100 years ago: the Russian revolution of 1905 and the Soviet of workers' deputies

In the series Russia 1905

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In this issue, we continue the article begun in International Review n°122, where we highlighted the change in period which formed the backdrop to the events of 1905 in Russia, as capitalism entered the watershed between its ascendant and decadent periods. We also described the conditions that had favoured the radicalisation of the struggle in Russia: the existence of a modern, concentrated and highly conscious working class confronted by the attacks of a capitalism whose situation had been worsened by the disastrous effects of the war with Japan. The working class was thus led into a direct confrontation with the state in order to defend its living conditions, and organised in soviets to undertake this new historic phase in its struggle. The first part of this article recounted how the first workers’ councils were formed, and what needs they answered. This second part analyses in more detail how the soviets were formed, how they were linked to the movement of the whole working class, and their relationship with the trades unions. In fact, the unions – which already in 1905 no longer corresponded to the organisational needs of the working class in the new period, only played a positive role inasmuch as they were pulled along by the movement’s dynamic, in the wake of the soviets and under their authority.

The high point of the 1905 revolution: The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies

The tendencies seen in Ivanovo-Voznesensk were realised most fully in the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in St Petersburg.

The soviet emerged from the development of the workers’ struggles in St. Petersburg. Superficially it differed from Ivanovo-Voznesensk in that the initial meeting was called on the initiative of the Mensheviks rather than arising directly from a particular struggle. In reality it was rooted every bit as much in the workers’ struggles, but in the movement as a whole rather than just one part of it. This was an advance and the notion that it was less genuinely proletarian or was in some way the creature of the Social Democracy can only express the superficial formalism of those who argue the point. In fact, revolutionaries were driven along by the rush of events and by the spontaneous development of the struggle at a pace they did not always find comfortable.

From the outset the soviet revealed its political nature: “It was decided immediately to call upon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates. The proclamation drafted at the first meeting states: The working class has resorted to the final, powerful weapon of the world workers' movement -- the general strike. . . Decisive events are going to occur in Russia within the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events in full readiness, united by our common Soviet . . .’".[1] The second meeting of the soviet already presumed to make demands of the ruling class: “A special deputation was instructed to submit the following demands to the city duma: 1) that measures be taken immediately to regulate the flow of food supplies to the workers; 2) that premises be set aside for meetings; 3) that all food supplies, allocations of premises and funds to the police, the gendarmerie, etc., be discontinued forthwith; 4) that funds be issued for the arming of the Petersburg proletariat in its fight for freedom”.[2] Very rapidly the soviet became the rallying point for the struggle and the leader of the mass strike, with trade unions and individual strike committees adhering to its decisions. The constitutional manifesto, signed by the Tsar and published on 18th October, may not have been a particularly radical document in itself but in the political context of the period, it was an expression of the balance of class forces during the revolution, and as such was of real significance: “On October 17, the Tsarist government, covered in the blood and curses of centuries, capitulated before the revolutionary strike of the working masses. No efforts at restoration can rub out this fact from the history books. The sacred crown of the Tsar's absolutism bears forever the trace of the proletarian's boot”.[3]

The next two and a half months saw a trial of strength between the revolutionary proletariat, led by the soviet it had created, and the bourgeoisie. On October 21st, faced with the loss of momentum of the strike, the soviet brought it to an end, showing its power by organising all workers to return at the same hour. In late October, plans for a demonstration to demand an amnesty for the prisoners taken by the state were called off in the face of preparations by part of the ruling class to provoke a clash. These actions were attempts to gain the advantage by the classes as they headed towards an inevitable clash: “That was the general trend of the Soviet's policy; it went towards the inevitable conflict with its eyes open. But it did not feel itself called upon to accelerate the conflict. The later, the better.[4] In late October a wave of pogroms was organised, using the Black Hundreds as well as the worst lumpen and criminal elements of society, that left some 3,500 to 4,000 killed and 10,000 injured; and even in St Petersburg preparations went ahead with isolated beatings and assaults. The working class responded by strengthening its militia, seizing arms and mounting patrols, prompting the government in turn to bring soldiers into the city.

In November a new strike developed, partly in response to the imposition of martial law in Poland and the court martial of the soldiers and sailors from Kronstadt who had rebelled. Again faced with a loss of momentum after forcing some concessions, the soviet called off the strike and the workers returned to work as a disciplined body. The success of the strike lay in the fact that it drew in new sectors of the working class and made contact with the soldiers and sailors: “With a single blow it stirred the consciousness of many circles within the army and, in a matter of a few days, gave rise to a number of political meetings in the barracks of the Petersburg garrison. Not only individual soldiers but also soldiers' delegates began to show up in the Executive Committee and even at meetings of the Soviet itself, making speeches, demanding support; revolutionary liaison among the troops was reinforced; proclamations were widely read”.[5] Similarly, an attempt to enforce the 8 hour day could also not be sustained and the gains that had been made were quickly lost once the campaign was called off, but the impact on the consciousness of the working class was lasting: “Defending the resolution to drop the campaign in the Soviet, the rapporteur of the Executive Committee summed up the campaign in the following words: ‘We may not have won the eight hour day for the masses, but we have certainly won the masses for the eight-hour day. Henceforth the war-cry: Eight hours and a gun! shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker’".[6]

The strikes continued, particularly a new spontaneous movement amongst railway and telegraph workers, but the counter-revolution also gradually gathered strength. On November 26th the Chairman of the Soviet, Georgiy Nosar, was arrested. The soviet now recognised that the clash was inevitable and passed a resolution declaring that it would continue preparations for an armed insurrection. Workers, peasants and soldiers drew towards the soviet, affirmed its call to arms and made preparations. However, on December 6th the soviet was surrounded and its members arrested. The Moscow soviet now came to the fore, calling a general strike and attempting to transform it into an armed insurrection. But by this time the reaction was mobilising on a massive scale and the attempted insurrection became a rearguard, defensive action. By mid-December it had been defeated. In the reaction that followed 14,000 people were killed during the fighting, 1,000 executed, 20,000 wounded and 70,000 arrested and imprisoned or exiled.

The bourgeoisie finds itself perplexed by the events of 1905. Because the revolutionary nature of the working class is foreign to them, the development of the struggle into armed confrontation and the defeat of the proletariat seems like an act of madness: “Flushed with success, the Petersburg Soviet succumbed to hubris.[7] Instead of consolidating its achievements, it became increasingly militant, and even reckless. Many of its leaders reasoned that if the autocracy could be so easily brought to its knees, would it not be possible to gain more and more concessions for the working class and press ahead with a socialist revolution? They chose to ignore the fact that the general strike had succeeded only because it had been a unified effort by various social groups; and they failed to understand that they could count on middle class sympathy only so long as the Soviet concentrated its fire against the autocracy”.[8] For revolutionaries, the significance of 1905 does not lie in any immediate gains made but in the lessons it provides about the development of the conditions for revolution, the role of the proletariat and of the revolutionary organisation and, in particular, about the means the proletariat will use to wage its struggle: the soviets. These lessons were only gained because of the “hubris” and “recklessness” of the proletariat; qualities it will need in abundance if it is to succeed in overthrowing capitalism.

The Bolsheviks were uncertain when confronted with the soviets. In St. Petersburg, although they participated in the formation of the soviet, the Bolshevik organisation in the city passed a resolution calling on it to accept the social democratic programme. In Saratov they opposed the creation of a soviet as late as November 1905, while in Moscow, after some delays, they participated actively in the soviet. Lenin had a much clearer grasp of the potential of the soviets and in an unpublished letter to Pravda in early November, criticised those who opposed the party to the soviets: “…the decision must be: both the Soviet of Workers Deputies and the Party” and argued “it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party”.[9] He went on to argue that the Soviet arose from the struggle and was the product of the whole of the proletariat and that its role was to regroup the proletariat and its revolutionary forces, although the inclusion of the peasantry and elements of the bourgeois intelligentsia blurred this significantly. “To my mind, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, as a revolutionary centre is not too broad an organisation but, on the contrary, a much too narrow one. The Soviet must proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government, or form such a government, and must by all means enlist to this end the participation of the new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all from the sailors and soldiers (…) secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry, and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia (…) We are not afraid of so broad and mixed a composition – indeed, we want it, for unless the proletariat and the peasantry unite and unless the Social-Democrats and revolutionary democrats form a fighting alliance, the great Russian revolution cannot be fully successful”.

Lenin’s position at the time of the revolution and just afterwards was not always clear, not least because he linked the soviets to the bourgeois revolution and saw them as the basis for a provisional revolutionary government. However, he clearly grasped some of the most fundamental, defining features of the soviets: that they were a form that arose from the struggle itself, from the mass strike; that they regrouped the class; that they were a weapon of the revolutionary or insurrectionary struggle and that they ebbed and flowed with the struggle. “Soviets of Workers Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstances they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising. That this was precisely the role that quite a number of ‘soviets’ and ‘committees’ played in December, is an absolutely indisputable fact. Events have proved in the most striking and convincing manner that the strength and importance of such organs in the time of militant action depend entirely upon the strength and success of the uprising”.[10] In 1917 this understanding helped Lenin to grasp the central role to be played by the soviets.

The trade unions and the soviets

One of the major lessons of 1905 concerned the function of the unions. We have already mentioned the fundamental point that the development of the soviets showed that the union form was being transcended by the development of history; however, it is important to consider this in more detail.

In Russia, the immediate context was one in which workers’ associations had been banned by the state for many years. This contrasted with the more advanced capitalist countries where the unions had won the right to exist and had grouped together hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers. The particular situation in Russia did not prevent the workers from struggling but meant that their disputes tended to be quite spontaneous and, in particular, that their organisations arose directly from the struggle as strike committees and disappeared with the strike itself. The only legal form allowed was the collection of relief funds.

In 1901 a Society for Mutual Aid for Workers in Mechanical Industries was founded in Moscow by Sergei Zubatov and was followed by the creation of similar organisations in other cities. The aim of these police unions, as we have already mentioned, was to separate the economic grievances of the working class from the political and to ameliorate the former in order to keep the latter in check. They failed to do this, on the one hand because the state was unwilling to make even the minimal concessions that would have been necessary for them to have any credibility and, on the other, because the working class and the revolutionaries sought to turn them to their own ends. “The Moscow Zubatovists found a following in the workshops of the Moscow-Kursk [railway] line, but contrary to the plans of these ‘police socialists’, the contacts developed in Zubatovist tea rooms and libraries also spurred the organisation of Social-Democratic groups…”.[11] In the face of the strike wave of 1902-03 in which some 225,000 workers participated the Zubatov unions were liquidated.

In their place the state allowed the creation of starosti, or factory elders[12] to negotiate with management. Such delegations had arisen in the past because of the absence of other forms of organisation; but under the new law, and in order to avoid the appearance of delegates who truly represented the workers’ interests, such individuals could only be nominated with their employers’ permission. They had no immunity and could be fired by the employers or removed by the state-appointed governor of the region.

When the revolution broke out trade unions were still illegal. Nonetheless numerous unions were formed as a result of the first wave of struggles. By the end of September 16 unions had been formed in St. Petersburg, 24 in Moscow and a few others in different parts of the country. By the end of the year this had increased to 57 in St. Petersburg and 67 in Moscow. The intelligentsia and professional classes also formed unions, including lawyers, medical personnel, engineers and technicians and in May 14 of these unions formed the Union of Unions.

What then was the relationship between the unions and the soviets? Quite simply, it was the soviets that led the struggle, the unions being drawn along and radicalised by their leadership. “As the October strike developed, so the Soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront. Its importance grew literally hour by hour. The industrial proletariat was the first to rally around it. The railwaymen's union established close relations with it. The Union of Unions, which joined the strike from October 14, was obliged to place itself under the Soviet's authority almost from the start. Numerous strike committees - those of the engineers, lawyers, government officials - adapted their actions to the Soviet's decisions. By placing many disconnected organisations under its control, the Soviet united the revolution around itself”.[13]

The example of the railway workers’ union is instructive as it shows both the fullest extent and the limitations of the unions’ role in a revolutionary period.

As we have already seen, the railway workers had gained a reputation for militancy before 1905 and revolutionaries, including the Bolsheviks, had a significant influence amongst them. In late January waves of strikes developed, first in Poland and St. Petersburg, then in Belorussia, the Ukraine and the lines centred on Moscow. The authorities first made a few concessions and then tried to impose martial law but neither tactic brought the strikers to heel. In April the All-Russian Union of Railroad Employees and Workers was founded in Moscow. At first the union seems to have been dominated by the professional, white-collar, workers and the blue-collar workers kept their distance; but this changed as the year progressed. In July a new wave of strikes arose from the rank and file workers and, significantly, it immediately took a more political form. In September, as already mentioned, the pensions conference transformed itself into the “First All- Russian Delegate Congress of Railroad Employees”. This rising tide of militancy began to push against the limits of the union with the outbreak of spontaneous strikes in September forcing the union to act, as one delegate to the pensions’ congress noted: “the employees struck spontaneously; recognising the inevitability of a strike on the Moscow-Kazan Railroad, the union found it necessary to support a strike on the remaining roads of the Moscow junction”.[14]

These strikes were the spark that set off the mass strike of October: “On October 9, at an extraordinary meeting of the Petersburg delegates' congress of railway personnel, the slogans of the railway strike were formulated and immediately disseminated by telegraph to all lines. They were the following: eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, Constituent Assembly. The strike began confidently to take over the country. It finally bade farewell to indecision. The self-confidence of its participants grew together with their number. Revolutionary class claims were advanced ahead of the economic claims of separate trades. Having broken out of its local and trade boundaries, the strike began to feel that it was a revolution -- and so acquired unprecedented daring. The strike rushed forward along the rails and stopped all movement in its wake. It announced its coming over the wires of the railway telegraph. ‘Strike!’ was the order of the day in every corner of the land”.[15]

The rank and file workers came to the fore, overflowing the union with their revolutionary fervour: “Between October 9 and 18 there is no record of the Central Bureau issuing even a single instruction to union locals, and the memoirs of the leaders are noticeably silent concerning events of these days. In fact the upsurge of rank-and-file organising sparked by the strike tended to strengthen the influence both of local leadership factions and revolutionary parties at the expense of the nominally independent Central Bureau, especially as the strike came to involve new occupational categories”.[16] Even the Tsarist police noted that “during the strike committees were formed by the strikers on each of the railroads to provide organisation and leadership”.[17] One feature of the strike was the appearance of “delegate trains” used to spread the strike and maintain communication between the centres of struggle.

Between October and December large numbers of new unions were formed but, as a government report noted, these immediately took up the political struggle: “unions were formed initially to regulate the economic relations of the employees, but soon, under the influence of propaganda hostile to the state, they took on a political aspect and began to strive for the overthrow of the existing state and social order”.[18] This was certainly an accurate description of the railway workers who remained at the forefront of the revolution, participating in the strike and armed insurrection of December in Moscow.

In the aftermath of the revolution the union rapidly declined. At its third congress in December 1906 while the number of workers represented was ostensibly double that of the year previously, activity had sharply declined. In February 1907 the Social Democrats withdrew from the union and in 1908 it collapsed.

In Britain in the 19th century the working class fought to create unions. Initially these only regrouped the most skilled workers and it required major struggles in the second half of the century for the unskilled workers to overcome their dispersal and weakness to form their own unions. In Russia in 1905 it was also the most skilled who first formed unions, but in contrast to Britain, the lack of participation of the unskilled, rank-and-file workers was not an expression of a lack of class consciousness and militancy but of their high level. The absence of unions had not prevented the growth of either, and in 1905 both rose to a new level, aspiring towards the mass strike and the soviet. The union form appeared, but its content tended towards the new form of struggle. In the revolutionary ferment the workers created new forms of the struggle but also filled older forms with the new content, overflowed them and joined the revolutionary flood. The revolutionary life of the working class clarified the situation in practice many years before it was understood in theory: in 1917 it was the soviets that the working class returned to when it stormed the gates of capital.

1905 heralds the end of union organisation

The revolution of 1917 thus confirmed that the soviet was the only organisational form adapted to the needs of the workers’ struggle in the "epoch of wars and revolutions" (as the Communist International described the period after World War I: see the article on the political implications of the decadence of capitalism in this issue).

The 1905 mass strike, and the attempted insurrection, demonstrated that the workers’ councils were capable of taking on all the essential functions assumed till then by the unions: providing places where the proletariat could unite and develop its class consciousness, thanks in particular to the influence of revolutionary intervention.[19] But whereas during the previous period the working class was still in the process of formation, the unions often owed their existence to the intervention of revolutionaries who organised their class, the spontaneous creation of the soviet by the working masses in struggle corresponds to the evolution of the working class, to its maturity and the rising level of its consciousness, and to the new conditions of its struggle. Whereas union action was generally conceived on the basis of a struggle for reforms, often in close collaboration with the mass parliamentary parties, the workers’ council corresponds to the need for a struggle which is both economic and political, in head-on confrontation with the state power incapable of according the workers’ demands. In other words, a struggle which could no longer use the union form of organisation as it rallied and unified in action the growing and divers fractions of the working class, and provided the crucible for the general development of their consciousness.

The events of 1905 demonstrated in practice that the trade union, which the workers had fought for decades to build, was losing its usefulness for the working class. If the unions were still able to play a positive role in 1905, this was only thanks to the soviets, whose appendages they became. History’s was to be much sharper in the years that followed. In 1914, the first great slaughter began and the ruling class of the belligerent countries put the unions to serve the bourgeois state, controlling the working class for the benefit of the war effort.


The revolution of 1905 contains many lessons of vital importance for today on the necessity to understand the historical period in order to understand the tasks and form of the revolutionary struggle. The essential elements of the proletariat’s struggle in the period of capitalism’s decadence emerged during the struggle of 1905. The developing crisis of capitalism made the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism the goal of the struggle, while the consequences of the crisis in war, poverty and increased exploitation meant that any real struggle would have to take on a political form. These were the roots of the soviets. None of these were specific to Russia; they developed in different ways and at different paces in all of the main capitalist countries. In the next part of this series we will draw out the international significance of the revolution and the lessons that the workers’ movement drew from it.

North 14/06/05

1 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 8, “The creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

2 Ibid.

3 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 10, ” Witte’s ministry”.

4 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 11 “The first days of the ‘freedoms’”.

5 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 15 “The November strike”.

6 Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 16 “Eight hours and a gun”.

7"Hubris" is a notion derived from ancient Greece, where it indicated an overweening pride, punished by the Gods when it led men to think themselves their equals.

8 Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, Chapter 10, “The days of liberty”. Stanford University Press 1988.

9 Collected Works, Vol.10, “Our tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

10 Collected Works, Vol.11, “Dissolution of the Duma and tasks of the proletariat”

11 Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and Revolution: Russia, 1905, chapter 5 “First Assaults and Petitioning”.

12The term starost originally applied to the village elders, elected by the peasants, to police the village, settle disputes, and defend their interests. Tradition held that one should always accept the decision of the starost.

13 Trotsky, 1905, chapter 8 “The creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.

14 Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and Revolution: Russia, 1905, Chapter 7, “The pension congress and the October Strike”.

15 Trotsky, 1905, chapter 7, “The strike in October”.

16 Reichman, ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid, Chapter 8, “The rush to organise”.

19 Whose attitude differs from that of the reformists in particular because they put forward, in partial and local struggles, the common interests of the proletariat as a world wide and historically revolutionary class, and not the perspective of a "social" capitalism.