How a revolution shaped a revolution

December 18, 2017

Colin Patrick reviews the recently republished history of the 1905 revolution in Russia by one of its leading actors, Leon Trotsky.

IN 1905, Russia experienced a mass uprising of workers, including general strikes in Petersburg and Moscow, and the first soviets, or workers' councils, that would form the backbone of the successful revolution 12 years later.

During the yearlong struggle, the autocratic Tsar was forced to issue an unprecedented manifesto promising a constitutional assembly with broad representation and legislative power.

This mass struggle was ultimately crushed in December with a brutality comparable to the end of the Paris Commune. The assembly promised by the Tsar, who remained in power after the uprising, never materialized, and all the democratic gains and freedoms that had been won in 1905 would be gradually scaled back and eliminated in the subsequent years of reaction.

Yet the 1905 revolution, and the account by Russian revolutionary and Petersburg Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, now republished by Haymarket Books, provides invaluable lessons that every socialist should read.


TROTSKY'S 1905 was originally published in German in 1909--the first Russian edition didn't appear until 1922--and is structured similarly to his history of 1917.

Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

It begins with the history of Russia's economic development in the 19th century, and with an analysis of all the class forces driving the events ("The Big Capitalist Bourgeoisie," "The Bourgeois Intelligentsia," "The Proletariat," "The Nobility and Landowners," "The Peasantry and the Towns").

But the happiest continuity between these two books is Trotsky's skill in bringing events to life in a way that combines profound political analysis and engaging storytelling. As Norman Geras writes in "Literature of Revolution," 1905 "displays many of the same qualities" as The History of the Russian Revolution, "and it does for 1905 some of the things that [the latter] does for 1917, proffering...a theory of the unfolding events...but, over and above this, communicating an acute sense of them......memorable images of an animated, just-awakened political life: images of working people beginning to have their say, of boisterous meetings and swiftly spreading strikes."

One of the key developments in 1905 was the shattering of workers' illusions in the Tsarist autocracy as a government that was at least potentially sympathetic to their needs and their suffering, and open to their pleas for reform.

Review: Books

Leon Trotsky, 1905. Haymarket Books, 2016, $22, 488 pages.

As a wave of factory strikes hit Russia and workers' discontent grew over involvement in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, workers marched to the Winter Palace under the leadership of the priest Georgy Gapon to deliver a petition to the Tsar.

That day, January 9, would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

As Trotsky vividly relates, the petition described

all the oppressions and insults which the people had to suffer. It listed everything, from unheated factories to political lawlessness in the land. It demanded amnesty, public freedoms, separation of church from state, the eight-hour working day, a fair wage...the gradual transfer of land to the people...[and] the convening of a Constituent Assembly by universal and equal suffrage...As agreed, the march to the palace was a peaceful one, without songs, [political] banners or speeches. People wore their Sunday clothes. They carried icons and church banners. Everywhere the petitioners encountered troops. They begged to be allowed to pass. They wept, they tried to go around the barrier, they tried to break through it. The soldiers fired all day long. The dead were counted in the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night.


THE AUTOCRACY--before and after Bloody Sunday--had attempted to diffuse the growing unrest by installing various sympathetic-seeming figures, in the hope of somehow hitting on the perfect figurehead who would be able to appease the masses without meaningfully challenging the state, in a process that came to be known as the "Spring."

A fair amount of hope was placed in the liberal Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirsky when he was appointed in 1904 after his predecessor's assassination. Here at last, the capitalist press gushed, was "an ideally decent man" with "a noble mind" and "a sympathetic attitude towards enlightenment." Trotsky comments:

Verse and prose offerings were published telling us how "we had been asleep" and how, by a liberal gesture, [this] former commandant of the special gendarmerie corps had awakened us from sleep and pointed the way for a "rapprochement between authority and the people." When you read these outpourings you have the impression of breathing the gas of stupidity at a pressure of 20 atmospheres.

The high hopes placed in this comparatively liberal police official quickly dissipated after Bloody Sunday.

For this reason, it's not surprising that 1905 saw the first emergence in Russia of an organized and mobilized proletariat that was conscious of itself as a class in opposition to its rulers.

Before Bloody Sunday, as Trotsky puts it, the workers "were united momentarily in their appeal to an idealized monarchy; then, in the recognition that the proletariat and the real monarchy were mortal enemies."

In the course of 1905, strikes increased in frequency and numbers, giving rise to soviets, or workers' mass councils that served to coordinate and centralize the strikes, to organize the production and distribution of necessities, and generally to serve as a centralized authority for keeping order--one that was of course different from, and in opposition to, the order administered by the autocratic police state.

As Trotsky writes:

The principal method of struggle used by the soviet was the political general strike. the revolutionary strength of such strikes consists in the fact that, acting over the head of capital, they disorganize state power. The greater, the more complete the "anarchy" caused by a strike, the nearer the strike is to victory. But on one condition only: the anarchy must not be created by anarchic means. The class which, by simultaneous cessation of work, paralyzes the production apparatus and with it the centralized apparatus of power, isolating parts of the country from one another and sowing general confusion, must itself be sufficiently organized not to become the first victim of the anarchy it has created. The more completely a strike renders the state organization obsolete, the more the organization of the strike itself is obliged to assume state functions. These conditions for a general strike as a proletarian method of struggle were, at the same time, the conditions for the immense significance of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies.

By the pressure of strikes, the soviet won the freedom of the press. It organized regular street patrols to ensure the safety of citizens...it took the postal and telegraph services and the railways into its hands. It intervened authoritatively in disputes between workers and capitalists. It made an attempt to introduce the eight-hour working day by direct revolutionary pressure...it introduced its own free democratic order into the life of the laboring urban population.


ONE OMISSION of the book, noted by Tony Cliff in his biography of Lenin, is also a major point of contrast with Trotsky's history of 1917: the original 1909 edition of 1905 contains no mention of the Bolsheviks nor the Mensheviks, nor Lenin.

But this can be argued as a benefit of sorts: for Trotsky, the point was, along with his political views of the time, to emphasize working-class self-activity, and this is something the book does in elegant literary abundance.

In our age, when for so many the idea of workers' power and self-organization is unimaginable, passages like the following--from a chapter entitled "Storming the Censorship Bastilles"--are indispensable.

At this point, print workers had been temporarily taking over various non-revolutionary presses, one after the other, in order to print copies of the Soviet paper Izvestia:

The foreman comes into the stereotype workshop. The matrices are being knocked out, the furnace is being lit. Unfamiliar faces all around. "Who are you? Who allowed you to do this?" the newcomer demands, getting excited, and trying to put out the furnace. He is told to keep off, otherwise they'll lock him in a closet. "What's going on here?' He is told that the third issue of the Soviet's Izvestia is being printed. "Why didn't you say so to start with? I don't mind..." and the experienced craftsman gets down to work. "How are you proposing to do the printing? The electricity supply is cut off," says the manager who is under arrest. "Which is your power station? We'll get the current restored within half an hour." The manager names the power station, but is skeptical. He has been trying in vain for several days to get the current restored, if only to get some light in the private apartments; the power station, where the strikers are being replaced by seamen, is supplying the current only to state institutions. Exactly half an hour later the light comes on, the machines can start working. The management's faces reflect a respectful surprise. A few moments later the worker sent to the power station returns with a note from the officer in charge. At the request of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies the electricity supply to Bolshaya Podyacheskaya, 39, has been restored for the Obshchestvennay a Polza print shop. A signature follows.


THE FINAL strike wave erupted across 10 days in December in Moscow, known as the Moscow Uprising, triggered by the wholesale arrest of the Petersburg Soviet.

It was followed by the decisive defeat of the revolution--indeed, the Tsar is reported to have welcomed the uprising for having given it a pretense for putting an end to the revolution altogether in an especially violent, take-no-prisoners way.

During the period of counterrevolution that followed--as the participating revolutionaries were executed, exiled and had their organizations decimated, as all the gains of the revolution were peeled back and eliminated and the promise of a genuinely representative assembly revoked--those revolutionaries that survived took with them hard-won lessons.

Perhaps most centrally, they understood not to trust anything the state, especially a centuries-old autocratic state, grants you when it's frightened and has its back to the wall, as long as the revolution is one that ultimately leaves it in power.

This, among other things, was the basis for Lenin's view, against the "liquidators," that underground and illegal work had to continue, despite the newly--and temporarily--legal avenues for organization and protest that emerged in 1905.

More generally, the events of 1905 provided a certain conception of the ultimate aim of the proletarian movement, and how essential it was not to stop short of attaining it. Trotsky writes in the preface to the 1922 edition:

It was precisely in the interval between January 9 and the October strike of 1905 that those views which came to be called the theory of "permanent revolution" were formed in the author's mind. This rather high-flown expression defines the thought that the Russian revolution, although directly concerned with bourgeois aims [i.e. the overthrow of autocracy and the establishment of a constitutional republic], could not stop short at those aims; the revolution could not solve its immediate bourgeois tasks except by putting the proletariat in power. And the proletariat, once having power in its hands, would not be able to remain confined within the bourgeois framework of the revolution. On the contrary, precisely in order to guarantee its victory, the proletarian vanguard in the very earliest stages of its rule would have to make extremely deep inroads not only into feudal but also into bourgeois property relations.

Not only that: "The contradictions between a workers' government and an overwhelming majority of peasants in [an economically] backward country could be resolved only on an international scale," meaning that the proletariat would, once having defeated the autocracy, "have to strive consciously for the Russian revolution to become the prologue to a world revolution."

Twelve years later, Lenin applied this exact theoretical perspective to the situation created by the fall of the autocracy in his "April Theses," which then became the basis of the October revolution.

"It is not surprising," Trotsky writes in The History of the Russian Revolution, "that the April Theses of Lenin were condemned [by large numbers of Bolsheviks] as Trotskyist."


IN THE same preface to the Russian edition, Trotsky writes: "The proletariat came to power in 1917 with the help of the experience acquired by its older generation in 1905. That is why young workers today must have complete access to the experience and must, therefore, study the history of 1905."

The importance of Russia's 1905 revolution is far from academic. Today's revolutionaries look to 1917 because we live in a world riven by extreme inequality of wealth, an inter-imperialist rivalry threatening to break out into open war on an unprecedented scale, an accelerating climate crisis, a far right that is gaining numbers globally while being coddled and apologized for in the mainstream media, and a political system in which decision-making power is monopolized by pro-capitalist parties that are constitutionally incapable of genuinely addressing, much less solving, any of this.

In short, we look to 1917 because our world is crying out for fundamental social change, and we seek to draw whatever lessons we can from the single moment in world history in which working people took control, and reordered society, through their own mass organizations.

And yet the success of the October insurrection--with all the lessons we want to take from it--was possible only because it was led by revolutionaries with a clear and honest understanding of the missteps and half-measures the movement had made 12 years earlier (as well as the terrible cost of those mistakes), and a determination not to repeat them.

But 1905 is relevant for us not only because it was the "Great Dress Rehearsal" for the October Revolution. It's relevant also because we're doing our work in a social and political context--at the end of a four-decade long attack on working-class institutions, wages and job security, along with the proliferation of victim-blaming, scapegoating and so-called free-market ideology--that puts us, in terms of historical parallels, behind Russia's 1905.

We haven't had "our" 1905 yet, much less our February or October 1917. Those who seek to start from current material conditions and to focus, as Lenin put it, on finding the "link in the chain" that will pull things forward from where they actually are, can perhaps draw more from the study of 1905 than they can from 1917 alone.

Activists who have been studying the October Revolution during its centennial this year would therefore greatly benefit from a study of 1905 as well.

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