Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 7
The 1905 Revolution

The Rise of Police Trade Unionism

IN CHAPTER 4, we described the stormy rise of a working-class movement in the years 1900–03. Tsarism reacted to this in its usual way, by heavy repression. But it also tried a new method of heading off the revolutionary steam.

In 1901, a police report on the state of labour asserted:

Agitators, seeking to rewrite their goals, have achieved some success, unfortunately, in organising the workers to fight against the government. Within the last three or four years the easygoing Russian young man has been transformed into a special type of semi-literate intelligent, who feels obliged to spurn religion and family, to disregard the law, and to defy and scoff at constituted authority. Fortunately such young men are not numerous in the factory, but this negligible handful terrorises the inert majority of workers into following it. [1]

Although this report distorted the real situation, it did point to a real change in the working class: a number of workers had started joining revolutionary groups.

It was to outflank and divert this development that a section of the secret police initiated a new form of police trade unionism: Zubatovism (Zubatov was chief of the Moscow Gendarmerie). As conceived, workers’ societies were to be formed with police approval, to provide opportunities for co-operative self-help for workers, and protection against the influence of revolutionaries. Such groups were organised in Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, Nikolayev, and Kharkov.

But the police plans did not work out as expected. The workers used the legal Zubatov organisations to organise strikes and vent their demands. In fact, as the Bolshevik historian M.N. Pokrovsky related, the result of Zubatovism was entirely different to Zubatov’s expectations:

precisely because these workmen were politically so undeveloped, Zubatovism was a tremendous step in the direction of developing their class consciousness, in helping them to understand the class opposition between the worker and employer. The whole business did nothing but ape the agitation of the Social Democrats – that was all there was in the idea. In their clumsy imitation of the revolutionary agitators, Zubatov’s agents went so far as to promise that the government would soon have the factories taken away from the employers and handed over to the workmen. The government, they said, was ready to do anything for the workers, if they stopped listening to the “petty intelligentsia.” In some strikes the police actually supported the strikers, paid them relief money, and so on. [2]

A strike led by the Zubatov unions in Odessa in July 1902, unexpectedly for the initiators, drew in the whole of the city and acquired a markedly political character. Mass political strikes in 1903 spread through almost the whole of South Russia (Kiev, Ekatarinoslav, Nikolayev, Elisavetgrad, and other towns). The effect was to turn the Tsarist government against Zubatovism. All the societies, with the exception of those of St. Petersburg and Moscow, were disbanded by the end of 1903 and Zubatov was exiled. But Tsarism continued to vacillate, and within a few weeks “police socialism” was again introduced as a weapon against the revolutionary movements.

The police union in St. Petersburg was called the “Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers.” It had branches in all the districts of the capital and organised mutual aid and cultural, educational, and religious activities. It was led by Father Gapon, a prison chaplain and protégé of Zubatov.

The Gapon movement began as a most “loyal” undertaking, innocent of the smallest attempts to join in the struggle between labor and capital. Its modest aim was to give workers a chance to gather and soberly spend their free time in edifying pursuits. In the early period, as Gapon wrote subsequently, every meeting at the first tearoom-reading room “began and closed with prayer.” At the official opening of the Assembly on April 11, 1904, after it had received its statute, a religious service was held, God Save the Tsar was sung three times, and the Assembly sent a telegram to the Minister of the Interior, “with the respectful request to lay at the feet of His Imperial Majesty the adored Monarch the most submissive feelings of the workers inspired by zealous love for the throne and the fatherland.” [3]



Bloody Sunday

At the end of December 1904, economic unrest disturbed the giant Putilov engineering works in Petersburg, which employed 12,000 workers. The immediate cause was small: Four workers had been sacked for belonging to Gapon’s organisation. On Monday, January 3, 1905, it developed into a strike for the reinstatement of the four workers. This was the modest beginning that led inexorably on to revolution.

The experience of the Russian Revolution, like the experience of other countries, proves beyond doubt that where the objective conditions of a profound political crisis exist, the tiniest conflict, seemingly remote from the true birthplace of revolution, can act as a spark to kindle an upsurge in public feeling. [3]

It was to the Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers that the Putilov workers turned for help to reinstate the workers who had been dismissed. The leadership of the assembly would have lost all credibility if it had not come to the aid of its four sacked members. It could not but tolerate the Putilov workers turning for help to workers of other factories. Accordingly, all branches of the assembly throughout Petersburg held mass meetings. These roused the workers’ passions, and rapidly proceeded from the individual incident at the Putilov factory to the general issues facing the Russian workers – the extremely harsh material conditions and the complete absence of rights.

Under the influence of the euphoria generated by these mass meetings, Gapon suggested adding to the original demand for reinstatement of the four sacked workers and the removal of the foreman responsible a list of other demands, which were discussed at length in the assembly, but which the workers had never before dared to put forward: an eight hour day; an increase in the minimum daily wage from 60 kopeks to a rouble for men, and from 40 kopeks to 75 for women; the improvement of sanitary facilities; and the granting of free medical aid. At this stage of the movement, Gapon was successful in influencing the workers to limit their struggle to purely economic demands. He instructed them to tear up, unread, the leaflets that students were distributing, which included among their demands a struggle against Tsarism.

The leaders of the assembly thought it would be a good idea to have the workers turn to the Tsar for support. The police department concurred with this: A few benevolent words from the throne, accompanied by some measures, however small, to ameliorate workers’ conditions would be enough, they thought, to stop the movement from going to extremes and would reinforce the myth of the Tsar as the workers’ friend. Thus the idea was born of a petition and a solemn procession, carrying the Tsar’s portrait, holy icons, and church banners. The petition would humbly beg the Tsar for redress of the workers’ grievances. Chanting prayers and hymns, the workers would, on bended knee, entrust the petition to the Tsar.

However, while the police were making plans, the Petersburg Social Democrats were acting. After a slow start, they finally intervened actively in the movement, and achieved a measure of success. They sent speakers to the district meetings of the assembly, and succeeded in introducing resolutions and amendments into the original text of the petition. It was actually the Menshevik Group that displayed this initiative. (We shall deal below with the tactics of the Bolsheviks at the time.) The result was a petition very different from the one originally envisaged by the leaders of the assembly. A whole string of political demands were included under the influence of the Social Democrats: the eight-hour working day, freedom of assembly for the workers, land for the peasants, freedom of speech and the press, the separation of church and state, an end to the Russo-Japanese War and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.

The Putilov strike, which began on 3 January, became by 7 January a general strike of the whole of St. Petersburg. Not only all the big factories, but many small workshops came to a standstill; practically all the newspapers stopped publication. Even official reports placed the number of strikers at 100,000-150,000. “Russia had never yet witnessed such a gigantic outbreak of the class struggle,” Lenin wrote. [4]

On Sunday, 9 January, 200,000 Petersburg workers marched in an enormous but peaceful procession to the Tsar’s Winter Palace, headed by Father Gapon. The Tsar refused to receive the petitioners. The troops guarding the Winter Palace were ordered to fire into the crowd. More than a thousand people were killed and as many as 2,000 wounded. Thus the Tsar tried to quell the revolution. The same night, the appalled Gapon addressed the crowd. Declaring, “We no longer have a Tsar,” he called on the soldiers to consider themselves freed from obligation “to the traitor, the Tsar, who had ordered innocent blood to be spilt.” The workers learned by bitter experience that icons and pictures of the Tsar are less potent than revolvers and guns.

Various interpretations were given to the events of January 9. The simplest was that of the ministry of war, which saw in the mass strike the hand (and the finance) of Anglo-Japanese agents.

The Minister of War went so far as to publish in newspapers and announce by placards that “Anglo-Japanese provocateurs” were responsible for the strikes among men employed in the manufacture of naval equipment. Even the Holy Synod accepted this interpretation, and, on the 14th, issued a statement deploring the recent disturbances “provoked with bribes from the enemies of Russia.” [5]

The liberals did not believe in the existence of a revolutionary people, so they explained the events as the natural emanation of Gapon’s personality. “There is not yet such a thing as a revolutionary people in Russia,” wrote Peter Struve in his paper Osvobozhdenie (Liberation), published abroad, on 7 January 1905, precisely two days before the guards’ regiments crushed the Petersburg workers’ demonstration. [6]

The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of 9 January lay in Gapon’s personality. They contrasted him with the Social Democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. [7]

Lenin evaluated the events of 9 January very differently. Three days after Bloody Sunday, he writes:

The working class has received a momentous lesson in civil war; the revolutionary education of the proletariat made more progress in one day than it could have made in months and years of drab, humdrum, wretched existence. [8]

Immediate overthrow of the government – this was the slogan with which even the St. Petersburg workers who had believed in the Tsar answered the massacre of 9 January; they answered through their leader, the priest Georgi Gapon, who declared after that bloody day: “We no longer have a Tsar. A river of blood divides the Tsar from the people. Long live the fight for freedom!” [9]

Writing on 8 February he reiterated: “9 January 1905, fully revealed the vast reserve of revolutionary energy possessed by the proletariat.” But then he added in sorrow that it revealed “as well ... the utter inadequacy of Social Democratic organisation.” [10]



Lenin and Gapon

At first, the Social Democrats reacted slowly to the Gapon movement. Thus Martov declared:

Strange as it may seem, it must be noted that the revolutionary organisations in Petersburg had overlooked the growth and gradual transformation of the legal workers’ organisation founded by Father Gapon, which in Autumn 1904 had already changed from the original “Aid funds for mutual support” into working men’s clubs of a kind.

When at the end of December 1904 Gapon’s group entered into a full fight against the industrialists as the result of a conflict at the Putilov works, the Social Democrats were completely overtaken by the events.

When at last the Social Democrats influenced by Gapon turned to the workers, they were cold-shouldered. Their leaflets were destroyed by the strikers. Even a gift of 500 roubles from the Social Democratic Committee was “received unwillingly”. [11]

The isolation of the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks from the developing movement was noted by one of its members, N.V. Doroshenko.

Until the last days of December, I and my close comrades had had no occasion to visit a single local of the Gapon society. More than that, I do not recall a single conversation with organised workers of the Vasil’ev-Ostrov and the Petersburg sectors about any of our people’s having visited the said locals. [12]

In early January, the party workers of the Petersburg Committee began to take notice of the Gapon movement:

The workers, most of whom were unquestionably under Gapon’s influence, did not at that time regard Social Democracy as their own party. More than that, it seemed to them that the clear-cut, unambiguous line of Social Democracy hampered them in accomplishing what Gapon was urging them on to. At one of the secret committee rendezvous at which all of us party workers congregated, S.I. Gusev informed us of the steps taken by the Committee and relayed its directive enjoining us to penetrate into the factories to the locals of the Gapon society and oppose to Gapon’s demands the minimum program of the party, exposing the hopelessness and absurdity of the project of marching to the palace. [13]

Doroshenko himself tried to carry out the assignment of opposing and exposing at a meeting of the Gapon branch in the City sector on 7 January but was stopped by shouts of “Enough, go away, don’t interfere,” and so on. “It was made impossible for me to continue my speech and I had to leave the hall.” [14] From this meeting, he went to a conference of the Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks: “The overall impression was that the conference somehow did not believe that the march to the palace would materialise. The idea was that the government would take steps to nip Gapon’s intentions in the bud. Hence, there was at any rate no certainty that mass slaughter would be allowed to occur.” [15]

Finally, however, the Petersburg Committee decided that the party members should take part in the 9 January procession.

To carry out the measures planned by the Petersburg Committee, the committee of the City sector chose as the gathering point for January 9 the corner of Sadovaia and Chernyshev Alley, where the sub-sector organisers were to come in the morning with their organised circles.

The attendance was pitiful; “only a small group, some 15 workers, no more, appeared at the rendezvous.” [16]

Lenin, however, realised from the beginning that the Gapon movement would outgrow the intentions of the Tsarist authorities. In an article called The St. Petersburg Strike, he wrote:

The strike that began at the Putilov works on January 3 is developing into one of the most imposing manifestations of the working-class movement ... And now the Zubatov movement is outgrowing its bounds. Initiated by the police, in the interests of the police, in the interests of supporting the autocracy and demoralising the political consciousness of the workers, this movement is turning against the autocracy and is becoming an outbreak of the proletarian class struggle.

The Social Democrats long ago predicted that such would be the inevitable outcome of the Zubatov movement in our country. The legalisation of the working-class movement, they said, would definitely benefit us Social Democrats. It would draw certain sections of the workers into the movement, especially the backward sections: it would help to rouse those who would not soon, perhaps ever, be roused by a socialist agitator. And once drawn into the movement and having acquired an interest in their own future, the workers would go further. The legal labour movement would only be a new and broader basis for the Social Democratic labour movement. [17]

A week later, in an article called The First Steps, he elaborated on the same theme:

The revolutionary instinct of the working class and the spirit of solidarity would prevail over all petty police ruses. The most backward workers would be drawn into the movement by the Zubatovists, and then the Tsarist government would itself take care to drive the workers farther; capitalist exploitation itself would turn them away from the peaceable and out-and-out hypocritical Zubatov fold towards revolutionary Social Democracy. [18]

Lenin was not only non-sectarian in his attitude to the mass movement that was forming behind Gapon, but even, as was his wont, “fell in love” with Gapon himself. When Gapon went abroad, Lenin was eager to meet him. The interview left him in no doubt that Gapon was completely sincere. Many years later, after Gapon had been exposed as a police agent and murdered for his crime by a revolutionary, Krupskaya explained Lenin’s infatuation thus:

Gapon was a living part of the revolution that was sweeping Russia. He was closely bound up with the working masses, who devotedly believed in him, and Ilyich was agitated about this meeting.

A comrade recently asked with consternation: How could Ilyich ever have anything to do with Gapon?

Of course, one could simply have ignored Gapon, reckoning in advance that nothing good will ever come from a priest. That is what Plekhanov did, for instance, receiving Gapon extremely coolly. But Ilyich’s strength lay precisely in the fact that for him the revolution was a live thing, he was capable of discerning its features, grasping all its manifold details, knowing and understanding what the masses wanted. And knowledge of the masses can only be obtained by close contact with them. How could Ilyich pass by Gapon, who stood close to the masses, and had such influence over them? [19]

On 18 January 1905, Lenin wrote:

We cannot flatly dismiss the idea that Father Gapon may be a sincere Christian socialist and that it was Bloody Sunday which converted him to the truly revolutionary path. We are inclined to support this idea, especially since Gapon’s letters written after the massacre of 9 January declaring that “we have no Tsar,” his call to fight for freedom, etc., are facts that speak for his honesty and sincerity. [20]

On 23 April he said about Gapon: “He impressed me as being an enterprising and clever man, unquestionably devoted to the revolution, though unfortunately without a consistent revolutionary outlook.” [21]

Lenin went out of his way to try to teach Gapon Marxism – without success, however. “I said to him,” he told Krupskaya on his return from meeting Gapon, “don’t you take to flattery, Little Father; study or that’s where you’ll find yourself – and I pointed under the table.” [22]

Other Bolshevik leaders were far less enamoured of Gapon. For instance, S.I. Gusev, who arrived from Geneva at the end of December or in early January, and took over as secretary and leader of the Petersburg Committee, wrote to Lenin on 5 January about the “cursed Gapon”:

This Father Gapon is most certainly a Zubatovist of the purest water ... Exposing and fighting Gapon will be the basis of the agitation we are hurriedly preparing. We have to move all our forces into action, even if we have to squander them all on the strike, for the situation obligates us to save the honour of Social Democracy. [23]

He did not change his opinion after Bloody Sunday. On January 30, he wrote to Lenin again:

The workers are also a bit confused (again under the influence of the Mensheviks’ anti-revolutionary preachings) about the (proper) attitude to Gapon. Your article in No.4 depicts the government’s role very justly, but you are too lenient with Gapon. He is a shady character. I have written you this several times, and the more I think the more suspicious he seems. One cannot call him a mere crank, he was a Zubatovite and worked with Zubatovites knowing what they are and what they want. [24]



Fighting the Bolsheviks’ Sectarian Attitude Toward the Trade Unions and the Soviet

On the Social Democratic attitude to the rising trade union movement, Lenin had to do battle with his supporters, who had a narrow, sectarian approach. S.I. Gusev, who was close to Lenin and the Bolshevik centre abroad, proposed at a meeting of the Bolshevik Odessa Committee in September 1905 that the Bolsheviks be guided by the following rules in their stand on the trade union question:

1. To expose in our propaganda and agitation all the illusions about trade unions, stressing especially their narrowness in comparison with the ultimate aims of the labor movement.

2. To clarify to the proletariat that a broad and stable development of the trade union movement is unthinkable under an autocratic regime and that such a development requires first of all the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy.

3. To strongly emphasise in propaganda and agitation that the most vital, primary task of the struggling proletariat is to prepare immediately for an armed uprising to overthrow Tsarist autocracy and win a democratic republic.

4. To carry on an energetic ideological struggle against the so-called Mensheviks, who are reverting, on the issue of trade unions, to the narrow erroneous viewpoint of the Economists, which demeans the tasks of Social Democracy and holds back the thrust of the proletarian movement.

But, at the same time, they ought “to use every means to ensure Social Democratic influence and, if possible, leadership, in all the newly emerging or already existing legal and illegal trade unions.” Some members of the committee could not stomach this last point. An excerpt from the minutes of the meeting records one speaker as saying:

Comrade S. is overlooking the fact that Point 5 of his resolution flatly contradicts all the preceding points. What do they say? That one must expose, one must destroy, illusions, one must, in short, disarm the trade unions, in other words, demolish them. And Point 5 suddenly speaks of leadership. To me, a trade union has a definite content. If I assume its leadership, I am thereby taking on this content, I must organise funds, and so on. This is a Menshevist misconception. [25]

Gusev in fact managed to overcome the objections, and the resolution was passed unanimously and sent to Lenin in Geneva.

Lenin, however, did not like the resolution at all. On September 30, 1905, he wrote to the Odessa Committee that it was “highly erroneous.”

Generally speaking I think we should be careful not to exaggerate the struggle against the Mensheviks on this issue. This is probably just the time when trade unions will soon begin to spring up. We must not stand aloof, and above all not give any occasion for thinking that we ought to stand aloof, but endeavour to take part, to influence, etc ... It is important that at the very outset Russian Social Democrats should strike the right note in regard to the trade unions, and at once create a tradition of Social Democratic participation, of Social Democratic leadership. [26]

A few months later, he formulated a resolution along the same lines for the Stockholm (“Unification”) Congress, of April–May 1906:

1. ... All party organisations must promote the formation of non-party trade unions, and induce all party members to join the trade unions in their respective trades;

2. ... The party must exert every effort to educate the workers who belong to trade unions in the spirit of a broad understanding of the class struggle and the socialist aims of the proletariat; by its activities to win a virtually leading position in these unions; and lastly to ensure that these unions, under certain conditions, come into direct association with the party – however, without at all expelling non-party members from their ranks. [27]

Even more crucial than this fight against the sectarian attitude of some Bolshevik leaders toward the trade unions was the battle Lenin waged against practically the whole St. Petersburg Committee on the issue of the newly established soviet. The Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was the offspring of the general strike of October 1905. This had been sparked off in Moscow by a small strike of printers, who demanded a few kopeks more per thousand letters set and pay for punctuation marks. The strike spread spontaneously throughout the country. The initiative in establishing the Petersburg Soviet was taken by the Mensheviks, who, however, had no conception of the effect their creation would have in the long run. The Petersburg Committee of the Bolsheviks, for their part, showed extreme hostility toward the soviet.

P.A. Krasikov is said to have warned Bolshevik agitators against “this new intrigue by the Mensheviks ... a non-party Zubatovite committee.” [28] Bogdanov, as head of the Russian Bureau, the foremost Bolshevik leader in Russia itself, argued that the soviet, which included men of varying political views, could easily become the nucleus of an anti-socialist independent workers’ party. [29]

B.I. Gorev, a representative of the Bolshevik Centre in Petersburg, wrote bluntly that “when the Petersburg Soviet expanded its activity, became a united revolutionary force, the Petersburg Committee took fright.” He based this judgment on a remark by ‘Nina L’vovna’ (M.M. Essen, an influential member of the Petersburg Committee) and on resolutions passed at some sector meetings:

I remember ‘Nina L’vovna’s’ words: “But where do we come in? So we have to reckon with them! The Soviet issues decrees, and we trail behind it, we cannot put through our own decrees,” and so on.

This was also reflected in the resolutions of sector meetings, especially of the Peterburgskaia Storona, where the leaders were Doroshenko ... and the Bolshevik Mendeleev, now the well-known Menshevik Schwarz-Monoszon. They demanded that the Soviet either turn into a trade union organisation or accept our program and in effect fuse with the party organisation. [30]

The Petersburg Committee’s attitude to the soviet was negative. Some members wanted it to be boycotted as unnecessary given the existence of the party, while others advocated joining the soviet, getting as many Bolsheviks into it as possible, and “exploding the Soviet from within” – also on the ground that it was “unnecessary.” [31] At a meeting of the Bolshevik Executive Committee of the Neva District of Petersburg,

on 29 October one of the 15 members opposed taking part in it at all because the “elective principle could not guarantee its class consciousness and Social Democratic character.” Four voted against taking part in the Soviet, if it did not accept a Social Democratic program. Nine were for taking part and two did not vote. [32]

One reason for the Petersburg Bolsheviks’ negative attitude to the Soviet in October 1905 was the fact that the Mensheviks’ attitude to it was a positive one. “Denouncing the inconsistency and lack of principles of the Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks intended to boycott the Soviet.” [33]

The Central Committee of the Bolsheviks, then in Petersburg, sent a “Letter to all party organisations” on 27 October in which it pointed out the danger of

politically amorphous and socialistically immature workers’ organisations created by the spontaneous revolutionary movement of the proletariat ... Every such organisation represents a certain stage in the proletariat’s political development, but if it stands outside Social Democracy, it is, objectively, in danger of keeping the proletariat on a primitive political level and thus subjugating it to the bourgeois parties.

One such organisation was the Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. The central committee asked the Social Democratic members of the Soviet: (1) to invite the soviet to accept the RSDLP’s program and, when this was done, to recognise the leadership of the party and “ultimately dissolve in it”; (2) if the soviet refused to accept the program, to leave the soviet and expose the anti-proletarian nature of such organisations; (3) if the soviet, while refusing to accept the program, reserved to itself the right to decide its political stand in every case as it came up, to stay in the soviet but reserve the right to speak out on “the absurdity of such political leadership.” [34]

A few days later, Comrade Anton (Krasikov), in the name of the Bolsheviks, did propose to the Soviet that it accept the party program and recognise the party’s leadership. “As far as I remember, the debate was very brief. Khrustalev objected. Krasikov’s proposal received hardly any support. But, contrary to Bogdanov’s plan, the Bolsheviks did not leave the Soviet.” [35]

It needed Lenin’s intervention to call the Bolshevik leadership in Petersburg to order – to pull them back from the abyss of a completely sectarian attitude toward the soviet. He remained abroad for almost a month after its establishment. On his way to Petersburg, where he arrived on November 8, he spent about a week in Stockholm, where he wrote an article, Our tasks and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. A letter to the editor, intended for the Bolshevik journal Novaya Zhizn. In it he says of the issue:

The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies or the party? I think that it is wrong to put the question in this way and that the decision must certainly be: both the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies and the party. The only question – and a highly important one – is how to divide, and how to combine, the tasks of the Soviet and those of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party.

I think it would be inadvisable for the Soviet to adhere wholly to any one party. [36]

The soviet was carrying on both an economic and a political struggle. On the former, Lenin says:

Should this struggle be conducted only by the Social Democrats or only under the Social Democratic banner? I do not think so; I still hold the view I have expressed (in entirely different, now outdated conditions, it is true) in What Is to Be Done?, namely, that it is inadvisable to limit the composition of the trade unions, and hence of those taking part in the trade union, economic struggle, to members of the Social Democratic Party. [37]

And he goes on to deal with the political struggle:

In this respect, too, I think it inadvisable to demand that the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should accept the Social Democratic program and join the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. It seems to me that to lead the political struggle, both the Soviet ... and the party are, to an equal degree, absolutely necessary. [38]

Lenin argues, prophetically, that the soviet is not only a new form of organisation of the proletariat in struggle but also the form of the future revolutionary power of workers and peasants.

I believe ... that politically the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies should be regarded as the embryo of a provisional revolutionary government. I think the Soviet should proclaim itself the provisional revolutionary government of the whole of Russia as early as possible, or should set up a provisional revolutionary government (which would amount to the same thing, only in another form). [39]

In order to do this the Soviet should broaden its base; it should

enlist to this end the participation of new deputies not only from the workers, but, first of all, from the sailors and soldiers, who are everywhere seeking freedom; secondly, from the revolutionary peasantry; and thirdly, from the revolutionary bourgeois intelligentsia ... We are not afraid of so broad and mixed a composition – indeed, we want it, for unless the proletariat and the peasantry unite and unless the Social Democrats and revolutionary democrats form a fighting alliance, the great Russian revolution cannot be fully successful. [40]

This important letter was rejected by the editor of Novaya Zhizn – it first saw the light of day in Pravda 34 years later – on November 5, 1940.

Thus, almost from the outset, Lenin’s appreciation of the future historical role of the Soviets was much more advanced than that of the participants. For him, the soviet was not only a new form of organisation of the proletariat in struggle; it was the form of future workers’ power. He did not evolve this idea in a vacuum. He was articulating and generalising what many workers felt instinctively. The following anecdote from Trotsky’s history of the Russian Revolution illustrates this grass-roots feeling.

An old Cossack from Poltava province complained of unjust treatment by the Princes Repnin, who had exploited him as a clerk for 28 years and then dismissed him without cause; the old man was asking the Soviet to negotiate with the Princes on his behalf. The envelope containing this curious petition was addressed simply to The Workers’ Government, Petersburg, yet it was promptly delivered by the revolutionary postal service. [41] [1*]

A year after writing the important article quoted above, and after the experience of the December 1905 uprising in Moscow, Lenin developed further the concept of the interrelation between the soviet and the revolutionary government. In the article quoted above, he argued that the soviet was the form of revolutionary government of the future. A year later, he argued that the soviet could not exist independently of the immediate revolutionary situation, but also that it was not able by itself to organise the armed insurrection.

The experience of October–December has provided very instructive guidance ... Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are organs of direct mass struggle. They originated as organs of the strike struggle. By force of circumstances they very quickly became the organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government. The course of events and the transition from a strike to an uprising irresistibly transformed them into organs of an uprising. That this was precisely the role that quite a number of “Soviets” and “committees” played in December is an absolutely indisputable fact. Events have proved in the most striking and convincing manner that the strength and importance of such organs in time of militant action depend entirely upon the strength and success of the uprising.

It was not some theory, not appeals on the part of someone, tactics invented by someone, not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that led these non-party mass organs to realise the need for an uprising and transformed them into organs of an uprising ...

If that is so – and undoubtedly it is – the conclusion to be drawn is also clear: “Soviets” and similar mass institutions are in themselves insufficient for organising an uprising. They are necessary for welding the masses together, for creating unity in the struggle, for handing on the party slogans (or slogans advanced by agreement between parties) of political leadership, for awakening the interests of the masses, for rousing and attracting them. But they are not sufficient for organising the immediate fighting force, for organising an uprising in the narrowest sense of the word. [43]

This passage shows a marvellous grasp of the strategic interrelationship of the soviets and the armed insurrection – and this on the basis of only a few weeks’ experience! The story of 1917 is practically told here in a nutshell.

The soviets comprise practically the whole of the working class. Hence, although they rise only in a revolutionary situation, they are not necessarily led by revolutionaries. They may well be led by opponents of the revolution. This was the case in Russia after February 1917 – when they supported the bourgeois provisional government and its imperialist war effort. It was the case in Germany in 1918, when the Workers’ Council of Berlin not only excluded Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht from membership, but also supported the capitalist government that decapitated the revolution and murdered these two outstanding leaders.

The revolutionary party represents the advanced section of the working class. For workers’ power, one needs a certain combination of the party and the soviets. Hence, “Soviets and similar mass institutions are in themselves insufficient for organising an uprising.” But there is another reason. Even if the soviets are under the influence of the revolutionary party, as in 1917, they cannot of themselves carry out the insurrection. They lack the homogeneity so vital for the abrupt act of armed insurrection, They are needed to impart a legal character to the insurrection. But they are not “sufficient...for organising an uprising in the narrowest sense of the word” – as Lenin put it so clearly, many years before 1917.

It is useful to compare Lenin’s clear formulation with an analysis of the lessons of 1905 by Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky. Rosa Luxemburg, participant in the 1905 Revolution, in her magnificent book The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions, does not mention the soviet at all. Not until 1918 did she appreciate its role as a form of workers’ government.

Rosa Luxemburg did not allocate any governmental role to Soviets...though she was well aware of their significance; these were spontaneous instruments of the struggle but were not to be incorporated into the permanent institutional structure. This conception of Soviets as a means rather than an end still dominated the early thinking of the Spartakusbund in Germany 12 years later, and it was not until the Spartakus leaders had to face the unwelcome demand of the SPD for a constituent assembly that they allocated a more positive and permanent role to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils – inspired by a Russian example! [44]

Trotsky, who was president of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905, and who predicted the socialist content of the future Russian revolution, writing from prison immediately after the revolution, clearly described the governmental role of the soviet:

the Soviet really was a workers’ government in embryo ... Prior to the Soviet we find among the industrial workers a multitude of revolutionary organisations ... But these were organisations within the proletariat, and their immediate aim was to achieve influence over the masses. The Soviet was, from the start, the organisation of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power ... With the Soviet we have the first appearance of democratic power in modern Russian history. The Soviet is the organised power of the mass itself over its separate parts. It constitutes authentic democracy, without a lower and an upper chamber, without a professional bureaucracy, but with the voters’ right to recall their deputies at any moment. Through its members – deputies directly elected by the workers – the Soviet exercises direct leadership over all social manifestations of the proletariat as a whole and of its individual groups, organises its actions and provides them with a slogan and a banner. [45]

Yet, strangely, after some months had elapsed and the soviets were no longer an immediate presence, Trotsky, reflecting on the lessons of the 1905 Revolution, in his Results and Prospects (1906), did not even mention the soviets. He made no effort to identify the form the revolutionary workers’ government would take: “Revolution is first and foremost a question of power, not of the state form (Constituent Assembly, Republic, United States) but of the social content of the government.” [46] He could describe the soviet that had arisen, but it held no significance for him except as a historical phenomenon.

For the Mensheviks, who brought it into being, the Petersburg Soviet was neither an organisation of struggle for power, nor a governmental form. For them it was merely a “proletarian parliament,” an “organ of revolutionary self-administration,” and so on.




1*. In fact, three days after “Bloody Sunday,” Lenin had already put forward the need for popular democratic committees to lead the struggle: “Revolutionary committees will be set up at every factory, in every district, in every large village. The people in revolt will overthrow all the government institutions of the Tsarist autocracy and proclaim the immediate convocation of a Constituent Assembly.” [42]



1. S.S. Harcave, First Blood: the Russian Revolution of 1905, London 1965, p.23.

2. Pokrovsky, op. cit., vol.2, pp.52-53.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.15, p.276.

4. ibid., vol.8, p.118.

5. Harcave, op. cit., p.97.

6. Trotsky, 1905, New York 1972, p.77.

7. ibid., p.76.

8. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.97

9. ibid., p.98.

10. ibid., p.167.

11. Tretii sezd RSDRP, op. cit., p.54.

12. N. Doroshenko, The Role of the Social-Democratic Bolshevik Organisations in January 1905 Days, Krasnaia letopis, no.3, 1925, p.211, quoted in Schwarz, op. cit., pp.68-69.

13. Doroshenko, op. cit., p.212.

14. ibid., pp.213-4.

15. ibid., p.214.

16. ibid., p.215; Schwarz, op. cit., pp.68-70.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.90-91.

18. ibid., p.114.

19. Krupskaya, op. cit., p.104.

20. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.106.

21. ibid., p.416.

22. Krupskaya, op. cit., pp.104-05.

23. The Correspondence of N. Lenin and N.K. Krupskaya with S.I. Gusev, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, No.2(37), 1925, pp.23–4; Schwarz, op. cit., p.66.

24. ibid., p.36; Schwarz, ibid.

25. The Correspondence of N. Lenin and N.K. Krupskaya with the Odessa Organisation, Proletarskaia revoliutsiia, December 1925, p.62, quoted in Schwarz, op. cit., pp.157-58.

26. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.34, p.359.

27. ibid., vol.10, pp.160-61.

28. V.S. Voitinsky, Gody pobed 11. porazhenii, Moscow 1923, quoted in J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia, London 1964, p.230.

29. Voitinsky, op. cit., p.194; Keep, op. cit., p.231.

30. B.I. Gorev, Iz partiinogo proshlogo, Leningrad 1924, pp.75–76; Schwarz, op. cit., p.180.

31. Schwarz, ibid., pp.180-81.

32. Novaia zhizn, no.5, November 1905; Lane, p.88.

33. P. Gorin, Ocherki po istorii sovetov rabochikh deputatov v 1905 godu, Moscow 1925, p.60; Schwarz, op. cit., p.181.

34. V.I. Nevsky, Sovety v 1905 godu, pp.39–40, 70; Schwarz, op. cit., pp.183-84.

35. In Sverchkov, Na zare revoliutsii, Moscow 1921, pp.6-7; Trotsky’s letter serves as a foreword; Schwarz, op. cit., p.181.

36. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.10, p.19.

37. ibid., p.20.

38. ibid., p.21.

39. ibid., p.21.

40. ibid., pp.23-24.

41. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., p.224.

42. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.8, p.99.

43. ibid., vol.11, pp.124-25.

44. Nettl, op. cit., vol.1, p.340.

45. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., pp.251, 253-54.

46. Trotsky in Nashe slovo, October 17, 1915; quoted in Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, London 1962, p.254.


Last updated on 10.12.2003