Issue 182 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

Russia's revolutionary year

Workers' discontent exploded in Russia 90 years ago this month. What began as a protest demonstration turned rapidly into a revolutionary wave which, as Peter Morgan explains, marked the beginning of the end for the Tsar's dictatorial regime
Banner reads 'workers of the world unite'; Moscow 1905
Banner reads 'workers of the world unite'; Moscow 1905

'The proletariat came to power in 1917 with the help of the experience acquired by its older generation in 1905.' This was Leon Trotsky's assessment of the importance of the 1905 revolution in Russia. It proved to be the great dress rehearsal for the 1917 Russian Revolution which saw the working class take power for the first time.

Just as the revolution of 1917 grew out of the mass slaughter of the First World War, so too did the 1905 revolution arise from Russia's defeat in its war with Japan, and the appalling conditions of the Russian working class.

Wages for Russian workers were extremely low (they fell by 25 percent in 1904), they suffered terrible conditions at work, were exploited and downtrodden, 'A Russian worker's life', wrote a Bolshevik historian, 'was extraordinarily drab and poor'. Many women worked in textiles--Russia's biggest and lowest paying industry. They often slept where they worked or in barracks.

The ruling class used Russian nationalism to divide workers. Non-Russian nations inside the empire were ruled by Russian bureaucrats, subject to Russian law, and occupied by Russian troops. The Orthodox religion was the official state religion. The Tsar was openly anti Jewish and pogroms against Jews were common. Russian workers often blamed others for their terrible conditions, their exploitation and oppression.

The 1905 revolution was a genuine explosion of anger. The most oppressed and downtrodden sections of the working class united against a common enemy. That unity was forged through the mass activity that was to explode so suddenly and with so much venom in January.

Father Gapon with union members
Father Gapon with union members

The spark for the first wave of strikes was the sacking of four workers at the Putilov engineering factory in St Petersburg, which employed 12,000 men. The workers were organised in the Assembly of Russian Factory and Workshop Workers, which was a police trade union led by a priest, Father Gapon.

After the strike on 3 January 1905, mass meetings of the assembly were held. By 7 January 140,000 workers were on strike and more demands were raised: an eight hour day, increase in the daily wage, improvement of sanitary facilities and the granting of free medical aid. As the strike wave moved forward the workers' demands became more political. They issued a petition to the Tsar to beg redress for the workers' grievances. The petition listed everything from unheated factories to lawlessness, but it also raised political issues such as a Constitutional Assembly elected through universal and equal suffrage, freedom of assembly for workers, land for the peasants, freedom of speech and press, separation of church and state, and the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

Father Gapon was forced under pressure to organise a demonstration to present the petition, and on Sunday 9 January 200,000 St Petersburg workers marched in a peaceful procession to the Tsar's Winter Palace. They were dressed in their Sunday best clothes, carried pictures of the Tsar, religious icons and church banners--political banners and slogans were not allowed.

Troops opened fire on the demonstrators outside the Winter Palace and killed more than a thousand. 'Bloody Sunday' was the spark that was to ignite thousands of workers across Russia against their rulers in a strike wave not seen before in working class history. Trotsky wrote:

The strike wave reached its height in February and spread to 122 cities and towns. In Odessa there were clashes between workers and troops that turned the strikes into a minor civil war. Many employers conceded demands that the Tsar denied in an attempt to buy peace. The economic demands of the workers fed into political demands, economic struggle led to political struggle.

Finally, in August the Tsar made a concession--but instead of granting an assembly he only granted a consultative body, the Duma, which had no power to legislate and where workers were not represented. Instead of pacifying the workers' movement, it raised the struggle to a higher level.

The second strike wave in October began in Moscow when typesetters at Sytin's print works went on strike for a shorter working day and higher piecework rates for punctuation marks. It rapidly spread to St Petersburg as typesetters there struck in solidarity. The strikes grew out of the soil prepared by the nine month strike campaign and in October the Petersburg soviet was established which was to be the lifeblood of the revolutionary wave and established a form of organisation not yet seen in working class struggle.

The number of strikers in Russia exceeded one million. Strikes spread rapidly to the rail network, the post was stopped, water and gas supplies were brought to a halt, schools were closed, and communications were at a standstill. General strikes were proclaimed in many cities and the workers started their own newspaper, Isvestia, to spread the struggle and counter the lies of the Tsar.

The demands of October were more political than they were in January. The workers demanded the eight hour day, civil liberties, an amnesty for political prisoners and a Constituent Assembly. The Tsar was forced to allow a constitution.

But the workers were not satisfied. They demanded the removal of the head of the police and Cossacks in St Petersburg, the removal of the troops 20 miles from the city, a general amnesty and the formation of a citizens' militia. Isvestia put it:

The soviet resolved: the general strike continues. Peasants were pulled into the movement. Some 2,000 estates were burnt down and the food redistributed. At Kronstadt the sailors mutinied against their officers. In November there was a third wave of strikes, mainly around the eight hour day. But the strikers also fought to save the mutineers of Kronstadt from execution and for the end of martial law in Poland (then part of the Russian empire).

The whole of St Petersburg was shut down with more workers on strike than in January and October. The city was a ferment of activity. The soviet called on all factories and plants to introduce the eight hour day by takeover means. At the Alexandrovsky engineering plant they voted 1,668 for the eight hour day and 14 against. Isvestia reported one worker saying:

However, outside St Petersburg it was a different picture. The strike call was not met with the same enthusiasm and this gave confidence to the employers in St Petersburg to go on the offensive. They reacted with mass lockouts and by the beginning of December the Tsar felt strong enough to take repressive measures. The soviet was suppressed and new anti-strike regulations were introduced which made it illegal for workers of railways, post or telegraph and telephone to strike or form unions. Workers' newspapers were confiscated, and pogromist and patriotic literature suddenly reappeared.

There was still fight left in the workers' movement. In Moscow a strike broke out on 7 December against these repressive measures, and this briefly spread to St Petersburg with 125,000 people on strike. It led to a virtual armed insurrection in Moscow, and 33 other towns saw mass strike activity. Many working class areas in Moscow were under a state of siege as barricades were built against the police and army. However, Nicholas II announced that any crowd of over three people would be fired upon, and on 19 December, with support dwindling, the soviet called off the strike. Some 1,000 workers were killed in the Moscow uprising. Severe repression followed.

Despite this the working class had taken a qualitative leap forward. The revolution of 1905 had seen the emergence of a new form of organisation--the soviet--that helped raise the level of struggle to even greater heights. It was the lifeblood of the revolution, the engine room and organiser of the working class. All action emanated from it, all activity was controlled by it.

It also represented the highest form of workers' democracy. Unlike the sham democracy of parliament, deputies to the soviet were instantly recallable and were directly represented by the workers. It was without a professional bureaucracy, and had no lower and upper chamber. It was a form of democracy that was born from the struggle.

The 1905 revolution showed how quickly workers' ideas changed when thrown into struggle. In 1904 there was popular sentiment for the war against Japan. But patriotic enthusiasm rapidly gave way to anger as war fed into personal grievances of low wages and poor conditions.

The repression that followed the suppression of the soviets saw pogroms in many towns against Jews, Chinese, Armenians and Poles. But there were no pogroms in St Petersburg, where the workers organised against anti-Jewish activity and where the activity had been at its greatest. The most downtrodden sections of the working class now united against the common enemy, the Tsar.

The upheavals of 1905 show the importance of revolutionary organisation. The Bolsheviks were central to the events in January, but they also revealed the party's weaknesses. Lenin, writing a month after the event, said, '9 January 1905 fully revealed the vast reserve of revolutionary energy possessed by the well as the utter inadequacy of the Social Democratic [Bolshevik] organisation.' 1905 sharpened the ideas of Bolshevism. The revolutionary party has to fight for the leadership of the struggle.

The Russian revolution of 1905 had all the ingredients that were to reappear in 1917. Without the struggle of 1905 the workers would have failed in 1917, and we would have been denied this experience in revolutionary history.

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