The road to 1917

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St Petersburg Soviet Assembly
The Petrograd Soviet Assembly meeting in 1917. Source: Wikimedia

The revolutionary events of 1905 profoundly affected the revolutionary parties themselves, argues Sean Ledwith

On the 9th January 1905, a huge demonstration of 200,000 Russian workers and their families approached the Winter Palace, the Tsar’s residence in St Petersburg.

Their demands were far from revolutionary: a reduction of the working day, improved health and sanitary conditions, regular elections, the end of censorship and other similar measures taken for granted in the rest of Europe.

Even these mild proposals, however, proved to be unacceptable to the sclerotic tyranny that had evolved under Nicholas II and his predecessors. As it happened, the tsar was not in the palace that day but troops acting on his orders opened fire on the demonstrators.

The massacre that followed would be known as Bloody Sunday, cost was an estimated 1,000 lives and set Russia on an historical trajectory that would climax twelve years later with the foundation of the world’s first workers state.

War and Social Upheaval

Most observers in the year of Bloody Sunday would have been sceptical that the country would become the storm centre of revolution in the early twentieth century.

Since the era of the French Revolution, tsarist Russia had established a reputation as the most reactionary power in Europe; a quasi-medieval autocracy that could be relied on to quash progressive movements within its own borders and beyond. The vast majority of the population were illiterate and God-fearing peasants who had been delivered from serfdom in 1861, but remained yoked to oppressive landlords by exorbitant rents, tiny plots of land and crippling debts.

The cobweb-ridden superstructure of the tsarist state, however, belied an industrial economy that was going into overdrive in an attempt to keep up with the expanding capitalist powers of Britain, Germany, the US and others. Unlike these states, Russia lacked a cohesive bourgeoisie that could drive the process of urbanisation and factory production. Consequently, the country’s industrialisation at the turn of the twentieth century was accelerating at an impressive pace but was largely financed by foreign industrialists and bankers.

Many of the demonstrators who had assembled in supplication outside the Winter Palace in 1905 were workers from the giant Putilov engineering works in St Petersburg, at that point the biggest factory in the world. Russia’s failure to compete with the most dynamic of her rivals had been exposed by humiliating defeats at the hands of the Japanese navy in the year before Bloody Sunday.

The slaughter outside the Winter Palace triggered a year of revolution in Russia that witnessed the country’s working class makes political strides that matched the acceleration taking place in the economy. An outbreak of strikes immediately swept the country in the wake of Bloody Sunday, forcing Nicholas to concede a parliamentary forum, known as the Duma, permitting limited discussion of reforms.

The following summer, a naval mutiny took place in Odessa that would later be immortalised in Eisenstein’s film ‘Battleship Potemkin’. Above all, October 1905 saw the creation of the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, the most important leap forward in proletarian organisation since the Paris Commune of 1871.

The workers of the city paralysed the local economy with a giant general strike and then proceeded to autonomously organise the distribution of food and power via a network of workers’ councils.

Coordinating their activities in the form of the Soviet, these councils rapidly developed a political dimension, calling for demonstrations against racist pogroms and the release of the naval mutineers. The soviets were militarily suppressed by the tsar’s forces in December but the qualitative jump that had been made in terms of class consciousness would not be forgotten by Russian workers.

The Revolutionary Parties in 1905

Remarkably, the President of the Soviet was a 26 year old Ukrainian Jew named Leon Trotsky. After a failed insurrection in Moscow to defend the gains of the revolution, Trotsky was imprisoned along with thousands of his comrades.

Other revolutionaries who escaped the tsarist dragnet were forced to flee the country or to return to the perilous work of underground activism. Most prominent of these was Lenin, who had emerged as the leader of the Bolshevik faction of Russian social democracy-as the left was known at the time-a few years before the 1905 revolution.

Lenin differentiated his followers from the alternative Menshevik faction on two crucial questions. Firstly, whether a party member should be admitted on the grounds of broad support for political goals, as recommended by the Mensheviks; or whether a tighter criterion of willingness to work under direct party supervision was required, as outlined by Lenin.

To some observers, the distinction appeared trivial but Lenin perceived how it was organically linked to the second debate. Was Russia heading towards a bourgeois revolution along the lines of the one undergone by France in 1789? If so, the key to success was for the left to provide political support for the Russian bourgeoisie in its quest to liberalise the state in the face of tsarist autocracy. This was the thinking of the Mensheviks.

In contrast, Lenin and his colleagues understand such a revolution was impossible in Russia due to the under-development of the Russian capitalist class. The latter was politically inhibited by dependence on foreign capital and their growing fear of the country’s swelling working class.

Due to these factors, Russia’s bourgeoisie was tied to the apparatus of the tsarist state and was incapable of delivering a revolutionary blow. That task, Lenin concluded, could only be carried out by an alliance of the country’s workers and peasants. He further argued the aftermath of 1905 provided confirmation of the political weakness of Russia’s home-grown capitalist class.

The Cadet Party emerged as the voice of the bourgeoisie in the Duma but it was silent on the brutal suppression of lingering dissent in the cities and countryside that carried on for two years after Bloody Sunday.

For the next decade, the Mensheviks argued for an electoral deal with the Cadets, while Lenin and the Bolsheviks organised for an independent workers’ party that could spearhead a revolution from the factories in alliance with the peasantry.

Results and Prospects

The revolutionary wave of 1905 ebbed partly because the tsarist army was unaffected by the revolutionary contagion. That all changed in 1914. Once more, the backwardness of the Russian state was exposed by military defeat at the hands of a superior capitalist rival.

Colossal casualties inflicted by the German army plunged the tsarist state back into crisis in the early years of World War One. The split between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks had been formalised by this point and the ranks of the former began to swell with disillusioned soldiers returning from the front and workers looking for a solution to shortages in the cities.

The Mensheviks were hamstrung by their desire to maintain an alliance with a bourgeoisie that was growing rich thanks to burgeoning armaments production. Lenin’s democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants appeared to be on the agenda.

As 1917 dawned, however, the former President of the St Petersburg Soviet would need to persuade Lenin of one more crucial element for a successful revolutionary strategy. Trotsky argued that a workers and peasants’ uprising that limited itself to completing the goals of bourgeois revolution was not sustainable.

Russia’s integration to the global capitalist economy meant that the productive basis now existed in the country for an immediate transition to socialism. Similarly, the formation of transnational military alliances on the eve of WW1 meant that if the workers could seize power in a major state like Russia, it would trigger a chain-reaction of supportive uprisings. This was the theory of permanent revolution.

Further reading: Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects (1906).

Sean Ledwith