1905: The soviets open a new period in the history of the class struggle

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The revolution of 1905 arose as capitalism began to enter its period of decline. The working class found itself confronted not with a struggle for reforms within capitalism but with a political struggle against capitalism and for its overthrow, in which the question of power rather than economic concessions was central. The proletariat responded to this challenge by creating the weapons of its political struggle: the mass strike and the soviets. In the first part of this article, in International Review n°120, we looked at how the revolution developed from an appeal to the Tsar in January 1905 to an open challenge to the power of the ruling class in December. We showed that it was a proletarian revolution that affirmed the revolutionary nature of the working class and that it was both an expression of and a catalyst in the development of the consciousness of the revolutionary class. We showed that the mass strike of 1905 had nothing in common with the confusions of the anarcho-syndicalist current that developed at around the same time (see the articles in International Review n°119 and n°120) and which saw the mass strike as a means of the immediate economic transformation of capitalism. Rosa Luxemburg recognised that the mass strike unified the economic struggle of the working class and its political struggle and in doing so marked a qualitative development in the class struggle, even if at this point it was not possible to fully understand that this was a consequence of the historic change in the capitalist mode of production: “The revolutionary struggle in Russia, in which the mass strikes are the most important weapon, is, by the working people and above all the proletariat, conducted for those political rights and conditions whose necessity and importance in the struggle for the emancipation of the working class Marx and Engels first pointed out, and in opposition to anarchism fought for with all their might in the International. Thus has historical dialectics, the rock on which the whole teaching of Marxian socialism rests, brought it about that today anarchism, with which the idea of the mass strike is indissolubly associated, has itself come to be opposed to the mass strike in practice; while on the contrary the mass strike which, as the opposite of the political activity of the proletariat, was combated appears today as the most powerful weapon of the struggle for political rights”.[1]

The soviets expressed an equally important qualitative change in the way the working class organised. And like the mass strike they were not a purely Russian phenomenon. Trotsky, like Luxemburg, underlined this qualitative change, even if, also like Luxemburg, he was not in a position to grasp its whole significance: “The Soviet organised the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers, and protected the population against pogroms. Similar work was also 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. The Soviet represented power insofar as power was assured by the revolutionary strength of the working-class districts; it struggled for power insofar as power still remained in the hands of the military-political monarchy. Prior to the Soviet we find among the industrial workers a multitude of revolutionary organisations directed, in the main, by the social-democratic party. But these were organisations within the proletariat, and their immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses. The Soviet was, from the start, the organisation of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.

As it became the focus of all the country's revolutionary forces, the Soviet 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.”[2]

The real significance of both the mass strike and the soviets can only be grasped by placing them in the correct historical context, by understanding how the change in the objective conditions of capitalism defined the tasks and means for both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

A turning point in history

In the last decade of the 19th century capitalism began to enter a period of historical change. While the dynamism that had enabled capitalism to spread around the globe was still very evident, with new countries, such as Japan and Russia, undergoing strong economic growth, there were growing signs in various parts of the world of increasing tensions and disequilibirum in capitalist society as a whole.

The fairly regular pattern of economic slump and boom analysed by Marx in the middle of the century had begun to change with the slumps deepening and lengthening.

After decades of relative peace, the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century saw growing tensions between the rival imperialisms as the struggle for markets and resources could increasingly only be waged by one power taking from another. This was exemplified in the “Scramble for Africa” where, in the space of 20 years, an entire continent was divided and subjected to some of the most brutal exploitation ever seen. The scramble led to frequent diplomatic confrontations and military stand-offs, such as the Fashoda Incident of 1898 when British imperialism forced its French rival to give way in the Upper Nile.

During this same period the working class launched itself into a greater number of strikes that were more widespread and intense than in the past. For example, in Germany the number of strikes rose from 483 in 1896 to 1,468 in 1900, falling back to 1,144 and 1,190 in 1903 and 1904 respectively.[3] In Russia in 1898 and Belgium in 1902 mass strikes developed, prefiguring that of 1905. The development of revolutionary syndicalism and anarcho-syndicalism was partly a consequence of this rising militancy, but it took the form it did because of the growing opportunism in many parts of the workers’ movement, as we show in the series of articles we have started on this subject.[4]

Thus for each of the two main classes the period was one of immense change in which new challenges required qualitatively new responses. For the bourgeoisie it marked the end of the period of colonial expansion and the start of growing imperialist rivalry that led to world war in 1914. For the working class it meant the end of the period when reforms could be won within the legal or semi-legal framework set by the ruling class, and the start of the period when its interests could only be defended by challenging the framework of the bourgeois state. This led ultimately to the struggle for power in 1917 and the worldwide revolutionary wave that followed. 1905 was the “dress rehearsal” for this confrontation, with many lessons evident both at the time and today for those who want to see them.

The situation in Russia

Russia was no exception to this historical trend, but the nature of the development of Russian society meant that the proletariat was confronted more rapidly and more sharply with some of the consequences of the emerging period. However, while we will consider these particular aspects shortly, it is necessary to begin first by stressing that the underlying cause of the revolution arose from the similarity of the conditions experienced by the working class as a whole, as Rosa Luxemburg stressed: “…there is a great deal of exaggeration in the notion that the proletarian in the Tsarist empire had the standard of life of a pauper before the revolution. The layer of the workers in the large towns who had been the most active and jealous in the economic as in the political struggle are, as regards the material conditions of life, on a scarcely lower plane than the corresponding layer of the German proletariat, and in some occupations as high wages are to be met with in Russia as in Germany, and here and there, even higher. And as regards the length of the working day, the difference in the large scale industries in the two countries is here and there insignificant. The notion of the presumed material and cultural helotry of the Russian working class is similarly without justification in fact. This notion is contradicted, as a little reflection will show, by the facts of the revolution itself and the prominent part that was played therein by the proletariat. With paupers no revolution of this political maturity and cleverness of thought can be made, and the industrial workers of St. Petersburg and Warsaw, Moscow and Odessa, who stand in the forefront of the struggle, are culturally and mentally much nearer to the west European type than is imagined by those who regard bourgeois parliamentarism and methodical trade-union practice as the indispensable, or even the only, school of culture for the proletariat.[5] It is true that the development of capitalism in Russia had been based on a brutal exploitation of the workers, with long days and poor working conditions reminiscent of the early nineteenth century in Britain; but the workers’ struggle developed rapidly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These developments could be seen particularly in the Putilov Factory in St Petersburg, which manufactured weapons and built ships. The factory employed tens of thousands of workers and was able to manufacture on a scale that enabled it to compete with its more developed rivals. The workers there developed a tradition of militancy and were at the centre of the revolutionary struggles of the Russian proletariat in both 1905 and 1917. If the Putilov works stands out in terms of its scale, it was nonetheless part of an overall trend towards the development of larger factories that occurred throughout Russia. Between 1863 and 1891 the number of factories in European Russia rose from 11,810 to 16,770, an increase of about 42%, while the number of workers rose from 357,800 to 738,100, an increase of about 106%.[6] In areas such as St Petersburg the number of factories actually fell while the number of workers rose, suggesting an even stronger trend towards the concentration of production and, hence, of the proletariat.[7]

The situation of the railway workers in Russia supports Luxemburg’s argument about the position of the most advanced parts of the Russian working class. At the material level they had made some significant gains: between 1885 and 1895 real wages in the railways rose by an average of 18%, although this average hid wide variations between workers doing different jobs and between different parts of the country. At the cultural level there was a tradition of struggle that stretched back to the 1840s and 50s when serfs were first recruited to build the railways. By the last quarter of the century the railwaymen had become a central part of the urban proletariat with a significant experience of combat: between 1875 and 1884 there were 29 “incidents” and in the following decade 33. When wages and working conditions began to decline after 1895 the railwaymen rose to the challenge: “…between 1895 and 1904 the number of railroad strikes was three times that of the previous two decades combined (…) The strikes of the late 1890s grew more assertive and less defensive (…) After 1900 workers responded to the onset of economic crisis with increasingly militant resistance in which railroad metalworkers often acted in concert with craftsmen in private industry, and political agitators, mostly Social Democrats, made significant headway.[8] In the revolution of 1905 the railwaymen were to play a major role, putting their skill and experience at the service of the working class as a whole and pushing to extend the struggle and move from strikes to insurrection. This was not the struggle of paupers pushed into riot by hunger or of peasants in workers’ overalls, but of a vital and class conscious part of the international working class. It was against this background of common conditions and struggles that the particular features of the situation in Russia, the war with Japan abroad and political repression at home, took effect.

The question of war

The Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 was a consequence of the imperialist rivalry that developed between these two new capitalist powers at the end of the 19th century. The confrontation arose during the 1890s over the question of influence in China and Korea. At the start of the decade work began on the Trans-Siberian railway, which would allow Russia access to Manchuria while Japan built up its economic interests in Korea. Tensions developed over the decade as Russia forced Japan to pull back from positions on the mainland; and they came to a head when Russia began to develop its own interests in Korea. Japan proposed that the two countries agree to respect each other’s spheres of influence. When Russia failed to reply Japan launched a surprise attack on Port Arthur in January 1904. The huge disparity between the military forces of the two antagonists made the outcome of the war seem inevitable at first, and its outbreak was initially greeted in Russia with an outburst of patriotic fervour, with denunciations of “insolent Mongols” and student demonstrations in support of the war. However, there was no quick victory. The Trans-Siberian railway was not finished so troops could not be brought to the front quickly; the Russian army was beaten back; in May the garrison was cut off and the Russian fleet sent to relieve it was destroyed; and on December 20th, after a siege of 156 days Port Arthur fell. At the military level the war was unprecedented. Millions of soldiers took to the field; 1,200,000 reservists were called up in Russia; industry was focused on the war, leading to slumps and the deepening of the economic crisis. At the battle of Mukden in March 1904 600,000 men fought for two weeks, leaving 160,000 dead. It was the biggest battle in history and a sign of what was to come in 1914. The fall of Port Arthur meant the loss of Russia’s Pacific Fleet and the humiliation of the autocracy. Lenin drew out the wider meaning of this: “But the military debacle which the autocracy has suffered has deeper implications; it signifies the collapse of our entire political system. The days when wars were fought by mercenaries or by representatives of a caste half-isolated from the people have gone forever…Wars today are fought by peoples; this now brings out more strikingly than ever a great attribute of war, namely that it opens the eyes of millions to the disparity between the people and the government, which heretofore was evident only to a small class-conscious minority. The criticism of the autocracy by all progressive Russians, by the Russian Social-Democrats, by the Russian proletariat, has now been confirmed in the criticism by Japanese arms, confirmed in such wise that the impossibility of living under the autocracy is felt more and more even by those who do not know, but yet would maintain it with all their soul. The incompatibility of the autocracy with the interests of social development, with the interests of the entire people (apart from a handful of bureaucrats and bigwigs), became evident as soon as the people actually had to pay for the autocracy with their lifeblood. Its foolish and criminal colonial adventure has landed the autocracy in an impasse, from which the people can extricate themselves only by their own efforts and only at the cost of destroying tsarism.[9]

In Poland the economic impact of the war was particularly devastating with 25 to 30% of workers in Warsaw thrown out of work and wages reduced by between a third and a half. In May 1904 there were clashes between workers and the police, with Cossacks reinforcing the latter. The war began to provoke increasingly strong opposition. During Bloody Sunday itself, when the troops began to slaughter the workers who had come to appeal to the Tsar, “the St Petersburg workers (…) cried out to the officers that they were more successful at fighting the Russian people than they were the Japanese”.[10] Later some parts of the military rebelled against their situation and began to side with the workers: “The morale of the soldiers had been brought very low by the defeats in the East and their manifestly incapable leadership. Now discontent was increased by the government’s reluctance to carry out its promise of a speedy demobilisation. The result was mutinies in many regiments and occasional pitched battles. Reports of disorders of this kind came in from places as far apart as Grodno and Samara, Rostov and Kursk, from Rembertow near Warsaw, from Riga in Latvia and Vyborg in Finland, from Vladivostok and Irkutsk.

By the autumn the revolutionary movement in the navy had also gained strength, with the result that a mutiny broke out at Kronstadt naval base in the Baltic in October which was put down only by the use of force. It was followed by yet another mutiny in the Black Sea fleet, at Savastopol, which at one point threatened to take control of the whole city”.[11]

In their appeal to the working class in May 1905 the Bolsheviks drew the questions of war and revolution into one: “Comrades! We stand now in Russia on the eve of great events. We are engaged in the last desperate fight with the autocratic tsarist government, we must carry this fight on to its victorious end. See what calamities this government of brutes and tyrants, of venal courtiers and hangers-on of capital, has brought upon the entire Russian people! The Tsarist government has plunged the Russian people into an insane war against Japan. Hundreds of thousands of young lives have been torn away from the people to perish in the Far East. Words cannot describe all the calamities that this war brings upon us. And what is the war for? For Manchuria, which our predatory tsarist government has seized from China! Russian blood is being shed and our country ruined for the sake of foreign territory. Life is becoming harder and harder for the workers and peasants; the capitalists and officials keep tightening the noose round their necks, while the Tsarist government is sending the people out to plunder foreign territory. Bungling Tsarist generals and venal officials have led to the destruction of the Russian fleet, squandered hundreds and thousands of millions of the nation’s wealth, and lost entire armies, but the war still goes on, claiming further sacrifices. The people are being ruined, industry and trade are coming to a standstill, and famine and cholera are imminent; but the autocratic government in its blind madness follows the old path; it is ready to ruin Russia if only it can save a handful of brutes and tyrants; it is launching another war besides the one with Japan – war against the entire Russian people.”[12]

State oppression

The war also served to divert the campaign that had been growing against the oppressive policies of the autocracy. In December 1903 Plehve, the Minister of the Interior, was reported to have said “In order to prevent revolution, we need a small victorious war”.[13]

The power of the autocracy had been reinforced after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 by members of the People’s Will, a group committed to the use of terrorism against the autocracy.[14] New “exceptional measures” were introduced to outlaw all political action, and far from being exceptional they became the norm: “It is true to say…that there was no time between the promulgation of the Statute of 14 August 1881 and the fall of the dynasty in March 1917 when the ‘exceptional measures’ were not in operation in some part of the land – often over large parts of it”.[15] Under the “Reinforced Degree” the governors of the area covered could imprison people for three months without trial, prohibit all gatherings whether private or public, close down factories and shops and deport individuals from their home. The “Extraordinary Degree” effectively placed the area covered under military rule with arbitrary arrests, imprisonment and fines. The use of soldiers against strikes and workers’ protests became commonplace and many workers were shot down in the struggle. The numbers in the prisons and penal colonies throughout Russia increased, as did the number exiled to remote parts of the country.

During this period the proportion of those charged with crimes against the state who were workers steadily increased. In 1884-90 just one quarter of those charged were manual labourers; by 1901-03 this had grown to three fifths. This reflected the change in the revolutionary movement from one dominated by intellectuals to one composed of workers, as one prison warder was reported to have commented: “Why is it that more and more political peasants are brought in? It used to be gentlemen, students and young ladies, but now it is the grey peasant workers like us".[16]

Alongside these formal, “legal” forms of oppression, the Russian state employed two complimentary forms. On the one hand the state encouraged the development of anti-Semitism, turning a blind eye to pogroms and massacres while ensuring that the organisations that did the work, such as the Union of the Russian People, which was better known as the Black Hundreds and was openly supported by the Tsar, received protection. Revolutionaries were denounced as being part of an orchestrated Jewish plot to take power. This strategy was to be used against the revolution of 1905 and to punish workers and peasants afterwards.

On the other hand, the state sought to appease the working class by creating a series of “police unions” led by Colonel Zubatov. These unions were designed to contain the revolutionary passions of the working class within the boundaries of immediate economic demands, but the workers in Russia first pushed at the boundaries and then, in 1905, overflowed them. Lenin argued that the political situation in Russia, where “conditions (…) ’impel’ the workers engaged in economic struggle to concern themselves with political questions”,[17] meant that the working class could make use of these unions so long as the traps set for them by the ruling class were exposed by revolutionaries. “In this sense, we may, and should say to the Zubatovs and the Ozerovs: Keep at it, gentlemen, do your best! Whenever you place a trap in the path of the workers (…) we will see to it that you are exposed. But whenever you take a real step forward, though it be the most timid ‘zig-zag’, we will say: Please continue! And the only step that can be a real step forward is a real if small extension of the workers’ field of action. Every such extension will be to our advantage and will help to hasten the advent of legal societies of the kind in which it will not be agent provocateurs who are detecting socialists, but socialists who are gaining adherents”.[18] In fact, when the revolution came, first in 1905, then in 1917, it was not the unions that were strengthened but a new organisation, adapted to the revolutionary task before the proletariat that was created: the soviets.

The armed confrontation with the state

While the factors we have considered above help to explain why the events of 1905 took place in Russia, the real significance of these events has nothing to do with Russia. Given this, what is it that is significant about 1905? What is that defines it?

One striking feature of 1905 was the development of armed struggle in December. Trotsky offers a powerful account of the struggle that took place in Moscow as the working class areas threw up barricades to defend themselves against the Tsarist troops while the Social-Democratic Fighting Organisation waged a guerrilla battle through the streets and houses: “Here is a typical example of a battle. Twenty-four men who make up one of the most recklessly courageous Georgian druzhina[19], are marching along quite openly, in twos. The crowd warns them that sixteen dragoons with their officer are riding towards them. The druzhina stops, forms ranks, pulls out its Mausers, and prepares to fire. As soon as the mounted unit appears, the druzhina fires. The officer is wounded, the horses in the front rank, wounded, rear up, the dragoons are taken unawares and cannot fire back. This enables the druzhina to fire up to 100 rounds and the dragoons flee in disorder leaving behind several killed and wounded. ‘Now see that you get away,’ the crowd urges, ‘the artillery are coming.’ They are right; the artillery promptly appears on the scene, causing several dozen killed and wounded among the unarmed crowd, which never expected to be fired on. Meanwhile the Georgians have started another shooting match with the troops in another place. The druzhina is almost invulnerable because it is clad in the armour of popular sympathy.”[20] However, it is not the armed struggle, no matter how courageous, that defines 1905. The armed struggle was indeed an expression of the struggle for power between the classes but it marked the last phase, arising when the proletariat was confronted with the success of the counter-attack of the ruling class. At first workers tried to win the troops over but clashes gradually developed and became bloodier. The armed struggle was an attempt to defend working class areas rather than to extend the revolution. Twelve years later, when the workers again confronted the military, it was their success in winning over significant parts of the army and navy that ensured the survival and advance of the revolution.

Further, armed clashes between the working class and the bourgeoisie have a very long history. The early years of the workers’ movement in Britain were marked by violent clashes. For example, in 1800 and 1801 there was a wave of food riots, some of which seem to have been planned in advance with printed handbills calling on the workers to assemble. A year later there were reports of workers drilling with pikes and of secret associations plotting revolution. Over the following decade the Luddite movement, or the Army of Redressers to use the movement’s own name, developed in response to the impoverishment of thousands of weavers. Some years later again the Physical Force Chartists made plans for insurrection. The Paris Commune of 1871 saw the violent confrontation between the classes burst into the open. In America the brutal exploitation that went with the rapid industrialisation of the country provoked violent opposition, as in the case of the Molly Maguires who specialised in killing company bosses, and turned strikes into armed conflicts.[21] What singled out 1905 was not armed confrontation but the organisation of the proletariat on a class basis to attain its general goals. This resulted in a new type of organisation, the soviet, with new goals that necessarily superseded the trade unions.

The role of the soviets

In one of the first and most important studies of the soviets, Oskar Anweiler argues that “the more realistic view is that the soviets of 1905 and those of 1917 for a long time developed independently of the Bolshevik party and its ideology, and that their aim initially was not the seizure of state power”.[22] This is an accurate assessment of the first stage of soviets, but it is no more true of the later stages than to suggest that the working class would have been content to continue marching behind Father Gapon and appealing to their “Little Father”. Between January and December 1905 something changed. Understanding what changed and how it changed is the key to understanding 1905.

In the first article we emphasised the spontaneous nature of the revolution. The strikes of January, October and December seemed to come from nowhere, being sparked off by seemingly insignificant events, such as the sacking of two workers in one factory. The actions overflowed even the most apparently radical of unions: “On September 30 ferment began in the workshops of the Moscow-Kursk and Moscow-Kazan railways. These two railways were prepared to open the campaign on October 1. They were held back by the railwaymen's union. Basing itself on the experience of the February, April, and July strikes of various individual lines, the union was preparing a general railway strike to coincide with the convening of the State Duma; for the present it was against partial action. But the ferment continued unabated. On September 20, an official conference of railwaymen's deputies had opened to discuss the question of pension funds. This conference spontaneously extended its terms of reference and, applauded by the railway world as a whole, transformed itself into an independent trade union and political congress. Greetings to the congress arrived from all sides. The ferment increased. The idea of an immediate general strike of the railways began to gain hold in the Moscow area.[23]

The soviets developed on a foundation that went beyond the scope of the trade union. The first body that can be classed as a soviet appeared in Ivanovo-Voznesensk in central Russia. On May 12th a strike broke out at one factory in the city, which was known as the Russian Manchester, and within a few days every factory was closed and over 32,000 workers were on strike. On the suggestion of a factory inspector delegates were elected to represent the workers in discussions. The Assembly of Delegates, composed of some 110 workers, met regularly in the following weeks. Its aims were to conduct the strike, prevent separate actions and negotiations, to assure the order and organised behaviour of the workers and to resume work only on its orders. The soviet put forwards a number of demands, both economic and political, including the eight hour day, increased minimum pay, sick pay, maternity pay, freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. It then created a workers’ militia to protect the working class from attacks by the Black Hundreds, to prevent clashes between strikers and those still working and to keep in contact with workers in remote areas. The authorities initially yielded in the face of the organised strength of the working class but began to react towards the end of the month by banning the militia. A mass meeting in early June was attacked by Cossacks, killing some workers and arresting others. The situation deteriorated further towards the end of the month with rioting and further clashes with the Cossacks. A new strike was launched in July, involving 10,000 workers, but was defeated after three months, the only apparent gain being a reduction in the working day.

In this very first effort the fundamental nature of the soviets could be seen: a unification of the economic and political interests of the working class that, because it unified workers on a class basis rather than a trade one, inevitably tended to become more explicitly political as time went on, leading to a confrontation between the established power of the bourgeoisie and the nascent power of the proletariat. That the question of the workers’ militia was central in the life of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet was not due to the immediate military threat it posed but because it raised the question of class power.

This tendency towards the creation of rival powers runs throughout Trotsky’s account of 1905 and was posed explicitly after 1917 with the situation of dual power: “If the state is an organisation of class rule, and a revolution is the overthrow of the ruling class, then the transfer of power from one class to another must necessarily create self-contradictory state conditions, and first of all the form of the dual power. The relation of class forces is not a mathematical quantity permitting a priori computations. When the old regime is thrown out of equilibrium, a new correlation of forces can be established only as the result of a trial by battle. That is revolution[24] The situation of dual power was not reached in 1905, but the question was posed from the start: “From the hour it came into being until the hour it perished, the Soviet stood under the mighty, elemental pressure of the revolution (…) Every step of the workers’ representation was determined in advance. Its ‘tactics’ were obvious. The methods of struggle did not have to be discussed; there was hardly time to formulate them”.[25] This is the essential quality of the soviet and is what distinguishes it from the unions. The unions are a weapon in the proletariat’s struggle within capitalism; the soviets are a weapon in its struggle against capitalism. At root, the two are not opposed, in that both arise from the objective conditions of the class struggle of their time and are in continuity in that they fight for the interests of the working class; but they become opposed when the union form continues after its class content – its role in organising the class and developing its consciousness – has passed into the soviets. In 1905 this opposition had not yet emerged; the soviets and unions could co-exist and to some extent reinforce each other, but it existed implicitly in the way that the soviets bypassed the unions.

The mass strikes that developed in October 1905 led to the creation of many more soviets, with the St Petersburg Soviet leading the way. In all some 40 to 50 soviets have been identified as well as a few peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets. Anweiler stresses their disparate origins: “Some were modelled on older organisations such as strike committees and deputies assemblies; others were formed directly, initiated by Social Democratic Party organisations, which then exercised considerable influence in the soviet. Frequently boundaries between a simple strike committee and a fully developed council of workers’ deputies were fluid, and only in the main revolutionary centres with considerable concentrations of workers – such as (apart from St. Petersburg) Moscow, Odessa, Novorossiysk, and the Donets Basin – were the councils thoroughly organised”.[26] This may be objectively true but in no way lessens their significance as direct expressions of the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat. In their newness, they inevitably ebbed and flowed with the tide of revolution: “The strength of the soviets lay in this revolutionary mood of the masses, in the capital’s bellicose atmosphere, and in the regime’s insecurity. During the political euphoria of the ‘freedom days’ the working class readily responded to the appeal of its elected organ; as soon as the mood waned and gave way to exhaustion and disillusion, the soviets lost some of their influence and authority”.[27]

The soviets and the mass strike arose from the objective conditions of the working class’ existence, just as the trade unions had before them: “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”.[28] This is why in the century since 1905 the soviet form, as a tendency or a realisation, has emerged time and again when the working class takes the offensive: “The movement in Poland by its massive character, its rapidity, its extension beyond categories and regions, confirms not only the necessity but the possibility of the generalisation and the self-organisation of the struggle”;[29] "…the authorities habitual use of propaganda based on a massive and systematic distortion of reality, as well as the state’s totalitarian control over every aspect of social life, pushed the Polish workers to develop a degree of self-organisation which represents an immense step forward in comparison to what has been achieved in any previous struggle”.[30]

North, 14th June 2005

This article will be continued in the next issue of the International Review and is published in full on our web site. It will deal in particular with the following issues:

    • The St Petersburg Soviet is the high point of the 1905 revolution; it is the most complete expression of the characteristics of the soviet as a weapon of revolutionary struggle: an expression of the struggle itself, with a view to developing it by regrouping the entire working class.

    • The revolutionary practice of the working class clarified the union question well before it was understood theoretically. When unions were formed in 1905, they tended to overflow their original purpose since they were swept along in the revolutionary torrent. After 1905, they declined rapidly and in 1917, the working class was again organised in soviets for the struggle against capitalism.

    • The idea that the 1905 revolution was the result of Russia’s backwardness, though wrong, continues to have a certain weight today. Against this idea, both Lenin and Trotsky insisted on the degree of development of Russian capitalism.

[1] Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, I. “The Russian Revolution, Anarchism and the General Strike”.

[2] Leon Trotsky 1905, Chapter 22 “Summing Up”. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1905

[3] The International Working Class Movement, Vol.2, Chapter 8. Progress Publishers, Moscow 1976.

[4] International Review n°118, “What is revolutionary syndicalism”; International Review n°120 ”Anarcho-syndicalism confronted by a change in epoch: the CGT up to 1914”.

[5] Rosa Luxemburg, The mass strike, V. “Lessons of the working-class movement in Russia applicable to Germany”.

[6] See: Lenin , “The Development of capitalism in Russia”, Appendix II, Collected Works, Vol.3.

[7] Ibid, appendix III

[8] Henry Reichman, Railwaymen and Revolution. Russia, 1905. University of California Press 1987.

[9] “The fall of Port Arthur”, Collected Works, Vol.8.

[10] Lenin, “Revolutionary Days, 8, The number of killed or wounded”, Collected Works, Vol.8.

[11] David Floyd, Russia in Revolt, Chapter 6.

[12] Lenin, “The First of May”, Collected Works, Vol.8.

[13] A more recent work rejects this view, arguing that the evidence “merely indicates that (…) Plehve did not seem to object to Russia’s going to war with Japan, on the assumption that a military conflict would divert the masses from political concerns” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, chapter 2 “War and political upheaval”).

[14] Lenin’s brother was part of a group that drew its inspiration from the People’s Will. He was hanged in 1887 after an attempt to assassinate Tsar Alexander III.

[15] Edward Crankshaw, The Shadow of the Winter Palace, Chapter 16, “The Peace of the Graveyard”.

[16] Teodor Shanin, Russia 1905-07. Revolution as a moment of truth, Chapter 1, “A revolution comes to the boil”.

[17] “What is to be done? C. Organisation of workers and organisation of revolutionaries”, Collected Works, Vol.5.

[18] ibid.

[19] This was the name given to the individual fighting units. Trotsky describes them collectively as the druzhinniki.

[20] Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 21 “December”

[21] See Dynamite by Louis Adamic, Rebel Press 1984.

[22] The Soviets, Chapter 2 “The soviets and the Russian revolution of 1905”.

[23] Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 7 “The strike in October”.

[24] Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol.1, Chapter XI “Dual Power”.

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

[26] The Soviets, Chapter 2 “The Soviets and the Russian Revolution of 1905”.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Trotsky, ibid.

[29] International Review, n°23, “Mass strikes in Poland 1980: the proletariat opens a new breach”.

[30] International Review n°24, “The international dimension of the workers’ struggles in Poland”.


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