History: 1905 Russian Revolution – The working class shows its strength

The Russian Revolution of 1905 began on Sunday 9 January, after more than one thousand people – men, women and children – were massacred by military guards outside the Winter Palace of the tsar.

Russian Revolution 1905

The working class shows its strength

They were part of a 200,000 strong procession demanding concessions from the tsar to stop living conditions worsening every day. The Bloody Sunday massacre gave rise to the strongest workers’ struggle seen so far anywhere in the world, with mass general strikes and preparations for an armed uprising of the workers. The peasant masses in the countryside arose in numerous occupations and evictions of landlords. It took more than two years for the most savage counter-revolution – pogroms, massacres, mass detentions – to save the reactionary tsarist regime, despite its massive backing from international capitalists and reactionaries.

The first Russian revolution a century ago needs to be studied by workers and youth globally. It contains valuable lessons for today’s struggles and revolutionary movements. These include:

  • Revolutionary events are the consequence of insoluble economic and class contradictions, which develop below the surface, even in seemingly stable societies.
  • The enormous strength of the working class as a revolutionary force. In Russia in 1905, a few million workers held the whole country in their grip. Previously "impossible" demands – shorter working hours, freedom of assembly and press – were achieved through struggle. Workers councils – known as Soviets in Russia – developed as the democratic leadership of the working class during the revolution.
  • The role of the capitalist (bourgeois) class and counter-revolution. The Russian and the international bourgeois classes were prepared to accept any armed reactionary, racist force to defeat the workers. The counter-revolutionary violence resulted in 14,000 people killed between January 1905 and April 1906, with another 1,000 executed, 20,000 wounded and 70,000 imprisoned.
  • The peasant masses will follow the lead given from the cities, either the working class or the capitalist class. A real land reform requires a mass uprising of the peasantary, but can only be consolidated if the working class is victorious in the cities.
  • The relationship between the working class, the peasant masses and the national capitalist class are especially important in less developed capitalist countries, which today are the neo-colonial or former colonial countries. The tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution can only be fulfilled by a working class and internationalist revolution.
  • A revolution cannot stop half way. The setting up of the workers’ councils, the Soviets, created a dual power parallel to the state power. This could only exist for a limited period, in the end either the working class or the capitalists had to defeat the other.
  • Above all 1905 showed the need for a revolutionary party to lead the revolution. The leadership of Trotsky in the Soviet and Lenin’s leadership of the Bolsheviks was invaluable in 1905 and even more so in the victorious revolution 12 years later, in 1917. Marxist activists with deep roots in the working class, educated by the party, able to organise and lead struggle were decisive at every stage.

The tsarist state in turmoil

A major strike movement in 1902-03 preceded the 1905 revolution. But the main factor triggering the events of 1905 was the war between Russia and Japan in 1904. Russian troops were humiliatingly defeated, and this raised hopes among both workers and the capitalist class that the regime of the Russian tsar could be ended. Defeatism – hopes of a military defeat – was widespread in Russia. The costs of the war were laid on the shoulders of workers and peasants, which increased the opposition to the war.

Russia under the tsar was a classic example of combined and uneven development. Upon a stagnating, underdeveloped, largely rural economy was built a grotesque repressive state apparatus with a huge, relatively modern army. Modern capitalism from Western Europe made inroads to Russia by lending capital into the tsar, and more importantly by establishing the big manufacturing industries in St Petersburg and other cities. This created an unofficial alliance between the Western capitalists and the tsarist regime, with some certain similarities to the relationship between today’s transnational corporations and the regime in China. The reactionary regime of the tsar served the purposes of the Western capitalists.

Because of this process, the underdevelopment of the Russian capitalist class was even more pronounced. The Russian capitalist class were extremely weak as a social force, and in many cases they were also intertwined with the landlords representing the feudal society which in Russia existed parallel to capitalism. Because of the late arrival of capitalism in Russia, the capitalist class could not play the role the French bourgeoisie did in the classic revolution 1789-1815.

Bourgeois-democratic revolution with working class leadership

From these circumstances, Leon Trotsky developed the theory of the permanent revolution. The Russian social democrats (Both reformists and revolutionaries were organised in social democracy until World War I and the Russian revolution in 1917.) saw the coming Russian revolution as bourgeois-democratic in character. The task was to "update" Russia in line with the bourgeois-capitalist models in Western Europe. But while the Mensheviks (minority) concluded from this that working class should be subordinate to the national capitalist class, the Bolsheviks (majority) stressed that the working class had to take the leadership, independently of the bourgeoisie.

The Mensheviks repeated that a bourgeois revolution should have a bourgeois leadership, and that any hope of the working class playing a leading role was utopian. The Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Lenin, aimed for the "democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants", which would give an impetus to the world revolution at the same time as the outcome of this regime was left open.

Trotsky, who sided with the Mensheviks in the first split of 1903 but soon broke with them, went further in this question than Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Trotsky agreed that the workers must play the leading role, but stressed in advance that they could not halt at the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. To achieve real land reform, solve the national question, and develop the economy – the revolution would have to proceed onto the tasks of the proletarian revolution, i.e. to fight against and expropriate the capitalists, and spread the revolution internationally. The events in 1905, and again in 1917, confirmed Trotsky’s anticipation completely. 1905 was a "bourgeois revolution without a revolutionary bourgeoisie", he commented.

Both the Bolsheviks and Trotsky stressed the international perspective. The outcome in Russia was "hopeless" without assistance from the working class in Europe, Lenin commented.

The industrial working class was a small proportion of the total population of Russia, but highly concentrated in huge industries. Of a population of 150 million in the 1897 census, 3.3 million were employed in mining and processing industries, transport, building and commercial industries. In 1902, 38.5 per cent of the factory workers in Russia worked in workplaces with 1,000 or more workers. In Germany, a much more developed economy it was 10 per cent. The young, highly concentrated Russian working class was set to play a leading role.

Bloody Sunday

The big strikes in 1902-03, the Russo-Japanese war, and the crisis created by the war led to ferment in all layers of society. In November 1904, this was reflected in a resolution from 100 prominent liberal personalities in the village committees, the zemstvos. Their key demands were "public freedom" and "popular representation", but it was left to the tsar to decide how and when. They did not even demand a constitution. Soon, students and workers would go much further than the zemstvos and the liberals. The regime blamed the zemstvo declaration for the growing unrest, but failed to calm things down despite a mix of concessions and repressive measures.

In January, the working class in Petersburg went into action. On 7 January, 140 000 workers were on strike. The strike was organised by a union, Assembly of Russian Factory Workers of St Petersburg, led by the priest, Father Georgi Gapon, and sponsored by the secret police, the Okhrana. The tsarist regime had a tradition of infiltrating opposition groups in order to crush them.

Starting as a strike for economic demands, the movement of 1905 soon became political. The accidental leader of the movement, the radical Father Gapon, found himself organizing a march to deliver a workers’ petition to the tsar. The petition showed the incredible level of anger that existed among the workers, saying "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". The demands were an eight-hour working day, a fair wage and democratic rights, including the universal and equal right to vote for a Constituent Assembly.

The march on 9 January was peaceful, and even included icons and church banners. The massacre, however, was well prepared, with soldiers firing from short distance into the crowd for most of the day. More than a thousand people were killed [some say hundreds, others, two thousand] and many more were wounded.

This major event established the dividing line for the revolution, between the working class and the tsarist state. After 9 January, a military regime was established with general Trepov leading the repression. But the workers were already on the move, with strikes in January and February spreading to 122 towns and villages. Strikes continued during the spring, for example railway strikes in April and July. In June the famous rebellion aboard the battleship Potemkin aroused hope before state forces crushed it.

The October show of strength

In the autumn, the movement resurged, even stronger than in the beginning of the year. The general strike in October was the biggest and most famous general strike internationally up to then. In Germany, it ignited a big wave of strikes, involving 500,000 workers throughout the year 1905. In Sweden, it strengthened workers’ opposition to the threat from the ruling class of a war to prevent Norway’s independence. Generally, the revolution in Russia received very strong international support. "The world has never seen a mightier strike", the Swedish daily paper, Social Demokraten, wrote, stressing that the strikers’ programme covered everything from wage demands to a new state. The solidarity is shown by the fact that 20 000 workers marched in Stockholm on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1906.

The October strike started with a strike of print workers in Moscow. They were followed by print workers in Petersburg and then by the railway workers, who declared a general strike from 9 October in Moscow. "It was as if almost all of Russia had been waiting for this signal", wrote the pro-capitalist US author, Allan Moorehead, in is his history of the Russian revolution. He mentioned "the corps of ballet" going on strike and that there were "no bakers willing to bake bread".

The demands were again for the eight-hour working day, amnesty for political prisoners, civil liberties and a Constituent Assembly. The state and the capitalists were completely unable to stop the wave of strikes. Apart from total strikes in most industries, shops and even the law courts took action. On 13 October, the political strike was total in Petersburg and on the 17 October it had reached more than 40 cities, including Warsaw and Riga – today capitals of Poland and Latvia. The strike gathered huge meetings of strikers and supporters, and it defended itself against cossacks and soldiers. The strike methods were followed by students and liberal professions, soldiers attended strike meetings – this revolutionary ferment "created unbelievable panic in the government’s ranks" (Trotsky in his book, 1905). The answer from the tsarist regime was on the one hand a "democratic" manifesto of 17 October, promising concessions, on the other unleashing the Black Terror.

In September, Russia had agreed to a humiliating peace deal with Japan. This underlined the weakness of the tsar, at the same time as it left the regime just one front to fight on – against the revolution.

The Soviet

On 10 October, a workers’ council, the Soviet, was formed in Petersburg. 30-40 workplace delegates took part in the meeting, but the Soviet was soon to become the main leadership of the revolution. With delegates for every 500 workers, it held meetings at every stage of the revolution until it was disbanded by state repression in December. In November its 562 delegates represented 200,000 workers. The representatives of the print workers set the tone: "Recognizing the inadequacy of passive struggle and of the mere cessation of work, we resolve: to transform the army of the striking working class into a revolutionary army, that is to say, to organize detachments of armed workers forthwith. Let these detachments take care of the arming of the rest of the working masses, if necessary by raiding gun shops and confiscating arms from troops wherever possible." Soviets were built in all major cities.

It was the general strike that forced the tsar to issue the manifesto of 17 October, which opened the door for elections to a state duma, a kind of tsar-controlled parliament. This regime which perceived itself to be God’s appointees with a right to rule for ever was humiliated further when the striking print workers refused to print the manifesto. The Soviet resolution on press freedom ruled that no paper would be printed unless its editors ignored state censorship.

Outside Petersburg, the strikers started to go back to work. Despite the promises made in the tsar’s manifesto, however, Trotsky and other leaders of the Soviet warned against any illusions. The state apparatus was the same. Even on the night of the 17th, troops occupied universities and disrupted the meeting of the Soviet in St Petersburg.

Counter-revolution in action

General Trepov prepared a massacre of a planned funeral demonstration on 23 October. The Soviet then decided to cancel the funeral march, stating "the Petersburg proletariat will give final battle to the Tsarist government not on the day of Trepov’s choice".

Counter-revolution always acts in the shadow of revolution, constantly testing how far it can go. As soon as the general strike started to wind down, "a hundred of Russia’s towns and villages were transformed into hells… Fires devoured entire streets with their houses and inhabitants. This was the old order’s revenge for its humiliation", Trotsky wrote. The composition of the Black Hundreds was a forerunner of the fascist mass movements in Italy and Germany some decades later, with criminals, petty bourgeois reactionaries and warmongers as members. The pogroms, directed against workers’ agitators and particularly Jews, killed 3,500 to 4,000 people and seriously wounded another 10,000.

The only factor checking the Black Hundreds was the resistance of the workers, including militias. In Petersburg, no pogrom took place.

The November strike

The October strike had set the stage for the showdown between the revolutionary workers and the state. The capitalists, imperialism and the tsar realised that the manifesto had failed to calm the movement. At the end of October, the state crushed a revolt in Kronstadt, and the whole of Poland was placed under martial law, as well as large regions with strong peasant movements.

The response of the Soviet was to proclaim a new general strike for 2 November. "The success of the appeal surpassed all expectations. Despite that barely two weeks had passed since the cessation of the October strike which had required so much sacrifice, the workers of Petersburg stopped work with extraordinary unanimity", Trotsky commented. The strike was a tremendous show of strength and of the authority of the Soviet. Martial law in Poland and the threat of execution of the Kronstadt rebels was lifted. The strike was called off on 7 November.

The leadership of the workers – in the Petersburg Soviet that was Trotsky and the Bolshevik faction – aimed to win more time to prepare for the final confrontation with the state. During the strikes the Soviet assumed the role as an alternative state apparatus. It organised functions itself had closed down, such as post, railways and the telegraph. Even capitalist industrialists had to plead to the Soviet, in order to send, for example, a private telegram. The Soviet also organised patrols for the security in the cities, it was the upholder of press freedom and the main source of information. This power could not coexist with the tsarist state for more than for a limited period.

The Soviet prepares for insurrection

The Soviet could not back down. It knew the repression of state very well. The unknown factor – until the battle – was the exact strength of the combatants. The leadership knew that the mood in the army was decisive, and that the army would not cross over to the side of the working class until they saw the determination of the masses. In October-November increasing numbers of soldiers attended meetings of the workers. On 11 November, the sailors in Sevastopol revolted and for some days controlled most of the Black Sea Fleet and protected the city against pogroms. This armed uprising was defeated when army soldiers hesitated to support the sailors. Torpedo boats controlled by the rebels were sunk by artillery fire and the leaders arrested and executed.

The peasant movement also gained momentum. At the end of 1905, more than 2,000 landlord’s estates were burned down all over the country. National peasant congresses were held in August and in the beginning of November.

The struggle for national liberation also received an enormous impetus from the revolution. Again, it was the workers in Poland, the Baltics and Caucasuses that lead the struggle. The liberal or nationalist bourgeois forces were lagging behind and when the defeat came closer they turned against the revolution.

In Finland the strikes in November and December achieved bigger concessions than in any other part of the tsarist empire. Red militias took control of several cities, and the tsar declared universal suffrage in Finland (the first country in Europe to do so at that time). The social democratic party won 80 out of 200 seats in this parliament.

With ferment still going on among soldiers and peasants, the national liberation struggle moving ahead, strong fighting spirit among the workers and the counter-revolution preparing its forces, the Soviet had no choice but to prepare for battle. "If battles were engaged only in the certainty of victory, there would be no battles fought in this world", Trotsky answered those who – in hindsight – said that the Soviet should have avoided the battle. "Class struggle is not like bookkeeping as the some reformist trade union leaders might believe, he said.

Menshevik and liberal leaders complained that the Soviet scared away potential allies amongst the capitalist class. The Soviet showed the strength of the working class, threatening capitalist factory owners and their profits. Lenin answered these arguments in "Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution" (written in June-July 1905): "Marxism teaches the proletarian not to keep aloof from the bourgeois revolution, not to be indifferent to it, not to allow the leadership of the revolution to be assumed by the bourgeoisie but, on the contrary, to take a most energetic part in it, to fight most resolutely for consistent proletarian democracy, for carrying the revolution to its conclusion." The bourgeoisie had already pulled out of the struggle, Lenin pointed out, and that was what the workers’ party wanted. The revolution would go ahead, not under the leadership of the bourgeoisie, but despite its inconsequential nature and cowardice. After the 17 October manifesto, the liberals aimed for a deal with the tsar, and regarded the workers’ struggle as a hindrance to that. The liberals willingly accepted the tsar to continue as the supreme ruler if they were granted a duma-parliament.

The liberals, and later the Mensheviks, accused the Soviet and particularly the Bolsheviks for talking too much about armed insurrection. Lenin answered, "Civil war is being forced on the population by the government itself". Trotsky, in his speech for the defence in front of the court he was charged in after the revolution, declared "to prepare for the inevitable insurrection… meant to us first and foremost, enlightening the people, explaining to them that open conflict was inevitable, that all that had been given to them would be taken away again, that only might can defend right, that powerful organisation of the working class was necessary, that the enemy had to be met head on, that the struggle had to be continued to the end, that there was no other way".

In mid-November the postal and telegraph workers went on strike again. When news came that a railway engineer was condemned to death, the railway workers gave the government an ultimatum, to stop execution or face a new all-out railway strike. Again, the government retreated, but as Trotsky commented, this was the last victory of the revolution. The liberal bourgeoisie started to turn their back to the workers, who themselves felt a life-or-death-battle approaching. The tsar himself began to openly take the leadership of the reactionary forces.

December: The Moscow strike and its defeat

On 26 November the elected chairman of the Petersburg Soviet, Khrustalev, was arrested. Protesting against this, a new presidium was elected, this time with Trotsky in the chair, and the Soviet declared its purpose to "continue to prepare for an armed insurrection". On 2 December, eight newspapers that had printed a manifesto of the Soviet were confiscated. Strikes were banned for railways, postal and telegraph workers. The following day the delegates of the Petersburg Soviet, including Trotsky, were arrested.

On 7 December the Moscow Soviet announced another political general strike to start two days later, the event that came to be the final showdown. 150,000 workers took part in the strike. Workers militias were formed. Groups of policemen were disarmed. From 10 December bloody clashes took place, starting with soldiers firing into peaceful meetings of unarmed workers. For nine days approximately 1,500-2,000 armed workers (7-800 from the left parties, 500 from the railway union and 400 print workers) were able to block the mighty army of the tsar. This was because of the support the workers had from mass of the population. But in the long run, the workers were exhausted. The military with reinforcements from other cities and its reactionary attachments got the upper hand. In Petersburg, the strike collapsed already on 12 December, and on the 17th it was ended in Moscow. Trotsky estimates the number of killed in Moscow to more than 1,000 – including 86 children. A report from the Baltic region, where the counter-revolution was particularly vicious, numbered 749 executed.

Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Trotsky

"The extreme parties have gained strength because, in sharply criticising all the government’s actions they all too often proved to be right", a secret memorandum of a leading minister stated in November. The main party gaining was the Social Democratic Labour Party, RSDLP. Two years earlier, at the second Congress in 1903, the party split into two: Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Combined, the two had a couple of hundred members and a few thousand sympathisers in St Petersburg.

The revolution on one hand forced the two wings closer together, as Lenin later commented. On the other hand, it underlined the differences. For Leon Trotsky, who in 1903 supported the Mensheviks, the revolution cemented his political break with them. For Georgi Plekhanov, who was among the Bolsheviks in 1903, the revolution finalised his departure to the Mensheviks.

During the revolution, the leadership of the Mensheviks orientated towards the liberals in the zemstvos. The Mensheviks supported the "liberal" Kadet party, which at the time claimed to be in "full solidarity with the strike movement". Later, as Trotsky and the Bolsheviks had predicted, the liberals took a completely opposite position, accusing the working class for the reaction of the counter-revolution.

The Bolsheviks had a completely different orientation. They organised a third Congress of the RSDLP, without the Mensheviks, in the spring of 1905, stressing the need for the workers to organise independently from the bourgeoisie. During the revolution, the Bolsheviks were mainly building the party in the workplaces. The problem of the Bolsheviks was sectarianism towards first the movement of Father Gapon and later towards the Soviet. Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, relates in her biography of Lenin his criticism of the "committee men" of the party, who feared that the party would dissolve in the Soviet.

Lenin’s view on organisation was extremely flexible, not the caricature of Stalinism and anti-Communists in the West. From the beginning of the revolution, Lenin aimed for a more open and "loose" party with a mass base. "Hundreds of new organisations should be set up for the purpose without delay. Yes, hundreds; this is no hyperbole, and let no one tell me that it is ‘too late’ to tackle such a broad organisational job", Lenin wrote in February. The "committee men" actually defeated him over such a plan at the Congress.

Later, however, events in combination with Lenin’s arrival in November, made the party building leap forward. In the end of 1905 the Bolsheviks had 8,400 members, in April 1906, when the first duma was convened, 13,000, and in 1907 46,000 members – for the first time bigger than the Mensheviks.

Leon Trotsky, who was only 25 years old, became the most prominent leader of the revolution. As opposed to other leading social democrats, Trotsky came back to Russia already in February. He later had to go underground in Finland, but followed events closely and came back in October to become the principal leader of the Soviet. He was the spokesman of the Soviet and wrote most of its resolutions. Trotsky’s book 1905 is the best account of the revolution and its debates. Trotsky’s mistake in that period and up to 1917 was to underestimate the party building of the Bolsheviks. He still hoped that the best of the Mensheviks could be won to a united party. In 1917, he admitted this mistake and joined the Bolsheviks.

The social democrats in the Soviet were mostly united and achieved majority support. Their two newspapers, the Bolshevik’s Vperjod and Trotsky’s Nachalo held similar political positions – and had a print run of more than 50,000 each. In October and November, the social democrats were able to avoid the head-on battle with the state. This was not possible in December for political and strategic reasons. However because of the strength of the state apparatus and its determination to smash revolutionary organisations, the revolutionary movement suffered a defeat.

Unity and Rosa Luxemburg

The masses also influenced the party. There was a strong pressure for unity between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. In many cities there was no split on the ground. Lenin himself recognised this process. In Stockholm in 1906 and in London in1907 unity Congresses of the RSDLP were organised. In general the Mensheviks did not change their positions, rather they stepped up their criticism of the Bolsheviks when the defeat of the revolution was clear. On other issues, changes took place. For example, the Stockholm Congress agreed to Lenin’s position on the party constitution, the issue that sparked the split in 1903. Both wings boycotted the elections to the first duma, in April 1906, as a diversion from the revolution. Before the second duma, however, Lenin was against a boycott and even voted with the Mensheviks against ultra-left Bolsheviks on that issue.

The revolution proved the difficulty to analyse a living struggle. It was not until later that the December strike was recognised as the peak of the revolution. For another year, new struggles developed. Krupskaya reports how the police force continued to be disorganised for the whole of 1906. However, Paul Frölich writes in his biography of Rosa Luxemburg, how in 1906 the workers gradually lost the positions they had conquered despite continued demonstrations, strikes peasant struggles. "At the same time, however, the official terror of the absolutist power intensified: pogroms, punitive expeditions (particularly in the Baltic provinces), mass shootings, summary court martials, executions and an ever increasing flow of exiles to Siberia".

Rosa Luxemburg, with a Jewish-Polish background, arrived from Germany to Warsaw in December 1905. She immediately played a leading role in the Polish part of the revolution and in the Polish social democratic party, SDKPiL, which increased its membership from 25,000 in 1905 to 40,000 in 1907. In March 1906, Rosa Luxemburg was arrested.

Her experiences from the revolution, however, played a key role in the debates within the German social democracy in the coming years. Back in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg felt like a "fish out of water". In opposition to the rightwing leadership of the German social democracy, and the even more right wing leadership of the trade unions, she advocated mass strikes as a key weapon in the class struggle in Western Europe.

In Russia, it was not until the upsurge of the workers’ struggle in 1912 the Bolsheviks formally became a party of its own. The building of the Bolsheviks in 1905, and in the struggles 1912-14, was crucial for the outcome in 1917. In 1905 the organisation and strength of the working class was not enough to defeat the tsarist state. Twelve years later, events in Russia shook the world.



Leon Trotsky: "1905"

Lenin: "Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution" and other writings from 1905

Isaac Deutscher: "Prophet Armed"

EH Carr: "The Russian Revolution"

Paul Le Blanc: "Lenin and the revolutionary party"

Paul Frölich: "Rosa Luxemburg"

Krupskaya: "Lenin"

Alan Moorehead: "The Russian revolution"

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January 2005