The Russian Revolution of 1905 - The Dress Rehearsal for October

Lenin stated that the October Revolution of 1917 could never have taken place without the previous experience of the Revolution of 1905. A study of this remarkable event is therefore of great importance for anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of revolution in general, and not just in the particular case. We publish here Alan Woods’ introduction to the forthcoming Spanish edition of Trotsky’s 1905.

Lenin wrote that the October Revolution of 1917 would never have taken place without the previous experience of the Paris Commune, the February 1917 Revolution, and the Revolution of 1905. All these revolutions provide us with a very rich treasure house of experience and deserve thorough study. And the present work by the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the Chairman of the Petersburg Soviet in 1905 and one of the principal actors in this tremendous historical drama, is by far the most important work on this subject.

In my book Bolshevism – the Road to Revolution, I wrote:

“[...] The first Russian revolution unfolded on an epic scale, involving every layer of the proletariat and all other oppressed layers of society, passing through every imaginable phase of struggle and utilising every conceivable fighting method, from economic strikes and petitions to the authorities through the political general strike and mass demonstrations, to an armed insurrection. The 1905 revolution already revealed, albeit in an embryonic fashion, all the basic processes which were to be repeated on a higher scale 12 years later. It was a dress rehearsal, without which the final victory of the proletariat in October 1917 would have been impossible. In the course of 1905, all ideas, programmes, parties and leaders were put to the test. The experience of the first revolution was decisive for the future evolution of all the tendencies in Russian Social Democracy.”

A study of this remarkable period is therefore of great importance for anyone who wishes to understand the dynamics of revolution in general, and not just in the particular case. Needless to say, such an understanding is only possible for those who have thoroughly grasped the method of Marxism known as historical materialism.

The most striking aspect of a revolution is the speed with which the masses learn. In general, the working class does not learn from books but from life itself. Events, especially great events, are necessary to permit the masses to throw off the heavy burden of tradition, habit and routine and to embrace new ideas. Such is the position taken by the materialist conception of history, which was brilliantly expressed by Karl Marx in the celebrated phrase “social being determines consciousness.” Idealists have always presented consciousness as the motor force of all human progress. But even the most superficial study of history shows that human consciousness always tends to lag behind events. Far from being revolutionary, it is innately and profoundly conservative.

Most people do not like the idea of change and still less of a violent upheaval that transforms existing conditions. They tend to cling to the familiar ideas, the well-known institutions, the traditional morality and religion. Those who call the existing order into question are never popular with their contemporaries. Karl Marx, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Copernicus and Galileo – all were rejected, persecuted and cast in the role of heretics until subsequent events exposed the unsoundness of the old order and led it into a complete impasse and eventual overthrow. We see this dialectical process very graphically in the events of 1905, which Lenin described as a dress rehearsal for the October Revolution of 1917.

War and revolution

The stormy events of that period were connected with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. The ambitions of Russian Tsarism in Asia clashed with the westward thrust of the young and vigorous Japanese imperialism, which led it to invade Manchuria and push against the borders of Russia in the Far East and Siberia. The war rapidly exposed the inner rottenness of Tsarism, which suffered a series of humiliating defeats, culminating in the fall of Port Arthur. Here, not for the first or last time, war acted as the catalyst for revolution.

Pacifists always bemoan the evils of war. From the standpoint of abstract humanitarianism no sane person would deny that wars are the cause of immense human suffering, death and destruction. And yet wars have always played a prominent role in history – so much so that we tend to date major historical periods in terms of wars and revolutions (which are a kind of war). The tearful complaints of pacifists (who were around even in ancient Greece) do not appear to have had a noticeable effect in changing this state of affairs. Moreover, it is often those who most loudly proclaim the cause of peace who turn out to be the biggest warmongers. It is sufficient to name George W. Bush and Tony Blair in this context.

Moreover, not all wars have a reactionary character. Few people today would deny the progressive significance of the American War of Independence or the American Civil War in the 18th and 19th centuries, although many of the admirers of these bloody events refuse to accept the validity of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, or the war of national liberation fought by the peoples of Vietnam, Cuba or Iraq against US imperialism in our own times.

The war between Russia and Japan had no progressive content, like all the other wars fought between the different gangs of imperialist robbers to determine who should have possession of the world’s markets, raw materials and spheres of influence. But wars, even when they have a reactionary character, nevertheless serve to expose mercilessly the weaknesses in the existing order, laying bare the hidden fault lines that lie beneath the surface of the social fabric and at a certain point throwing great masses into movement. That was the case in 1905, and again in 1917, when it led to the greatest social revolution in history. It was the case in the latter stages of the Vietnam War, and will be again in the case of Iraq, which will inevitably produce explosions at a certain stage – not just in Europe but also in the United States itself.

In the early stages of the first Russian Revolution the masses displayed a certain naivety. This is an inevitable stage that we see in every great revolution. We saw it in the initial stages of the English Civil War in the 17th century. We saw it in the French Revolution of 1789-93. We saw it at the time of the February Revolution in 1917. We saw it again in Spain in 1931, with the fall of the Monarchy and the proclamation of the Republic. And we see it now in Venezuela.

A revolution throws millions of politically inexperienced and untutored masses into the scene of active political life. Indeed, the essence of a revolution consists precisely in this active participation of the masses. In the early stages, they suffer from all kinds of illusions; they do not know exactly where they are going or what they want, though they certainly know what they do not want. A certain amount of confusion is inevitable. Where are the masses supposed to get clarity from? The normal conditions of the workers in capitalist society preclude them from acquiring the necessary ideological tools to carry out a revolution.

The masses learn slowly, from events. They proceed empirically, from a series of successive approximations. Moreover, this process does not move in a straight line: every two steps forward is accompanied by a step back. But the general line is always to the left, from the more moderate to the more radical. This process provides great opportunities to the most revolutionary tendency, which can grow rapidly on condition that it knows how to combine revolutionary audacity with the necessary tactical flexibility and retain its links with the masses at every stage.

Weakness of the party

The tasks of the proletariat in the Revolution would have been far easier to achieve if there had existed a strong revolutionary Marxist party before January 1905. But it did not exist. The Russian Social Democratic Party (RSDLP), which stood for Marxism, had split in two in the Second Congress only two years before. The two factions that emerged from the split, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, were both very weak on the ground in Petersburg. Their links with the working class were weak. They represented a minority of a minority of activists, and were almost completely isolated. This situation is not unknown in the history of the movement. In fact, it is the norm. As old Engels commented at the end of his life: “Marx and I were always in a minority, and we were proud to be in a minority.”

The old Stalinist histories present a picture of the Bolshevik Party standing at the helm and guiding the Revolution at every stage. The truth is that the beginning of the revolution found the Party in a lamentable state. On the eve of 1905 the Party was seriously weakened by splits and arrests. The internal faction fight had paralysed its activities. This is reflected in the number of Bolshevik leaflets issued in Petersburg in 1904: only 11 for the whole year, as against 55 in 1903 and 117 in 1905.

It often happens that the most politically advanced workers can be divorced from the masses and can lose confidence in them. Years of isolation, of putting forward revolutionary positions and getting no response, of beating one’s head against a brick wall, can give rise to moods of scepticism that can play a most damaging role when conditions begin to change. Hence it has happened more than once that the most militant and revolutionary sections of the activists have been left behind by the masses, who have jumped over their unsuspecting heads. It is even possible that the “revolutionaries” may become transformed at the critical moment into a conservative barrier in the path of the class.

Before the events of January, the local Bolshevik leaders in Petersburg displayed a pessimistic attitude and an ingrained lack of confidence in the workers. The so-called committee-men (and women) showered Lenin with complaints. They saw no evidence of a revolutionary mood among the masses, only backwardness and ignorance. As proof of the hopelessness of the situation they cited the fact that the overwhelming majority of the workers were supporting the reactionary “union” set up by the priest Father Gapon with the support of the Tsarist police chief, Zubatov.

The Menshevik S. Somov (I.A. Pushkin) described the situation in their St Petersburg organisation at the start of the year:

“A very sad picture emerged. Well-functioning organisations were to be found only in the Narva sector, with its 30,000 workers for example, the whole social democratic organisation consisted of six or seven circles of workers of the Putilov and the Railway Car Construction plants (five to six workers in each circle) and the work was conducted according to old-fashioned methods, with long courses in political economy and primitive culture. True, there was also a sector organisation of representatives of the circles, but what it did is hard to determine. Factory life found no echo at all in the circles. The diffuse unrest... that was finding an expression in the powerfully developing Gapon movement in which the yearning of the working masses for broad organisation and class unity was so clearly displayed was ignored as Zubatovism. Moreover, most of the workers belonging to our circle were very young men, just out of apprenticeship and with no influence whatsoever in their factory milieu.”

Years later, after the victory of the October Revolution, when Lenin was trying to explain to the young and inexperienced cadres of the Communist International the basics of Bolshevik tactics, he cited the case of Gapon’s union. In his Marxist classic, Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder, Lenin explained that Communists must always conduct work in even the most reactionary workers’ organizations. He said that the Bolsheviks had worked even in police unions. This reference, which many people do not understand, refers to Gapon’s union, the so-called “Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers”.

As a matter of fact, this is not entirely accurate. The Bolsheviks in Petersburg actually neglected work in this organization, which they boycotted on the grounds that it was a reactionary police union. So it was, but as Lenin explains, it was necessary to work even in such a reactionary organization in order to tear the workers away from the leadership. Had the Petersburg Bolsheviks taken Lenin’s advice seriously, they would have been in a far stronger position when the Revolution began. But they suffered from the well-known disease of all sectarian ultra-lefts, who imagine that all that is required to build a mass revolutionary party is to proclaim it. Unfortunately, all history shows that the task is rather more complicated than that.

In Left Wing Communism – an Infantile Disorder Lenin wrote:

“Under Tsarism we had no ‘legal opportunities’ whatsoever until 1905. However, when Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organised Black Hundred [the Black Hundreds were a reactionary, anti-Semitic organisation used by Tsarism as an auxiliary arm against the revolutionary movement] workers’ assemblies and workingmen’s societies for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our party to these assemblies and into these societies... They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on their agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents.”

Answering the ultra-lefts he wrote:

“To refuse to work in the reactionary trade unions means leaving the insufficiently developed or backward masses of workers under the influence of the reactionary leaders, the agents of the bourgeoisie, the labour aristocrats, or ‘workers who have become completely bourgeois’...

“This ridiculous ‘theory’ that Communists should not work in reactionary trade unions reveals with the utmost clarity the frivolous attitude of the ‘Left’ Communists toward the question of influencing the ‘masses’ and their misuse of clamour about the ‘masses’. If you want to help the ‘masses’ and win the sympathy and support of the ‘masses’, you should not fear the difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the ‘leaders’ (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda, systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations—even the most reactionary—in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.”

Lenin pointed out more than once that the working class is always more revolutionary than the most revolutionary party. This assertion at first sight does not seem to correspond to the facts, and least of all on the eve of the 1905 Revolution. The great majority of the workers were conservative in outlook. They were overwhelmingly religious – which partly explains their boundless faith in Father Gapon. They drank vodka. Most were monarchists who believed unquestioningly in the Tsar. When the Bolsheviks approached the strikers with revolutionary leaflets calling for a Republic, they often tore them up and sometimes beat those who were distributing them. Yet all this was transformed into its opposite in the space of 24 hours.

All the efforts of the police and their union stooges to clamp the workers’ movement into a straitjacket of legal constraints were doomed to failure. The rising tide of discontent, which affected all layers of society in the course of the Russo-Japanese War, began to affect even the most backward strata of the working class. Up to this moment, the opposition to Tsarism had mainly come from the liberal intelligentsia and the students. This is also a law. The intelligentsia cannot play an independent role in the revolution, but it is a sensitive barometer of the tensions building up within the deep recesses of society.

“The wind blows first through the tops of the trees.” The ferment in society was reflected in a ferment of opposition among the intellectuals. The universities became bastions of revolutionary protest, and at a certain stage were opened up to the workers. They became the centre of heated debates of ideas and programmes, an important part of the revolution vividly described in the present book.

Bloody Sunday

The working class of Russia made its first decisive entrance upon the stage of history in a peaceful procession, with a petition in its hands and a priest at its head. In their hands they carried, not red flags but religious icons. The aim of the demonstration was to appeal to the Tsar, the batyushka (the “Little father”) to improve their intolerable living conditions.

These workers had no understanding of politics. Many of them could barely read or write. They were former peasants who had only recently emigrated to the cities in search of a better life – a phenomenon that is all too familiar to the masses in most of Latin America, and that is now being reproduced on a vast scale in the teeming cities of China.

This process of rapid development had very revolutionary consequences. By tearing millions of people from conditions of rural backwardness that had remained unchanged for a thousand years, Russian capitalism destroyed the social fabric that had provided a kind of stability and identity to the Russian peasant for centuries. Uprooted from his natural environment, the former peasant was hurled into the seething cauldron of factory life. Under the watchful eye of the overseer he learned discipline and factory organization. He learned to subject himself to the merciless rules of mass production. He therefore learned to cast off the old peasant tradition of individualism and egotism, the narrow loyalties of family, village and clan. He began to think of himself as part of a broader community, the working class, with common bonds of interest and solidarity against the exploiters.

But this class-consciousness as yet had only an embryonic character. The Russian proletariat was still a class “in itself” but not “for itself.” In order to make the qualitative leap to revolutionary class-consciousness, the working class had to pass through a very harsh school – a baptism of fire. This occurred on the ninth of January (in the old pre-revolutionary calendar) 1905, known to history as Bloody Sunday.

The confused consciousness of the masses is clearly expressed by their fervent support for Father Grigorii Gapon. Figures like this always emerge in the first period of the revolution. With his curious mixture of militancy and religion, class struggle and monarchism, it corresponded to the first, confused groping towards consciousness of millions of the most downtrodden layers of society. The son of a peasant himself, he faithfully expressed the confused strivings of this layer in which the desire to fight for a better life in this world is still entangled with religious ideas and belief in the Tsar.

The peaceful demonstration of the Ninth of January was met with a hail of bullets from the serried ranks of police and soldiers. Unarmed men, women and children were cut down without mercy by mounted Cossacks. Nobody knows how many were killed, but the total figure is probably not less than a thousand. This was the work of the Tsar, who earned the nickname of Nicolas the Bloody, but who is now being presented to the public opinion of the world as some kind of saintly martyr of the heartless Bolsheviks.

Every revolution is characterised by lightening changes in the psychology of the masses, in which things change into their opposite. On the night of Bloody Sunday, the very same workers who had previously torn up the Bolshevik leaflets sought out the Bolsheviks (they knew who they were) and besieged them with one insistent demand: “Give us arms!”

People can change. We see this in every strike, when formerly backward and apathetic workers become the most militant and energetic champions of the strike. A revolution is like a strike on a vastly wider scale. Father Gapon was an accidental and contradictory figure. After the Ninth of January, he called for an armed insurrection and even came close to the Bolsheviks for a time.

The Soviets and the October Strike

In the next eleven months, the Revolution unfolded through a whole series of stages. New layers of the class were continually drawn into struggle. The soviets – those marvellous organs of workers’ power – were created by the working class as flexible and democratic organs of struggle. In their inception they were simply extended strike committees.

Once again, the local Bolshevik leaders failed to grasp the significance of the soviets. They displayed the same sectarian attitude as they had earlier shown towards the Gapon union. They approached the Petersburg soviet with an ultimatum: the workers must either accept the programme and policies of the Party, or else dissolve. As Trotsky wrote, the workers present merely shrugged their shoulders and proceeded to the next point on the agenda, whereupon, the Bolsheviks walked out of the meeting.

From abroad, Lenin watched the conduct of his comrades with a mixture of frustration and dismay. Unlike them, he understood very well the real significance of the soviets, which he correctly characterised as embryonic organs of workers’ power. He urged the Bolsheviks to participate in the real movement of the masses, and eventually they corrected their mistake. But the damage was already done. The Bolsheviks had lost a lot of ground through their sectarianism.

The key figure in the 1905 Petersburg Soviet was undoubtedly Leon Trotsky, who at that time stood outside both the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions but was politically far closer to the former. In the autumn the revolutionary wave had reached its peak with an unprecedented strike wave. 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.”

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 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. Throughout all these dramatic events, the author of most of the statements and manifestos of the Petersburg Soviet was Trotsky.

The description of the October Strike, written by one of its key leaders, constitutes one of the most important chapters in the book. Whereas in 1917 there was no general strike, in 1905 the general strike was one of the most important weapons of the working class. It was the means whereby the Revolution measured its own strength, organized itself and disorganized the enemy, while simultaneously mobilizing new layers of the working class in struggle.

The December Insurrection

The main weakness of the 1905 Revolution was the fact that the movement of the workers in the cities did not receive help from the peasantry until it was too late. By the end of December the workers of Petersburg, who had been in continual struggle since January, were exhausted. The workers of Moscow now occupied the centre stage. They moved in the direction of an armed insurrection, but unfortunately, the Petersburg proletariat was no longer in a position to come to their aid.

The bloody defeat of the December insurrection in Moscow effectively marked an end to the revolutionary flood tide in the cities. But the Revolution continued to spread long afterwards in the villages. There were peasant uprisings everywhere, accompanied by outbreaks of guerrilla war. But without the victory of the workers in the urban centres, it was doomed to failure. Realising finally that this was no longer on the agenda, Lenin called a halt to guerrilla actions and prepared the Party to face a period of reaction.

The defeat of the 1905 revolution was a severe one. Thousands of revolutionaries were executed, tortured, imprisoned and exiled. The Party, which had grown from a handful to a mass force of hundreds of thousands, was again reduced to a small and persecuted underground organization. There were arguments and splits. Lenin was in a minority of one when he argued against the ultra left policies of the Bolshevik leaders who wished to boycott parliament and refused to conduct legal work in the trade unions.

So bleak was the situation that many young comrades committed suicide, believing that the Revolution was doomed forever. Yet by 1911-12, the reaction had reached its limits and a new revolutionary wave had commenced. It was at this time that Lenin and the Bolsheviks won the leadership of the organized working class in Russia.

How was it possible for Lenin and the Bolsheviks to emerge unscathed from this terrible defeat? Napoleon once said that defeated armies learn well. Lenin refused to be pushed off course by the temporary victory of reaction. He stubbornly defended the fundamental programme, methods, ideas and traditions in a context of universal backsliding, revisionism and apostasy. He was even prepared to break with all his former comrades – people like Bogdanov, Gorky and Lunacharsky – in order to defend Marxist philosophy. Only in this way was it possible to preserve the Marxist party and to guarantee its ultimate victory.

In the past period we have lived through a period of reaction – although nothing on the scale of the reaction of 1907-11. Everywhere we see the same tendency to retreat, to abandon the positions of Marxism and Leninism. On all sides we see the same moods of scepticism and cynicism among the middle class intellectuals, ex-Communists and ex-Lefts. Our answer is the same as that of Lenin and Trotsky in a far more difficult period. We stand firmly for the defence of the ideas, programme and methods of Marxism, the only scientific socialist ideology. And events on a world scale are showing that we are right to do so.

It is said that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. Beneath the surface of black reaction, imperialist wars and barbarism, new forces are maturing and becoming stronger with every passing day. New revolutionary movements are being prepared, like the developing revolution in Venezuela. Just as in every past revolution they will pass through many phases, with many confused ideas and contradictions. That is not surprising. Is not life itself full of contradictions?

On the basis of their experience, the masses will seek out those ideas and that programme that most faithfully expresses their aspirations and wishes, that most accurately expresses, not just that which is, but that which must be. Only the ideas and programme of revolutionary Marxism can offer to the masses the road they are seeking.

In the struggle for revolutionary ideology, a place of honour is occupied by the marvellous writings of Leon Trotsky. And among these, one of the most important is 1905. I recommend it to the reader with the greatest possible enthusiasm.