1905: the mass strike opens the door to the proletarian revolution

Printer-friendly version

From the beginning of the first series of these articles, we argued against the cliché that 'communism is a nice idea, but it could never work' by affirming, with Marx, that communism is not at all reducible to a 'nice idea', but is organically contained in the class struggle of the proletariat. Communism is not an abstract utopia dreamed up by a few well-intentioned visionaries; it is a movement given birth by the very conditions of present day society. And yet, that first series was very much a study of the 'ideas' of communists during the ascendant period of capitalism - an examination of how their conception of the future society and the way to achieve it developed during the course of the 19th century, before the communist revolution was on the immediate historical agenda.

We make no apology for this. Communism is the movement of the whole proletariat, of the working class as a historic and international social force. But the history of the proletariat is also the history of its organisations; and the clarification of the goals of the movement is the specific task of the proletariat's political minorities, its parties and fractions. Contrary to the fantasies of councilism and anarchism, there is no communist movement without communist organisations. Neither is there any conflict of interest between the two. Throughout the first series we showed how the work of clarifying the means and goals of the movement was carried out by the marxists of the Communist League and the First and Second Internationals; but this work was always done in the closest connection to the movement of the masses, by participating in, and drawing the lessons from, such epochal historical events as the revolutions of 1848 or the Paris Commune of 1871 in this second series we will be looking at the evolution of the communist project in the period of capitalism's decadence: that is to say, the period when communism has become more than the overall perspective of the workers' struggle - when it has become a veritable necessity since capitalist relations of production have entered into definitive and permanent conflict with the productive forces they have set in motion. Put more simply, the decadence of capitalism has faced humanity with the choice between communism or a relapse into barbarism. We will have occasion to look more deeply into the meaning of this phrase as this series progresses. For the moment we simply want to say that, no less than in the first series, the articles that will deal with capitalism's decadent period cannot pretend to provide a 'history' of all the momentous events of the 20th century that have served to elucidate the means and goals of communism. Perhaps even more so than in the first series, we will have to restrict ourselves to the way that the communists analysed and understood these events.

We only have to look at the 1917 Russian revolution to realise why this has to be: to write a new history even of the first few months of this event would be entirely beyond our means. But this should in no way diminish the importance of our study: on the contrary, we will find that nearly all the advances that the revolutionary movement of the 20th century has made in its understanding of the road to communism derive from its interaction with this irreplaceable experience of the working class. Even if the ICC's International Review has already devoted many of its pages to the lessons of the Russian revolution and the international revolutionary wave that it instigated, there is still much to be said about the way these lessons were drawn out and elaborated by the communist organisations of this era.

Marxists generally reckon that the onset of the epoch of capitalist decadence was marked by the outbreak of the first imperialist world war in 1914. Nevertheless, we ended the first series and begin the second, with the 'first' Russian revolution - with the events of 1905, which occurred during a kind of watershed between the two epochs. As we shall see, the ambiguous nature of this period led to many ambiguities in the workers' movement about the significance of these events. But what emerged most clearly, in the clearest fractions of the movement, was that 1905 in Russia marked the emergence of new forms of struggle and organisation that corresponded to the needs of the onrushing period of capitalist decline. If, as we showed in the last article of the first series, the previous decade had witnessed a strong tendency in the workers' movement to lose sight of the road to revolution - particularly through the growth of reformist and parliamentary illusions in the movement - 1905 was the lightning flash which illuminated the road for all those who wanted to see it.

Luxemburg and the mass strike debate

At first sight, the 1905 revolution in Russia was indeed a bolt from the blue. Reformist ideas had seized hold of the workers' movement because capitalism appeared to be enjoying a halcyon period in which things could only get better and better for the workers, so long as they stuck with the legal methods of trade unionism and parliamentarism. The days of revolutionary heroism, of street fighting and barricades, had seemed to be a thing of the past, and even those who professed marxist 'orthodoxy', such as Karl Kautsky, insisted that the best way for the workers to make the revolution was through winning a parliamentary majority. Suddenly, in January 1905, the bloody repression of a peaceful demonstration led by a priest and police agent, Father Gapon, ignited a massive wave of strikes throughout the Tsar's immense empire, and opened up a whole year of ferment, culminating in new mass strikes in October, which saw the formation of the St Petersburg Soviet, and the armed uprising of December.

In truth, these events had not sprung from nowhere. The wretched living and working conditions of the Russian workers, which had been the subject of their humble petition to the Tsar on that first 'Bloody Sunday', had been made even more intolerable by Russia's war with Japan in 1904 - a war which fully expressed the sharpening of global inter-imperialist tensions that was to reach its paroxysm in 1914. Furthermore, the magnificent combativity of the Russian workers was also no isolated phenomenon, either historically or geographically: the strike movement in Russia had been gathering pace since the 1890s, while the spectre of the mass strike had already raised its head in advanced Europe itself: in Belgium and Sweden in 1902, Holland in 1903, and Italy in 1904.

Even before 1905, therefore, the workers' movement had been traversed by an animated debate about the 'general strike' in the Second international, the marxists had fought against the anarchist and syndicalist mythology which had portrayed the general strike as an apocalyptic event that could be ushered in at any moment, and which could get rid of capitalism without any need for the working class to battle for political power. But as the practical experience of the class turned the debate away from such abstractions to the concrete question of the mass strike, i.e. to a real, evolving strike movement as opposed to a once and for all, universal work stoppage decreed in advance, the protagonists in the debate changed. From now on, the question of the mass strike was to be one of the main bones of contention between the reformist right and the revolutionary left within the workers' movement and the social democratic parties in particular. As with the previous round of this debate (over Bernstein's 'revisionist' theories in the late 1890s), the movement in Germany was to be at the centre of the controversy.

The reformists, and above all the trade union leaders, could only see the mass strike as a force for anarchy, one which threatened to undermine the years of patient labour which had built up the membership and funds of the trade unions, and a substantial parliamentary presence for the party. The trade union bureaucrats, specialists in negotiation with the bourgeoisie, feared that the kind of massive and spontaneous outbursts that had occurred in Russia would only end in massive repression and the loss of all the painfully acquired gains of the previous decades. To be sure, they took care not to openly denounce the movement in Russia. Instead they sought to limit its field of application. They granted that the mass strike was an understandable product of Russia's backward and despotic regime. But it was hardly necessary in a country like Germany, where trade unions and workers' parties had a recognised legal existence. If some kind of general strike became necessary in western Europe, it would only be as a limited, defensive exercise designed to safeguard existing democratic rights from a reactionary onslaught. And above all, any such operation had to be prepared in advance and tightly controlled by the existing workers' organisations, in order to curb any threat of 'anarchy'.

Officially, the leadership of the SDP distanced itself from these conservative reactions. At the 1905 Jena congress, Bebel put forward a resolution which appeared to mark a victory for the left against the reformists, since it hailed the importance of the mass strike. In fact, Bebel's resolution was a classic manifestation of centrism, since it reduced the mass strike to the purely defensive sphere. The duplicity of the leadership was proved a few months later, in February 1906, when it made a secret deal with the unions to block any effective propaganda for the mass strike in Germany.

For the left, on the other hand, the movement in Russia had a universal and historical significance, bringing a breath of fresh air to the musty atmosphere of trade unionism and 'nothing but' parliamentarism which had dominated the party for so long. The left's efforts to understand the implications of the mass strikes in Russia were crystallised above all in the writings of Rosa Luxemburg, who had already led the combat against Bernstein' s revisionism, and who had been directly involved in the 1905 events through her membership of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland, then part of the Russian empire. In her justly famous pamphlet The Mass Strike, the Party and the Trade Unions, she displayed a profound mastery of the marxist method, which, being armed with a historical and global theoretical framework, is able to discern the flowers of the future in the seeds of the present. Just as Marx had been able to predict the general future of world capitalism by studying its pioneering forms in Britain, or proclaim the revolutionary potential of the proletariat by looking at a movement as seemingly ineffectual as that of the Silesian weavers, so Luxemburg was able to show that the proletarian movement in 'backward' Russia in 1905 exhibited the essential characteristics of the class struggle in a historic period that was only just beginning to open up - the period of world capitalism's decline.

The opportunists entrenched in the union bureaucracy, and their more or less open supporters in the party, were swift to brand those marxists who sought to draw out the real implications of the mass strike movement in Russia as being "revolutionary romanticists", and above all as anarchists reviving the old millennial vision of the general strike. It was true that there were semi-anarchist elements in the SDP - in particular the so-called 'lokalisten' who called for a 'social general strike' - and, as Luxemburg herself wrote, the mass strikes in Russia appeared at first sight "to have become the experimental field for the heroic deeds of anarchism" (Mass Strike, part I). But in reality, Luxemburg showed, not only had the anarchists been almost completely absent from the movement: the latter's methods and aims actually constituted "the historical liquidation of anarchism ". Not merely because the Russian workers had proved, contrary to the apoliticism advocated by the anarchists, that the mass strike could be an instrument in the struggle for democratic political gains (this, after all, was nearing its end as a realisable component of the workers' movement). But first and foremost because the actual form and motion of the mass strike had dealt a decisive blow both to the anarchists and the union bureaucrats, who, for all their differences, had in common the false notion that the general strike was something that could be turned on or off at will, regardless of historic conditions and the real evolution of the class struggle. Against this, Luxemburg insisted that the mass strike was a "historical and not an artificial product”, that it is not "artificially made, not 'decided' at random, not 'propagated', but it is a historical phenomenon which, at a given moment, results from actual conditions with historical inevitability. It is not therefore by abstract speculations on the possibility or impossibility, the utility or the injuriousness of the mass strike, but only by an examination of those factors and social conditions out of which the mass strike grows in the present phase of the class struggle - in other words, it is not by subjective criticism of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is desirable, but only by objective investigation of the sources of the mass strike from the standpoint of what is historically inevitable, that the problem can be grasped or even discussed" (ibid., part II).

And when Luxemburg talks about the "present phase of the class struggle", she is not referring to a passing moment, but to a new historical epoch. With striking foresight, she argues that "the present Russian revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already over the summit, which is on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society" (ibid., part VII). In other words, the mass strike in Russia presaged the conditions that would become universal in the approaching epoch of capitalist decline. The fact that it had appeared with such sharpness in 'backward' Russia strengthened rather than weakened this thesis, since the delayed but very rapid development of capitalism in Russia had given birth to a highly concentrated proletariat confronting an omnipresent police apparatus that virtually forbade it to organise, and thus gave it no choice but to organise in and through the struggle - a reality that would be imposed on all workers in the decadent epoch, in which the state capitalist bourgeoisie cannot tolerate any permanent mass workers' organisations and systematically destroys or recuperates all previous efforts to organise on such a scale.

The period of capitalist decadence is the period of the proletarian revolution: consequently, the 1905 revolution in Russia "appears not so much as the last successor of the old bourgeois revolutions as the forerunner of the new series of proletarian revolutions of the west. The most backward country of all, just because it has been so unpardonably late with its bourgeois revolution, shows ways and methods of further class struggle to the proletariat of Germany and the most advanced capitalist countries" (ibid.). These "ways and methods" are precisely those of the mass strike, which as Luxemburg says, is "the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in the revolution" (ibid., part IV). In sum, the movement in Russia showed workers everywhere how their revolution could become a reality.

Characteristics of the class struggle in the new epoch

What precisely was this "method of motion" of the class struggle in the new period?

First, the tendency of the struggle to break out spontaneously, without pre-planning, without prior collection of funds to sustain a long siege against the bosses. Luxemburg recalls the "trivial" issues at the Putilov works which sparked off the January strike; in his 1905, Trotsky says that the October strike wave began as a dispute over pay for punctuation marks amongst the typesetters of Moscow. Such developments are possible because the immediate causes of the mass strike are entirely secondary in comparison to what lies behind them: the profound accumulation of discontent in the proletariat faced with a capitalist regime less and less able to grant any concessions and compelled to make increasing inroads on whatever acquisitions they may have previously won.

The trade union bureaucrats, of course, could hardly imagine any large-scale workers' struggle not planned and controlled from the safety of their offices; and if spontaneous movements did flare up in front of their eyes, they could only see them as being ineffectual because disorganised. But Luxemburg replied that in the newly-emerging conditions of the class struggle, spontaneity was not the negation of organisation, but its most viable premise: "The rigid, mechanical-bureaucratic conception cannot conceive of the struggle save as the product of organisation at a certain stage of its strength. On the contrary the living, dialectical explanation makes the organisation arise as a product of the struggle. We have already seen a grandiose example of this phenomenon in Russia, where a proletariat almost wholly unorganised created a comprehensive network of organisational appendages in a year and a half of stormy revolutionary struggle" (ibid., part VI).

Contrary to many of Luxemburg' s critics, such a view is not 'spontaneist', since the organisations referred to here are the immediate and general organs of the workers, not the political party or fraction whose existence and programme, rather than being tied to the immediate movement of the class, correspond above all to its historical, depth dimension. As we shall see, Luxemburg in no way denied the necessity for the proletarian political party to intervene in the mass strike. But what this view of organisation does lucidly express is the end of a whole era in which the unitary organisations of the class could exist on a permanent basis outside phases of open combat against capital.

The explosive, spontaneous nature of the struggle in the new conditions is directly connected to the very essence of the mass strike - the tendency of struggles to extend very rapidly, to wider and wider layers of workers. Describing the spread of the January strikes, she writes "there was no predetermined plan, no organised action, because the appeals of the parties could scarcely keep pace with the spontaneous risings of the masses; the leaders had scarcely time to formulate the watchwords of the onrushing crowd of the proletariat" (ibid., part III). Since the discontent within the class is already general, it becomes eminently possible for the movement to extend through the direct action of the striking workers, calling out their comrades in other factories and sectors around demands that reflect their common grievances.

Finally, against those in the unions and the party who insisted on the "purely political mass strike", on the mass strike being no more than a defensive weapon of protest against infringements on the workers' democratic rights, Luxemburg demonstrated the living inter-action between the economic and political aspects of the mass strike:

" ... the movement as a whole does not proceed from the economic to the political struggle, nor even the reverse. Every great political mass action, after it has attained its political highest point, breaks up into a mass of economic strikes. And that applies not only to each of the great mass strikes, but also to the revolution as a whole. With the spreading, clarifying and involution of the political struggle, the economic struggle not only does not recede, but extends, organises and becomes involved in equal measure. Between the two there is the most complete reciprocal action ....

... In a word: the economic struggle is the transmitter from one political centre to another; the political struggle is the periodic fertilisation of the soil for the economic struggle. Cause and effect here continually change places; and thus the economic and the political factor in the period of the mass strike, now widely removed, completely separated or even mutually exclusive, as the theoretical plan would have them, merely form the two interlacing sides of the proletarian class struggle in Russia. And their unity is precisely the mass strike" (ibid., part IV). And here "political" does not simply mean for Luxemburg the defence of democratic freedoms, but above all the offensive struggle for power, for as she adds in the very next passage, "the mass strike is inseparable from revolution". Capitalism in decline is a system unable to offer and long-term improvements in the workers' living conditions; indeed, all it can offer is repression and impoverishment. Thus the very conditions that give rise to the mass strike also compel the workers to pose the question of revolution. And more than this: since it forms the basis for the polarisation of bourgeois society into two great camps, since it inevitably brings the workers up against the full force of the capitalist state, the mass strike cannot help but raise the necessity to overthrow the old state power:

"Today, when the working classes are being enlightened in the course of the revolutionary struggle, when they must marshal their forces and lead themselves, and when the revolution is directed as much against the old state power as against capitalist exploitation, the mass strike appears as the natural means of recruiting the widest proletarian layers for the struggle, as well as being at the same time a means of undermining and overthrowing the old state power and of stemming capitalist exploitation" (ibid., part VII).

Here Luxemburg addresses the problem posed by the opportunists in the party, who based their 'nothing but' parliamentarism on the correct observation that a modem state power could no longer be overthrown by the old tactics of barricades and street fighting alone (and, in the last article in this series, we saw how even Engels had given succor to the opportunists on this point). The opportunists believed that the result of this would be that "the class struggle would shrink to an exclusively parliamentary contest and that street fighting would simply be done away with". But, as Luxemburg goes on to argue, "history has found the solution in a deeper and finer fashion: in the advent of revolutionary mass strikes, which, of course, in no way replace brutal street fights or render them unnecessary, but which reduce them to a moment in the long period of political struggle ... " (ibid.). Thus, armed insurrection is affirmed as the culmination of the organising, educating work of the mass strike - a perspective richly confirmed by the events of February to October 1917.

In this passage, Luxemburg mentions David and Bemstein as the spokesmen for the opportunist trend in the party. But Luxemburg's insistence that the revolution would not only be a violent act of overthrow, but that it would be the crowning point of a mass movement on the specific terrain of the proletariat - the point of production and the streets - was in essence also a total rejection of the 'orthodox' conceptions defended by Kautsky, who at that stage was seen as being on the left of the party, but whose notion of revolution, as we showed in the article in this series in International Review (IR) 88, was also completely caught up in the parliamentary maze. As we shall see later on, Kautsky's real opposition to Luxemburg's revolutionary analysis of the mass strike was to become clearer after her pamphlet was written. But Luxemburg had already pointed the way out of the parliamentary maze by showing that the mass strike was the embryo of the proletarian revolution.

We have said that Luxemburg's work on the mass strike in no way eliminated the need for the proletarian party. In fact, in the epoch of revolution, a revolutionary party becomes all the more crucial, as the Bolsheviks were to show in Russia. But to the development of new conditions and new methods of the class struggle, there corresponds a new role for the revolutionary vanguard, and Luxemburg was one of the first to affirm this. The conception of the party as a mass organisation which regroups, encompasses and commands the class, which had increasingly dominated the social democracy, was historically laid to rest by the mass strike. The experience of the latter had shown that the party cannot regroup the majority of the class, nor can it take in hand the organisational details of a movement as enormous and fluid as a mass strike. Hence Luxemburg's conclusion:

"In this way we arrive at the same conclusions in Germany in relation to the peculiar tasks of direction, in relation to the role of social democracy in mass strikes, as in our analysis of events in Russia. If we now leave the pedantic scheme of demonstrative mass strikes artificially brought about by order of parties and trade unions, and turn to the living picture of a people's movement arising with elementary energy from the culmination of class antagonisms and the political situation ... it becomes obvious that the task of social democracy does not consist in the technical preparation and direction of mass strikes, but, first and foremost, in the political leadership of the whole movement" (ibid., part VI).

The depth of Luxemburg's analysis of the mass strike in Russia provided a comprehensive rebuttal of all those who sought to deny its historical and international significance. As a true revolutionary, Luxemburg had shown that that the storms from the east completely overturned not only the old conceptions of the class struggle in general, but even demanded a radical reappraisal of the role of the party itself Little wonder that she disturbed the sleep of the conservatives who dominated the union and party bureaucracies!

The Soviets, organs of proletarian power

The Bordigist idea that the revolutionary programme has been 'invariant' since 1848 is clearly refuted by the events of 1905. The methods and organisational forms of the mass strike - in particular the soviets or workers' councils - were not the result of some pre-established schema but sprang from the creative capacities of the class in movement. The soviets were not exnihilo creations, for such things do not exist in nature. They were the natural successor to previous forms of working class organisation, in particular the Paris Commune. But they also represented a higher form of organisation corresponding to the needs of the struggle in the new epoch.

Equally contradicted by the reality of 1905 is another strand of the 'invariance' thesis: that the 'red thread' of revolutionary clarity in the twentieth century runs through a single current of the workers' movement (i.e., the Italian left). As we shall see, the clarity that did emerge amongst revolutionaries concerning the events of 1905 was unmistakably a synthesis of the different contributions made by the revolutionaries of the time. Thus, while Luxemburg's insight into the dynamics of the mass strike, into the general characteristics of the class struggle in the new period, was second to none, The Mass Strike text contains a surprisingly limited understanding of the real organisational acquisitions of the movement. She had certainly uncovered a profound truth in showing that the organisations of the mass strike were the product rather than the producer of the movement, but the organ that was more than anything else the emanation of the mass strike, the Soviet, gets no more than a passing mention; when she talks about the new organisations born out of the struggle, she is referring first and foremost to the trade unions: " ... while the guardians of the German trade unions for the most part fear that the organisations will fall in pieces in a revolutionary whirlwind like rare porcelain, the Russian revolution shows us the exactly opposite picture; from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions" (ibid., part III).

It is true that, in this twilight period, the trade unions had not yet been fully integrated into the bourgeois order, even if the bureaucratisation against which Luxemburg was polemicising was already an expression of this tendency. But the fact remains that the emergence of the soviets pointed to the historical demise of the trade union form of organisation. As a method of workers' defence, the latter was entirely bound up with the preceding epoch when it had indeed been possible for workers' struggles to be planned in advance and waged on a sector by sector basis, since the bosses had not yet unified themselves through the state, and workers' pressure on one enterprise or sector did not automatically provoke the class wide solidarity of the ruling class against their struggle. But now the conditions for "fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions" were fast disappearing, since new conditions demanded new forms of class organisation.

The revolutionary significance of the soviets was understood most clearly by the revolutionaries in Russia, and by none more clearly than Trotsky, who had played such a central role in the St Petersburg Soviet. In his book 1905, written soon after the events, Trotsky provides a classic definition of the soviet which clearly links its form to its function in the revolutionary struggle:

"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 organisation 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 organisational 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 organisation 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 organisational sense, were still quite inexperienced, representation had to be adapted to the factories and plants" (Chapter 8, 'The Soviet of Workers' Deputies', p 104-5, London 1971).

Here Trotsky fills in the gap left by Luxemburg by showing that it was the Soviet, not the unions, which was the organisational form appropriate to the mass strike, to the essence of the proletarian struggle in the new revolutionary period. Born spontaneously, out the creative initiative of the workers in movement, it embodied the necessary passage from spontaneity to self-organisation. The permanent existence and sectional form of the trade unions were suited only to the methods of struggle of the preceding period. The soviet form of organisation, by contrast, expressed perfectly the needs of a situation where the struggle "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) ... (thus) the form of organisation which it engenders can only have the function of unifying the proletariat beyond professional sectors" ('1905 Revolution: Fundamental Lessons for the Proletariat', IR 43, autumn 1985).

As we have already seen, the political dimension of the mass strike is not restricted to the defensive level, but inevitably implies the offensive - the proletarian struggle for power. Here again, Trotsky saw more clearly than anyone that the Soviet's ultimate destiny was to be a direct organ of revolutionary power. As the mass movement became more organised and unified, it was inevitably obliged to go beyond the 'negative' tasks of paralysing the productive apparatus and assume the more 'positive' ones of ensuring the production and distribution of essential supplies, of disseminating information and propaganda, of guaranteeing a new revolutionary order - all of which uncovered the real nature of the Soviet as an organ capable of reorganising society:

"The Soviet organised the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. Similar work was done by other revolutionary organisations before the Soviet came into existence, concurrently with it, and after it. Yet this did not endow them with the influence that was concentrated in the hands of the Soviet. The secret of this influence lay in the fact that the Soviet grew as the natural organ of the proletariat in its immediate struggle for power as determined by the actual course of events. The name of 'workers' government' which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the Soviet was an expression of the fact that the Soviet really was a workers' government in embryo" (ibid., chap 22, p 251, 'Summing Up'), This conception of the real meaning of the soviets was, as we shall see, intimately linked to Trotsky's view that it was essentially the proletarian revolution that was on the historical agenda in Russia.

Lenin, though forced to observe the initial phases of the movement from exile, also grasped the key role of the soviets. Only three years beforehand, in writing What Is To Be Done?, a book whose whole heart is to stress the indispensable role of the revolutionary party, he had warned against the way that the economist current had made a fetish out of the immediate spontaneity of the struggle. But now, in the turmoil of the mass strike, Lenin found himself having to correct those 'super-Leninists' who were turning this polemic into a rigid dogma. Distrusting the Soviet as a non-party organ that had indeed emerged spontaneously out of the struggle, these Bolsheviks delivered it with an absurd ultimatum: adopt the Bolshevik programme or dissolve. Marx had warned against this kind of attitude - 'here is the truth, down on your knees' - even before the Communist Manifesto had been written, and Lenin saw straight away that if the Bolsheviks persisted in this line they would be completely marginalised from the real movement. This was Lenin's response:

"It seems to me that Comrade Radin is wrong in raising the question ... : the Soviet of Workers' Deputies or the Party? I think that it is wrong to put the question this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers' Deputies and the Party. The only question - and a highly important one - is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to one party ..

The Soviet of Workers' Deputies came into being through the general strike, in connection with the strike, and for its aims. Who led the strike and brought it to a victorious close? The whole proletariat, which includes non-Social Democrats ... Should this struggle be conducted only by the Social Democrats or only under the Social Democratic banner? I do not think so.. The Soviet of Workers' Deputies, as an organisation representing all occupations, should strive to include deputies from all industrial, professional and office workers, domestic servants, farm labourers, etc. .... As for the Social Democrats, we shall do our best ... to use the struggle we are waging jointly with our fellow proletarians, irrespective of their views, for the tireless, steadfast advocacy of the consistent, the only truly proletarian world outlook, marxism. To propagate it, to carry on this propaganda and agitation work, we shall by all means preserve, strengthen and expand our completely independent, consistently principled class party of the class conscious proletariat ... " ('Our Task and the Soviet of Workers' Deputies', Complete Works Vol. 10. p 19-21).

Along with Trotsky, who also stressed this distinction between the party as an organisation "within the proletariat" and the Soviet as the organisation "of the proletariat" (1905, p251), Lenin was able to see that the party did not have the task of regrouping or organising the whole proletariat, but of intervening in the class and its unitary organs to provide a clear political leadership - a view which actually tends to converge with Luxemburg's conception adumbrated earlier on. Moreover, in the light of the experience of 1905, which bore such eloquent witness to the revolutionary capacities of the working class, Lenin was to 'bend the stick back' and correct some of the exaggerations contained in What Is To be Done", in particular the notion, first developed by Kautsky, that socialist consciousness has to be 'imported' into the proletariat by the party, or rather by the socialist intellectuals. But this reaffirmation of Marx's thesis that communist consciousness necessarily emanates from the communist class, the proletariat, in no way diminished Lenin's conviction in the indispensable role of the party. Since the working class as a whole, even when it is moving in a revolutionary direction, still has to confront the enormous power of bourgeois ideology, the organisation of the most class conscious proletarians has to be present in the workers' ranks, combating all hesitations and illusions and clarifying the immediate and long term goals of the movement.

We cannot go much further into this issue here. It would take a whole series of articles to expound the Bolshevik theory of organisation, and in particular to defend it from the widespread slander, common to Mensheviks, anarchists, councilists and innumerable parasites, that Lenin's 'narrow' conception of the party was a product of Russian backwardness, a throw-back to Narodnik or Bakuninist conceptions. What we will say here is this: just as the 1905 revolution itself was not the last in a series of bourgeois revolutions, but the forerunner of the proletarian revolutions gestating in the womb of world capitalism, so the '1903', Bolshevik conception of the party was not rooted in the past. It was in fact a break with the past, with the legalistic, parliamentarian conception of the 'mass party' that had come to dominate the social democratic movement. The events of 1917 were to confirm in the most concrete manner possible that Lenin's 'party of a new type' was precisely the type of party that corresponded to the needs of the class struggle in the epoch ofthe proletarian revolution.

If there were weaknesses in Lenin's grasp of the 1905 movement, they lay essentially in his approach to the problem of perspectives. We shall develop on this shortly, but Lenin's view that the 1905 revolution was at 'root a bourgeois revolution in which the leading role had fallen to the proletariat prevented him from reaching the same degree of clarity as Trotsky concerning the historical significance of the soviets. Certainly he was able to see that they should not remain as purely defensive organs, that they should see themselves as organs of revolutionary power: "I think that politically the Soviet of Workers' Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia" (Lenin, op cit). But in Lenin's conception of the 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', this government was not the dictatorship of the proletariat carrying out the socialist revolution. It was carrying out a bourgeois revolution and therefore had to incorporate all those classes and strata who were involved in the fight against Tsarism. Trotsky saw the strength of the Soviet precisely in the fact that "it did not allow its class nature to be dissolved in revolutionary democracy: it was and remained the organised expression of the class will of the proletariat' (Trotsky, op cit., p 251). Lenin on the other hand, called for the Soviet to dilute its class composition by broadening its representation to the soldiers, the peasants and the "revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia" ('Our Tasks ... ')., and by assuming the tasks of a 'democratic' revolution. In order to understand these differences, it is necessary to look a little deeper into the question that lay behind them: the nature of the revolution in Russia.

Nature and perspectives of the coming revolution

The 1903 split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was focused on the question of organisation. But the 1905 revolution revealed that the differences on organisation were also connected to other, more general programmatic issues: in this case, above all, the nature of and perspectives for the revolution in Russia.

The Mensheviks, claiming to be the 'orthodox' interpreters of Marx on this question, argued that Russia was still awaiting its 1789. In this belated bourgeois revolution, inevitable if Russian capitalism was to break its absolutist fetters and build the material bases for socialism, the task of the proletariat and its party was to act as a force of independent opposition, supporting the bourgeoisie against Tsarism but refusing to participate in government in order to be free to criticise it from the left. In this view, the leading class of the bourgeois revolution could only be the bourgeoisie, albeit its most forward looking and liberal fractions.

The Bolsheviks, with Lenin to the fore agreed that the nature of the revolution could only be bourgeois, and rejected as anarchist the idea that it could immediately assume a socialist character. But their analysis of the way that capitalism was developing in Russia (especially its dependence on foreign capital and the Russian state bureaucracy) convinced them that the Russian bourgeoisie was too submissive to the Tsarist apparatus, too flabby and indecisive to carry through its own revolution. In addition, the historical experience of the 1848 revolutions in Europe taught that this indecisiveness would be even more marked given that any revolutionary upheaval would unleash the 'threat from below', i.e. the movement of the proletariat. In these circumstances, the Bolsheviks insisted that the bourgeoisie would betray the struggle against absolutism, which could only be taken to a successful conclusion through an armed popular uprising in which the leading role would be played by the working class. This uprising would install a 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'; and, much to the scandal of the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks declared that they would be willing to participate in the provisional revolutionary government that would be the instrument of this 'democratic dictatorship', returning to opposition once the main acquisitions of the bourgeois revolution had been pushed through.

The third position was that of Trotsky - the 'revolution in permanence', a phrase adopted from Marx's writings about the revolutions of 1848. Trotsky agreed with the Bolsheviks that revolution still had bourgeois-democratic tasks to complete, and that the bourgeoisie would be incapable of achieving such tasks as these. But he rejected the idea that the proletariat, once embarked upon the revolutionary road, would or could impose a "self-limitation" on its struggle. The class interests of the proletariat would compel it not only to take power into its own hands, but also to 'telescope' bourgeois-democratic into proletarian tasks - to inaugurate socialist political and economic measures. But such an evolution could not be limited to the national arena alone:

"Self-limitation' by a workers' government would mean nothing other than the betrayal of the interests of the unemployed and strikers - more, of the whole proletariat - in the name of the establishment of a republic. The revolutionary authorities will be confronted with the objective problems of socialism, but the solution of these problems will, at a certain stage, be prevented by the country's economic backwardness. There is no way out from this contradiction within the framework of a national revolution.

The workers' government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolutionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship. Thus permanent revolution will become, for the Russia proletariat, a matter of class self-preservation" (Trotsky, 1905, p317 'Our Differences').

The notion of the 'permanent revolution', as we have noted before in this series, is not without its own ambiguities, and these have been duly exploited by those who have forged Trotsky's copyright, the latter-day Trotskyists. But at the time it was put forward, as an attempt to understand the transition to a new period in capitalism's history, Trotsky's position had an immense advantage over the two previously mentioned theories: it approached the problem from the international, rather than the Russian context. In this Trotsky rather than the Mensheviks was really the heir of Marx, since the latter, in reflecting on the possibility of Russia 'by-passing' the capitalist stage had also insisted that this would only be possible in the context of an international socialist revolution (see IR 81. 'Past and Future Communism'). Subsequent developments had shown that Russia could not escape the ordeal of capitalism. But contrary to the schematic dogma of the Mensheviks, who ponderously argued that each country had to patiently 'build the foundations of socialism in its own national confines, the internationalist Trotsky was moving towards the view that the conditions for the realisation of socialism - capitalism's 'rotten ripeness' or decadence - emerged as a global reality long before each country could go through the full gamut of capitalist development. The events of 1905 had amply demonstrated that the highly concentrated and combative urban proletariat was already the only truly revolutionary force in Russian society; and the events of 1917 were soon to confirm that a revolutionary proletariat could only embark upon a proletarian revolution.

The Lenin of 1917, as shown in the article on the April Theses in IR 89, was himself able to jettison the luggage of the 'democratic dictatorship' even when many 'Old Bolsheviks' were clinging to it for dear life. In this respect, it is certainly no accident that in the period around 1905 Lenin himself had also veered towards the 'permanent revolution' thesis, declaring in an article written in September 1905:

"From the democratic revolution we shall at once , according to the degree of our strength, the strength of the class conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass over to the socialist revolution. We stand for permanent revolution. We shall not stop half-way" (Complete Works, Vol. 8, p236-7, 'Social democracy's attitude towards the peasant movement'. Later Stalinist translations changed the word 'permanent to 'uninterrupted' in order to protect Lenin from any Trotskyist virus, but the meaning is clear). If Lenin continued to have hesitations about Trotsky's position, this was a result of the ambiguities of the period: until the war of 1914, it was not yet clear that the system as a whole had entered its epoch of decay, thus defmitively placing the world communist revolution on the agenda of history. The war, and the gigantic movement of the proletariat that began in February 1917, removed his last doubts.

The Menshevik position also revealed its inner secrets in 1917: in an epoch of proletarian revolution, 'critical opposition' to the bourgeoisie becomes first capitulation to the bourgeoisie, then enrolment in its counter-revolutionary forces. And indeed, in 1917 even the Bolshevik position of 'democratic dictatorship' was threatening to lead the party in the same direction, until Lenin's return from exile and the victorious fight to rearm the party. But Trotsky's reflections on the 1905 revolution also played a crucial part in that fight. Without them. Lenin may not have been able to forge the theoretical weapons he needed to elaborate the April Theses and point the way to the October insurrection.

Kautsky, Pannekoek, and the State

The 1905 revolution ended in a defeat for the working class. The armed uprising of December, isolated and crushed, led neither to a proletarian dictatorship nor a democratic republic, but to a decade of Tsarist reaction which caused the temporary dispersal and disorientation of the workers movement. But this was not a defeat of world-historic proportions. By the second decade of the new century, there were clear signs of a proletarian resurgence, even in Russia. But the focus of the mass strike debate had shifted back to Germany. Indeed, it took on a new urgency and directness here, because the deteriorating economic situation had provoked massive strike movements among the German workers themselves - sometimes around economic demands as such, but also, in Prussia, around the question of suffrage reform. There was also the growing threat of war, which prompted the workers' movement to consider the mass strike as a form of action against militarism. These developments gave rise to a bitter polemic within the German party, pitting Kautsky, the Pope of marxist orthodoxy (in fact, the leader of the centrist current in the party), against the principal theoreticians of the left, fust Luxemburg, then Pannekoek.

With the social democratic right increasingly revealing its outright opposition to any mass action by the working class, Kautsky's argument was that mass strikes in the advanced countries should at best be restricted to the defensive level, that the best strategy for the working class was that of the gradual, essentially legalistic "war of attrition" with parliament and elections as the key instruments .for the transfer of power to the proletariat. But this merely proved that his self-professed "centrist" position was in reality a cover for the openly opportunist wing of the party. Replying in two articles published in Neue Zeit in 1910, 'Attrition or Struggle?' and 'Theory and Practice', Luxemburg reaffirmed the arguments that she had defended in The Mass Strike, rebutting Kautsky's view that the mass strike in Russia was a product of Russian backwardness and opposing the "attrition" strategy by showing the intimate and inevitable connection between the mass strike and the revolution.

But as our book The Dutch Left points out, there was an important weakness in Luxemburg's argument. "In reality, very often in this debate, Rosa Luxemburg remained on the terrain chosen by Kautsky and the SPD leadership. She called for mass strikes as a means to achieve universal suffrage and put forward the 'transitional' mobilising slogan of the struggle for the Republic. On this level, Kautsky was able to reply that 'to want to inaugurate an electoral struggle
through a mass strike is absurd'”
(p67, French edition). And as the book goes on to show, it was the Dutch marxist Anton Pannekoek, who was living in Germany during this period, who was able to take this debate a vital step forward.

Already, in 1909, in his text on the 'Tactical Divergences in the Workers Movement', which was directed at the revisionist and anarchist deviations in the movement, Pannekoek had shown a profound grasp of the marxist method, defending positions on parliament and trade unionism which, while clearly rejecting any timeless anarchist moralising, can be seen in hindsight to contain the seeds of the principled rejection of parliamentarism and trade unionism elaborated by the German and Dutch communist left after the war. In his polemic with Kautsky, conducted in Neue Zeit in 1912 with the texts 'Mass Action and Revolution' and Marxist Theory and Revolutionary Tactics , Pannekoek took these insights further. Among the most important contributions contained in these texts are Pannekoek's diagnosis of Kautsky s centrism,(referred to as "passive radicalism in the second text); his defence of the mass strike as the form of class struggle appropriate to the newly emerging imperialist epoch; his insistence on the capacity of the proletariat to develop new forms of unitary self-organisation in the course of the struggle1 and his view of the party as an active minority whose task was to provide political programmatic leadership to the movement rather than to organise or control it from above. But most important of all was his argument about the ultimate direction the mass strike would have to assume, which led him to reassert, against Kautsky's legalism and parliamentary fetishism, the fundamental marxist thesis on the attitude of the proletariat towards the bourgeois state in the revolutionary confrontation. In a passage quoted approvingly by Lenin in State and Revolution, Pannekoek wrote:

"The struggle of the proletariat is not merely a struggle against the bourgeoisie for state power, but a struggle against state power ... The content of this revolution is the destruction and dissolution of the instruments of power of the bourgeoisie. The struggle will cease only when, as a result of it, the state organisation is completely destroyed. The organisation of the majority will then have demonstrated its superiority by destroying the organisation of the ruling minority"(Collected Works, Vol. 25, p 488. The passage is from 'Mass Action and Revolution').

And Lenin, despite seeing certain defects in Pannekoek's formulation, ardently defends them as being founded on marxism, contrary to Kautsky's charge that they represent a reversion to anarchism.: "in this controversy, it is not Kautsky but Pannekoek who represents marxism, for it was Marx who taught that the proletariat cannot simply win state power in the sense that the old state apparatus passes into new hands, but must smash this apparatus, must break it and replace it by a new one" (State and Revolution, Collected Works, p 489).

For us, the defects in Pannekoek's presentation lie at two levels: first, that he did not sufficiently ground his argument in the writings of Marx and Engels on the question of the state, particularly their conclusions about the Paris Commune. This made it easier for Kautsky to smear his position with the accusation of anarchism. And second, that Pannekoek remains vague about the form of the new organs of proletarian power: like Luxemburg, he had not yet grasped the historic significance of the soviet form - something he would certainly make up for in the period following the Russian revolution! But this merely provides further proof that the clarification of the communist programme is a process which integrates and synthesises the best contributions of the international proletarian movement. Luxemburg's analysis of the mass strike was 'crowned' by Trotsky's appreciation of the soviets and the proletarian revolutionary perspective he drew out of the events of 1905; Pannekoek's insights into the question of the state were taken up by Lenin in 1917, who was able to show not only that the proletarian revolution must indeed destroy the existing capitalist state, but that the specific organs for the accomplishment of this task, the "finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat' were the soviets or workers' councils. Lenin's achievement in this field, largely summarised in his book The State and Revolution, will be the axis of the next chapter in this series.


1 Pannekoek remained at the level of generalities in describing such forms of organisation. But the real movement began to bring its own concretisation: in 1913, anti-union strikes broke out in the shipyards of northern Germany, giving birth to autonomous strike committees. Pannekoek did not hesitate to defend these new forms of struggle and organisation against the bureaucratic unions, which were soon to complete their final integration into the capitalist state. See Bricianer, Pannekoek et les Conseils Ouvriers, , Paris 1969. p 115. 



History of the workers' movement: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 



Russian revolution