R. Page Arnot

A Short History of the Russian Revolution

from 1905 to the present day (1937)

Part I
from 1905 to February 1917

Chapter IV

Years of Reaction

1. “Stolypin’s Necktie”

TSARISM WAS VICTORIOUS. From 1907 onwards, an era of repression set in. Not at any time during the Tsardom had there been such savage and violent terror. The “Black Hundreds”—corps of what would now be described as “Black and Tans”—were organised and let loose on the unhappy peoples of Russia. Regular punitive expeditions were dispatched to several parts of the country. Whole villages were massacred. All that was lacking was bombing aeroplanes. Pogroms were stirred up against the Jewish population. Siberia was the lightest fate that befell the revolutionaries, many of whom found that their struggle for a democratic republic had served to fasten “Stolypin’s Necktie” round their throats.

Under this “strong rule” of Stolypin, the Tsar’s Prime Minister, the Government of Russia plunged deeper and deeper into repression and relied more and more on secret police and agents provocateurs. The opposition and revolutionary parties were honeycombed with Tsarist spies: countermining inside the armed forces was carried on by the Socialists. This, of course, was not unique; for Governments of other countries have done and are doing the same thing. What was remarkable was the extent to which these Tsarist practices were revealed after the revolution—and in some instances before. Particularly shocking for a Western world which had forgotten the story of Sergeant Sullivan in Ireland was the case of Azeff. Azeff was an agent provocateur in the ranks of the terrorist section of the Social-Revolutionaries. He betrayed hundreds to the gallows and to Siberia. At the same time, to avoid the suspicion that might arise out of his own freedom from arrest, he participated actively in terrorist attempts, and in this way betrayed also his own masters to their death. It was Azeff who organised the assassination of Plehve, the Minister at the head of the police, and of the Grand Duke Sergius, uncle of the Tsar. In the conditions of the Russian Revolution, such an abyss of double-crossing treachery was found to be possible.

But the Tsardom, though victorious, had been compelled to move further and further away from the pre-capitalist mode of life in Russia. More and more rapid became the development along bourgeois lines, to which the parties of the bourgeoisie responded by making their opposition ever milder and more “constitutional.” The old feudal autocracy was becoming transformed into a bourgeois monarchy which camouflaged its absolutism under “constitutional” forms. The Third Duma, elected under an astonishingly reactionary electoral law, was the outward sign of an alliance between the upper ranks of the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie and the Black Hundred landlords and Tsarism. The autocracy had been forced along the path of capitalist development; but at the same time strove to keep up the power and the incomes of the landlords; and was therefore balancing between the landlords and the representatives of capital. But all were at one in their attack upon the Social-Democratic proletariat and the Democratic peasantry. This was clear, for example, in the agrarian policy of Tsardom. The “positive” side of Stolypin’s measures was his new land law, by which the old land tenures were broken down, capitalist farming fostered, and the creation of the kulaks within the village stimulated in order to make of them a social support for Tsardom. With this the illusions that had persisted up to 1905 were shattered, the issues of class struggle became clearer and sharper, and were seen inside every village.

2. Lessons of Defeat

Thought shall be harder,
Heart the keener,
Mood shall be more
As our might lessens.
    Song of the Fight at Maldon.

All the opposition and revolutionary parties had been defeated. The result, said Lenin, was “depression, demoralisation, splits, discord, renegacy, and pornography instead of politics.” What were the main parties? First, the Cadets, the party of the Liberal capitalists, headed by Paul Miliukoff, with the Octobrists, another capitalist party, on the right of them. Second, there were the variously named descendants of the Narodniks, of which the best known were the Social Revolutionaries (called the S.R.s, or the Essers). Although the S.R.s, founded in 1901, were an affiliated party of the International Socialist Congress, it had been established by Lenin years earlier that they were Socialist only in name, and that they really represented the democratic standpoint of the peasantry and the petty-bourgeoisie generally. This use of the name “Socialist” should surprise no one who recalls that various capitalist parties in France have found it expedient to include the word “Socialist” as part of their official designation. Thirdly, there was the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, which emerged from the years of revolution in two main fractions (Bolshevik and Menshevik) and in three national groupings, the Polish and Lithuanian Social-Democracy, the Lettish Social-Democratic Party, and the Jewish Party (usually referred to as the Bund). In the years of revolution the party had been able to come out into the open, and for a time had been united. Lenin was able in 1905 to return to Russia and to meet some of the leading fighters of the party in the course of the daily work and in conferences and congresses. It was at one of these conferences, held in Finland in 1905, that a young Georgian Bolshevik who had been in correspondence with Lenin first met him. Twenty years later he described how unexpectedly modest, comradely, unassuming, and simple he had found the personality of Lenin. His account of how he first got into touch with Lenin is also interesting. He says:

“I first made the acquaintance of Lenin in 1903. It is true that this was not a personal acquaintance. It was an acquaintance established by correspondence. But this made an ineradicable impression upon me which has never left me all the time I have been working for the party. At that time I was in exile in Siberia. My introduction to the revolutionary activity of Lenin at the end of the nineties, and especially after 1901 after the publication of Iskra, convinced me that Lenin was a man out of the ordinary. At that time I did not regard him merely as a leader of the party but as practically its creator, because he alone understood the internal substance and the urgent needs of the party. Whenever I compared him with the other leaders of our party it always seemed to me that Lenin’s comrades-in-arms—Plekhanov, Martov, Axelrod, and others—were a head shorter than Lenin, that compared with them Lenin was not merely one of the leaders but a leader of a superior type, a mountain eagle, who knew no fear in the struggle and who boldly led the party forward along the unexplored paths of the Russian revolutionary movement. This impression was so deeply ingrained in my mind that I felt that I must write about him to one of my intimate friends who was then in exile abroad, and to ask him to give me his opinion of Lenin. After a short time, when I was already in exile in Siberia (this was at the end of 1903), I received an enthusiastic letter from my friend and a simple but very profound letter from Lenin, to whom it appears my friend had communicated my letter. Lenin’s letter was a relatively short one, but it contained a bold, fearless criticism of the practical work of our party and a remarkably clear and concise outline of a whole plan of work of the party for the immediate period. Lenin alone was able to write about the most complicated things so simply and clearly, so concisely and boldly—so that every sentence seems not to speak, but to ring out like a shot. The simple and bold letter still more strengthened me in my opinion that in Lenin we had the mountain eagle of our party. I cannot forgive myself for having burnt Lenin’s letter as I did many others, as is the habit of an old underground worker.

“From that time my acquaintance with Lenin began.”

This young Georgian Bolshevik was Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvilli, now most widely known under his name of Stalin, who had already suffered imprisonment more than once. He was to work in the closest conjunction with Lenin until his death, and thereafter to carry on the work of Lenin.

In April 1906 a united Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was held at Stockholm.1 In the illusions of constitutional progress that were then widespread in Russia the Congress tended towards a line of least resistance and the Mensheviks turned out to be in a majority. A year later the illusions were falling away, the difficulties were beginning to be appreciated. The Fifth Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, held in London in 1907, found the Bolsheviks once more in the majority. From this time onward for ten years there was no congress of the party. During this period there were meetings of the Central Committee and Conferences gathered together and organised under the most difficult circumstances, involving the heaviest casualties. On the one hand there were the repeated arrests and imprisonment or banishment to Siberia. For example, J. V. Stalin, in the short period between 1900 and 1914, was eight times sentenced to lengthy imprisonment and exile—from which he six times escaped. But there were casualties of another sort—those who, demoralised by the difficulties, put forward false policies for the working class and developed into enemies of the party from within. Against these Lenin and the Bolsheviks carried out an unremitting struggle.

On the one side the “liquidators,” mostly Mensheviks, adopted an open anti-party attitude. They would have nothing to do with a revolutionary and illegal party, still less with “underground” revolutionary activities. They wanted to restrict working-class activities solely to what was legally permissible under Stolypin—i.e. to hoist the white flag and make peace with Stolypin. Against the Menshevik “liquidators” the Bolsheviks strove to maintain the revolutionary party, with its revolutionary slogans of democratic republic, confiscation of the landlords’ estates, and the eight-hour day. How far the “liquidators” were ready to go in their abandonment of the fundamental programme and tactical principles of the party may be judged from the standpoint of Noah Jordania, leader of the Caucasian Mensheviks. He advocated a “union of the forces of the bourgeoisie and of the proletariat,” and demanded that the proletariat should not “allow its uncompromising spirit to enfeeble the general movement.” He was against the principle of the hegemony of the proletariat, writing: “The thesis regarding the leading rôle of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution is borne out neither by the theories of Marx nor by the historical facts.” And again he wrote: “The less intense the class war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, the more victorious will be the bourgeois revolution, provided, of course, that other conditions are equal.” On this, Stalin, writing in June 1910, made the following comment:

“The principle, borne out by the whole experience of our revolution, namely, that the triumph of the revolution is based on the class struggle of the proletariat, leading the poor peasants against the landlords and the liberal bourgeoisie-this principle has remained for our author a book with seven seals. It is in ‘the union of the forces of the proletariat with the forces of the bourgeoisie’ that Comrade Jordania sees ‘the only pledge of the triumph of the revolution.’ The moderate Cadet bourgeoisie and its moderate Monarchist constitution are what will save our revolution, it appears. . . . In a word, in place of the leadership of the proletariat with the following of the peasants, we have the leadership of the Cadet bourgeoisie, leading the proletariat by the nose. Such are the ‘new’ tactics of the Tiflis Mensheviks. It is not, in our opinion, necessary to expose this puerile liberal trash in detail. All that is required is to note that the ‘new’ tactics of the Tiflis Mensheviks amount to a liquidation of the tactics of the party which have been corroborated by the revolution, a liquidation demanding the transformation of the proletariat into the tail-end of the moderate Cadet bourgeoisie.”

On the other side were the “Leftists” of several varieties, notably the Otzovists who wished to recall the Duma deputies, to boycott the Duma, and not to have anything to do with any form of legal activity. These “Leftists,” types of the revolutionaries of the “frenzied petty-bourgeoisie,” were incapable of understanding the changes that had taken place in the relation of class forces and in the conditions of their struggle, and were therefore incapable of making the requisite change in tactics. The Bolsheviks ruthlessly exposed and expelled these revolutionary phrase-mongers who refused to understand the necessity of retreat, or how to retreat, or how to carry on work in the most reactionary parliaments, insurance societies, trade unions, etc.

The Bolsheviks retreated in good order with the least loss, the least demoralisation, and in the best condition to renew work on the broadest scale and to make ready for the time of a revolutionary offensive. The Mensheviks retreated into the Slough of Despond, amid the marsh frogs of liberal reformism. The Otzovists simply refused to retreat because they did not understand the necessity for it: and in this way these and other “Leftists” became a great hindrance to the preparations for a new offensive.

It was from amongst the Otzovists and their associates that there developed at this time a philosophic tendency away from Marxism and towards idealism, a tendency dubbed by Lenin “God-creating.” Against this “God-creating” as put forward by Bogdanov and Lunacharsky, Lenin strove with might and main. He himself undertook the gigantic task of generalising all the most important achievements of science from the time of Engels onwards, while criticising most comprehensively the anti-materialist trends amongst the Marxists. This is the subject matter of his Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, his chief work in the domain of materialist philosophy.

The third enemy during these years was Trotsky, who, without avowing himself either a “liquidator” or a “Leftist,” took up the cudgels indifferently on behalf of one or other against Lenin and the Bolsheviks, an attitude which was met by Lenin with attack after attack. For Lenin, Trotsky was an “intolerable phrasemonger,” a representative of “the worst remnants of factionalism,” one who was “deceiving the workers in a most unprincipled and shameless manner.” As late as 1914, Lenin, who had contemptuously characterised Trotsky in all the years of his activity as a “habitual deserter,” was writing of these “deserters” that they “declare themselves to be above factions for the simple reason that they ‘borrow’ ideas from one faction one day and from another faction another day. Trotsky was an ardent Iskra-ist in 1901-3, and Ryazanov described the part he played at the Congress of 1903 as that of ‘Lenin’s truncheon.’ At the end of 1903 Trotsky was an ardent Menshevik, i.e. one who deserted the Iskra-ists for the Economists. . . . In 1904-5 he left the Mensheviks and began to vacillate, at one moment collaborating with Martynov (the Economist) and at another proclaiming the absurdly ‘Left’ theory of ‘permanent revolution.”2 In 1906-7 he drew nearer to the Bolsheviks, and in the spring of 1907 he declared his solidarity with Rosa Luxemburg. During the period of disintegration, after long ‘non-factional’ vacillations, he again shifted to the Right, and in August 1912 entered into a bloc with the ‘liquidators.’ Now he is again abandoning them, repeating, however, what in essence are their pet ideas. . . . Trotsky has never yet held a firm opinion of any serious question relating to Marxism; he always manages to ‘creep into the chinks’ of this or that difference of opinion and desert one side for the other. At this moment he is in the company of the Bundists and the ‘liquidators’” (Lenin, Vol. IV, Selected Works, pp. 207 and 286).

There is a romantic and at the same time philistine outlook which thinks of the Russian Revolution only in terms of its highlights and would ignore the bitter struggles of the period of reaction and of the years that followed up to 1917. In the difficult conditions of these years, the Bolsheviks alone remained true to the party, to the working class, and to the programme of the revolution which had been worked out in the years up to 1903 and later. It was precisely in those years of reaction that the Bolshevik Party was remade, until it became the instrument that could lead the revolution. It was the reforging of the sword. These were years of the furnace and the anvil until the weapon was fully tempered and true.

3. Years of Revival

In January 1912, at Prague, there was held a conference of the party at which the Central Committee was re-established, the “liquidators” finally expelled, and new guidance given to the party. The Conference resolution showed that the Tsarist land policy had not relieved peasant conditions, but had seriously worsened them. “Russification” of the subject nationalities, especially of the more cultured Poles and Finns, was being pushed forward, the economic boom was being largely nullified in its effects by the huge taxes and by the corruption of the bureaucratic machine, while the rising cost of living increased the misery of the mass of the population. Because of this the mass of the people had begun to see through the Duma and the main Duma parties. The result was the beginning of a political revival, shown in strikes of workers and also of students. The Conference concluded that the task of the democratic revolution in Russia was still the winning of power by the proletariat, leading the peasantry. It is of interest to quote the operative clauses of the resolution of this Conference, which marked the final break with the Mensheviks.

“1. Prolonged work of Socialist training, organisation, and consolidation of the advanced masses of the proletariat, is, as heretofore, first and foremost on the order of the day.

“2. Intensified work must be carried on to restore the underground organisation of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party which, more extensively than heretofore, takes advantage of all legal possibilities, which is capable of leading the economic struggle of the proletariat, and is the only party capable of leading its ever-increasing political activities.

“3. It is necessary to organise and expand systematic political agitation, to give all possible support to the incipient mass movement, and to secure its expansion under the banner of the full, uncurtailed slogans of the party. The republican propaganda against the policy of the Tsarist monarchy must be specially pushed forward also to counterbalance the widespread propaganda for curtailing the slogans and for confining the work to the limits of existing ‘legality.’”

The Conference decided to create a daily workers’ paper. On April 22nd, 1912, there appeared for the first time the Pravda, which in 1937 held its twenty-fifth anniversary. On the first editorial board were Stalin and Molotov. Lenin contributed regularly from where he was living in Austrian Poland. The feature of the new revolutionary daily was the way in which it was sustained by collections in the workshops. No matter under what sweated conditions, the Russian factory workers gladly gave their kopeks for the Pravda.

Between 1912 and 1914, the result of the Prague Conference showed itself in the local trade unions (national trade unions were forbidden by Tsarist law) and friendly societies: all unions, with the exception of the printers, had become Bolshevik.

The revival of the movement inside Russia which had begun with the street demonstrations of students and workers on the death of Leo Tolstoi at the end of 1910, and developed very slowly at first, had become more marked in the spring of 1912. A strike broke out in the Lena goldfields against the terrible conditions prevailing amongst the goldminers in that frozen territory, thousands of miles east of St. Petersburg. The strike was peaceful, but the Government instructed the police to end the strike. The strike committee was arrested. The workers decided to petition for the release of the strike committee, and marched in procession to the local prosecutor for this purpose. They were met on the way by a company of troops under the command of Police Captain Treshchenko. Without warning, the troops opened fire on the unarmed workers, killing two hundred and seventy and wounding two hundred and fifty. The news of this shooting (on April 17th, 1912) roused the workers throughout Russia. There were protest strikes in all the chief towns, and, on the first of May, gigantic demonstrations.

That year nearly three-quarters of a million workers came out on strike. There were mutinies of the troops in Turkestan and attempted mutinies in the Baltic Fleet and the Black Sea Fleet. The mass meetings, strikes, and demonstrations were held under the revolutionary slogans of the Bolsheviks. It was the definite revival of the revolutionary movement.

It was, at the same time, the complete answer to the Right “liquidators,” to the “Leftists,” and to Trotsky. Trotsky at this time had formed the “August Bloc,” composed of all the various grouplets both Right and “Left”) who came together, not on a basis of principle, but solely on the basis of opposition to Lenin and the Bolshevik Party. The “August Bloc” ignominiously collapsed within eighteen months. Trotsky was furious. In a letter to the Menshevik Chkheidze he denounced Lenin as “that professional exploiter of the backwardness of the Russian working-class movement,” and declared “the whole edifice of Leninism at the present time is built up on lies and falsifications and bears within it the poisoned seed of its own putrefaction.” It was the venomous language of a defeated and contemned factionalist; and history had already shown that “hell hath no fury like a Trotsky scorned.”

In the same year, under the extremely reactionary system of the Duma elections (the Fourth Duma), the Bolsheviks won all the six purely labour curia, or electoral colleges. The half-dozen Bolshevik members carried on what may be regarded as a model of revolutionary parliamentarism. Parliamentary work and strike work and all other forms of agitational activity were combined, in contrast to the rigid separation which had tended to characterise France and Britain.

The strike wave mounted still higher in 1914. In St. Petersburg, hundreds and thousands of workers came out in sympathetic strikes in solidarity with the strikers out in the Baku oilfields. When Poincaré, the President of the French Republic, visited the Tsar’s capital in July 1914, he found barricades in the streets. The war mobilisation of August 1914 and the torrent of jingoism that accompanied it came none too soon for the Tsardom.



1.  This was the Fourth Congress. The Third Congress, held in London in May 1905, had been attended only by the Bolsheviks.

2.  Using, and misunderstanding, a passage of Marx, Trotsky in 1905 put forward his “theory of permanent revolution.” The Mensheviks were for an alliance of proletariat and bourgeoisie, with the bourgeoisie leading. The Bolsheviks were for an alliance of proletariat and peasantry, with the proletariat leading. Trotsky, bent on going one better than the Bolsheviks, proposed to leave out the peasantry. Thus, against the Bolshevik 1905 slogan of “Revolutionary-Democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” Trotsky put out the slogan, “No Tsar, but a Workers’ Government.” This slogan, and the “theory” behind it, did not consider the small peasantry as a revolutionary force. It is obvious that had it been possible to carry out these ideas, they would have led to disaster. It was not political independence but mere political bravado, and hence Lenin calls this Trotsky theory not merely “Left,” but absurdly “Left.”

Next: V. The Imperialist World War