In 1905, the Russian proletariat starred in the first great wave of strikes of the twentieth century. for the first time, in the midst of land occupations, union strikes and break of the military hierarchy, the Soviets emerged.
In October 1917 the Russian working class starred in the main event of the entire twentieth century – the first victorious socialist revolution in history. But it did not happen without learning what had happened 12 years before. Throughout 1905, a series of events led the working class and its allies – the peasants – to experience their government – a monarchic autocracy -, to sharpen the weapon of the general strike and to build their own power organizations, Soviets.
But the 1905 laboratory was not only practical. The workers’ parties had to apply their theoretical conceptions on the ground and learn to correct their mistakes with this “dress rehearsal.” The following are some of the experiences made by the workers and their parties on this important episode in Russia’s history.
On 9 January 1905, a Sunday, a vast, however peaceful and orderly crowd of around hundred thousand people, carrying portraits of the Czar Nicholas II and of Orthodox saints, joined in the square outside the Winter Palace, the residence of Czar in the capital, St. Petersburg.
The demonstration was led by the Assembly of Russian Factories and Mill Workers, following legal workers’ organizations that emerged a few years before with the government support to corrupt the proletariat with a systematic propaganda in favor of the monarchy, and funded by the police. Although of legalistic character, these associations were used by the workers to express their demands. The association was headed by a priest and former prison chaplain called George Gapon, upon whom fell the suspicion of being a police agent.
A strike was in progress, started on January 3 in the giant Putilov Steel Works in St. Petersburg. It was an economic strike for pay rise and eight-hour working day. One night the strike encompassed the entire Putilov and several other major industries of the city, reaching 140,000 workers on January 7. The march to press the Czar was proposed by the Liberals and embraced by the workers, including members of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), who played a major role.
The Social Democrats convinced the workers to put forward a number of demands, as amnesty, civil freedom, eight-hour working day, increase of wages and the progressive transfer of the land to the peasantry. But, above all, it was claimed the convocation of a Constituent Assembly, elected freely by universal suffrage and not based on property. The petition also called for the immediate end of the war with Japan and signed by 135,000 workers, collected the day before at the workers’ districts.
The petition reflected the consciousness of a newly coming working class from the countryside that still believed that the Czar was the great protector of his people, “the great father”. It began by saying “Sovereign! We, workers and inhabitants of the city of St. Petersburg, members of various sosloviia (estates of the realm), our wives, children, and helpless old parents, have come to you, Sovereign, to seek justice and protection,” and ended with the following warning: “These, sovereign, are our main needs, about which we have come to you…But if you do not give the order, if you do not respond to our prayer, then we shall die here, on this square, in front of your palace.”
Andthey died. The number of victims is uncertain. Some publications read 150-300 dead. Lenin quoted a survey conducted by journalists after the “Bloody Sunday” that reported 4,800 dead or injured. In a 1917 conference in Switzerland, Lenin mentioned more than 1,000 dead. The reason for this uncertainty is that, according to Trotsky, throughout the night the police collected the bodies and buried them in an unknown location. But probably, the figure surpassed the thousand, as the Cossack troops shot all day against the terrified workers.
When the news of the massacre spread, the whole nation was horrified. From one extreme to the other, a great wave of strikes shook the whole body of the nation, spreading over 122 cities and reaching approximately one million people. The miners of the Don Basin and railway workers in ten lines stopped working. Without a definite plan, often without making demands, guided only by instinct of solidarity, the general strike prevailed in the country for about two months. Sporadic fights appeared everywhere. The requirement of a constitution and a constitutional assembly grew stronger and more threatening. It was clear now that the revolution was inevitable.
The October strike and the constitutional manifesto
In October 1905, after the defeat of Russia in the war against Japan and the return of demoralized troops, strikes were back with full force, again with their center in St. Petersburg. This time, with a clear political content.
Its beginning was unexpected. The Minister of Education decreed freedom of speech and assembly within colleges, and the repressed workers in the streets found refuge inside the university walls. The workers began to gather free from the scourge, and classes have become a theater of public meetings at which thousands of workers discussed political problems openly and freely. The revolutionary ferment returned to the streets: it began with a printers strike and exploded with strikes of railway workers. The railroads became the route to spread the epidemic that would include innumerable branches of production. Nothing was left apart. The strikes closed industrial facilities, pharmacies, shops and courts, everything.
In just one month, the strike reached 500,000 factory workers. To this figure it must be add up to 750,000 rail workers. Because of the railway strike, the postal system was forced to deny almost entirely long-distance correspondence. Not only all Russian and Polish railways stopped, but also the Siberian lines, Transcaucasian and of Vladikavkaz. And at a breakneck speed.
The railway strikes began on October 7 and reached the main regions of the country within five days. The general political strike was declared in a city after another. According to Trotsky, 43 major cities went on strike between October 10 and 17. The main watchwords were the eight-hour working day, amnesty, the withdrawal of troops from the streets and the Constituent Assembly.
For the autocracy, it was better lose the saddle than the horse: It granted a constitution on October 17, the promise of the Duma election with considerable suffrage expansion and with legislative character, and democratic freedoms. It was the first major victory of the revolutionary movement.
The creation of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies
A few days earlier, on October 13, it was created the first Soviet of Workers’ Deputies in St. Petersburg. With the participation of 34 delegates in a meeting at the Technological Institute, it was decided to summon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates.
The first Soviet lasted 50 days and was meant to organize hundreds of thousands of workers on strike and, at the same time, join them with the vanguard of Social Democrats and Socialist Revolutionaries. For this, a non-partisan organization was essential.
In a few days, the Soviet’s authority became indisputable and began to take care of all aspects of the uprising. Since food distribution and printing of newspapers to the requisition and distribution of weapons. The final composition of the Soviet had 562 delegates, representing nearly 250,000 workers. The Executive Committee was composed of 31 people: 22 workers’ deputies and nine representatives of the left parties (six from the two Social Democrats factions and three from the Socialist Revolutionaries). Its vocation was, from the outset, to express the organized working class’ will and the struggle for revolutionary power.
The Soviet newspaper Izvestia Sovieta Rabochij Deputatov (Soviet of Workers’ Deputies News), appeared on October 17 and was printed in print shops required by armed detachments of printer workers, inaugurating the legal workers’ press. The revolutionary parties also enjoyed the freedom of press conquered by the workers. In St. Petersburg, two social democratic daily newspapers were published, with a circulation of 50,000 issues.
From October to November
After the first impact of the constitutional Czar’s manifesto, the Soviet of St. Petersburg declared:
“And so we have been given a constitution. We have been given freedom of assembly, but our assemblies are encircled by troops. We have been given freedom of speech, but censorship remains inviolate. We have been given freedom of study, but the universities are occupied by troops. We have been given personal immunity, but the prisons are filled to overflowing with prisoners. We have been given Witte, but we still have Trepov. We have been given a constitution, but the autocracy remains. Everything has been given, and nothing has been given.”
The Soviet resolved: the general strike continues. It retrocedes at the end of the month, but again takes shape in November with the arrival on the scene of military uprisings, especially the sailors – whose emblematic event is the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin, and peasant uprisings against their lords, which affected more than a third of districts. The peasants set fire to more than two thousand houses and shared the supplies that the nobility had robbed from the people. The flames lit the night sky. In the morning, long lines of carriages fleeing from the farms with landlords in panic could be seen. It was estimated that landowners lose around 29 million rubles in the ten most affected provinces.
In the cities, the battle cry was “eight-hour working day and weapons,” while among the oppressed peoples of Russia a national liberation movement burst. The outbreak of the November strike was the Zar declaration of martial law against an uprising of Kronstadt sailors – with the threat of death penalty to the rebels – and against Poland, which at the time was under Russian rule.
Martial law is abolished, but the counter-revolution reacts. Against the eight-hour working day, the capitalists promoted the lockout at their plants, and the government began the pogroms, taking revenge mainly on Jews. They killed more than 4,000 Jews and 10,000 were maimed. The liberal bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, who earlier this year had supported the workers’ movement in their economic demands and the struggle for the Constitution, receded with the enactment of the constitutional manifesto, and especially by the fear that workers’ achievements could move ahead to their own properties.
But the revolution was still in its flow tide. New forces joined the working class. In the cities, there were meetings of janitors, doormen, cooks, public servants, housekeepers and valets. The participation of the police was common and even of politically conscious Cossacks. The spirit of subversion dominated the barracks and, as from December 2, uprisings began to burst in Moscow garrisons. The hour of decision is approaching. On December 3 the executive committee of the St. Petersburg Soviet decides to prepare a political general strike that, backed on the peasant war and the troops uprisings, could take to definitive solution.
The autocracy, this time, didn’t temporized. It sent its troops to the building where the Soviet was meeting and arrested the executive committee members. The center of the revolution moved to Moscow and finds its culmination in this city.
The final battle and the defeat
The strike started in Moscow on December 7 with a hundred thousand striking workers. On the second day, it increased to a hundred and fifty thousand. It was not uncommon to see soldiers and officers speaking at the rallies. On December 4, it was formed a Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies within the army. The strike stopped the city and factories of the region. On the third day, the first violent clashes with the army started. Workers’ armed detachments, the druzhinnikis, come into play. Their tactic was the urban guerrilla. They attacked the loyal troops and disappeared among the population. These attacks helped to demoralize the soldiers, who were fighting an invisible enemy. Many refused to fight and several cases of suicides among officers were reported later.
In a lecture to Swizz workers youth, Lenin said 12 years later: “For nine days a small number of rebels, of organised and armed workers—there were not more than eight thousand—fought against the tsar’s government, which dared not trust the Moscow garrison. In fact, it had to keep it locked up, and was able to quell the rebellion only by bringing in the Semenovsky Regiment from St. Petersburg.”
The Moscow Soviet decides to end the general strike on December 18. The revolution goes to an end. In those days, 454 people were buried, but it is estimated that the death toll in Moscow has reached approximately 1,000. But the Czar was not content with these figures and his revenge went further. According to Trotsky, “Latvian workers and peasants were shot, hanged, flogged to death with rods and stocks, made to run the gauntlet, executed to the strains of the Tsarist anthem,” after the surrender. According to approximate figures, from January 9, 1905 to March 23, 1906 over 14,000 people were killed, among whom more than 1,000 were executed, with more than 20,000 wounded and 70,000 people exiled or incarcerated.
The reasons for the defeat
The reasons for the defeat were analyzed by Lenin and Trotsky: the lack of a revolutionary party with implantation in the working class, the immaturity of the peasantry and the weak alliance between the two classes.
The RSDLP of St. Petersburg, split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, had only a few hundreds of worker members, who influenced some thousands of workers, “but they failed to create a living organizing link with the masses,” given their obligatory underground action.
For Trotsky, the weakness of the Soviet was “the weakness of a purely urban revolution,” it was the lack of a working class-peasantry alliance that led ultimately to the defeat of the December insurrection by the “bayonets of the peasant army.”
According to Lenin, “The workers and peasants in military uniform were the soul of the mutinies. (…) for the first time in Russia’s history involved the majority of the exploited. But what it lacked was, on the one hand, persistence and determination among the masses (…) and, on the other, organisation of revolutionary Social-Democratic workers in military uniform—they lacked the ability to take the leadership into their own hands, march at the head of the revolutionary army and launch an offensive against the government.”
History would be different in 1917.
CARR, EH The Bolshevik Revolution 1917-1923.v. 1, Pelikan Books, 1977.
Lenin, VI Lecture on 1905. (1917). www.marxists.org
TROTSKY, L. 1905. (1907). www.marxists.org.
TROTSKY, L. My Life. (1930). www.marxists.org
1905 Revolution. www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/RUS1905.htm