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1905: Birth of a new Power

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One hundred years ago the workers and peasants of Russia rose up in revolution and shook their country’s rulers. Megan Trudell looks at the ‘great dress rehearsal’
Issue 1933
Workers procession towards the Winter Palace
Workers procession towards the Winter Palace

On 9 January 1905 peace-ful demonstrators were massacred by troops in St Petersburg, the capital of imperial Russia. This event, known as Bloody Sunday, ignited a revolutionary movement which paralysed the Russian state for a year, sparked protest in town and countryside, and gave birth to genuine workers’ democracy in the process.

Russia in 1905 was a vast empire ruled by a dictator—the Tsar. A massive peasant population lived in conditions of semi-starvation while land remained in the hands of rich landowners.

Russia was also Europe’s policeman, which other regimes had relied upon to crush revolts like the wave of revolutions in 1848. The need to equip its armies led to rapid industrial development, and the economy had boomed in the decades before 1905.

Enormous modern factories produced weapons and cloth, and railways connected the quickly growing towns. Investment and techniques from Europe led to enormous leaps in iron and oil output.

The number of factory workers rose from 1.4 million to 2.4 million between 1890 and 1900.

Tensions were building—textile workers struck in St Petersburg in 1896, followed by iron and steel workers in 1902-3. But the spark for revolution was war.

The 1904 war with Japan had turned into a humiliating defeat for Tsar Nicholas II. Anti-war feeling connected with workers’ anger at falling wages and appalling conditions.

In St Petersburg a strike was called on 3 January 1905 by an organisation headed by a priest, Father Gapon, and supported by the police. Workers and peasants marched to petition the Tsar for help to improve their lives.

The petition began, “We have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection.” The Tsar had his troops fire on the demonstrators, murdering hundreds.

The entire country rose in rage. A massive strike wave shook cities. One million men and women took action for nearly two months. The strikes ended when the Tsar promised a consultative assembly.

But little changed, and the movement burst out again in September 1905.

First Moscow typesetters struck, demanding to be paid for punctuation marks. The strike spread to St Petersburg, and then to rail workers across the country, who called for an eight-hour day, civil liberties and a constituent assembly based on universal suffrage.

Telegraph offices, power stations, shops, metal and textile factories, and even law courts ground to a halt. General strikes were declared in most cities by mid-October.

Everywhere mass meetings discussed tactics and political ideas. In the space of months, workers used to bowing to authority began to challenge long-held ideas and demand equality.

The mass strike brought a fight for economic rights together with a fight for political representation.

The strike dramatically illustrated the power of workers in struggle. But it did something else of tremendous importance.

In its revolutionary momentum, sweeping aside the barriers between workers in different jobs and different towns, it created the first democratic organisations of the entire working class—workers’ councils, known as soviets.

Similar democratic workers’ organisations have been thrown up by many of the great revolts of the last 100 years. Russia in 1905 was their birthplace.

On 13 October the St Petersburg soviet met for the first time with 43 delegates. At its height four weeks later, 562 delegates represented 200,000 workers from 147 factories and 16 different unions. Soviets sprang up in many towns.

Delegates were elected from their workplaces and subject to immediate recall. They met at the soviet to share experiences and to learn from each other.

The soviet generalised the struggles of sections of the most advanced groups of workers to all the others— it was based on the incredible revolutionary energy and activity of the most militant workers. It used that energy to encourage the less confident.

In St Petersburg the soviet sent strikers to picket out factories. It had its own newspaper, and organised the seizure of print shops to print it. It issued strike instructions and ensured telegrams would carry its decisions to every workplace. Trains only ran to take soviet delegates to meetings!

The soviet was much more than a strike committee. It developed into what the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky—who became chair of the St Petersburg soviet when he was 26—called the embryo of workers’ power and the basis for a democratic alternative to Tsarism.

On 16 October the Tsar pledged a constitution and a legislative assembly, but promises of democracy hid preparations to repress the revolution by force.

The soviet delegates recognised the danger and resolved to fight on. But the strike was not unified across the country, and workers, jubilant at the promised reform, began returning to work. The soviet called off the strike.

Then, just ten days later, a new struggle erupted.

Spontaneously, workers in several metal works began campaigning for an eight-hour day by stopping work after eight hours. The soviet spread the action across the metal and textile industries.

In one district of St Petersburg workers marched out of factories waving red banners and singing the Marseillaise, an anthem from the French Revolution.

The workers’ movement was an inspiration to others oppressed by Tsarism. In the countryside peasants began organising to seize land and to withhold rent.

In Poland a national liberation movement demanded independence. In November soldiers mutinied at the Kronstadt fortress.

The combined threat of strikes, national revolt, peasant riots and mutiny was a serious one for the state. Martial law was declared in the provinces, in Poland and at Kronstadt, where mutineers were threatened with death.

The St Petersburg soviet called a strike against the repression. The response was massive. Workers came out in even greater numbers than in October, and after five days had won amnesty for the mutineers.

The tremendous demonstration of solidarity in November built links between workers and the army.

The eight-hour day campaign resumed, but this time the factory owners retaliated and locked workers out. After fighting all year, workers and their families faced severe hardship.

After a long debate, the soviet voted to end the strike. The eight-hour day was not won but, as one delegate said, “henceforth the war-cry: ‘Eight hours and a gun!’ shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker.”

Defeat encouraged retribution. State- sponsored anti-Semitic gangs called the Black Hundreds terrorised and murdered Jews, socialists and strikers. More than 3,500 people were killed and 10,000 injured in towns across Russia.

In St Petersburg metal workers made weapons, and the soviet organised armed groups of workers to defend strikers and Jews from attack.

The revolution was moving towards conflict with the state. At the end of November mutiny was in the air, and peasant riots and strikes still flared.

In Sebastopol on the Black Sea soldiers arrested their generals and marched out of their barracks to join cheering crowds.

Together workers and armed soldiers held the town for five days until their revolt was brutally suppressed.

In early December the executive committee of the St Petersburg soviet was arrested, and the centre of struggle shifted to Moscow.

The soviet called a general strike with the aim of turning it into an armed insurrection. Thirty three towns joined the strike.

The stakes were very high. Tsarism could be dealt a death blow if the revolutionary forces were united and determined enough.

Massive strides had been taken during the revolution—ideas had changed and workers had glimpsed their own ability to run society. But the strike alone could not beat the state. Armed struggle was needed for that.

Workers faltered, and the strike crumbled in St Petersburg and the provinces.

The Moscow workers’ rising lasted nine days, but was isolated and overcome as troops laid siege to the city, shelling working class areas. The movement’s back was broken, although it took 18 months to crush the revolution completely.

The need for a decisive armed battle against the state to win power was a harsh lesson for Russia’s workers.

Trotsky later remembered soviet delegates destroying their guns to prevent troops getting them: “In the clashing and creaking of twisting metal one heard the gnashing teeth of a proletariat who for the first time fully realised that a more formidable and more ruthless effort was necessary to overthrow and crush the enemy.”

After 1905’s brief taste of freedom, repression reigned. But the taste was not forgotten. Twelve years later in 1917 the same elements—war, the mass strike, mutiny, peasant and national revolts—came together again much more powerfully to overthrow Tsarism.

Revolutionaries also learned from the events of 1905. Lenin, the leader of the socialist Bolshevik Party, argued with its members not to stand aside from the soviets, but to throw themselves into the battle.

In the days after 1905 thousands of workers joined the Bolsheviks. From then on the party immersed itself in the day to day struggles of workers. Its members were the indispensable leaders in 1917.

For Lenin 1905 was the “great dress rehearsal”. The revolution showed the power and creativity of spontaneous workers’ action, the speed at which ideas can change, and the inspiration and leadership a workers’ revolution gives peasant and national liberation movements.

But it also proved the need to be prepared to confront the state in a revolutionary situation—and to be organised in order to win.

The Socialist Workers Party has organised a number of events across Britain to celebrate the 1905 Russian Revolution. See Meetings & events for details.

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