The debate in the revolutionary vanguard on the implication of the 1905 revolution

Printer-friendly version

The first articles in this series looked back to examine what this change meant by contrasting the form and the content of 1905 with what had gone before, and how this corresponded to the new period of capitalism’s decadence. We showed that the unions had been superseded by the soviets as the organisational form best suited to the purpose and nature of the struggle now being undertaken by the working class. We have shown that it was wrong to consider the soviets as a product of Russia’s supposed backwardness and have highlighted, on the contrary, the fact that the formation of the soviets was an expression of the advanced level of consciousness achieved by the working class. In this new period, faced with new tasks the unions ceased to be a means for advancing the interests of the working class and increasingly became transformed into an obstacle to the development of the struggle and a trap for the militancy of the working class and its most determined elements. The development of unions in Russia in 1905 and again in 1917 reflected the revolutionary fervour of the working class that tried to make use of any means to advance its struggle, but also a real inexperience of the unions. It was the soviets that led the struggle and that gave it its revolutionary nature; the unions merely trailed behind.

The emergence of the soviets was inseparable from the mass strike, which appeared as the means for struggling against capitalism when partial reforms and palliatives were no longer attainable. Like the soviets, it arose from the needs of the class as a whole and not only drew the working class together but developed its class consciousness. In doing this it confronted the limitations of the unions and parts of the revolutionary movement who could only see in such a movement the spectre of anarchism. It fell to the left of the workers’ movement, with Rosa Luxemburg and then Anton Pannekoek in the lead, to defend the mass strike, not as a mere tactic of the leadership, but as an elemental, revolutionary and renewing force springing from the heart of the working class, capable of uniting its militancy and its consciousness at a new and higher level.

1905 showed that the struggle for reforms was being superseded by the struggle for revolution.

We have also shown that these changes were not specific to Russia, but affected the whole working class as capitalism entered its decadent phase. The working class, which had consolidated itself as an international class capable of fighting for its interests, would henceforth be faced with the struggle to overthrow capitalism and transform the relations of production rather than struggle for improvements within them. Around the world, the decades before the First World War saw an escalation and intensification of strikes that began to put the old ways of organising and old aims of struggle into question and which from time to time flared into open conflict with the state. In short, after 1905 the struggle of the working class became the struggle for communism.

The real significance of 1905 is thus that it pointed to the future and prepared the way for all of the struggles undertaken in decadent capitalism. That is, for all of the struggles of the last hundred years, for those of today and those of tomorrow.

1905 opens the road to the future

The role 1905 played in preparing the future could be seen with great clarity in 1917 when the soviets were the first weapon of the revolution. They were the form it took. Soviet power stood against the bourgeois power of the provisional government, as Trotsky eloquently describes in his History of the Russian Revolution:

What was the real constitution of the country after the inauguration of the new power?

The monarchist reaction was hiding in the cracks. With the very first ebb of the wave, the property owners of all kinds and tendencies gathered around the banner of the Kadet Party, which had suddenly become the only non-socialist party – and at the same time the extreme right party – in the open arena.

…The masses poured into the Soviet as though into the triumphal gates of the revolution. All that remained outside the boundaries of the Soviet seemed to fall away from the revolution, seemed somehow to belong to a different world…

…all the active elements of the masses poured into the Soviet, and activity prevails in times of revolution. Moreover, since mass activity was growing from day to day, the basis of the Soviet was continually broadening. It was the sole genuine basis of the revolution”.[1]

The soviets and only the soviets are the organisational form appropriate both to the means and the ends of the struggle for communism. However, this was far from clear at the time, in particular for revolutionaries in Russia. This became evident during the discussion on the union question at the first congress of the Third International, as we show in the article “From Marx to the Communist Left, iii” in International Review n°123.[2] In the discussion delegates from many European countries firmly denounced the counter-revolutionary role now played by the unions. In contrast, Zinoviev, making the report on Russia, argued: “The second form of worker’ organisation in Russia is the trade unions. They developed differently here than in Germany: they played an important revolutionary role in the years 1904-1905, and today are marching side by side with us in the struggle for socialism (…) A large majority of trade union members support our party’s positions, and all decisions of the unions are made in the spirit of those positions”. This in no way confirms that the unions in Russia had any special virtues, but is simply due to certain specificities of the Russian situation and, as the article just referred to concludes, “they were carried along in the wake of the soviets”: during the revolutionary phase, their role as instruments of the capitalist state against the working class was less evident in Russia than elsewhere.

While the revolution of 1917 was made possible by 1905 it did not lead on to the worldwide communist revolution. That could only have happened in 1917 if the revolution had succeeded in spreading and triumphing around the world. Nonetheless, many of its lessons have been drawn by the isolated groups of revolutionaries that survived the crushing of the revolutionary wave of 1917-23 and who have sought to rebuild the revolutionary movement. This has been the particular role of the communist left. The lessons have also been proved time and again by the experience of the working class in its day to day struggles and by its greater efforts, such as in Poland in the early 1980s. The drawing of those lessons began immediately after 1905 and it is to this work that we now turn.

Drawing the lessons of 1905 – the question of method

In this last part of our series we will look at how the revolutionary movement responded, both as regards the development of its positions and also as regards the methods it used. This is not an unimportant point if one considers that a change in the real situation requires a change in the means to comprehend that situation.

What is striking about the theoretical struggle and debate undertaken after 1905 is its collective and international nature, even though the participants were not always fully aware of these characteristics.

Whereas after the Paris Commune of 1870 Marx was able, on behalf of the General Council of the International Working Men’s Association (the First International), to summarise its significance in a single pamphlet, after 1905 this was not possible, largely due to the complexity of the questions posed.

 In particular, the revolutionaries of the time were confronted with an unprecedented change in the historical period, a change that challenged many of the assumptions and acquisitions of the workers movement, such as the role of the unions and the form of the class struggle. The achievement of the left of the workers movement was not just that it sought to take up this challenge but that it attained such a profound level of insight into so many questions and left such a magnificent legacy of theoretical effort and, above all, a remarkable mastery of the marxist method. This achievement far outweighs the inevitable gaps and weaknesses in their efforts. To expect anything else, to expect perfection is not merely naive but shows a failure to understand the real nature of marxism and of the whole struggle of the working class. It would be like expecting the working class to win every strike, to see through every manoeuvre of the ruling class and ultimately to have been capable of making the communist revolution on the day it was born.

The sometimes fragmented nature of the debate and the contributions to it was not a weakness but an inevitable consequence of the development taking place in the form of the theoretical struggle that was a counterpart of the development of the "practical" struggle. Indeed, one can go so far as to say that the counterpart of the mass strike is the mass theoretical struggle. Obviously, the latter does not embrace the same numbers as the former, but it does express the same collective spirit and requires the same qualities of solidarity, modesty and self-sacrifice. Above all it requires active engagement, as our comrades of Internationalisme stressed nearly sixty years ago: “Against the idea that militants can only act on the basis of certainties…we insist that there are no certainties but only a continual process of going beyond what were formerly truths. Only an activity based on the most recent developments, on foundations that are being continually enriched, is really revolutionary. In contrast, activity based on yesterday’s truths that have already lost their currency is sterile, harmful and reactionary. One might try to feed the members with absolute certainties and truths, but only relative truths which contain an antithesis of doubt can give rise to a revolutionary synthesis”.[3] It is this that separated the left of the workers movement - Lenin, Luxemburg, Pannekoek etc - from the centre embodied by Kautsky and the openly revisionist right headed by Bernstein. The gulf between the centre and the left could be seen in the debate over the mass strike where Kautsky was unable to see the underlying changes in the class struggle that Luxemburg analysed. Unable to go beyond the vision of the past, in which the mass strike was just a tool to be used by the central committee of the party, Kautsky saw nothing in Luxemburg’s arguments and in the second stage of the discussion even tried to block their publication.[4]

The debates after 1905

It is possible to identify some of the key features of the documents and debates that appeared after 1905:

  • they shared with the practical lessons of 1905 the characteristics of being tendencies rather than finished products;
  • no single work was produced that provided a comprehensive analysis;
  • no individual addressed every aspect of the subject;
  • much of the discussion emerged from already existing discussions, such as on the mass strike, the role of the revolutionary organisation and the role of the working class in the democratic revolution.

This reflects the reality of a period of change in which there is both disjuncture and an attempt to understand and master that disjuncture. In a period of immense change many are disorientated. Some reject the whole of the past, some cling to what they know and try to ignore the change, while others recognise the changes and seek to adapt to them, while keeping what remains valid from the past. These different types of response existed within the workers’ movement determined the divisions that developed between the right, the centre and the left. Furthermore, the debates were fundamentally between these tendencies rather than between individuals. It was from the left that the real effort came to understand the new situation, while the right turned away from both the conclusions and the method of marxism and the centre increasingly abandoned its method in favour of a sterile, conservative orthodoxy, that was best exemplified by Karl Kautsky.

The fundamental achievement of the left was that it recognised that something had changed; it recognised that society was entering a new period and sought to understand it. In this the left defended the marxist method, and thus the real heritage of Marx. In Lenin’s, Luxemburg’s and Trotsky’s work there is clear evidence that the objective conditions were pushing them forwards and they each developed vital analyses:

  • Lenin on the central role of the organisation and also on the relationship between strategy and tactics;
  • Trotsky on the great historical dynamics at work, leading him to a clear vision of the role of the soviets and to come closest to recognising the opening of the period of proletarian revolution;
  • Luxemburg on the dynamic within the class finding expression in the mass strike.

The theoretical effort of the working class was not restricted to these three but embraced many others: left tendencies emerged wherever there was a politically organised workers’ movement. Lenin and Luxemburg were both prompted to try and grasp what had changed within the structure of capitalism as a whole, although this lies outside the scope of this study.

Recognising that the legacy of 1905 is a collective one of the whole of the left of the workers’ movement, we will look at its efforts to understand the vital questions of the goal, the method and form of workers struggles in the new period rather than dealing with each individual in turn.

The goal: the proletarian revolution

None declared it but all glimpsed it: they recognised that the proletarian revolution was no longer beyond the horizon, was no longer an aspiration, but was becoming a visible reality. Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg all formally define the goal as the bourgeois revolution but their analysis of the nature of this bourgeois revolution and the role of the working class in particular implicitly challenges their own assertion. They all stress that the proletariat will be the main force at work and all recognise, albeit in varying ways and to varying extents, that this changes the situation fundamentally. Hence it is the method that unites them against those who simply applied the old schemas.

In 1906 Trotsky published Results and Prospects in which he set out the idea of permanent revolution, or the “uninterrupted revolution” as it was then described. In it he deals with the “prerequisites for revolution” and suggests they are almost all in place.

The first prerequisite is “productive-technical”, that is the level of development of the means of production. He argues that this has been in place “…ever since the time when social division of labour led to the division of labour in manufacture. It has existed to an even greater extent since the time when manufacture was replaced by factory, machine production”.[5] He goes so far as to suggest that “sufficient technical pre-requisites for collective production have already existed for a hundred or two hundred years”. However, he adds that “The mere technical advantages of socialism were not at all sufficient for it to be realised… Because there were no social forces existent at that time ready and able to carry them out”.

This leads to the second prerequisite, “the social-economic ones”; in other words the development of the proletariat. Here Trotsky poses the question “what must be the relative numerical weight of the proletariat? Must it make up a half, two thirds or nine-tenths of the population?” only to reject such a “schematic effort” in order to assert that “The importance of the proletariat depends entirely on the role it plays in large scale production”. For Trotsky it is the qualitative role the proletariat plays that counts rather than the quantitative one. This has two important implications. Firstly, that it is not essential for the proletariat to form a majority of the population to introduce socialism. Secondly, and more specifically, that the proletariat had a much greater weight in Russia because of the concentration and scale of industry than was the case in countries such as Britain and Germany when the proletariat formed a similar proportion of the total population. After considering the role of the proletariat in other major countries Trotsky concludes: “All this leads us to the conclusion that economic evolution – the growth of industry, the growth of large enterprises, the growth of the towns, and the growth of the proletariat in general and the industrial proletariat in particular - has already prepared the arena not only for the struggle of the proletariat for political power but for the conquest of this power”.

The third pre-requisite is “the dictatorship of the proletariat” by which Trotsky seems essentially to mean the development of class consciousness: “It is… necessary that this class should be conscious of its objective interests; it is necessary that it should understand that there is no way out for it except through socialism; it is necessary that it should combine in an army sufficiently powerful to conquer political power in open battle”. He does not state specifically whether this has been met, but rejects the idea of many “socialist ideologues” that “The proletariat, and even ‘humanity’ in general, must first of all cast out its old egoistical nature, and altruism must become predominant in social life etc” and concludes “Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a pre-requisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a pre-requisite to socialist psychology”. This recognition of the dynamic relationship between the revolution and consciousness is one of the most important insights into the whole question of how the revolution develops. When he looks at the particular situation in Russia Trotsky suggests that 1905 has directly posed the question of revolution: “…the Russian proletariat revealed a colossal strength, unexpected by the Russian Social-Democrats even in their most optimistic moods. The course of the Russian revolution was decided, so far as its fundamental features were concerned. What two or three years ago was or seemed possible, approached to the probable, and everything points to the fact that it is on the brink of becoming inevitable”.[6]

Earlier in Results and Prospects Trotsky had argued that historical development meant that the revolutionary role has passed from the bourgeoisie to the proletariat. He asserted that the revolution of 1905 and the creation of the St Petersburg Soviet confirmed this. This meant that bourgeois revolutions as they were previously known were no longer possible and Trotsky specifically rejects the idea of the proletariat carrying out a revolution and then handing power to the bourgeoisie: “To imagine that it is the business of Social Democrats to enter a provisional government and lead it during the period of revolutionary-democratic reforms, fighting for them to have a most radical character, and relying for this purpose upon the organised proletariat – and then, after the democratic programme has been carried out, to leave the edifice they have constructed so as to make way for the bourgeois parties and themselves go into opposition, thus opening up a period of parliamentary politics, is to imagine the thing in a way that would compromise the very idea of a workers’ government. This is not because it is inadmissible ‘in principle’ – putting the question in this abstract form is devoid of meaning – but because it is absolutely unreal, it is utopianism of the worst sort – a sort of revolutionary-philistine utopianism”.[7] If the proletariat holds the majority in government its task is no longer to realise the minimum programme of reforms but the maximum programme of the social revolution. This is not a matter of choice but of the dynamic of the situation. Trotsky illustrates this with the example of the eight-hour day. While this measure “by no means contradicts capitalist relations” its introduction is likely to meet with “the organised and determined resistance of the capitalists” resulting in lockouts and factory closures. A bourgeois government faced with this would retreat and repress the workers, but “for a workers government there would only be one way out: expropriation of closed factories and the organisation of production in them on a socialised basis”. In short, for Trotsky “…the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers – and in the event of the victory of the revolution it must do so – before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing”.[8]

Lenin, like Trotsky, places the revolution in the context of the international development of the objective conditions: “…we must not be afraid… of Social Democracy’s complete victory in a democratic revolution, i.e. of a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, for such a victory will enable us to rouse Europe; after throwing off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, the socialist proletariat of Europe will in its turn help us to accomplish the socialist revolution…Vperoyd[9] set the revolutionary proletariat of Russia an active task: winning the battle for democracy and using this victory to bring the revolution into Europe”.[10]

This is from a long polemic contrasting the positions of the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks with regard to the revolution of 1905, which both saw as bourgeois-democratic. The former (referred to in the following quote as the Congress resolution) calls for the proletariat to take the lead while the latter (referred to as the conference resolution[11]) tends to leave the initiative to the bourgeoisie: “The resolution of the Conference speaks of the old order in the process of mutual struggle among the various elements of society. The Congress resolution says that we, the party of the proletariat, must effect this abolition; that only the establishment of a democratic republic signifies genuine abolition of the old order; that we must win that republic; that we shall fight for it and for complete liberty, not only against the autocracy, but also against the bourgeoisie, when it attempts (and it surely will do so) to wrest our gains from us. The Congress resolution calls on a definite class to wage a struggle for a precisely defined immediate aim. The conference resolution discourses on the mutual struggle of various forces. One resolution expresses the psychology of active struggle, the other that of the passive onlooker…”.[12] This emphasis on the necessity for the proletariat to take the leading role was reiterated time and again by Lenin in opposition to that Mensheviks, who he referred to as the right of the party: “The Right wing of our Party does not believe in the complete victory of the present, i.e. bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia; it dreads such a victory; it does not emphatically and definitely put the slogan of such a victory before the people. It is constantly being misled by the essentially erroneous idea, which is really a vulgarisation of marxism, that only the bourgeoisie can independently ‘make’ the bourgeois revolution, or that only the bourgeoisie should lead the bourgeois revolution. The role of the proletariat as the vanguard in the struggle for the complete and decisive victory of the bourgeois revolution is not clear to the Right Social-Democrats”.[13]The present conditions in Russia impose on the Social-Democrats tasks of a magnitude that no Social-Democratic Party in Western Europe has to face. We are incomparably more remote than our Western comrades from the socialist revolution; but we are faced with a bourgeois-democratic peasant revolution in which the proletariat will play the leading role”.[14] These quotes show the dynamic nature of the Bolshevik’s position such that, while not recognising that conditions had developed globally for the proletarian revolution, it was nonetheless capable of grasping the central role played by the proletariat and of expressing this clearly in terms of a struggle for power. Although Lenin states explicitly that 1905 was a bourgeois revolution,[15] the analysis he develops of the particular role to be played by the proletariat opens the door to the apparent volte-face of April 1917 and the call for a proletarian revolution: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and poorest sections of the peasants”.[16] The question of immediate tactics that occupies so much of Lenin’s writings, and which leads to apparent reversals of position (such as on elections to the Duma) springs from this constant concern to relate the overall understanding of the situation to the real activity of the working class and its revolutionary organisation rather than being trapped within timeless schemas.

Luxemburg’s position on the revolution of 1905 also recognises that it has posed the question of the proletarian revolution, again despite a formal assertion that its task is the bourgeois revolution. This is evident from her analysis of the mass strike as an expression of the revolution: “The mass strike is merely the form of the revolutionary struggle […] the mass strike, as shown to us in the Russian Revolution, is not a crafty method discovered by subtle reasoning for the purpose of making the proletarian struggle more effective, but the method of motion of the proletarian mass, the phenomenal form of the proletarian struggle in revolution”.[17] She also emphasises the central role played by the proletariat: “… on January 22nd… the Russian proletariat burst on the political stage as a class for the first time; for the first time the only power which historically is qualified and able to cast Tsarism into the dustbin and to raise the banner of civilisation in Russia and everywhere has appeared on the scene of action […] the power and the future of the revolutionary movement lies entirely and exclusively in the class conscious Russian proletariat”.[18]

Luxemburg is most explicit about the changing historical period when she compares the French, German and Russian revolutions: “the present Russian Revolution stands at a point of the historical path which is already on the other side of the culminating point of capitalist society, at which the bourgeois revolution cannot again be smothered by the antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat, but, will, on the contrary expand into a new lengthy period of violent social struggles, at which the balancing of the account with absolutism appears a trifle in comparison with the many new accounts which the revolution itself opens up. The present revolution realises in the particular affairs of absolutist Russia the general results of international capitalist development, and 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”.[19] Later she even seems to argue that the task facing the German proletariat is the proletarian revolution: “in a period of open political popular struggles in Germany, the last historical necessary goal can only be the dictatorship of the proletariat”.[20]

The method: the mass strike

Luxemburg’s greatest contribution to the discussion fuelled by 1905 is her publication The Mass Strike, the Political Party and Trade Unions that was written in August 1906[21] in which she analysed the nature and characteristics of the strike. After reviewing the traditional marxist position on the mass strike, making a critique of the anarchist and revisionist positions and looking at the actual development of the strike in Russia, Luxemburg draws out the main aspects of the mass strike.

Firstly, and contrary to how it was conceived by the anarchists and many in Social Democratic Party the mass strike is not “one act, one isolated action” but “is rather the indication, the rallying idea of a whole period of the class struggle lasting for years, perhaps for decades”.[22] This leads on to a distinction between “Political demonstration” mass strikes and “fighting mass strikes”. The former are tactics wielded by the party, which “exhibit the greatest mass of party discipline, conscious direction and political thought, and therefore must appear as the highest and most mature form of the mass strike[23] but which, in reality, belong to the beginnings of the movement and become less important “with the development of the earnest revolutionary struggle”.[24] They give way to the more elemental force of the fighting mass strike.

Secondly, this form of the mass strike overcomes the artificial separation between economic and political struggles: “Every new onset and every fresh victory of the political struggle is transformed into a powerful impetus for the economic struggle, extending at the same time its external possibilities and intensifying the inner urge of the workers to better their position, and their desire to struggle. After every foaming wave of political action a fructifying deposit remains behind from which a thousand stalks of economic struggle shoot forth. And conversely. The workers’ condition of ceaseless economic struggle with the capitalists keeps their fighting energy alive in every political interval; it forms so to speak, the permanent fresh reservoir of the strength of the proletarian classes, from which the political fight ever renews its strength…”.[25] The unity of the economic and political struggles “is precisely the mass strike”.[26]

Thirdly “the mass strike is inseparable from the revolution”. However, Luxemburg rejects the schema, prevalent in much of the workers movement, where the mass strike could only lead to a bloody confrontation with the state in which the latter’s monopoly of firepower would inevitably lead to mass bloodshed. This was the basis on which the mass strike was opposed as a futile gesture. In contrast, while the Russian Revolution certainly involved a clash with the state and bloodshed, it arose from the objective conditions of the class struggle; it arose from the movement into action of ever-greater masses of the working class. In short, “the mass strike does not produce the revolution, but the revolution produces mass strikes”.[27]

Fourthly, as the preceding point implies, genuine mass strikes cannot be decreed or planned in advance. This leads Luxemburg to emphasise the element of spontaneity while rejecting the idea that this was due to the supposed backwardness of Russia: “The revolution, even when the proletariat, with the social democrats at their head, appear in the leading role, is not a manoeuvre of the proletariat in the open field, but a fight in the midst of the incessant crashing, displacing and crumbling of the social foundation. In short, in the mass strikes in Russia the element of spontaneity plays such a predominant part, not because the Russian proletariat are ‘uneducated’, but because revolutions do not allow anyone to play the schoolmaster with them”.[28] Nor does this lead her to reject the importance of organisation: “The resolution and determination of the workers also play a part and indeed the initiative and wider direction naturally fall to the share of the most enlightened kernel of the proletariat”.[29]

Luxemburg’s analysis is so different to that of the anarchists and the orthodox marxists because it is situated within a different context: that of the revolution. In the first pages of The Mass Strike she makes it clear that her conclusions, apparently so contradictory to those of Marx and Engels themselves, are the consequence of applying their method to a new situation: “…it is the same train of ideas, the same method, the Engels-marxisn tactics, which lay at the foundation of the previous practice of the German social democracy, which now in the Russian Revolution are producing new factors and new conditions in the class struggle”.[30]

In short, Luxemburg presents an analysis of a revolutionary dynamic with the working class at its heart that arises from the changing objective conditions. This leads her to stress correctly the spontaneity of the mass strike, but also to recognise that this spontaneity is actually no such thing, but is the product of the experience of the working class. This separates her from the likes of Kautsky who, while seen at the time as supporting the mass strike remained wedded to the orthodox view and was incapable of grasping the fundamental changes taking place that the Russian revolution of 1905 embodied.

A second phase of the debate on the mass strike developed in 1910[31] and led to the final split between Luxemburg and Kautsky. In this debate Pannekoek played an important role and not only defended positions close to those of Luxemburg but also developed them further. He begins by explicitly linking the question of the mass strike to the lessons of 1905: “The Russian proletariat… has taught the German people the use of a new weapon, the general strike”; “The Russian revolution has created the conditions for a revolutionary movement in Germany”.[32] In his conception of the nature of the mass strike he follows Luxemburg in seeing it as a process and criticises Kautsky’s conception of it as a “once and for all event”. He argues that it forms a continuum with the day to day struggle and he establishes a link between the current form of actions, that are small scale, and those that will lead to the conquest of power. He relates mass action to the development of capitalism “under the influence of the modern forms of capitalism, new forms of action have developed in the labour movement, namely mass action. … as the practical potential of mass action developed, it began to pose new problems; the question of social revolution, hitherto an undeniably distant ultimate goal now became a live issue for the militant proletariat…”.[33] He goes on to defend the dynamic, developmental aspects of the mass strike: “…what counts in the development of these actions, in which the deepest interests and passions of the masses break surface, is not membership of the organisation, nor a traditional ideology, but to an ever-increasing extent the real class character of the masses”.[34] He concludes that the fundamental difference between his position and that of Kautsky is over the question of the revolution and, in doing so, he shows where Kautsky’s centrism will take him: “It is over the nature of this revolution that our views diverge. As far as Kautsky is concerned, it is an event in the future, a political apocalypse, and all we have to do meanwhile is prepare for the final show-down by gathering our strength and assembling and drilling our troops. In our view, revolution is a process, the first stages of which we are now experiencing, for it is only by the struggle for power itself that the masses can be assembled, drilled and formed into an organisation capable of taking power. These different conceptions lead to completely different evaluations of current practice; and it is apparent that the Revisionists’ rejection of any revolutionary action and Kautsky’s postponement of it to the indefinite future are bound to unite them on many of the current issues over which they both oppose us”.[35]

The form: the soviets

Trotsky describes the soviets very powerfully in his book 1905, as we saw in previous parts of this series. At the end of the book, in a passage already partly quoted in this series, he sums up the significance of the soviet during the revolution:

Prior to the Soviet we find among the industrial workers a multitude of revolutionary organizations directed, in the main, by the social-democratic party. But these were organizations within the proletariat, and their immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses. The Soviet was, from the start, the organization 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 organized expression of the class will of the proletariat. In the struggle for power it applied methods which were naturally determined by the nature of the proletariat as a class: its role in production, its vast numbers, its social homogeneity. More than that, the Soviet combined its struggle for power as the head of all the revolutionary forces with directing independent class activity by the working masses in many different ways; it not only encouraged the organization of trade unions, but actually intervened in disputes between individual workers and their employees

The principal method of struggle used by the Soviet was the political general strike. The revolutionary strength of such strikes consists in the fact that, acting over the head of capital, they disorganize state power. The greater, the more complete the ‘anarchy’ caused by a strike, the nearer the strike is to victory. But on one condition only: the anarchy must not be created by anarchic means. The class which, by simultaneous cessation of work, paralyzes the production apparatus and with it the centralized apparatus of power, isolating parts of the country from one another and sowing general confusion, must itself be sufficiently organized not to become the first victim of the anarchy it has created. The more completely a strike renders the state organization obsolete, the more the organization of the strike itself is obliged to assume state functions. These conditions for a general strike as a proletarian method of struggle were, at the same time, the conditions for the immense significance of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies”.[36]

After the defeat of the revolution he looked ahead to the role they would play in the future: “Urban Russia was too narrow a base for the struggle. The Soviet tried to wage the struggle on a national scale, but it remained above all a Petersburg institution… there is no doubt that in the next upsurge of revolution, such Councils of Workers will be formed all over the country. An All-Russian Soviet of Workers, organised by a national congress…will assume the leadership… History does not repeat itself. The new Soviet will not have to go through the experiences of these fifty days once again. Yet from these fifty days it will be able to deduce its entire programme of action…: revolutionary co-operation with the army, the peasantry, and the plebeian parts of the middle classes; abolition of absolutism; destruction of the military machine of absolutism; part disbandment and part overhaul of the army; abolition of the police and bureaucratic apparatus; the eight hour day; the arming of the people, above all of the workers; the transformation of the Soviets into organs of revolutionary, urban self-government; the formation of Peasant Soviets to be in charge of the agrarian revolution on the spot; elections to the Constituent assembly… It is easier to formulate such a plan than carry it out. But if victory is destined for the revolution, the proletariat cannot but assume this role. It will achieve a revolutionary performance, the like of which the world has never seen”.[37]

In Results and Prospects Trotsky underlines that the soviets were a creation of the working class that corresponded to the revolutionary period: “These were not previously-prepared conspirative organisations for the purpose of seizure of power by the workers at the moment of revolt. No, these were organs created in a planned way by the masses themselves for the purpose of co-ordinating their revolutionary struggle. And these soviets, elected by the masses and responsible to the masses, are unquestionable democratic institutions, conducting a most determined class policy in the spirit of revolutionary socialism”.[38]

Lenin’s attitude towards the soviets during 1905 has already been touched on in International Review n°123 where we quoted from an unpublished letter in which he rejected the opposition to the soviets from some Bolsheviks and argued for “both the Soviet of Workers deputies and the Party[39] and rejected the argument that it should be aligned with any one party. After the revolution Lenin consistently defended the role of the soviets in organising and uniting the class. Prior to the unity congress of 1906[40] he drafted a resolution on the soviets of workers deputies that recognised them as a characteristic of the revolutionary struggle rather than a one-off phenomenon of 1905: “Soviets of Workers deputies spring up spontaneously in the course of mass political strikes […] these soviets are rudiments of revolutionary authority”.[41] The resolution went on to set out the attitude of the Bolsheviks to the soviets and concluded that revolutionaries should take part and should induce the working class, as well as peasants, soldiers and sailors, to participate, but warned that the extension of the activities and influence of the soviet would collapse unless it was backed by an army “and that therefore one of the main tasks of these institutions in every revolutionary situation must be to arm the people and strengthen the military organisations of the proletariat”.[42] In other texts Lenin defends the role of the soviets as organs of the general revolutionary struggle while arguing that they are not sufficient in themselves to organise the armed insurrection. In 1917 he recognised that events had gone beyond the bourgeois revolution to the proletarian and that at its centre stood the soviets: “Not a parliamentary republic – to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviet of Workers Deputies would be a retrograde step – but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants Deputies throughout the country from top to bottom”.[43] Now, in words strikingly similar to Trotsky’s he analysed the nature of the dual power that existed in Russia: “This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the ‘Provisional Government’ of Lvov and Co., which holds in its hands all the organs of power; the other is a supplementary and parallel government, a ‘controlling’ government in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers and Soldiers Deputies, which holds no organs of state power, but directly rests on the support of an obvious and indisputable majority of the people, on the armed workers and soldiers”.[44]

From 1905 to the communist revolution

The issues that the revolution of 1905 brought to the fore have shaped all subsequent revolutionary practice and debate. In this sense we can conclude that 1905 was not just a dress rehearsal for 1917, as is commonly said, but the first act in a drama that has yet to reach its finale. The issues of practice and theory that we have touched on throughout this series were continued and developed. One constant has been that it has always been the left of the workers movement that led this work. During the revolutionary wave Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Pannekoek were joined by many more. In the wake of its defeat these ranks were drastically thinned as the counter-revolution as a whole and Stalinism in particular triumphed. Stalinism was the negation of all the vital, proletarian features of 1905: workers were slaughtered in the name of the “workers” state, the soviets were snuffed out in favour of a centralised bureaucracy and the notion of proletarian revolution was perverted into an ideological weapon of Stalinist state foreign policy.

However, throughout the world minorities resisted the counter-revolution. The most determined and thorough of these minorities were those organisations that we describe as belonging to the Communist Left and which have been the subject of numerous studies by the ICC.[45] The issues of the goal, the method and the form of the revolution were at the heart of all of their work and though their efforts and self-sacrifice many of the lessons of 1905 have been deepened and clarified.

On the central question of the proletarian revolution itself the greatest step forward was the recognition that the material conditions for the worldwide communist revolution had existed since the beginning of the 20th century. This was defended in the first congress of the Third International and was developed further by the Italian Communist Left in the elaboration of the theory of capitalist decadence. This made it clear that the era of bourgeois revolutions was at an end and that the discussion in Russia about the role of the proletariat was not actually a reflection of the lateness of the bourgeois revolution in that country, but an indicator that the whole world was entering a new period in which the task was – and remains – the worldwide communist revolution. This clarification provided the only framework within which all other issues could be understood.

The recognition of the irreplaceable role of the mass strike was a reassertion of the fundamental marxist position that the proletarian revolution is made by the proletariat in class combat with the bourgeoisie. The parliamentary route was never an option; equally communism would not be the result of an accumulation of reforms won through partial struggles. Mass action pitted class against class. It was also the means through which the proletariat developed its consciousness and practical experience. As Pannekoek and Luxemburg recognised, it drew in workers at an accelerating pace, educating and training them for the struggle. It is a heterogeneous movement that arises from the working class and within which the revolutionary minorities play a dynamic role. Its very reality confirms the fundamental marxist position on the inter-relationship between consciousness and action.

The discussion on the role of the soviets or the workers councils led to clarification on the role of the unions, the relationship between the revolutionary organisation and the councils and the whole question of the transitional period from capitalism to communism.


North, 2/2/06


[1] Vol.1, Chapter X “The new power”.

[2] This article is part of a series: “The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism”.

[3] “The concept of the ‘brilliant leader’”, International Review n° 33.

[4] See “Theory and Practice” by Luxemburg, 1910. See

[5] Trotsky, Results and Prospects, Chapter 7, “The pre-requisites of socialism”.

[6] Op. Cit. Chapter VIII, “A workers government in Russia and Socialism”.

[7] Op.Cit. ChapterVI “The proletarian regime”.

[8] Op. Cit. Chapter IV “Revolution and the proletariat”.

[9] Vperoyd (Forward) was established by the Bolsheviks after the Mensheviks took control of Iskra (The Spark) following the Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1903.

[10] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution, Section 10 “’Revolutionary communes’ and the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

[11] In April 1905 the Bolsheviks called the Third Congress of the RSDLP. The Mensheviks refused to participate and held their own conference.

[12] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution, Section 4 “The abolition of the monarchy. The republic”.

[13] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, Report on the unity congress of the RSDLP, Section VIII “The congress summed up”.

[14] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 10, “The Social-Democratic election victory in Tiflis”, 1906.

[15]The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place” (Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution, Section 2 “What can we learn from the resolution of the Third Congress of the RSDLP on a provisional revolutionary government?”).

[16] Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 24, “Tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution” (The April Theses).

[17] The mass strike, Section IV “The interaction of the political and the economic struggle”.

[18] Luxemburg “The Revolution in Russia”. See

[19] The mass strike, Section VII “The role of the mass strike in the revolution”.

[20] Ibid.

[21] It was written while Luxemburg was in Finland following her release from jail in Poland, where she had participated in the revolutionary movement. Perhaps significantly, she spent much time in Finland with leading Bolsheviks, including Lenin.

[22] The mass strike, Section IV “The interaction of the political and the economic struggle”.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid.

[30] Op. Cit. Section I, “The Russian Revolution, Anarchism and the General Strike”. Our emphasis.

[31] See our book The Dutch and German Communist Left for a fuller discussion of this.

[32]Prussia in Revolt”, International Socialist Review, Vol X, No.11, May 1910.

[33]Marxist theory and revolutionary tactics”, Die Neue Zeit, XXXI, No.1, 1912.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Trotsky, 1905, Chapter 22 “Summing up”.

[37] From a contribution to History of the Soviet, quoted by Deutscher, The Prophet Armed,  Chapter VI, “Permanent Revolution”.

[38] Chapter III, “1789 – 1848 – 1905”.

[39] Collected Works, Vol.10, “Our tasks and the Soviet of Workers Deputies”

[40] The Unity Congress of the RSDLP was held in April 1906 and reunited the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks and was a consequence of the dynamic of the revolution

[41] Collected Works, Vol.10, “A tactical platform for the unity congress”.

[42] Ibid. There was no discussion of the soviets at the congress, which was dominated by the Mensheviks.

[43] Collected Works, Vol.24, “The tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution”.

[44] Collected Works, Vol.24, “The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution: The peculiar nature of the dual power and its class significance”.

[45] See our books on The Italian Communist Left 1926-45, The Dutch and German Communist Left, The Russian Communist Left and The British Communist Left.



History of the workers' movement: