Neil Faulkner looks at how the Russian Revolution of 1905 helped Leon Trotsky formulate an answer to the century-old riddle of Russian history: what form must the revolution take in order to be victorious.
On 9 January 1905, a huge demonstration of perhaps 200,000 converged on the Winter Palace of the Russian Tsar in St Petersburg. Led by a priest, the workers came wearing their Sunday best, with families in tow, singing hymns, and carrying portraits of the Tsar. They had come to petition their ‘Little Father’ for redress of grievances.
A black thronging mass standing in the snow in front of the palace. Suddenly, a charge of Cossacks into the crowd, hacking at men, women, and children. Then, rolling volleys from Guardsmen as terrified people fled through the surrounding streets. Probably more than a thousand died. Bloody Sunday.
The following day, 125,000 St Petersburg workers were on strike in protest at the massacre. The Russian Revolution of 1905 had begun.
From that moment, it ebbed and flowed, a gigantic movement of mass strikes and demonstrations, of peasant insurrections, and of military mutinies.
It reached its climax that autumn, following catastrophic defeats in the Far East, where Tsarism was fighting an imperialist war against Japan for control of Korea and Manchuria.
For 50 days, from mid October to early December, the Tsarist capital was virtually ruled by the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, a democratic mass assembly representing some 200,000 workers.
The Tsarist police state was hammered by a mass strike in St Petersburg in October, another in November, and then armed insurrection in Moscow in early December.
But the movement could not break through, and the workers eventually fell back exhausted.
The regime counter-attacked. 3,500 people were killed in anti-semitic pogroms organised by the secret police and carried out by state-backed paramilitary thugs known as ‘Black Hundreds’. The St Petersburg Soviet was suppressed and its leaders arrested. The working-class suburbs of Moscow were shelled and prisoners shot down in cold blood.
Thereafter, much diminished and widely scattered, little groups of revolutionary exiles debated what had gone wrong. The one who grasped it best – the inner dynamic of Russia’s revolutionary turbulence – was the man who more than any other embodied its living spirit: the 25-year-old Jewish intellectual Leon Trotsky, the effective leader of the short-lived St Petersburg Soviet.
Trotsky’s ‘theory of permanent revolution’ – subsequently proved correct by the events of 1917 – solved the century-old riddle of Russian history: what form must the revolution take in order to be victorious.
For a century, Russia’s radical intellectuals had fought Tsarism – the dictatorship of a medieval autocrat – almost entirely alone, endlessly discussing their predicament, forever seeking, yet failing to find, a way to the masses. The intellectuals set themselves up as ‘the voice of the people’ – but their voice was but a disembodied echo.
The Narodnik vision was of a peasant revolution to overthrow the Tsar, the landlords, and the priests, and of a post-revolutionary utopia based on villages, free farms, and local production.
Some Narodniks ‘went to the people’, travelling to the countryside and agitating in the villages for revolution. Others believed in ‘the propaganda of the deed’, hoping to jump-start the revolution with demonstrative acts of terrorism like high-profile assassinations.
The Narodnik intelligentsia attempted to bring down Tsarism with a proclamation and a bomb. All they achieved was to conjure a police state that destroyed them. The peasant masses they wished to rouse remained in political slumber.
Peasant life was shaped by agricultural routine and social isolation. The limit of a peasant’s ambition was to free his land of burdens and become a prosperous independent farmer.
The Russian peasants were, as Marx had once described those of France, ‘a sack of potatoes’: not a collective per se, but a mass of individuals bound together as a class by the actuality or the hope of petty proprietorship.
Peasant revolt was an essential condition of successful revolution. Without it, the army, formed overwhelmingly of peasant-conscripts, would remain loyal and shoot down the revolutionaries.
But it was not a sufficient condition, for the peasants, an amalgam of dispersed petty-proprietors, could not create their own revolutionary party and leadership. They had to be led from the outside – from the towns.
But which urban class would provide leadership? The intellectuals lacked social weight. It must be either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat.
Almost all Social Democrats – as socialists were known in Russia at the time – believed that Russia’s backwardness meant that only a bourgeois revolution was possible. They rejected the Narodnik idea that the existing peasant village could simply be transformed into an agricultural commune as a utopian fantasy.
The Mensheviks (meaning ‘minority’, since they had been such when the Russian Social Democrats split at a conference in London in 1903) argued that the liberal bourgeoisie would spearhead the struggle, and that it was therefore the job of Social Democrats to support them, while avoiding any ‘excesses’ or ‘extremism’ that might fracture the class alliance.
The Bolsheviks (the ‘majority’), on the other hand, insisted that the Russian bourgeoisie was too small and weak, too dependent on Tsarism and foreign capital, and, as a class of big property-owners, too terrified by the prospect of revolutionary upheaval to provide the necessary leadership.
Consequently, the revolution, albeit necessarily ‘bourgeois’ in its immediate historical outcome, would have to be led by the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry.
Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, was proved right about the timidity of the bourgeoisie. In 1905, at the first whiff of cordite, the liberals had run for cover. The workers had been left to fight alone.
But Trotsky saw deeper still into the events of 1905: only the proletariat had the potential to lead the revolution; only mass strikes and insurrectionary demonstrations in the cities could detonate peasant revolt; and only then would the army mutiny and the state disintegrate.
But then, to complete and consolidate the victory of democracy – to prevent the forces of reaction regrouping to crush the revolution – the proletariat would have to establish a workers’ state. And any such state, being class-based, could not be other than an organ of proletarian interests – supporting workers’ control of the factories, peasant seizures of land, and the dispossession of the rich.
Anything less, argued Trotsky, would compromise the victory, leaving property and power in the hands of class enemies, and undermining the determination of the workers and peasants to defend the revolution.
Thus, against Lenin’s formulation of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ to carry through a ‘bourgeois revolution’, Trotsky counter-posed ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ and a ‘permanent revolution’ in which the democratisation of Russia would unleash a struggle for world socialist revolution.
This was an extraordinary claim. Russia was the most backward of the major European states. Towns were few and communications poor over the vast spaces of the Russian land-mass. Most of the 150 million people were peasants, and most of these were impoverished by poor soils, harsh climate, and primitive techniques.
Around 25 million were wage-labourers and their families, but most of these lived in the villages. The true urban proletariat comprised about 3.5 million workers employed in factories and mines. Only about 2 million of these were in plants large enough to qualify for government inspection.
But this small proletariat was highly concentrated and strategically located at the heart of Tsarist economic and political power.
Rapid, state-sponsored industrialisation had forged this class in the space of a generation. In an age of railways, howitzers, and machine-guns, Russia, to remain a great power, had to have the coalmines, steelworks, and engineering plants to produce them. This geopolitical imperative had triggered state action to create modern industry.
Government investment, funded by high taxes and foreign loans, and sheltered by protective tariffs, had sustained a record-breaking annual growth rate of 8% a year. And the new industries created were of the most advanced kind.
Giant enterprises of 1,000 or more employed 18% of workers in the US but no less than 41% in Russia. Two-thirds of the Russian proletariat was concentrated in just three regions: St Petersburg, Moscow, and the Ukraine.
Tsarism had conjured its own gravediggers. In 1905, they failed to bury the beast; 1917 would be different.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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