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Workers Vanguard No. 872

9 June 2006

The Russian Revolution of 1905

We print below, edited for publication, an educational given by comrade Sam Kirk at the Spartacus Youth Club “Youth Maintenance Work-In” on 18 June 2005.

I had one big “problem”—that was a good one to have—in preparing this class. This same material has already been covered in excellent classes given by comrades George Foster and Joseph Seymour some years ago [see: “Prelude to the Bolshevik October: The Russian Revolution of 1905,” WV Nos. 288 and 289, 11 September and 25 September 1981 and “Lenin and the Vanguard Party” in the Spartacist pamphlet of the same name, 1978]. So don’t expect to hear a lot that is new if you did the reading. But just because it exists on paper isn’t enough. Every generation must tackle the key questions of revolution and party building for itself. Marxism is not a religion where revealed truths are handed down by the “chosen.” It takes a lot of work to assimilate the experiences of the past in order to shape our current tasks.

We study the 1905 Russian Revolution not simply because it was, in retrospect, the prelude to the first successful workers revolution in history, the October Revolution of 1917. The 1905 Revolution was world-historic in its own right. As Lenin laid out in his January 1917 “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” this was the first time in history that the industrial working class played the leading role in a revolution. What began as a workers political protest to pressure the tsar rapidly escalated in the course of the year to mass political strikes, mutinies, the formation of soviets and armed uprisings that fought for power.

Bolshevism vs. Menshevism

While the Russian Revolution inspired many, its mechanisms were not widely understood. The world saw the working class fighting, but did not have a programmatic understanding of the political disputes within the leading, most dynamic party of the revolution, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP). The RSDLP emerged as the premier force for a revolutionary wing of the Second International and was really two parties, the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions.

The RSDLP was formally founded in 1898 in a tiny meeting in Minsk under constant threat of police repression. The Second Congress in 1903 was essentially the founding congress of a coordinated national revolutionary movement in Russia representing the consolidation of disparate local groups around an agreed-upon program to be applied in a regular paper, Iskra, the political scaffolding around which the party would be built. The 1903 Congress resulted in an unexpected split between two shadings of the party—informally referred to as “hards” and “softs”—that became the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks respectively. The immediate catalyst for the split was the definition of party membership and the composition of the Iskra editorial board. But underlying this were deeper political differences that were not fully expressed at the time.

In “Lenin and the Vanguard Party,” comrade Seymour gives a compelling description of the Bolshevik faction in 1904:

“Above all it represented a firm commitment to revolutionary social democracy [communism], particularly the leading role of the proletarian party in the struggle against tsarist absolutism. It further represented an intransigent attitude toward demonstrated opportunists, like the Economist leaders, and a distrustful attitude toward their possible conversion to revolutionary politics. Lenin was committed to a centralized, disciplined party, and consequently intransigently hostile to the circlism-cliquism characteristic of the Russian social-democratic movement.”

We would do well to live up to this!

In February 1904, Russia entered into its losing war against Japan after the Japanese navy trapped Russia’s Pacific Fleet in Port Arthur (today Dalian) in Manchuria. The potential military defeat of the autocracy raised the possibility of some kind of internal reform in Russia. The Russian liberal bourgeoisie, which had a growing economic power but was subject to the whims of the autocratic political system and tied to the more powerful European capitalists, understood on some level that Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1854-56 had led to the tsarist reform of 1861 that had semi-emancipated the serfs. That reform was part of a program that built up capitalist relations in Russia in an effort to strengthen the state against its imperialist enemies.

Seeing a chance to push forward its own interests, the liberal bourgeoisie embarked on a mildly defeatist course during the war, epitomized by the Zemstvo [provincial council] “banquet campaign.” If it doesn’t sound very revolutionary, you’re right. These nobility-run, largely peasant assemblies meekly called for a national representative assembly and greater civil liberties. The method of the bourgeoisie was meetings, banquets and petitions, but these developments were symptomatic of deeper stirrings in society.

One important result of the Zemstvo campaign of 1904 was that it fleshed out the reformist impulses of the Mensheviks. On the eve of the revolution the Mensheviks wrote:

“If we take a look at the arena of the struggle in Russia then what do we see? Only two forces: the tsarist autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie, which is now organized and possesses a huge specific weight. The working mass, however, is atomized and can do nothing; as an independent force we do not exist; and thus our task consists in supporting the second force, the liberal bourgeoisie, and encouraging it and in no case intimidating it by presenting our own independent political demands.”

—Quoted in Gregory Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party: A Popular Outline (1923)

Lenin ridiculed the timid bourgeoisie, and the Mensheviks charged him and the Bolsheviks with intimidating the liberals. Lenin shot back that the Mensheviks were therefore guilty of being intimidated by the shadow of the intimidated liberals! In the RSDLP, what had begun as heated fights on secondary questions had crystallized into a fight over the central role of the working class in the revolution. The Mensheviks’ self-relegation to cheerleaders for the liberals provided a much clearer line of political demarcation between Bolshevism and Menshevism than had existed since the 1903 split. “A process of consolidation began within Bolshevism and like a sponge soaking up water it began to draw in the most revolutionary elements in social-democracy of that time who had finally become convinced of its correctness” [Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party: A Popular Outline].

Police “Socialism”

Any discussion about January 9, the beginning of the 1905 Russian Revolution, must address the radical Russian Orthodox priest Father Gapon. His movement was a second failed attempt inspired by the Russian secret police forces to undercut social-democratic influence in the labor movement by organizing workers into secretly police-led unions based on a reactionary program. This supplemented tsarism’s preferred method of dealing with the working class, which was bloody repression of any attempt to organize and fight. Gapon’s movement was more independent of direct state control than an earlier attempt by Sergei Zubatov, the chief of the Moscow secret police who set up workers societies under police control. The way the Bolsheviks dealt with Zubatovism was to expose the reactionary nature of his societies and, at the same time, to support them when they took part in leading strikes. After Zubatov’s societies led several strikes, Zubatov was informed by his masters that his experiment was over. Nevertheless, he directly influenced Father Gapon.

Gapon set up his Assembly of the Russian Factory and Mill Workers of the City of St. Petersburg at about the same time as the war began against Japan. Membership was open to Russian and other Christian subjects of the empire. The Ministry of the Interior approved the statutes of the organization. At the same time, in order to be attractive to the masses, Gapon quietly gathered around himself former Social Democrats, and they came up with a secret “Program of the Five” which had elements of the Social Democracy’s minimum program.

In the second half of 1904 events accelerated. A bomb thrown by a member of the Social Revolutionary party killed the notorious anti-Semitic Minister of the Interior, Vyacheslav Plehve. Plehve was an ultrareactionary who had been responsible for dissolving the Zubatov societies and supported the conservative wing of the Zemstvo movement. He was replaced by a tsarist “moderate.” This, combined with total defeat at Port Arthur (the Pacific fleet was lost and 80 percent of the besieged troops killed) resulted in a very heated political atmosphere. Gapon’s organization grew rapidly from a couple of hundred to several thousand industrial workers in the space of months. This was alarming, particularly to the factory owners of the city.

In retaliation for the growing influence of Gapon’s Assembly, a handful of its active members was fired from the massive Putilov metal works in late December. Under extreme pressure to act, Gapon held mass meetings on how to respond and more than half the workers at the plant joined the Assembly. In the face of intransigence from management, Gapon found himself at the head of a strike that began on January 3 and was quickly joined by a large number of the workers in St. Petersburg.

In an effort to resolve this dispute by less confrontational means, Gapon produced a petition to be presented on Sunday, January 9, in person, most humbly, by the toilers of Russia to the tsar at the Winter Palace, the center of autocratic power. The content of the petition was contradictory, with many supportable demands, like the eight-hour day and the separation of church and state, mixed in with total groveling before the tsar. Events snowballed. That morning, dressed in their Sunday best, well over 100,000 workers with their families, the bulk of the working population of the capital, began to gather at various meeting points around the city to begin the march to the Winter Palace located in the city center.

Bloody Sunday

Before we consider the fate of the march, let’s consider the character of the local Bolshevik organization. This underground group had around 200-300 members, most of whom were in their twenties. One member of the Kiev group in his memoirs gave a general description of the local party organizations in Russia as “mostly callow youths, hotheaded and resolute but weakly linked to the working masses and uninfluential in the factories.” Nevertheless, they constantly attempted to gain a hearing in the proletariat in the face of fierce state repression. A typical profile for a student activist was six months of semipublic work, followed by prison, exile and hopefully escape. To the extent that they had members in the factories, they were often apprentices and didn’t have a lot of authority with the more skilled workers. As one Putilov worker put it, young workers who tried to talk politics were told to “learn first how to hold a hammer and use a chisel and a knife, and then you can begin to argue like a man who has something to teach others” [quoted in Gerald Dennis Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labor, Society and Revolution (1989)].

The Social Democrats in the Narva District, which contained the massive Putilov works, had about 40 supporters out of a total of 30,000 workers, organized in a handful of underground study circles. The initial attitude of the Bolsheviks towards Gapon was to correctly denounce him as a suspicious adventurer, but also to underestimate the extent to which his Assembly was quickly gaining a hearing. Lenin waged a fight from afar to get the party to intervene in this movement aggressively.

Attempts to intervene in Gapon’s Assembly prior to the Sunday demonstration were difficult. One Bolshevik, as soon as he identified himself as a party member, had his speech interrupted by Gapon who explained, “It is essential for all to see that this is not a revolutionary movement, but a peaceful procession to the tsar.” He continued, “I have always respected you and considered you honest people. I bow to you, I bow low to you: do not bring friction into our movement. Let us go under one united banner of peace towards our sacred goal” [quoted in Walter Sablinsky, The Road to Bloody Sunday (1976)]. Gapon commanded that the Social Democrats march at the rear of the demonstration “to keep up the spirits of the crowd.” This softcore censorship was combined with the hardcore version. Bolshevik agitators were often denied speaking rights at meetings of the Assembly, and were at times beaten up and their leaflets destroyed. For the demonstration itself, red banners were forbidden.

The Bolshevik Party Committee was correctly wary that the demonstration was a police trap. It was decided to send teams around to the various feeder points for the march with leaflets and banners, but to wait until the mood of the crowd was sympathetic. Typical of what was occurring around the city, at one such meeting point, only about a dozen party supporters showed up. The guy who was supposed to bring the banner never showed; he was an undercover cop. The marchers were not widely receptive to communist propaganda as they set off full of illusions that Gapon’s way would win concessions. Red flags were not unfurled, leaflets not distributed. As the tens of thousands of workers marched to the center of the city by various routes, they were met by concentrations of troops who fired multiple volleys at pointblank range into the tightly packed crowds. Over 1,000 were killed and almost 4,000 injured in the day that is known to history as Bloody Sunday.

One definition of a revolution is when “the ruling class can no longer rule in the old way and the masses no longer want to live in the old way.” From the moment the first shots were fired, Gaponism was dead. The masses went from bowing to the tsar to demanding his death. Openness to revolutionary propaganda exploded. By the afternoon of Bloody Sunday, red flags were flying and Bolshevik leaflets were being snapped up. Through explosive events, the political scene can change very dramatically in a short period of time. In this changing situation, all programs are considered and tested. All trends get their chance. It was the Bolsheviks who had the program that showed the way forward corresponding to the felt needs of the working class and, due to the events triggered by January 9, they gained a sympathetic hearing from millions of workers, students and soldiers. Among these, tens of thousands began looking to become revolutionary activists and were looking for a party to join.

Lenin was quite critical of the local Bolshevik leaders, the “committeemen,” who were slow to react to new events. There is his famous [February 1905] letter to local party leaders Alexander Bogdanov and Sergei Gusev where he metaphorically called for “shooting on the spot anyone who presumes to say there are no people to be had” [i.e., no people to be recruited to the party]. Lenin got a lot of opposition to broadening the organization from the committeemen. The cadre of the Bolsheviks had become habituated to operating under the incredibly difficult conditions of underground work. It took Lenin’s strong intervention from a distance to turn things around. Interestingly, Lenin had to carry out a related fight against a tendency to dismiss the influence of their leftist opponents.

With the disaster of Bloody Sunday, the tsar allowed the setting up of what was called the Shidlovsky Commission. This allowed the workers to elect representatives to come and grovel before the tsar. This committee was a farce, yet it is often cited as the origin of the idea of soviets. As in the soviets, representation was one delegate for 500 workers. The elections to the commission provided an opening for Social Democratic agitation at mass meetings. In gushing letters to Lenin, Gusev bragged: “Hurray! The PC [party committee] can be proud; its whole plan, all its resolutions, all the tactics it had worked out, even the details—all has gone through brilliantly.” Lenin sent back a sarcastic letter that warned, “You are all too much of an optimist if you hope to get the better of the Peter Mensheviks so easily” [see Solomon Schwartz, The Russian Revolution: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism (1967)]. In fact, many workers entering the political struggle for the first time often saw little difference between the two factions. The committeemen flipped from a tendency toward abstention to bragging that political obstacles would evaporate with little struggle.

It is important to understand that, at the time, their reformist opponents derisively called the Bolsheviks a “sect.” Likewise, many of the histories of 1905, written from a perspective hostile to the building of a vanguard party, quote fights by Lenin with the committeemen. In defense of the committeemen, these were dedicated revolutionaries who were organizationally competent and politically hard. They organized thousands of workers on a communist basis. But they made mistakes and these were often corrected.

Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution

What every revolutionary was grappling with was the nature of the revolution in a country with a relatively small, but powerful, working class and a huge peasantry. The Menshevik position has already been discussed. It was tailism of the liberal bourgeoisie. First there would be a bourgeois revolution and then down the road an indefinite period, a workers revolution. This is known today as the theory of the two-stage revolution, and Stalinists and Maoists alike embrace its basic framework. The reality of this theory, as shown by the experience of many failed revolutions in the last hundred years, is that the workers hand the bourgeoisie the power during the first stage, and in the second stage the bourgeoisie drowns the workers in blood.

The position of the Bolsheviks was a strong rejection of this kind of tailism. They looked to the working class to form a revolutionary alliance with the peasantry in a joint struggle to bring down tsarism and fight for democratic demands. At the same time the working class would fight for socialist demands. The question of what role the peasantry would play was a huge question in a country where the working class was less than 10 percent of the population. At the end of his life, Trotsky summarized Lenin’s position:

“The backward Russian bourgeoisie is incapable of completing its own revolution! The complete victory of the revolution, through the intermediacy of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,’ would purge the land of medievalism, invest the development of Russian capitalism with American tempo, strengthen the proletariat in city and village and make really possible the struggle for socialism. On the other hand, the victory of the Russian revolution would give a tremendous impetus to the socialist revolution in the West, while the latter would not only protect Russia from the dangers of restoration but would also enable the Russian proletariat to come to the conquest of power in a comparatively brief historical period.”

—Leon Trotsky, “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution” (1939)

Trotsky considered this perspective unrealizable and incomplete because it characterized the stages of the revolution incorrectly, but nevertheless the immediate operational conclusions for the general direction of the struggle were correct and the same as Trotsky’s.

The limitations of Lenin’s theory did not become operational in 1905 because the revolution did not go far enough. But when discussing the three concepts of the revolution, it’s almost impossible not to consider what happened subsequently, in 1917. That is, Lenin dropped his analysis as outdated and in substance embraced Trotsky’s position. But in 1905, Trotsky’s theory, which became known as permanent revolution, by his own account “met practically no recognition” [“Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution”].

Trotsky rejected the idea of a two-class dictatorship as formulated in Lenin’s position and instead conceived of the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry. He summarized his perspective of permanent revolution as:

“The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is conceivable only in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which would inevitably place on the order of the day not only democratic but socialistic tasks as well, would at the same time give a powerful impetus to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West could protect Russia from bourgeois restoration and assure it the possibility of rounding out the establishment of socialism.”

—Trotsky, “Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution”

Keep in mind that Lenin’s main thesis, “Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,” was written in the summer of 1905 before the key battles of the proletariat had taken place. Trotsky’s groundbreaking “Results and Prospects” was written as the revolution was winding down in 1906 and was based on his direct personal experience at the center of events.

At the time, Lenin’s position provided the marching orders for the revolutionary party in Russia, the Bolsheviks. He emphasized that a general strike is not enough by itself. Along with it a fight for power through armed uprisings must be organized. The vanguard party doesn’t just advocate revolution, but provides leadership. The Mensheviks denounced this as adventurism and rebellion and counterposed it to building consciousness. But even Rosa Luxemburg, who worked closely with Lenin beginning in 1905, took a long time to get beyond an idealization of the mass strike.

Keep in mind that although the activity on the ground of Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was at times similar, their purpose was different, especially the higher up you go in leadership. Both were energetic in trying to organize and lead the working class in strikes against the tsarist state. This points to the push from the ranks for unity between the factions that resulted from events of the year. Trotsky was certainly a spokesman for this tendency for unity as chairman of the Petersburg Soviet; it wasn’t until 1917 that he fully gave up on unity between the factions and came over to the Bolsheviks.

The St. Petersburg Soviet

In May 1905, the Russian military was conclusively defeated by Japan. The Baltic Fleet that had been sent halfway around the world to save Port Arthur after the loss of the Pacific fleet, arrived five months too late. En route it was almost completely destroyed in a one-day battle in the Tsushima strait (located between Japan and Korea).

Following defeat on the seas and on the battlefield, in August the tsar finally agreed to a representative assembly, the Duma, which would be based on a limited franchise and be allowed to offer him nonbinding advice. This was met by most of society as a bad joke. The Bolsheviks proclaimed a boycott of the elections. Instead of quieting the political scene as intended, anger boiled over.

In September, the U.S.-brokered Treaty of Portsmouth was signed, codifying the overwhelming victory of Japan. In this case, the defeat of one’s own ruling class in war was a good thing for the Russian working class. In October, a revolutionary wave shook tsarism to its foundations. The establishment of the Petersburg Soviet followed a series of strikes culminating in a general rail strike. Trotsky wrote movingly about the incredible unity of the rail workers who not only started but also stopped their strike with the highest discipline [see Trotsky, 1905 (1922)]. Now there was a working-class, revolutionary, representative body in the capital of the empire, the Soviet, largely based on workers in the war industries. The tsar had seen enough. Without meaningful reform, he faced overthrow. The October Manifesto was issued granting a constitution and giving the future Duma legislative power.

Fundamentally this was very little, but the liberal bourgeoisie had seen enough. As the proletariat appeared more and more as an independent force, the bourgeoisie more fully threw its lot in with the camp of open counterrevolution. Their embrace of the October Manifesto further exposed the Mensheviks politically.

The granting of the October Manifesto was coordinated with a nationwide, government-organized onslaught against the Jewish population. Historically in Russia, reactionary counterrevolution means pogroms (i.e., anti-Jewish pillaging and lynching). Lenin cites the figures of 4,000 murdered and 10,000 mutilated during the course of the revolution. Some pogroms occurred at the end of 1904 in a wave of pro-war patriotism; the Jews were ridiculously blamed for aiding Japan. Interestingly, 30,000 Jews served in the Far East for the Russian military. But the vast majority of the pogroms occurred between the issuing of the October Manifesto and the end of the Moscow insurrection in December (i.e., in two months).

The whipping up of hatred for Jews, carried out by the reactionary “Black Hundreds,” was a conscious government attempt to derail the revolution. It was heroically opposed by Jewish socialist organizations, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks who organized armed defense guards. Importantly, industrial workers, especially the mainly Russian rail workers, played an important role in defending Jews. Significantly in Petersburg there were no pogroms because the working class showed its determination in advance to defend the Jewish population, arms in hand.

An example of how backward nationalist consciousness can change rapidly under the pressure of revolutionary events can be seen on the question of Poland. The revolution inspired the struggles of the nationalities in the tsarist “prison house of peoples” where less than half the empire was Russian. The oppressor Russian nationalism fomented anti-Polish chauvinism and, in turn, the nationalism of the oppressed Polish nation was anti-Russian. This infected the working class. The revolution cut across this. Upon hearing of the events of Bloody Sunday, Warsaw and many other Polish cities erupted in general strikes led by communists. Polish communists, led by Feliks Dzerzhinsky (heroic future head of the Cheka [Extraordinary Commission to Combat Counterrevolution and Sabotage formed to defend early Soviet workers state]), intersected the large number of Russian troops in Poland with internationalist propaganda. In November, when martial law was declared in Poland, the Russian workers repaid their class brothers when the Petersburg Soviet declared a general strike in defense of Poland! [See Robert Blobaum, Feliks Dzierzynski and the SDKPiL: A Study of the Origins of Polish Communism (1984).]

The experience of the St. Petersburg Soviet was a glorious step forward for the revolution. Under Trotsky’s leadership a body was established that went beyond general strikes and provided an organizational structure for the proletariat to fight for power. Its conduct was heroic and revolutionary from beginning to end, including at the trial of its leaders after it was crushed, which was used as a platform for revolutionary ideas.

The Bolshevik committeemen had trouble dealing with this. They were not against soviets per se; in fact the Bolsheviks established the first one in June. Their problem was that they didn’t want to support one that they didn’t lead. They had similar problems with trade unions, which were rapidly being formed for the first time. Lenin intervened to the effect that leadership must be won in struggle, but that the soviets and unions can and should be built on the broadest basis. The committeemen saw the opportunists in the soviets and unwisely abstained because they were for a split with the opportunists. Tactics toward these new phenomena had to be hammered out in struggle.

The Moscow Insurrection

The Moscow insurrection of 7-19 December was a general strike that grew into an armed uprising. Lenin considered it the high point of the revolution, which unfortunately was characterized by the masses having a leadership that lagged behind them. That is, events moved a step faster than the leadership of the working class on the ground was prepared to go.

There is the example of the confrontations with police at the Fielder Academy where groups of students and workers were holding constant meetings. All over the country the universities were centers of working-class organizing and political discussion. The gendarmes, after being surprised at meeting armed resistance, regrouped and shelled the school, slaughtering several students, and carried out mass arrests. It is one thing to have a political line for armed struggle and another to carry it out in the face of a hostile and organized state. There were pitched battles all over the city, barricades going up and fighting units giving battle. There was a battle for the loyalty of the troops, with Lenin estimating 5,000 loyal to the government and 10,000 wavering.

In his balance sheet of the events, Lenin cited Marx that “revolution progresses by giving rise to a strong and united counterrevolution, i.e., it compels the enemy to resort to more and more extreme measures of defense and in this way devises even more powerful means of attack” [“Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” 29 August 1906]. The masses were learning from their own experience Lenin’s point that the general strike was not enough. The question was posed: Who was going to rule? How were they to accomplish the revolution? Lenin was very insistent that revolution is an art and needs to be coordinated, specifically by developing tactics of guerrilla warfare supported by the proletariat.

To get a sense of how serious the Bolsheviks were, look at the example of Leonid Krasin. He was politically the most senior Bolshevik leader in Petersburg and a consummate professional revolutionary. Among other things he organized the production at a high technical level (he was an accomplished engineer) of grenades and trained the fighting units in their use. He organized and ran technical/defense squads. One of these squads was prepared to blow up the railway to Moscow from Petersburg (thereby preventing the dispatch of the troops that eventually put down the Moscow uprising), but the team was unsuccessful at carrying out its mission. Bolshevik Party cadres were deadly serious about an armed uprising, but they were dealing with young and untested forces [see Timothy O’Connor, The Engineer of Revolution: L.B. Krasin and the Bolsheviks, 1870-1926 (1992)].

The Moscow uprising was put down in just over a week of fighting. Strikes shut down the city. Fighting units and barricades were met by troops and artillery. Over 1,000 were killed and the uprising was followed by a campaign of arrests and executions.

International Significance of 1905 Revolution

It is important to realize the tremendous impact that the events in Russia had internationally. This is something that should guide us as members of the International Communist League as we seek to consolidate and extend national sections of revolutionary Marxism around the world. We are building a programmatically hard, disciplined international that seeks to provide revolutionary leadership. In this struggle we understand that the world economy organically links all nations.

Comrades have hopefully spent the week combatting in practice the effect of bourgeois society’s stultifying division between manual and mental labor at this summer’s “youth maintenance work-in.” In left-wing politics today we are familiar with the division between “direct action” and reformist opportunism (for example, anarchists versus organizations like the International Socialist Organization and Workers World Party), a divide more of form than content. On a much smaller scale, this recalls the political divisions among hundreds of thousands of working-class militants in the world of 1905. The false division between action and theory was contained on the one hand in the anarcho-syndicalists who were known for championing direct action through the “mass strike” and for their rejection of “politics” (i.e., programs, theories, parliamentarism). On the other hand there was the revolutionary, but increasingly conservative, social-democratic Second International, led by August Bebel, Karl Kautsky and Eduard Bernstein of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). They were moving toward a reformist program increasingly limited to raising the consciousness of the working class gradually through education and parliamentary activity.

Within both of these tendencies there was a revolutionary wing—James P. Cannon, who joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and later helped found the American Communist Party, Alfred Rosmer and Victor Serge, anarcho-syndicalists who later became communists, and Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were the leaders of the revolutionary wing of the SPD. They were attempting to combat the anti-revolutionary conclusions of each tendency. The Russian Revolution of 1905 presented the possibility of combining the best aspects of both currents in a revolutionary way.

Rosa Luxemburg, in her 1906 work The Mass Strike: The Political Party and the Trade Unions, hailed the 1905 developments in Russia as the “historical liquidation of anarchism” because, after years of the anarchists holding up the general strike as the highest goal, it was the social democrats in Russia who had actually led it. But the thrust of her polemic was against the conservatism within her own party. She explained that Marx’s dynamic criticism of the adventurism of anarchism was being turned into a smug caricature of Marxism: the view that socialism would be arrived at only after a slow, peaceful march to educate the workers by an ever-growing social democracy. Conservative social-democratic opposition to the general strike was summed up in the paradox: “Either the proletariat as a whole are not yet in possession of the powerful organization and financial resources required, in which case they cannot carry through the general strike; or they are already sufficiently well organized, in which case they do not need the general strike.”

The masses in Germany were greatly affected by the events in Russia where in one year they saw that the “bastion of nineteenth-century reaction became the vanguard of twentieth-century revolution” [Carl E. Schorske, German Social-Democracy, 1905-1917: the Development of the Great Schism (1955)]. As many workers went out on strike in Germany in 1905 as in the previous five years combined. For the entire year the Russian Revolution was front-page news every day in the socialist papers. The fact that the working class dared to vie for power in tsarist Russia was a huge blow to the “evolutionary theory” of socialism whose influence had been steadily growing as a pro-capitalist layer of “labor lieutenants” was consolidating itself within the socialist and trade-union movement in Europe and the U.S. At the same time, the socialist trade-union leadership was increasingly becoming a privileged layer, which the imperialist rulers could afford to bribe with material benefits. The union bureaucracy derived its privileges from its position atop the workers movement and became increasingly comfortable operating within the framework of capitalist society. In Germany the trade-union leadership came out in open opposition to the left wing as it treacherously sought to limit and defuse the strike movement throughout 1905 [see Schorske].

Luxemburg’s polemics were scathing and largely correct against the conservative and opportunist elements in her own party. But the left wing, like all wings of social democracy, subscribed to the theory of the “party of the whole class,” which maintained that the working class should have only one party with all political tendencies represented. In Europe, this theory served to prevent an organizational break with opportunism within the workers movement and eventually served to subordinate the revolutionary wing to the reformist wing. This was not an abstract question. With the rise of radicalism in 1905, Luxemburg formally won the SPD to her line of advocating and employing the tactic of the political mass strike, but by 1906 the conservative trade-union leadership won a rotten “compromise” that gave them the right to veto the party line as it applied to their activity.

Luxemburg envisioned that the revolutionary wave would wipe away conservative opportunism like a rapidly moving river empties a stagnant pond of scum. Luxemburg’s belief that an upsurge of militant class struggle would naturally dispel the opportunists proved very wrong. Comrades are aware that Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered in 1919 during the counterrevolutionary terror unleashed by a government run by their former “comrades.”

Despite political criticisms, we honor Luxemburg as a revolutionary internationalist to the core. She wrote in her 1906 pamphlet The Mass Strike that it would be:

“entirely wrong to regard the Russian revolution as a fine play, as something specifically ‘Russian,’ and at best to admire the heroism of the fighting men, that is, the last accessories of the struggle. It is much more important that the German workers should learn to look upon the Russian revolution as their own affair, not merely as a matter of international solidarity with the Russian proletariat, but first and foremost, as a chapter of their own social and political history.”

James P. Cannon made a similar point for American workers in his essay on the anarcho-syndicalist IWW, which was founded in 1905 amid intense praise of the Russian Revolution.

In Asia the influence of the revolution was also felt, but in a very different way. There were two related events: first, the defeat suffered by Russia, a major European power, at the hands of Japan, an emerging force in the imperialist world, in the Russo-Japanese War. This marked the first time in modern history that an Asian country defeated a European country. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 was an interimperialist war in which the working class had no side. Yet Lenin in his burning hatred for tsarism incorrectly supported the victory of the Japanese bourgeoisie over the tsarist autocracy as the victory of “advancing, progressive Asia” over “backward and reactionary Europe” (“The Fall of Port Arthur,” January 1905). Seen in the light of the interimperialist world war that broke out in 1914, Lenin’s position in 1905 was a mistake. But in 1905, capitalist imperialism was a new phenomenon and Lenin had not yet arrived at a theoretical understanding of the imperialist epoch. Thus he viewed the Russo-Japanese conflict through the prism of the 19th-century Marxist view that progressive national wars were supportable and that tsarist Russia was the chief reactionary power in Europe. Russia’s defeat showed the masses of Asia that the colonialist countries of Europe and the United States were not invincible.

But what really shook the East was that in the midst of this war the masses of Russia, with the working class in the lead, rose up to shake off their own oppressor, the autocratic system of capitalist Russia. This provided an internationalist example to the national struggles against colonial domination. It is interesting to consider China, a country which has such an important place in the world today. Northern China provided much of the battleground for the Russo-Japanese War. Russian troops occupied Manchuria and among these troops it is estimated that by the end of the war, in mid 1905, there were 3,500 active Bolshevik supporters agitating for demobilization of the troops. Chinese revolutionaries who returned from Russian territory after the revolution played central roles in the Chinese Eastern Railroad strikes of 1906-07. In 1907, Chinese and Russian revolutionaries organized a joint political strike to commemorate the second anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre of Russian workers by tsarist forces.

Iran offers another example with a large number of Iranian immigrants working in Southern Russia, largely centered in the Baku oilfields where there was a direct organizational connection to the Russian Social Democracy. When the Iranian revolution broke out in December 1905 it was the working class at the forefront with a general strike in Tehran. In India and Turkey, 1905 also marked a dramatic beginning to the anti-colonial movement.

Dress Rehearsal for 1917

Ultimately, the 1905 Revolution was defeated. That the bourgeoisie internationally was relatively stable was a factor contributing to the revolution not going further. The world was not in the turmoil it would be in 1917 after three years of world war. In that sense the ruling class had room to recover and save itself through state repression. Another factor is that the protests in the cities did not penetrate deeply enough into the countryside where the rate of protest by the peasantry was perhaps 20 percent that of the proletariat. That is to say, the illusions that the St. Petersburg proletariat had in the tsar prior to January 9, although greatly undermined, were held longer in the countryside. That was reflected in the fact that the army did not split, with a section going over to the side of the revolution. That is not to say that there weren’t some huge cracks. Lenin and Trotsky both cited the example of sympathetic troops during the Moscow insurrection marching down the street singing the Marseillaise. Likewise, during the summer of 1905 the mutineers of the Battleship Potemkin tried to join with the revolutionary workers of Odessa (the fourth largest city in Russia). The police were able to prevent this only by slaughtering 1,000 demonstrators in one day on the docks.

The authority of the ruling class was greatly undermined by the revolution and the liberal bourgeoisie was exposed. Despite their best efforts, the memory of 1905 could not be erased. The clock could not be turned back. That is to say that subsequent periods (the period of reaction, the period of working-class resurgence, World War I and ultimately the 1917 revolutions) were all played out under the shadow of the experiences of 1905.

The revolution was defeated, but the real gain was a Bolshevik Party with thousands of new members who showed in struggle that they meant business and who gained the authority and active support of thousands upon thousands of workers. The party had a leadership that could generalize the lessons and correct errors. A party that was hard enough to combat the illusions in the working class that the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks should just get together, that the programmatic differences “weren’t that serious,” but flexible enough to bring in revolutionaries like Trotsky in 1917 and incorporate the substance of his correct theory of permanent revolution and his several thousand supporters by 1917. The Bolshevik Party that began the revolution of 1905 as a propaganda group of 1,000 to 2,000 ended it as a small mass party. In 1907, before the onset of reaction decimated the ranks of the party, the Bolsheviks had about 45,000 members. And, thanks to their previous experience, the party and the class had a much better chance at clarity and success for the next time. To really learn about 1905 provides a glimpse of what we, as a small propaganda group, have ahead of us if we are to live up to our slogan that “we are the party of the Russian Revolution!”

I hope this talk provides a framework to inspire further study. One hundred years later, world reality is not pretty. The idea that experiences of the past are irrelevant to a “new world reality” is unfortunately prevalent, especially among the left. This is an aspect of acceptance of the “death of communism” mythology of bourgeois public opinion. We are fully confident that these people will go the way of the Mensheviks when hit with revolutionary situations where their program is exposed (by us) as having no revolutionary answers to the burning questions. In our fight we are guided by Lenin who observed on the fifth anniversary of 1905 that “only stern battles, only civil wars, can free humanity from the yoke of capital, and, on the other hand, that only class-conscious proletarians can and will give leadership to the vast majority of the exploited.” Long live the memory of the 1905 Revolution!


Workers Vanguard No. 872

WV 872

9 June 2006


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