Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

7. The 1905 Revolution

THE 1905 REVOLUTION was a great test for Trotsky as a leader, organiser, and theoretician, and he passed it with flying colours.

On Sunday 9 January troops shot down thousands of unarmed workers and their families in Petersburg as they tried to make their way to the Tsar’s Winter Palace with a petition begging for reforms. Bloody Sunday’, as it became known, shook the workers into angry storms of mass protest strikes and demonstrations. One employer after another was forced to concede to the workers some of the reforms the Tsar had so haughtily rejected. The armed forces were not untouched by the popular rebellion. The first serious mutiny of the armed forces was that of the battleship Potemkin, where sailors in the Black Sea port of Odessa went over to the side of the workers. The sailors of Kronstadt, the naval fortress near Petersburg, and of Sevastopol on the Black Sea also mutinied. Outbreaks of unrest in the army rose from ten between April and June to 89 in the last six months of the year. [1] Peasants also moved into action: some 2,000 estates were burnt by rebelling peasants. [2]

On 13 October a workers’ council (soviet) was established in Petersburg.

The revolution of 1905 revealed Trotsky’s fantastic ability to lead the masses. It was also during the summer of 1905 that he ‘finally formulated [his] conception of the inner forces of Russian society and of the prospects of the Russian revolution’ [3] – he developed his theory of permanent revolution.

In this chapter we shall deal with Trotsky’s role in the 1905 revolution. In the next we shall deal with the Theory of Permanent Revolution. Naturally the two are dialectically integrated. The experience of 1905 nourished the theory and the theory guided the experience and practice.

Trotsky’s confidence in the proletarian revolution was rock solid throughout his life, and the 1905 revolution was both expected and welcomed. As he wrote a couple of years after the revolution:

We had waited for it; we had never doubted it. For long years it had been for us the only logical conclusion of our ‘doctrine’ which was mocked by nonentities of every political hue. They did not believe in the revolutionary role of the proletariat; instead, they believed in the force of the zemtsy’s petitions, in Witte, in Svyatopolk-Mirsky, in jars of dynamite. There was no political prejudice in which they did not believe. Our belief in the proletariat was the only thing they regarded as prejudice. [4]

Beginning of the revolution

In February 1905 Trotsky returned clandestinely to Russia. He arrived in Kiev, where he stayed for several weeks, using a passport in the name of a retired corporal, Arbuzov. Here he made contact with Leonid Krasin, a member of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party and a ‘conciliator’ who wanted to overcome the breach between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks in the party. Krasin had at his disposal a large and well-equipped secret printing press somewhere in the Caucasus. Trotsky wrote a number of leaflets for this press. In the spring Krasin helped Trotsky move to Petersburg by supplying him with secret addresses there.

For two months following Bloody Sunday strikes swept from province to province, affecting 122 towns and more than one million workers. [5] The number of workers on strike during January and February 1905 was greater than the total of the ten preceding years. [6]

Under the impact of these events, immediately after he returned to Russia, Trotsky wrote:

The revolution is moving the proletariat into the forefront and giving it hegemony ... Only the proletariat can ensure the victory of the uprising and the triumph of the revolution as a whole. Other groups of the urban population, as well as the peasantry, will play their role in the revolution to the extent that they follow the proletariat, support it, facilitate its work. Neither the peasantry, nor the petty bourgeoisie, nor the intelligentsia will play an independent role in the revolution at all comparable with that of the proletariat.

Consequently, the make-up of the provisional government will depend mainly on the proletariat. This means ... that the development of the revolution is leading the proletariat, and with it our party, toward temporary political supremacy. [7]

In the same issue of Iskra Martov argued the opposite. It was the historical mission of the middle classes, he said, to bring about the radical democratisation of Russia:

We have the right to expect that sober political calculation will prompt our bourgeois democracy to act in the same way in which, in the past century, bourgeois democracy acted in Western Europe, under the inspiration of revolutionary romanticism. [8]

On 6 August the Tsar issued a manifesto establishing a consultative Duma. Election to it was not based on universal but on limited suffrage: most of non-European Russia was excluded from representation, the franchise being denied to all the inhabitants of Poland, Siberia, Transcaucasia and Central Asia except for those in the cities of Baku, Warsaw, Lodz, Tashkent, Irkutsk and Tiflis. In all areas to be represented the franchise was restricted to men 25 years of age and over who could fulfil certain property qualifications. Most wage earners and even many urban property owners were excluded. Nor were the elections direct. Instead of equal suffrage, the law assigned representation to each class of voters – peasants, landlords and city property owners – according to a complex formula that weighed votes heavily against the lower classes. The Tsar reserved to himself the right to prorogue or disband the Duma. This was called the Bulygin Duma.

Pavel Miliukov, leader of the liberal party – the Constitutional Democrats or Cadets, welcomed the Tsar’s manifesto, describing it as the crossing of the Rubicon of constitutional government for the nation. This prompted Trotsky, who stood for boycotting the Duma, to write an Open Letter to Professor P.N. Miliukov:

In reality, the Rubicon of history is crossed only at the moment when the material resources of government pass from the hands of absolutism into those of the people. But such things, Professor, are never accomplished by a signature on a piece of parchment. Such things come about on the street. They are realised in battle. They are settled by victory in the clash of the people with the armoured forces of reaction.

He recalled how in the French Revolution the great turning points come not with the declarations of constitutional principle but with real shifts of power. He further recalled events in Germany in 1848 – how middle-class liberalism had contented itself with the Prussian king’s promise of freedom; how it had helped the autocrat to subdue the revolution; and how, in the end, with the ebb of the revolution, the autocrat had defeated and humiliated liberalism:

History teaches nothing to its professors. The errors and crimes of liberalism are international. You are repeating what your predecessors did in the same situation half a century ago ... You are afraid of breaking with the Duma, because to you this constitutional mirage seems real in the dry and barren desert through which Russian liberalism has been wading not for its first decade ...

You, Professor, you will not tell the people this. But we shall. And if you try to debate with us not at the liberal banquets, but in front of the masses, we shall show that in our crude, harsh, revolutionary language we can be irrefutably convincing and eloquent. For you, the people’s great contest with absolutism is reduced to rural congresses, loyal deputations, constitutional addresses, mandates, consultations and manifestos. If the revolution does not ebb away, the bureaucracy will cling to you as to its bulwark; and if you really try to become its bulwark, the victorious revolution will throw you overboard ... [If, on the other hand, the revolution is defeated, then Tsarism will have no use for liberalism.]

You propose not to be disturbed by the voices from the right and the voices from the left ... The revolution has not yet said its last word. With powerful and broad thrusts it lowers the edge of its knife over the head of absolutism. Let the wiseacres of liberalism beware of putting their hands under the glittering steel blade. Let them beware. [9]

The October general strike and the emergence of the Petersburg Soviet

On the May Day demonstration near Petersburg Trotsky’s wife, Natalia Sedova, was arrested; an agent provocateur planted in the clandestine organisation was also pursuing Trotsky; Trotsky therefore hurriedly left for Finland, which was then part of the Tsarist empire but enjoyed much greater freedom. Here he remained studying and writing until mid-October, when the news came that a general strike had broken out in the capital.

On 9 October, at an extraordinary meeting of the Petersburg delegates’ congress of railway personnel, the slogans of the railway strike were formulated and immediately disseminated by telegraph to all lines. They were the following: eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, a Constituent Assembly ...

On 10 October a general political strike was proclaimed in Moscow, Kharkov and Revel; on the eleventh, in Smolensk, Kozlov, Yekaterinoslav and Lodz; on the twelfth in Kursk Byelgorod, Samara, Saratov and Poltava; on the thirteenth, in Petersburg, Orsha, Minsk, Kremenchug and Simferopol; on the fourteenth in Gomel, Kalish, Rostov-on-Don, Tiflis and Irkutsk; on the fifteenth, in Vilna, Odessa and Batum; on the sixteenth in Orenburg; on the seventeenth in Yuriev, Vitebsk and Tomsk. Riga, Libava, Warsaw, Plotsk, Byelostock, Kovna, Dvinsk, Pskov, Poltava, Nikolayev, Mariupol, Kazan, Chenstokhovo, Zlatoust and others also struck. Industrial life, and in many places also commercial life, collapsed everywhere. Schools and universities closed down ...

...the strike showed, wherever it could, that it was not a merely temporary interruption of work, a passive protest made with folded arms. It defended itself and, in its defence, passed to the offensive.

In a number of towns in the south it erected barricades, seized gun shops, armed itself and offered a heroic if not victorious resistance. [10]

On 13 October the Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was formed. It represented some 200,000 workers, or about half of all the workers in the capital. At its height the Soviet had 562 deputies, of which the majority (351) were metalworkers. [11] The functions of the Soviet rapidly grew beyond those of a strike committee. It became a ‘workers’ parliament’, giving a lead on a great many questions. Trotsky wrote of the Soviet:

Petersburg had the leading voice in the revolution.., the slogans and fighting methods of Petersburg found a mighty revolutionary echo in the country as a whole. The type of organisation adopted in Petersburg, the tone of the Petersburg press, immediately became models for the provinces ...

If, then, we are to recognise the capital on the Neva as the centre of the events of the final months of 1905, in Petersburg itself we must recognise the Council (Soviet) of Workers’ Deputies as the cornerstone of all these events ... The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it. [12]

The Petersburg Soviet popularised the idea beyond the capital, so that Soviets were formed everywhere in larger and smaller industrial cities between October and December 1905. All told, between forty and fifty workers’ soviets were formed. [13]

The day after the Soviet was formed Trotsky was back in the Russian capital. On joining the Soviet he to all intents and purposes became its leader. He was the author of practically all resolutions and declarations issued by the Soviet. He was also the editor of the Soviet mouthpiece Izvestia. He was the strategist and tactician of the Soviet. He was also its magnificent orator. As Lunacharsky, himself a notable speaker, put it: ‘I regard Trotsky as probably the greatest orator of our age.’

His impressive appearance, his handsome, sweeping gestures, the powerful rhythm of his speech, his loud but never fatiguing voice, the remarkable coherence and literary skill of his phrasing, the richness of imagery, scalding irony, his soaring pathos, his rigid logic, clear as polished steel – those are Trotsky’s virtues as a speaker. He can speak in lapidary phrases, or throw off a few unusually well-aimed shafts and he can give a magnificent set-piece political speech of the kind that previously I had only heard from Jaurès. I have seen Trotsky speaking for two and a half to three hours in front of a totally silent, standing audience listening as though spellbound to his monumental political treatise ... His articles and books are, as it were, frozen speech – he was literary in his oratory and an orator in literature. [14]

Besides editing Izvestia, Trotsky, together with Parvus, edited a mass circulation daily paper, Russkaya Gazeta (The Russian Gazette). He also participated in the editing of Nachalo (The Beginning), the mouthpiece of the Mensheviks. This was a brilliant journal with a circulation of about half a million.

The Tsar’s October Manifesto

On 17 October the Tsar, frightened by the general strike, issued a manifesto composed for him by the semi-liberal prime minister, Count Witte, promising a constitution, civil liberties and universal suffrage. Thus the Bulygin Duma was aborted before it was born.

For about three days, it appeared that all of urban Russia was holding jubilee, not just relieved by the turn of events, but irrepressibly elated by them ... City officials made stirring announcements of the news. The text of the manifesto was read in churches, synagogues, and mosques to receptive audiences. Civilians embraced one another as they met and discussed the changed prospects. Crowds cheered soldiers in the streets ... [15]

Festive crowds filled the streets and read the manifesto with excitement and joy. Little did they know that at the same time the manifesto was issued, another order was issued by the minister of the interior, General Trepov, to the police, and posted on the walls: Spare no bullets!’

On the 17th Trotsky moved with a huge and excited crowd towards the university. He recounts:

Everyone was trying to push their way through to the balcony from which the orators were to speak. The balcony, windows, and spire of the university were decorated with red banners. I got inside with difficulty. My turn to speak came third or fourth. The picture which opened before my eyes from the balcony was extraordinary. The street was packed with people. The students’ blue caps and the red banners were bright spots among the hundred-thousand-strong crowd. The silence was complete; everyone wanted to hear the speakers. ‘Citizens! Now that we have got the ruling clique with its back to the wall, they promise us freedom. They promise us electoral rights and legislative power. Who promises these things? Nicholas the Second. Does he promise them of his own good will? Or with a pure heart? Nobody could say that for him. He began his reign by congratulating his splendid Fanagoriytsy [a Cossack regiment] on the murder of the workers of Yaroslav, and stepping over corpse after corpse, he arrived at Bloody Sunday, 9 January. It is this tireless hangman on the throne whom we have forced to promise us freedom. What a great triumph!

But do not be too quick to celebrate victory; victory is not yet complete. Is a promise of payment the same thing as real gold? Is the promise of liberty the same as liberty itself? If anyone among you believe in the Tsar’s promises, let him say so aloud – we’d all be glad to meet such a rare bird. Look around, citizens, has anything changed since yesterday? Have the gates of our prisons been opened? The Peter and Paul Fortress still dominates the city, doesn’t it? Don’t you still hear groans and the gnashing of teeth from behind its accursed walls? Have our brothers returned to their homes from the Siberian deserts?’

‘Amnesty! Amnesty! Amnesty!’ comes the shout from below. ‘If the government had sincerely decided to make up its quarrel with the people, the first thing it would do would be to proclaim an amnesty. But, citizens, is an amnesty all? Today they will let out hundreds of political fighters, tomorrow they will seize thousands of others. Isn’t the order to spare no bullets hanging by the side of the manifesto about our freedoms? Didn’t they use their sabres this morning on people peacefully listening to a speaker? Isn’t Trepov, the hangman, master of Petersburg?’

‘Down with Trepov!’ came the answering shout.

‘Yes, down with Trepov! but is he the only one? Are there no villains in the bureaucracy’s reserves to take his place? Trepov rules over us with the help of the army. The guardsmen covered in the blood of 9 January are his support and his strength. It is they whom he orders not to spare bullets against your breasts and heads. We cannot, we do not want to, we must not live at gunpoint. Citizens! Let our demand be the withdrawal of troops from Petersburg! Let not a single soldier remain within a radius of 25 versts from the capital! The free citizens themselves will maintain order. No one shall suffer from violence and arbitrary rule. The people will take everyone under their protection.’

‘Out with the troops! All troops to leave Petersburg!’ ‘Citizens! Our strength is in ourselves. With sword in hand we must stand guard over our freedom. As for the Tsar’s manifesto, look, it’s only a scrap of paper. Here it is before you – here it is crumpled in my fist. Today they have issued it, tomorrow they will take it away and tear it into pieces, just as I am now tearing up this paper freedom before your eyes!’ [16]

Thus Petersburg first heard the orator of the revolution.

On 18 October the Soviet adopted a resolution stating: ‘The struggling revolutionary proletariat cannot lay down its arms until the political rights of the Russian people are put on a solid footing, until a democratic republic is established.’ The Soviet demanded that the government remove the military and police from the city, to grant full amnesty to all political prisoners, to raise the state of siege everywhere in Russia, and finally, to guarantee a Constituent Assembly on the basis of a general, equal, direct and secret ballot. [17] In the Soviet paper Izvestia next day Trotsky wrote an editorial:

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. [18]

On the 18th hundreds of thousands of people gathered by the Kazan Cathedral. The demonstration demanded amnesty. When it was clear that a strong army ambush was waiting for the demonstration, that all the places of imprisonment had been occupied by troops, that bloodshed was therefore inevitable, the leaders of the Soviet dispersed the crowd. [19]

On 19 October, two days after the Tsar issued his manifesto, Trotsky urged the Soviet to call off the general strike, as the strike started crumbling:

... the provinces, which had come out before the capital, now started going back to work. The Moscow strike ended on the nineteenth. The Petersburg Soviet decided to end the strike on 21 October at noon. The last to leave the field, it organised an astonishing demonstration of proletarian discipline by calling hundreds of thousands of workers back to their lathes at the same hour. [20]


On 21 October the Soviet announced that a solemn funeral of workers who had been killed during the strike would take place on the 23rd. On the 22nd it was learned that General Trepov was preparing the gendarmerie to suppress the demonstration, and that the Okhrana, the Tsar’s secret police, was scheming a pogrom against Jews. As a matter of fact, pogroms had already taken place in many towns. Trotsky moved the following resolution in the Soviet:

The pogroms against Jews and the persecution of workers and intellectuals which the hordes of the Black Hundred, with the cooperation of the uniformed and secret police, have caused to happen all over Russia represent a new attack on the social groups fighting for freedom in Russia. Therefore the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies firmly resolves that the Russian proletariat will fight with all the available resources every attempt by the Black Hundreds, and those encouraged by them to take to the path of violence, murder and robbery, to stop its great and terrible march towards freedom. [21]

Trotsky had to teach the Soviet and the workers how to retreat. On the night of 22 October Trotsky pleaded with the Soviet to cancel the funeral, putting forward the following resolution:

The Soviet decides: the proletariat of Petersburg will give the Tsarist government the last battle not on a day chosen by Trepov, but when this suits the armed and organised proletariat. Therefore the Soviet of Deputies resolves to replace the usual funeral procession with impressive meetings in all localities in honour of the victims. [22]

This, however, did not stop a wave of pogroms spreading throughout the country. Trotsky wrote:

A hundred of Russia’s towns and townlets were transformed into hells. A veil of smoke was drawn across the sun. Fires devoured entire streets with their houses and inhabitants. This was the old order’s revenge for its humiliation.

It recruited its fighting battalions everywhere, from every alley, every slum. Here was the petty shopkeeper and the beggar, the publican and his perennial clients, the janitor and the police spy, the professional thief and the amateur housebreaker, the small artisan and the brothel doorkeeper, the hungry, dumb muzhik [peasant] and yesterday’s villager deafened by the roar of the machine. Embittered poverty, hopeless ignorance, and debauched corruption placed themselves under the orders of privileged self-interest and ruling-class anarchy.

These people had acquired their first experience of mass street actions during the so-called ‘patriotic’ demonstrations at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese war. It was then that their basic props came to be known: the Tsar’s portrait, a bottle of vodka, a tricolor flag. Since that time, the planned organisation of society’s rejects had been developed on a colossal scale. Whereas the mass of pogromists (if ‘mass’ is the right word) remained more or less haphazard, the nucleus was always disciplined and organised in para-military style, receiving its slogans and its watchwords from above and deciding the time and scope of every murderous operation. Komissarov, an official of the police department, said: ‘It is possible to arrange any kind of pogrom, involving ten people if you like or 10,000 if you like’ ...

During the black October bacchanalia, compared with which St Bartholomew’s night looks like the most innocent piece of theatre, 3,500 to 4,000 people were killed and as many as 10,000 maimed in 100 towns. [23]

At Tomsk more than a thousand people were locked in a theatre and burnt alive in the presence of the governor and local bishop. [24]

In a number of towns workers organised armed detachments which actively resisted the thugs. Most effective was the armed workers’ resistance in Petersburg. Here no pogrom took place:

The workers made active preparations to defend their city. In certain cases whole plants undertook to go out into the streets at any threat of danger. The gun shops, ignoring all police restrictions, carried on a feverish trade in Brownings. But revolvers cost a great deal and the broad masses cannot afford them; the revolutionary parties and the Soviet had difficulty in arming their fighting detachments. Meanwhile rumours of a pogrom were growing. All plants and workshops having any access to iron or steel began, on their own initiative, to manufacture side-arms. Several thousand hammers were forging daggers, pikes, wire whips and knuckledusters. In the evening, at a meeting of the Soviet, one deputy after another mounted the rostrum, raising their weapons high above their heads and transmitting their electors’ solemn undertaking to suppress the pogrom as soon as it flared up. Their demonstration alone was bound to paralyse all initiative among rank-and-file pogromists. But the workers did not stop there. In the factory areas, beyond the Nevsky Gate, they organised a real militia with regular night watches. In addition to this they ensured special protection of the buildings of the revolutionary press, a necessary step in those anxious days when the journalist wrote and the typesetter worked with a revolver in his pocket. [25]

Soviet conquers press freedom

The mass of the workers exercised new freedoms in this period, often called ‘freedom days.’ On 19 October the Petersburg Soviet proclaimed de facto freedom of the press:

The Soviet of Deputies resolves that only those newspapers may be published whose editors ignore the censorship committee, refuse to submit their issues for censorship, and generally act in the same way as the Soviet in publishing its own newspaper. For this reason typesetters and other workers of the press will work only after editors have declared their readiness to put the freedom of the press into practice ...

Newspapers which fail to accept the present resolution will be confiscated from their sellers, and any workers who do not accept the decision of the Soviet of Deputies will be boycotted.

This resolution, extended a few days later to all journals, brochures and books, became the new press law. [26]

From October on, the mass of rank-and-file typesetters were drawn into the work of publishing illegal literature. Conspiratorial methods within the printshops disappeared, almost entirely. The workers’ pressure on the publishers increased at the same time. The typesetters insisted on newspapers being published in disregard of the conditions of censorship, threatening otherwise to withhold their services. [27]

The November General Strike

On 26 October a mutiny broke out in Kronstadt. Two days later martial law was declared in Kronstadt and the mutiny was crushed. The best of the soldiers and sailors were threatened with execution. At the same time the government declared a state of siege in Poland. On 1 November the Soviet organised a solemn reception for the ‘delegates of repressed Poland’. Trotsky warmly welcomed the delegates, proclaimed Poland’s right to determine her own fate, and moved the following resolution:

The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies calls upon the revolutionary proletariat of Petersburg to manifest its fraternal solidarity with the revolutionary soldiers of Kronstadt and the revolutionary workers of Poland by means of a political general strike, which has already shown its formidable power, and by means of mass protest meetings.

Tomorrow, 2 November, at 12:00 noon, the workers of Petersburg will stop work under the following slogans: Down with courts-martial! Down with the death penalty! Down with martial law in Poland and throughout Russia! ...

All large plants and factories represented on the Soviet were on strike before 12:00 noon on the second. Many medium- sized and small industrial undertakings which had not hitherto participated in political struggle now joined the strike, elected deputies and sent them to the Soviet. The regional committee of the Petersburg railway centre adopted the Soviet’s decision and all railways with the exception of the Finland railway ceased to operate. The absolute number of working-class strikers involved in the November strike exceeded not only that of the January strike but also that of the October strike. [28]

Count Witte hoped to pacify the proletariat by sending the following telegram to the Petersburg Soviet:

Brother workers, go back to work, abandon sedition, think of your wives and children. Do not heed bad advice. The Tsar has instructed us to pay special attention to the workers’ problems. For this purpose His Imperial Majesty has set up a Ministry of Trade and Industry, which is to establish just relations between workers and employers. Give us time and everything possible will be done for you. Listen to the advice of a man who is well disposed towards you and wishes you well. Count Witte. [29]

The Soviet made this telegram public at its meeting of 3 November. In reply to it Trotsky drafted the following statement on behalf of the Soviet:

The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, having taken note of Count Witte’s telegram to his ‘brother-workers’, wishes first of all to express its extreme surprise at the Tsar’s favorite’s extraordinary familiarity in permitting himself to address the workers of Petersburg as his ‘brothers’. There exists no family kinship whatsoever between the proletarians and Count Witte.

On the substance of the matter, the Soviet declares:

1. Count Witte calls upon us to think of our wives and children. In reply, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies calls upon all workers to count how many widows and orphans have been added to the ranks of the working class since the day Count Witte assumed state power.

2. Count Witte draws attention to the Tsar’s gracious attention to the working people. The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies reminds the Petersburg proletariat of Bloody Sunday 9 January.

3. Count Witte asks for ‘time’ and promises to do ‘everything possible’ for the workers. The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies knows that Witte has already found time to hand Poland over to the military hangmen, and the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies does not doubt that Count Witte will do everything possible to strangle the revolutionary proletariat.

4. Count Witte calls himself a man who is well-disposed towards us and wishes us well. The Soviet of Workers’ Deputies declares that it has no need of favours from the Tsar’s favorites. It demands a people’s government on the basis of universal, equal, direct, and secret franchise. [30]

The strike called by the Soviet was confined to the Petersburg area, and even here it was not total. So on 4 November, at an executive committee meeting of the Soviet, Trotsky moved a resolution to call off the strike, which passed by nine votes to six. However when the motion was put to the Soviet as a whole, it was rejected overwhelmingly – by 400 votes to four. [31] Anxious about the outcome, the next day Trotsky, using his massive power of persuasion, managed to convince the Soviet of the necessity to call off the strike.

Immediately afterwards the government announced that the sailors and soldiers of Kronstadt would be tried by ordinary courts, not military courts-martial, so the Soviet could withdraw, if not with victory, at least with honour. It had to withdraw, as strikers in the provinces were growing weary, and Trotsky believed it was always necessary to tell workers the truth.

A government telegram stating that the Kronstadt sailors are not to be judged by court-martial but by a military district court has just been made public.

The telegram is nothing but a demonstration of the weakness of the Tsarist government, nothing but a demonstration of our strength. Once more we can congratulate the Petersburg proletariat on a tremendous moral victory. But let us say straight out: even if this government telegram had not appeared, we should still have had to call upon the workers of Petersburg to stop the strike. Today’s news shows that the political manifestation all over Russia is on the wane. Our strike, real as it is, is in the nature of a demonstration. Only from this viewpoint can we judge its success or failure. [32]

The struggle needed to rise to a much higher stage, but the proletariat was not yet ready for it. From strike demonstrations, Trotsky argued, we have to move to the insurrection:

A decisive and merciless struggle lies ahead. Let us call off the strike now, let us be satisfied with its tremendous moral victory ... We must immediately proceed to organise and arm the workers for battle. You must form ‘fighting tens’ with elected leaders at every plant, ‘hundreds’ with other leaders and a commander over the ‘hundreds’. You must develop discipline in these cells to such a high point that at any given moment the entire plant will march forward at the first call ... The Soviet by an overwhelming majority of votes adopted the decision to call off the strike on Monday, 7 November, at 12:00 noon. Printed posters of the Soviet’s decision were distributed in the plants and factories and posted in the city. On the appointed day, at the appointed hour, the strike ended with the same unity with which it had begun. It had lasted 120 hours. [33]

The struggle for the eight-hour day

There is no Chinese Wall between partial struggle for economic reforms and political struggle for revolution. So it was that the two general strikes of October and November encouraged workers to fight for economic demands. Already it was often the case during great strikes during the great strikes that when work was resumed, the workers refused to work under the old conditions.

During the October general strike the employers did not take measures against the strikers. As a matter of fact, a number of industrialists allowed workers to hold meetings in factories, paid full or partial wages on strike days, and did not dismiss a single worker because of the strike. [34] The situation was different in the next confrontation:

On 26 October delegates from one of the Petersburg districts decided, without the knowledge of the Soviet, to introduce the eight-hour working day at their factories by revolutionary means. On the 27th the delegates’ proposal was unanimously adopted at several workers’ meetings. At the Alexandrovsky mechanical engineering works the question was decided by secret ballot to avoid pressure. The results were 1,668 for, 14 against. As of the 28th, several major metalworking plants began to work the eight-hour day. An identical movement flared up simultaneously at the other end of Petersburg ... The Soviets adopted a decision of enormous importance: it called on all factories and plants to introduce the eight-hour working day by takeover means on their own initiative. [35]

This was a challenge not to Tsarism but to the capitalists, and they reacted accordingly. Private employers as well as the state-employer carried out a universal lockout, forcing the workers to resume work under the old conditions; 19,000 workers were summarily flred. [36]

Again Trotsky had to lead an organised, disciplined retreat. He wrote:

The proletariat was up against the wall. A retreat became unavoidable. But the working masses persisted in their claim, refusing even to hear of a return to work under the old conditions.

On 6 November the Soviet adopted a compromise solution by declaring that the claim was no longer universal and calling for a continuance of the struggle only in those enterprises where there was some hope of success. The solution was clearly an unsatisfactory one because it failed to provide a clear-cut slogan and so threatened to break up the movement into a series of dissociated struggles. In the meantime the situation continued to deteriorate ...

Drastic steps were required, and on 12 November the Soviet decided to sound the retreat. This was the most dramatic of all the meetings of the workers’ parliament. The vote was divided. Two leading metalworking plants insisted on continuing the struggle. They were supported by representatives of several textile, glassmaking, and tobacco factories. The Putilov works were definitely against [continuing the strike] ... After a debate lasting four hours, the Soviet by an overwhelming majority adopted a resolution to retreat.

Defending the resolution to drop the campaign in the Soviet, the rapporteur of the Executive Committee [Trotsky] summed up the campaign in the following words: ‘We may not have won the eight-hour day for the masses, but we have certainly won the masses for the eight-hour day. Henceforth the war-cry: Eight hours and a gun! shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker’. [37]

Impact on the peasantry

The decisive events of the revolution took place in the towns, and above all in Petersburg. But they had a strong echo in the countryside, as Trotsky describes:

... as a revolutionary background to the towns, which were seething like cauldrons, came the flames of peasant risings in the countryside. At the end of November and the beginning of December agrarian disorders spread to a large number of rural areas: in the centre near Moscow, on the Volga, on the Don, and in the Kingdom of Poland there were incessant peasants’ strikes, wreckings of state-owned liquor shops, arson on country estates, seizures of property and land. The whole of Kovno province was in the grip of the Lithuanian peasants’ rising. Messages of ever-increasing alarm arrived from Lifland. Landowners were fleeing from their estates, provincial administrators were abandoning their posts. [38]

One historian writes:

In late October and November, agrarian disorders [were widespread] ... turbulence was growing in Congress Poland, while it continued to rage without let-up in the Baltic provinces and in Georgia. But the most rebellious areas were in European Russia, specifically in nineteen provinces located in the south-central part. In this area, more than 50 per cent of the districts experienced waves of illegal agrarian acts ranging from the customary cutting of timber to the burning of manor houses and murder of landlords. In seven ... provinces – Voronezh, Kursk, Poltava, Chernigov, Saratov, Tambov, and Penza – the unsettled state approached full-scale revolt. The names of many leading families were included in the list of those whose properties were burnt or overrun and looted: Kasatkin-Rostovsky, Kochubei, Orlov-Davydov, Apraxin, Vorontsov-Dashkov, Volkonsky, Katkov, Shcherbatov, Stolypin, Shuvalov, Leichtenberg, Shakhovskoi, Petrovo-Solovovo, Woeikov, Panin, Rodzianko, and Musin-Pushkin. As the cry indicating the peasants’ flaming retribution, ‘The red cock is crowing!’ was relayed from estate to etate, the governors bombarded Witte with demands for additional troops to deal with the situation. [39]

Trotsky exhibited unparalleled brilliance when he appealed to the peasantry. In a proclamation to the peasants which Krassin published under the signature of the Bolshevik Central Committee, Trotsky used simple language with refrains that were suitable to be read aloud, as very few of the peasants were literate. He related to the peasants the January massacre in Petersburg. He described how the workers marched ‘peacefully and calmly’ to the Tsar’s palace, carrying the Tsar’s picture, icons and Church banners.

What did the Tsar do? How did he answer the toilers of St Petersburg?

Hearken, hearken peasants ...

This is the way the Tsar talked with his people ...

All the troops of Petersburg were raised to their feet ... Thus the Russian Tsar girded himself for the talk with his subjects ...

200,000 workers moved to the palace.

They were dressed in their Sunday best, the grey and old ones and the young; the women went along with their husbands. Fathers and mothers led their little children by their hands. Thus the people went to their Tsar.

Hearken, hearken peasants!

Let every word engrave itself on your hearts ...

All the streets and squares, where the peaceful workers were to march, were occupied by troops.

‘Let us through to the Tsar!’ the workers begged.

The old ones fell on their knees.

The women begged and the children begged.

‘Let us through to the Tsar!’

And then it happened!

The guns went off with a thunder. The snow reddened with workers’ blood ...

Tell all and sundry in what way the Tsar has dealt with the toilers of St Petersburg! ...

Remember, Russian peasants, how every Russian Tsar has repeated with pride: ‘In my country, I am the first courtier and the first landlord’ ...

Russian Tsars have made the peasants into an Estate of serfs; they have made of them, like of dogs, presents to their faithful servants ...

Peasants, at your meetings, tell the soldiers, the people’s sons who live on the people’s money, that they dare not shoot at the people.

Thus, in plain words, without weakening for a moment his grasp on the muzhik’s imagination, Trotsky explained the end his party was pursuing, and the means it would employ; and he translated the alien term ‘revolution’ into the peasants’ idiom:

Peasants, let this fire burst all over Russia at one and the same time, and no force will put it out. Such a nation-wide fire is called revolution. [40]

Trotsky ends his call to the peasants with the following words:

Rise up, peasants! It is time! The urban workers call you to battle! The Tsarist government holds its troops in readiness to crush the awakened people. But where the whole of the Russian peasantry rises up and unites with the urban workers, then the Tsarist troops will not be equal to the people’s revolution. The Tsarist government will fall, our homeland will become free, and working people will be able to strike openly and freely for a happy lot.

Rise up, peasants!

Down with the Tsarist bureaucrats!

Down with the Tsarist autocracy!

Long live the workers’ and peasants’ uprising! Long live the National Constituent Assembly! [signed] Central Committee of the RSDRP. [41]

On the Armed Insurrection

The November strike did not win the eight-hour day for the working class, but, as Trotsky said, it won the working class for the eight-hour day. Similarly, it did not win the insurrection for the working class, but the idea of insurrection won the working class.

Trotsky argued clearly that the general strike by itself cannot win the struggle against Tsarism, that it must be the springboard for the armed insurrection:

In struggle it is extremely important to weaken the enemy. That is what a strike does. At the same time a strike brings the army of the revolution to its feet. But neither the one nor the other, in itself, creates a state revolution.

The power still has to be snatched from the hands of the old rulers and handed over to the revolution. That is the fundamental task. A general strike only creates the necessary preconditions. It is quite inadequate for achieving the task itself. [42]

The logical and necessary climax of the strike must be the open uprising, and the success of the armed uprising depends above all on winning the muzhiks in uniform on to the side of the revolutionary proletariat. Soldiers were also affected by the revolution:

The November strike stirred the consciousness of many circles within the army, and, in a matter of a few days, gave rise to a number of political meetings in the barracks of the Petersburg garrison. Not only individual soldiers, but also soldiers’ delegates began to show up in the executive committee and even at meetings of the Soviet itself, making speeches, demanding support; revolutionary élan among the troops was reinforced; proclamations were widely read. [43]

A wave of army meetings swept the entire country. The barracks were filled with the spirit of mutiny. Here discontent generally arises on the ground of the soldiers’ immediate needs, then develops rapidly and assumes a political orientation. From the ... third of November on, military disturbances of extreme gravity occurred in Petersburg (among sailors), Kiev, Yekaterinodar, Yelizavetpol, Proskurovo, Kursk, and Lomzha. In Warsaw guardsmen demanded the release of their arrested officers. Messages came in from all sides indicating that the entire Manchurian army was aflame with revolution. A meeting held at Irkutsk on 28 November was attended by the entire garrison – some 4,000 men. Under the chairmanship of a non-commissioned officer, the meeting decided to endorse the demand for a Constituent Assembly. In many towns soldiers fraternised with workers at meetings. On 2 and 3 December rioting began among troops of the Moscow garrison. There were meetings in which even cossacks took part. Street processions to the strains of the ‘Marseillaise’. Officers of certain regiments were forcibly removed from their posts. [44]

Not all soldiers were affected in the same way by the workers’ action. Trotsky makes the acute observation that the class origin of the soldiers was decisive:

... the most revolutionary are sappers, engineers, gunners, in short, not the grey illiterates of the infantry, but skilled, highly literate, technically trained soldiers. To this difference at the intellectual level corresponds one of social origin. The vast majority of infantry soldiers are young peasants, whereas the engineers and gunners are recruited chiefly from among industrial workers.

The same applied to the navy. There also:

... the technically trained, that is, proletarian elements, played the principal revolutionary role ... Who were the men who led the sailors’ mutinies? Who raised the red banner on the battleship? The technicians, the engine men. These industrial workers in sailors’ uniforms who form a minority among the crew, nevertheless dominate the crew, because they control the engine, the heart of the battleship.

Friction between the proletarian minority and the peasant majority in the armed forces is a characteristic of all our military risings, and it paralyses them and robs them of power. The workers carry their class advantages with them to the barracks: intelligence, technical training, resoluteness, an ability for concerted action. The peasants contribute their overwhelming numerical strength. The army, by universal conscription, overcomes the muzhik’s lack of productive coordination in a mechanical way, and his passivity, his chief political fault, is transformed into an irreplaceable virtue. Even when the peasant regiments are drawn into the revolutionary movement on the ground of their immediate needs, they are always inclined to adopt wait-and-see tactics, and at the enemy’s first decisive attack they abandon the ‘mutineers’ and allow themselves to be placed once more under the disciplinary yoke.

It follows from this that attack is the only proper method for military risings: attack without any interruptions that might engender hesitation and disorder. But it also follows that the tactics of revolutionary attack encounter the greatest obstacle in the backwardness and distrustful passivity of the muzhik-soldier.

This contradiction was shortly to reveal itself with full force in the suppression of the December rising which closed the first chapter of the Russian revolution. [45]

Winning soldiers and sailors to the side of the proletariat is crucial to the victory of the revolution, and Trotsky gives a brilliant analysis of the way the armed forces can be won, an analysis that proved absolutely prophetic in 1917.

Without class kinship between the forces on both sides of the barricades, the triumph of the revolution, given the military technology of today, would be impossible indeed. But on the other hand, it would be a most dangerous illusion that the army’s ‘crossing over to the side of the people’ can take the form of a peaceful, spontaneous manifestation ...

The army’s political mood, that great unknown of every revolution, can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people. The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. This majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory.

Such a belief is not created by political agitation alone. Only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle – not to demonstrate against the government, but to overthrow it – does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over to the side of the people’.

Thus an insurrection is, in essence, not so much a struggle against the army, as a struggle for the army. The more stubborn, far-reaching and successful the insurrection, the more probable – indeed inevitable – is a fundamental change in the attitude of the troops. Guerrilla fighting on the basis of a revolutionary strike cannot in itself, as we saw in Moscow, lead to victory. But it creates the possibility of sounding the mood of the army, and after a first important victory – that is, once a part of the garrison has joined the insurrection – the guerrilla struggle can be transformed into a mass struggle in which a part of the troops, supported by the armed and unarmed population, will fight another part, which will find itself in a ring of universal hatred. [46]

The Soviet – Embryo of workers’ government

The Petersburg Soviet, which existed for 50 days – from 13 October to 3 December 1905 – wrote Trotsky, ‘organised the working masses, directed the political strikes and demonstrations, armed the workers and protected the population against pogroms.’ It was an embryo of a workers’ government.

The name of ‘workers’ government’ which the workers themselves on the one hand, and the reactionary press on the other, gave to the Soviet, was an expression of the fact that the Soviet 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. [47]

Trotsky gives a graphic description of the Petersburg Soviet:

The Soviet’s premises were always crowded with petitioners and plaintiffs of all kinds – mostly workers, domestic servants, shop assistants, peasants, soldiers and sailors. Some had an absolutely phantasmagorical idea of the Soviet’s power and its methods. There was one blind veteran of the Russo-Turkish war, covered with crosses and decorations, who complained of dire poverty and begged the Soviet ‘to put a bit of pressure on Number One’ (that is, the Tsar). Applications and petitions arrived from remote parts of the country. After the November strike, the inhabitants of one district of a Polish province sent a telegram of thanks to the Soviet. An old Cossack from Poltava province complained of unjust treatment by the Princess 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 princess 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. [48]

The Soviet’s last gesture

The massive Tsarist power machine remained intact. It is true there was ferment in the armed forces, especially in the navy, but by and large the muzhik infantry remained obedient to the Tsar. The sporadic revolts in the armed forces were put down. Behind the army stood the mass of the peasantry. Although in part it was awakened by the revolution, it was very tardy in rebelling. As Trotsky pointedly put it: ‘All the elements that go to make a successful revolution were there, but they did not mature.’ [49]

In face of this situation, Trotsky exhibited a brilliant tactical touch. The need was to encourage workers’ action, to harass the enemy, without engaging him in general battle. To a large extent the aim of the actions was not so much to win real gains for the workers, which were out of reach, but to win the workers to revolutionary ideas. As we have seen, if the workers could not win the insurrection, they could be won to the idea of the insurrection, thus preparing them for future workers’ revolution.

Trotsky, a born man of action, taught the workers not only how to advance but, much more difficult, how to retreat when need be.

The defeat of the November strike left the Soviet with only one way forward – to use gestures to expose Tsarism. On 2 December, a proclamation of a financial boycott of the Tsar was issued in the name of the Soviet, the Peasants’ Union and the socialist parties. The Financial Manifesto was written by Parvus. It called on the people to stop payment of taxes, to accept only gold coins, not banknotes, and to withdraw deposits from the banks. The manifesto denounced the corruption of the Tsarist administration, the bankruptcy of its finances, its faked balances, and above all, its unrepresentative character:

Only the Constituent Assembly, after the overthrow of the autocracy, can halt this financial ruin. It will carry out a close investigation of the state finances, and will draw up a detailed, clear, accurate and certified balance sheet of state revenue and expenditure (a budget).

Fear of popular control, which would reveal to all the world the government’s financial insolvency, is forcing it to keep putting off the convening of the people’s representative assembly.

In order to safeguard its rapacious activities, the government forces the people to fight unto death. Hundreds of thousands of citizens perish and are ruined in this fight, and industry, trade, and means of communication are destroyed at their very foundations ...

The autocracy has never enjoyed the people’s confidence, and has never received any authority from the people.

At the present time the government is behaving within the frontiers of its own country as though it were conquered territory. [50]

The Financial Manifesto was a substitute, and a poor one at that, for an insurrection. There was a contradiction between the Financial Manifesto and the whole argument put forward by Trotsky and the Soviet that the only way to overthrow Tsarism was by an armed uprising. After the event Trotsky wrote:

It goes without saying that this manifesto could not, in itself, overthrow Tsarism and its finances ... The Soviet’s financial manifesto was nothing other than an overture to the December rising. [51]

The end of the Soviet

On 3 December troops surrounded the building of the Free Economic Association where the Soviet met. In the afternoon Trotsky presided over a meeting of the executive which was to prepare the agenda for the Soviet session. He reported on the government’s latest attacks: the provisional governors had been given power to declare a state of siege – in some places they had already done so; the newspapers that had published the Financial Manifesto had been seized. Draconian new rules concerning strikes were promulgated. The minister of the interior was preparing to reimpose the ban on parties that had participated in the Soviet and to imprison their leaders.

The representative of the Central Committee of the Social Democratic Party [Bolsheviks] submitted his party’s proposal to accept the challenge to establish contact immediately with all revolutionary organisations throughout the country, to appoint a date for the commencement of a political general strike, to mobilise all forces and all reserves, and, supported by the agrarian movement and soldiers’ riots, to go forward towards a decisive solution.

The delegate from the railwaymen’s union said it was certain that the railwaymen’s congress convened for 6 December would decide in favour of a strike.

Trotsky thought these statements to be completely unrealistic. And events immediately proved him right.

The representative of the Postal and Telegraph Union spoke in favour of the party’s proposal and expressed the hope that the general strike movement would instil new life into the postal and telegraph strike which was beginning to peter out. The debate was interrupted by the news that the Soviet was to be arrested that day. Confirmation arrived half an hour later. By that time the large assembly hall on the ground floor had filled with delegates, party representatives, press correspondents and guests. The executive committee, which was meeting upstairs, decided that some of its members should withdraw so as to ensure continuity in case of arrest. But it was already too late ...

[Trotsky] opened a first-floor window, leaned out and called: ‘Comrades, don’t offer resistance! We declare in advance that if any shots are fired, they will have to come from the police or an agent provocateur’. A few minutes later the soldiers climbed the stairs to the first floor and took up a position at the door of the room in which the executive committee was meeting.

The chairman (addressing an officer): ‘I suggest you close the door and do not disturb the business.’ The soldiers remain in the passage but do not close the door.

The chairman: ‘The meeting continues. Who wants to take the floor?’

The representative of the Office Workers’ Union: ‘By today’s act of brute force the government has reinforced the arguments in favour of a general strike. It has determined the strike in advance. The outcome of the proletariat’s new and decisive action depends on the troops. Let them come out in defence of the motherland!’ (The officer hastily shuts the door. The speaker raises his voice). ‘Even through closed doors the fraternal call of the workers, the voice of their tormented country, will reach the soldiers!’

The door opens and the company commander of the gendarmerie, pale as death, creeps in (he was afraid of a bullet), followed by a couple of dozen policemen who place themselves behind the delegates’ chairs.

The chairman: ‘I declare the meeting of the executive committee closed.’

The sound of loud, metallic banging came from downstairs. It was as though a dozen blacksmiths were working at their anvils. The delegates were smashing their Brownings so as to prevent them falling into the hands of the police!

A search began. Everyone refused to give their names. Searched, their descriptions noted and a number allocated to each, the members of the executive committee were escorted away by the half-drunken guardsmen. [52]

Immediately after the arrests a second Soviet was formed from delegates who had accidentally escaped arrest and others newly elected; the new executive committee was headed by Parvus. The Soviet had to meet in secret, and a plenary session was held only once. Nor did the Soviet continue to enjoy the popularity of its predecessor. On 6 December the Soviet called for a political general strike throughout Russia, [53] but it got very little response.

On 9 December a workers’ insurrection led by the Bolsheviks broke out in Moscow. This was the zenith of the revolution. Seven days later the insurrection was suppressed.

On 2 January 1906 the Second Petersburg Soviet was arrested.


Immediately after the doors of the prison closed on him, Trotsky summed up the lessons of the Petersburg Soviet for the future:

The substance of the Soviet was its effort to become an organ of public authority. The proletariat on one hand, the reactionary press on the other, have called the Soviet ‘a labour government; this only reflects the fact that the Soviet was in reality an embryo of a revolutionary government. Insofar as the Soviet was in actual possession of authoritative power, it made use of it; insofar as the power was in the hands of the military and bureaucratic monarchy, the Soviet fought to obtain it. Prior to the Soviet, there had been revolutionary organisations among the industrial working men, mostly of a Social-Democratic nature. But those were organisations among the proletariat; their immediate aim was to influence the mosses. The Soviet is an organisation of the proletariat; its aim is to fight for revolutionary power.

The main weapon of the Soviet was a political strike of the masses. The power of the strike lies in disorganising the power of the government. The greater the ‘anarchy’ created by a strike, the nearer its victory ... The more effective the disorganisation of government caused by a strike, the more the strike organisation is compelled to assume governmental functions ...

There is no doubt, however, that the first new wave of the revolution will lead to the creation of Soviets all over the country. An All-Russian Soviet, organised by an All-Russian Labour Congress, will assume leadership of the local elective organisations of the proletariat ... History does not repeat itself, and the new Soviet will not have again to go through the experience of the Fifty Days. These, however, will furnish it a complete programme of action.

This programme is perfectly clear. To establish revolutionary cooperation with the army, the peasantry, and the plebeian lower strata of the urban bourgeoisie. To abolish absolutism. To destroy the material organisation of absolutism by reconstructing and partly dismissing the army. To break up the entire bureaucratic apparatus. To introduce an eight-hour workday. To arm the population, starting with the proletariat. To turn the Soviets into organs of revolutionary self-government in the cities. To create Councils of Peasants’ Delegates (Peasants’ Committees) as local organs of the agrarian revolution. To organise elections to the Constituent Assembly and to conduct a pre-election campaign for a definite programme on the part of the representatives of the people ...

The history of Fifty Days will be only a poor page in the great book of the proletariat’s struggle and ultimate triumph. [54]

Mensheviks under the heady influence of Trotsky

In October and November the Petersburg Menshevik leaders, above all Dan and Martynov, fell under the influence of Trotsky. They dismissed the bourgeoisie as counter-revolutionary, and like the Bolsheviks they prepared for the seizure of power and the establishment of a revolutionary provisional government. As Dan wrote to Kautsky on 9 November 1905: ‘We live here as though in a state of intoxication. The revolutionary air affects people like wine.’ Two weeks later he wrote to Adler: ‘As far as the general strike is concerned, it engendered the most revolutionary and activist mood among the St Petersburg workers [and] it strongly affected the leaders’. [55]

Many years later Dan remembered:

... the ‘Trotskyite’ themes ... began echoing more and more loudly in the utterances and articles of eminent members of the Iskra editorial board (first and foremost Martynov and the author of these lines) with the manifest approval of a substantial segment of the Mensheviks, especially of the Menshevik workers. The general editorial line of Nachalo also began becoming more and more ‘Trotskyite’. [56]

Not all Menshevik leaders were affected by the revolutionary euphoria. Among the most consistent opponents of the move to the left by the Mensheviks were Axelrod and Plekhanov, also Martov, though less so.

Dan, Martynov, Martov and Potresov joined Parvus and Trotsky in editing Nachalo, which carried extremely revolutionary articles. Thus an editorial in Nachalo of 20 November 1905 stated:

The longer history postponed the collapse of autocracy, while world capitalism went on developing and capitalist conditions began to transform the old order in Russia, the more logical it became to expect a direct transition from democratic to socialist revolution.

Superficial Marxists generally reply to this argument that the character of a revolution is determined by the state of development of productive forces, and that a socialist revolution is technically impossible in Russia in the near future because those forces have not yet matured sufficiently. But this is a misunderstanding of Marxist doctrine. The state of development of productive forces certainly determines the character of a revolution, but only in the final analysis. What it does is to determine a certain economic development and, through it, a development of the class struggle, and it is this struggle which primarily and directly determines the character of a revolution. We must remember that compared with the development of productive forces, the class struggle develops much more convulsively and is far more subject to what we tall elements of chance. [57]

Elsewhere in Nachalo Martynov wrote:

You ask what our demands in the Constituent Assembly are going to be? Our clear and categorical reply is this: we shall demand, not ‘socialiastion’, but socialism, not equal shares of the land, but public ownership of all means of production.’ True, ‘vulgar Marxists’ might object that ‘a socialist revolution in Russia is technically impossible in the near future’.

Martynov then triumphantly demolished their objections and concludes:

The Social Democrats alone ... have boldly raised the slogan of permanent revolution at the present time, they alone will lead the masses to the last and decisive victory. [58]

Martov found himself in a minority on Nachalo. He felt like a fish out of water on the editorial board. He wrote to Axelrod: ‘We shall have to agree to the propaganda of a fairly risky idea without any counter-criticism on our part.’ [59] In 1909, in his History of Russian Social Democracy, Martov wrote of ‘mitigating circumstances’ that explained the ‘aberration of the Mensheviks’ political vision.’ [60]

The revolutionary intoxication also affected the Moscow Mensheviks. They enthusiastically backed the Bolshevik-led army uprising in Moscow in December 1905. [61]

The line of Nachalo was hardly distinguishable from that of Lenin’s Novaia Zhizn. When both papers were shut down by the government on 2-3 December, it was therefore found possible to publish a joint newspaper, Severny Golos (Northern Voice). Lenin could write with complete justification:

In Severny Golos, the Mensheviks, jointly with the Bolsheviks, called for a general strike and insurrection; and they called upon the workers to continue this struggle until they had captured power. The revolutionary situation itself suggested practical slogans. There were arguments only over matters of detail in the appraisal of events: for example, Nachalo regarded the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies as organs of revolutionary local self-government, while Novaia Zhizn regarded them as embryonic organs of revolutionary state power that united the proletariat with the revolutionary democrats.

Nachalo inclined towards the dictatorship of the proletariat. Novaia Zhizn advocated the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every stage of development of every socialist party in Europe? [62]

The revolutionary mood was highly infectious. After the events, in 1906, Miliukov, the leader of the Cadets, explained the passivity of his party in the last few months of 1905 thus:

Any protest, even by a party such as the Constitutional Democratic Party, would have been completely impossible during the last months of 1905. Those who now charge our party that it did not then protest against the revolutionary illusions of Trotskyism ... do not understand, or have forgotten, the mood of the democratic audiences who were attending the public meetings. [63]

After the revolution, during which they had moved very much to the left, the Mensheviks veered strongly to the right. At the Stockholm Unity Congress of April 1906 the left wing, influenced by Trotsky and Parvus, was hardly discernible. As Lenin put it:

... a striking thing was the complete absence among the Mensheviks of the trend that was so clearly revealed in Nachalo, and which in the party we are accustomed to connect with the names of Parvus and Trotsky. True, it is quite possible that there were some ‘Parvusites’ and ‘Trotskyites’ among the Mensheviks – I was told that there were about eight of them. [64]

Lunacharsky explained the volte-face of the Mensheviks thus:

The Mensheviks are impressionists, people who yield to the mood of the moment. When the revolutionary tide rose and October-November 1905 arrived, Nachalo galloped off at breakneck speed, and went even more Bolshevik than the Bolsheviks. It galloped from democratic dictatorship to socialist dictatorship. But when the revolutionary tide turned, when enthusiasm ebbed and the Cadets rose to the top, the Mensheviks hastened to adjust themselves to this subdued mood. They now trot behind the Cadets, and disdainfully brush aside the October-November forms of struggle. [65]

At the time of the revolution Trotsky did not clearly understand that the revolutionary stance of the Mensheviks was a by-product of their instability, of their impressionism. A few years later, in 1909, however, he could write:

It may seem paradoxical to say that the principal psychological feature of opportunism is its inability to wait. But that is undoubtedly true. In periods when friendly and hostile social forces, by virtue of their antagonism and their interaction, create a total political standstill; when the molecular process of economic growth, by intensifying the contradictions, not only fails to disturb the political balance but actually strengthens it and, as it were, makes it permanent – in such periods opportunism, devoured by impatience, looks around for ‘new’ ways and means of putting into effect what history is not yet ready for in practice. Tired of its own inadequacy and unreliability, it goes in search of ‘allies’. It hurls itself avidly upon the dung-heap of liberalism. [66]

Many years later, in 1940, Trotsky understood very well the nature of the Mensheviks’ revolutionary stand in October- November 1905:

Opportunists to the very marrow of their bones, the Mensheviks were temporarily able to adapt themselves even to the revolutionary upsurge; yet they were incapable either of guiding it or of remaining faithful to its historic tasks during the Revolution’s ebb-tide. [67]

Impressionism was the main characteristic of Menshevism, swept by the ebbs and flows of the struggle. A revolutionary party needs steadfastness, resolution.

In his element

Trotsky was in his element in 1905. During the period of darkest reaction he could look back to 1905 and write:

Just because revolution tears the veil of mystery from the true face of the social structure, just because it brings the classes into conflict in the broad political arena, the Marxist politician feels that revolution is his natural element. [68]

He was impatient for the coming revolution:

The whole of history is an enormous machine in the service of our ideals. It works with barbarous slowness, with insensitive cruelty, but it works. We are sure of it. But when its omnivorous mechanism swallows up our life’s blood for fuel, we feel like calling out to it with all the strength we still possess:

‘Faster! Do it faster!’ [69]

The 1905 revolution was a dress rehearsal for the 1917 revolution. It was also a dress rehearsal for Trotsky’s role in 1917. The absolute resolution and confidence he showed then were nurtured in 1905.

The events of 1905 were a prologue to the two revolutions of 1917, that of February and that of October. In the prologue all the elements of the drama were included, but not carried through. The Russo-Japanese war had made Tsarism totter. Against the background of a mass movement the liberal bourgeoisie had frightened the monarchy with its opposition. The workers had organised independently of the bourgeoisie, and in opposition to it, in soviets, a form of organisation then first called into being. Peasant uprisings to seize the land occurred throughout vast stretches of the country. Not only the peasants, but also the revolutionary parts of the army tended toward the soviets, which at the moment of highest tension openly disputed the power with the monarchy. However, all the revolutionary forces were then going into action for the first time, lacking experience and confidence ... Although with a few broken ribs, Tsarism came out of the experience of 1905 alive and strong enough. [70]

Though the years following the defeat of the 1905 revolution were very arid in Trotsky’s life, the immediate fruit of the revolution was his development of the theory of permanent revolution.


1. Pokrovsky, volume 2, page 176.

2. Lenin, Works, volume 23, pages 248-9.

3. Trotsky, My Life, page 171.

4. Trotsky, 1905, page 78.

5. Pokrovsky, volume 2, page 121.

6. W. Grinewitsch, Die Gewerkschaftsbewegung in Russlands, volume 1 (Berlin 1927), pages 231-5.

7. Iskra, 17 March 1905; Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 1, book 1, page 239.

8. Iskra, 17 March 1905.

9. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, pages 196-205; Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pages 120-1.

10. Trotsky, 1905, pages 89 and 94.

11. N. Khrustalev-Nosar, History of the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, in the collection Istoriia Soveta Rabochikh Deputatov Peterburge (Petersburg 1907), page 147.

12. Trotsky, 1905, page 104.

13. O. Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers’, Peasants’ and Soldiers’ Councils 1905-1921 (New York 1974), page 47.

14. Lunacharsky, page 65.

15. S. Harcave, The Russian Revolution of 1905 (London 1964), pages 199-200.

16. Trotsky, 1905, pages 116-7.

17. L. Geller and N. Rovenskaia (editors) Petersburgskii i Moskovskii Sovety Rabochikh deputatove 1905 goda v dokumentakh (Moscow-Leningrad 1926), page 28.

18. Trotsky, 1905, page 123.

19. Trotsky, 1905, pages 124-5.

20. Trotsky, 1905, page 124.

21. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 285.

22. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 284.

23. Trotsky, 1905, pages 131-2 and 136.

24. Pokrovsky, page 170.

25. Pokrovsky, pages 137-8.

26. Trotsky, 1905, pages 141-2; Geller and Rovenskaia, page 32.

27. Trotsky, 1905, pages 140-1.

28. Trotsky, 1905, page 168; Celler and Rovenskaia, pages 45-7; Khrustalev-Nosar in Istoriia Soveta, pages 106-126.

29. Quoted in Trotsky, 1905, page 169.

30. Trotsky, 1905, pages 169-70.

31. Istoriia Soveta, page 121.

32. Trotsky, 1905, page 171.

33. Trotsky, 1905, pages 173-4.

34. Khrustalev-Nosar in Istoriia Soveta, page 127.

35. Trotsky, 1905, pages 180-1.

36. Khrustaluv-Nosar in Istoriia Soveta, page 131.

37. Trotsky, 1905, pages 182-4 and 186.

38. Trotsky, 1905, page 230.

39. Harcave, pages 216-7.

40. Iskra, 3 March 1905; Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, pages 217-224; Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, pages 122-3.

41. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 224.

42. Trotsky, 1905, page 102.

43. Trotsky, 1905, page 175.

44. Trotsky, 1905, pages 229-30.

45. Trotsky, 1905, pages 208-9.

46. Trotsky, 1905, pages 268-9.

47. Trotsky, 1905, page 251.

48. Trotsky, 1905, pages 223-4.

49. Trotsky, 1905, page 179.

50. Trotsky, 1905, pages 226-7.

51. Trotsky, 1905, page 227.

52. Trotsky, 1905, pages 231-3.

53. Geller and Rovenskaia, pages 79-82.

54. Trotsky, Our Revolution (New York 1918), pages 151-3 and 159-60.

55. A. Ascher, Pavel Axelrod and the Development of Menshevism (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1972), page 241.

56. Dan, page 343.

57. Nachalo, 20 November 1905, reproduced in A. Ascher (editor) The Mensheviks in the Russian Revolution (London 1976), page 59.

58. Quoted in Trotsky, 1905, pages 302-3 (italics in the original).

59. Pisma Akselroda i Martova, pages 145-6.

60. L. Martov, Istoriia rossiskoi Sotsiaidemokratii (Moscow-Petrograd 1923), page 166.

61. M.I. Vasilyev-Iuzhin, Moskovskii sovet rabochikh deputatov v 1905 g (Moscow 1925), page 85.

62. Lenin, Works, volume 10, page 252.

63. P. Miliukov, Kak Proshlii Vybory vo Vtoroiu Gos. Dumu (Petersburg 1907), pages 91-2.

64. Lenin, Works, volume 10, pages 323-4.

65. Lenin, Works, volume 10, pages 369.

66. Trotsky, 1905, page 300.

67. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 68-9.

68. Trotsky, 1905, page 305.

69. Trotsky, 1905, page 351.

70. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (London 1934), page 34.

Last updated on 219 July 2018