1905: the first Russian Revolution

One hundred years ago this year there happened a series of events in Russia, culminating in a general uprising in December, that Trotsky called ‘the dress rehearsal for the revolution of 1917′ and which in terms of bloodshed were far more violent than the actual events in St. Petersburg twelve years later.

   Russia at the time was a predominantly agrarian country. 80 per cent of its inhabitants were peasants, eking out a very meagre existence from the soil. They had been emancipated from being serfs in 1861 by a decree of Tsar Alexander III but peasant understanding of personal ownership in land remained very rudimentary. After the 1861 emancipation act there arose a widespread and deeply held belief among the peasants that at some time in the future a redistribution of land was going to happen. This belief made them a very volatile and potentially revolutionary class, although they had no political aims and could see no further than land.

  Whereas in Britain and most of Europe at the time, a strong nobility had limited the power of the monarch, allowing a rising capitalist class to develop. In Russia, Tsar Nicholas had absolute power. He ruled under a system called patrimonialism, in which everything belonged to the Tsar. He was absolute monarch and nothing could change without his consent. There was no parliament or constitution. Government officials were directly responsible to him, and he believed firmly in upholding this system, much as Charles I of England believed firmly in the divine right of Kings. This meant in practice that the growth of capitalist industry in Russia was limited and largely reliant on foreign capital.Consequently the indigenous capitalist class was very weak.

As a result of this weakness the path to a political and legal set-up in which capitalist development could flourish was undertaken by the ‘intelligentsia’, a concept peculiar to Russia. Comprised largely of university students, lawyers, and artists (i.e. writers) it was more or less open to anyone who was against the patrimonial set-up. And because Tsar Nicholas was extremely rigid in his outlook and frightened of any change that could limit his power, democratic protest from the 1870s onwards was not an option. Protest became channelled into the form of violence, with assassinations of government officials taking a prominent part.  A movement, openly committed to assassination, called the People’s Will came into being, attracting the support of much of the intelligentsia, including, for a time, Lenin. Some thousands of government officials were killed; assassination became a way of life.

 The response from the government, backed by the Tsar, was repression, to clamp down ever more tightly. The use of whips by the police to quell student strikes did not endear the government to those who wanted change. At the close of the 19th century with the setting-up of the Okhrana, Russia became the first police state in history. It was riddled with secret police infiltrating agents into most of the anti-Tsar organisations. Various political parties had developed by this time, with varying aims, ranging from the establishment of a parliament and a constitution to establishing socialism.

 The exact nature of what they meant by socialism was never really stated, but probably boiled down to some kind of nationalisation, with tight government control. Around this time many of Marx’s early writings had arrived in Russia and Marx was very popular, but not much understood. Funnily enough Capital was allowed by the censor who thought it was so dreary no one would read it, but mostly Marx’s writings were smuggled in.

  By 1905 there were three major political parties loosely representing different class interests. They were the Democratic Constitutional Party (Kadets) (bourgeois), Social Democratic Labour Party (working class or proletariat in the language of the day), and Socialist Revolutionaries (roughly, peasants and workers).

  Tactics varied from assassination,advocating strike action, to ‘leading the workers to the dictatorship of the proletariat’ but all were agreed on the necessity to remove the Tsar. From the 1890s onwards things were growing tense.
Conditions of work in the factories and railways were abysmal, with very low wages, working hours of twelve to fourteen hours a day and appalling living conditions, much like they had been a few years earlier in Britain’s industrial revolution.

 There were many very large factories in Russia employing up to six thousand workers, attracting thousands of unskilled peasants. They were mainly housed in rapidly built barracks crammed in four or five to one room, quite a few of those employing a night shift saving on bed linen by having the night and day shifts use the same bed.

  As usual, as a result of hasty building to accommodate large numbers of workers sanitary conditions were practically non- existent with open sewers in St Petersburg and Moscow and the consequent health risk, the usual concomitants of capitalism in its early stages.

 In 1903 the Social Democratic Labour Party held a conference in London to draw up fresh rules (largely to contain the split in their ranks between those following Lenin and those supporting Martov). Lenin was insistent on the need for a tightly integrated, disciplined party of  professional revolutionaries. Martov was infavour of a more open, less disciplined party with much easier access to membership. The conference lead to a decisive split, roughly down the middle but with a slight edge to Lenin. From that time on these two sections were known by the name of Bolsheviks (majority) and Mensheviks (minority), leading to open conflict between these groups, played out fifteen years later at the time of the deposition of the Tsar and the Bolshevik rise to power.

  So, at the turn of the century there existed a highly critical situation. An all powerful and inflexible, but nevertheless weak, Tsar, a poorly organised and ill- developed native capitalist class, a peasantry in rebellious mood but non- politicised, and a small as yet unorganised working class, not political, whose aims were confined to improving working conditions. On the fringe a party of professional revolutionaries whose aim was to lead the proletariat as their ‘vanguard’, but as yet had minimal influence. Something had to give! In 1905 it did.

  In 1904 Russia went to war against Japan, in a war that was partly territorial, and partly, as most Western historians seem agreed, a bid by the Russian government to distract attention from current difficulties and unite the population in a patriotic fervour with a resounding victory. Unfortunately for the Tsar it didn’t work, as there was an even more resounding defeat.
The general public lack of support for the Tsar fell even lower. More large-scale strikes ensued, and then, in 1905, there happened an event only too common in the struggles of the working class to gain justice.

  Trade unions had been disallowed up till then in Russia but the government had been experimenting with police-led unions in an attempt to take the heat out of workers discontent. One of these was a union led by a priest, Father Gapon. Father Gapon thought it a worthy idea to lead a march in St. Petersburg to appeal to the Tsar, following the commonly-held belief in countries with a very powerful head that their father figure is unaware of the sufferings of the population and will intervene to put them right if only they can bring their problems to his attention. On Sunday 22 January some 150,000 people gathered in St Petersburg and marched on the Winter Palace where it was believed the Tsar was in residence. It was a peaceful protest, many were carrying icons, none were carrying weapons; they believed the Tsar would listen. They were met by troops who opened fire. The death toll was estimated at 200 killed and 800 wounded, reminiscent of many other panic reactions by governing bodies to peaceful working class demonstrations, Peterloo, Tiananmen Square among them.
  Support for the Tsar fell even further from then on.

  Bloody Sunday, as it was thereafter called, opened the floodgates and the country was in turmoil. Strikes, demonstrations, outbreaks of violence were the order of the day. Eventually it was reluctantly agreed to inaugurate a constituent assembly called the ‘Duma’.

  This was set up and delegates were voted in, many of them peasants, but it never had any real power. In the mind of the Tsar it was only a sop which he intended to revoke as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The conservative reaction to this concession was extreme. A party was set up, the Octoberist party, which encouraged mob violence against supporters of the Duma. Government-inspired pogroms against Jews resulted in thousands of deaths and much homelessness. A wave of strikes broke out, peasant violence against their landlords escalated, similar to the French peasant violence and destruction of chateaux in another bourgeois revolution.

  The country was approaching a civil war.The appointment of a new minister of the interior, Stolypin, brought some ease to the country. His reign of repression consisted of setting special courts, which would have no compunction about passing the death sentence. So many were hanged that the nickname ‘Stolypin’s neckties’ became popular. He was eventually assassinated – at the opera, in front of the Tsar.

  On the positive side, Stolypin initiated land reforms that were meant to be progressive but are generally agreed as having no great effect. The country gradually settled down, though never completely, and from around 1908 to 1914 there was a mild boom, with an increase in capital development.

  Was 1905 a revolution? Not really. It was more a revolt, by large sections of the population against savagely repressive conditions, and by the nascent capitalist class to establish the freedom to operate.
But there was no proposal to change the basis of society and each element, the peasants, the bourgeoisie, the nobles were paddling their own canoe. There was only one way they could go: capitalism. At best it was a rebellion, but one that had a profound influence on a similar uprising twelve years later which did change the basis of Russian society by completely uprooting Tsarism.

  There are many lessons to be learned from this one episode in a period of violent change. One is that any worthwhile progress in human society must come, and can only come, from the working class.

Relying on our rulers to initiate worthwhile change is as useless as the Russian peasants’ reliance on the Tsar.

 But above  all is the fact that no force can cut short the natural development of society until it is ready for change.


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