By December 1905, Russia was gearing itself up for a full-scale counter-revolution.
For 51 days, the Soviet (council) of Workers’ Deputies in the then Russian capital St Petersburg had been an alternative power to the tsar, Russia’s absolute monarch.
The soviet had led the biggest general strike to that point in history. It had prevented a racist massacre.
Its November strike had put a temporary stop to repression in the armed forces, among the peasantry and in Russian-ruled Poland.
But now the Petersburg workers were exhausted. The militant Putilov plant had only worked 43 days in the whole year. A wearing lock-out ended their struggle.
The soviet leaders were arrested on 3 December. Military units began to criss-cross the country, torturing and executing militants without trial.But the Moscow workers were comparatively fresh.
Moscow was a city of low paid textile workers, who had generally been much less militant than the skilled metal workers who dominated St Petersburg.
But now there was an upswing of struggle among the textile workers. To use a military analogy, the reserves were coming into battle after the front line had begun to fall back.
Revolt among the peasants and in the armed forces was also rising to a climax. If the authorities could be defeated in Moscow, then there was every chance that the movement in St Petersburg would revive.
Where these two great cities led, the Russian people would follow.
The revolutionary Bolshevik party, which led the Moscow soviet, was right to go for an uprising. Their socialist allies were right to go with them.
The question was whether the uprising would take place in time. The Bolsheviks themselves were slow to react to a mutiny in the city garrison.
They allowed it to fizzle out before the main uprising began. Even so, the Moscow soviet took control of most of the city on the very first day.
But the kind of practical preparations for an uprising, which Lenin, the exiled Bolshevik leader, had been pushing for all year, had not been made.
The Bolsheviks championed the idea of a mass uprising to overthrow Tsarism. But that was in theory. The local leaders had not yet caught up with the reality.
Crucial days were lost while they campaigned for the uprising instead of getting one under way. The railway line from St Petersburg was left open.
As soon as the authorities there felt secure, they were able to reinforce Moscow from their massive garrison.
The Moscow masses were much more decisive than their leaders. They tried to win over the troops.
In one incident, two working girls with a red flag ran out of a crowd crying, “Kill us. We will not surrender the flag alive.”
Disconcerted, the Cossack troops galloped away amid cheering.
According to Lenin, the fact that the struggle developed from a strike to an uprising “over the heads of the organisations” was “the greatest historic gain the Russian revolution achieved in December 1905.
“Like all preceding gains it was purchased at the price of enormous sacrifices.”
It was not that organisations were not needed. It was that the pressure of mass action could overcome their conservatism.
But the failure to take the offensive doomed the uprising. Hundreds of armed fighters, supported by the people, carried on a stubborn resistance.
But they were no match for the overwhelming forces ranged against them. Cannon reduced the entire district of Presnya to rubble.
In the bitterness of defeat, some socialists argued that “we should never have taken up arms”.
But the Bolsheviks looked forward to correcting their mistakes.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 began exactly where the 1905 revolution ended. In 1905, it took eight months of mass struggle before the first soviet appeared.
The first soviet of 1917 was formed after four days. The unfinished last act of 1905, the overthrow of the monarchy, was accomplished in 1917 at the end of the first week.
Eight months later, the soviets took power, led by the Bolsheviks. They and many of their supporters had learned the lessons of 1905.
Pete Glatter is the editor of the current special issue of the journal Revolutionary History on the 1905 revolution, which is based on Russian accounts never before translated into English.
It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, for £12.95. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com
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