Part Two: The First Russian Revolution
9 January, 1905
Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, sire, to seek justice and protection. We are in great poverty, we are oppressed and weighed down with labours beyond our strength; we are insulted, we are not recognised as human beings, we are treated like slaves who must bear their lot in silence. And we have suffered it, but we are being driven ever deeper into beggary, lawlessness, and ignorance. Despotism and arbitrary rule are strangling us, and we are suffocating. Sire, our strength is at an end! The limit of our patience has been reached: the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment.
With these words, the working class of Russia made its first decisive entrance upon the stage of history, appealing to the clemency of the Tsar, the ‘Little Father’, with a petition in its hands and a priest at its head. Eleven months later, the same working class rose against the autocracy, arms in hand, under the leadership of a Marxist party. In the intervening months, 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.
Yet 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 for many months. The activists inside Russia were confused and disoriented. Having lost control of the Party centre abroad, the Bolsheviks were deprived of an organ, until the first issue of Vperyod came out in December 1904. An acute shortage of funds meant that even Vperyod led a precarious existence. The Mensheviks had more resources, but were thinner on the ground in the interior, with the exception of certain areas such as the South and the Caucasus, but there too, they were in a relatively weak position. Given the nature of underground work, it is very difficult to estimate the exact strength of the Bolsheviks at this time. The St. Petersburg Party organisation did not formally split until December 1904, when the Mensheviks broke away. Up to that time, Lenin’s supporters had been in the ascendant. But the internal struggle had a damaging effect on the Party’s work, turning it inwards. 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. (See D. Lane, The Roots of Communism, p. 71.)
In general, the Bolshevik organisation in Russia in the second half of 1904 was in a poor condition. Many of the full-timers, as we have seen, did not really understand the split and were badly shaken by the defection of the conciliationist Central Committee. Despite encouragement and insistence from Lenin, they tended to lag behind the Mensheviks, who were now on the offensive, sending large numbers of agents and money into Russia. In St. Petersburg, they soon gained the upper hand over the Bolshevik-dominated committee. The mistakes and general inertia of the committee caused increasing discontent among the St. Petersburg workers, who were gradually turning to the Mensheviks. The Narva committee passed a resolution expressing its “disinclination to continue working under the leadership of the St. Petersburg committee”. The Vasiliev Ostrov committee passed a vote of “complete lack of confidence” in the Bolshevik-led committee. The Narva, Neva, Vasiliev Ostrov, and ‘Petersburg Side’ sections, representing the bulk of the workers, broke away and declared for the Mensheviks. By December, they had set up a separate committee. Two rival committees continued to exist in St. Petersburg right up to the Stockholm Congress of 1906.
The loss of a number of key areas of St. Petersburg was a body blow to Lenin. It deprived the Bolsheviks of key points of influence and allowed the Mensheviks to get a head start in the stormy events of the following months. To make matters worse, it was clear that the losses were mainly the result of the deficiencies of the local Bolshevik leadership, the quality of which was shown by the stream of complaining letters sent to Lenin. He must have torn his hair out when he read the tearful reports of his principal agent in St. Petersburg, Rosalia Zemlyachka:
No end of Mensheviks have flocked into Russia. The Central Committee has managed to turn many people against us. There are not enough forces to carry on the fight and consolidate positions. Demands for people are coming in from all over. It is imperative to make a tour of the committees immediately. There is no one who can go. I am neglecting the Bureau and am absorbed in local work. Things couldn’t be worse. We need people. Everybody is asking. There is no one to work with…
And the catalogue of complaints continues:
We are running the risk of losing one city after another for the lack of people. Every day, I get heaps of letters from various places, imploring [us] to send people. Just now I got a confused letter from Yekaterinoslav. They write that unless we send people and money at once, we shall lose Yekaterinoslav. But there are no people: one after another are retiring and no new ones arrive. Meanwhile the Mensheviks have consolidated their positions everywhere. They would be easy as can be to drive out if only we had people. The Bureau is a fiction since we’re all busy with local affairs.
And these lines were written on 7 January, 1905, two days before Bloody Sunday. The constant complaints about a ‘lack of people’ showed up the ingrained lack of confidence of the committeemen and women in the workers. Instead of bringing new blood onto the committees, co-opting the best elements of the workers and the youth, they sought easy solutions, demanding more full-timers from abroad. In every line of these letters, one sees a complete inability to relate the work of the leading circle with the living forces of the working-class movement. Commenting on the situation, Litvinov wrote to Lenin:
The trouble is that she [Zemlyachka] does not in the least realise in what a critical and sorry state we are. The periphery, if not everywhere against us, is hardly anywhere for us. The bulk of the party workers still think that we are a bunch of disorganisers without any kind of backing, that since the reconciliation [of the Central Committee and the Mensheviks] the attitude of the committee has changed, that all our efforts are but the death throes of the Bolsheviks. No conferences (least of all secret ones), no agitation will change this widespread view. I repeat, our situation is utterly shaky and precarious. We can get out of it only by 1) immediately calling a congress (not later than February) and 2) immediately starting a paper. Without the speediest fulfilment of these two conditions, we are going to certain ruin, and with giant steps, too… Petersburg we shall probably have to lose. Swarms of Mensheviks have arrived there… We ought to mobilise our forces for Petersburg, but who do we get there?
The Bolsheviks were in a mess, but in fact the position of the Mensheviks was not much better. Neither of the two factions had the support of the workers.
The Social Democratic organisation in St. Petersburg prior to January 1905, by almost any criteria, was weak. In December 1903, the joint Social Democratic organisation had about 18 circles in the factories, and membership of circles was from seven to ten, which would give a total worker membership of not more than 180. If the students and intelligentsia had about the same, as seems likely, total membership would have been 360. During the winter of 1904 the Committee’s membership and activities declined, and the links with abroad were weak or non-existent… The same correspondent says that the Mensheviks too were losing support: in one region where they had 15 to 20 circles, by December 1904 they had only four or five.
In his memoirs, the leading Menshevik P.A. Garvi describes the position in Kiev on the eve of 1905:
A strange dearth of people in the organisation. A remoteness from the working masses and their daily interests. A meagre organisational life in comparison with the recent past – that is what struck me in Kiev, suggesting melancholy comparisons with the past, with the ebullient life of the Odessa organisation of the 1901 and 1902 period. There was the Kiev committee; there were sector committees; in the sections, there were propagandists conducting propaganda circles, usually leaflets were distributed through the circles, that was about all.
Getting ahead of myself I will say that during all of 1905 in Kiev, in Rostov and in Moscow daily we came up against one and the same phenomenon: in the party organisations were gathered mostly callow youths, hotheaded and resolute but weakly linked to the working masses and uninfluential in the factories. The old social democrats among the workers – the real vanguard of the advanced workers formed in the period of propaganda and of the so-called Economism – these old workers, for the most part, stood aside. In Kiev, Rostov, and Moscow and right up to the October strike I – and not only I – had to resort to more or less artificial methods to draw the ‘oldsters’ into active party work. We arranged special meetings and evening parties with them, we reasoned with them, but they went into party work reluctantly and looked upon our organisation and our working methods with mistrust. (Quoted in S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905 the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 54, pp. 54-55, p. 55, p. 72 and p. 57.)
The weakness of the Party coincided with a new upswing in the workers’ movement, which was therefore obliged to express itself through other channels. In 1900–2, the head of the Moscow Okhrana (secret police), S.V. Zubatov, hit on the idea of setting up legal unions, under the control of the police, which were allowed to function, and even elect committees, subject to police vetting, and carry out activities, provided they were of a strictly economic, non-political character. Zubatov not only established legal trade unions, under the control of the police (a tactic ironically christened ‘police socialism’ by the revolutionaries), but also went to great lengths to recruit revolutionaries as agents. He would visit them in prison, showing a fatherly interest in their welfare, brought them tea and biscuits and even Marxist literature to read. Interrogations were organised, not in prison but in the study of his home, where he tried to persuade them that the best way to defend the workers’ interest was to participate in his ‘movement’. By combining harshness with such methods, some of the weaker or more naïve elements were eventually ensnared and became informants upon their release. Once entangled, it became virtually impossible to escape. Known provocateurs were not treated very gently by the revolutionaries.
Zubatov was far more intelligent than the average tsarist police chief and his methods were quite successful for a time – too successful, in fact! In a climate of general labour unrest and in the absence of genuine mass legal organisations the workers entered the police unions in large numbers. In order to keep in the workers’ good books, over-zealous police officers even organised strikes. These unions contained thousands of workers – far more than the relatively small numbers active in the Social Democratic committees. With their customary resourcefulness, the workers turned the table on the police, and used the opportunity to press home their demands and organise legally in the workplaces. Zubatov’s unions gave the workers a chance to organise and express their grievances. The question arose of what attitude the Social Democrats should take towards these reactionary police unions. Many years later, when the Russian workers had already taken power, Lenin gave the answer in his masterpiece on revolutionary strategy and tactics, “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder:
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 working men’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.
Lenin did not confine his remarks to the particular conditions of tsarist Russia, but laid down a general rule which governs the approach of Marxists to the mass organisations of the proletariat. In order to build a real revolutionary party, it is not sufficient to proclaim it from the street corner. It is necessary to find a road to the masses, regardless of all obstacles. It is necessary to go to the masses wherever they are:
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. (LCW, vol. 31, p. 55 and p. 53, emphasis in original.)
This was always the hallmark of Lenin’s method: absolute implacability on questions of theory and principle combined with extreme flexibility on tactical and organisational issues. The authorities attempted to construct a wall between the Marxists and the masses. The Social Democratic workers, by patient and careful work and flexible tactics, succeeded in breaking down the barriers, penetrating the unions, and fertilising them with the ideas of Marxism. Under the irresistible pressure of the shop floor, the Zubatov unions became partially transformed into organs of struggle. After the strike wave of 1903, the unfortunate Zubatov was unceremoniously sacked. Even then this movement continued to play a role. Typical of these Zubatov unions was the St. Petersburg ‘Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers’, set up by Father Grigory Gapon with police permission.
Many Social Democrats failed to grasp the necessity of participating in Gapon’s organisation in order to reach the masses. They were repelled by its reactionary features. Not for the first or last time, revolutionaries failed to understand the way in which the real movement of the working class unfolds. Setting out from an abstractly correct idea (‘The workers need a revolutionary party’) they failed to take into account the real organisation of the workers that had evolved out of concrete circumstances and which bore no resemblance to their preconceived ideas of what a workers’ organisation ought to look like. Was this union not organised by the police in order to control the working class? How could Marxists participate in such an abomination? Yet the attempts of the tiny Social Democratic circles to win the masses directly by means of propaganda and agitation alone proved futile. The organised workers were mainly skilled and experienced proletarians, mostly members of Gapon’s union, who looked askance at the beardless youngsters who were trying to teach them lessons. Their propaganda seemed to rebound like water off a duck’s back. 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. (Quoted in S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905 the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 56.)
Those active in the circles were generally the more skilled and literate among the workers, good at their work and with a strong sense of pride in it, not just in politics but in the workplace as well. It was a hard milieu to penetrate. “In those days,” wrote the Putilov worker A.M. Buiko, “it was felt that if a worker did not master his trade, did not become a good craftsman, then he was not a proper fellow. This point of view had its roots in the days of kustashchina, the propaganda circles, when old craftsmen regarded unskilled workers as a casual element in their midst… if a young man began a conversation with an older skilled fitter or turner he would be told: ‘Learn first how to hold a hammer and use chisel and a knife, and then you can begin to argue like a man who has something to teach others’.” (Quoted in G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution, p. 73.)
Gapon’s ‘union’, set up in April 1904, was in reality a friendly society which organised insurance schemes, libraries and social activities, such as musical evenings which the workers attended with their families. It was intended as a safety valve where workers, to some extent, could give voice to their grievances, but where all mention of politics was rigorously prohibited. Its declared aims, among other things, were to affirm ‘national consciousness’ among the workers, encourage ‘sensible views’ about their rights, and foster ‘activity facilitating the legal improvements of the workers conditions of work and living’. Since the Assembly’s leaders did everything in their power to exclude revolutionaries, it is not surprising that the revolutionary workers and intellectuals looked upon the new organisation with extreme suspicion and hostility.
However, the efforts of the police and their union stooges to clamp the workers’ movement into a straitjacket of legal constraints was 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. The big battalions of the working class seemed to have stood aside from the struggle. But, despite the appearance of calm, the factories and workers’ districts were seething with discontent. All that was required was some focal point which would enable this subterranean process to find a voice and a conscious, organised expression. After the assassination of Plehve, the hated interior minister, in July 1904, the regime, hopelessly compromised by military defeats and feeling the ground tremble beneath its feet, tried to forestall revolution from below by making concessions from the top. The relative softening of the regime in the autumn 1904 gave the workers more room to breathe. From September 1904, a series of mass meetings were held in the Petersburg factories, under the auspices of Gapon’s Assembly, which became increasingly popular with the workers. Fresh layers of workers, with no experience of struggle, were becoming organised. Gapon’s organisation now had up to 8,000 members and branches in at least 11 districts of the city. This was a far larger number of workers than had ever participated in the Social Democratic organisations, which numbered at most 500 or 600 members.
The workers who joined Gapon’s union were not like the old, conscious Social Democratic workers, but completely raw, politically untutored masses, who brought with them all the prejudices imbibed for a thousand years from a backward peasant milieu. Insofar as injustice existed, the Russian peasant reasoned, this was the fault of the ‘Tsar’s servants’, not the monarch who was the ‘people’s protector’. It was no accident that the union was headed by a priest. The Marxists had no real influence inside the Assembly, although there was a significant layer of workers who had passed through the Social Democratic organisations in the previous decade, had dropped out, and now resurfaced in this new milieu. It is important to bear this in mind when one reads the usual allegation that the 1905 Revolution was a ‘spontaneous movement’. Of course, the element of spontaneity was present. But equally, the events leading up to 9 January were, in fact, planned in advance by the leading group of Gapon’s organisation, acting under the pressure of the workers, many of whom had been touched by the propaganda of Marxism in the big strikes of the 1890s.
The figure of Gapon himself is shrouded in an enigma. The prevailing opinion in Marxist circles at the time was that he was a simple police agent, who in all probability had deliberately planned the massacre of 9 January 1905 with the authorities. The notorious Stalinist Short Course states baldly that:
[I]n 1904, prior to the Putilov strike, the police had used the services of an agent provocateur, a priest by the name of Gapon… Gapon undertook to assist the tsarist Okhrana [secret police] by providing a pretext for firing on the workers and drowning the working class movement in blood. (J.V. Stalin, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [Bolsheviks], p. 94)
Gapon was undoubtedly mixed up with the police when the union was set up, and even had contacts with leading members of the government. But his was a very contradictory character. On 9 January, when he narrowly escaped death at the hands of the tsarist troops, he marched side by side with the Social Revolutionary Pinhas Rutenberg. Later he was sheltered by Maxim Gorky, held discussions with Lenin in Geneva and came close to the Bolsheviks. Lenin was convinced of his childlike sincerity. But Gapon’s understanding of the revolution remained on a primitive level. Exile destroyed him, as it destroyed many others. He became demoralised, took to gambling and finally returned to Russia where, it seems, he attempted to resume his contacts with the police, writing a letter to the Minister of the Interior, Durnovo. Finally, in March 1906, he was assassinated. Ironically, by the same SR who had marched at his side on that fateful Sunday in January.
The idea that Gapon consciously led the workers to be slaughtered is clearly false. Gapon’s contradictory character reflected the mentality of the new generation of workers newly arrived from the villages and only half assimilated into the proletariat, bringing with them many prejudices and even reactionary ideas. An able organiser, a fine orator, and a natural leader, he spoke a language which the workers could understand. With its curious mixture of militancy and religion, class struggle and monarchism, it corresponded to the first, confused gropings towards consciousness of millions of the most downtrodden layers of society. The son of a peasant himself, who was touched in his youth by revolutionary ideas, Gapon 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 hopes in the afterlife and belief in the Little Father. No one expressed the feelings of the masses better than Gapon. For that reason, the masses worshipped him.
In the tense days of early January 1905, he had the aura of a leader and a prophet: ‘…for each of his words men were willing to give their lives; his priest’s cassock and crucifix were the magnet that drew these hundreds of thousands of tormented people,’ wrote one observer. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, p. 87.)
Whatever Gapon’s motivations, he was stirring up forces neither he nor anyone else could control. While the revolutionaries branded him an agent provocateur, the authorities cursed him as a dangerous agent of the revolution. Irrespective of his subjective intentions, the latter description was far nearer the truth. But Gapon was ill-equipped to deal with the forces he had helped to conjure up. All along he gives the impression of being carried along by events beyond his control or understanding. On the eve of the massacre, this ‘leader of men’ gave voice to his perplexity: “What would come of it? Good heavens, I don’t know. Something big, but what exactly, I can’t say. Who can make head or tail of all this?” (Quoted in J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, p. 43.)
The accumulated rage and bitterness of the factory workers finally exploded in a strike at the Putilov arms works – a strategic centre of the St. Petersburg proletariat – in December. Starting in September 1904, there had been mass workers’ meetings in the factories under the auspices of the union, which gave the workers a chance to express their grievances and begin to acquire an idea of their own strength. The employers became alarmed and decided to crack down. The spark which ignited the powder keg was the dismissal of four activists of Gapon’s union. On 28 December, a mass meeting of workers from 11 factories was convened by Gapon’s organisation. The increasingly radicalised mood of the workers was slowly pushing even the Gaponite leaders to more militant positions. An indication of the sea change was the fact that representatives of the Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries were invited to attend. At this meeting it was decided to send a delegation with a petition to the management, the factory inspectors, and the authorities in St. Petersburg, setting forth the workers’ grievances. By 3 January, all 13,000 workers were on strike. The only people still inside the plant were two police agents. The strikers demanded an eight-hour day, a ban on overtime working, improved working conditions, free medical aid, higher wages for women workers, permission to organise a representative committee and payment of wages for the period of the strike.
The Putilov Strike
The idea of a petition was probably conceived by Gapon as a way of diverting the movement into safe channels. Possibly Gapon really believed he could act as a mediator between the Little Father and his ‘children’. But once put forward, in a situation of ferment among the masses, even this apparently innocuous idea had a logic of its own. The idea of an appeal to the Tsar and a petition of demands immediately caught the imagination of the masses. Mass meetings were held all over the capital. Gapon dashed from one meeting to another, delivering increasingly radical speeches under the impact of the mood of the masses, who revered him. An eyewitness account gives a vivid impression of the electric atmosphere at these meetings, with their quasi-evangelical character, Gapon calling upon the Almighty to lead the workers in struggle, urging the workers to stand together and, if necessary, die together:
All those present were in a state of rapture – many were weeping, stamping their feet, banging chairs, beating with their fists against the walls and raising their hands on high, they swore to remain firm to the end.
The movement was rapidly turning into a general strike. By 5 January, 26,000 workers were out; by 7 January, 105,000; and the next day, 111,000. It was also acquiring a political character. A mass meeting on 5 January voted for the immediate convening of a Constituent Assembly, political liberty, an end to the war, and the freeing of political prisoners. In all probability, the initiative for these resolutions came from workers who had been influenced by the Social Democrats. Over a long period of Social Democratic agitation, propaganda, and organisation, a considerable number of advanced workers had been in contact, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Social Democratic propaganda circles. A far larger number had been affected by the mass agitation carried out systematically by the Social Democrats for at least ten years prior to 9 January. That the basic slogans of the Marxists had left their mark on the consciousness of the working class was demonstrated by the fact that a number of key Social Democratic demands found their way into Gapon’s famous petition – from the eight-hour day to the demand for a Constituent Assembly.
But although Social Democratic slogans were getting an echo, the Party itself was still completely isolated and without influence. Martov, in his history of the Russian Social Democracy, written only a few years later, confirms that:
…[T]he Social Democracy of both factions could not but notice that the stormy events in Petersburg in January 1905 took place not only outside the immediate leadership of the Social Democracy, but even without a significant participation by it as an organised whole. (Ibid., vol. 2, p. 45 in both quotes.)
This is confirmed from the Bolshevik side by the minutes of the Third Congress which state that:
[T]he January events found the Petersburg committee in an extremely deplorable state. Its links with the working masses had been utterly disorganised by the Mensheviks. Only with great difficulty did they manage to maintain themselves in the city, Vasily Island and the Vyborg district. (Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 544.)
As always, the watchword of the movement of the masses is ‘unity’. They saw the Social Democrats as alien elements coming from without, and not part of their movement. At one mass meeting, Gapon chided a Social Democratic speaker with the words: “Do not introduce discord: let us march towards our sacred goal under a single peaceful banner, common to one and all.” Gapon’s authority appeared to be unassailable. By contrast, the revolutionary Social Democrats were regarded with suspicion by the workers. The report of the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks to the Third Congress in April admits that they had been very slow to intervene in what they saw as a reactionary police union, only beginning to pay it serious attention when the strike was well underway. In some parts of the city, notably the Vyborg district, they got a sympathetic hearing. But elsewhere in the city, they were given a rough ride. Often the chairman would not even allow them to speak.
“Up to the 9 January,” the Petersburg delegate reported, “the attitude of the workers towards the [Bolshevik] committee was extremely hostile. Our agitators were beaten up, leaflets were destroyed, and the first 500 roubles sent to the Putilov workers by the students were accepted grudgingly.” (Ibid., p. 158 and p. 44.) A Menshevik writer bears this out:
In the Narva district, where the movement had originated, as late as the 8 January, the workers enthusiastically welcomed the political content of Gapon’s petition. When a lone Social Democrat attempted to deliver a political speech, a howl went up from the assembled workers: “Down with him!” “Throw him out!” (Quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, p. 157.)
The numerical weakness and isolation of the Social Democracy at the beginning of the revolution was revealed in the words of Livshits, giving voice to the frustration of the Party activists in Petersburg at their inability to exercise a decisive influence before 9 January:
We Party workers knew very well that the forthcoming peaceful procession would not lead to anything worthwhile and would involve the masses in terrible bloodshed. But where was the force that could have forestalled this terrible misdeed, for which tsarism and clericalism was responsible? Such a force did not exist. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Vekha, vol. 3, p. 540.)
Yet in 24 hours the whole situation was transformed.
The petition aroused tremendous enthusiasm when it was read out in mass workers’ assemblies where it was everywhere approved with acclamation. With breathtaking naïveté, Gapon wrote to the Minister of the Interior on the eve of Bloody Sunday, requesting legal permission for a peaceful demonstration in front of the Winter Palace:
The Tsar has nothing to fear. I, as the representative of the Assembly of Russian Workers, my colleagues, and the worker comrades – and even the so-called revolutionary groups of different trends – guarantee the inviolability of his person. Let him come forth like a true Tsar, with courage in his heart, to meet his People and take unto his hands our petition. The Priest Gapon and Eleven Workers’ Deputies, St. Petersburg, 8 January. (Ibid., vol. 2, p. 45.)
In an attempt to underline their peaceful intentions, the organisers banned the display of red flags. The Social Democrats, despite their grave misgivings about the demonstration, decided, correctly, to participate alongside the rest of their class. This the organisers agreed to only on condition that they marched at the rear of the demonstration, a measure which, in the event, saved the lives of many of them.
While the leaders of the union were straining every nerve to convince the government of their peaceful intentions, the latter, in a state of near panic, was preparing to teach the masses a bloody lesson. At two o’clock in the afternoon of Sunday, 9 January, the workers began to assemble before the Winter Palace. The square was soon packed with a huge multitude not only of workers but students, socialist groups, women, children, and old people – in all about 140,000 people.
As agreed, the march to the palace was a peaceful one, without songs, banners or speeches. People wore their Sunday clothes. In some parts of the city they carried icons and church banners. Everywhere the petitioners encountered troops. They begged to be allowed to pass. They wept, they tried to go around the barrier, they tried to break through it. The soldiers fired all day long, the dead were counted in by the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night. (L. Trotsky, 1905, p. 92.)
At least 4,600 people were killed and wounded that day.
The massacre of 9 January reveals ‘Nicholas the Bloody’, as he justly became known, not only as a cruel and contemptible man, but also as an exceedingly stupid monarch.
The shots fired on the 9 January, 1905, woke echoes all over Russia. Everywhere the masses were stirred out of their complacency: the old belief in the goodness of the ‘little father’ the Tsar was dead. Even the most backward workers understood that much. (E. Broido, Memoirs of a Revolutionary, p. 116.)
After the massacre, Gapon recoiled in horror, denouncing the Tsar and appealing for an armed uprising. At an emotional meeting held on the night of Bloody Sunday, Gapon announced to the assembled workers: “We no longer have a Tsar”. Crowds of workers roamed the streets, angry and desperate but without leadership. And suddenly, the same revolutionaries who had been rejected, shouted down and even beaten up became the focal point of intense interest. The Petersburg delegate at the Third Congress related how on the evening of the 9th the Bolshevik agitators took to the streets looking for groups of workers to address, but found that things had already gone beyond that stage. The workers had learned in a matter of hours more than decades of agitation and propaganda could ever teach them.
We were passed by carriages carrying away the dead, behind which ran crowds of people shouting “Down with the Tsar!” You only had to throw arms at a crowd like this and they would have gone anywhere you wanted. On Vasily Island a scrap iron shop was broken into and the crowd armed themselves with old swords. This created a pathetic impression. Everywhere you could hear the cry: “Arms! Arms!” By evening the attitude towards the organisation underwent a radical transformation. Our agitators were listened to with enthusiasm. The organisers could go wherever they pleased. On each of the successive days the same mood could be observed. (Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 545.)
Marx once wrote that the revolution at times needs the whip of counter-revolution to drive it forward. Despite the hypnotic effect exercised by Gapon on the workers at the time, he was merely an accidental figure thrown up by the movement of the masses, like a fleck of foam on the crest of a mighty wave, which flashes brightly for a moment before vanishing forever. His very success consisted in the fact that he was the personification of the first inchoate, spontaneous, instinctive movement of the working class, the first stirrings of consciousness of the masses. Inevitably, such a movement tends to seek out the line of least resistance, the well-worn paths, familiar sounding phrases, and famous leaders. It took the massacre of Bloody Sunday to knock out of the heads of the masses the century-old illusions in the Tsar. In a revolutionary situation, the workers’ consciousness grows by leaps and bounds. Indeed, sudden and sharp shifts in the mood of the masses constitutes the essential element of a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary period. By the end of the year, the revolutionary Social Democracy had definitely established itself as the hegemonic force within the working class, striving to place itself at the head of the revolutionary nation.
From exile in Switzerland, Lenin immediately hailed the January events as the beginning of the revolution in Russia:
The working class has received a momentous lesson in civil war: the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. The slogan of the heroic St. Petersburg proletariat, ‘Death or Freedom!’ is reverberating throughout Russia. (LCW, The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia, vol. 8, p. 97.)
As we have seen, prior to 9 January the workers were not willing to read Social Democratic leaflets, and often tore them up and even beat the leafletters. But now the consciousness of the masses was transformed. One Social Democrat described the situation:
Now tens of thousands of revolutionary pamphlets were swallowed up without remainder; nine-tenths were not only read but read until they fell apart. The newspaper which was recently considered by the broad masses, and particularly by the peasantry, as a landlord’s affair, and when it came accidentally into their hands was used in the best of cases to roll cigarettes in, was now carefully, even lovingly, straightened and smoothed out, given to the literate, and the crowd, holding its breath, listened to ‘what they are writing about the war’… Not only did the soldiers moving along all the lines of the railway network almost fight for a newspaper or other printed sheet thrown from the window of a passing train, but the peasants of the villages near the railways from then on, and also for some years after the war, continued to ask passengers for ‘a little newspaper’. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, part 1, pp. 36-7.)
Only two days before Bloody Sunday, the ex-Marxist liberal, Struve, wrote in his journal Osvobozhdenie: “There is not yet such a thing as a revolutionary people in Russia,” to which Trotsky replied scathingly, speaking of the liberals:
They did not believe in the revolutionary role of the proletariat; instead, they believed in the force of the zemtsy’s petition [a reference to the campaign of banquets and petitions launched the previous autumn by the liberals organised around the Zemstvos], in Witte, in Svyatopolk Mirsky, in jars of dynamite. There was no political prejudice in which they did not believe. Our belief in the proletariat was the only thing they regarded as prejudice. (L. Trotsky, 1905, p. 95.)
The magnificent movement of the proletariat was the final answer to all the sceptics.
On 10 January, barricades appeared in St. Petersburg. By 17 January, 160,000 workers were on strike in 650 factories in the capital. The spontaneous mass movement in solidarity with the Petersburg workers swept across the whole country. The events of Bloody Sunday caused an immediate reaction on the part of the working class. In January alone more than 400,000 workers participated in strikes throughout Russia. From 14 to 20 January the Polish capital was in the grip of a revolutionary general strike involving factories, trams, coach drivers, and even doctors. The city, occupied by Russian troops, resembled an armed camp. On 16 January socialist groups called a demonstration in which 100,000 workers took part. Troops called in to disperse the crowd fired up to 60,000 rounds. In three days, according to official figures, there were 64 dead and 69 wounded of whom 29 died later. A state of siege was declared.
The Baltic area was also swept by the revolutionary current. Riga, Revel, and all the other cities were involved in mass revolutionary movements. The centre was Riga where on 13 January, 60,000 workers staged a political general strike and 15,000 workers staged a protest march. The Russian governor general, A.N. Neller-Zakomelsky, ordered the troops to fire on the crowd, killing 70 and injuring 200. In the teeth of ferocious repression, the strike movement continued to sweep like wildfire through Poland and the Baltic states. A similar situation existed in the Caucasus where a political general strike broke out. The movement cut across all national lines: Polish, Armenian, Georgian, Lithuanian, and Jewish workers expressed their solidarity with their Russian class brothers in the most practical way – by fighting against the hated Russian autocracy. Most seriously of all, from the government’s point of view, a railway strike began in Saratov, in Central Russia, on 12 January, which quickly spread to the other railway lines, extending the revolutionary wave outwards to the most backward provinces.
The movement of the workers had an electrifying effect on all classes in society. The public retreat of the regime encouraged not only the workers, but also the middle class, the bourgeois liberals, and the students.
The workers’ action strengthened the position of the radical elements within the intelligentsia just as the zemtsy’s conference had earlier put a trump card in the hands of the opportunist elements. (Ibid., p. 96.)
This movement provoked panic in government circles. After Bloody Sunday, the ruling clique intended to move quickly towards reaction, as indicated by the dismissal of the liberal Sviatopolk-Mirskii in favour of the conservative bureaucrat Bulygin, and the granting of almost unlimited dictatorial powers to General Trepov. Now all its calculations were thrown into disarray. Under the pressure of the growing strike movement, on 18 February, The Tsar issued his first Manifesto in which he hinted at a constitution and popular representation. By its united action, the working class had achieved more in one week than all the years of speechifying and petitions and banquets by the liberal bourgeois.
The shock waves that flowed from 9 January pushed the whole movement to the left. The tide began to flow strongly in favour of revolutionary action, and the revolutionary Social Democracy. Bolshevik and Menshevik workers, yesterday shunned and mistrusted by their workmates, now came to the fore in every factory. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the role of these conscious worker agitators in the unfolding strike wave, despite its apparently spontaneous character. The activities of the revolutionaries were greatly assisted by General Trepov who obligingly exiled large numbers of ‘trouble makers’ from St. Petersburg to the provinces where they acted as a necessary leaven to the revolutionary movement.
After Bloody Sunday, this situation experienced a complete turn-about. The possibilities which now unfolded before the Russian Marxists were now immense. But the Party, still reeling from the effects of the split, was in very poor shape to take advantage of the opportunities. A cursory glance at Lenin’s correspondence at this time reveals the deficient state of the organisation, particularly with regard to contact between the Bolshevik activists inside Russia and the leading centre abroad:
A nice business: we talk of organisation, of centralism, while actually there is such disunity, such amateurism among even the closest comrades in the centre, that one feels like chucking it all in disgust. Just look at the Bundists: they do not prate about centralism, but every one of them writes to the centre weekly and contacts are thus actually maintained… Really, I sometimes think that nine-tenths of the Bolsheviks are actually formalists. Either we shall rally all who are out to fight into a really iron-strong organisation and with this small but strong party quash that sprawling monster, the new-Iskra [i.e., Mensheviks] motley elements, or we shall prove by our conduct that we deserve to go under for being contemptible formalists…
The Mensheviks have more money, more literature, more transportation facilities, more agents and more ‘names’, and a larger staff of contributors. It would be unpardonable childishness not to see that. (LCW, A Letter to Bogdanov and S.I. Gusev, 11 February, 1905, vol. 8, pp. 143-45.)
While some element of exaggeration may be put down to Lenin’s natural feelings of frustration and impatience, the accusation of formalism directed against a layer of the Bolshevik professionals inside Russia was not at all accidental. Starting out from a position of clear superiority among the Party activists in Russia, the Bolshevik committeemen, when unexpectedly confronted with the explosive movement of the masses failed to react with the necessary flexibility, and consequently made mistakes and frequently lost the initiative. In a situation where hundreds of thousands of workers and youth were entering the arena of politics, seeking the revolutionary road, the most pressing need was to open up the Party, and let in at least the best elements among the masses. But the committeemen, steeped in the habit of clandestine, small circle work, proved reluctant to move over and make way for the new, fresh layers. They found a hundred and one excuses for not opening up – the workers were not ready to join, the need to safeguard security, and so on and so forth. After all, they reasoned, wasn’t the basic difference between Lenin and Martov at the Second Congress the need to safeguard the purity of the revolutionary vanguard by not swamping it with too many raw and untutored elements? We must not dilute the membership!
Yet that very Lenin who argued in favour of restricting Party membership in 1903 now argued even more vehemently in favour of opening the doors and windows and letting in the largest possible number of workers and youth:
We need young forces. I am for shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say that there are no people to be had. The people in Russia are legion: all we have to do is to recruit young people more widely and boldly, more boldly and widely, and again more widely and again more boldly, without fearing them. This is a time of war. The youth – the students, and still more the young workers – will decide the issue of the whole struggle. Get rid of all the old habits of immobility, of respect for rank, and so on. Form hundreds of circles of Vperyod-ists [i.e., Bolsheviks] from among the youth and encourage them to work at full blast. Enlarge the Committee threefold by accepting young people into it, set up half a dozen or a dozen subcommittees, ‘co-opt’ any and every honest and energetic person. Allow every subcommittee to write and publish leaflets without any red tape (there is no harm if they do make a mistake: we on Vperyod will ‘gently’ correct them). We must, with desperate speed, unite all people with revolutionary initiative and set them to work. Do not fear their lack of training, do not tremble at their inexperience and lack of development… [because] events themselves will teach them in our spirit. Events are already teaching everyone precisely in the Vperyod spirit.
Only you must be sure to organise, organise, and organise hundreds of circles, completely pushing into the background the customary, well-meant committee (hierarchic) stupidities. This is a time of war. Either you create new, young, fresh, energetic battle organisations everywhere for revolutionary Social Democratic work of all varieties among all strata, or you will go under, wearing the aureole of ‘committee’ bureaucrats. (Ibid., p. 146.)
Reminding his colleagues that “the strength of a revolutionary organisation lies in the number of its connections”, Lenin wrote to Gusev on 15 February:
A professional revolutionary must build up dozens of new connections in each locality, put all the work into their hands while he is with them, teach them and bring them up to the mark not by lecturing them but by work. Then he should go to another place and after a month or two return to check up on the young people who have replaced him. I assure you that there is a sort of idiotic, philistine, Oblomov-like fear of the youth among us. I implore you: fight this fear with all your might. (LCW, To S.I. Gusev, 15 February, 1905, vol. 34, pp. 296-97.)
These lines strikingly reveal the whole essence of Lenin’s method, particularly on organisational questions. While stressing the need for a strong, centralised revolutionary organisation, Lenin’s attitude to organisational questions was always extremely flexible. After the Second Congress, the Mensheviks attempted to caricature Lenin as a hidebound bureaucrat, striving to create a party composed of an elite of intellectual professional revolutionaries which would exclude ordinary workers who would have to submit to the commands of an ‘all-powerful centre’. This caricature, which has been maliciously repeated and exaggerated by bourgeois historians, is the opposite of the truth, as the above passage – very typical of the period with which we are dealing – irrefutably demonstrates.
The Shidlovsky Commission
Conscious of the danger facing it from all sides, the regime acted with a mixture of ruthlessness and cunning. While attempting to crush the movement by new arrests, deportations, martial law and pogroms, the government simultaneously attempted to woo the liberal bourgeoisie with the Manifesto of 18 February and set in motion a manoeuvre designed to split and disorient the working class. Utilising the time-honoured trick of the ruling class in all countries when it feels its back to the wall, the tsarist government set up a commission headed by Senator Shidlovsky “to enquire into the causes of the discontent among the workers”. The aim of this stratagem was clearly an attempt to defuse the situation, diverting the workers away from revolutionary action and preventing them from moving in the direction of Marxism. In an unprecedented move, the government announced that the workers would be represented on the commission by means of elected delegates.
This manoeuvre presented the Marxists with a tactical problem. On the one hand, the reactionary aims of the government were quite clear. On the other hand, to refuse to participate would be to renounce a splendid opportunity to carry the ideas of revolutionary socialism to the mass of workers. For the Menshevik leaders, with their opportunistic leanings, there was no particular problem. They immediately advocated using the commission as a ‘tribune’ from which to address the workers of all Russia. Among the Bolsheviks in Petersburg, however, the prevailing mood was initially in favour of a boycott. Similar moods existed also among the Menshevik workers who were far to the left of the leaders in exile. At the Third Congress, Rumyantsev (‘Filipov’ in the minutes) stated that “there were no differences over the need to boycott the [Shidlovsky] commission”. (Trettiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 179.) However, the general mood of the workers was overwhelmingly in favour of participation, and the Bolsheviks soon modified their position in favour of participating, at least in the election of delegates, taking full advantage of the legal opportunities for agitation among a wider layer of workers than would normally be possible.
The strike movement continued and intensified. The demands put forward by the workers ranged from the demand for hot water for tea and wash-up facilities, to the demand for the eight-hour day and a constituent assembly. The last-named demands showed the influence of Social Democratic ideas. Still more significant was the demand for the right to elect deputies and that the workers’ elected representatives should enjoy immunity. This already anticipated the formation of the Soviets in the coming months. If the authorities thought that the setting up of a commission would halt the mass movement, they were in for a rude awakening. “The rank-and-file workers,” writes Surh, “were more intransigent and less willing to postpone strikes and entrust demands to the deliberations of the commission than were their deputies.”
Through the collective struggle the workers began to realise their strength as a class and their worth and dignity as human beings. A common demand, which reflected the awakening consciousness of the workers, was the demand for politer treatment of workers by managers and foremen: “Unconditionally polite treatment by the plant management,” went the Putilov demands, “of all workers without exception, and the abolition of the use of ‘ty’ with workers [‘ty’ is the familiar form of ‘you’ and was reserved in public discourse for children and social inferiors like serfs and domestics].” Workers at the Baltic Shipyards stated that:
[F]oremen, sub-foremen, and the whole management in general must without fail treat workers like people and not like an object… and not use unpleasant and unnecessary words, as is now done. (G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution, p. 209 and p. 181.)
Demands for the removal of unpopular foremen were frequently backed up by direct action. Workers would seize the offender, put him in a sack, and cast him out of the factory. By 18 March, the factory inspectorate had recorded more than 20 cases of such ‘sackings’ in St. Petersburg. After two sackings at the Putilov Works, the foremen apparently learned good manners and became extremely polite to the workers. The newly found mood of confidence of an awakened working class was fertile ground for revolutionary agitation. Taking advantage of the legal opportunities presented by Shidlovsky, Bolshevik and Menshevik agitators flooded the workplaces with their leaflets, and spoke at many mass meetings. The tactic of both factions was to participate in the elections, to use them as a platform to reach a large number of workers, but to refuse to participate in the commission itself until certain demands were met.
The correctness of the decision to participate in the campaign around the Shidlovsky commission was shown by subsequent events. On 17 February, 400 candidates stood in the elections, of whom 20 per cent were Social Democrats, 40 per cent ‘radicalised workers’ and the remainder ‘Economist’ workers and others. But despite being in a minority, the Bolshevik delegates managed to set the tone of the meeting. The arrest of a number of delegates created a mood of angry militancy in which the Bolsheviks succeeded in delivering what amounted to an ultimatum to Senator Shidlovsky, demanding freedom of speech and assembly, the right of delegates to conduct their activities without let or hindrance, the right to meet and discuss freely with their electorate, and the freeing of their arrested comrades. But when, on the following day, the votes were due to be taken, the government decided that things were getting out of hand and refused to accept the workers’ demands, whereupon the boycott campaign now went ahead in earnest. Having been through the experience of the commission, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the class, it was now relatively easy to expose the fraudulent nature of the entire manoeuvre, while simultaneously agitating for the eight-hour working day, a state insurance policy, democratic elections, and an end to the war. Three days later the authorities hastened to put an end to the one and only attempt to solve the labour problem by legal means. The workers, meanwhile, had learned a great deal from the experience which set an important precedent for the election of workers’ deputies which played a role in the establishment of the Petersburg Soviet later on.
Lenin understood clearly that all the manifestos, commissions, and promises of reform were only a smokescreen to deceive the masses, behind which the reaction was playing for time and preparing its revenge. Time was therefore of the essence. In an uninterrupted stream of articles, he poured scorn on the liberals with their illusions in peaceful constitutional reform, and flayed the Mensheviks for their illusions in the liberals. One of the facets of Lenin’s political genius was his ability to separate the essential from the inessential and grasp the essence of a problem. He quickly realised that it was now a question of ‘either… or’. The time for playing games was past. Either the working class, under a conscious revolutionary leadership, would succeed in gathering together all the oppressed masses under its leadership, above all the poor peasants and the oppressed nationalities, and smash the power of tsarism by an armed uprising, or, inevitably, the forces of black reaction would destroy the revolution, exacting a bloody revenge on the working class. There was no middle way. Everything, therefore, hinged on the Marxists’ ability to win over a decisive majority of the working class and as quickly as possible make the necessary political, organisational, and material preparation for a national armed uprising. This idea was at the kernel of all Lenin’s pronouncements throughout 1905 and partly explains the urgent and at times uncharacteristically sharp tone of his correspondence with the interior. There was no time to lose.
People can change. In a revolution, they can change very swiftly. Early in February, Gapon himself, having been pushed temporarily to the left by his experiences, issued an Open Letter to the Socialist Parties of All Russia, which included an appeal for an armed uprising:
I call upon all the socialist parties of Russia to enter immediately into an agreement among themselves and to proceed to the armed uprising against tsarism. All the forces of every party should be mobilised. All should have a single plan of action… The immediate aim is the overthrow of the autocracy, a provisional revolutionary government which will at once amnesty all fighters for political and religious liberties, at once arm the people, and at once convoke a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal and direct suffrage by secret ballot. (Quoted in F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 305.)
Gapon’s appeal was given a warm welcome by Lenin, who, in his article A Militant Agreement for the Uprising, stressed the need for a united front of all revolutionary forces to prepare the uprising, on the basis of the old slogan ‘march separately and strike together’. However, here, and in all his other articles, Lenin is emphatic on the absolute necessity of maintaining the complete political independence of the working class and its party:
We see in the independent, uncompromisingly Marxist party of the revolutionary proletariat the sole pledge of socialism’s victory and the sole road to victory that is most free from vacillation. We shall never, therefore, not even at the most revolutionary moments, forego the complete independence of the Social Democratic Party or the complete intransigence of our ideology.
Under the pressure of the mass movement, the Mensheviks, particularly the ones on the ground in Russia, began to move left. Not only the Bolshevik Vperyod, but also the Menshevik Iskra published articles and diagrams on street fighting. However, the opportunist tendencies which were already apparent before 9 January were revealed in the exaggerated role attributed by the Mensheviks to the liberal bourgeoisie and in Martov’s insistence upon political, rather than technical preparation of the masses for armed uprising, of which Lenin tersely commented: “The separation of the ‘technical’ side of the revolution from the political side of the revolution is the greatest twaddle.” (LCW, A Militant Agreement for the Uprising, vol. 8, p. 159 and p. 163.)
The question of arming the workers, which Lenin persistently raised, flowed from the needs of the moment. While making conciliatory noises, the government was systematically preparing the forces of reaction. Shaken by the show of solidarity between the workers of different nationalities, the authorities set about trying to break this unity by organising bloody pogroms. As early as February, the agents of the regime incited the Tartars in Baku to launch a murderous assault on the Armenians in that city. Throughout the year 1905, all over Russia, mobs were bribed with money and vodka by the police to beat up and murder Jews, socialists, and students. In organising workers’ defence, the different party organisations cooperated in action. For practical purposes, agreements were arrived at involving Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, the socialists from other nationalities, and even petty bourgeois organisations like the nationalist Polish Socialist Party, and the SRs.
In theory, there would have been nothing wrong, under these conditions, with arriving at practical, episodic agreements even with the bourgeois liberals, for example, for joint defence against the pogromists, while maintaining complete organisational and political independence. But in reality, such agreements with the liberals were virtually non-existent. The latter were striving, not for an armed insurrection, but for a deal with tsarism, leaning for a time on the mass movement in order to frighten the regime into granting a constitution. Lenin’s articles in this period were full of the sharpest attacks on the liberals, warning against their treachery and combating the Mensheviks’ attempts to blur the dividing line between the working class and the bourgeois liberals and foment illusions in the latter.
Lenin and the ‘Committeemen’
Some people have attempted to find the ‘original sin’ of Stalinism in Lenin’s method of democratic centralism. Actually, the organisational methods of Bolshevism, impregnated through and through with the spirit of democracy, have nothing in common with that monstrous bureaucratic caricature. A measure of centralism is necessary in any serious organisation, whether a railway or a revolutionary party. Every political party, every stable organisation, necessarily has a conservative side. The need to provide the material means to pass from the realms of theory to that of practice demands the creation of an apparatus. The living principle of an apparatus is routine: the thousand and one organisational tasks of collecting money, organising distribution and sales of literature and so on, require a meticulous attention to detail. Without this, the construction of the party would be unthinkable. From the outset, a number of people must be dedicated to these tasks. As the party grows, their numbers increase. Unless special measures are undertaken to constantly raise the theoretical level of these comrades and enlarge their horizons, a certain organisational narrowness tends to creep in, which can play a harmful role under certain circumstances. Unconsciously or semi-consciously, the impression can be created of the primacy of organisation, whereas ideas, principles, and theory are regarded as of secondary importance. The opinions, initiative, and criticism of the workers, the rank and file, are regarded as an unnecessary encumbrance, at variance with the principle of centralism, or control from above.
That there were elements of this in the Bolshevik Party (as in any other party) is undeniable. But the attempts by unscrupulous bourgeois historians to link this with the abominations of Stalinism and to blame Lenin’s ‘pitiless centralism’ is a monstrous distortion. Unfortunately, a layer of Bolshevik organisers inside Russia, the so-called committeemen, on occasion acted like the very caricature invented by the Mensheviks. They interpreted Lenin’s organisational ideas as fixed and immutable formulas, to be applied mechanically, irrespective of the needs of the moment. Even the most correct idea, when carried beyond a certain limit, becomes transformed into its opposite. By making a fetish of organisational forms, and overlooking the dialectical method of applying these ideas in a rapidly changing situation, despite their undoubted capacity for self-sacrifice and hard work, the committeemen frequently played a negative role in the development of the Party, until corrected by the intervention of Lenin. Looking back on this period at the end of his life, Trotsky summed up Lenin’s position in the following way:
Lenin understood better than anyone else the need for a centralised organisation: but he saw in it, above all, a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced working men. The idea of making a fetish of the political machine was not only alien but repugnant to his nature… The habits peculiar to a political machine were already forming in the underground. The young revolutionary bureaucrat was already emerging as a type. The conditions of conspiracy, true enough, offered rather meagre scope for such of the formalities of democracy as electiveness, accountability and control. Yes, undoubtedly the committeemen narrowed these limitations considerably more than necessity demanded and were far more intransigent and severe with the revolutionary working-men than with themselves, preferring to domineer even on occasions that called imperatively for lending an authentic ear to the voice of the masses. (L. Trotsky, Stalin, p. 62 and p. 61.)
A tendency towards routinism and conservatism can be seen in any apparatus, as any trade unionist knows from bitter experience. These elements, as we have said, were also present in the Bolshevik Party, but were far less important in the Bolshevik Party than in any other political party in history – and certainly less than in those Social Democratic parties and reformist trade unions which are entirely dominated by the worst sort of bureaucratic machines and parliamentary cliques, who have long ago sold their soul to the possessing classes. Politicians like Tony Blair or Felipe Gonzalez, who throw up their hands in feigned horror at the ‘Leninist’ theory of democratic centralism, run their parties on the basis of the purest bureaucratic, centralist, and dictatorial lines. This centralism reflects, on the one hand, the interests, salaries, and privileges of the apparatus, on the other the pressure of big business which wishes to make the labour movement subject to its discipline. That these people should point an accusing finger at Lenin is hypocrisy of a highly advanced type.
Trotsky answers the cynical attacks on Lenin and Bolshevism:
In this connection, it is rather tempting to draw the inference that future Stalinism was already rooted in Bolshevik centralism or, more sweepingly, in the underground hierarchy of professional revolutionists. But upon analysis that inference crumbles to dust, disclosing an astounding paucity of historical content. Of course, there are dangers of one kind or another in the very process of stringently picking and choosing persons of advanced views and welding them into a tightly centralised organisation. But the roots of such dangers will never be found in the so-called ‘principle’ of centralism: rather they should be sought in the lack of homogeneity and the backwardness of the workers – that is, in the general social conditions which make imperative that centripetal leadership of the class by its vanguard. The key to the dynamic of leadership is in the actual interrelationship between the political machine and its party, between the vanguard and its class, between centralism and democracy. Those interrelationships cannot, of their very nature, be established a priori and remain immutable. They are dependent on concrete historical conditions, their mobile balance is regulated by the vital struggle of tendencies, which, as represented by their extreme wings, oscillate between despotism of the political machine and the impotence of phrase-mongering. (Ibid., pp. 61-2.)
In common with many other bourgeois authors, Solomon Schwarz distorts Lenin’s ideas on organisation beyond recognition. He tries to paint Lenin as a defender of the bureaucratic intelligentsia against the workers, by quoting from the minutes of the Third Congress, when the quotes he uses prove precisely the opposite. The same author is compelled to admit that similar problems existed in the Menshevik organisation. This is clear from the discussions on reorganisation that took place at their All Russian Conference of Party Workers in Geneva in April/May 1905, and in the letters of prominent Mensheviks. In a well known pamphlet entitled Workers and Intelligentsia in our Organisations, signed ‘A Worker’ and published in 1904 with a foreword by Axelrod, the author says: “It is better not to harbour undue illusions about the Martovite intelligentsia either.”
In March 1905, Gusev, secretary of the Petersburg committee and of the Bureau of Majority Committees, wrote to the centre abroad the following:
A circular on organisational questions is needed, particularly on the issue of drawing workers into the committees. It is necessary to stress the importance of the conditions in which this can be done. The criteria for bringing in workers should not be how well read they are, but how revolutionary, how devoted, energetic, and influential. Nowadays there are many such [people], and mainly among unorganised workers, most of them very young and lacking the qualities of political leaders, although they are well read in social democratic literature. Further, I have already written to you about moving the base of our organisation, the secret work, to workers’ homes. Concretely, this means that a part of our best illegal forces must become outwardly proletarianised. (Quoted in S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905 the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 214 and p. 216, my emphasis.)
The essence of the problem facing the Party was: how to establish firm links between the relatively small forces of the revolutionary vanguard and the mass of the workers and youth who were moving into struggle? The revolution does not unfold in an orderly and pre-determined fashion, like an orchestra responding to the flourishes of a conductor’s baton. It is a living play of forces, an equation even more complex than war between nations. The events of Bloody Sunday and afterwards, to pursue the military analogy, represented a general mobilisation of the working class. But that class, only just recovering from its naïve illusions and striving to find the road to a complete overhaul of society, continually stumbling over the innumerable obstacles placed in its path, as yet lacked a general staff able to point the way forward to victory. Even the most courageous army never won a war without good generals. But the best of generals without an army do not count for much.
At this time, none of the main leaders of either the Bolsheviks or Mensheviks had yet returned to Russia. Martov only returned to Russia after 17 October; Lenin slightly later, on 4 November. The sole exception was Trotsky, who arrived in Kiev in February. There he established close contact with the key Bolshevik figure in Russia at that time, Leonid Krassin. Krassin was in charge of a large and well-equipped secret printing press somewhere in the Caucasus. But his role went far beyond that. A highly capable young engineer, Krassin was in many ways the prototype of a Bolshevik organiser. He proved to be an outstanding organiser and technician.
The party, like the revolution, was still young at that time, and one was struck by the inexperience and lack of finish revealed both by the members and their actions in general. Krassin likewise was not wholly free from this fault. But there was something firm, resolute, and ‘administrative’ about him. He was an engineer of some experience, he held a paying job and filled it well; he was valued by his employers, and had a circle of acquaintances that was much larger and more varied than that of any of the young revolutionaries of the day. In workers’ rooms, in engineers’ apartments, in the mansions of the liberal Moscow industrialists, in literary circles – everywhere, Krassin had connections. He managed them all with great skill and, consequently, practical possibilities that were quite closed to the others were opened to him. In 1905, in addition to participating in the general work of the party, Krassin had charge of the most dangerous fields of the work, such as armed units, the purchase of arms, the preparing of stocks of explosives, and the like. In spite of his broad outlook, he was primarily a man of immediate achievement, in politics as well as in life. That was his strength but it was also his heel of Achilles. (L. Trotsky, My Life, pp. 169-70.)
Lenin greatly appreciated people like Krassin who got on with the work quietly, efficiently, and without fuss. Krassin’s work went on in secret, but he played an invaluable role in building the Party in this stormy period. Politically, Krassin was a conciliator. But conciliationist moods were common among Party activists in Russia, and still more among the workers, as was clearly reflected in the report of the Petersburg delegation to the party congress:
In the recent period, the demand for an end to the split is becoming widespread. Worker-Bolsheviks and Mensheviks are holding joint meetings, either with or without the intellectuals, and everywhere the demand for unification is pushed to the fore. (Trettiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 549.)
One way or the other, the split in the party had to be resolved.
The obvious solution was the convening of a party congress. The Bolsheviks had been agitating for the convening of the Third Congress for months, but the Mensheviks, fearing they would be in a minority, continually stonewalled. Early in February, a police raid on the Moscow apartment of the writer Leonid Andreyev led to the arrest of all the members of the Central Committee (mainly Mensheviks and conciliators). Those still at liberty contacted the Bolshevik ‘Bureau of Majority Committees’ with the intention of reaching agreement to convene a congress.
Though formally this was the responsibility of the Party Council, a majority of the Party organisations inside Russia were clearly in favour. If two-thirds of the committees requested a congress, the Council was obliged by the rules to call one. By the beginning of April, the Bolsheviks were able to prove conclusively that a total of 21 organisations inside Russia, including the CC, were in favour of a congress.1 This represented 52 votes out of a total of 75 that would represent the whole party at a congress – many more than what would be required by the rules. An open letter to Plekhanov, as chairman of the Party Council, written by Lenin in the name of the CC, was published early in April. Yet the Council, openly flouting the rules and in contempt of democratic procedure, refused to call the congress. Given the irresponsible and illegal behaviour of the Council, the Bolsheviks had no alternative but to convene a congress themselves, in the name of the Central Committee and the majority of Party organisations in Russia. The Mensheviks, although invited to attend, stayed away and organised their own conference in Geneva. On 12 April, 1905, delegates assembled in London for over two weeks of intense discussions on the fundamental problems of the revolution.
The Third Congress
On 12 April, 1905, the first genuinely Bolshevik Party Congress opened its doors in London. On the agenda were the following questions: 1) the armed uprising; 2) the attitude to the government’s policy, including the slogan of the provisional revolutionary government; 3) the attitude to the peasant movement; 4) relations between workers and intellectuals within the party; 5) party rules; 6) the attitude to other parties (including the Mensheviks); 7) the attitude to the non-Russian Social Democratic organisations; 8) the attitude to the liberals; 9) practical agreements with the Social Revolutionaries, and organisational questions. Present at the Congress were 24 delegates with full voting rights representing 21 committees, as well as a number of other party groups, including the Vperyod editorial board and the Bolshevik Organisation Abroad, which had a consultative vote. Lenin was present, nominally as a delegate from Odessa.
The Congress took place in the white heat of revolutionary upswing. The Party was faced with a whole series of pressing political and tactical questions: the attitude to the government’s concessions (the Shidlovsky Commission), the slogan of a parliament (Zemsky Sobor), the constituent assembly, armed uprising and the provisional revolutionary government, legal and semi-legal work, the national and agrarian questions, and so on. But the question which dominated all others was the armed insurrection. Lenin was particularly emphatic about this:
The entire history of the past year proved that we underestimated the significance and inevitability of the uprising. Attention must be paid to the practical aspect of the matter. (LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, 12 (25) April-27 April (10 May), vol. 8, p. 370.)
Lunacharsky (Voinov) opened the debate. The revolution in Russia had already begun in the sense that the masses had decisively entered the arena of struggle. What was now needed, he argued, was to give an organised form to this semi-spontaneous movement. Otherwise, all the heroism and energies of the workers could be dissipated in disorganised and aimless local uprisings. In the previous period, when the objective conditions for revolution were absent, the Russian Marxists, Plekhanov, in the first instance, had laid heavy stress on attacking the voluntarist theories of the Narodniks, those ‘romantic revolutionaries’ who imagined that all that was needed was a decisive push by small terrorist groups to detonate the masses into action. For this subjective idealism, the problem of armed insurrection was something independent of time and space. For the Marxists, for whom the revolution must be the work of the workers themselves, it arises inevitably at a certain point in the development of the class struggle. Where the necessary objective conditions were absent, to put forward constantly the idea of insurrection and armed struggle is mere Blanquism.
This term, which was commonly used by the Russian Marxists to denote revolutionary adventurism, takes its name from the famous French revolutionary and utopian communist, Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805–81), who based himself on an ultra-left, conspiratorial conception of the revolution, as the work, not of the masses, but as a coup de main of a small revolutionary minority. Despite his undoubted sincerity and personal courage, Blanqui’s lack of theoretical understanding doomed him to play a negative role.
Blanqui is essentially a political revolutionary, a socialist only by sentiment, because of his sympathy for the sufferings of the people, but he has neither socialist theory nor definite practical proposals for social reforms. In his political activities he was essentially a ‘man of action’. (K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 381.)
The modern ultra-lefts have faithfully preserved all of Blanqui’s faults without possessing any of his virtues.
When the conditions were absent, the Russian Marxists concentrated on the slow work of developing Marxist cadres, emphasising theory and organisation, carefully husbanding resources and building links with the masses. But now, the entire situation had been transformed by the social earthquakes of war and revolution. After 9 January, Martov’s argument that you cannot ‘organise’ the revolution and his accusation of ‘Blanquism’ directed at the Bolsheviks smacked of sophistry. In reality, the Mensheviks’ attitude flowed from their entire conception of the revolution as a bourgeois-democratic revolution in which the working class must subordinate itself to the liberal bourgeoisie. The question of organising the workers for an armed uprising did not enter into their scheme of things, because they saw the workers’ role as merely backing up the liberals, and forcing the autocracy to retreat under the pressure of strikes and demonstrations directed towards placing the liberals in power. The Bolshevik position was radically different.
After the shock of Bloody Sunday, the consciousness of the masses was transformed. There was a wave of local strikes and demonstrations, often of a stormy character. One of the delegates recalled the electric mood in the factories:
After the January revolutionary week in Petersburg there was such a spate of anarchistic strikes that in many factories it was enough for only one of the workers to shout: “Down tools, lads!” for a strike to break out, and anyone who spoke out against it, received from the others the tag of “provocateur”.
The danger was that the energies of the workers would be dissipated in this way. What was required was to try to unify the movement so as to be able to concentrate ‘full strength at the point of attack’. The same delegate stressed the need to combat ultra-left adventurism and individual terrorism:
On the one hand, needless acts of petty terrorism, on the other, acts of senseless provocation, or clashes with the police and soldiers, when individual armed persons, by bringing their weapons into play, give the enemy reason and opportunity to fire upon and slaughter unarmed crowds. (Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 10 in both quotes.)
The delegates discussed in a businesslike manner all the technical details: the drawing up of strategic maps of towns, the training of competent officers, the raising of funds, but above all the need for every branch to possess detailed knowledge of local conditions and the mood of the workers. Side by side with the technical and organisational preparation, there was to be a stepping up of the ideological, agitational, and propaganda work, as an integral part of preparing for the overthrow of tsarism. Agitation was to be carried on, not only among the workers, but also among the intellectuals, students, youth, women, the non-Russian nationalities, and, as much as possible, among the peasants, beginning with the village poor. Special attention was devoted to work in the army, with the aim of winning over the soldiers to the side of the workers. The troops were to be leafleted, and a commission of experienced specialists was set up, under the control of the Central Committee, to work out a programme of transitional demands for soldiers.
Nevertheless, even at a time when the question of armed insurrection had been pushed to the fore by events, the fundamental task of the Party was still that of winning over the masses. Without that, all the talk about overthrowing tsarism would have been so much empty chatter. The congress, however, confirmed many of Lenin’s fears that the Bolshevik activists inside Russia had been slow to react to changing conditions. Accustomed to functioning over a long period in small, closed circles in the underground, the committeemen were ill at ease in the mass movement and used every excuse to avoid getting too closely involved with it. A formalistic conception of organisation, discipline, and centralism, together with certain ultra-left tendencies, served to cover up for an innate conservatism and cliquishness, inherited from the past. Lenin used the Congress as an arena to wage an implacable struggle against these tendencies.
On the question of participating in legal organisations such as trade unions, co-ops, insurance and benefit schemes, where the prevailing mood of the committeemen was for a boycott, Lenin warned that “the congress cannot lay down a hard and fast rule on this point. All methods should be used for agitation. The experience of the Shidlovsky Commission gives no ground whatever for a downright negative attitude”, and went on to shock the advocates of boycott by asserting that it would be correct, under certain circumstances, to participate even in a rigged tsarist parliament:
It is impossible to reply categorically whether it is advisable to participate in the Zemsky Sobor. Everything will depend on the political situation, on the electoral system, and on other specific factors which cannot be estimated in advance. Some say that the Zemsky Sobor is a fraud. That is true. But there are times when we must take part in elections to expose a fraud.
Lenin moved an addendum to the resolution on this question which stated:
As regards the actual and sham concessions which the weakened autocracy is now making to the democrats in general and to the working class in particular, the Social Democratic party of the working class should take advantage of them in order, on the one hand, to consolidate for the people every improvement in the economic conditions and every extension of liberties with a view to intensifying the struggle, and, on the other, steadily to expose before the proletariat the reactionary aims of the government, which is trying to disunite and corrupt the working class and draw its attention away from its urgent class needs at the moment of the revolution. (LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, 12 (25) April-27 April (10 May), 1905, vol. 8, p. 375 and p. 376.)
Lenin’s flexible and dialectical understanding of revolutionary tactics and strategy clashed with the unyielding dogmatism of the committeemen, whose universe revolved around the axis of their narrow local circle, which they jealously guarded, on the one hand against the leadership in exile, on the other hand against the demands of the workers for a greater say in the running of inner-Party affairs. The class composition of the congress itself left a lot to be desired, as one of the delegates, Leshchinsky (Zharkov) commented:
Looking around me, at the composition of the present congress, I am astonished that in it there are so few workers, and yet, that workers suitable to be sent to the congress, without any doubt, could have been found. (Trettiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 124.)
This is borne out by Krupskaya, who says in her memoirs:
There were no workers at the Third Congress – at least none of any mark…
There was no scarcity of committeemen though. Unless this makeup of the congress is borne in mind a great deal of what the congress records contain will not be properly understood.
In fact, the atmosphere at the congress became frequently heated, as Lenin tackled the prejudices of the practicos head on, while the latter did not conceal their resentment at the ‘interference’ of the exiles.
The committeeman was usually a rather self-assured person. He saw what a tremendous influence the work of the committee had on the masses, and as a rule he recognised no inner-Party democracy. ‘Inner-Party democracy only leads to trouble with the police. We are connected with the movement as it is,’ the committeemen would say. Inwardly they rather despised the Party workers abroad who, in their opinion, had nothing better to do than squabble among themselves – ‘they ought to be made to work under Russian conditions.’ The committeemen objected to the over-ruling influence of the centre abroad. At the same time they did not want innovations. They were neither desirous nor capable of adjusting themselves to the quickly changing conditions. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 125 and pp. 124-25.)
Bogdanov moved a resolution, drawn up by Lenin, ‘On the Relations Between Workers and Intellectuals Within the Social Democratic Organisation’, which, while recognising the difficulties under conditions of illegality, argued in favour of applying the principle of elections more broadly, to open up the Party to the workers, to make room for the new, fresh layers on the Party’s leading committees.
This resolution called forth a storm of protest on the part of the committeemen. Kamenev (Gradov) was first on his feet:
I must decisively speak against approving this resolution. This question of the relation between the intellectuals and workers in Party organisations does not exist. (Lenin: It does exist!) No, it does not: it exists as an issue for demagogy – and that’s all.
Others argued that there was no time or forces to train workers, basing themselves on the famous quote from What Is To Be Done? which incorrectly asserts that socialist consciousness must be brought to the workers from without. Thus, Romanov (Leskov) complained: “It seems to me that here we are overestimating the psychology of the workers (sic!), as if the workers by themselves could become conscious Social Democrats.” (Quoted in Tretiy s’yezd RSDRP (Protokoly), p. 255 and p. 256.) Yet now the very author of What Is To Be Done? answered his critics by appealing to the class instinct of the workers, and deliberately shocked his audience by referring approvingly of the participation of the workers in the Party organisation during the period of ‘Economism’. In the English Collected Works, this speech of Lenin’s has, for reasons best known to the Stalinist editors, been left out. I quote here from the Congress minutes in Russian:
It has been said here that the bearers of Social Democratic ideas are predominantly the intellectuals. That is not true. In the epoch of Economism, the bearers of revolutionary ideas were workers, not intellectuals… It is further asserted that at the head of the splitters are usually situated intellectuals. That observation is very important but does not settle the matter. I long ago advised in my written works that workers should be brought onto the committees in the greatest possible number. The period following the Second Congress was characterised by the insufficient implementation of this obligation – that is the impression I have got from my conversations with the ‘practical workers’… It is necessary to overcome the inertia of the committeemen (applause and booing)… the workers have a class instinct, and with just a little bit of political experience they very quickly become staunch social democrats. I would be very pleased if, in the make-up of our committees, out of every two intellectuals there were eight workers. (Ibid., p. 262, my emphasis.)
This is the final answer to those who still persist in repeating Lenin’s mistake in What Is To Be Done?, where he erroneously asserts that the proletariat, left to itself, can only develop a ‘trade union consciousness’. Lenin never repeated that statement, and, in fact, repudiated it on more than one occasion. It was not Lenin, but the committeemen with their formalistic caricature of Bolshevism, who held this view, and who booed Lenin when he tried to correct them. So indignant was he at the contemptuous attitude of the intellectuals towards the workers that he deliberately provoked them by referring positively to the worker-Economists. As a matter of fact, many of the old worker-Economists of the Rabochaya Dyelo tendency subsequently joined the Bolsheviks whereas the Economist intellectuals, such as Martynov and Akimov, almost to a man, joined the Mensheviks. This is an interesting point which is never mentioned, but nonetheless true. Burning with indignation, Lenin again intervened:
I could hardly keep my seat when it was said that there are no workers fit to sit on the committees. The question is being dragged out: obviously there is something the matter with the Party. Workers must be given places on the committees. Oddly enough, there are only three publicists at the Congress, the others being committeemen: it appears however that the publicists are for placing the workers, whereas the committeemen for some reason are quite wrought up over it. (LCW, The Third Congress of the RSDLP, vol. 8, p. 411.)
All the passionate arguments put forward by Lenin and his supporters fell on deaf ears. The majority remained obdurate and Lenin’s resolution was rejected on the grounds that there was ‘no need’ for a special resolution on this subject. Subsequent events were to show just how right Lenin was. Despite this setback, the Third Congress marked a historic landmark. The basic ideas of Lenin on the leading role of the proletariat in the revolution, the need for absolute class independence and mistrust of the liberals, was adopted without dissent. The Party’s policy on the agrarian question (Lenin led off in this debate) was radically changed to include the confiscation of all the big landlords’ estates and the setting up of peasant committees. From this point onwards, the revolutionary solution of the agrarian problem lay at the heart of the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary strategy. The Party Rules approved at the Second Congress were basically reaffirmed, although Lenin made it abundantly clear that they were not to be interpreted in a narrow sense, but that the party organisation should be quickly opened up to include the best of the workers and the youth. With the bitter experience of the split still fresh in everyone’s memory, he also insisted on including in the Rules clear and specific guarantees for the rights of minorities within the Party. Minorities were to have the right to express their point of view freely at all levels of the Party, subject only to the condition that the raising of differences should not be done in such a way as to disorganise and undermine the practical intervention of the Party in the struggle against tsarism and capitalism.
How the Party Financed Itself
Lenin’s demand for the opening up of the ranks to let the workers in was entirely in tune with the real situation in Russia. Great events had shaken and transformed the consciousness of the mass of the workers. Decades of slow and painful work were now rewarded by a sudden upsurge in interest in the ideas of revolutionary socialism. The congress launched a new weekly paper, Proletary, to replace the Vperyod, and elected a new central committee to replace the old conciliationist one. The congress thus resolved the old unsatisfactory division between the Party’s central organ, Central Committee, and Party Council, reducing these to a single centre, the CC, which was later divided into two parts, the exterior and the interior. Lenin, for the time being, remained outside Russia, while the Russian Bureau of the CC, based in St. Petersburg, was made up of Bogdanov, Krassin, and Postolovsky, with Rumyantsev later being co-opted on. Lenin was, in effect, in charge of the Foreign Bureau of the CC, which maintained close links with the Russian Bureau, but also had direct links with the local Party committees, with whom it carried on a regular correspondence.
The scope for the work inside Russia was now considerably easier. Although arrests were still made, sentences tended to be more lenient. Sometimes the local police were overruled by liberal provincial governors. The police themselves were losing their nerve. Under these circumstances, the local committees were able to meet almost daily. A typical local committee would consist of not more than a dozen people. Every member of a committee had a direct responsibility for some aspect of the work, either press, finance or agitation, or responsibility for a particular district or factory. They were linked to the workers through party circles. There were also Social Democratic student organisations, and beyond these a wider periphery of sympathisers. As soon as even one worker joined in a factory, he or she was expected to begin working under the direction of the local committee. We have already seen some of the negative features of the committeemen. But it would be wrong to lose sight of their positive side. They were professional revolutionaries, dedicated to the party, hard-working and self-sacrificing. Working under difficult conditions, they were almost always on the move. They lived a hand-to-mouth existence, on very low wages, around 25–35 roubles a month, funds permitting, which was not always the case! Some had a private income. Others were sometimes forced to do part-time jobs. Some, like Krassin, as we have seen, worked as a ‘cover’, which sometimes gave rise to amusing circumstances:
In St. Petersburg there was an insurance company, not inaptly named Nadezhda (Hope) whose directors made it their policy to employ as clerks men known to be active revolutionaries: they found that, although they seldom remained with the firm for long owing to the high incidence of arrests, they were exceptionally honest. (J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of the Social Democracy in Russia, p. 181.)
After 9 January, Buzinov recalled the dramatic transformation undergone by his fellow workers. Work became a matter of secondary importance, as they eagerly gathered in the workshops to read the latest political leaflet or newspaper. (See G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg, p. 239.) The Party publications, with their limited print run and infrequent publication, were now hopelessly inadequate to keep pace with the demand. The old Iskra had a print run of around 10–15,000 (fortnightly, although for a brief period it appeared weekly). Now the audience for a revolutionary socialist newspaper was at least 10 or 20 times that figure. The underground print shops could not keep up with the needs of the moment. But the possibility of launching a legal paper did not arise until later in the year when Trotsky and Parvus took over the old liberal Ruskaya Gazeta and transformed it into a legal organ of the Marxists. With its low price of one kopeck, and its popular style, circulation shot up from 30,000 to 100,000, reaching a staggering 500,000 by December. By comparison, the Bolshevik legal paper Novaya Zhizn’ (New Life), had a circulation of 50,000 – which was still five times more than the total print run of the old Iskra. But that was not until the autumn. In the meantime, the local Party groups had to make do with whatever leaflets and other material they could duplicate on their humble hand-operated mimeograph machines.
The congress had given a much-needed boost to the morale of the Bolsheviks, who began to grow at a considerable pace. New branches and district committees were set up. Factory cells were established, as well as Bolshevik trade union factions, designed to take advantage of the new opportunities for legal trade union work in which, however, the Mensheviks had gained a head start. Bolshevik agitation and propaganda was carried out by small specialised groups of 10 to 12 people. Each agitator-organiser was responsible for a single district. The opportunities for carrying socialist ideas to the workers were now immense. Millions of leaflets were published by both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the course of the year.
The old forms of propaganda were dead and propaganda had turned into agitation. With the colossal growth of the working-class movement, verbal propaganda and even agitation as a whole could not meet the needs of the movement. What was needed was popular literature, a popular newspaper, literature for the peasants and for the non-Russian nationalities. (N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, p. 127.)
These, and other pressing needs, immediately raised the question of finance. The question of arms, too, required large sums of money. The income of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks did increase. Martov states that:
The budget of the revolutionary organisations, consisting in the period 1901–2 of a few hundred roubles, by mid-1905 had grown to tens of thousands of roubles a year. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 2, p. 63.)
But the demands were constantly outstripping the available resources. David Lane, on the basis of a study of the Bolshevik and Menshevik press, concludes that, in February, the St. Petersburg Bolshevik Committee raised a total of 2,400 roubles, of which 265r was spent on the press and 375r on organisation. There was a separate arms fund of 1,295r, of which 850r had already been spent. If we include a further 981r represented by a separate strike fund, this means that the total income of the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks in February 1905 was about 4,680 roubles. However, in just the first two weeks of July, the expenditure of the Bolsheviks had risen to 800r on arms, 540r on organisation and 156r on literature.
The Mensheviks’ income from 15 February to 15 March, was larger than the Bolsheviks, being 4,039r (2,000r of which came from one contributor): of this sum, 1,250r were spent on arms, ‘organisation’ in various regions came to 1,126r and 630r were spent on the printing presses. (D. Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, p. 78.)
In his history of the Social Democracy, Martov gives a whole series of figures for the financial state of both Menshevik and Bolshevik groups in 1905, which show how far the demands of the situation outstripped the income raised from the members in subscriptions. Thus, the Baku committee, in February, raised a total of 1,382 roubles, of which only 38 (3 per cent) came “from workers”. Only 14 per cent of the income of the Sevastopol committee came from subscriptions. The situation in Riga was better, but still only amounted to 22 per cent. However, in the Bolshevik stronghold, Ivanovo-Voznesensk, the corresponding figure was 53 per cent. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, p. 569.) Both factions received large donations from wealthy sympathisers. But the Mensheviks, with their far looser organisation, were always far more dependent upon this source than the Bolsheviks, who strove for, and finally achieved, an organisation built upon the kopecks of the workers – the only real foundation for a workers’ party. By contrast, we have already seen how, in early 1905, almost half of the income of the Mensheviks came from a single contributor. On 15 February, according to the same source, the Petersburg Mensheviks’ income totalled 247 roubles “of which 200 roubles were from a sympathiser”. (D. Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, p. 78.) The situation with the Jewish Bund was completely different. Despite their opportunistic policy, the Bund had a well-established, centralised working-class organisation, about which Lenin spoke enviously more than once. Fifty per cent of their needs were met from the workers’ donations.
Throughout 1905, neither the Bolsheviks nor the Mensheviks could keep up with the demand for socialist literature. Everywhere there was a thirst for the written word. The workers wanted to know. Workers who had been hostile or indifferent, or simply too afraid to accept a socialist leaflet, now eagerly sought out those of their comrades whom they knew to be somehow involved in revolutionary politics: “If earlier no one (even) saw them,” recalls the smith Alexei Buzinov, who worked in the Nevsky Ship and Machine Works, “or perhaps did not want to notice them in order to keep out of trouble, now everyone suddenly knew that these were smart, well-informed people. Many dug around in their past, memories began to come to light, and it turned out that someone here and there, somehow or other, had been in contact with socialists… From their side, I do not recall a single reproach, personal or otherwise, for earlier threats or insults. In the workers’ attitude towards them, it began to be recognised that the socialists were the leaders of the labour movement. They were paid heed to, they were looked after in a special way, with a kind of crude but touching good-heartedness.” (G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution, p. 238.)
Like the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks also had some wealthy sympathisers who were systematically tapped for cash. Well-heeled civil servants, Zemstvo liberals, doctors, and other professional people provided money through donations, put up full-timers and even hid fugitives. The radicalisation of the professional layers was shown by the number of resolutions of sympathy and solidarity with the workers’ movement passed by professional unions. The engineers’ union actually elected the Bolshevik Krzhizhanovsky to its Executive Committee. Many intellectual unions collected money and gave assistance to the labour movement in the course of the year. The engineers voted at their congress not to participate in the compilation of black lists of worker activists. In Odessa, the director of a big printing works always helped the Bolsheviks out in a financial crisis. The industrialist Savva Morozov donated 2,000 roubles a month to Krassin from late 1903 onwards. Krassin’s biography states that he raised the necessary funds for Novaya Zhizn’ “mainly through the generosity of his employer, the manufacturer Savva Morozov.” (L. Krassin, Leonid Krassin: His life and work, 1929, p. 36.)
Maxim Gorky, whose fame as a writer was already established, played a key role in raising this kind of money, enlisting the aid of many other writers and prominent intellectuals, whose enthusiasm had been aroused by the revolution. Students and other middle-class people were approached for donations. Even the odd landowner, like A. Tsurupa, gave regular contributions. The collaboration of some of these wealthy sympathisers went well beyond the passive role of supplying sums of money, and some of them showed a real commitment and even took big risks for the workers’ cause. Such a case was that of a nephew of Morozov, Nikolai Schmidt, himself the owner of a furniture factory in the Presnya district of Moscow. Although only 23 years old, Nikolai went over to the side of the workers in 1905. He provided funds not only for the Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn’, but also to purchase weapons. His factory, which played an important part in the Moscow uprising, was known to the police as a ‘devils’ nest’. Schmidt paid a terrible price for his devotion to the workers’ cause.
These donations became very important because the amount of money raised from subscriptions, paper and literature sales was nowhere near enough to meet the demands of the new situation. Immediately after the Third Congress of the Party, Krassin was put in charge of secret military work. He organised the establishment of underground bomb factories and arms dumps. Arms were smuggled in from abroad. Local Party committees began to set up military groups (boyeviye komitety). The military committees were charged with obtaining arms and setting up fighting units. This work was stepped up in the autumn when it became clear that a decisive showdown was inevitable. Some of the money was raised from wealthy sympathisers. Yet another source of finance were the ‘appropriations’, bank robberies carried out by Bolshevik armed units. Lenin wrote many times on this question in his writings of 1905 on the revolutionary army and militia. In these writings Lenin insisted that the work of the armed units was necessarily bound up with the revolutionary movement of the masses and only permissible in such a situation. This was not a terrorist conspiracy but part of a broad movement and a united front including fighting agreements with all forces prepared to conduct a fight against the dictatorial regime. Such activities, it must be stressed, have nothing whatsoever in common with the kind of terrorism, guerrillaism and the like which has unfortunately become a feature of the modern period when, in the absence of an authoritative Marxist leadership, all kinds of primitive methods of struggle have re-emerged from the dustbin of history.
Revolutionary Flood Tide
After the massacre of 9 January, the movement in St. Petersburg temporarily ebbed, as the workers of the capital cautiously took stock of the position. The May Day demonstration in St. Petersburg was not a success, with only a few hundred turning out. Nevertheless, throughout the spring and summer of 1905, the pendulum swung continually to the left. While the workers of the capital temporarily stepped back to take stock of the situation, the more backward provinces were now being roused to struggle. On 1 May, 200,000 workers struck in nearly 200 towns throughout Russia. The events in Petersburg stirred the provinces into action everywhere. The textile workers were well to the fore. On 12 May, a general strike broke out in the Bolshevik stronghold of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a textile town with 70,000 workers, lasting 72 days. By this time the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolsheviks numbered more than 400. Negotiations were conducted by elected factory delegates who met in a ‘meeting of Representative Delegates’, a soviet in all but name. Out of 128 delegates (of whom 23 were women) about 30 were Bolsheviks.
The Ivanovo-Voznesensk Soviet kept order in the town, issued proclamations, set up a militia, and controlled the press, thus in practice imposing freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. Daily mass meetings enabled the mass of workers to learn and exchange experiences. The peasants in the surrounding districts looked hopefully towards the Soviet to which they directed petitions. The militant unity of the proletariat and peasantry was being forged, not in words but in deeds, by the movement of the workers themselves. From 23 May the local Party got out a regular bulletin on the course of the dispute. By the end of June, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk Bolshevik organisation had grown to 600 members, with 15-20 factory organisations. In the textile town of Łódź in Poland, the funeral of a worker killed by Cossacks turned into a mass political demonstration on 15 May with slogans such as “Down with tsarism!” and “Long live the revolution!” A wave of strikes and demonstrations swept through Poland and Lithuania, culminating in the 23 June general strike and uprising in Łódź, and solidarity demonstrations in Warsaw and Odessa.
The strike wave which gripped almost all the industrial areas throughout the spring and summer assumed an increasingly political character. Whereas in March, less than 30 per cent of strikes were political, between April and August the figure had risen to 50–70 per cent. Everywhere, the workers’ elected representatives to the factory committees and strike committees led the way. And all that a soviet is – at its inception – is an enlarged strike committee, an organ of struggle in the fight of the workers against the employers. The Soviets in Russia, those marvellously effective, flexible, and representative organisations of the workers, were not the invention of Lenin or Trotsky. Nowhere do they feature in the writings of Marx and Engels. They were the product of the inventive genius and initiative of ordinary working men and women. The Soviets were destined to play a central role in the whole development of the revolution, particularly during and after the great October strike.
Not only the urban workers but the peasantry was also gradually being drawn into the orbit of the revolution. Throughout the summer there were peasant disturbances and strikes of agricultural labourers in the Baltic area, the Ukraine, Don, Kuban, and the Caucasus. In some areas, the peasants virtually took over whole areas and ran their own affairs. The Mensheviks tried to use this as backing for their theory of ‘revolutionary self-government’. But the truth was that, unless the working class took power, such local outbreaks could only have an episodic character. While the Mensheviks looked towards the Zemstvo liberals, Lenin became increasingly convinced that the only possible ally for the workers in their struggle to overthrow the autocracy consisted in the peasantry, particularly the poor peasants. His vision of the revolution was that of the broadest possible movement of the workers and peasants, to overthrow tsarism, establish a provisional revolutionary government (democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry) which, without going beyond the limits of capitalism, would carry through the most radical and far-reaching democratic programme, first and foremost the confiscation of the big estates and the handing over of land to the peasants.
Up until 1905, the Party’s agrarian programme consisted of a series of limited demands which would alleviate the burdens on the peasantry, particularly the recovery of the otrezki, or ‘cut-off lands’, that is, the land which had been withheld from the peasants under the terms of the Emancipation of the Serfs Act of 1861. But now, the revolution in the urban centres was rapidly spreading to the villages. The general sentiment among the peasants was in favour of seizing the landlords’ estates. The old Party programme was hopelessly antiquated. Taking cognizance of the new situation in the villages where the Party had redrafted its agrarian programme to include the confiscation of all landowners’, government, church, monastic, and crown lands. The changed atmosphere in the villages opened up for the first time the possibility of social democratic work among the peasants.
Although the Party was still weak here, some circles were established in areas like Nizhegorod, Samara, Saratov, Kazan, and Tver. Lenin insisted on the establishment of purely Social Democratic groups in the villages, composed of farm labourers and rural proletarians. Only then would they seek agreements for joint work with other revolutionary-democratic groups. But the prior condition was not to blur over the distinction between workers and peasant small proprietors. An interesting pen portrait of the work of Bolshevik agitators in the villages is to be found in Sholokhov’s famous novel And Quiet Flows the Don, which describes how the Bolshevik Stockman organised a group of Cossacks around a poetry and literacy circle:
After long sifting and testing, a little group of the Cossacks began to meet regularly in Stockman’s workshop. Stockman was the heart and soul of the group and he worked straight towards a goal that only he fully understood. He ate into the simple understanding and conceptions like a worm into wood, instilling repugnance and hatred towards the existing system. At first he found himself confronted with the cold steel of distrust, but he was not to be repulsed. Even that could be worn away. (M. Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don, p. 259.)
This ferment in the villages had important repercussions in the armed forces, which were overwhelmingly of peasant composition. However, as so often happened in the history of revolutions, the revolt flared up first in the fleet, with its more proletarian class makeup. The Party’s work among soldiers and sailors was even more difficult than work among the peasants. On the eve of the 1905 Revolution, there were only three organised Party groups in the armed forces. However, in the course of the revolution, this number increased to a total of 27 groups. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 90) Military defeats created an explosive mood of discontent in the ranks, making them ever more receptive to Social Democratic agitation. News of the annihilation of the Russian fleet at Tsushima, (14-15 May, 1905) had an especially electrifying effect on the sailors. As so often happens in naval mutinies, the leading role was played by the petty officers, normally drawn from the most able and intelligent of the sailors, whose close proximity to the officers gave rise to a deep-seated contempt for the latter. The tensions and conflicts aroused by the arrogance and incompetence of the naval officers became increasingly unbearable when they were related to matters of life and death, in time of war. Precisely such a clash between the petty officers and officers led to the outbreak of the famous mutiny on the battleship Prince Potemkin Tavrichesky on 14 June, 1905, immortalised in Eisenstein’s classic film The Battleship Potemkin.
The immediate issue was the bad food. But the underlying cause was the general discontent with the conduct of the war, and the piling up of unbearable contradictions over decades and generations. The Black Sea fleet had set out for the southern port of Odessa precisely when that city was in the grip of a general strike. No amount of military discipline and police surveillance could prevent the bacilli of revolution from reaching the ships anchored only a few miles away. The mutinying crew arrested all the officers, except the commander and six others who were killed. The sailors elected a committee from their midst which took the bold initiative of sailing into Odessa to appeal for support from the workers. A great crowd assembled around the corpse of the able seaman Grigory Vakulenchuk, killed by an officer. A massive demonstration took place, and mass meetings were held in which Social Democratic agitators participated. This showed both the strong and the weak side of the spontaneous, elemental movement of the masses. All the elements were present for a decisive linking-up of the army with the revolutionary people. But in the absence of a conscious leadership, the ‘floating republic’ could only have the character of an episodic development, which nevertheless was an anticipation of the going over of the soldiers and sailors to the side of the Soviets in 1917.
These events left the Odessa authorities thunderstruck. For a time, they did not know what to do. In practice, power was in the hands of the workers. But they acted with no clear perspective, no overall policy or plan. This allowed the authorities time to concentrate their forces against Odessa. A naval force was sent against the Potemkin, but the mutineers succeeded in escaping to Romania. The revolution in Odessa was brutally suppressed. The mutiny on the Potemkin therefore failed to lead to an insurrection, which was implicit in the situation. But it did not pass off without leaving its imprint. Terrified at the scale of the mass movement and the signs of inner decomposition in the armed forces, the government announced the holding of elections to the State Duma (parliament). Ten days later peace was concluded with Japan under humiliating terms. From a strictly military point of view, despite her earlier reverses, Russia had everything to gain from continuing the war. Japan’s reserves of men and money were nearly exhausted. Not the military strength of Japan but the threat of revolution at home led to the conclusion of peace. The rapid termination of the war was essential for the preservation of the autocracy.
The Bulygin Duma
The weakness of the autocracy was shown by the 6 August Manifesto promising a parliament or Duma (the Bulygin Duma). The ending of the war and the announcement of elections was greeted with elation by the bourgeois liberals. “The Japanese,” proclaimed one of them, “will not enter the Kremlin, but the Russians will!” (B. Pares, A History of Russia, p. 485.) However, closer acquaintance with the details of Bulygin’s proposals soon poured cold water over this precipitate and naïve optimism. Bulygin, the creature of the autocracy, had worked out what Lenin described as “the most reactionary constitution in Europe”. It gave the vote to the landowners, bourgeois, property-owning peasants, and the urban middle class, while the workers, the village poor, women, and servicemen – that is to say, the overwhelming majority of the population – were excluded. To add insult to injury, the Duma would only have consultative powers! The whole elaborate construction was a lie and a deceit behind which everything would continue as before.
From this moment on, the Duma occupied a central position in the tactical discussions of all Social Democratic tendencies. The Bolsheviks immediately came out in favour of a policy of ‘active boycott’. The position of the Mensheviks was ambiguous. In the Caucasus, focal point for the most backward and opportunist wing of Menshevism, they openly called for participation. However, in general, the mood of the Menshevik rank and file was against this. The Bolsheviks proposed a united front to the Mensheviks and the Social Democratic organisations of the nationalities for a boycott campaign. At local level, the Bolsheviks and Menshevik workers acted in unison. The petty-bourgeois Social Revolutionaries also supported the boycott. Even the liberals of the ‘Union of Unions’ were compelled to come out in opposition, at least in words.
The government’s granting of autonomy to the universities, in itself an apparently secondary measure, represented a major turning point. The doors of the establishments of higher education were suddenly thrown open and through them poured the masses, thirsting for ideas, and eager to participate in the arena of public debate. Up to this point, the students had been involved in a passive student strike, refusing to turn up to classes. This was on the point of being broken when the whole movement took an entirely different direction. Throughout the autumn, the campuses and lecture theatres were the focal points of heated discussions. Beginning with the students, these debates became known to the workers who soon understood that here, at last, was a place they could meet and discuss unmolested by the police. “Alongside the students’ uniforms in the lecture theatres,” wrote an eyewitness, “ordinary clothes and, above all, workers’ overalls were to be seen with ever increasing frequency.” (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 1, p. 73.)
The explosion on the campuses showed that the pendulum was still swinging rapidly to the left, with new layers being drawn into the struggle. This was the fundamental consideration which determined the Bolsheviks’ attitude to the question of a boycott at this stage, although at the Third Congress Lenin was very careful to insist that the party should keep its options open on this question. More than anyone else, Lenin understood the need for extreme flexibility on all tactical and organisational questions and not to get carried away by ultra-left moods, which would only serve to separate the advanced elements from the majority of the class.
In the given situation, the boycott of the Bulygin Duma project was absolutely correct. The revolutionary wave was still gathering in strength. The terms of the new constitution fell so far short of the expectations aroused that even a section of the liberals were opposed. The democratic aspirations of the masses collided against the solid wall of the bureaucratic-police regime. Only by the revolutionary overthrow of tsarism and a clean break with the past could the ground be cleared for the introduction of a genuine democracy. The exact nature of the transformation and the role of the different classes in the revolution were the subject of heated debate within the ranks of the workers’ movement, which will be dealt with later. But to all but the blindest reformist, it was evident that on the order of the day stood, not parliamentarianism but a revolutionary general strike and armed insurrection to overthrow the autocracy. This perspective was amply corroborated by the high tide of the revolution, which was ushered in by the October strike in St. Petersburg and culminated in the December uprising in Moscow.
The October Strike and the Soviet
By late summer the strike wave appeared to have subsided. The conclusion of peace with Japan, the Bulygin Duma and a series of other concessions seemed to have brought it to a close. But this appearance was deceptive. The movement was far from exhausted. The September-October strike movement was sparked off not by the most experienced and advanced sections of the class, but by the more backward layers. The summer months saw a decline in strikes in the big factories, but an increase in strikes of the most downtrodden and oppressed layers of the class – sawmill and brickyard workers, slaughterhouse workers, spinning assistants, pharmacists, postmen, waiters, bakers, even domestic servants. The proletarian army was calling up its reserves. Wave after wave joined in the struggle. A new impulse came from the Moscow printers’ strike which led to a general strike in Moscow on 27 September. Beginning with a small dispute at the Sytin print works in Moscow, the printers’ strike spread to 50 print shops within a few days and then rapidly became general throughout the city.
Just when the movement in Moscow appeared to be dying down, there was a new upsurge in St. Petersburg. On 2 October, a sympathy strike of the printers was followed by a railway strike in Moscow on 6 October. The railway workers struck and elected delegates. By 10 October there was an all-out railway strike. By mid-October, three quarters of a million railwaymen were on strike. The strikes became general, involving Moscow, Kharkov, Revel, Smolensk, Łódź, Minsk, Petersburg, Vilna, Odessa, Kazan, Tiflis, and other major centres. On 16 October Finland joined in. The rail strike became 100 per cent, and the movement then spread swiftly to the post offices, telephones, telegrams, service employees, and professional workers. The strike rapidly took on a political character. This is what compelled the Tsar on 17 October to issue a manifesto prompted by Count Witte. Two days later the general strike came to an end.
The role of the strike in general is to make the working class aware of itself as a living social force. The general strike is the highest expression of this. Lenin was fond of quoting the words of a German song: “All the wheels stand still if your mighty arms so will!” By participating in the strike movement, especially where this achieves an active form with mass participation, the workers acquire a feeling of their own strength through unity. The strike is a levelling phenomenon, serving to bind together the most advanced, politically conscious workers with the broadest layers of the class, who are aroused in action from the inertia of ‘normal’ times. In the autumn of 1905, the revolution acquired an unprecedented sweep. At the head of the movement stood the proletariat, wielding its classical weapon of struggle – the general strike.
In its extent and acuteness, the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection. (LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, p. 27.)
The working class, by making its power felt, drew behind it big sections of the middle class. The intelligentsia joined in the strike. “In many places juries refused to sit, lawyers to plead, doctors to attend patients. Justices of the peace closed down their courts.” (L. Trotsky, 1905, p. 111.) The strike was accompanied by mass meetings where the workers thrashed out tactics and discussed strategy and politics. Increasingly, soldiers began to participate in these meetings, expressing solidarity with the people. The workers were beginning to organise militias for self-defence, to combat pogroms and keep order. In some places, the workers’ fighting squads went onto the offensive. There were clashes with Cossacks in Yekaterinoslav and barricades in Odessa.
Under certain conditions a general strike can lead to the wresting of serious concessions from the ruling class. But in the given context of Russia in 1905 a general strike must necessarily lead to the seizure of power or else lead to defeat. The general strike posed the question of power, but, in and of itself, could not resolve it. For that, it was necessary that the movement should be guided by a revolutionary party prepared to set before itself the most advanced tasks. The rapid development of the forces of Marxism in Russia, and the ease with which they placed themselves at the head of the mass workers’ movement in 1905, can only be understood in the context of a politically virgin proletariat with no long history of reformist trade unions and parties. Very swiftly, the Russian Marxists were able to win over the best class fighters in the factories who in turn enabled them to play a dominant role in the mass movement. That revolutionary Marxism should have proven so successful in a backward country such as Russia seems to be a paradox. But the contradiction is more apparent than real. The very backwardness of Russia – that is to say, the belatedness of its economic and social development – meant not only that the social contradictions were sharper and more glaring, but also that the working class was entirely fresh and unencumbered by prejudices, routine and the kind of deadening conservative traditions that flow from the bureaucracy of the mass trade unions and reformist parties in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries.
This fact largely explains the speed with which the Social Democrats passed from tiny propaganda circles to a mass force embracing hundreds of thousands in the space of just a few months. The Russian working class was politically virgin with no history of bourgeois or reformist organisations. Just as Russian industry did not have to pass through the long and painful process of organic development through manufacturing and handicrafts to large scale industry, so the Russian working class did not have to reproduce the slow and painful development of the British, French, and German workers, through a phase of trade unionism and reformism, but were able to move straight to the position of revolutionary Marxism. Dialectically, it transformed itself from the most backward to the most advanced class in Europe. Nevertheless, the winning over of the masses was not an automatic process. It demanded not only correct ideas and perspectives, but flexible tactics and the ability to connect with the living movement of the working class as it was in reality, and not in the imagination of sectarians.
To many of the Bolshevik activists, the question of insurrection was seen in exclusively technical terms, as an organisational question, a viewpoint which was connected to an exaggerated appraisal of the independent significance of the ‘apparat’ and an underestimation of the political side, the need to win the masses through patient propaganda and agitation. This, however, is precisely the main point. Each party had its own armed fighting detachments or militias, not only the Social Democrats, but also the Social Revolutionaries. The need to form fighting detachments was, in the given conditions, self-evident. But it had to be linked to the mass movement via the Soviets. In fact, without fighting detachments, soviets would be toothless ‘paper tigers’, but without the mass movement expressed in the medium of the elected soviets, the armed detachments could have had no significance. It was necessary to win the masses over in action, by means of timely slogans and correct tactics, to demonstrate in practice the superiority of Marxism on the basis of the concrete struggle and experience of the masses. In other words, the problem before the Party was to win over the mass movement and not to counterpose itself to it.
The whole question of the relationship of the Party and the mass movement can be reduced in the last analysis to the difference between the finished scientific programme of Marxism and the necessarily unfinished, incomplete, and contradictory movement of the masses. Whoever is incapable of finding a bridge between these two aspects will forever be incapable of building a mass movement. Naturally, Lenin explained, the Social Democrats will fight for influence within the Soviets, and attempt to win them over. But the broad base of the Soviets, representing the big majority of workers, not only the advanced layers, but even the most backward layers in the factories, Social Democratic and non-party, atheists and religious, literate and illiterate, skilled and unskilled, was a big plus in the revolutionary struggle against tsarism. Lenin was confident that, out of the experience of the struggle itself, the masses would, in time, draw the necessary conclusions and come to understand the validity of the Marxist programme. The duty of the revolutionary vanguard was to ‘patiently explain’, and not to present ultimatums to the masses. The method of Lenin recalls the revolutionary realism of Marx who pointed out that “one real step forward of the movement is worth a hundred correct programmes”.
In Russia, under the prevailing conditions, there was no opportunity for the creation of a mass reformist labour movement with a privileged labour aristocracy and an ossified bureaucracy at its head. The attempt to establish tame, government-controlled ‘Zubatov’ unions came to nothing. After 9 January, many of these unions became swiftly transformed by the masses into genuine organs of struggle. In all these events a key role was played by the Soviets. These embryonic organs of workers’ power began life as extended strike committees. The Soviets themselves first arose in the heat of the all-Russian October general strike. In the absence of well-established mass trade unions, the striking workers moved to elect delegates who began to come together in improvised strike committees, which were generalised to include all sections of the class. The creation of the Soviets in 1905 is a marvellous example of the creative genius of ordinary working people, once they enter the arena of struggle. Nowhere does the idea of soviets feature in the writings of the great Marxist thinkers prior to 1905. They were not foreseen in the pages of the Communist Manifesto, and they were not the creation of any political party, but the spontaneous creations of the workers in struggle, the product of the initiative and creative genius of the working class. In the first place they represented committees of struggle, assemblies of delegates drawn from the factories.2
There are many other examples.
The idea of elected plant delegates was already raised by the Shidlovsky commission. This gave the workers an initial experience. Thus, on 11 October when the strike reached St. Petersburg they spontaneously elected delegates, including some from the Putilov and Obukhov plants. The system for the election to the Soviets was as follows: there was one delegate elected for every 500 workers (this was the same formula as for the Shidlovsky commission). Small workshops combined to send a delegate. On 13 October the first meeting of the Soviet took place at the Technical Institute with 40 people present, some of these were ex-Shidlovsky delegates. A Menshevik (Zborodsky) chaired the first meeting. Thereafter the number of delegates increased continuously; there were 80 to 90 at the second meeting from 40 big plants. At the third meeting 226 were present from 96 factories and five trade unions. Also present at the meetings were three representatives each of the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, and Social Revolutionaries. In other words, the Soviet comprised of delegates from the shop floor, unions, and socialist parties. The Soviet proceeded to elect an executive committee of 22 members – two each from the seven city districts and two each from the four biggest trade unions.
The Petersburg Soviet was the most authoritative and influential in Russia. Very soon, the Soviet embraced practically the whole of the Petersburg proletariat, and set the tone for the rest of the country. At its peak the Petersburg Soviet gathered together 562 deputies from a total of 147 factories, 34 artisan associations, and 16 trade unions. 351 of its delegates were metal workers, the Praetorian Guard of the Russian proletariat. The Bolsheviks were represented on the executive committee by Khostolovksy and Bogdanov. But the leading political figure in the Soviet was undoubtedly Leon Trotsky. Throughout the October general strike and November lockout all eyes were on the St. Petersburg Soviet. Here was an extremely broad, democratic and flexible organ of struggle. In the course of the struggle, the Soviets gradually increased their functions and representative scope. Through the Soviet, the workers made use of the newly found, newly conquered freedom of the press by the simple expedient of taking over the printing presses. They compelled the introduction of the eight-hour day and even instituted workers’ control of production in some factories. They formed a workers’ militia and even arrested unpopular police officers. In addition to numerous other tasks the Soviet published Izvestiya Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov as its public organ.
Following the example of St. Petersburg, workers took the initiative of forming soviets in other parts of Russia. By the autumn the Soviets had been set up in more than 50 other towns and cities including Tver, Kostroma, Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav, Odessa, Rostov on Don, Novorossiysk, and Baku. The Moscow Soviet was only formed on 21 November. At its first meeting there were 180 delegates representing about 80,000 workers. It originally existed side by side with a so-called strike committee mainly composed of petty bourgeois elements dominated by SRs and assorted middle class ‘democrats’. However, by November this committee fused with the Soviet. In the great majority of cases the Social Democrats predominated, but the petty bourgeois democrats were also represented by the Social Revolutionary Party who, as we have seen, were present in the executive committee of the Petersburg Soviet.
In general, the consciousness of the masses develops slowly and unevenly. Although in a revolution it is enormously accelerated, the process of the awakening of the masses remains contradictory. Different layers draw different conclusions at different times. Thus, as late as November the Tsar was still receiving petitions from striking workers from the provinces begging him to intervene on their behalf. This shows not only the uneven development of consciousness, but also the colossal difference between Moscow and Petersburg and the provinces. The contradiction is still more glaring between the consciousness of the town worker and the peasants. The movement that began in the towns was beginning to spread to the villages. By the end of 1905 peasant disturbances had broken out in 37 per cent of European Russia, especially in the central Black Earth zone, Latvia, Southern Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine. An attempt was made to organise a Peasants’ Union in the summer. The peasants expressed their greetings for ‘our brother factory workers’. But in their consciousness the peasants lagged far behind the workers. The villages were still considerably influenced by liberal illusions, reflecting the half-awakened state of mind of the rural masses. Under such conditions the leadership of the Peasants’ Union fell into the hands of the Social Revolutionaries and liberals, a phenomenon which was repeated later in February 1917.
In Moscow, a soviet of soldiers’ deputies was set up and in Tver province a peasants’ soviet was formed. In Sevastopol, there were also sailors and soldiers present in the local workers’ soviet. But these were rare exceptions. The place where the revolution was beginning to penetrate the minds of the peasants was the army. Under the hammer blows of military defeats and the influence of the general revolutionary movement, the armed forces were in a state of ferment. Social Democratic influence was strong among sections of the sailors, traditionally the most working-class section of the armed forces. A mutiny in Sevastopol in November led by Lieutenant Schmidt was brutally suppressed by the tsarist authorities. However, a whole series of mutinies in the army posed the question of the military in an especially sharp form. This had a very great symptomatic importance, because the army was overwhelmingly peasant in composition. One of the principal weaknesses of the 1905 Revolution was the lack of a firm base among the peasants. The rural masses were lagging behind the towns and this fact proved a fatal weakness in the December uprising. Elements of a peasant-soldier revolt were present, but not on a sufficient scale to make a fundamental difference to the outcome. By the time the conflagration had spread to the villages the movement in the towns was already on a downswing.
From distant exile, Lenin greeted the formation of the Soviets which, in a brilliant anticipation, he characterised as embryonic organs of workers’ power:
I may be wrong, but I believe (on the strength of the incomplete and only ‘paper’ information at my disposal) that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government (which would amount to the same thing, only in another form). (LCW, Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, vol. 10, p. 21.)
This, in essence, was what actually occurred in October 1917.
The Bolsheviks and the Soviet
Under conditions where the movement was acquiring a colossal sweep, the need to penetrate new layers, to adopt new methods of agitation, presented a big challenge to the party. A shake-up was required to take full advantage of the situation. Every day mass meetings in the cities were taking place all over Russia. Big opportunities opened up for the Social Democracy who virtually had the field to themselves. Their only real rivals were the Social Revolutionaries, who had a certain presence, and the petty-bourgeois nationalist organisations such as the PSP in Poland and the Jewish Bund. The anarchists in Petersburg were too insignificant to be represented in the Soviet executive. The same was true throughout the country, with the sole exception of Byelostok, where they had the majority. The bourgeois liberals had no base among the masses and made virtually no attempts to gain one. Their whole strategy was based on wheeling and dealing in order to extract a compromise from the regime.
The party was rapidly gaining ground among the most advanced elements. But in order to carry through the revolution, this is insufficient. It is necessary to win the masses. For this task, flexible tactics are necessary, in order that the relatively small forces of the proletarian vanguard can find a road to the majority of workers who have not yet drawn all the necessary conclusions. An absolutely key question for the linking up of the small number of organised Marxists to the broad mass of workers in struggle was the attitude towards the Petersburg Soviet. As we have seen, Lenin, despite being separated from the field of action by thousands of miles, was able immediately to grasp the significance of this striking new phenomenon. The same was not true of his followers in Petersburg. Displaying a complete lack of ‘feel’ for the real movement of the working class, the Bolshevik central committee members in Petersburg were uneasy at the thought of a ‘non-party’ mass organisation existing side by side with the party. Instead of seeing the Soviet as an important field of action, they regarded it with hostility, as a rival.
Because of the supposedly non-party nature of the Soviet and its chairman, Khrustalyov, the St. Petersburg Bolsheviks went so far as to organise a campaign against the Soviet. They persuaded the federated council, consisting of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, to put an ultimatum to the Soviet that it must place itself under the leadership of the RSDLP. However, this proposal was rejected by the rank and file of a joint conference of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks on 26 October. The Mensheviks opposed it; the Bolsheviks then went ahead on their own. On 24 October, they had moved a resolution along the same lines in meetings at the Semyanikov and other metal factories, demanding that the Soviet accept the Social Democratic programme and tactics and demanding that it must define its political stance. In the first issue of the legal Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn’ an article appeared under the title ‘On the question of the Soviet of Deputies’ which complained of the “extremely strange situation when the ‘Soviet’ does not stand in any dependent relationship to the party”. (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 104.)
The Bolshevik CC published a resolution which was made binding upon all Bolsheviks throughout Russia, insisting that the Soviets must accept the party programme. They adopted the kind of formalistic line of reasoning characteristic of sectarians at all periods: if the Soviet wanted to be a political organisation then the Social Democrats must demand that it adopts the Social Democratic programme, but if that was accepted then there would be no point in having a second Social Democratic organisation parallel to the party itself. Therefore the Soviet should be wound up. This was tantamount to demanding that all members of the Soviet join the Social Democratic party. To be sure the editors of Novaya Zhizn’ stated that they were not 100 per cent in agreement with the article, but the agitation against the Soviet continued just the same. On 29 October, the Nevsky district committee declared inadmissible for Social Democrats to participate in any kind of ‘workers’ parliament’ like the Soviet. A meeting of the Semyonov works adopted the same line. This position completely ignored the need to establish a firm link between the advanced workers who stood on the ideas of Marxism and the mass of the politically untutored workers. It was tantamount to demanding that the working class as a whole should enter into the Marxist party, a completely unrealistic conception which, if pressed, could only lead to the isolation of the minority of advanced workers from the rest of the class.
The crass formalism of this line of argument was conveyed in a number of articles in Novaya Zhizn’, notably one which appeared in issue 6 over the signature of Mendeleyev, where we read the following:
The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies must not exist as a political organisation and the social democrats must withdraw from it, since its existence acts negatively upon the development of the social democratic movement. The Soviet of Delegates can remain as a trade union organisation, or it cannot remain at all.
The same author goes on to propose that the Bolsheviks should present the Soviet with an ultimatum: either accept the programme of the RSDLP or else disband! The Bolshevik leaders justified their hostility to the Soviet on the grounds that it represented “the subordination of consciousness to spontaneity”. (Quoted by O. Anweiler, Los Soviets en Rusia: 1905-1921, p. 84 and p. 85.) They went so far as to move a resolution on these lines in the Soviet. When it was turned down, the Bolshevik delegates, led by CC members Bogdanov and Knuyants, walked out. The other delegates merely shrugged their shoulders and proceeded to the next point on the agenda.
The mistakes of the committeemen and women played into the hands of the Mensheviks. Their more flexible attitude permitted them to take initiatives in setting up soviets, where they immediately won a head start over the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks regarded the Soviets not as a provisional revolutionary government, to use Lenin’s expression, but as a ‘revolutionary self-government’. This was an analogy with the French Revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune. However, the analogy was not with the strong side of these historical precedents, but precisely the mistakes of the Commune. The other Menshevik idea of a ‘labour congress’, was also a non-revolutionary conception, which saw the Soviet, not as an organ of struggle through which the workers could take power, but as the starting point for a mass labour party, something like the British Labour Party. The slogan of a ‘labour congress’ which was later taken up by Axelrod in particular, reflected the same idea. Thus, despite their success in participating in the Soviet, the Mensheviks’ entire approach was of a reformist, not revolutionary character.
From afar, Lenin followed the activities of his followers with a mixture of frustration and dismay. His unerring instinct and insight into the workers’ movement enabled him to grasp quickly the significance of the Soviets. But his colleagues did not share his understanding of the way in which the masses move. It took Lenin’s decisive intervention to straighten things out. In the meantime the Bolsheviks lost a lot of ground to the Mensheviks in the Soviets, and precious time and opportunities were lost. He must have torn his hair out when he learned of the behaviour of his co-thinkers in St. Petersburg. Burning with impatience from Stockholm in early November, when he was en route to Russia, Lenin attempted, gently but firmly, to correct the mistakes of the Petersburg Bolsheviks. In the fifth issue of Novaya Zhizn’, an article signed by a prominent member of the Central Committee, B.M. Knuyants (Radin), posed the alternative of “Soviet or Party”. Answering Knuyants’ question Lenin retorted: “I think it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies and the Party.” Significantly, the editors did not publish the letter, which only saw the light of day in 1940.
“The only question – and a highly important one,” Lenin continues, “is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the RSDLP.” Then, in a phrase which must have caused consternation among the committeemen, he adds: “I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party.” Lenin goes on to explain the elementary fact that the trade unions and the Soviets should strive to embrace all sections of the working class, irrespective of nationality, race, creed or political affiliation. Only the quasi-fascist Black Hundreds should be excluded, and that within these organisations of the masses, the Marxists should fight to win a majority for their ideas, programme, and tactics. “We do not shut ourselves off from the revolutionary people,” wrote Lenin, but “submit to their judgement every step and every decision we take. We rely fully and solely on the free initiative of the working masses themselves.” (LCW, Our Tasks in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies - Letter to the Editors, vol. 10, p. 19 and p. 27.) This is Lenin speaking: a very long way from the malicious caricature of a sectarian or a ‘Blanquist conspirator’, manipulating the masses from behind the scenes!
The October strike gave a mighty impetus to the revolt of the oppressed nationalities. Finland, the Baltic region, and large areas of the Caucasus became virtual no-go areas, especially after the announcement of reforms in the Tsar’s October Manifesto. The ‘liberal’ prime minister, Witte, wrote in worried terms to the Tsar about the situation in Finland:
During the second half of last October events took place in Finland which have no precedent in almost a hundred years since the province has been under Russian rule. A political general strike was organised. A well-armed and organised ‘national guard’ [militia] made its appearance, which in many areas took over the role of the lawful police, ordering it to lay down its arms. Certain governors have been forced, under threats by the representatives of the local political parties, to resign their posts.
Count Witte’s daily correspondence with the Tsar revealed increasing alarm at the revolutionary situation. Under pressure from Witte the Tsar had released the October Manifesto. Now it was becoming clear that, far from halting the revolution, the concessions had merely given it a fresh impetus. If Witte expected a sympathetic hearing from the Tsar, he was doomed to be disappointed. Nicholas wrote back: “Is it possible for these 162 anarchists to subvert the Army? They should all be hanged.” This was the Tsar’s only comment in relation to Witte’s letter.
Witte’s comments on Finland were confirmed by other reports submitted to the Tsar. One of these, written by the Governor General of Warsaw, contains the following assessment of the situation in Poland:
The fantastic mood of Polish society and the hostility toward Russians has acquired a hitherto unprecedented dimension… The October Manifesto did not call for specific activities, but on the contrary, provoked such serious happenings that the town of Warsaw and the surrounding regions took on the aspect of a single rebellious camp. Mass meetings in the streets and squares with orators calling for uprising. Catholic priests organising ‘patriotic demonstrations’ in the villages singing revolutionary songs and carrying red and black flags with the Polish eagle and revolutionary slogans. (Quoted in V.P. Semenikov and A.M. Pankratova, Revolyutsiya 1905 Goda - a Collection of Government Documents, pp. 22-3 and pp. 224-5.)
The Ukraine was also in a state of turbulence, with mass protest meetings in Kiev and Odessa in October. All the factors were maturing for the passing of power into the hands of the working class. The revolutionary movement in the villages was on the increase. In the last three months of 1905, 1,590 cases of peasant disturbances were reported. Splits were beginning to open up in the ranks of the autocracy. While Witte pleaded with the Tsar to grant reform from above to head off revolution from below, General Trepov, the virtual dictator of Petersburg, issued the famous command to his troops: “Spare no cartridges!”
The weakness of the regime, faced with an explosion of popular anger, is revealed in the panicky tone of Witte’s letters to the Tsar, and the continual complaints about the lack of troops. Finally, even the thick-headed Nicholas was compelled to come to terms with reality and grudgingly concede the need to hold elections to a State Duma. The Tsar’s Manifesto of 17 October was hailed by Lenin as “the first victory of the revolution”. It was greeted by scenes of wild rejoicing on the streets. Crowds of excited people gathered in the city centres to discuss the situation. On 18, 19, and 20, October, with no preordained plan, the workers marched to the jails with red flags to demand the release of political prisoners. In Moscow, the jails were forcibly opened up and the prisoners carried shoulder-high through the streets. The position of the Bolsheviks was not to place any trust in paper promises and to carry on for a Constituent Assembly. Despite the mood of euphoria, Lenin hammered home the idea that the Manifesto was only a tactical retreat and warned against constitutional illusions and playing at parliamentarianism:
There is talk of liberty, of popular representation: some hold forth on a Constituent Assembly. But what is being constantly, hourly and minutely lost sight of is that, without serious guarantees, all these fine things are but hollow phrases. A serious guarantee can be provided only by a victorious rising of the people, only by the complete domination of the armed proletariat and the peasantry over all representatives of tsarist power who, under pressure by the people, have retreated a pace but are far from having yielded to the people, and far from having been overthrown by the people. Until that aim is achieved there can be no real liberty, no genuine popular representation, or a really Constituent Assembly with the power to set up a new order in Russia.
The regime was playing for time, offering concessions in order to defuse the situation, while behind the scenes preparing a counterstroke. A similar situation arises at a certain point in every revolution. It can be characterised as the phase of democratic illusions. People imagine that the problem has been resolved, that the revolution is over, when in reality it is only just beginning. The decisive battle lies in the future. The October Manifesto solved nothing fundamental, but it provided the excuse for the liberals to detach themselves from the revolution. As Lenin and Trotsky had foreseen, the bourgeoisie, which had all along been striving to get a deal with tsarism at the expense of the workers and peasants, now treacherously deserted the revolutionary camp. The big capitalists and landowners united in a reactionary bloc – the so-called Union of 17 October, the ‘Octobrists’, which threw all its weight behind tsarist reaction. At the same time, the ‘liberal’ section of the bourgeoisie founded the Constitutional Democrat Party, the ‘Cadets’, which came out in favour of a ‘constitutional monarchy’, in effect acting as a left flank for the autocracy, covering up the bloody reality of tsarist rule with pseudo-democratic constitutional phrase-mongering. Lenin was particularly scathing in his attacks on this ‘progressive’ wing of the bourgeoisie, sparing no opportunity to denounce them for their cowardice and treachery.
“What is a constitution?” wrote Lenin. “A sheet of paper with the peoples’ rights recorded on it. What is the guarantee of these rights being really recognised? It lies in the strength of those classes of the people that have become aware of these rights and have been able to win them.” (LCW, Between Two Battles, vol. 9, p. 460.) Lenin coolly analysed the balance of forces at the given moment and concluded: “The autocracy is no longer strong enough to come out against the revolution openly. The revolution is not yet strong enough to deal the enemy a decisive blow. This fluctuation of almost evenly balanced forces inevitably engenders confusion among the authorities, makes for transitions from repression to concession, to laws providing for freedom of the press and freedom of assembly.” (LCW, The All-Russian Political Strike, vol. 9, pp. 394-95.) As Lenin had foreseen, what the autocracy gave with the left hand, it now prepared to take back with the right. The conquests achieved by the general strike heightened the confidence of the working class. Prisoners were released from jails, but the freedom conquered from below had a fundamentally unstable and fragile character. Only by decisively overthrowing the regime could genuine political and social emancipation be assured.
The going over of the liberals effectively cleared the deck for action. It was now a question of ‘either… or’ for the revolution. Only an armed uprising, led by the proletariat, drawing behind it the peasant masses, the nationalities, and all oppressed layers of society could show the way out. The illusion of a constitutional reform was now exploded. The October Manifesto was a clear attempt on the part of the old regime to draw a line in the sand of revolution: ‘Thus far and no further!’ Such reforms as had been achieved had been conquered not by the liberal wheeler-dealers, but exclusively by the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. Far from drawing in its horns after the October Manifesto, Lenin urged the working class to summon up all its forces for a decisive showdown. Behind the façade of a proffered constitution, the autocracy was prepared for a bloody settling of accounts. The task of the revolutionaries in this situation was, while clearly understanding that the really decisive battles lay in the future, to grasp the opportunity with both hands, and make full use of the newly won freedoms to build the party rapidly, extend its influence within all spheres of social life, and prepare for the decisive battle. Lenin based himself on the idea of an uprising as the only guarantee. The arming of the people was linked to the fight for basic demands such as the reduction of the working day to eight hours and the freeing of all political prisoners. Lenin’s revolutionary realism was born out by subsequent events.
‘Nicholas the Bloody’
At the present moment, when it has become fashionable to present the image of Tsar Nicholas in the most attractive and humane colours, it is perhaps as well that we remind ourselves of the real character and role of the man known to his contemporaries as ‘Nicholas the Bloody’. We refer specifically to the attitude of the Little Father to the activities of the pogromists. From the beginning of his reign, Nicholas showed his willingness to resort to violence at the slightest pretext. In 1895, the year following his accession, the Tsar telegraphed to a grenadier regiment that had distinguished itself in suppressing workers’ disorders: “Highly satisfied with the calm and bold conduct of the troops during the factory riots.” In 1905 he reacted in the same spirit: “Terror must be met with terror,” he wrote to his mother in December 1905, in commending the brutal repression of the Baltic peasants. “Orlov, Richter, and the others are doing very good work. Many seditious bands have been dispersed, their homes and property burned.” A little while later, on hearing that Riga had been captured, and that Captain Richter had hanged the chief agitators, the Tsar commented: “Fine fellow!” In 1907 Bernard Pares, author of one of the best-known English histories of Russia, asked a Russian peasant what he thought of what had occurred during the previous five years. After a moment’s thought the peasant replied: “Five years ago there was a belief [in the Tsar] as well as fear. Now the belief is all gone and only the fear remains.” (Quoted in O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, p. 203.)
As an answer to the revolutionary movement of the workers, the regime organised bloody pogroms against Jews, socialists, and ‘intellectuals’. In one month following 17 October, anything up to 4,000 people were murdered, and a further 10,000 injured in bloody pogroms. Many Social Democrats perished in these attacks, notably the Bolshevik leader, Nikolai Bauman, who was murdered in Moscow shortly after being released from prison. Bauman’s funeral turned into a mass workers’ demonstration. The coffin was carried through the streets accompanied by a band playing revolutionary songs.
The party leaders followed with wreaths, red flags and heavy velvet banners, bearing the slogans of their struggle in ornate gold. They were flanked by an armed militia of students and workers. And behind them row upon row of mourners, some 100,000 in all, marched ten abreast in military formation. This religious-like procession continued all day, stopping at various points in the city to pick up reinforcements. As it passed the Conservatory it was joined by a student orchestra, which played, over and over again, the funeral dirge of the revolution: You Fell Victim to a Fateful Struggle. The measured heaviness of the marchers, their melancholy music and their military organisation filled the streets with dark menace. As night fell, thousands of torches were lit, making the red flags glow. The graveside orations were emotional, defiant and uplifting. Bauman’s widow called on the crowds to avenge her husband’s death and, as they made their way to the city centre, sporadic fighting broke out with Black Hundred gangs.
There were many other cases of people brutally tortured and murdered by the Black Hundred gangs financed and armed by the authorities as auxiliaries of the state. It is not difficult to prove the link between the pogroms and the authorities, from the local police chief right up to the Tsar. Nicholas took a personal interest in the work of the Union of the Russian People which was behind the Black Hundreds. The direct connection between Nicholas and the Black Hundreds is not in doubt, as a recent history points out:
The Tsar and his supporters at the court… patronised the Union, as did several leading Churchmen, including Father John of Kronstadt, a close friend of the royal family, Bishop Hermogen, and the monk Iliodor. Nicholas himself wore the Union’s badge and wished its leaders ‘total success’ in their efforts to unify the ‘loyal Russians’ behind the autocracy. Acting on the Tsar’s instructions, the Ministry of the Interior financed its newspapers and secretly channelled arms to it. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, pp. 198-99 and p. 196.)
The Tsar’s anti-Semitism is well documented:
He had a particular animus for the Jews. When Stolypin, the chairman of the Council of Ministers 1906–11, proposed to relax certain restrictions imposed on the Jews in the Pale of Settlement, the Tsar replied: “In spite of the most convincing arguments in favour of an affirmative decision in this matter, an inner voice ever more insistently confirms that I should not take this decision upon myself. So far my conscience has never deceived me. Therefore, in this case also, I intend to follow its dictates.” Not for nothing did the Tsar become a member of the anti-Semitic Union of the Russian People, subscribe to the Union’s funds and receive its president, Dr. Dubrovin, on friendly terms. He had no sympathy for the victims of the pogroms that followed the publication of the Manifesto of October 1905. On the contrary, he saw in them a revolt against ‘the impertinence’ of the socialists and revolutionaries. (L. Kochan, Russia in Revolution, pp. 62-3.)
The Jews suffered terrible atrocities at the hands of the Black Hundred gangs, liberally plied with vodka and egged on by the police. And these horrors were organised at the top. At the police headquarters in Petersburg, thousands of leaflets were produced, inciting violence against the Jews for ruining Russia, calling upon the populace to “tear them to pieces and kill them all”. General Trepov personally edited the leaflet, which was subsidised by the Minister of the Interior to the tune of 70,000 roubles. The most brutal pogrom took place in Odessa where 800 Jews were murdered, 5,000 wounded, and more than 100,000 rendered homeless. The lumpen-proletariat, the scum of society, protected by the forces of the state, was incited to commit the most unspeakable atrocities against defenceless people.
The doss-house tramp is king. A trembling slave an hour ago, hounded by police and starvation, he is now himself an unlimited despot. Everything is permitted to him, he is capable of anything, he is master of property and honour, of life and death. If he wants to, he can throw an old woman out of a third-floor window together with a grand piano, he can smash a chair against a baby’s head, rape a little girl while the entire crowd looks on, hammer a nail into a living human body… He exterminates whole families, he pours petrol over a house, transforms it into a mass of flames, and if anyone attempts to escape, he finishes him off with a cudgel. A savage horde comes into an Armenian almshouse, knifing old people, sick people, women, children… There exist no tortures, figments of a feverish brain maddened with alcohol and fury, at which he need ever stop. He is capable of everything. God save the Tsar! (L. Trotsky, 1905, pp. 150-51.)
The Bolshevik Piatnitsky who was in Odessa at the time recalls what happened:
There I saw the following scene: a gang of young men, between 25 and 30 years old, among whom there were plain-clothes policemen and members of the Okhrana, were rounding up anyone who looked like a Jew – men, women and children – stripping them naked and beating them mercilessly… We immediately organised a group of revolutionaries armed with revolvers… we ran up to them and fired at them. They ran away. But suddenly between us and the pogromists there appeared a solid wall of soldiers, armed to the teeth and facing us. We retreated. The soldiers went away, and the pogromists came out again. This happened a few times. It became clear to us that the pogromists were acting together with the military. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 82.)
The official report ordered by Witte clearly exposed the role of the police in this butchery, not only organising the lumpen-proletarian mobs and supplying them with vodka, but directing them to places where Jews were hiding and even participating directly in the massacre of men, women, and children. The governor of Odessa, Neidgart, admitted that “the crowds of hooligans engaged in wrecking and robbing, greeted him enthusiastically”. Baron Kaulbars, commander of the local troops, addressed the police with a speech beginning with the words: “Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s admit that all of us, in our hearts, sympathise with this pogrom!” (L. Trotsky, 1905, p. 150, note.)
It cannot be argued that the Tsar knew nothing of the pogroms, although naturally, his links with the Black Hundreds were kept on a suitably discreet level. But Nicholas was well aware of what was going on, and approved of it, as his private correspondence reveals. On 27 October he wrote to his mother:
My Dearest Mama…
I’ll begin by saying that the whole situation is better than it was a week ago… In the first days after the Manifesto the subversive elements raised their heads, but a strong reaction set in quickly and a whole mass of loyal people suddenly made their power felt. The result was obvious, and what one would expect in our country. The impertinence of the socialists and revolutionaries had angered the people once more; and because nine-tenths of the troublemakers are Jews, the people’s anger turned against them. That’s how the pogroms happened. It is amazing how they took place simultaneously in all the towns of Russia and Siberia… Cases as far apart as Tomsk, Simeropol, Tver, and Odessa show clearly what an infuriated mob can do; they surrounded the houses where the revolutionaries had taken refuge, set fire to them, and killed everybody trying to escape. (O. Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924, pp. 197-98.)
Kerensky confirms the blatant complicity between the pogrom-mongers and the authorities, including the Tsar:
Shcheglovitov was encouraged in his attitude by the Tsar, who was irreconcilable in political matters. His policy in the pogrom trials involving members of the Union of the Russian People [that is, the Black Hundreds, the forerunners of the fascists] was revealing. Among the documents of the Extraordinary Commission of Inquiry into the Activities of Former Ministers and Dignitaries set up by the Provisional Government is a statement made by Lyadov, department head at the Ministry of Justice. Lyadov asserted that among the appeals for pardon that were considered in his department, the Tsar invariably approved those submitted by members of the Union of the Russian People and rejected those submitted by revolutionaries. (A. Kerensky, The Kerensky Memoirs: Russia and History’s Turning Point, p. 79.)
How to fight the pogromists? Certainly not by appealing to the police and judiciary who, as we have seen, were behind the Black Hundreds. The wave of pogroms posed a question of self-defence in a most concrete and urgent fashion. Not futile appeals to the law, but workers’ self-defence! Defence, first of all, against the Black Hundreds, defence of Jews, Armenians and of intellectuals. Wherever possible, the workers organisations came together and attempted to combat the racist gangs. On such issues, it is necessary to draw in the representatives of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie and the oppressed minorities, but always under the leadership of the workers’ organisations. Trust only in your own forces! The working class must fight fascism with its own methods! That was the position of Lenin, who, in an article on a pogrom in Byelostok, explains the Bolshevik policy.
Here are a few excerpts from a telegram received from a Byelostok elector, Tsirin: “A deliberately organised anti-Jewish pogrom has started”. “In spite of rumours that have been circulated, not a single order has been received from the ministry all day today!” “Vigorous agitation for the pogrom has been carried on for the past two weeks. In the streets, particularly at night, leaflets were distributed calling for the massacre, not only of Jews, but also of intellectuals. The police simply turned a blind eye to all this.”
The old familiar picture! The police organises the pogrom beforehand. The police instigates it; leaflets are printed in government printing offices calling for a massacre of the Jews. When the pogrom begins, the police is inactive. The troops quietly look on at the exploits of the Black Hundreds. But later this very police goes through the farce of prosecution and trial of the pogromists.
Lenin denounces the farce of government investigations and enquiries and poses the alternative in revolutionary terms:
Indict the culprits in unequivocal terms – it is your direct duty to the people. Don’t ask the government whether measures are being taken to protect the Jews and to prevent pogroms, but ask how long the government intends to shield the real culprits, who are members of the government. Ask the government whether it thinks that the people will long be in error as to who it is really responsible for the pogroms. Indict the government openly and publicly; call upon the people to organise a militia and self-defence as the only means of protection against pogroms. (LCW, The Reaction is Taking to Arms, vol. 10, p. 509 and pp. 510-11, my emphasis.)
The bloody wave of pogroms posed the need for workers’ self-defence in a very concrete fashion. The question of armed struggle was a matter of life and death for the working class and the revolution. These activities, however, had nothing in common with the tactic of individual terrorism or ‘urban guerrillaism’. This was no secret conspiracy carried out by small groups of terrorists behind the backs of the workers, but a conscious revolutionary strategy linked to the masses. The fighting squads were closely linked to the Soviets and other workers’ organisations. Legal workers’ clubs set up rifle ranges where workers learned to handle arms under the noses of the police. For their part, the Bolsheviks pressed for the formation of a united front involving the unity in action of all workers’ organisations and also petty bourgeois democratic and nationalist groups – an agreement of all those forces who were prepared to fight in defence of the gains of the revolution and against the Black Hundreds.
Here and there the workers’ fighting squads inflicted defeats against the pogromists. In his memoirs, Piatnitsky describes the horrific pogrom against the Jews in Odessa, and the formation of a united front of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, Dashnaks (Armenian nationalists), and supporters of Paol-Zion – a group set up in 1905 which attempted to combine Zionism with Marxism, a section of which joined the Bolshevik Party after the October Revolution. Armed detachments were sent to try to defend the Jews. Initially they succeeded in driving off the racist mobs, before coming up against the army and police whose superior forces compelled them to retreat, with some loss of life. Armed struggle was posed initially in terms of defence. However, in warfare the difference between defence and offence is of a relative character. A successful defensive struggle can be transformed into an offensive action. In Kharkov the fighting squads erected barricades and the demoralised troops surrendered without a fight. In Yekaterinoslav the workers fought back against the Cossacks with home made bombs, killing several. In Chita they succeeded in freeing political prisoners, including sailors from the Black Sea Fleet. These partial skirmishes were preparing the way for the decisive showdown between the working class and the autocracy which Lenin knew to be inevitable.
Opening up the Party
At the start of the year, both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were really sects with next to no influence in the masses. But after 9 January, they began to grow rapidly. When V. Frunze, the organiser of the Party committee in the important textile centre of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, arrived in the town in May, he found “not less than between 400 and 500 activists”, mainly local workers. Martov says that there were 600 Bolsheviks there in mid-1905, the biggest committee in the central industrial region. The same author claims that the Party up to October could count the membership of its underground organisation in “a few tens of thousands of workers, and a few thousand soldiers and peasants”. By September the Social Democratic agitation was already getting an echo not only among strikers but at mass meetings, in the universities, and the most radical slogans began to obtain support. However, its sphere of influence including workers participating in organisations directly linked to the Party was made up of “hundreds of thousands of the urban and rural populace”. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, p. 575 in both quotes.)
The rapid growth of the party’s influence in the masses made it necessary to adapt its methods and structures to allow for rapid growth. The struggle to build the Party and to extend its influence over the broadest possible layers of the class now assumed the character of a race against the clock. In a series of internal conferences held in the autumn, Lenin insisted on the opening up of the Party, and the introduction of the elective principle from top to bottom, in order to change the composition of the committees, with an influx of fresh new workers and youth. Pressure had to be applied on the committeemen through the free airing of fresh views and criticisms from below and, where necessary, by the replacement of some of the older and conservative elements by new people who were capable of reflecting the real mood of the class. Throughout 1905, Lenin was impatient at the slowness with which the committeemen inside Russia had turned to the masses and made use of the enormous opportunities that opened up. After the October Manifesto, the conditions for Party work radically changed. Freedom of assembly and the press had been won, as well as the right to organise in unions. Everywhere there was a ferment of ideas and discussion. On all sides, the workers and the youth were seeking a vehicle with which to express their instinctive aspirations to change society.
Old methods and habits of thought die hard. Throughout the whole course of 1905 there was a sharp struggle over the need to open up the party and democratise the internal structures. It should be borne in mind that up until the autumn of 1905 the Party was still underground. But with the changed political climate the Party had to adapt its work to legal and semi-legal conditions and to spend all its energies towards the penetration of the masses. In such a situation the old narrow circle mentality with its corresponding structures had to give way to broader based Party branches.
Lenin insisted repeatedly on the need to throw the Party open to workers and youth. This, however, often met with resistance from the committeemen, who interpreted organisational principles from a narrow and mechanical point of view. The fact is that there is no cookbook to determine the structures and rules of a revolutionary party. The party structures and rules must change with changing circumstances. The elective principle and internal democracy cannot be viewed in the same light for an underground organisation and a party that seeks to gain a mass base in conditions of legality. Underground work necessarily imposes certain limitations on internal democracy, but only such that can be justified by the demands of security. In the autumn of 1905 Lenin demanded the opening up of the party. This was mainly because of the change in the objective conditions, but not entirely. The experience of the previous period had given him serious concern at the narrowness of the Bolshevik committeemen. The experience of the mistake over the Soviet had now convinced him of the urgent need for a shake up of the party and an increase of its working class composition. The party activists must find common ground and a common language with the masses, not cut themselves off from them.
The party’s structures had to be radically altered to take account of the new conditions. Many factory branches were set up to underline the new turn. The newly founded factory branches held open meetings. The Lessner factory branch recorded an attendance of 70 workers at one such meeting. The district committees in big industrial areas were split into smaller units, sub-districts. Further, a number of areas established workers’ clubs, either on a district or factory basis. In a series of internal conferences held in the autumn of 1905, the elective principle was introduced from top to bottom. This was a way of securing greater participation by the workers in the running of the party, but it was also a means of exerting pressure on the committeemen, of allowing fresh views and criticism to come from below and, if necessary, change the composition of the committees through an influx of fresh, new workers, so that the voice of the workers and their class instincts and experience in struggle could be heard and set its stamp on the party’s activities. A further development was the holding of city-wide aggregates, where the entire membership could get together and discuss the work. The district committees in big industrial areas were split into smaller units covering sub-districts. In some areas, the city committee even drew up their own rules in line with the special conditions prevailing in their areas. This was the case, for example, in Petersburg and Ivanovo-Voznesensk.
From all this we can see how extremely flexible Lenin’s conception of organisation always was. Democratic centralism embraces two apparently contradictory ideas – centralism and democracy. But in any strike, we see how both ideas can be combined in practice: the fullest freedom of discussion until a decision is taken, but after that, the fullest degree of unity in action. At certain moments in its history, the Bolshevik Party laid heavy stress on centralism, for example, during the long periods when it was forced to work in underground conditions. But in periods when they were permitted to work in ‘normal’ legal conditions, the Bolsheviks, as we see here, favoured the most open and democratic forms of organisation. The revolutionary party is a living organism, not a lifeless fossil. At some stages in its history the Bolshevik Party has laid emphasis on its centralist aspect but at other times the democratic element took precedence. Legal work opened up far broader vistas for agitational work and propaganda. Whereas previously the party press has reached a relatively small number of workers, it could now reach the masses with legal journals, meetings and other means. Meetings were held under the watchful eye of the party defence squads in workers’ clubs, libraries and other public premises.
In the course of 1905, and especially after the October Manifesto, big opportunities opened up for work in the mass organisations in a series of legal and semi-legal organisations – trade unions, embryonic factory committees, insurance societies, etc. In relation to the workers’ clubs, set up in the ‘days of freedom’, Schwarz writes:
The workers and social democratic workers’ clubs were mostly non-partisan organisations, often not even aspiring to formal party membership, concentrating on political and general education. (S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism, p. 242.)
The Mensheviks originated this work. Their club at the Baltic Works in Petersburg had a membership of 120. Following their example, the mainly Bolshevik Vyborg district set up a club with 300 members. Normal membership for clubs of this type seems to have been around 200–300, at least in Moscow and Petersburg.
One indication of the growing revolutionary movement was the rapid mushrooming of trade union organisations. The task of penetrating the trade unions, a basic unit of working class organisation, was an absolute priority for the Social Democrats. Even the most backward layers were seized by the instinct to get organised. However, it was precisely the weakness of trade unionism in Russia that gave the Soviet its colossal authority and strength as the main proletarian organisation. The Soviets became the main centre of activity and to some extent displaced the trade unions in 1905. Nevertheless, trade unions still remained an important field of work, especially for the more skilled workers. This was particularly true in the big industrial centres, notably in Moscow and Petersburg. However, the Bolsheviks were often slow to take advantage of the possibilities, preferring to concentrate on the well-worn and familiar areas of narrow circle life. Lenin repeatedly protested against this organisational routinism. In this field also the Mensheviks had a head start over the Bolsheviks, much to Lenin’s dismay. The Mensheviks took initiatives setting up trade union organisations in Petersburg, Moscow, Saratov, Baku, Odessa, etc. The trade unions very quickly moved on to Social Democratic traditions. In general, the Social Revolutionaries were not in the running. However, naturally within the trade unions there were many non-party workers. That is after all the essential role of the trade unions: to unite the broadest layers of the class for struggle in defence of its own interests. The task for socialists is to fight for influence within them, gain a majority, and to exert influence over the broadest layers of the class.
There were many non-party trade unions, particularly in the south and Volga region. In the west, the Bund and the Mensheviks predominated. Moscow was a Bolshevik stronghold. The only reason why the Mensheviks could seize the initiative in Moscow was because the local Bolsheviks initially had a wrong position on the trade unions. They tried to set up separate trade unions with a definite party political identity and justified this with the aim of fighting against ‘non-partyism’. For example, they set up a Bolshevik trade union among the bakers, technicians, and fitters and turners. This was a radically false position which was subsequently criticised by Lenin in his celebrated work “Left-Wing” Communism: an Infantile Disorder, where he explicitly states that it is wrong for Marxists to try to split the trade unions and establish ‘revolutionary’ unions separated from the mass organisations. On this question also, the Bolshevik committeemen revealed their lack of understanding of Lenin’s position. Of course, the party must fight against ‘non-party’ trends, but the trade unions must embrace all sections of the working class irrespective of party affiliations. The only political trend that should be excluded from the trade unions are the fascists. Lenin wrote an article along these lines in Novaya Zhizn’ on 2 December, 1905.
The Party Press
It is impossible to say exactly what the numerical strength of the party was in 1905. If we take the figures for St. Petersburg, Martov calculates that, in the first half of 1905, the Mensheviks had 1,200–1,300 workers, and the Bolsheviks several hundred. By October, the two organisations had about the same number (which he does not give, but was clearly a lot more). In other words, the Bolsheviks gained proportionately more. Other writers differ. V.I. Nevsky calculates the worker membership of both factions in St. Petersburg as only between 890 and 1,000 at the end of the spring. (G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labour, Society and Revolution, p. 261, note.) However, in the following months, the membership experienced a rapid increase. By the end of the summer, the Moscow Bolsheviks numbered 1,035. The Riga Bolsheviks had, by the spring, 250 members and a presence in 25 factories, although the Mensheviks still had a majority there. The Ivanovo-Voznesensk committee doubled in the first half of the year, from 200 to 400; Voronezh went from 40 to 127; Nizhny Novgorod from 100 to 250, and Minsk from 150 to 300. Thereafter, the growth was explosive. Despite the incomplete and probably inexact nature of these figures, the overall picture of extremely rapid growth, doubling and trebling the membership in a few months, comes across clearly. By the end of the year, the Nizhny Novgorod organisation tripled in size from 500 to 1,500. In Saratov and Minsk the Party Bolsheviks had 1,000 members by December. (See Istoriya of KPSS, vol. 2, p. 35, p. 36 and p. 116.)
The Bolsheviks were strongest in the North, Northeast, the Central Industrial Region, the Volga, and the Urals. The Mensheviks also grew, but their influence was greatest in the South – Tiflis, Kutais, Batum, Guri in the Caucasus, which was now a Menshevik stronghold – and the West. According to one recent estimate, there were about 8,400 “organised Bolsheviks” in 1905. Probably, the Mensheviks had about the same. (See D. Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism, p. 12.) But in the context of general pre-revolutionary ferment, the party’s sphere of influence was far wider. The scope for action was vastly increased after the issuing of the October Manifesto. Martov recalls that:
All in all, throughout this period, on the eve of the October days, the Social Democracy in the ranks of the illegal organisations could assemble several thousands of workers, students, soldiers, and peasants; but the sphere of its immediate organisational influence took in hundreds of thousands of people in town and countryside. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, p. 575.)
The growth of the Bolsheviks was especially rapid in the capital. By the year’s end the St. Petersburg organisation reached a figure of 3,000, a ten-fold increase in the course of one year. This numerical growth was accompanied by an internal transformation by a rapid influx of fresh, young workers onto the leading bodies at local and provincial level. These were the ‘natural leaders’ of the working class thrown up by the revolution itself. Lenin could justifiably claim “in the spring of 1905 our party was a union of underground circles; by the autumn it has become the party of millions of the proletariat”. This was no exaggeration. The workers actually organised in the party could be numbered in tens of thousands. But there was a vast periphery of hundreds of thousands crying out for socialist ideas and who considered themselves as Social Democrats.
The advent of legal conditions also created vast scope for the party press. The old illegal press was hopelessly inadequate in this situation. Ten days after the Tsar’s Manifesto was published, the first issue of the Bolshevik paper Novaya Zhizn’ came out. The paper was published legally in the name of Gorky’s wife Maria Fedorovna Andreyeva. The editor was a poet, Minsky. This, however, was a front for the real editorial board with Krassin and Gorky in charge until Lenin himself assumed control after his return in November. Such precautions were very necessary. While theoretically a ‘legal’ journal, Novaya Zhizn’ was published under the eagle eye of the censor. When the first issue carried the RSDLP programme it was swiftly confiscated. Novaya Zhizn’ became the de facto official mouthpiece of Bolshevism up to its closure in early December. Its circulation was between 50,000 and 80,000, a major achievement for a party which only a month or so earlier had been underground.
On Gorky’s advice, the Bolsheviks entered into contact with liberal publishers who helped launch the venture. As usual, Gorky played an indispensable role in obtaining financial backing for the journal from well-to-do writers and intellectuals. Under the impact of revolution, many writers and poets, who would hitherto never have dreamed of participating in revolutionary politics, became actively involved with the Bolsheviks through the party press. Well-known poets and writers, like Balmont, Leonid Andreyev, and of course Gorky himself, contributed articles and money. The degree to which they were actually absorbed by the party is questionable. However, these ‘fellow travellers’, as they became known, undoubtedly played a useful role in popularising and spreading the influence of Bolshevik ideas. Although the paper appeared under the name of bourgeois journalists, it was in fact the official organ of the party at this period. There were also other legal Bolshevik papers in the provinces: Borba and Vperyod in Moscow, Kavkazky Rabotchy Listok in Tbilisi, etc. The Bolsheviks also collaborated in other legal publications run by bourgeois liberals and Mensheviks and in general made use of any platform that gave their ideas a broader audience.
The Mensheviks still had a more powerful apparatus, more money and resources, better facilities for transport and literature and more big names than the Bolsheviks. On the other hand, their membership was looser and less disciplined than that of the Bolsheviks, who attracted the most militant and class conscious workers and youth. But there was still much to be done and time was running out. Lenin continuously hammered home the need to win the masses. In his first article in Novaya Zhizn’ written shortly after his return to Russia in early November, Lenin yet again laid heavy stress on the need to open up the party. In answer to the committeemen who opposed this on the grounds that it would lead to a dilution of the party, Lenin wrote:
Danger may be said to lie in a sudden influx of large numbers of non-Social Democrats into the Party. If that occurred, the Party would be dissolved among the masses, it would cease to be the conscious vanguard of its class, its role would be reduced to that of a tail. That would mean a very deplorable period indeed. And this danger could undoubtedly become a very serious one if we showed any inclination towards demagogy, if we lacked party principles (programme, tactical rules, organisational experience) entirely, or if these principles were feeble and shaky. But the fact is that no such ‘ifs’ exist. We Bolsheviks have never shown any inclination towards demagogy… we have demanded class-consciousness from those joining the Party, we have insisted on the tremendous importance of continuity in the Party’s development, we have preached discipline and demanded that every Party member be trained in one or another of the Party organisations.
But having given due weight to the need to build on strong foundations, Lenin goes on to stress the other side of the equation in terms designed to put the narrow-minded committeemen in their place:
The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness. Don’t invent bugaboos, comrades! Don’t forget that in every live and growing party there will always be elements of instability, vacillation, wavering. But these elements can be influenced, and they will submit to the influence of the steadfast and solid core of Social Democrats.
Once again, Lenin sharply repudiates the pernicious idea that socialist consciousness must be introduced into the working class ‘from without’. The workers, he insists, are “instinctively, spontaneously” socialist. The task of the revolutionaries is to give a conscious and organised expression to the unconscious, or semi-conscious, aspirations of the workers to change society. Time and again in this period Lenin hammers home the need to open up the party, to recruit rapidly the new layers of workers and youth who are entering the struggle, to learn to speak the same language as the workers, to link up the activity of the small group of cadres with the activity of the newly awakened masses. That same Lenin who argued in favour of restricting the membership in 1903, now wrote the following:
At the Third Congress of the Party I suggested that there be about eight workers to every two intellectuals in the Party committees. How obsolete that suggestion seems today! Now we must wish for new Party organisations to have one social democratic intellectual to several hundred social democratic workers. (LCW, The Reorganisation of the Party, vol. 10, p. 31, p. 32, my emphasis, and p. 36, footnote.)
It is true that some who called themselves Bolsheviks never understood what Lenin was driving at – and that remains true to this day. But that is hardly Lenin’s fault. Even the most beautiful aria can be ruined by a singer who is tone-deaf.
Trotsky in 1905
Of all the leaders of the Social Democracy, it was Trotsky who played the most prominent role in 1905. Lunacharsky, who was one of Lenin’s closest collaborators at the time, recalls that:
His [Trotsky’s] popularity among the Petersburg proletariat at the time of his arrest [in December] was tremendous and increased still more as a result of his picturesque and heroic behaviour in court. I must say that of all the social democratic leaders of 1905–6 Trotsky undoubtedly showed himself, despite his youth, to be the best prepared. Less than any of them did he bear the stamp of a certain kind of émigré narrowness of outlook which, as I have said, even affected Lenin at that time. Trotsky understood better than all the others what it means to conduct the political struggle on a broad, national scale. He emerged from the revolution having acquired an enormous degree of popularity, whereas neither Lenin nor Martov had effectively gained any at all. Plekhanov had lost a great deal, thanks to his display of quasi-Cadet tendencies. Trotsky stood then in the very front rank.
Trotsky was only 26 when he first became president of the St. Petersburg Soviet. The first chairman of the Petersburg Soviet, the lawyer and Menshevik sympathiser G.S. Khrustalyov-Nosar, was, like Father Gapon, an accidental figure who played no independent role. In reality, the leading role in the Soviet was played by Trotsky, who became chairman after Khrustalyov’s arrest in November. Trotsky wrote most of the proclamations and manifestos of the Soviet and gained enormous popularity with the workers. Lunacharsky recalls that Trotsky “held himself apart not only from us but from the Mensheviks too. His work was largely carried out in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and together with Parvus he organised some sort of separate group which published a very militant and very well-edited small and cheap newspaper, Nachalo”. And he adds:
I remember someone saying in Lenin’s presence: “Khrustalyov’s star is waning and now the strong man in the Soviet is Trotsky.” Lenin’s face darkened for a moment, then he said: “Well, Trotsky has earned it by his brilliant and unflagging work”. (A.V. Lunacharsky, Revolutionary Silhouettes, pp. 60-61 and p. 60.)
The full significance of Lenin’s reaction can only be gauged if we realise that precisely on this decisive question – the attitude to the Soviet – the Petersburg Bolsheviks made a fundamental error, which lost them the opportunity of winning the majority of active workers in the capital. The mistakes of the Petersburg Bolsheviks allowed the Mensheviks to gain a majority in the Soviet. Since the break with the Mensheviks one year earlier, Trotsky had attempted to maintain an independent position between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. This earned him a number of justified rebukes from Lenin. However, despite the sharp differences over the question of unity – differences which, in any case, became increasingly irrelevant in the course of the year – there can be no doubt that on all political questions, Trotsky’s position was very close to that of Lenin. This is well attested to by writers from both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.
Despite these well-known facts, the Stalinist historians attempted to describe Trotsky in 1905 as a ‘Menshevik’, as we read in the following, fairly typical, extract: “Trotsky’s denial of a revolutionary democracy (?) was in effect defence of the Menshevik idea of the bourgeoisie’s hegemony (!) in the forthcoming revolution.” (V.A. Grinko et al, The Bolshevik Party’s Struggle Against Trotskyism (1903-February 1917), p. 58.) This is entirely false. The differences which separated Trotsky from the Mensheviks as early as February 1904 are attested to unambiguously by the Menshevik leaders themselves. From late 1904 onwards, Trotsky and the German Left Social Democrat Parvus worked out a body of ideas which were later to provide the basis for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. We will deal with the nature of this theory and the position of Lenin and the Mensheviks later. But first, let us put the record straight.
Trotsky, too, had a basic divergence of views with Iskra [the Menshevik organ] on the political conclusions to be drawn from the situation created by 9 January. Trotsky wrote that after 9 January the working class movement “slipped into an uprising”. Hence the Constituent Assembly in and for itself could no longer be the fundamental and generalising slogan of the party. After 9 January it was necessary to prepare for an armed uprising and the replacement of the tsarist government by a Revolutionary Provisional Government that alone could convoke a Constituent Assembly. (F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, p. 305.)
These are the words of the Menshevik leader Fyodor Dan, written at a time when he and Trotsky were bitter political enemies. The basic ideas contained here, based on Trotsky’s pamphlet, Till the Ninth of January, are in complete agreement with the general position defended by Lenin. In his history of the Russian Social Democracy, Martov polemicises not only against Lenin’s position, but also against the theories of Trotsky and Parvus. (J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, pp. 553-54.)
Perhaps the most impressive achievement made by Trotsky was the publication of a mass revolutionary daily paper. With the assistance of Parvus, he took over the former liberal paper Ruskaya Gazeta, changed the name to Nachalo (The Beginning), and transformed it into a popular and militant workers’ paper with a low price (one kopeck). Its circulation shot up from 30,000 to 100,000, reaching a staggering 500,000 by December. Nachalo, theoretically the organ of the Mensheviks replacing the defunct Iskra, in practice was controlled by Trotsky. It had a much bigger circulation than Novaya Zhizn’. Kamenev, who was one of the editors of Novaya Zhizn’, described to Trotsky the scene at the railway stations as his train passed:
The demand was only for revolutionary papers. “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo,” came the cry of the waiting crowds. “Novaya Zhizn’” and then “Nachalo, Nachalo, Nachalo.” “Then I said to myself, with a feeling of resentment,” Kamenev confessed, “they do write better in Nachalo than we do”. (See L. Trotsky, My Life, pp. 171-78.)
The political line of Nachalo had nothing in common with Menshevism and on all the basic questions was identical with Lenin’s positions, a fact that was warmly acknowledged by Lenin many years later. Up to October it was still possible to argue for at least episodic agreement with the bourgeois liberals; thus in the first issue of Novaya Zhizn’ the editors still harked back to Plekhanov’s old slogan ‘March separately, strike together!’ However, from abroad Lenin constantly hammered home his essential mistrust towards the liberals and warned that they would inevitably sell out. In the sixth issue of Novaya Zhizn’ Kamenev was already writing along different lines, arguing that any attempt to nominate a government of liberals behind the backs of the workers would be rejected and that the workers would have to overthrow such a Provisional Government. This was exactly what happened in 1917. In the following issue, number seven, an article by N. Minsky stated “between the bourgeois and Social Democratic policy there is not, nor can there be, even external, formal points of coincidence”. On this central question Nachalo’s position was identical to that of Lenin. Thus, when the first issue of Trotsky’s Nachalo appeared, it was warmly welcomed by the Bolshevik Novaya Zhizn’, which wrote:
The first number of Nachalo has come out. We welcome a comrade in the struggle. The first issue is notable for the brilliant description of the October strike written by Comrade Trotsky. (Quoted in L. Trotsky, My Life, p. 182.)
Martov, who was supposed to be the paper’s co-editor together with Trotsky, frequently objected to its line, but was unable to get Trotsky to change it. In his history of the period, he lists a whole series of differences. For example, when Struve tried to enter into negotiations with the liberal bureaucrat Witte, Nachalo savagely attacked him as “an agent of Witte”. The leading article of Nachalo issue 8 stated that “the revolution has outrun its first phase, the Zemstvo opposition has recoiled and become a counter-revolutionary force”. Referring to this, a disgruntled Martov remarked that this formula was totally “at variance with the traditional conception of Menshevism”. And he complained that the line of Nachalo was identical to that of the Bolsheviks, citing a long list of offending articles. (See J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, pp. 592-96.) The Menshevik leader Dan wrote a grumbling letter to Kautsky:
In St. Petersburg they founded a newspaper, Nachalo, which succeeded Iskra, and throughout November and December 1905 it carried the most radical pronouncements, hardly distinguishable from those in the Bolshevik paper, Novaya Zhizn.’ (See A. Ascher, Paul Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism, pp. 241-42.)
Martov’s biographer, Israel Getzler, makes the same point: “Thus Martov found himself in a minority on Nachalo which had become a propagator of Trotskyism rather than of Menshevism.” (I. Getzler, Martov: A Political Biography, p. 110, my emphasis.)
One of the more senseless slanders directed against Trotsky by the Stalinists is the accusation that he supported the demand for a labour congress. This deliberately distorts Trotsky’s position. In July 1906, writing from prison, Trotsky produced a pamphlet advocating a National Congress of Soviets. This idea was later caricatured by the Stalinists to announce that Trotsky supported the Menshevik idea of a ‘Labour Congress’. In his pamphlet entitled Our Tasks in the Struggle for a Constituent Assembly, Trotsky sets forth three basic demands: 1) local soviets of workers’ deputies; 2) an all-Russian Congress and 3) an all-Russian Workers’ Soviet as a permanent organisation created by the Workers’ Congress.3 This idea brilliantly anticipates what actually happened in 1917. Solomon Schwarz, certainly no sympathiser of Trotsky, shows clearly that Trotsky’s idea has nothing in common with the Menshevik idea of a ‘Labour Congress’, i.e., the setting up of a reformist labour party:
From his argumentation it is clear, however, that Trotsky meant the all Russian Soviet to be ‘permanent’ only for the duration of the revolution. Axelrod’s version of the Workers’ Congress was broader, more complex, and closely related to the idea of either creating a vast new Labour Party or transforming the SDP into such a party. (S.S. Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905, the Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism, p. 231.)
And he adds in a footnote to page 234:
In all of its short existence (13 November–3 December) Nachalo did not carry a single article that even incidentally discussed the problem of a Workers’ Congress.
Despite the sharpness of the polemical struggle in the previous period, Lenin had a high opinion of Trotsky’s achievements, which contrasted favourably with the mistaken policies adopted by the Bolshevik committeemen inside Russia prior to Lenin’s return. Thus Krupskaya, in the second Russian edition of her memoirs, in a passage which, along with much else, has been deleted from all subsequent editions, quotes from a letter written by Lenin in September, which has also not seen the light of day:
In the September letter written to ‘Augustus’, Ilyich wrote: “To wait until you get complete agreement with the CC or among the agents is sheer utopia. We don’t want a coterie but a Party, dear friend!” In the same letter, replying to an indignant complaint that our people had been printing Trotsky’s leaflets, Ilyich wrote: “…They are printing Trotsky’s leaflets… dear me… there’s nothing wrong with that provided the leaflets are tolerable and have been corrected!” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, p. 144.)
Finally, at the trial of the 52 members of the St. Petersburg Soviet that took place in September 1906, Trotsky turned his defence speech into a brilliant attack on the autocracy and a defence of the right to revolution.
The historical power in whose name the prosecutor speaks in this court is the organised violence of a minority over the majority! The new power, whose precursor was the Soviet, represents the organised will of the majority calling the minority to order. Because of this distinction the revolutionary right of the Soviet to existence stands above all juridical and moral speculations… (The Age of Permanent Revolution, p. 59.)
In effect, Trotsky was issuing a call for armed uprising from the dock. Having utilised the trial for the purpose of agitation, the main objective had been achieved. When the court refused the prisoners’ demand to interrogate a senator who had set up a printing press to disseminate pogromist literature, they staged a protest that forced the judges to expel them from the courtroom and sentence them in their absence.
While recognising Trotsky’s role, Lenin was irritated by Trotsky’s stubborn refusal to join the Bolsheviks, although there was no principled disagreement – a fact that Lenin attributed to personal vanity. This was not the case. The main thing that prevented Trotsky from joining the Bolsheviks was the conduct of the Bolshevik committeemen in St. Petersburg, which scandalised and repelled him. This explains his reluctance to join Lenin’s faction and his insistence on reunification of the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, who had turned sharply left and had shown a more flexible attitude to the Soviet than the local Bolsheviks. In later years, the question of ‘conciliationism’ was the issue that sharply divided Lenin and Trotsky, but in 1905 even that difference was soon swept to one side.
The general upswing of the movement inevitably gave rise to a powerful desire for unity among the mass of the workers. The trend towards the unification of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks became irresistible after October. In mid-November the Odessa Social Democrats voted in a general assembly of 1,500 to unify both factions. The same thing happened in Saratov and Tver. In Moscow and St. Petersburg the local committees and groups were already working together in a kind of a federal structure even before October. All over the country, branches of both factions passed resolutions demanding unity. Piatnitsky describes how when the Odessa Social Democrats received the proposal for reunification from the CC it was:
[M]et with a warm response from among the party members, the Mensheviks as well as the Bolsheviks. That was easy to understand: that our few available forces were weak and scattered had become evident to every Party member during the pogrom… It was obvious to the committee that the proposal of union would be passed by a great majority at the Party meetings of both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, for wherever the advocates of immediate unity spoke they were supported almost unanimously. (O. Piatnitsky, Zapiski Bol’shevika, p. 87.)
Lenin, who had returned to Russia on 4 November, was now convinced of the need for the immediate reunification of the two wings of the RSDLP. His change of heart was no accident. Apart from the fact that the whole situation demanded it, he was now struggling to correct the sectarian errors of the Bolsheviks on the Soviet, the internal regime, and other questions. Probably Lenin believed that unification would help him overcome these sectarian deviations. But the main reason was the pressure from the ranks and the fact that the continuation of the split was holding up the Party’s growth.
It is no secret to anyone that the vast majority of Social Democratic workers are exceedingly dissatisfied with the split in the Party and are demanding unity. It is no secret to anyone that the split has caused a certain cooling-off among Social Democratic workers (or workers ready to become Social Democrats) towards the Social Democratic Party… Hence it is now possible not only to urge unity, not only to obtain promises to unite, but actually to unite – by a simple decision of the majority of organised workers in both factions. (LCW, The Reorganisation of the Party, vol. 10, pp. 37-38.)
Of course, there could be no question of unity if there were differences of principle. Trotsky’s paper, Nachalo, played a big role in ensuring the possibility of unity on a principled basis. Under the impact of the revolution, even the Menshevik leaders began to move to the left, at least in words. Thus Fyodor Dan wrote to Kautsky in November 1905: “We live here as though in a state of intoxication. The revolutionary air affects people like wine.” (Quoted in A. Ascher, Paul Axelrod and the development of Menshevism, p. 241.) It should be noted that the Petersburg Mensheviks were far to the left of the Menshevik leadership in exile, and moved further to the left under the influence of Trotsky and Parvus. In the course of the revolution, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in the capital had drawn closer together. By the autumn they had already established a joint committee. Both Nachalo and Novaya Zhizn’ defended the restoration of unity. The Bolshevik central committee, with Lenin present, passed a unanimous resolution to the effect that the split was merely the result of the conditions of exile life, and that the development of the revolution itself had removed the basis for the split in the RSDLP.
Both sides made concessions. The Mensheviks now accepted Lenin’s formula for paragraph one of the party rules. This was rather ironic, since the Bolsheviks had already opened up and loosened their internal regime in accordance with the new conditions. The old arguments about conspiracy and ultra-centralism were irrelevant. The Bolshevik Central Committee and the Menshevik Organisational Committee had also established a federative structure and were negotiating for unification. Both fractions were to call their own conference preparing the way for a unity Congress as soon as possible. In preparation for unification, the Bolsheviks called for a joint conference, but the Mensheviks preferred to call their own conference in November, whereupon the Bolsheviks, too, organised a conference at Tammerfors, Finland, on 12-17 December, while the workers of Moscow were locked in a desperate struggle with the forces of reaction. In view of the highly charged situation, there was a need for a greater emphasis on tightening up security and strengthening the underground apparatus. On 11 December a new electoral law was announced. The Tammerfors conference came out for the active boycott of the Duma, based on the perspective of the imminence of an armed uprising. The logic of this position is clear. Generally speaking it is only permissible to boycott a parliament when you are in a position to overthrow it and offer something superior in its stead. On all sides the symptoms of revolutionary upheaval were in evidence. Between late October and early December the country was affected by strikes, peasant uprisings, mutinies in the Army and Navy, uprisings in Georgia and the Baltic.
The Moscow Uprising
By the end of October the ferment in the villages had reached new levels, with 37 per cent of European Russia affected, especially the central ‘Black Earth’ zone, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia, and the Ukraine. The wave of peasant discontent in turn spread to the armed forces. There was a series of mutinies in the army and navy, which underlined the importance of work among the soldiers and sailors. Alongside the legal mass work, the Bolsheviks also stepped up the material preparations for armed insurrection. Krassin was in charge of the military side of the work, penetrating the army and organising fighting groups. The local committees established specialised units to obtain arms. This work was stepped up in the autumn with the creation of underground bomb factories and arms dumps. Once again, Gorky played a key role in raising money for this work, which was partly funded by what was known as ‘expropriations’, or raids on banks conducted by armed groups under Bolshevik control. The objective conditions for armed insurrection were rapidly maturing.
Throughout the autumn, all eyes were fixed on St. Petersburg, the storm centre of the movement. But the workers in the capital, who bore the brunt of the conflict from January until November, were at the end of their tether. After the issuing of the October Manifesto, the liberal employers, who had previously appeared sympathetic to the revolutionary movement, and even paid the wages of striking workers, finally came out in their true colours. On 31 October, the St. Petersburg Soviet called a general strike around the struggle for the eight-hour day. But the bosses put up stiff resistance and the strike ended in failure. On 12 November, the Soviet called off the strike. This was the turning point. The October general strike really represented the last gasp of the movement in St. Petersburg. The November strike in Petersburg involved even bigger numbers of workers than in October. But this was really the last desperate effort of a working class gravely weakened by months of struggle. Sensing that the movement was beginning to run out of steam, the employers organised a lockout, while the police and troops moved to break up workers’ meetings by force. The November lockout revealed that the bosses were aware of the real situation. There were widespread repression, sackings and arrests. Fearing that the movement would disintegrate into a series of guerrilla disputes which could be crushed one by one, the St. Petersburg Soviet decided to beat a tactical retreat and, on 12 November, after a tense debate, called off the strike, in order to withdraw in a united and organised fashion.
The defection of the bourgeois liberals tipped the balance in favour of the reactionary camp. General Trepov was now virtual dictator of Russia. Fearing ‘anarchy’, the liberals clung to his coattails. By 26 November, the regime felt strong enough to arrest Khrustalyov-Nosar on the premises of the Soviet Executive. The Soviet responded with a Financial Manifesto, written by Parvus, calling for the non-payment of taxes and withdrawal of bank deposits to hasten the financial crisis of the regime. Even at this point, fresh new layers were entering the struggle every day: janitors, doormen, cooks, domestic servants, floor polishers, waiters, laundresses, public bath attendants, policemen, Cossacks – even the odd detective. Society had been stirred to the depths. But the increasing radicalisation of the formerly politically inert mass disguised the fact that the ‘heavy battalions’ of labour were now almost exhausted. The December strike in Petersburg was far less unanimous than in November, involving at most two-thirds of the workers of the capital. This fact indicated that the high point of the movement in Petersburg had been reached, and the revolutionary tide was beginning to ebb. On 2 December there was a mutiny of the Rostov regiment in Moscow. The following day, the St. Petersburg Soviet was arrested, including its chairman, Leon Trotsky.
The initiative now passed to the workers of Moscow. The mutiny of the Rostov regiment gave rise to hope that the garrison might come over. But the local Bolsheviks hesitated and, seeing that the movement did not spread, the troops quickly lost heart. In a couple of days the mutiny was crushed. This defeat depressed the soldiers and considerably reduced the prospect of them going over to the side of the workers. On the other hand, the mood in the factories of Moscow was reaching fever pitch. The workers were impatient for action. On 4 December, the Moscow Soviet passed a motion congratulating the soldiers on their uprising and expressing the hope that they would come over to the side of the people. But by the time the ink was dry, the soldiers’ revolt had been crushed. Lenin had repeatedly expressed his anxiety about a premature uprising. He recognised that the party’s forces were still weak, the fighting squads too unprepared, to take on the full might of the state. Above all, the massive reserves of the peasantry had only begun to enter the field of battle. More than once he expressed the hope that the final showdown between the workers and the regime should be put off till the spring. But Lenin understood very well that the revolution cannot be directed like an orchestra under a conductor’s baton. Krupskaya vividly conveys Lenin’s attitude: “In answer to a question about the timing of the uprising he said: ‘I would put the uprising off till the spring, but we shan’t be asked anyway’.” (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, p. 132.)
About the Moscow uprising there has been a great deal of mythology, particularly created by the Stalinists. It is said that the initiative for the uprising belonged to the Bolsheviks. In reality, the Moscow uprising did not take place according to a definite plan. There was no direct order from the Central Committee. The initiative came from below – from the workers themselves. At the first Conference of fighting organisations of the RSDLP held in November 1906, a year after the uprising, the Central Committee’s representative, I.A. Sammer, dismissed the idea that the Central Committee had organised the whole thing, complaining that some comrades:
[H]ave too mechanical a conception of the circumstances which gave rise to the December uprising in Moscow and are painting too bold a picture of the role of the Central Committee in the calling of this uprising. The Central Committee, it seems, pressed a button and the insurrection burst forth. If the CC hadn’t done it, the uprising would not have taken place!
The leadership was, in fact, overwhelmed by events. Radov, the Bolshevik leader, later confessed in a moment of truth that the forces at the disposal of the Party were woefully unprepared: “We must now frankly acknowledge that in that respect our entire organisation and in part we, members of the Central Committee, were completely unprepared.”
That there was widespread support among the Moscow workers for the proposed action is not open to serious doubt. The Moscow workers, in contrast to the workers of Petersburg, were newly entering into the fray and impatient for action. A steady series of factory meetings pronounced for an insurrection. The mood of the factories affected the Moscow Soviet. The workers were pressing for action. The factories were in a tense mood of expectation, aware of the approach of the decisive moment. Zemlyachka recalls that when the Bolshevik local leaders got up to speak in the Soviet, the question was no longer in doubt; “it was written on the workers’ faces”. (Quoted in Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 136, pp. 141-42 and p. 137.) Only the factory delegates, wielding a red card, had a decisive vote. The parties, as elsewhere, had a consultative vote. When the vote was taken, a forest of calloused hands was raised, in favour of a general political strike on 7 December. The workers’ decision was unanimous. Under the circumstances, everyone knew that this was a vote for an uprising. The Menshevik right wing had reservations about the uprising, because of its effect on the liberals, but swallowed hard and decided to support it. The pressure from below proved irresistible. In fact, although the initiative came from the Bolshevik workers, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries also participated in the uprising. On 5 December, the Mensheviks proposed a general strike of the railway workers of Moscow. The vote in the Soviet was seconded by the railway workers, the postal workers, and the Polish workers in Moscow.
An attempt was made to organise solidarity action in Petersburg. The newly reconstituted St. Petersburg soviet called on the workers and peasants to second the Moscow general strike. Summoning up their last ounce of strength, the workers of St. Petersburg attempted to support their brothers and sisters in Moscow. On 8 December more than 83,000 in St. Petersburg came out. The railway workers also called a general strike. However, the attempt to organise such action in Petersburg did not achieve the desired result. The exhaustion produced by many months of uninterrupted struggle was too great. The workers had come out three times in nine weeks and were now tired of strikes. Against them was arraigned the might of the state and they had lost confidence in their own strength. After the failure of the strike, support from Petersburg was limited to the sending of arms. But it was already too late.
The initial spark for the uprising appears to have been a government provocation – troops were sent to disperse a couple of workers’ meetings. There were demonstrations and clashes between soldiers and militiamen. The first barricades were thrown up, and hostilities began in earnest. On 7 December the general strike began, involving more than 100,000 workers, increasing to 150,000 on the following day. On 7 and 8 December there were mass meetings and street demonstrations in Moscow with isolated clashes with the police and a general strike. The Moscow soviet published a daily paper, the Moscow Izvestiya, which attempted to draw the widest layers of the population into struggle. The leadership of the movement, however, showed itself to be unprepared for a decisive combat. There was vacillation at the decisive point when the general strike could have been converted into an armed insurrection. Meanwhile the regime was already preparing a counterstroke. On 8 December a mass meeting was broken up by the police and 37 people were arrested. Even then the Soviet did not react. In such circumstances, as Marx explained, indecision is fatal. In the words of the great French revolutionary, Danton, the first rule of insurrection is audacity, audacity and yet more audacity. In place of this there were vague calls in Izvestiya on 9 December “to continually preserve our forces in a state of extreme tension”. The Soviet was waiting for the troops to go over. There was in fact wavering among the troops but decisive action was needed for this to be translated into action. The workers instinctively tried to approach the troops, but fraternisation was not enough. Mere propaganda was a poor substitute for physical struggle, as Lenin put it. At this point, ‘propaganda of the deed’ was on the order of the day. Taking advantage of this hesitation the counter-revolution struck back on 9 December. In the course of the clashes there were many injured, killed, and arrested.
Only now did the masses realise the need for decisive action. There were not enough arms to go around, but the rebels counted on the support of the population and hoped that a sufficient number of the troops would go over to tip the balance in their favour. The workers’ militias immediately set about energetically disarming not only policemen but also soldiers to obtain weapons. The strike turned into an armed uprising, the masses participated in barricade building and clashes with police and troops. That the Bolshevik leaders were unsure of the capability of the Moscow leadership is shown by the decision of the Central Committee to send A.I. Rykov and M.F. Vladimirsky to Moscow to take charge of the situation. The fact that there were mistakes made is revealed by Lenin’s later comments. Answering Plekhanov’s famous remarks that “They should not have taken to arms!” Lenin said:
On the contrary, we should have taken to arms more resolutely, energetically and aggressively: we should have explained to the masses that it was impossible to confine ourselves to a peaceful strike, that a fearless and relentless armed fight was indispensable. (V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, English edition, Moscow 1047, vol. 1, p. 446.)
Only when the fighting had actually begun did Izvestiya give clear instructions to the fighting squads: “Don’t act in a mass, act as small units of 3 to 4 men, not more!” It also recommended against setting up barricades.
Don’t occupy fortified positions! Troops will always be able to take them or simply smash them with artillery! Let our fortresses be the alleyways and courtyards and all those places from which it is easy to shoot and easy to get away from! (Istoriya KPSS, vol. 2, p. 142.)
Workers were also advised to keep away from mass meetings. “We now need to fight and only to fight.”
Under the new conditions of street fighting, partisan detachments, linked to the mass movement and the general strike, clearly played a key role. The police and troops found themselves confronted with an invisible and omnipresent enemy. The great advantage was that the fighting squads, though small, enjoyed the support of the masses. On 9 and 10 December the first barricades were erected. Following the advice of the Soviet, the insurgents did not attempt to defend the barricades, but they served a useful purpose in slowing down the troops and hindering the deployment of cavalry. The soldiers were enveloped in a hostile environment where every block of flats was an enemy fortress; every doorway and street corner, a potential ambush. The soldiers and police would dismantle the barricades at night only to find them rebuilt by morning. Despite their overwhelming superiority in numbers and fire-power, the troops frequently found themselves in difficulties. More than once, the authorities must have held their breath at the sight of a city of one million inhabitants, the great majority composed of ‘the enemy’, locked in combat with an army of partially demoralised and unreliable troops. The Moscow proletarians fought like tigers. The fighting was particularly ferocious in the Presnya district, the centre of the textile industry. The peak of the armed insurrection was on 11 December. At one point the Moscow authorities were sufficiently alarmed to appeal for reinforcements. The government, still fearing an uprising in St. Petersburg, at first sent none.
Despite all this, the final outcome was never in doubt. Unless the troops came over, the workers were hopelessly outnumbered and out-gunned. The technical military side was woefully inadequate. In early December there were only 2,000 armed men and a further 4,000 militia men, but without arms. Of these, between 250 and 300 were in the Bolshevik militia, between 200 and 250 were Mensheviks, and about 150 SRs. In addition, the students, telegraph workers and other non-party groups also had their own militias. There were not enough arms to go around but they counted on the support of the population, and, hopefully, also of the troops. The militias had been set up with the main aim of preventing pogroms, a concrete question involving defensive struggle, and they were ill prepared for the task of going over to the offensive. To add to the problems, on 7 December the entire leadership was arrested. From the beginning it was clear the movement was poorly prepared and largely improvised. The fighting squads tended to concentrate on defending their own areas, instead of going onto the offensive. Despite the heroism of the Moscow workers, lack of arms, poor coordination, and absence of military skill began to tell at last. Once the barricades had been built, the unarmed populace could only play the role of onlookers. Their passive support boosted the morale of the fighting units and enabled them to hold out for longer than anyone had the right to expect.
On 13 December, the Moscow Mensheviks proposed calling a halt to the insurrection, but the Bolsheviks, under pressure from the workers, decided to continue. It is a debatable question to what extent the leaders were actually deciding events. The militias of not only the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, but also the SRs, were in no mood to give up the fight. As a result, the Bolshevik and Menshevik centres issued a joint declaration, Support the Moscow uprising!, appealing to the working class of Russia not to allow the government to put down the insurrection. But the situation had already decisively turned against the insurrection. The failure of the movement in Petersburg enabled the tsarist government to concentrate its forces on Moscow. The arrival of the Semyonovsky regiment on 15 December tipped the scales decisively against the insurrection. The irregular fighting forces of the insurgents were in no position to take on a frontal assault by the regular army. By 16 December, only one district, Presnya, still remained in rebel hands. That day the Soviet executive committee voted to end the strike. As an act of defiance, the Presnya Social Democratic district committee voted to end the strike only on the evening of 18 December. The gesture was to no avail. In the Presnya district there were about 350 to 400 armed militia men and 700 to 800 in the reserve – without arms – at the high point of the struggle. Red Presnya was bombarded into submission.
For two days and nights the Prokhorov cotton mill and the Schmidt furniture factories, which the workers had turned into fortresses with the support of the left-wing owners, were pulverised by artillery fire. The whole area was engulfed by flames. By nightfall of 17 December, Presnya fell to the government forces. Overwhelmed by superior forces, the Moscow leadership was compelled to call off the fighting on the 18th. On the following day, the general strike was also called off in order to prevent the further destruction of the cadres and to preserve all that was possible of the movement. The Moscow rising was at an end. The death toll, according to the Moscow Medical Union, was 1,059, of whom 137 were women and 86 children. The big majority were ordinary citizens. Casualties among fighting men on both sides were amazingly few. Only 35 soldiers were killed, including five officers. Then began the bloody chapter of mass arrests, shootings and deportations. Prisoners were shot down in cold blood. Workers’ children were taken to the police stations and beaten without mercy. Anyone who had sympathised with the workers’ cause was in danger. Nikolai Schmidt, the young manufacturer who had allowed the workers to use his factory as a base, suffered a tragic fate. Arrested after the uprising, he was barbarously treated by the police. They took him to the factory to show him their handiwork, pointing triumphantly to the bodies of the slaughtered workers. He was later murdered in prison.
The heroic proletariat of Moscow has shown that an active struggle is possible, and has drawn into this struggle a large body of people from strata of the urban population hitherto considered politically indifferent, if not reactionary. And yet the Moscow events were merely one of the most striking expressions of a ‘trend’ that has broken through all over Russia. The new form of action was confronted with gigantic problems which, of course, could not be solved all at once...
(V.I. Lenin, LCW, The Workers’ Party and its Tasks in the Present Situation, vol. 10, p. 94.)
Armed uprisings were not confined to Moscow. There were, in fact, a whole series of armed uprisings – in Kharkov, Donbas, Yekaterinoslav, Rostov-on- Don, the Northern Caucasus, and Nizhny-Novgorod and other centres. The national question also flared up with uprisings in Georgia and the Baltic states in particular. Even before the Moscow rising, there was a general strike and insurrection in Latvia. In Georgia, too, the December general strike gave rise to an armed uprising in the workers’ district of Tiflis (Tblisi), led by the legendary ‘Kamo’ (Ter-Petrosyan). This uprising was smashed by reactionary peasants. There were also uprisings in Siberia (railway workers) and in many other areas local ‘republics’ were declared. There were serious uprisings along the railway lines in the Donetsk region where battles occurred in several stations, attracting the support of peasants in the surrounding districts. In Yekaterinoslav news of the Moscow rising brought together Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Bundists, and SRs in united action for a political strike. There were strikes in mines and factories in the Donbas region organised by soviets or strike committees. In many areas there were clashes and battles with the army and police. The radicalisation of the Mensheviks is shown by the fact that they organised and led the uprising in Rostov-on-Don, which was smashed by Cossacks using artillery. But the Moscow rising did not succeed in arousing the proletariat of St. Petersburg. This proved a fatal weakness. The absence of an uprising in the capital meant that the government could concentrate its forces on crushing the workers of Moscow, and then put down the local movements one by one. In the end, the defeat in Moscow took the heart out of the movement.
Bitterly disappointed at the failure of the Petersburg working class to come to the aid of the rising, some sections of the Social Democrats initially blamed the workers of the capital for the defeat. Such reactions in a moment of despair are perhaps understandable. However, in later years, an entirely false interpretation of these events was unscrupulously put in circulation by the Stalinists, beginning with that notorious compendium of lies, Stalin’s Short Course which claimed that:
[T]he St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, being the Soviet of the most important industrial and revolutionary centre of Russia, the capital of the tsarist empire, ought to have played a decisive role in the revolution of 1905. However, it did not perform its task (!), owing to its bad, Menshevik leadership. As we know, Lenin had not yet arrived in St. Petersburg, he was still abroad. The Mensheviks took advantage of Lenin’s absence to make their way into the St. Petersburg Soviet (?) and to seize hold (?) of its leadership. It was not surprising under these circumstances that the Mensheviks Khrustalyov-Nosar, Trotsky (!), Parvus, and others managed to turn the St. Petersburg Soviet against the policy of an uprising. (J.V. Stalin, History of the CPSU (B), p. 128.)
This is a particularly crass way of expressing a theme which has since been repeated in a variety of keys. However, this ignorant slander was answered in advance by Lenin, who on innumerable occasions expressed his complete solidarity with the general tactical line adopted by the St. Petersburg Soviet.
In her memoirs of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls the prevailing mood among the St. Petersburg working class at the time:
The Central Committee called upon the proletariat of St. Petersburg to support the uprising of the Moscow workers, but no coordinating action was achieved. A comparatively raw district like the Moskovsky responded to the appeal, but an advanced district like the Nevsky did not. I remember how furious Stanislaw Wolski was – he had been agitating in that very district. He lost heart at once and all but doubted whether the proletariat was as revolutionary as he had thought it to be. He failed to take into account that the St. Petersburg workers were worn out by previous strikes, and most important of all, they realised how badly organised and poorly armed they were for a decisive struggle with tsarism. And it would be a struggle to the death, they had the example of Moscow to tell them.
Even in a revolutionary situation, different layers of the working class move at different speeds and at different times. To use a military analogy, the Achilles’ heel of the 1905 Revolution consisted of the fact that the bulk of the reserves were moving into action at a time when the advanced guard was worn out and incapable of continuing the struggle. This explains the apparently contradictory fact that the more backward working class districts were prepared to come out while the more advanced sections did not respond. The same observation holds good for the peasantry, without which the revolution in the towns was doomed to failure. Only in the course of 1906 did the movement in the villages assume massive proportions. By that time, however, the backbone of the working-class movement had already been broken, although this was far from clear at the time.
The December defeat was a heavy blow. In her biography of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls that:
The Moscow defeat was a very bitter experience for Ilyich. It was obvious that the workers had been badly armed, that the organisation had been weak, that even the links between Petersburg and Moscow had been poor. (N.K. Krupskaya, O Vladimirye Ilyiche, vol. 1, p. 142 and p. 159.)
Yet even after the December defeat, Lenin did not believe that the revolution had exhausted itself. Throughout the year 1906, there was a whole series of strikes and movements of the proletariat, which led Lenin to believe that revolution was still on the agenda. Far from criticising the Petersburg workers for not rushing to arms in December, Lenin gave the following evaluation of the situation:
Civil war is raging. The political strike, as such, is beginning to exhaust itself, and is becoming a thing of the past, an obsolete form of the movement. In St. Petersburg, for instance, the famished and exhausted workers were not able to carry out the December strike. On the other hand, the movement as a whole, though held down for the moment by the reaction, has undoubtedly risen to a much higher plane.
The peasant movement was growing and might yet have given a fresh impetus to the towns, particularly in the spring. The regime itself was in crisis, faced with the possibility of financial collapse. The inner cohesiveness of the armed forces was still in the balance. It was essential that the workers should husband their strength as far as possible for the decisive all-Russian struggle that lay ahead. And Lenin specifically warned the Petersburg workers against the danger of provocation:
It would be very much to the advantage of the government to suppress the still isolated actions of the proletariat. The government would like to challenge the workers of St. Petersburg immediately, to go into battle under circumstances that would be most unfavourable for them. But the workers will not allow themselves to be provoked, and will know how to continue on their path of independent preparation for the next all-Russian action. (LCW, The Workers’ Party and its Tasks in the Present Situation, vol. 10, p. 93 and p. 94.)
With the wisdom of hindsight, it is possible to see that the period from the October strike to the December uprising marked the high tide of the 1905 Revolution. With the defeat of the Moscow proletariat, the movement in the towns, despite the still powerful strike movement in 1906, had effectively been broken. The mighty upsurge of the peasantry came too late. The Party, which was weak and divided at the outset of the revolution, had grown impressively in the space of a few months, but the task of uniting and leading a movement of millions proved to be beyond the capabilities of a few thousand cadres, despite heroic endeavours and sacrifice. The incredible thing was not that the Russian Marxists had failed to lead the proletariat to victory in 1905, but the way in which a tiny handful of revolutionaries, with scarcely two decades of work behind them, had grown from insignificant propaganda circles to a powerful party, with tens of thousands of activists leading hundreds of thousands of workers, in the space of just a few months.
Although it was defeated, the revolution had not been in vain. In the same way, in science, even an unsuccessful experiment is not necessarily wasted. There are some similarities with the history of revolutions – though the human cost is, of course, incomparably greater. Without the experience of the Paris Commune and without the experience of 1905, the successful revolution of 1917 would have been impossible, as Lenin pointed out many years later:
All classes came out into the open. All programmatic and tactical views were tested by the action of the masses. In its extent and acuteness, the strike struggle had no parallel anywhere in the world. The economic strike developed into a political strike, and the latter into insurrection. The relations between the proletariat, as the leader, and the vacillating and unstable peasantry, as the led, were tested in practice. The Soviet form of organisation came into being in the spontaneous development of the struggle. The controversies of that period over the significance of the Soviets anticipated the great struggle of 1917–20. The alternation of parliamentary and non-parliamentary forms of struggle, of the tactics of boycotting parliament and that of participating in parliament, of legal and illegal forms of struggle, and likewise their inter-relations and connections – all this was marked by an extraordinary wealth of content. As for teaching the fundamentals of political science to masses and leaders, to classes and parties alike, each month of this period was equivalent to an entire year of ‘peaceful’ and ‘constitutional’ development. Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible. (LCW, “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, vol. 31, p. 27, my emphasis.)
The 1905 Revolution also had profound international effects. Overnight the idea of the general strike became a central issue in the discussions of the international workers’ movement. The revolution acted as an inspiration and a stimulus to the workers of the rest of Europe. In Germany there was a strike wave in 1905 – 508,000 workers were on strike – approximately four times more than in 1904. April 1906 saw the first political general strike in German history. Nor were the effects of the Russian Revolution confined to Europe. It had an effect on the developing revolutionary movements of the colonial peoples. In December 1905 Persia experienced its bourgeois revolution, which reached its peak in 1911. China in 1905 was also in the throes of a mass revolutionary movement associated with the bourgeois democrat Sun Yat-sen. This in turn prepared the Chinese bourgeois revolution of 1911–13. Turkey also saw the rise of a revolutionary movement. Like a heavy rock thrown into a still pond, the Russian Revolution made big waves capable of reaching very distant shores.
1905 was a decisive turning point. For the first time, revolutionary Social Democracy became a decisive force within the working class of the whole of Russia. Within a space of nine months, the movement underwent a complete transformation. The consciousness of the workers advanced by leaps and bounds on the basis of great events, which shook the foundations of all the old beliefs, habits, and traditions, compelling the working class to come to terms with the realities of its own existence. By a process of successive approximations, the working people tested one political option after another, from worker-priests and humble petitions, passing through economic strikes for better wages and conditions, constitutional reforms and imperial manifestos, bloody pogroms, street demonstrations, and workers’ self-defence squads, to the highest expression of the class struggle – the political general strike and armed insurrection. At each stage, the breaking free of the masses from their old illusions was marked by the rise and fall of political trends and accidental figures of all kinds. The Gapons and the Khrustalyov-Nosars for a brief instant loomed large upon the stage of history before vanishing forever, leaving no trace behind them. But the genuine revolutionary tendency represented by Bolshevism, despite all mistakes and inevitable ups and downs, advanced resolutely to its natural place at the head of the revolutionary proletariat. The theoretical, political, and organisational weapons which enabled the Bolshevik Party to lead the workers to victory in October 1917 were forged in the white heat of the revolution of 1905, and tempered in the long dark night of reaction which followed.
1 These figures were accepted as correct by Martov. See J. Martov et al, Obshchestvennoe Dvizhenie v Rossii v Nachale 20 Veka, vol. 3, 557.
2 Nor is this observation limited to the question of the Soviets. Marx derived his idea of what a workers’ state would be like from the Paris Commune of 1871, when the workers of Paris took power. The programme of the Commune was summed up by Marx in The Civil War in France, and later provided the basis for Lenin’s State and Revolution.
3 The quote can be found in Trotsky’s Works in Russian, Sochinyenyie, vol. 2, 435.