1905 Revolution: Fundamental lessons for the proletariat

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Eighty years ago, the proletariat in Russia embarked upon the first revolutionary movement of this century - the general rehearsal for the victorious revolution of 1917 and the world-wide revolutionary wave which lasted until 1923.

The movement which broke out spontaneously in January 1905, beginning from a quite fortuitous and secondary event - the sacking of two workers at the Putilov factory - was to transform itself during the course of the year into a gigantic general uprising of the proletariat, in which economic and political strikes fused together, developed through advances and retreats, were coordinated across all sectors of production, generalized throughout the Russian Empire and culminated with the Moscow insurrection in Dec­ember.

But the specificity of 1905 was not the massive character of the movement, although this was the first time that the mass strike had ever been used on such a scale (on the characteristics of the mass strike, see IR 27, ‘Notes on the Mass Strike'). The proletariat had already used this formidable weapon in the years preceding 1905, notably in 1896 in Russia and 1902 in Belgium. What made 1905 an unprecedented experience in history was essentially the spontaneous emergen­ce - in the struggle and for the struggle - of the workers' councils, organs regrouping the whole of the class with elected delegates res­ponsible to the class and recallable at any time.

The emergence of the first workers' councils in 1905 marked the opening up of a period in which the question that was to be posed historically for the working class was that of the proletarian revolution.

Over half a century of capitalist decadence has amply confirmed the validity of this fundamental lesson for the working class: the workers' councils are the instrument for overthrowing the bourgeois state and for the seizure of power by the working class. They are, as Lenin said, "the finally discovered form of the dictator­ship of the proletariat." In this sense, it is imperative that revolutionaries are able to draw all the lessons from this first revolutionary experience of the proletariat if they are to carry out, now and in the class confrontations to come, the tasks for which the class has en­gendered them.


When the 1905 revolution broke out, one of the essential questions posed to revolutionaries, as to the class as a whole, was this: what is the significance of this sudden eruption of the Russian proletariat onto the scene of history? Was this revolution a response to the specific conditions of Tsarist Russia, a country in which the development of large-scale industry had not yet completely swept away the last vestiges of feudalism? Or was it the product of a new stage in the development of the contradictions of cap­italism, a stage which was being reached by the whole of the planet?

Faced with this question, Rosa Luxemburg was the first to see the general significance of this movement when she affirmed that the 1905 revol­ution "came at a point which had already passed the summit, which was already on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society." (The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions)[1]. Thus already in 1906, Rosa Luxemburg under­stood that the proletarian uprising of 1905 meant the end of the apogee of capitalism as a world system and opened up a period in which the prol­etariat would have to translate into practice its historic being as a revolutionary class. In entering into its decadent phase, capitalism revealed the first symptoms of a classic and insoluble crisis: its inability to improve the living conditions of the working class in any lasting way, its inextricable slide into barbar­ism, expressed in particular by the development of imperialist wars.

The 1905 revolution did not therefore break out in response to the ‘specificities', to the backwardness of Tsarist Russia, but in response to the convulsions at the end of the ascendant period of capitalism, which in this country took the particular form of the Russo-Japanese war with its terrible consequences for the proletar­iat.

However, although Rosa Luxemburg was the first to grasp the historical significance of 1905 as "the universal form of the proletarian class struggle resulting from the present stage of capitalist development and of its relations of production" (Mass Strike), her understanding of the period still remained incomplete because, along with the rest of the left fractions of the IInd International, she didn't clearly under­stand the nature of this ‘bourgeois democratic' revolution of which the proletariat was the main protagonist, not grasping all the implications deriving from the end of capitalism's apogee: the impossibility for the proletariat to carry out bourgeois tasks, because what was on the agenda was no longer the bourgeois revolution but the proletarian revolution.

This confusion which existed in the whole work­ers' movement at the beginning of the century had its roots essentially in the fact that 1905 took place at a turning point, in a twilight period in which, living in the last years of prosperity, the capitalist economy was already showing signs of running out of steam but without its insurmountable contradictions bursting into the daylight in the vital centers of world cap­ital. And it was not until the years leading up to World War I, when there was an unfettered growth of militarism and the bourgeoisie of the main European powers was accelerating its prep­arations for war, that the lefts in the IInd International were really able to understand the change in period which posed the alternative: proletarian revolution, or the collapse into barbarism.

Nevertheless, although revolutionaries didn't immediately grasp either the change in period, or the nature of 1905, what distinguished them from the reformist and opportunist tendencies within the workers' movement at this time (the Mensheviks, for example), was essentially their understanding of the role of the proletariat, of its autonomous action as a historical class and not as a supporting force in the service of bourgeois interests. And among the revolutionaries in 1905, it was the Bolsheviks (Rosa Lux­emburg didn't see this until 1918) who were able to understand the specific role of the soviets as instruments of revolutionary power. It was therefore by no means accidental that the same Bolsheviks would in 1917 be in the vanguard of the revolution, not only in Russia, but on a world scale.

The nature and role of the soviets

What distinguishes the movement of 1905 from those of the previous years, the massive workers' explosions in Russia which were the premises for 1905, was the capacity of the proletariat to organize itself as an autonomous class with the spontaneous emergence, in the struggle and for the struggle, of the first workers' councils, the direct result of a revolutionary period.

The form of organization with which the prolet­ariat provides itself to carry out the struggle in such a period cannot be built in advance, following the scheme of organization which the proletariat used last century: the trade unions.

In the ascendant phase of capitalism, the organization in advance of the class into unions was an indispensable condition for carrying out the struggles of economic resistance which it waged over a long period.

When capitalism entered into its decadent phase, the impossibility of the class winning lasting improvements in its living conditions meant that the permanent organization into unions had become an obsolete means of struggle and in the first years of the century capital was to more and more integrate these organizations into the state. Because of this, the struggle of the proletariat, historically posing the question of the destruction of capitalism, would increas­ingly go beyond a purely economic framework and transform itself into a social, political strug­gle, more and more directly confronting the state. This form of struggle, specific to cap­italist decadence, cannot be planned in advance. In the period when the proletarian revolution is on the historical agenda, struggles explode spontaneously and tend to generalize to all sec­tors of production. Thus the spontaneous way in which the workers' councils arose was a direct result of the explosive, unprogrammed nature of the revolutionary struggle.

Similarly, in line with the objectives of the proletarian struggle last century, the unions could only regroup the workers on a local scale and by industrial branches, having - apart from general demands like the 8-hour day - their own specific demands. By contrast, when the strug­gle of the proletariat poses the question of the overthrow of the capitalist order, which requires the massive participation of the whole class; when it tends to develop no longer on a vertical level (by trade and industrial branches) but on a horizontal level (geographically), uniting all its different aspects (economic and political, local and general), then the form of organization which it engenders can only have the funct­ion of unifying the proletariat beyond profess­ional sectors.

This was illustrated in a grandiose manner by the experience of 1905 in Russia. In October, following the extension of the struggle from the typographers to the railways and the telegraphs, the workers, meeting in general assemblies in Petersburg, took the initiative of founding the first soviet, which was to regroup the represent­atives of all the factories and thus to constit­ute the nerve centre of the struggle and of the revolution. This is what Trotsky (president of the Petersburg Soviet) was expressing when he wrote:

"What was the soviet of workers' deputies? The soviet came into being as a response to an objective need - a need born of the course of events. It was an organization which was author­itative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organizational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control - and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within twenty four hours... In order to have authority in the eyes of the masses on the very day it came into being, such an organization had to be based on the broadest representation. How was this to be achieved? The answer came of its own accord. Since the production process was the sole link between the proletarian masses who, in the organizational sense, were still quite inexperienced, representation had to be adapted to the factories and plants." (Trotsky, 1905)

It is the same difference in the form and content of the struggle between the ascendant period and the decadent period which determines the distinc­tion between the workers' councils mode of func­tioning, and that of the unions. The permanent structure of the trade union form of organization was reflected in the setting up of permanent means (strike funds, union officials...) for the preparation and carrying out of the daily demand struggle. But with the emergence of the workers' councils, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat put an end to this static mode of functioning, and gave birth to a new form of organization whose eminently dynamic character - in the image of the huge ferment of a revolution - was manifested by the revocability of its elected delegates, who were responsible in front of the whole class. Because this mode of functioning translated and reinforced the permanent mobilization of the whole class, the workers' councils were the most important terrain for the express­ion of a real workers' democracy, just as they were the place where the real level of conscious­ness in the class could be reflected. This is expressed particularly in the fact that the pol­itical forces which predominate in the workers' councils at certain moments of their evolution are the ones which have the most influence with­in the class. Moreover, the workers' councils are the place where the coming to consciousness of the class develops in a constant and acceler­ated manner. It's this dynamic of acceleration, resulting from the radicalization of the masses, which becomes a decisive factor in the struggle. Thus, while after the February 1917 revolution, the soviets put their confidence in the constitutional-democratic provisional government; their adherence to a revolutionary orientation after the events of the summer (the July Days, the Kornilov offensive) was the result of maturation, an extension of consciousness in the class, the indispensable precondition for the seizure of power in October 1917.

It can thus be seen that the workers' councils are the very expression of the life of the class in the revolutionary period. Because of this, the 1905 experience brought a definitive response to a question which the workers' move­ment had hitherto not been able to settle: what would be the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Although the experience of the Paris Commune had demonstrated the impossib­ility of the proletariat using the state appar­atus bequeathed by capitalism - and thus the necessity to destroy it - it did not yet bring a positive response to this question. And nearly half a century later, this question was still not definitively settled for the majority of revolutionaries, including Rosa Luxemburg herself, since in 1918, in her pamphlet The Russian Revolution, she reproached the Bolsheviks for having dissolved the Constituent Assembly, which she thought could have been an instrument of proletarian power. It was thus the Bolsheviks who were the first to clearly draw the main less­ons of 1905:

"It would be the most utter absurdity to accept that the greatest revolution in the history of humanity, the first time that power has passed from the hands of the minority of exploiters to the exploited majority, could be accomplished in the framework of the old parliamentary and bourgeois democracy without the greatest con­vulsions, without the creation of new forms of democracy, of new institutions and new condit­ions for its application... The dictatorship of the proletariat must involve not only a change in democratic forms and institutions in general, but an unprecedented extension of real democracy for the working class that had been subjugated by capitalism. And the truth is that the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which has already been elaborated in practice by the power of the soviets in Russia, the sys­tem of councils in Germany...signifies and realizes precisely for the laboring classes, ie for the enormous majority of the population, an effective possibility for enjoying democratic rights and freedoms such as never existed, even approximately, in the most democratic bourgeois republics." (Lenin, ‘Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat', First Congress of the Communist International, 1919)

The role of revolutionaries in the workers' councils

Because it's the whole proletariat which has to undertake the revolutionary transformation of society, the abolition of all class divisions, its dictatorship can only take on a form radic­ally opposed to that of the bourgeoisie. Thus, against the vision of the Bordigist current, for whom the class' form of organization doesn't matter very much as long as it permits the party to take power, we have to insist that without the workers' councils there can be no proletar­ian revolution. For the Bordigists, the prolet­ariat can only exist as a class through the Party. But despite claiming to share Lenin's conception of the role of the revolutionary party, they actually make a total caricature of Lenin's views. Instead of reappropriating the essential contributions of Lenin and the Bolsh­eviks to revolutionary theory, they merely take up their errors and push them to their most extreme and absurd conclusions. This is the case with the idea defended by Lenin and express­ed in the Theses of the Second Congress of the CI (but which was also held by the majority of rev­olutionaries at this time), according to which the revolutionary party has the function of taking power in the name of the class. History has shown that this idea has to be rejected.

Because it's the whole class, organized in councils, which is the subject of the revolut­ion, any delegation of its power to a party, even a revolutionary one, can only lead to def­eat. This was tragically illustrated by the int­ernal degeneration of the Russian revolution after 1918, as soon as the soviets began to be emptied of their power in favor of the party-state. This view of the party substituting its­elf for the class is in fact an inheritance from the schema of the bourgeois revolution, in which the wielding of power by a fraction of the ruling class simply expresses the dictatorship of a minority, exploiting class over the majority of society.

This erroneous conception defended by the Bord­igist current, according to which the party, sole bearer of consciousness, is a sort of ‘general staff' to the class, has often been justified on the grounds that there is no homo­geneity of consciousness in the class. Arguments of this type express incomprehension of the phenomenon of the development of class conscious­ness as a historical process inherent in the very struggle of the proletariat - an exploited class under the permanent yoke of bourgeois ideology - towards its emancipation. It's pre­cisely the spontaneous emergence of workers' councils, arising from the revolutionary prac­tice of the proletariat, which expresses this general maturation of consciousness in the class. The weapon with which the class provides itself in order to overthrow the bourgeois state is also the instrument through which the working masses tend, in the heart of the struggle, to disengage themselves from the grip of bourgeois ideas and develop a clear understanding of the revolutionary perspective.

Does this mean that revolutionary organizations have no role to play in the workers' councils, as is claimed by the councilist current, for whom any party can only act to ‘rape' the class[2]? Under the pretext of defending the autonomy of the proletariat, the councilists' aversion for any organized form for revolutionaries is in fact merely the corollary of the Bordigist vision: haunted by the specter of the degeneration of the Russian revolution, the councilist current is incapable of seeing any other function for the party except that of taking power in the name of and in place of the class. This so-called defense of the autonomy of the proletariat betrays in fact a vision of a relation of force and domination between party and class.

Thus, the councilist vision - just like that of the Bordigists - is not only foreign to marxism, for which "communists have no interests separate from the proletariat as a whole" (Communist Manifesto), but also it can only disarm the proletariat in its confrontation with the forces of the counter-revolution.

While the councils are the indispensable instrument for the seizure of power by the proletariat, their mere existence does not offer any guarantee of victory. Because the bourgeoisie will defend its class interests tooth and nail, it will use all the means at its disposal to infiltrate the councils and drive them to suicide. This was illustrated by the bloody defeat of the proletariat in Germany in 1918: when, in December, the councils handed power over to a bourgeois party - the SPD - they signed their own death-warrant.

Furthermore, the pressure of the dominant ideo­logy can manifest itself within the workers' councils by the existence not only of bourg­eois parties but of opportunist working class currents whose lack of clarity, hesitations, and tendency to conciliate with the class enemy represent a permanent menace to the revolution. This was illustrated by the experience of the soviets in Russia 1917, when, following the February revolution, the Executive Committee of the soviets, dominated by opportunist formations (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) delegated its power to the Kerensky government. However, if the proletariat in Russia was able to take power, it was essentially because the soviets were regenerated after the summer of 1917 - and this was the whole difference with Germany 1918 - when the majority of the councils were won over to the positions of the Bolsheviks, ie of the clearest and most determined revolutionary curr­ent.

In any struggle of the proletariat the function of revolutionaries is to intervene within the class to defend its general interests, its final goal and the means towards it, to accelerate the process of the homogenization of consciousness in the class. This is all the more true in a period when the fate of the revolution is at stake. Even though in a revolutionary period the proletariat organized in councils is "cap­able of performing miracles" as Lenin said, it's still necessary for revolutionary parties at such moments "to know how to formulate their tasks with the greatest breadth and hardiness; their slogans must always stimulate the revolutionary initiative of the masses, serve as a beacon to them...demonstrating the shortest and most direct route towards a complete, absolute and decisive victory" (Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy, 1905).

In such a period, the party has the task, among other things, of struggling within the soviets for the defense of the autonomy of the proletariat, not in the way the councilists use this term - autonomy in relation to revolutionary organizations - but for its independence from other classes in society, and in the first place from the bourgeoisie. One of the essential tasks of the party within the workers' councils is thus to unmask in front of the proletariat any bourgeois party which will try to infiltrate the councils and empty them of their revolution­ary substance.

Just as the role of revolutionary minorities in the workers' councils expresses the fact that there are still different levels of consciousness and of penetration of bourgeois ideology within them, so this heterogeneity in the class is manifested by the existence of several currents and parties. Contrary to the Bordigist view that the process of the homogenization of cons­ciousness in the class can only develop through the existence of a single party, the vanguard of the class can't accelerate this process through coercive measures or the exclusion of any other proletarian political formation. On the contrary, the very nature of the unitary organization of the class implies that it must function as a theatre for the inevitable polit­ical confrontation between the various positions defended by the different tendencies existing in the proletariat. It's only through the practical confrontation between different points of view that the class can move towards greater clarity, towards "a clear understanding of the line of march and the general goals of the prol­etarian movement" (Communist Manifesto).

This does not mean that the most clear-sighted and determined vanguard of the proletariat must look for compromises or for intermediate positions with the most hesitant political currents. Its role consists in defending its own orientation with the greatest intransigence, in pushing forward the process of clarification, in leading the masses who have been momentarily subjected to centrist ideas towards revolutionary positions, by urging them to demarcate themselves from all the reactionary deviations to which they may fall prey.

Thus the councilist notion of forbidding revol­utionaries from organizing themselves and inter­vening in the life of the councils constitutes a capitulation in the face of the infiltration of bourgeois ideology into the councils, a desertion in the face of opportunism and of the class enemy, who for their part certainly wage the struggle in an organized manner. And that leaves aside the question of whether the council­ists call for the councils to forcibly ban any other form of organization apart from the coun­cils themselves. If they did that, they would not only be joining up with the Bordigist con­ception of the coercive relationships that are to be established in the class; they would be exhorting the councils to adopt a policy worthy of the most totalitarian forms of the capitalist state (which would be a fine conclusion to be drawn by these ‘ardent' defenders of ‘workers democracy'!).

These were the sort of deviations which revolut­ionaries were able to combat inside the workers' councils in 1905, in order to make themselves equal to the tasks for which the class had engen­dered them:

"It seems to me that comrade Radin is wrong to pose the question thus: ‘the soviet of workers' deputies or the party?' I think this isn't the way to pose the question that we absolutely must come to this solution: both the soviet of workers' deputies and the party... To lead the political struggle both the soviet and the party are absolutely necessary at the present time... It seems to me that the soviet would be wrong to unreservedly join up with this or that party. The soviet...was born out of a general strike, during a general strike. Who was it that carried out this strike? The whole proletariat, which also includes, fortunately as a minority, non­social democrats. Should this combat have been waged only by social democrats or solely under the banner of social democracy? I think not... The soviet of workers' deputies must tend to incorporate the deputies of all the workers... as for us social democrats our task is to struggle in common with the proletarian comrades, without distinction of opinion, while developing a tireless and determined propaganda for marxism, which is the only consistent and really prolet­arian standpoint... Of course there can be no question of a fusion between Social Revolution­aries and social democrats, but this isn't the issue... The workers who share the SRs' view­point and who fight in the ranks of the proletariat are, we are profoundly convinced, being inconsistent, because while carrying out a really proletarian work, they are holding onto non-proletarian conceptions. As in the past, we consider the SRs' conceptions to be non-socialist. But in the combat itself...we will quickly be shown to be right as against their incoherence, because history itself is militat­ing in favor of our conceptions, just as real­ity has done at each step. If they don't learn social democratism from our writings, our revol­ution will teach it to them." (Lenin, ‘Our Tasks and the Soviet of Workers' Deputies', November, 1905).


Like the Paris Commune, the 1905 revolution ended in defeat. But this defeat prepared the ground for the victory of October 1917, just as the defeat of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave was only a step in a long and painful road which will lead the proletariat to its final victory. It was this continuity in the historical struggle of the proletariat which Lenin affirmed at the time of the February 1917 revolution:

"If the Russian proletariat hadn't fought such mighty class battles in the years from 1905 to 1907 and deployed its revolutionary energies, the second revolution (that of February 1917) would not have been so rapid, in that its initial steps were taken in just a few days. The first revolution (1905) prepared the terrain, uprooted age-old prejudices, awoke millions of workers and peasants to political life and political struggle, revealed to the whole world all the classes (and the principal parties) of Russian society, their real nature, their real interests, their strengths, their means of action, their immediate and long-term goals." (Lenin, ‘Letters from Afar', March 1917)

The revolutions of 1905, then the revolution of 1917, thus have left considerable lessons for the working class. In particular they have enabled it to understand which organs have the task of seizing political power, just as they have enabled it to affirm the indispensable character of revolutionary minorities in the revolution.

However, the first revolutionary experiences of the proletariat did not allow it to definitively settle the question of the relationship between the party and the workers' councils. Because of this, the divergences existing within the revol­utionary camp at the time (notably within the left fractions which came out of the IIIrd Int­ernational) served to disperse their forces as soon as the first revolutionary wave began to decline, and even more so in the years of the counter-revolution.

More than half a century of proletarian exper­ience and of reflection by the revolutionary currents which survived the counter-revolution has made it possible to pronounce much more clearly on this question. Because of this greater clarity, the political conditions for the regroupment of revolutionaries and for the movement towards the formation of the future party - a regroupment made indispensable by the historic resurgence of the class struggle at the end of the ‘60s - are so much more favorable than in the past. The capacity of revolutionaries to prepare the conditions for the future victory of the proletariat depends on their capacity to draw all the lessons from past experience about the relationship between party and class.


[1] In fact, well before 1905 Rosa Luxemburg had foreseen that capitalism was entering a turning point in its evolution, when she wrote, in 1898, in her pamphlet Social Reform or Revol­ution:

"Labor legislation is enacted as much in the immediate interest of the capitalist class as in the interest of society in general. But this harmony endures only up to a certain point of capitalist development. When capitalist development has reached a certain level, the interests of the bourgeoisie, as a class, and the needs of economic progress begin to clash even in the capitalist sense. We believe that this phase has already begun. It shows itself in two extremely important phenomena of contemporary social life: on the one hand, the policy of tarri f f barriers, and on the other, militarism."

[2] It's ironic that its precisely from Lenin and the Bolsheviks that such an ‘anti-Leninist' current as councilism learned the whole import­ance of the workers' councils and borrowed the slogan ‘All power to the soviets'.

History of the workers' movement: