Leon Trotsky



The Proletariat and the Russian Revolution

On the Menshevist Theory of the Russian Revolution [1]

* * *

Every good European, and, not least, every European socialist thinks of Russia as the land of the unexpected, for the simple reason that results always seem unexpected when you do not know their causes. French travelers in the eighteenth century reported that the Russians heated their streets with bonfires. European socialists in the twentieth century naturally disbelieved this, but nevertheless considered the Russian climate too severe to admit of the development of social democracy. The opposite also is true. A certain French novelist, I forget whether it was Eugéne Sue or Dumas pére, makes his hero drink tea in Russia, sous l’ornbre d’une kljukwa, in the shadow of a kliukva, kliukva being the Russian word for cranberry. Of course any educated European today knows that for a man and a samovar to find room under a cranberry plant is almost as difficult as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. But the colossal events of the Russian revolution, by their utter unexpectedness, have driven many Western socialists to believe that the Russian climate, so recently in need of street heating, has suddenly become capable of transforming frail arctic plants into giant baobabs. And this is why, when the first mighty impact of the revolution was crushed by the military forces of Tsarism, many hastened to cross from the shadow of the kliukva into the shadow of disillusionment.

Fortunately the Russian revolution has provoked in the socialist West a genuine desire to make sense of Russian society. I would find it hard, however, to say which is more valuable – this intellectual interest or the third state Duma, which, after all, is also a gift of the revolution, at least in the sense that a dog’s corpse washed up by the tide on a sandbank is a “gift” of the ocean.

Thanks are certainly due to the publishing house of Dietz in Stuttgart which has produced three volumes to meet the interest aroused by the revolution. [2] We must point out, however, that the three books are by no means of equal value. Maslow’s work is a major study of Russia’s agrarian relations. Its scientific value is so great that the author may be forgiven, not only the extreme formal weakness of the book, but even his far from sound version of Marx’s theory of land rent. Paschitnow’s book, while in no sense an independent study, offers a certain amount of useful material concerning the Russian worker’s position – in the factory or mine, at home, in hospital, to some extent in his trade union, but not within the country’s social organism. But then the author never set out to do this. Consequently his work is of very little help in understanding the revolutionary role of the Russian proletariat.

That is the important question which Tscherewanin’s brochure, recently published in a German translation, attempts to illuminate; and it is this brochure which we wish to discuss in the following pages.


Tscherewanin begins by analyzing the general causes of the revolution. He sees it as the product of a clash between the irresistible demands of the country’s capitalist development and the feudal forms of the Russian state and its laws. “The inexorable logic of economic development,” he writes, “created a situation where all strata of the population, with the exception of the feudal nobility, were finally compelled to adopt a position hostile to the government.” (p.10)

In this line-up of oppositional and revolutionary forces “the proletariat undoubtedly played a central role.” (Ibid.) But the proletariat only had significance as part of the oppositional whole. It could be effective within the historical framework of a general struggle for the creation of the new bourgeois society only to the extent that it was supported by the bourgeois opposition, or rather to the extent that the proletariat itself, by its revolutionary actions, supported the bourgeois opposition. And vice versa: each time that the proletariat by its immoderate actions (or, if you wish, its historically premature actions), isolated itself from bourgeois democracy, it suffered defeats and slowed down the development of the revolution. That is the substance of Tscherewanin’s historical theory. [3]

Throughout the whole brochure he is an indefatigable opponent of any overestimation of the Russian proletariat’s revolutionary strength or political role.

He analyzes the great drama of January 9 and arrives at the following conclusion: “Trotsky is wrong when he writes that the workers marched to the Winter Palace on January 9, not with humble pleas, but with a demand.” (p.27.) He accuses the party organization of overestimating the maturity shown by the Petersburg proletariat in February 1905 in the matter of Senator Shidlovsky’s commission, when the elected representatives of the masses demanded public and legal guarantees for themselves and, on being refused them, walked out, and when the workers responded to the arrest of their representatives by going on strike. He gives a brief historical sketch of the great October strike and formulates his conclusions as follows: “We have seen the elements that went into the making of the October strike and the role played in it by the bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia. We have clearly established that the proletariat did not deal this serious and possibly mortal blow to absolutism by itself nor by its own forces alone.” (p.56.) After the issuing of the manifesto of October 17 the whole of bourgeois society wanted the restoration of calm. Therefore it was “madness” on the part of the proletariat to choose the path of revolutionary insurrection. The proletariat’s energies should have been channeled into elections to the Duma.

Tscherewanin attacks those who pointed out that, at that moment, the Duma was only a promise and that no one knew when and how the elections would take place or whether they would take place at all. Quoting an article written by me on the day when the manifesto was issued, he says: “The victory just won was quite wrongly minimized in Izvestia, the paper of the Soviet Workers’ Deputies, which wrote soon after the manifesto: ’A constitution has been given, but the autocracy remains. Everything has been given, and nothing has been given.’ Thereafter, according to Tscherewanin, things went from bad to worse. Instead of supporting the congress of the zemtsy, which was demanding universal franchise for elections to the Duma, the proletariat provoked a brutal break with liberalism and bourgeois democracy by choosing two new and “doubtful” allies: the peasantry and the army. The introduction of the eight-hour day by revolutionary means, the November strike as a response to martial law in Poland – mistake followed mistake, and the path led to the fatal debacle of December, which, in turn, together with further errors on the part of the social-democrats, prepared the ground for the collapse of the first Duma and the triumph of counter-revolution.

Such is Tscherewanin’s view of history. The German translator has done everything in his power to tone down the author’s accusations and diatribes, but even in this softened form Tscherewanin’s work reads far more like an indictment of the proletariat’s revolutionary crimes than a proper description of the proletariat’s revolutionary role.

Tscherewanin replaces any materialist analysis of social relations by a formalist deduction along the following lines: our revolution is a bourgeois revolution; a victorious bourgeois revolution must transfer power to the bourgeoisie; the proletariat must collaborate in the bourgeois revolution; consequently it must collaborate in transferring power into the hands of the bourgeoisie; hence the idea of power being taken over by the proletariat is incompatible with good tactics by the proletariat in an era of bourgeois revolution; the actual tactics pursued by the proletariat led it into a struggle for state power, and therefore bad.

Such a handsome logical construction, which the scholasticists called, I believe, sorites, leaves aside the most important question; the question of the actual inner social forces and class mechanism of a bourgeois revolution. We know the classical example. In the French Revolution the conditions for the hegemony of a capitalist bourgeoisie were prepared by the terrorist dictatorship of the victorious sans-culottes. This happened at a time when the main mass of the urban population was composed of a petty bourgeoisie of craftsmen and shopkeepers. This mass was led by the Jacobins. In Russia today the main mass of the urban populations is composed of the industrial proletariat. Is this analogy enough to suggest a potential historical situation in which the victory of a “bourgeois” revolution is rendered possible only by the proletariat gaining revolutionary power? Or does the revolution therefore stop being a bourgeois one? Yes and no. The answer does not depend on formal definitions but on the further progress of events. If the proletariat is overthrown by a coalition of bourgeois classes, including the peasantry whom the proletariat itself has liberated, then the revolution will retain its limited bourgeois character. But if the proletariat succeeds in using all means to achieve its own political hegemony and thereby breaks out of the national confines of the Russian revolution, then that revolution could become the prologue to a world socialist revolution.

The question as to what stage the Russian revolution will reach can, of course, be answered only conditionally. But one thing is unconditional and certain: the mere definition of the Russian revolution as a bourgeois revolution says nothing about its inner development, and certainly does not mean that the proletariat must adapt its tactics to bourgeois democracy because the latter is the only legitimate claimant to state power.


First of all: what kind of a political body are they, these “bourgeois democrats”? In speaking of the liberals, people usually identify them with the popular masses, that is, above all with the peasantry. But in reality, and therein lies the root of the matter, such an identification has not occurred and cannot occur.

The Kadets – the party which has set the tone in liberal circles during the last two years – were formed in 1905 by the amalgamation of the zemstvo constitutionalists and the “League of Liberation.” The liberal fronde of the zemtsy was the expression, on the one hand, of the landowners’ envy and discontent with the monstrous industrial protectionism of the state and, on the other, of the opposition of the more progressive landowners, who saw that the barbaric backwardness of Russia’s agrarian relations was an obstacle to their putting their economy on a capitalist footing. The League of Liberation united under its banner those sections of the intelligentsia who were prevented by their “decent” social standing and their resulting prosperity from taking the revolutionary path. Many of these gentlemen had previously gone through the school of “legal” Marxism. The zemstvo opposition was always distinguished for its cowardly impotence, and our Most August dimwit was merely stating a bitter truth when, in 1894, he called their political aspirations “senseless dreams.” But, on the other hand, neither were the members of the privileged intelligentsia, who carry no social weight of their own and are directly or indirectly dependent on the state, on state-protected large capital or on liberal landowners, capable of forming an even moderately impressive political opposition.

Thus the Kadet party was a combination of the zemtsy’s oppositional impotence with the all around impotence of the diploma-carrying intelligentsia. The real face of zemtsy liberalism was fully revealed by the end of 1905 when the landowners, startled by the agrarian disorders, swung sharply around to support the old regime. The liberal intelligentsia was forced, with tears in its eyes, to forsake the country estate where, when all is said and done, it had been no more than a foster child and to seek acknowledgment in its historic home – the city. If we sum up the results of the three electoral campaigns, we see that Petersburg and Moscow, with her special population breakdowns, were the Kadets’ citadels. Yet Russian liberalism, as we can see from all its pathetic behavior, never succeeded in overcoming its total insignificance. Why? The explanation is not to be sought in the revolutionary excesses of the proletariat but in far deeper historical causes.

The social basis of bourgeois democracy and the driving force of the European revolution was the third estate whose nucleus was composed of the urban petty bourgeoisie – craftsmen, merchants, and intellectuals. The second half of the nineteenth century was a period of its complete decay. Capitalist development not only crushed artisanal democracy in the West, but also prevented it from ever forming in the East.

When European capital arrived in the Russia of the cottage craftsman, it gave him no time to separate himself from the peasant or to become an urban artisan, but put him directly into the bondage of the factory. At the same time it transformed Russia’s old, archaic towns – including Moscow, the “large village” – into centers of modern industry. The proletariat, without any artisanal past, without craft traditions or prejudices, found itself concentrated in vast masses from the start. In all the principal branches of industry large capital effortlessly snatched the ground from under the feet of medium and small capital. Petersburg and Moscow cannot be compared with the Berlin or Vienna of 1848, still less with the Paris of 1789, which had not even dreamed of railways or the telegraph and regarded a workshop employing 300 workers as the largest conceivable enterprise. But it is very noticeable that Russian industry, so far as its degree of concentration is concerned, can not only bear comparison with other European states but actually leaves them all far behind. The small table which follows serves to illustrate this:





No. of

No. of

No. of

No. of

No. of

No. of

Enterprises employing 51-1,000 workers







Enterprises employing more than 1,000 workers







We have not included enterprises employing less than 50 workers because the data available for these in Russia are very incomplete. But even these two rows of figures show the colossal pre-eminence of Russian over Austrian industry from the point of view of concentration of production. Whereas the total number of medium- and large-sized enterprises happens, purely accidentally, to be the same (6,334), that of giant-size enterprises (more than 1,000 workers) is four times higher in Russia than in Austria. We get a similar result if, instead of backward Austria, we base the comparison on such advanced capitalist countries as Germany and Belgium. Germany has 255 gigantic enterprises with a total number of workers slightly below 1 million; Russia has 458 with a total number of workers 1 exceeding million. The same point is vividly illuminated by comparing the profits derived from different categories of commercial and industrial enterprises in Russia.


No. of

Profits in
1,000,000 roubles

Profits from 1,000 to 2,000 roubles

37,000 or 44.5 per cent

56 or 8.6 per cent

Profits of over 50,000 roubles

1,400 or 1.7 per cent

291 or 45.0 per cent

In other words, roughly one-half of all enterprises receives less than one-tenth of total profits, whereas one-sixtieth of all enterprises accounts for almost half of all surplus value.

These few figures bear eloquent testimony to the fact that the late arrival of capitalism in Russia has rendered the contradictions between the capitalists and the workers – those twin poles of bourgeois society – exceptionally acute. Workers in Russia occupy the place which, at the corresponding period, was occupied in Western Europe by artisanal and commercial democracy emerging from corporations and guilds – not only in the public economy, not only in the composition of the urban population, but also in the economics of revolutionary struggle.

In Russia there is no trace of that sturdy petty bourgeoisie which, hand in hand with the young proletariat that had not yet had time to form itself as a class, took the Bastilles of feudalism by assault.

It is true that the petty bourgeoisie has always and everywhere been politically a somewhat amorphous body; yet in its best historical days it developed tremendous political activity. But when, as in Russia, one finds a hopelessly retarded bourgeois-democratic intelligentsia suspended over an abyss of class contradictions, caught in a web of feudal traditions and academic prejudices, born to the accompaniment of socialist imprecations, not daring even to think of influencing the workers, and incapable of placing itself, instead of the proletariat, at the head of the peasantry by fighting the interests of the landlords – then this miserable democracy-without-a-backbone becomes the Kadet party.

Indeed, without giving way to feelings of national pride, we can assert that the brief history of Russian liberalism was unparalleled in the history of the bourgeois countries for its intrinsic shoddiness and concentrated imbecility. But, of course, it cannot be denied that no previous revolution ever absorbed so much popular energy while yielding such negligible objective results. From whatever angle we consider the events, the intimate connection between the utter insignificance of the bourgeois-democrats and the revolution’s lack of results leaps to the eye. The connection is undeniable, but it does not mean that our conclusions have to be negative. The Russian revolution’s lack of results is only the obverse of its profound and enduring quality.

Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution in terms of the immediate problems which engendered it; but, because of the extreme class differentiation of our trading and industrial population, there exists no bourgeois class that can place itself at the head of the popular masses and combine its social weight and political experience with their revolutionary energy. The oppressed workers and the peasant masses must learn by themselves, in the harsh school of merciless conflicts and cruel defeats, to create the political and organizational conditions necessary for their own victory. No other way is open to them.


When it took over the industrial functions of an artisanal democracy, the Russian proletariat also had to take over its tasks, but not its methods or its means.

Bourgeois democracy has at its service the entire apparatus of official public institutions – the schools and universities, municipal establishments, the press, the theater. That this is an immense advantage was demonstrated by the fact that even our rickety liberalism found itself automatically organized and equipped when the moment came for those actions of which it proved capable: namely, resolutions, petitions and electioneering.

The proletariat received no cultural or political heritage from bourgeois society other than the internal cohesion which results from the production process itself. On this basis it had to create its political organization in the gunfire and smoke of revolutionary battles. It came out of this difficulty with flying colors: the period of the maximum tension of its revolutionary energy, the end of 1905, was at the same time the period of the creation of a remarkable class organization, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies. But that was only the smaller half of the problem. The workers had to defeat, not only their own disorganization, but also the organized force of the enemy.

The general strike emerged as the method of revolutionary struggle most appropriate to the proletariat. Despite its relatively small numbers, the Russian proletariat controls the centralized machine of state power and the colossal mass of the country’s concentrated productive forces. This is what made the striking proletariat so powerful that absolutism itself, in October 1905, was forced to stand to attention before it. Soon after, however, it was seen that a general strike only poses the problem of revolution, but does not solve it.

Revolution is first and foremost a struggle for state power. But a strike, as analysis suggests and as events have shown, is a revolutionary means of exerting pressure on the existing power. That, by the way, is precisely why the Kadet liberals, whose demands never went beyond the granting of a constitution, sanctioned the general strike as a means of struggle; but they did so only momentarily and in retrospect, at a moment when the proletariat had already recognized the limitations of the strike and realized that its limits must inevitably be transcended.

The hegemony of the town over the countryside, of industry over agriculture, and at the same time the modern nature of Russian industry, the absence of a strong petty bourgeoisie for whom the workers might have acted as auxiliary troops, all these factors made the Russian proletariat into the principal revolutionary force and confronted it with the problem of capturing state power. The scholasticists who regard themselves as Marxists only because they look at the world through the paper on which Marx’s works are printed can quote as many texts as they like to prove the “untimeliness” of the political hegemony of the proletariat: the Russian working class, the class which, under the leadership of a purely class organization, fought a duel with absolutism at the end of 1905 while large capital and the intelligentsia acted as seconds on either side, the Russian proletariat, by virtue of its whole revolutionary development, was brought face to face with the problem of capturing state power. A confrontation between the proletariat and the army became unavoidable. The result of the confrontation depended on the behavior of the army, and the behavior of the army, on its composition.

The political role of the workers in Russia is infinitely greater than their number. This was shown by events and, later, by the elections to the second Duma. The workers carried their class advantages – technical expertise, intelligence, a capacity for concerted action – with them into the barracks.

In all revolutionary movements within the army the principal part has been played by skilled soldiers – gunners and sappers – whose home is the town, the factory suburb. In naval risings, engine crews were always to the fore; these proletarians, even though they represented a minority within the ship’s crew as a whole, were able to control it because they controlled the engine, the warship’s heart. But the colossal numerical preponderance of the peasantry is bound to tell in the army, which is based on universal conscription. The army mechanically overcomes the muzhik’s lack of productive coordination, and transforms his chief political vice, his passivity, into a major advantage for itself. In most of its actions in 1905 the proletariat alternated between ignoring the passivity of the countryside and relying on its instinctive discontent. But when the struggle for state power became the immediate issue, the solution was found to lie in the hands of the armed muzhik, the nucleus of the Russian infantry. The Russian proletariat in December 1905 foundered, not on its own mistakes, but on a more real force: the bayonets of the peasant army.


This short analysis largely relieves us of the necessity to answer Tscherewanin’s indictment point by point. Behind a mass of separate actions, statements, and “mistakes,” Tscherewanin fails to see the proletariat itself, its social relations and revolutionary growth. If he rejects the proposition that on January 9 the workers came out, not to plead, but to demand, it is because he cannot see the substance of the event behind its outward form. When he is so anxious to emphasize the role of the intelligentsia in the October strike, it in no way alters the fact that it was the proletariat, by its revolutionary action, that transformed the left democrats from the zemtsy’s appendage into a contemporary auxiliary unit of the revolution, forced a purely proletarian method of struggle – the general strike – upon them and made them dependent on a purely proletarian organization, the Soviet of Deputies.

According to Tscherewanin, the proletariat after the manifesto should have concentrated all its energies on elections to the Duma. But, remember, at that time there were no elections; no one knew when or how they would be held, and no guarantee was offered that they would be held at all.

What did exist side by side with the manifesto of October 1905 was the great all-Russian pogrom. How could anyone be confident that, instead of a Duma, there might have been just another pogrom? What could the proletariat have done under such circumstances, having once broken down the old barriers of the police state? Only what it in fact did. Quite naturally, it seized new positions and dug itself into them: it demolished censorship, created a revolutionary press, won the freedom of assembly, protected the population against hooligans (whether uniformed or in rags), built up militant trade unions, rallied around its class representative body, established links with the revolutionary peasantry and the army. At a time when the liberal public was babbling about the army “remaining outside politics,” the social democrats tirelessly carried on agitation in the barracks. Were they right or not?

At a time when the November congress of the zemtsy, (which Tscherewanin believes in retrospect we should have supported) rushed headlong towards the right at the first news of the Sevastopol rising and regained its equanimity only on being informed that the rising was already crushed, the Soviet of Deputies, by contrast, enthusiastically saluted the insurgents. Was it right or not? Where, along what road, were guarantees of victory to be sought: in the peace of mind of the zemtsy, or in the fraternal union of the proletariat with the armed forces?

Of course the program of land confiscation proposed by the workers pushed the landowners over to the right. But then it also pushed the peasants over to the left. Of course the ruthless industrial struggle thrust the capitalists back into the camp of order. But then it also aroused the political consciousness of the most ignorant and intimidated among the workers. Of course agitation within the armed forces brought the inevitable conflict closer. But what else was there to be done? Should Trepov have been left in sole command of the soldiers – those same soldiers who, even during the honeymoon of the new freedoms, had abetted the pogromists and fired on workers? Tscherewanin himself senses that nothing could have been done other than what was in fact done.

“The tactics were wrong all the way through,” he says in concluding one of his analyses, and immediately adds: “Suppose even that they were unavoidable and that no other tactics were possible at that moment. But this is quite immaterial, and does not alter the final objective conclusion that the social-democrats tactics were wrong all the way through.” Tschercwanin constructs his tactics as Spinoza did his ethics, that is to say, geometrically. He admits that under the existing conditions there was no room for the application of his tactics – and that, of course, is precisely why men who thought like him played no role whatever in the revolution. But what is there to be said of “realistic” tactics whose only shortcoming is that they cannot be applied? Let us say of them, in Luther’s words: “Theology is concerned with life, and should not consist of mere meditation and reflection on the affairs of God according to the laws of reason ...

“Every art, whether it be intended for domestic usage or for the world, is rendered null and worthless (ist verloren und taugt nichts) if it becomes mere speculation and cannot be applied in practice.”



1. A. Tscherewanin, Das Proletariat und die russische Revolution (Stuttgart: Verlag Dietz, 1908)

2. Peter Maslov, Die Agrarfrage in Russland. Paschitnow, Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in Russland. A. Tscherewanin, Das Proletariat und die russische Revolution.

3. F. Dan develops the same notion in his recent article in No.2 of Neue Zeit. But his conclusions, at any rate those relating to the past, are less bold than Tscherewanin’s.

4. Remeslo i torgovlya v Germanskoy imperii, p.42.

5. Austrian statistical yearbook, 1907, p.229.

6. A.V. Polezhayev. Uchyot chislennisti i sostava rabochikh v Rossii (Petersburg), p.46 ff.

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Last updated on: 27.11.2006