History: 1905 Russian Revolution – When workers gained a glimpse of power

The momentous events of 100 years ago, 1905, provided the working class in Russia with the understanding that it was a force capable of bringing industry to its knees, a force capable of turning railways, power, gas etc. on and off like a light-switch.

1905 Russian Revolution

When workers gained a glimpse of power

Most importantly, it gave the working class a glimpse of itself as a force capable of the socialist transformation of society.

1905 was the beginning of the Russian Revolution. It was the experiences of that year that ensured the successful overthrow of capitalism in 1917.

100 years on, there is still so much for us to learn. History is rich in lessons for Marxists and 1905 provides vital instruction for anyone wanting to change society. This article will only touch on some of the most salient points. Every reader, if they have not already done so, should read Trotsky’s 1905.

From the massacre of Bloody Sunday on 9 January (old calendar, 22 January new) the battle lines were drawn. The particular context for this struggle is crucial. Trotsky draws a devastating picture of the level of poverty borne by the poor peasants who made up the vast majority of the population. In some areas they lived on a diet of flour and wood shavings and the presence of cockroaches showed relative wealth.

Russia had never gone through the development of a national industrial capitalist class, as many western European countries had. So the tasks which the bourgeois democratic revolution had carried out in the 1789 French revolution – such as establishing parliamentary democracy and eliminating feudal and semi-feudal relations on the land – were left to the working class to achieve as part of the struggle for socialism.

At the same time the introduction of European capital’s loans and private enterprise meant that some of the peasantry were placed directly in the factory and the archaic towns were transformed in a relatively short period of time into centres of modern industry.

Trotsky’s study of this phenomenon led him to work out his theory of uneven and combined development. In this an economically backward country, when a more economically developed country plays a role in its industrial development, can skip certain stages that it seemed industry would have had to pass through to go forward.

From the off, this brand new working class was concentrated in workplaces much larger than those of Europe. One of the contradictions of capitalism is that it brings together those it exploits thus providing the opportunity for self-organisation. This, as we shall see, is one of the keys to capitalism’s downfall – the common experience of the workers in the huge work-place.

’Bloody Sunday’

The revoltionary year of 1905 started on 3 January when a strike broke out in a single factory. By the 7th the strike had spread to 140,000 workers, such was the dryness of the kindle amongst the workers following the Russian-Japanese war years and defeat.

An economic strike, sparked off by seemingly incidental causes, spread to tens of thousands of workers and was then transformed into a political event. On Sunday 9 January hundreds of thousands of workers marched on the Winter Palace in Petersburg. Their petition was held by a priest but it carried the slogans of the socialists.

The petition described all the oppressions and the insults which the people had to suffer. It listed everything from unheated factories to the absence of political rights under the tsar’s vicious regime. It demanded amnesty, public freedoms, separation of church from state, the eight-hour working day, a fair wage and the gradual transfer of the land to the people. And at the head of everything it placed the convening of a Constituent Assembly by universal and equal suffrage.

The march was peaceful but, at every corner, the masses were met by troops who fired all day long. By the end of the day the dead were counted in their thousands. This day, which became known as "Bloody Sunday", shattered popular illusions in the Tsar’s benevolence.

But the massacre’s effect on the working class was much more profound and significant than that. A wave of strikes swept the country from end to end, convulsing the entire body of the nation.

As Trotsky describes it, "the strike involved something like a million men and women. For almost two months, without any plan, in some cases without advancing any claims, stopping and starting, obedient only to the instinct of solidarity, the strike ruled the land."

A strike that was initially led by the Association of Factory and Plant Workers (an organisation which had its origins in the police) around economic demands had, in a matter of days, been transformed. It had become a political movement led by the social democrats (they were socialists not the same as the so-called social democrats of Europe today who have moved to the right and are responsible for huge attacks on the working class) whose political slogans were taken up by the masses

Ruling class divided

The working class was not the only class to be transformed by these events. The ruling class was divided on how to react. Tsarism replaced the façade of government with a much more brutal military dictatorship.

The capitalists, on the other hand, were unsure of how to react in the face of this mighty movement. They swung towards liberalism hoping that giving some ground to workers’ demands would return them to the factories. They did not understand that once the working class begins to understand that it is capable of completely ridding itself of the shackles of capitalism, a few meagre bribes will not suffice.

Later that year, industry would again seek the protection of the policeman’s whip. This vacillation between concession and repression by a weak capitalist class only gave confidence to the working class.

A description from the time shows the energy of the strike movement. "Trade after trade, factory after factory, town after town are stopping work. The railway personnel act as the detonators of the strike; the railway lines are the channels along which the strike epidemic spreads. Economic demands are advanced and satisfied, wholly or in part, almost at once."

These strikes, not always tactical, not always thought out, were manifestations of the working class recognising its new-found strength like Spiderman leaping from building to building coming to terms with his new-found faculties, testing their limits.

The working class discovered it had the ability to bring industry and production to a halt and to turn it back on as it wished. They discovered themselves as a class, as a force in society but as yet did not see the real task that lay before them. Striking was the means of expressing their class’s might but the overthrow of the system was the only way their goal could be permanently and lastingly achieved.

By night and day the new-found consciousness of the working class manifested itself in meetings at the universities, one of the few places it was not illegal to meet. People who had never before stepped into a university now rushed there as soon as their work ended. "The revolutionary word had escaped from underground and was filling the university halls, lecture rooms, taking in the slogans of the revolution".

Debates on tactics, politics, society and economics became a fact of life in the cities of Russia and from these discussions arose one of the most important ingredients for successful revolutions to take place.

Having begun to understand its own capability and its own needs as a class, the working class understood that to continue with the immediate struggle for power a new organisation was required. The Soviet (workers’ assembly), which grew up in 1905, provided them with the ability to plan and co-ordinate their actions.

Struggle intensifies

On 19 September, typesetters at Sytin’s print-works in Moscow went on strike for a shorter working day and a higher piece work rate. Born out of a demand for pay for apostrophes, the strike spread and spread. By the 24th, 50 print works were on strike. A programme of claims, drawn up on the 25th, provoked a clumsy attempt by the police to crush the strike.

But too late. Moscow bakers as well as printers joined the strike in solidarity. On 30 September railway workers began to move. An official conference of railwaymen’s deputies, convened to discuss pension funds, transformed itself into an independent trade union and political congress.

The idea of a general strike on the railways soon began to gain hold. Despite a somewhat hesitant start, from 7 October a shut-down of the railways paralysed the country, its once healthy arteries now blocked. And it spread. No detail was overlooked in the task of halting all industrial and commercial life; power stations, telegraphs, lifts and winches. Everything that could move didn’t.

Only the will of the strikers could re-energise things. "When it [the strike] needed news bulletins of the revolution it opened the printing works; it used the telegraph to send out strike instructions; it let trains carrying strikers’ delegates pass."

On 13 October the constituent meeting of the Soviet was held. The strikes had fulfilled their task. The opponents were face-to-face. The working class could see its objective, but a further step of self-organisation was required. The power still had to be snatched from the old rulers before a new society could be built.

The workers saw the Soviet as their government. It was democratic and accountable. It was a working class organisation from the start and its members understood that its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.

This picture of struggle and self-organisation was not limited to the cities alone. The peasants, who endured massive hardships under the Tsar and the landowning system, rose up against the landlords and seized land and livestock. They burned houses and boycotted rents.

Appeal to peasantry

The soviet recognised that the peasants would be an important ally in the revolution and political agitators organised meetings and encouraged them to adopt resolutions on the abolition of private ownership of the land. This drove a wedge between the landowners and the peasants.

By August peasant congresses were taking place. But certain characteristics of the peasants meant that, although they could play an important role in the revolution, it would always be secondary.

Trotsky explained that it is the heterogeneous and scattered nature of the peasant class that prohibits their playing an individual role and means they will always be pulled behind the working class or the ruling class. In 1905 the working class instinctively understood the need to appeal to the peasants and thus won them to their banner.

The film-maker Eisenstein has ensured that the battleship Potemkin and its crew are forever immortalised and Trotsky has ensured that we understand the role of the army and navy in a revolutionary period.

Lessons for today

Among the important lessons of the 1905 revolution were the need to organise the countryside and to put forward common demands that would ensure the loyalty of the peasants to the urban working class; to appeal to the rank and file of the army and for the working class to be armed in order to defend itself against the attacks of the capitalist state.

These latter two were not learnt in time to ensure victory on this occasion. The tragic struggle of the Potemkin was one of many attempts by sections of the armed forces to join the challenge for power.

In the armies and navies the most revolutionary sections were the skilled and technically trained soldiers recruited from among industrial workers rather than the infantry soldiers who came from the illiterate peasantry.

The tragic end for such a year of heroism came in December when the forces of the state were able to outgun the forces of the revolution, which, although greater in courage and determination, were poorer in arms.

The defeat of 1905 was followed by a period of black reaction. One of the bitterest lessons of the year followed the joyous lessons of the Soviet. The worker, having laid down his hammer, but not having yet replaced it with a weapon, was unable to defend himself when the reactionary Black Hundreds came to carry out pogroms, torture and destruction on behalf of the state. They were recruited from the poorest, the most desperate and disorganised and fuelled by vodka and bigotry.

But it was not in vain. Lenin, leader of the 1917 Russian revolution, described the revolutionary party as the memory of the working class. Trotsky, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had learned from the mistakes and importantly from the achievements of 1905 and put them to the test in 1917 when the working class rose again.

Crucially they understood that spontaneity and the working class’s revolutionary instinct are insufficient for a successful revolution. A party able to channel the power of the working class is also vital.

A party well versed in Marxism and the lessons of history can ensure that the working class of the 21st century do not make the same mistakes. 1905 teaches us how quickly events can develop and gain momentum.

Worldwide the Socialist Party, and its sister organisations in the CWI are fighting to develop such a party which can act as a lever. Trotsky, in his book The History of the Russian Revolution, wrote: "Without guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box. But nevertheless, what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam".

The year 1905 is vital for us to study but we must also understand the differences between that time and place and our own. The rapid growth of the working class meant that class consciousness was at a higher level than it is today.

There was also more confidence in fighting for socialism. The majority of workers today, following the collapse of Stalinism in the 1990s, do not yet feel the possibility or the urgency of the need to transform society as those who toiled under the Tsar’s vicious regime did.

But this situation cannot last forever. Capitalism by its very nature cannot provide a decent life for even half of the world’s population despite the wealth of resources and technology that exists. Our experience of life under a system driven solely by profit forces us to draw the conclusion that we need to fight to rid ourselves of it.

Some have already drawn that conclusion. Many who were involved in the anti-war movement see that while capitalism still exists, war and terror will destroy more and more lives. In Britain many workers feel the pinch of the attacks made by Thatcher and then by New Labour but at this stage the majority are not being forced out onto the streets in protest. Events and experience determine consciousness and the increased attacks on rights and conditions that a Labour third term would entail will have a profound effect.

Mass struggles are taking place in other parts of the world. In Nigeria for example, where land is taken from the people by the multinationals who then sell the oil back to the people at unaffordable prices, millions have taken part in strike action over the last year alone.

From these and other experiences of the profit-driven nature of capitalism, increasing numbers are drawing socialist conclusions around the world. The Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) in Nigeria is the fastest-growing section of our socialist international, the Committee for a Workers International (CWI).

But we cannot rely on events alone. The transition from capitalism to socialism will not happen automatically. It is a process that needs the conscious intervention of the working class.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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January 2005