1905: The consciousness factor

Issue: 108

Pete Glatter

This October is the hundredth anniversary of one of the high points of the Russian Revolution of 1905—the strike wave that saw the formation of the world’s first soviet (workers’ council) in St Petersburg. In our New Year issue Mark Thomas analysed the impact of the revolution on the development of Marxist ideas. Here Pete Glatter looks at the transformations that occurred in working class consciousness.1

The heart of the Russian Revolution of 1905 was the change in mass consciousness, what Trotsky called ‘that leaping movement of ideas and passions’ which arose from one set of struggles and set the scene for the next.2 This process of change was concentrated in the working class.

Such changes are by their nature complicated and contradictory. Perhaps the unique thing about 1905 is that it shows in an extraordinarily clear way exactly how the workers’ consciousness changed step by step throughout 1905. The historian M N Pokrovsky summed it up like this:

In January 1905, the workers thought that they could talk to the tsar in a nice, polite way and they were cruelly disillusioned. In October, they reached the idea that you had to show your fist to the tsar—only show it—and you would get something from him. It was an idea of the following stage that you had to use arms against the tsar and it was clear only to a minority of the working class.3

Two examples illustrate the extent of this change: strikes and the membership of the two social democratic (ie, Marxist) parties, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

The biggest year for strikes before 1905 was 1903. In that year 5.1 percent of workers went on strike. In 1905 the corresponding figure was 163.8 percent! The explanation for this figure was that many workers struck more than once. In all, 60 percent of the workers went on strike—nearly 12 times as many as the previous record. This enormous movement did not sink back to pre-revolutionary levels until two years later.4

A standard estimate of total social democratic membership before 1905 was that it ‘could not have been more than a few thousand’. It could well have been considerably less. The bulk of the recruitment took place after 1905 itself, as the experience and lessons of the revolution sank in. By 1907 the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks were each about 40,000 strong.5 These figures might have been even higher, had this not also been the year which marked the final triumph of the counterrevolution.

Historians sometimes see parts of this process of change. However, it is usually at the cost of the dynamic relationships between them, hence of the process as a whole.6 This was made up of three important elements. The first was the way the centralised tsarist state raised the stakes of the struggle at key points, facing the workers with the choice of either responding or knuckling under. These were conscious choices made by millions of workers in the light of their experience of struggle and their resulting level of confidence and courage. So every step of the struggle involved a change in mass consciousness. The second was the differentiation of the mass workers’ movement, independently of any political party, between militant and moderate poles. The third was the development of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, originally factions in the same social democratic party, into distinct parties which corresponded politically to these two maain contradictory tendencies inside the mass movement.

Bloody Sunday and after7

On Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, troops massacred processions of workers at several points in St Petersburg, the capital of the Russian empire. The workers were trying to present a petition to the absolute ruler of Russia, Tsar Nicolas II (also known as the emperor and the autocrat). This petition expressed the shifting consciousness of the city’s workers. On the one hand, it appealed to the tsar in grovelling, semi-religious terms. On the other, its immediate demands included full civil and democratic rights, free public education, the separation of the Orthodox Church from the state, the transfer of the land from the landowners to the peasants (who were the majority of the population), an end to the war with Japan, elected workers’ committees in the factories with the right to stop sackings, an eight-hour day and a general pay rise. On the one hand, the workers came with their families, with church banners and icons, and singing hymns. On the other, the city was in the grip of a general strike.8

The massacre came as a tremendous shock. A callous official cover-up after Bloody Sunday, and the authorities’ slapdash attempts at conciliation, impelled the workers to action. It was not, by and large, political action. The workers had wanted the tsar to make it possible for them to fight for a better life. The response had been an attempt to terrorise them into submission. The workers refused to submit, but they did not rise up against the tsar. It was as if they were thinking, ‘Bloody Sunday showed that we’re not going to get any help from above, so we’ll have to fight on our own for a better life, starting with pay and conditions.’ The result was a strike storm. In January alone there were more strikes than in the whole of the previous ten years. These were, by and large, ‘economic’ strikes, strikes about pay and conditions, often with long lists of grievances which had festered for years. Employers, overwhelmed by the flood, caved in one after another. This switch from political to economic struggle was not a retreat. It was, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, ‘a change of front’.9 Some strikes had political demands as well, especially about ending the war and calling a Constituent Assembly (an assembly elected to draw up a constitution for a parliamentary-style democracy). These were not necessarily immediate demands but nor were they empty sloganising. They were declarations of open opposition to absolute rule.

All the strikes, no matter how economic their demands were, represented a tremendous break with the autocracy, which guaranteed the absolute power of everyone in any position of authority over their subordinates, from the tsar himself right down to the last foreman. Tsarism itself had raised the stakes of the struggle. Bloody Sunday had faced the workers with a choice. Give in and live, however miserably. Fight back and risk another Bloody Sunday. The huge strike waves which rolled across Russia until well into the summer therefore represented the first qualitative change in the consciousness of the working class in 1905. This change came out of the experience of Bloody Sunday. It also came out of the experience of the struggle against the employers before Bloody Sunday, which had led to the general strike in St Petersburg.

A whole series of individuals and groups came to the forefront of this general movement. In terms of strikes, the better-off, more skilled metal workers were more militant—politically and economically—than the low-paid, more numerous textile workers, many of them women. Particular workplaces stood out, like the Putilov works, which had been one of the most backward metal plants in St Petersburg until the strike before Bloody Sunday. The plant now became so strike-prone that it only worked 43 days during the whole of 1905.10 People were transformed. Lukeriya Bogdanova, a textile worker at the Maxwell mill, a hard school where the foremen habitually threw spanners at the women, had encouraged other workers to take their children with them on Bloody Sunday. After 9 January she stopped believing in god and the tsar and got involved in the socialist underground, producing leaflets and intervening in strikes. Her husband was what she called ‘very strict’ and often beat her for this—‘But, of course, I didn’t take any notice of him, and I continued with the work’.11

As organisations, both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had failed to intervene in the mass movement, headed by the fleetingly charismatic priest Father Gapon, which led to Bloody Sunday. However, individual social democratic workers succeeded in getting a hearing despite opposition from their own organisations and initial hostility from Gapon and his lieutenants.12 Despite their sluggishness, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks gained credibility from the collapse of Gapon’s organisation and its reformist aspirations, as they had warned against them from the start.

The Mensheviks were stronger than the Bolsheviks in St Petersburg and prided themselves on their intervention in the Shidlovsky Commission in February 1905. The commission, which included elected workers’ representatives, was one of the attempts by the authorities to pacify the St Petersburg workers under the guise of investigating their grievances. However, this success revealed a key feature of Menshevism in 1905: it oriented on the more hesitant, more conservative, less confident workers. At a time when the strike movement was reaching unheard-of proportions, S Somov, a Menshevik organiser, described the commission as the ‘central moment of struggle in this period’. The important thing in his eyes was that the ‘backward workers…never tired of discussing which demands they should put to the commission and what sort of petitions they should submit to it’. At the same time, he admitted that the metal workers ‘saw the commission from the start as a clumsy trick to divert the workers’ attention from the most important issues on to petty workplace matters’. The Bolsheviks reluctantly took part in the elections to the commission. In the event, participation was a success. The result of the elections was a clear majority for the social democrats and a series of demands by the elected representatives. When the tsar responded by disbanding the commission, 50,000 to 60,000 workers struck in protest. The Bolshevik attitude may have been wrong, and it was not an isolated mistake, as we shall see. But it was not necessarily a sign that the party had nothing in common with the working class.13

The way Menshevism related to the mass movement of 1905 fitted the two key ideas it brought with it out of the underground. The first had been its opposition to Lenin’s insistence on a centralised party of activists. The second was the belief that, Russia being a backward country, the capitalist class, the bourgeoisie, must lead the revolution to overthrow the semi-feudal autocracy and establish a bourgeois democratic republic before the workers’ struggle could really get going. By contrast, the Bolsheviks came to argue that the Russian bourgeoisie and its liberal political representatives were too dependent on tsarism and too apprehensive about the workers to play a consistent revolutionary role. Tsarism could only be broken by the workers acting in concert with the peasants, who formed the majority of the population. This social alliance or ‘democratic dictatorship’ was to be embodied in a provisional revolutionary government which should establish a democratic republic, give the land to the peasants and introduce an eight-hour working day.14

The nature of bourgeois liberalism as the second key point at issue between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks fed into the existing difference on party organisation. If the workers were going to stay on the margins of the struggle for power, then the party organisation could be relatively loose and the distinction between members and sympathisers could remain suitably vague. But if the workers were going to play a leading role in this struggle, their party would have to be a centralised combat organisation which could organise the overthrow of the existing power.

After Bloody Sunday, Lenin repeatedly argued that the main lesson that the radicalised workers were drawing from the massacre was the need for an armed uprising. It was therefore no longer simply an abstract political idea but an urgent practical necessity. He attacked the Mensheviks for ‘dragging the party back, away from the pressing tasks of the revolutionary vanguard to the contemplation of the proletariat’s “posterior”.’15 For Lenin, the coming of the mass movement changed the whole way things should be done. Workers, especially young workers, were moving towards socialism through their own experience. The tight, closed organisation of the underground days had to be thrown open to mass recruitment so that the party could really become part of the working class, so that it could unite the workers who were taking the lead in the struggle. But among the Bolsheviks themselves, Lenin ran into inertia, conservatism and a sectarian distrust of the mass movement over and over again.

In the underground the party organisation had been central. This had even affected those open struggles which did break out. The difference between the 1901 strike at the Obukhov, a key plant in St Petersburg, which had to be prepared in secret until the very last moment, and the general strike in the city at the beginning of 1905, which involved one mass meeting after another, was a difference between two political worlds.16 Now the mass movement was central and the party had to become part of it if it was going to have any chance of leading it. The party changed under pressure from Lenin and from the mass movement. But resistance was perhaps at its strongest during the early months of 1905.17

The order of the worker’s boot

There were three particularly large conflicts in the spring and summer of 1905. The first was a mass strike in the textile town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk—‘the Russian Manchester’—in May and June. The second was a strike wave in the Ukrainian port of Odessa in June which erupted into something like a minor civil war just as the mutinous battleship Potemkin anchored offshore. The third was a mass strike of oil workers in Baku, now the capital of Azerbaijan, which erupted into such fierce fighting that the installations of two oilfields were destroyed by fire.18 What stood out in all three cases was the ability of the state to organise and concentrate its forces in large but relatively isolated centres of unrest. Such forces consisted not only of troops and armed police but also of ‘Black Hundreds’—the popular name for monarchist, racist organisations patronised by high officials including Tsar Nicholas II himself.19 In terms of the big picture, these three conflicts were setbacks rather than decisive defeats. Even so, the level of strikes fell by about 75 percent between July and September.

Once again tsarism had raised the stakes of the struggle. Once again the workers did not react at once. But by mid-September price increases were swallowing up the pay rises won earlier in the year. The typesetters at Sytin’s printing works in Moscow went on strike. One of their demands was pay for punctuation marks. ‘This small event’, Trotsky wrote, ‘set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike—the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism’.20 The Sytin stoppage set off a rash of strikes both in Moscow and elsewhere, including St Petersburg. But towards the end of the first week in October, everything seemed to be dying down. However, by then the ferment had spread to the railways.

Moscow was the railway hub of the empire. Once the workshops there began to come out, tsarism began to seize up. It was no longer simply a question of piecemeal demands about wages and conditions. This was a trial of strength. A conference of railway employees, which was meeting in St Petersburg to discuss pensions, demanded the eight-hour day, civil liberties, an amnesty for political prisoners and a constituent assembly. Now the die was cast. It was a political as well as an economic issue. It was a struggle to force the state to give some of its power to the people. The railways carried the strike throughout the empire. In every city a general strike spread out from the railhead. The economic life of the empire ground to a halt. The professional and educated classes joined the workers; schools and universities shut down. The strike went round the country and then knocked at the gates of St Petersburg.21 On 17 October the tsar, in a state of acute demoralisation, issued a Constitutional Manifesto announcing the introduction of civil rights. Trotsky concluded: ‘The sacred crown of the tsar’s absolutism bears forever the trace of the proletarian’s boot’.22

There are signs that the gap between the rank and file militants of the 1905 Revolution and the moderates during the spring and summer may have been growing. One of the Potemkin mutineers was quite disillusioned when he realised that ‘the formidable Potemkin was not moved by a uniform revolutionary spirit as in my elation I had been ready to think yesterday, but by a highly complex collective psychology.’ He divided the crew into three parts: one section ‘was ready for any amount of self-sacrifice, another section thought only about how to escape with its life, while some were ready to come out in opposition to the [politically] conscious section at the first opportunity’. The strain was particularly intense on the brink of the October general strike. The strike was led by better-paid workers who had a history of winning important disputes—print workers, metal workers, bakery workers, and so on. The St Petersburg print workers not only went on strike but immediately set about turning the strike into an uprising by organising armed detachments and calling on other workers to do likewise. At the same time, the majority of the textile plants in the city were still at work.23

The October strike was a vindication of Leninist politics. In August the tsar had issued a plan for a toothless parliament known as the Bulygin Duma. Voting was to have been highly restricted and workers were completely excluded. Nevertheless, the bourgeois liberals generally agreed to take part. The Bolsheviks denounced them for betraying the revolution and called for an ‘active boycott’, which meant using the elections to intensify agitation and preparation for an armed uprising. The Mensheviks wobbled around between the Bolsheviks and the liberals. In St Petersburg an important group of left Mensheviks influenced by Trotsky adopted the same line as the Bolsheviks. In the event, the Bulygin Duma was swept away by the October strike.24 This was an ‘active boycott’ on an undreamt-of scale. It was not that the Bolsheviks—or any other organised political force—actually initiated the strike. That was not the point. The important thing was that the Bolshevik position corresponded to the actual state of the mass movement. It was an essential starting point.

This does not mean that all the Bolsheviks, including Bolshevik workers, now understood how to relate to workers who were changing through open struggle. There was a period of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk strike, for example, when the Bolsheviks seem to have either not raised any politics at all in the mass meetings or to have thrown out abstract political slogans like ‘Down with the autocracy!’ and brought the house down—against them.25 It was a learning process, and the Bolsheviks were far from being alone in it. In June 1905 the Society for Active Struggle Against the Revolution, headed by a well-known Black Hundred personality called Dezobri, called a widely-advertised public meeting in the St Petersburg city hall to discuss workers’ issues. Despite a unanimous boycott by all the left wing parties, over 1,000 workers turned up. But the moment Dezobri opened the meeting the workers forced an election for an independent chairman, expelled Dezobri and his associates, and spent the rest of the meeting quite legally discussing the struggle against the autocracy.26

The struggle for power

The October strike was a generalised, class-wide, direct industrial action for political change. It marked the second great step forward in the workers’ mass consciousness. It also brought into being a united front against tsarism between the mass of the workers and the militants who, like the St Petersburg print workers, wanted to turn the strike into an armed uprising. In St Petersburg this united front acquired an organisational form in the Soviet (Council) of Workers’ Deputies, a leadership elected from and recallable by mass workplace meetings which was later copied all over Russia. Trotsky, who led it, described it as ‘a workers’ government in embryo’: ‘The soviet represented power insofar as power was assured by the working class districts; it struggled for power insofar as power still remained in the hands of the military-political monarchy’.27 Tsarism retreated in the face of the general strike in order to prepare the advance of a general counterrevolution. This set the context of the soviet’s activity.

The Soviet was set up as the result of an initiative by the left Mensheviks, ie by the political tendency in St Petersburg which was at that time closest in spirit to Lenin’s ideas. In this sense, it was the culmination of a series of joint political activities stemming from the revolutionary mass movement and encouraged by Lenin himself.28 The soviet was also the highest form of organised grassroots leadership such as the committees which led the mass strike in Ivanovo-Voznesensk and the mutiny on the Potemkin. This was democracy as ordinary people actually experienced it. It was understandable that they should identify it with parliamentary government, which Russia had yet to experience. But in its rank and file working class roots and its tendency to intrude on and dictate to the established power, it was strikingly socialist.

The soviet led four mass struggles. The first was the October strike. The second was resistance to the pogroms—police-inspired massacres, mainly of Jews—which began as soon as the October strike ended. The third was the struggle for the eight-hour day. The fourth was the November strike against repression and martial law.29

Three of these four struggles were not initiated by the soviet. But it generalised them. Railway engineers, print workers and metal workers brought the October strike to St Petersburg. The soviet transformed it into a general strike, sending out pickets with ‘a complete range of methods, from verbal appeals to forcible coercion, to involve non-strikers in the strike’.30 As soon as the October strike ended, the pogroms began. At least 3,500 to 4,000 people were killed.31 As soon as the Black Hundreds tried to whip up a pogrom in St Petersburg, many metallurgical plants voted to suppress it, began turning out steel side arms and displayed them at a session of the soviet. ‘That demonstration alone’, Trotsky wrote, ‘was bound to paralyse all initiative among the rank and file pogromists’.32 The struggle for the eight-hour working day, the key economic demand of the workers in 1905, was initiated by a number of plants which voted overwhelmingly to stop work after eight hours. Their deputies then brought the issue to the soviet, which called on other workers to follow their example. In other words, the militant workplaces led by example and appealed to the soviet to generalise the struggle. This gave consciousness and organisation to what had previously been much more of a chance, haphazard relationship.

Only in the case of the November strike did the more militant workers wait for the soviet before taking action. This was because the issue came up a couple of days into the eight-hour struggle and demanded a complete change of front. The government had declared martial law in Russian-ruled Poland and in several areas of Ukraine and Russia affected by peasant unrest. It was also preparing to impose death sentences in field court-martials on several hundred sailors after a mutiny in Kronstadt, the island fortress which commanded the approach to St Petersburg from the sea. Strike resolutions from workplace mass meetings poured into the soviet, which voted to call a strike after a heated discussion.

Apart from the struggle for the eight-hour day, none of these mass mobilisations by the soviet was about a purely working class issue. The soviet was a class organisation which united all workers, irrespective of industry or belief.33 But it also took the lead of the entire struggle against tsarism. This fact brought significant numbers of non-workers to the soviet’s side. The most dramatic example was the November strike, which was supported by professional and educated people such as pharmacists, dental students and high school students. The strike won the transfer of the Kronstadt sailors to a normal military court on a reduced charge and the lifting of martial law. As a result, the soviet began to exercise what a colonel in the guards called ‘a regrettable moral influence on our soldiers’.34 Deputations of soldiers and sailors began to appear at the soviet. On the third day of the strike the representative of a local peasant union addressed the soviet in warmly fraternal terms at the request of his members.35

However, a united front like the soviet is always a two-way street. The majority of the soviet deputies kept the October strike going for as long as they could after the Constitutional Manifesto. ‘We knew that everything, every word written in it was a lie’, recalled Dmitry Sverchkov, one of the Soviet’s leading figures.36 But most of the strikers thought otherwise, for the rest of the country began returning to work and St Petersburg was not immune to the trend. The jubilant crowds were in no mood for Trotsky’s grim warnings:

I shouted to them not to trust an incomplete victory, that the enemy was stubborn, that there were traps ahead; I tore the Tsar’s manifesto to pieces and scattered them to the winds. But such political warnings only scratch the surface of the mass consciousness. The masses need the schooling of big events.37

Many employers had initially supported political struggle by the workers, from which they stood to benefit in terms of parliamentary representation. But faced with the eight-hour struggle and the November strike on the one hand and a gathering counterrevolution on the other, they leapt into the government camp with a massive lockout. The state plants were the first to close, followed by 72 metal and textile plants. More than 100,000 workers were thrown out of work, a huge proportion of the city’s workforce.38 Taken on top of the loss of earnings through strikes throughout the year in key plants like the Putilov, this was a crushing blow. The soviet reluctantly called off the November strike without having achieved its full aims (the complete abandonment of martial law and all court-martials). Five days later it abandoned the eight-hour day struggle as well.

The soviet struggled on for another three weeks, but it had been fatally weakened. According to Trotsky, this was as much to do with illusions among the militants themselves as with difficult circumstances or backsliding among the moderates. He recalled how they had armed against the pogrom ‘more in good humour than seriously’, and how most of them ‘did not seem to realise that it was a life-or-death struggle’. When the soviet was arrested on 3 December, the deputies smashed their revolvers to prevent them falling into the hands of the encircling troops. ‘In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal,’ Trotsky wrote, ‘one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realised that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy’.39 Tsarism had raised the stakes for the third time. The St Petersburg workers had tried to mount a successful response on their own and now they were off the battlefield. Defeat and demoralisation resurrected the Black Hundreds. A revolutionary militant in the Putilov suffered multiple stab wounds at their hands and it became dangerous for others to be in the plant without protection.40

This does not mean to say that the struggle was not spreading. It was, but there were two major problems, both of which had to do with the time factor. One was the lag between action and organisation. A Polish socialist told the soviet that the Polish workers had no sooner ended their own exhausting three-week strike against martial law than when they had found out that the November strike had begun:

If we had only known a few hours earlier that you were standing by your Polish brothers, we would have strained every nerve and continued the strike. But we didn’t know and it was so unpleasant that at the time when you went on strike, our cities were going back to work one after another. We must definitely avoid that in the future.41

The second problem was to do with the lag between the more militant workers and those who were just coming into the struggle. It was no accident that Trotsky remembered the defiant woman weaver from the Maxwell textile factory who spoke up in the crucial session of the soviet for continuing the eight-hour struggle against the opposition of Putilov metal workers, who were for throwing in the towel. St Petersburg was dominated by the metallurgical industry. At its height, 351 of the soviet’s 562 deputies were from the metal industry, as against 57 from textiles.42 In Moscow, where textile workers formed the majority of the workforce,43 the level of struggle had been much lower than in St Petersburg, certainly until the beginning of the October strike. The 1905 strike rate in St Petersburg was more than three times higher than in Moscow. Yet it was in Moscow that the main uprising against tsarism took place.

In the following year there was a higher level of strikes among textile workers than among metal workers. To use a military analogy, the reserves were still coming into battle after the front line had begun to fall back. Here was the dynamic power of the revolution, constantly inspiring fresh forces into battle, but also a fatal weakness, in terms of the lack of coordination between the two groupings. Nevertheless, it shows that there was a basis in the mass movement for the Moscow uprising which went far beyond the Bolsheviks, who played the leading role in it. It is also important to keep in mind that there was no Chinese Wall between the workers and other classes of the population. The rising militancy of the textile workers was related to the insurgent movements in the peasantry and in the armed forces.44

In contrast to the left Mensheviks, the Bolshevik leadership in St Petersburg was distinctly unenthusiastic about the soviet. It even submitted an ultimatum: either the soviet had to accept the social democratic programme or the Bolsheviks would walk out. This ultra-left ‘ultimatism’ was to remain a serious problem in the Bolshevik Party until 1909, when Lenin succeeded in getting the leader of the tendency expelled.45 Even so, there are signs that the party was much less doctrinaire and much more a part of the mass movement in the city than it had been at the beginning of 1905. First of all, when the soviet’s executive committee stopped the discussion on the ultimatum, the Bolshevik workers stayed where they were. Secondly, of the three key leaders of the soviet, Trotsky had already left the Mensheviks and attended the Bolshevik meeting which decided on the ultimatum (which he opposed), Pyotr Zlydniev, a leading worker at the Obukhov plant, was a left Menshevik, and Dmitry Sverchkov was either a left Menshevik or a Bolshevik who was against the ultimatist line. According to Sverchkov, Bogdan Knuniyants, the Bolshevik Party representative, also ‘played a big role in the soviet’ despite his initial suspicion of it. Thirdly, as soon as Lenin got back to the city in the second week of November, he came down hard on the Bolshevik leaders. From then on, according to the Bolshevik Gorev, who was an eyewitness, they ‘no longer thought about ultimatums but only about how to win an influential role in the soviet’.46

The Bolsheviks made a lot of mistakes in the Moscow uprising, most of which we know about primarily because of their own self-criticisms. They were too slow, too hesitant and too cautious. One of the crucial failures was the lack of a swift and decisive response to a mutiny in the Moscow garrison:

There is no shadow of a doubt that the uprising would have had a chance of success if it had begun a week earlier and had coincided with the growing movement in the Moscow garrison. Nor is there any shadow of a doubt that a victorious uprising in Moscow would have been the signal for an uprising in the Central Industrial Region, above all in Petersburg…47

In the absence of such a revival of the movement in St Petersburg, the railway line between the two cities continued to function. This released sufficient forces from the massive garrison in St Petersburg to overwhelm the Moscow uprising.

Such mistakes do not negate the value and importance of this crucial attempt to bring the revolution to its conclusion by overthrowing the tsarist regime. First of all, it very nearly succeeded. At the outset the Moscow Soviet controlled practically the entire city. The governor-general’s ‘authority extended only to the centre of the city where he sat tight with his “reliable” troops—about 1,500 cavalry and infantry in all, according to his own estimate’.48 Secondly, it was a vital attempt to turn the political tide. Following the St Petersburg employers, the liberals turned against the whole idea of revolution, especially once their representation in the new Duma was guaranteed. The Mensheviks followed the liberals, leaving the left Mensheviks increasingly isolated. If the workers’ unreliable liberal allies were retiring to a safe distance, other, more humble, forces were coming closer, as we have seen. It took an initiative from the Bolsheviks, flawed though it was, to release the creative energy of the masses. But it was this creative energy which Lenin identified as the most important feature of the uprising:

In the December days, the Moscow proletariat taught us magnificent lessons in ideologically ‘winning over’ the troops, as, for example, on 8 December in Strastnaya Square, when the crowd surrounded the Cossacks, mingled and fraternised with them, and persuaded them to turn back. Or on 10 December, in Presnya District, when two working girls, carrying a red flag in a crowd of 10,000 people, rushed out to meet the Cossacks crying: ‘Kill us! We will not surrender the flag alive!’ And the Cossacks were disconcerted and galloped away, amidst the shouts from the crowd: ‘Hurrah for the Cossacks!’ These examples of courage and heroism should be impressed forever on the mind of the proletariat.49

Of all the achievements of the uprising, this was one that Lenin picked out as the most important:

From a strike and demonstrations to isolated barricades. From isolated barricades to the mass erection of barricades and street fighting against the troops. Over the heads of the organisations, the mass proletarian struggle developed from a strike to an uprising. This is the greatest historic gain the Russian Revolution achieved in December 1905; and like all preceding gains it was purchased at the price of enormous sacrifices.50

These words may sound strange coming from Lenin, who is usually portrayed as the father of totalitarianism. But it was in 1905 that Lenin and the Bolsheviks really discovered the mass workers’ movement. This was the hidden heart of Bolshevism. The Bolshevik Party never represented the working class as a whole, as the soviets did. It tried to be the party of the most militant workers, uniting them politically, coordinating their activity and enabling them to relate to other workers as a clearly defined group, not as disparate individuals. When sectarianism and organisational inertia inside the party got in the way of its relationship with the mass movement, then the pressure of the mass movement was used by Lenin and others to break through. It was never a perfect party but it was, to borrow a term from psychology, a ‘good enough’ party. It was activist, it gave a lead, it made mistakes and it took responsibility for them. It learned and changed. Such changes could not be made without internal conflict—but it was conflict which ultimately related to the mass movement, not just to isolated groups of inward-turned revolutionaries.

In the years after 1905, it often seemed that only the ruins of the revolution were left. The counterrevolution engendered bitterness and recrimination. ‘Thank you,’ a Moscow woman worker told Lenin’s sister Anna, ‘thank you, you Petersburgers, for your support. You sent us the Semyonov regiment’.51 Right wing socialists like Mensheviks became the political expression of such negativity. The Menshevik Larin put it on record that ‘the Mensheviks made a mistake in October-December by behaving like Bolsheviks’.52 Defeat revived all their old prejudices against fighting for power and reinforced their faith in the mission of the bourgeoisie. They saw the December uprisings as a product of despair, and their defeat as a foregone conclusion from the start. The verdict that ‘it was wrong to take up arms’ summed up their lack of spirit.

Not just an anniversary

There are many obvious differences between 1905 and 2005. But there is one connection. We are also living in a time of mass movements which originate outside the dead zone of official politics. The Russian Revolution of 1905 was the first such movement: the first time ordinary people were involved in stopping a war; the first general strike in history; the first workers’ councils or soviets, rivalling the power of the established authorities. In short, it was the first modern revolution. It was not a blueprint. When the Bolsheviks successfully applied the lessons of 1905 in the revolution of 1917, they did not simply repeat the same experience with a few corrections. The 1905 Revolution did not give them all the answers. But it taught them about the logic of mass movements and about how they could relate to it. 1905 can help to do the same for us.


1: Most of the material on which this article is based appears in English for the first time in ‘The Russian Revolution of 1905: Change through Struggle’, Revolutionary History, vol 9, no 1, which was in production at the time of writing. As pagination had not yet been finalised; references here are to particular chapters. See also M Thomas, ‘The Birth of Our Politics: Marxists and the 1905 Revolution’, International Socialism 105 (Winter 2005), pp63-97.

2: Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, vol 1 (London, 1967), p16.

3: Quoted in P Glatter and P Ruff, ‘The Decisive Days’, Revolutionary History, as above.

4: For these and many other strike statistics of the revolution see M Haynes, ‘Patterns of Conflict in the 1905 Revolution’, Revolutionary History, as above. Lenin believed the revolution could not be understood without them.

5: D Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism: A Social and Historical Study of Russian Social-Democracy 1898-1907 (London, 1975), pp12-13.

6: For examples of this, see A Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford, 1988), pp2, 151, 219; O Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 (London, 1997), p211 (Figes does concede on the following page that the Bolshevism which had matured during 1905 had a natural constituency in the rising workers’ movement after 1912). For a discussion of similar issues in the context of the 1917 revolutions, see J E Marot, ‘Class Conflict, Political Competition and Social Transformation: Critical Perspectives on the Social History of the Russian Revolution’, Revolutionary Russia, vol 7, no 2 (December 1994), pp111-163; M Haynes, ‘Was There a Parliamentary Alternative in Russia in 1917?’, International Socialism 76 (Autumn 1997); M Haynes, ‘Social History and the Russian Revolution’, in J Rees (ed), Essays on Historical Materialism (London, 1998), pp57-80.

7: For the background to Bloody Sunday and its impact, see P Glatter, ‘The Road to Bloody Sunday’ and ‘A Revolution Takes Shape’, Revolutionary History, as above.

8: A Ascher, as above, pp87-90.

9: R Luxemburg, The Mass Strike (London, 2005), p34. For the way Luxemburg’s ideas evolved during 1905 in her own words, see M Thomas, ‘Rosa Luxemburg and the 1905 Revolution’, Revolutionary History, as above.

10: This figure is mentioned by Dmitry Sverchkov, one of the leaders of the St Petersburg Soviet. See ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

11: For the transformation of the Putilov works and Bogdanova’s story, see ‘A Revolution Takes Shape’, as above.

12: One such worker got rapturous applause for a speech in which he advocated political struggle against tsarism as well as economic struggle against the employers. He was careful to give all the credit for these ideas to Father Gapon, for this was at a time when anyone who mentioned that they were a social democrat was instantly prevented from speaking. D Sverchkov, Na zare revoliutsii [At the Dawn of the Revolution] (Leningrad, 1925), pp89-90.

13: ‘A Revolution Takes Shape’, as above. Standard accounts of the Shidlovsky Commission tend not to mention the relationship between the Bolshevik position and the metal workers’ attitude. See for example, A Ascher, as above, p121.

14: For more detail on the split and its evolution than can be given here, see, for example, D Hallas, Trotsky’s Marxism (London, 1979); Trotsky, 1905 (Harm-ondsworth, 1973); T Cliff, Lenin, vol 1 (London, 1975); D Lane, as above; M Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London, 1980); I Birchall, A Rebel’s Guide to Lenin (London, 2005). Both the Bolshevik and the Menshevik perspectives were wrong and Trotsky’s perspective, based on his theory of permanent revolution (which he derived from the experience of 1905), was right, as the Bolsheviks accepted in 1917. However, the formal correctness of theoretical perspectives is not all there is to it, as I go on to argue. For a discussion of the impact the 1905 revolution had on Marxist theory, see M Thomas, ‘The Birth of Our Politics’, as above.

15: V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 8 (London, 1962), pp172-173. For examples of Lenin’s argument that significant numbers of workers were accepting the need for an armed uprising at this time, see the same volume, pp108, 113, 141, 154-155, 162-166.

16: For the story of the Obukhov strike and a brilliant analysis of the movement which led to loody Sunday by Bolshevik historian Nevsky, see P Glatter, ‘The Road to Bloody Sunday’, as above.

17: For some examples of the conflict between Lenin and other Bolsheviks at this time, see V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 8, as above, pp146-147, 196, 211-220, 407-408, 411.

18: For further details on these struggles, see ‘A Revolution Takes Shape’, as above.

19: See, for example, H E Salisbury, Black Night, White Snow: Russia’s Revolutions 1905-1917 (London, 1977), p171.

20: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p102.

21: This summary is chiefly derived from M N Pokrovsky, Brief History of Russia, vol II (London, 1933), pp159-163, and from Trotsky, 1905, as above, pp100-120.

22: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p136.

23: As above, pp124-125.

24: In the electoral law of December 1905 for a slightly more democratic Duma, the vote of a landowner equalled the votes of 15 peasants and 45 workers (A Ascher, as above, p302). Once the revolutionary wave was receding and Duma politics were no longer a diversion from preparations for an armed uprising, Lenin supported participation.

25: See ‘The Revolution Takes Shape’, as above.

26: See ‘The Revolution Takes Shape’, as above.

27: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p266.

28: As early as February 1905—V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 8, as above, pp158-166. See also V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 10 (London, 1972), pp251-252.

29: For the story of the St Petersburg Soviet, see ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

30: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p125.

31: For the struggle against the pogroms, see ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

32: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p155.

33: It also excluded ‘all bourgeois-liberal organisations and non-proletarian unions’—D Sverchkov in ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

34: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p189.

35: ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

36: Quoted in ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

37: L Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York, 1970), p179.

38: Possibly more than half of the industrial workforce and higher than one in four of the working class population—L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p268; D Lane, as above, p63.

39: L Trotsky, My Life, as above, pp179-180.

40: ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

41: From an extract in ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

42: L Trotsky, 1905, as above, p265.

43: D Lane, as above, p95.

44: See the discussion on Table 1 in M Haynes, ‘Patterns of Conflict in the 1905 Revolution’, as above.

45: T Cliff, Lenin, vol 1 (London, 1975), pp285-287.

46: All these points are discussed in ‘The Decisive Days’, as above. So are the weaknesses of an important Menshevik account of this episode, S M Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Move-ment and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (London, 1967).

47: M N Pokrovsky in ‘The Decisive Days’, as above.

48: As above.

49 V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 11 (London, 1962), p175. The same incident is described in slightly different terms in L L Trotsky, 1905, as above, pp252-253.

50: V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 11, as above, p172.

51: Quoted in H E Salisbury, as above, p173.

52: V I Lenin, Collected Works, vol 10, as above, p369.