Tony Cliff


(January 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 72, January 1985: 1, pp. 15–17.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There were three waves of strikes in 1905: in January, October and November. The January strike was sparked off by a very small event. Four workers in the massive Putilov engineering factory in St Petersburg, employing 12,000 workers were sacked. What appeared as the tiniest conflict brought forward an avalanche.

The Putilov workers went on strike against the victimisation of the four on 3 January. The workers were members of an organisation called the Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers. This was a police trade union. In St Petersburg the union was led by Father Capon, a prison chaplain, and a protégé of the bead of police, Colonel Zubatov.

After 3 January all branches of the Assembly held mass meetings throughout Petersburg. Workers proceeded from the individual incident at the Putilov factory to general issues facing the Russian workers. Under the influence of the euphoria generated by these mass meetings, Gapon suggested adding to the original demand for the reinstatement of the four sacked workers and the removal of the foreman responsible, a list of other demands: an eight-hour day, increase in the daily wage, improvement of sanitary facilities and the granting of free medical aid.

Gapon thought it would be a good idea to have the workers turn to the Tsar for support. The police department concurred with this. A few benevolent words from the throne, accompanied by some small measures to ameliorate workers’ conditions, would be enough, they thought, to stop the movement from going to extremes, and would reinforce the role of the Tsar as the workers’ friend. The idea of a petition and a solemn procession was born. The petition would humbly beg the Tsar for redress of the workers’ grievances.

While the police were making plans, the Petersburg Social Democrats (socialists) were active. After a slow start they intervened in the movement and achieved a measure of success. They sent speakers to the district meetings of the Assembly, and succeeded in introducing resolutions and amendments into the original text of the petition.

The result was a petition very different from the one originally envisaged by the leaders of the Assembly. A whole string of political demands were included: freedom of assembly for the workers, land for the peasants, freedom of speech and the press, the separation of Church and state, an end to the Russo-Japanese war, and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly.

The Putilov strike which began on 3 January, became by the 7th a general strike of the whole of St Petersburg involving some 150,000 workers. On Sunday 9 January, 200,000 Petersburg workers marched in an enormous but peaceful procession to the Tsar’s Winter Palace, headed by Father Gapon.

The crowd was carrying pictures of the Tsar, holy icons and church banners. A tiny group of Bolsheviks were marching at the end of the procession with a red banner. The Mensheviks were also present with a similar number of supporters. When the procession came to the Winter Palace the Tsar refused to receive the petitions. The troops guarding the Winter Palace were ordered to fire into the crowd. More than a thousand people were killed and as many as two thousand wounded.

Workers learned from bitter experience that icons and pictures of the Tsar are less potent than revolvers and guns. Writing a month after the event, Lenin stated: ‘9 January 1905 fully revealed the vast reserve of revolutionary energy possessed by the proletariat.’ But then he added that it revealed ‘as well ... the utter inadequacy of Social Democratic organisation’.

Petersburg was in the grip of a total strike. And the general strike spread from the capital to many cities hundreds or even thousands of miles away. The economic demands of workers led to political demands, economic struggle led to political struggle and vice versa. The two were not separated.

Finally, on 6 August, the Tsar made a concession. But instead of giving the long promised National Assembly, nothing was given but a consultative body – the Duma – with no power to legislate. The Duma was at the mercy of the Tsar. Out of the 1,400,000 Petersburg citizens only 13,000 had the vote. This roused the popular passion to fever heat, and led to the second great wave of strikes in October, in which the demands were overwhelmingly political.

At the same time the demand for the eight-hour day was central. The strike started in Moscow and from there it spread to Petersburg. The Petersburg soviet was established. By 13 October the number of strikers throughout Russia exceeded one million. Practically all the railway lines were stopped? The post stopped, schools were closed, water and gas supplies ceased, the country, the cities and the communications between them were practically at a standstill. Poland was completely paralysed by the strike, as was Finland.

On 17 October the Tsar signed a proclamation giving a constitution to the Russian people. This manifesto pledged civil liberty with inviolability of the person, freedom of speech and association. It promised facilities for spreading electoral rights throughout the nation, leaving the details to the new Duma. Finally it agreed that no law would be enforceable without the approval of the state.

The workers were not satisfied. The Tsar’s proclamation whetted workers’ appetite for more. The revolutionaries demanded the dismissal of General Trepov, head of the police and Cossacks in Petersburg, the removal of the troops twenty miles from the city, a general amnesty and the formation of a national citizen’s militia. They also demanded a political amnesty.

They declared that while there was freedom of meeting, the meetings were still surrounded by troops. While there was freedom of the press, the censorship remained. While there was freedom of learning the universities were occupied by troops. The inviolability of the person was given, but the gaols were filled with political prisoners. A constitution was given but the autocracy remained.

A third wave of strikes followed in November. The heart of these were economic demands. The unifying demand for the eight-hour day now dominated the strike. There was a total strike in Petersburg. On 3 November the whole town was practically shut down.

Outside St Petersburg there was a different picture. In the provinces the strike call was not answered, and in Petersburg itself the employers reacted by mass lockouts affecting tens of thousands of workers. By the beginning of December the Tsar felt strong enough to take massive repressive measures. The whole Executive Committee of Petersburg trade unions was arrested, the National Railroad Union was dissolved, new anti-strike regulations were promulgated.

On 7 December a strike broke out in Moscow in protest against these repressive measures. It spread to St Petersburg where about 125,000 people came out on strike. This was the springboard for an armed insurrection in Moscow. Alas, after a week of struggle the insurrection was bloodily crushed by the Tsarist army.

Mass strikes pose the question of state power. Which class is going to rule, the capitalists or the working class? This is why in Russia it brought forward a new institution, the soviet or workers’ council.

The soviet, to start with, is simply a strike committee, but unlike the normal strike committee which covers an individual workplace, the soviet covers numerous workplaces. In time the soviet challenges the government of the day. Therefore the soviet is the form of organisation of workers fighting for power, and, as Lenin pointed out very early in the life of the soviets, it is the form of organisation of workers in power.

The soviet was created first in Petersburg in October 1905 and it spread subsequently to a number of other cities. Their establishment meant that two governments coexisted side by side: the official government of the Tsar, and the unofficial government of the workers. Such dual power could not go on for any length of time and after a couple of months it was the Tsarist government that managed to annihilate the soviets.

Mass strikes in themselves, even when organised by soviets, cannot get rid of the rule of the capitalists. They can win concessions from the capitalists, but they cannot make the capitalists give up their economic and political power. The capitalists would rather lose their profits than their property. The strike can win bread, it cannot win the bakery. The capitalists can survive much longer in a strike than the workers because they have much more fat to live on.

In the final analysis the capitalists can be removed from power only by force. As Marx put it: ‘Violence is the midwife of any new society.’ The insurrection is necessary for the victory of the mass strike and the soviet. Hence the December insurrection in Moscow was a step forward in the march of the revolution.

The act of insurrection cannot be carried out by the soviets. The soviet organises all workers, both advanced and backward. That is the strength of the soviet – that it is all-inclusive. Ultimately, the act of insurrection demands much more decisiveness. The insurrection needs a resolute leadership to plan the action and to time it. As Lenin put it: ‘Insurrection is an art, and an art cannot be assumed to be known by every worker.’ So it was the Bolshevik party which organised the December 1905 insurrection in Moscow, and later the October 1917 insurrection in Petersburg.

The decisive struggle of the revolution took place in the towns. But these were followed by widespread uprisings of the rural population. From the spring of 1905 to the autumn of 1906 peasant struggle developed throughout the countryside. Peasants seized landowners’ land, ransacked their estates, took their grain and cattle. Without a peasant uprising, in a country like Russia where the industrial proletariat was a very small minority, a victorious revolution was not possible.

In 1905 the peasant uprising following the struggle of the proletariat in the cities was not widespread enough or strong enough, to overthrow Tsarism. The Tsar managed to use peasants in uniform to suppress the Moscow insurrection. The 1905 revolution showed clearly the relation between the proletariat and the peasantry. It also showed the relation between the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie.

When the revolution started in January the liberal bourgeoisie which was very weak in backward Russia was quite ecstatically for it. But the revolutionary ardour of the leaders cooled off as the revolution advanced, drawing millions of workers and peasants into political and. social struggle. If at the beginning, in January, the bourgeoisie supported the strike enthusiastically, in November, when the struggling workers were demanding the eight-hour day, and thus threatening the employers’ pocket, the bourgeoisie reacted immediately, not only by lockouts, but also by opposition to all the revolutionary struggle. The bourgeoisie turned out to be much more afraid of the revolutionary workers than of counter-revolutionary Tsarism.

While Lenin in 1903 led the Bolsheviks to split from the Mensheviks inside Russian Social Democracy, the line of demarcation was not initially very clear. It was only in the heat of the 1905 revolution that both factions were formed into clear entities.

The Mensheviks saw the revolution as one to overthrow autocracy and establish bourgeois democracy. This revolution would be led by the bourgeoisie, and so they called on workers to collaborate with the bourgeoisie. This led one of their leaders, Plekhanov to say of the December uprising, ‘It was wrong to take up arms. We must value the support of the non-proletarian opposition parties and not repel them by tactless action.’ Lenin’s attitude was exactly the opposite-the insurrection was a step forward but not well enough organised.

Whereas the Bolsheviks saw in the peasant a revolutionary force that in alliance and under the leadership of the proletariat could overthrow Tsarism, the Mensheviks saw them as basically a conservative force. And the Mensheviks, although quicker to support the soviet initially, never saw the soviet as a form of organisation for the struggle of workers’ power and the form of organisation of workers’ power, as the Bolsheviks came to do.

1905 shaped and sharpened the ideas of Bolshevism regarding the need for a proletariat independent from and in opposition to the bourgeoisie, which was bound to become more and more counter-revolutionary. The proletariat must lead the peasantry. The form of organisation of the workers and peasants in struggle for power and in power is the form of the soviet. The revolutionary party has to fight for leadership in the soviets and has to organise the insurrection itself. 1905 was also the year that made it possible for Trotsky to develop his theory of the Permanent Revolution.

1905 delivered a mortal blow to the shapelessness of the masses. In January 1905 most workers thought the Tsar could be spoken to as a decent person. Bloody Sunday opened the eyes of millions. In October the same workers believed that to shake a fist at the Tsar would be enough to force him to grant concessions. The general strike in October proved to them that this was not so. The use of arms was the next step.

1905 had all the ingredients which were to reappear in 1917 and lead to a successful revolution. Without the experience and lessons learnt in 1905 it is doubtful if the uprisings in 1917 would have led to the establishment of workers’ power. But for the experience to be remembered and the lessons carried forward it needed a revolutionary party to act as ‘the memory of the class’, to educate new members and put the lessons of 1905 to the workers struggling in 1917.

Last updated on 26 October 2019