved (municipalization, division of the land, etc.) restoration will not only be possible but positively inevitable.

Thus, right from the start, Lenin conceived of the Russian Revolution as the prelude to the socialist revolution in the West. He tied the fate of the Russian Revolution in an indissoluble link with that of the international socialist revolution, without which it would inevitably succumb to internal reaction:

I would formulate this proposition as follows: the Russian Revolution can achieve victory by its own efforts, but it cannot possibly hold and consolidate its gains by its own strength. It cannot do this unless there is a socialist revolution in the West. Without this condition restoration is inevitable, whether we have municipalization, or nationalization, or division of the land: for under each and every form of possession and property the small proprietor will always be a bulwark of restoration. After the complete victory of the democratic revolution the small proprietor will inevitably turn against the proletariat; and the sooner the common enemies of the proletariat and of the small proprietors, such as the capitalists, the landlords, the financial bourgeoisie, and so forth are overthrown, the sooner will this happen. Our democratic republic has no other reserve than the socialist proletariat of the West.315

In his report of the Congress, Lenin commented:

The right wing of our Party does not believe in the complete victory of the present, i.e., bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia; it dreads such a victory, it does not emphatically and definitely put the slogan of such a victory before the people. It is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarization of Marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently “make” the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution. The role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the struggle for the complete and decisive victory of the bourgeois revolution is not clear to the right Social Democrats.316

The differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism here stand out with complete clarity. And yet, there were differences and doubts among the Bolsheviks themselves on this issue. Among others, Suvorov, Bazarov, and also Stalin opposed nationalization in favor of “sharing out” the land among the peasants. This demand reflected a petty-bourgeois tendency, a thousand miles removed from Lenin’s position.

“Since we are concluding a temporary revolutionary union with the struggling peasantry,” Stalin said, “since we cannot on that account ignore the demands of that peasantry, we must support those demands, if, as a whole and in general, they do not conflict with the tendencies of economic development and with the progress of the revolution. The peasants demand division; division is not inconsistent with the above-mentioned phenomena; therefore, we must support complete confiscation and division. From that point of view, both nationalization and municipalization are equally unacceptable.”317

In order to defeat “municipalization” Lenin was forced to withdraw his own resolution and vote with the supporters of “division.” Under certain conditions, the division of the landlords’ estates would, of course, be a step forward, but Lenin’s demand for nationalization was the only consistent revolutionary demand. In the end, the final resolution was an unsatisfactory compromise.


313 Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, 59–60 and 60–61.

314 Ibid., 139 and 142.

315 LCW, Unity Congress of RSDLP, vol. 10, 280 in both quotes (my emphasis).

316 LCW, Report on the Unity Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 10, 377–78.

317 Congress Minutes, Chertvyortiy S’yezd RSDRP, Protokoly, 79.