Remembering 1905, a Hundred Years Later

Leon Trotsky and the First Russian Revolution

by Michael G. Livingston


A version of this article is scheduled to appear in the May issue of Socialist Action newspaper. For a one-year subscription, send $8 to Socialist Action, 298 Valencia St., San Francisco, California 94103.

For the Russian revolutionaries of 100 years ago, the 1905 revolution was a rich learning experience. Years later, Lenin referred to 1905 as the “dress rehearsal for the October Revolution” of 1917. And while it was not a dress rehearsal in the sense that 1917 exactly replayed 1905, it was a dress rehearsal in the sense that the Marxist revolutionaries learned an enormous amount, developed their political theory and organizing skills, and emerged as a distinct and potent political current. Even a little study of the history of the 1905 revolution yields enormous benefits to serious activists one hundred years later.

The 1905 revolution actually lasted three years. Starting in late 1904, it exploded in January of 1905, reaching a high point in October, November, and December of that year. In 1906 and 1907 a counterrevolution took place, including trial and imprisonment of activists, closing of newspapers and unions, and assassinations. The revolution can be considered to have been thoroughly defeated by mid-1907 when the second Duma (the Russian parliament established as a concession to the revolution) was dissolved.

Leon Trotsky was an active participant in the 1905 revolution and main leader of the unique organization that emerged out of the revolution—the St. Petersburg Soviet, or workers council. He also wrote one of the first histories of the revolution, still probably the best. (The book was first published in German in 1909, when Trotsky was in exile in Vienna, although it contains material he was writing, and speeches he was making, in the thick of the events.) Trotsky’s 1905 is both a scholarly history of the events of that year and a dramatic first-person account. What is more, Trotsky’s book is a political summing-up of the revolution that contains many lessons for serious revolutionaries.

1.

“On the other hand, the logic of the class struggle does not exempt us from the necessity of using our own logic. Whoever is unable to admit initiative, talent, energy, and heroism into the framework of historical necessity, has not grasped the philosophical secret of Marxism. But conversely, if we want to grasp a political process—in this case, the revolution—as a whole, we must be capable of seeing, behind the motley of parties and programs, behind the perfidy and greed of some and the courage and idealism of others, the proper outlines of the social classes whose roots lie deep within the relations of production and whose flowers blossom in the highest spheres of ideology” (p. 37; all quotes are from the 1971 Vintage edition of Trotsky’s 1905).

Trotsky begins 1905 with four chapters on the history of Russia, including a history of the tsarist autocracy (the Russian monarchy headed by the Romanov dynasty), a history of capitalist development in Russia, a history of the peasantry and the agrarian question, and a chapter on the driving forces of the revolution. Above all, these chapters show how Trotsky and other Social Democrats (the name at the time of the party of revolutionary Marxists) grounded their politics in an analysis of the reality of their country.

Trotsky then turns in the fifth chapter to the events of the last four months of 1904, when the revolution really started. In response to a severe military defeat at the hands of Japan in early 1904 and the negative effects that the Russo-Japanese war had on the economy, criticism of rule by the tsar increased. In response, Tsar Nicholas II made several minor political concessions, which slightly opened the political system. A wave of protest then poured forth. Much of this protest was initiated by liberals, who convened a zemstvo congress in early November 1904. The congress adopted a 10-point program calling for cosmetic changes in the autocratic system of rule in Russia—but it dared not even call for a constitution or an elected parliament. The congress also initiated a banquet campaign that started on November 5, 1904, and ended on January 8, 1905. (For a number of details in this review I have relied on Ascher’s history of the 1905 revolution. While Trotsky supplies many facts and details, he wrote his book for an audience that was much more familiar with events than we are today. Consequently, the reader of Trotsky’s classic needs to acquire some background on the revolution from other sources.) The banquet campaign consisted of dinners or banquets in which the attendees passed resolutions or drafted petitions that were sent to Tsar Nicholas. Because these were “private dinners” and not political meetings, the participants circumvented government control. The campaign generated an enormous outpouring of criticism against the government. Most of the dinners included speeches on the need for reform in the autocracy, so they were also educational events.

2.

“…the course of the class struggle is not determined by political ideology” (p. 190).

The banquet campaign ultimately led nowhere. It was replaced and overshadowed by an event that precipitated the revolutionary upheaval of 1905—January 9, 1905, known immediately afterward and forever as Bloody Sunday. The events leading up to Bloody Sunday have a curious history.

While the ineffective liberal campaign was bumbling on, growing opposition was building in the working class. In the summer of 1903 in St. Petersburg a bizarre figure, a priest named Father Gapon (with encouragement from the tsarist police), had established an organization called the Assembly of the Russian Factory and Mill Workers. It was meant to be a “peaceful” workers organization, instead of the radical kind being organized illegally by socialists. By January 1905, the Assembly had between 6,000 and 20,000 members. The Assembly organized social and educational events for workers. Further, it was a “police union,” an officially sponsored union under the control of the authorities. Gapon himself received a monthly subsidy of 100 rubles (a large sum of money at the time) from the police. Gapon was intelligent, handsome, articulate, and cunning. He had little political understanding and was primarily motivated by personal ambition. His dedication to himself far exceeded his dedication to the people he sought to organize. He was constantly maneuvering between the workers and the police officials in an effort to increase his own power.

On January 3 workers at one factory in St. Petersburg went on strike. The strike spread rapidly, reflecting the widespread dissatisfaction in the working class. By January 7 between 100,000 and 140,000 workers (between two-thirds and half of the industrial workforce) in St. Petersburg had gone out on strike. Gapon seized on the opportunity—he immediately supported the strike and organized a demonstration for Sunday, January 9. Thus, unwittingly, the police-sponsored union became a vehicle for genuine working class protest. The demonstrators were to present a petition to the tsar. The petition, drafted by groups of workers, contained a number of political demands, including calls for democracy, the right to strike, and the eight-hour day.

Approximately 100,000 people gathered for the peaceful demonstration, including many women and children, on the morning of January 9. As they approached the Winter Palace, they were ordered to disperse. Because of the size of the crowd, most could not hear the order. The troops of the St. Petersburg garrison, which had been reinforced in anticipation of the demonstration, were ordered to open fire. Over 130 people were killed and around 300 seriously injured.

The workers were enraged. On the day after Bloody Sunday the strike continued in St. Petersburg and spread throughout the empire to all major industrial centers. Trotsky counted strikes in 122 localities, a number of mines, and 10 railways. In all, between 500,000 and 1 million workers went on strike during January 1905. The strikes did not last long. By the end of January the strike wave had subsided somewhat—but the revolution had started.

Gapon escaped the country and essentially ceased to be a political actor in the unfolding drama. (He was assassinated in 1906 by Socialist Revolutionaries—the order came from the head of the SR combat organization, who in fact was a police agent.)  The Social Democrats (both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks) had played little part in the banquet campaign of the liberals or in the unexpected January 9 demonstration. Now the Marxist socialists threw themselves into organizing unions and strikes, and agitating for democratic reform. Many of the workers’ strikes were political, that is, they were not focused on immediate workplace demands, but on political demands such as the right to strike, freedom for workers arrested since the start of January, the eight-hour day, and political democracy. The strikes were at first spontaneous and unorganized, but soon, under the leadership of Social Democrats and Socialists Revolutionaries, they became well organized and disciplined.

While the socialists were organizing the working class and making radical demands against the monarchy and against the interests of the capitalists, the liberals launched another petition drive between February and July of 1905 in response to Tsar Nicholas’s call for ideas on how to improve the empire (an effort to derail the revolution with “dialogue,” and the liberals were happy to join in the attempted derailment). Petitions flooded the capital, with a variety of political demands. Meanwhile, the country had moved to the left, and revolution was in the air.

Just as the revolution had started in earnest, so had the counterrevolution. Shortly after Bloody Sunday an organization called the Black Hundreds appeared in many cities and towns. The Black Hundreds strongly defended the Romanov monarchy and, as a kind of proto-fascist movement, engaged in violence, killing and beating workers, peasants, Jews, and anyone suspected of supporting reform. They were essentially death squads organized by wealthy right-wing Russians, although they also had close ties to local government and police forces. How high up the government hierarchy the organization of the Black Hundreds went is still not clear. What is clear is that the government always looked the other way when the Black Hundreds were committing their terrorist actions, and that local police and troops often joined them. In addition to the Black Hundreds, the government’s police and military forces carried out massive direct political repression against strikers and protesters.

3.

In struggle it is extremely important to weaken the enemy. That is what a strike does. At the same time a strike brings the army of the revolution to its feet. But neither the one nor the other, in itself, creates a state of revolution.”

 The power still has to be snatched from the hands of the old rulers and handed over to the revolution. That is the fundamental task. A general strike only creates the necessary preconditions; it is quite inadequate for achieving the task itself” (p. 102).

The revolution that had been simmering during the spring and summer boiled in the fall. The universities opened their doors to political meetings. A meeting-mania swept through the major universities. The meetings were attended by women and men workers, secondary school students, and university students. The attendees listened to political talks and debated political programs and tactics.

On September 19 typesetters in Moscow struck demanding a shorter work day and to be paid a higher piecework rate—including being paid for punctuation marks. The strike quickly spread to other print shops in Moscow, then to other industries. The strike appeared to be dying out on October 1. The next day the St. Petersburg typesetters went out on a three-day sympathy strike. Sympathy strikes were also staged in other areas of the empire, but all the strikes were petering out by October 5. But in revolution, appearances are deceptive. The rail workers in Moscow called for a general strike on October 7. The next day, rail workers around the country moved to form a national union. And the day after that, the new union formalized and publicized their strike demands: an eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty for all political prisoners, and a constituent assembly to write a democratic constitution. The strike spread through the entire empire, bringing the economy to a halt. The government unleashed its harshest campaign of political repression up to that time. The revolutionary mass strike was born and the working class, through the Soviets, was clearly leading the revolution.

Since repression against the strike did not seem to be succeeding, on October 17 the government issued a manifesto outlining reforms planned for the coming months, including an elected parliament, or Duma. Political parties of all persuasions were now organized or came out from the underground. The liberals’ party was known as the Cadets (an abbreviation for Constitutional Democrats). They viewed October 17 as a victory and started to negotiate with the tsar, but they were not in control of events. The working class, led by socialists, was in control.

4.

“The Soviet organized the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. …The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the Soviet grew as the natural organ of the proletariat in its immediate struggle for power as determined by the actual course of events” (p. 251).

On October 13 a strike committee, made up of about 40 “deputies,” or representatives who had been elected by workers in St. Petersburg, was formed. The committee, initially a product of work by serious activists from the Menshevik wing of the Social Democratic Party, called on all factories in the city to elect deputies, one deputy for every 500 workers. On October 17, the Soviet of Workers Deputies elected an executive committee of fifty people. The executive committee, in which Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers played the key role from the beginning, made the day-to-day decisions for the Soviet. Major questions were debated and voted on by the whole Soviet. The first officially elected chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet was G.S. Khrustalev-Nosar, but the moving spirit and main author of the Soviet’s directives and resolutions was Trotsky.

By the end of October, the St. Petersburg Soviet had taken over many of the functions of the local government, in addition to coordinating the general strike. Soviets of Workers’ Deputies were also elected in as many as 50 other major cities of the Russian empire; Soviets of Peasants’ Deputies and of Soldiers’ Deputies were also formed. A situation of dual power developed—two governments were seeking to rule Russia. One was the monarchy supported by the wealthy landlords and capitalists; the other was the Soviets, supported by the workers and peasants. A clash was inevitable

The fifty days from October 13, when the St. Petersburg Soviet was established, until December 3, when a meeting of the St. Petersburg Soviet was arrested by government troops, were known as the “Days of Liberty.” The Soviets organized the nationwide general strike and set up soup kitchens for the hungry and unemployed. They instituted freedom of the press and protected people from pogroms and the Black Hundreds. Finally, on October 31 the St. Petersburg Soviet declared that the eight-hour day was to be instituted in all factories by revolutionary methods (strikes and walkouts).

Strikes occurred repeatedly through October, November, and December. Peasant uprisings—occupations of landed estates and destruction of the manor houses of the nobility—took place in thousands of villages. In the military, several insurrections took place, pitting one part of the military against another. Perhaps the most important military uprising occurred on November 11 in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, where a major revolt occurred in the Russian Fleet, made famous by the mutiny on the Battleship Potemkin. The government reacted with greater and greater violence. On November 26 Cossacks surrounded the building where the St. Petersburg Soviet was meeting and arrested Khrustalev-Nosar along with several other deputies. The Soviet immediately elected a new three-person presidium. At that point Trotsky officially became chairman of the St. Petersburg Soviet. The government started to attack newspapers and arrest editors. The Soviets in various parts of the empire started to prepare for an armed insurrection against the government. Then, as we have said, on December 3 the military surrounded the building where the St. Petersburg Soviet was meeting of the Soviet and arrested everyone.

One important point: on the day before the St. Petersburg Soviet of 1905 was suppressed, it passed a resolution repudiating the country’s foreign debt. It declared, “The autocracy never enjoyed the confidence of the people and was never granted any authority by the people. We have therefore decided not to allow repayment of loans incurred by the tsarist government…” The response of the French capitalists three months later was to loan the tsarist government another three-quarter million francs. British and French capital were only the two largest sources of blood-sucking investment in Russia by the capitalists of the wealthier countries.

A dozen years later, in February 1918, after the victory of the working class revolution in November 1917, the Soviet government canceled all of Russia’s debts to foreign banks and investors. Revolutionary Russia never repaid those debts. As Trotsky said, the bankers “were warned in ample time.”

Almost every country in the “developing” world today—burdened by debts, usually contracted by corrupt and dictatorial neo-colonial regimes at the expense of the impoverished majority—could benefit by following the example set by the Russian workers of 1905 and 1917.

Then came armed insurrection in Moscow in December 1905.

From the onset of the general strike in October, St. Petersburg was the center of the revolution. The center now shifted to Moscow. The Moscow Soviet had formed much later than the one in St. Petersburg, finally getting organized in mid-November. The Soviet in Moscow was dominated by Bolsheviks. After holding a series of open public meetings to discuss tactics, the Moscow Soviet called for a general strike to begin on December 7. The Soviet also began preparations for an armed uprising. The strike paralyzed the city and tensions mounted. On December 9 the army surrounded a meeting of some 600 people (100 of whom had small arms). After waiting 2 hours, the military stormed the building, using heavy artillery to destroy much of it. The strikers, massively outnumbered, surrendered. The military continued shooting them after they had been captured (the same kind of thing we have seen in the recent suppression of Falluja).

An urban guerrilla war now broke out, with small groups of workers firing small arms at heavily armed troops with artillery. The troops shelled any building from which a shot was fired and fired upon any group of three or more civilians. (Again, the same methods being used in Iraq.)  Finally, on December 16 the military surrounded the working class district of Krasnaya Presnya and after intensive shelling from 16 heavy artillery pieces, the troops started a brutal slaughter of both combatants and noncombatants. Thousands of workers were killed (about 25% of those killed were women and children). For all intents and purposes, the revolution had been defeated. The government immediately started executing people without trial, interrogating and arresting workers and students, and torturing and imprisoning anyone they suspected of political activism.

5.

“The preconditions for revolutionary victory are forged in the historic school of harsh conflicts and cruel defeats” (p. 56).

Trotsky and the other leaders of the Soviet were tried after months in prison. Trotsky spent his time in prison studying, writing essays, and preparing his book about the revolution. On September 19, 1906, Trotsky and the others were brought into court. His speech before the court, defending the Soviet and the revolution became widely popular among the masses of workers. Afterwards, Trotsky was sentenced to internal exile, from which he escaped. (His dramatic account of this is included toward the end of his book 1905.) While Trotsky was in prison elections for the first Duma were held from the end of February to mid-April 1906. The first Duma was dominated by the liberal Cadets, because most of the left parties boycotted the elections. The first Duma accomplished little and was soon dissolved by Tsar Nicholas, who called for new elections (with a more restricted voting system). The second Duma convened on February 20, 1907. Despite a number of efforts to ensure victories for conservative candidates, the second Duma was more radical than the first, with a substantial representation of left parties, who decided not to boycott the elections the second time around. A struggle between the Duma and Nicholas Romanov’s autocratic regime continued for several more months until the tsar dissolved the second Duma on June 3, 1907, arresting many of the deputies. This marked the final end of the first Russian revolution.

All of the left forces in the revolution, including both wings of the Social Democrats (the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks) and the Socialist Revolutionaries, made mistakes. But they also did many things well and learned very quickly. One of the first lessons was the importance of the political mass strike and the formation of workers councils (Soviets) as instruments not of a single political party or union but as representative bodies of the entire class. This lesson was communicated in a number of ways by several revolutionaries, the two most important being Trotsky himself (in his book 1905 and other writings from the period) and Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg published The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions in 1906, shortly after the revolutionary events described by Trotsky. Her goal was to communicate the political lessons of the Russian Revolution to Marxists in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

A second lesson of the revolution took longer to be assimilated by the Social Democrats because it went against one of their fundamental assumptions about revolution in a “backward” country such as Russia (while backward, it was the seventh most industrialized country in the world at the time, as measured by industrial output). That lesson was expressed in Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. While this theory was developed and presented by Trotsky and his co-revolutionist Parvus during the early days of the revolution, Trotsky’s first full statement of the theory was published in 1906 in his work Results and Prospects. Up to 1905, most Marxist revolutionaries in Russia believed they were fighting for democratic government under a capitalist economy; in other words, they thought of themselves as fighting for a bourgeois revolution against the strong surviving elements of feudal landlordism still prevalent in Russia. Later, after the economy had developed under capitalism, they would struggle for a socialist revolution. Trotsky’s genius was to realize that the historical development of social classes and capitalism in Russia had in fact been different, that an anti-feudal, anti-monarchical, democratic revolution would not be led by capitalists—because the capitalists were linked with the feudal landlords and the monarchy and feared the newly emergent working class and the rebellious peasantry. It turned out that the necessary measures to modernize Russia, which socialists had expected the capitalists to carry out through a “bourgeois democratic” revolution, could only be achieved by the working class taking power. But once in power, the workers would carry out not only democratic measures to free their peasant allies from feudal landlordism, and free all of Russia from monarchical rule, but also socialist, anti-capitalist measures to meet the needs and interests of the working class.

Of course, Trotsky (and later Lenin and the majority of Bolsheviks who adopted Trotsky’s perspective and went on to carry out a combined “bourgeois-democratic” and socialist revolution in Russia in 1917) realized that the revolution would not survive and succeed unless it spread to Europe, forming a United Socialist States of Europe and Russia.

One hundred years after the 1905 revolution, there is much that serious activists in North America can learn from that history. Assimilating the history of the first Russian revolution (and of other revolutions and struggles for social justice) will help us create our own revolution. Trotsky and Lenin, and many of the other revolutionaries of the time, knew that it was harder to make a revolution in an advanced capitalist country, such as Germany or the U.S., than it was in a backward capitalist country, such as Russia or China. There is much we need to learn because there is so very much that we need to do. Trotsky gave us a model; he simultaneously learned by doing and learned while doing.

Works Cited in this Review

1905 by Leon Trotsky. New York: Vintage Books, 1971. Originally drafted during and immediately after the revolution, this book was completed in Vienna in 1908–1909 and published in Germany in 1909; the Vintage edition is the only available translation in English. While it is out of print, you can still find copies at some libraries, radical bookstores, and on the web at www.amazon.com. In addition to the preface to the German edition and to the first and second English editions (all written by Trotsky), the Vintage edition contains four “annexes” with political articles that Trotsky wrote on the revolution, descriptions of the trial of the Soviet deputies and Trotsky’s speech to the court, excerpts from letters he wrote in exile, and his account of escape from exile.

The Revolution of 1905: A Short History by Abraham Ascher. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. This is a condensed version of Ascher’s larger, two-volume work on the 1905 revolution. The book has a strong narrative and is fact-filled. Ascher is a liberal, who thinks that both sides were at fault during the revolution of 1905. If only everyone had been more reasonable, he implies, Russia could have established a liberal democracy in 1905 and avoided the “nasty” revolution of 1917. In Ascher’s book there is a perverse capitalist morality (the workers were being “unreasonable” because they wanted an eight-hour day, the right to vote, freedom of the press, equality for all citizens including women, Jews, and non-Russian national minorities, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and execution, while the autocracy wanted to continue to treat people like slaves and to repress with military force and death squads any attempts to change the system). Aside from that fundamental weakness, the book can be informative and useful as a supplement to Trotsky’s account.

The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions, by Rosa Luxemburg. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1971. Originally published in German in 1906 and first published in English in 1925,  the work is no longer in print, but like 1905 can occasionally be found at libraries, progressive bookstores, and at www.amazon.com. The Harper Torchbooks edition also contains the Junius Pamphlet, another of Luxemburg’s important short works.

The Permanent Revolution, and Results and Prospects by Leon Trotsky. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1969. The Pathfinder edition, available at some progressive bookstores, libraries, and at www.amazon.com, contains Results and Prospects, which was originally published in 1906 and was the first full exposition of the theory of permanent revolution that had guided Trotsky’s actions during the 1905 revolution and been refined as a result of the experience. The Permanent Revolution is a longer work, written in the late 1920s, defending the theory from attacks on it by Stalin and his associates in the Soviet bureaucracy.

See also Trotsky’s chapters on the 1905 revolution in his autobiography My Life, as well as his discussion of the theory of permanent revolution in the remaining chapters of that work; also, Trotsky’s “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution,” in Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939–40.