Pete Glatter

1905-2005: Not Just an Anniversary

WE are living in a time of mass movements which originate outside the dead zone of official politics. Their range is enormous, their variety kaleidoscopic: from Uzbekistan to Bolivia, from demonstrations against corporate power and war to popular uprisings against hated governments. Great cities in countries rich and poor resound with the noise and rhythm of their own discontents, often on an unprecedented scale. The élites of our world react to these movements with a traditional mixture of fear and contempt, suitably updated for the media, or with calculation, manipulation and passing enthusiasm.

The Russian revolution of 1905 was like that. In fact, it was the firstsuch movement. The first time ordinary people were involved in stopping a war. The first general strike in history. The first workers’ councils or soviets, rivalling the power of the established authorities. In short, it was the first modern revolution. If we can learn anything from history, we can learn something from 1905.

My aim as editor of this issue of Revolutionary Historywas to give a voice to that revolution. Or rather, a selection of voices. Most of the people to whom those voices belong took part in the revolution or were keen observers of it and wrote about what they saw or experienced within 20 years of it happening. All of them — with the exception of Rosa Luxemburg and a couple of contemporary English sources — wrote about it in Russian. Nearly all of the Russian sources have been out of print for many years. Hardly any of the extracts which appear here have ever been published in English. Those which have are in new translations.

But it is a selection of voices and since I did most of the selecting it is only right that you should know what was in my mind when I did so.[1]I wanted to bring out three processes which were simultaneous and very closely related to each other. All three were concentrated in the working class, which was the crucial social force in the revolution.[2]All three were vital ingredients in the way workers changed through struggle.

The first process was an increase, step by step, in the overall intensity of conflict. The revolution began with a general strike in St Petersburg, the imperial capital, and a mass procession to the Tsar’s Winter Palace. This was followed by huge storms of local strikes which gripped the Russian empire for months. After a lull, a general strike took shape in October and swept across the land. Two months later, there were uprisings in Moscow and a number of other cities. Put like this, 1905 can seem like a strangely one-sided drama in which workers were the only actors. It also divorces their consciousness from their activity. In reality, the centralised Tsarist state played a crucial role by raising the stakes of the struggle at every turn. It transformed the procession to the Winter Palace into the massacre known as Bloody Sunday. It brought the surging strike storm to a halt by concentrating superior forces at key points. It retreated in the face of the general strike in order to prepare the advance of a general counter-revolution.

Each of these steps faced the workers with a question. Forward or back? Give in or go one better? Be intimidated by Bloody Sunday, or go on strike for a better life, starting with pay and conditions. Be overwhelmed by troops and police where you stood, or go all out to bring the whole empire to a halt with the aim of taking away some of the state’s political power and distributing it more democratically among the people. Be broken without a fight by a raging counter-revolution, or mount an armed uprising as a last, desperate act of resistance. These were conscious choices made by millions of workers in the light of their experience of struggle and their resulting level of confidence and courage. Each step of the struggle involved a change in mass consciousness.

After the Moscow uprising, Lenin grasped that this was the logic which had driven many Muscovites from a strike to an uprising despite the hesitancy of their organisations, including his own Bolshevik party: ‘revolution’, he wrote, ‘progresses by giving rise to a strong and united counter-revolution, that is, it compels the enemy to resort to more and more extreme measures of defence and in this way devises ever more powerful means of attack’.[3]What was true of the Moscow uprising also applied in one form or another to the revolution as a whole.

The second process was the differentiation inside the working class, the separating out of groups and individuals, the crystallisation of a range of views and attitudes. Leon Trotsky, who became a leading figure in 1905, once gave an example of this derived from an incident at his school:

These were the groups that resulted from that episode: the tale-bearers and the envious at one pole, the frank, courageous boys at the other, and the neutral, vacillating mass in the middle. These three groups never quite disappeared even during the years that followed. I met them again and again in my life, in the most varied circumstances.[4]

The question which came up over and over again in 1905 was which way the ‘mass in the middle’ was going to go, towards which pole it was going to gravitate. It came up every time the state raised the stakes of the struggle and on many lesser occasions besides. The reader will find many examples of this in the pages that follow. Here, I want to draw attention to two points about this differentiation, this unevenness in the level of consciousness.

The first point is that it is built into the nature of social conflict in modern society, as a revolutionary of a more recent vintage observed: 

If the whole working class had one level of consciousness, there would not have been any need for revolution, there never would be any need for a strike, there wouldn’t have been any need for a picket line. There is a picket line because workers act differently… To fight millionaires you don’t need a picket line, because the duchess never crosses picket lines. Workers cross picket lines… It is the class struggle: the struggle between the workers and the capitalist class is always reflected in the struggle between the section of the working class which is under the influence of the capitalist class and the section which is opposed to the capitalist class.[5]

The second point is that this unevenness is relatively fluid, within certain limits. We know, for example, that some types of worker in 1905 were generally more militant — for political as well as trade union aims — than others. Metal-workers were more militant than textile-workers, workers in large plants were more militant than those in small ones, St Petersburg was more militant than Moscow, and so on. But this is only one part of the picture. Let us take the relationship between St Petersburg and Moscow as a case in point. The strike rate for 1905 in St Petersburg, which was dominated by the metal industry, was three times higher than in Moscow, which was much more of a textile town. Yet it was in Moscow that the main uprising took place at the end of the year. In the following year, there were more strikes among textile-workers than among metal-workers, though the overall level of strikes was down. To use a military analogy, the reserves went on moving forward after the front line had begun to retire. Here was the dynamic power of the revolution, constantly moving fresh forces into battle — but also a fatal weakness. St Petersburg was exhausted before the Moscow uprising began. Moscow was isolated and defeated, and the defeat in Moscow sealed the fate of the entire revolution, although it took two more years for a savage counter-revolution to obliterate all traces of this immensely powerful movement.

The dynamism inherent in the relationship between what we in Britain might call militants and moderates meant that this was a relationship which went through a whole range of variations. There were times when the minority of militants was very isolated. There were times when they were able to break out of their isolation, but were not sure how to do so or found it psychologically difficult. There were moments of extreme tension between them and the moderates, sometimes right on the brink of a great wave of united action, as in the early days of the October general strike in St Petersburg.[6]One of the reasons why the soviets were so important was that they expressed working-class unity — and therefore working-class power — in an organised form. Trotsky, who led the St Petersburg Soviet, later put it like this: ‘Just as the trade union is the rudimentary form of the united front in the economic struggle, so the soviet is the highest form of the united front under the conditions in which the proletariat enters the struggle for power.’[7]

The limitation of soviets is that they cannot exist outside of a struggle for power because in any other circumstances the requisite level of working-class unity is lacking. The St Petersburg Soviet represented the vast majority of workers in the city. When it ordered newspaper proprietors to defy the censorship and threatened that their papers would be destroyed and their machinery rendered inoperable if they did not do so, it was pretty sure that the workers in the newspaper industry were prepared to carry this out, and that plenty of other workers would take action to support them if necessary. The proprietors were pretty sure too because they did what they were told.[8]Such a scenario would have been unimaginable a short time earlier — or later.

The ratcheting-up of conflict together with the forward movement of mass consciousness on the one hand, and the differentiation between militants and moderates on the other were processes which occurred irrespective of any organised political influences.[9]How do we know this? The socialist organisations were too small, too new and too inexperienced. They picked up a mass following after the decisive moments of the revolution had passed. Liberal organisations failed to acquire a working-class base. And political people of all kinds found that workers thought and acted in unexpected ways which gave them one shock after another. We must remember that there was hardly any experience of political activity in Russia other than that of underground organisation which was clandestine, secretive, dangerous and of necessity limited in numbers. This also affected those open struggles which did break out. The difference between the Obukhov strike of 1901, which had to be prepared in secret until the very last moment, and the St Petersburg strike at the beginning of 1905, which involved one mass meeting after another, was a difference between two political worlds.[10]

Far from the socialist parties exerting a decisive influence on the general run of workers, it was what happened among the workers which set the seal on the nature of the socialist parties. The third process affecting my choice of material in this collection is therefore the impact of the first two processes on those parties — how they reacted, if you like, to the independent development of the workers in open, mass struggle. Of the two main socialist tendencies with any following among workers, the Social Democrats underwent a left-right split in 1903 and the Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) began to do so during 1905 itself. It was the split in the Social Democracy between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks which achieved the most finished expression in 1905, while the division among the SRs did not fully harden until the revolution of 1917. Against the background of the revolutionary upsurge, the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks came more sharply into focus and became more clearly important than in the cramped confines of underground disputes.

How receptive each organisation was to influences from across the working-class spectrum in 1905 depended to a large extent on their previous development. The split had occurred, quite unexpectedly, over the nature of the Social Democratic Party they were trying to build. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, insisted on a party of activists, which in underground conditions essentially meant full-time organisers, professional revolutionaries. The Mensheviks wanted to include sympathisers, at least in theory.[11]

As 1905 approached, the dispute broadened to include an issue of wider political significance.

The basis of the argument went something like this. Russia was backward, Europe was advanced. In large parts of Europe, the capitalist class or bourgeoisie held the reins of power. In accordance with the dictates of the capitalist system, they were developing industry, technology and a mass working class. Just as the old feudal aristocracy had had to give way to the bourgeoisie, so the bourgeoisie in its turn would have to give way to a majority working class. Under the leadershipof the Social Democratic Party, this majority class would, with every democratic justification, replace outworn capitalism with a higher, socialist society.

How did Russia fit into this scheme? Feudalism in its classic form had been abolished in 1861. But the big landowners were still in the saddle with their absolute, autocratic monarch at the head of his absolute state. At the same time, there was a subordinate but growing industrial sector. The Menshevik answer was that there must be a bourgeois revolution led by the bourgeoisie. This meant that the workers and the Social Democrats should stay out of the immediate struggle for power, and encourage the liberals to take the lead in establishing a bourgeois-democratic republic.

The Bolsheviks had a similar general outlook, but their specific response was different. They argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was too dependent on Tsarism and too apprehensive about the workers to risk a revolution on anything like the classic French model. The liberals were therefore not to be trusted. Tsarism could only be broken by the workers acting in concert with the peasants, who formed the majority of the population. This social alliance or ‘democratic dictatorship’ was to be embodied in a provisional revolutionary government which should establish a democratic republic, distribute the land among the peasants and introduce an eight-hour working day.

This is a very crude and highly over-simplified version of the argument.[12]Nevertheless, it has the saving grace of identifying the nature of bourgeois liberalism as a key point at issue. This fed into the existing difference between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks about what was known as ‘the organisation question’. If the workers were going to stay on the margins of the struggle for power, then the party organisation could be relatively loose and the distinction between members and sympathisers could remain suitably vague. But if the workers were going to play a leading role in this struggle, their party would have to be a centralised combat organisation.

The effect of the mass revolutionary movement of 1905 was to link these arguments with the differentiation which took place among the workers. A Menshevik work on 1905, which is not without its merits, summed it up like this: ‘Fundamentally, Bolshevism stressed the initiative of an active minority; Menshevism the activisation of the masses.’[13]What Bolshevism actually stressed was the initiative not only of the Bolsheviks themselves, but of those workers, often a minority to begin with, who made the pace in the struggle, and by so doing stirred the more hesitant, less confident workers into activity. This orientation was linked to the Bolsheviks’ belief that the working class had a leading role in the revolution. For the Mensheviks, the more passive and conservative workers were a key point of reference because their behaviour fitted the notion that the main force in the revolution must be the bourgeoisie.

This was not necessarily how it looked at the time. The 1905 revolution stimulated the rise of a left Menshevism, especially around Trotsky in St Petersburg, which led to a temporary reunification of the two Social Democratic factions. Left Menshevism didstress ‘the activisation of the masses’. At the same time, there was a strain of Bolshevism, again especially virulent in St Petersburg, which didstress ‘the initiative of an active minority’, that is to say, the Bolsheviks themselves, to the exclusion of the masses. So for over a decade after 1905 it was possible for people like Trotsky to conclude that the Leninist obsession with centralism was just as harmful as the Mensheviks’ spineless attitude towards the liberals. However, it was Lenin himself who fought hardest to democratise his organisation in 1905, to open it up to mass recruitment of workers, and to counter the dangerous sectarianism of his existing followers, which he eventually overcame (not that this prevented him from returning to underground methods once the counter-revolution had triumphed). The Mensheviks, by contrast, swung decisively to the right, practically disowning the revolution altogether. As a result, they were marginalised in 1917, when the main political struggle was between the Bolsheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. So when it came to the question of whether the Bolsheviks or the Mensheviks learned the most from the mass movement of 1905 in the long run, it was really no contest. The Bolsheviks absorbed the lessons despite their mistakes. The Mensheviks failed to do so despite their successes.

These three processes do not necessarily incorporate the whole story of 1905, especially in a single volume.[14]But they supplied me with a key for prioritising issues and selecting material. I hope they help you enter a revolution which is both far away and yet surprisingly familiar.


Socialist acknowledgements are made in the knowledge that however personal an endeavour might seem to be, it has a collective dimension which is just as crucial as the names on the product. I have briefly tried to indicate this dimension here.

First, individuals, in alphabetical order:

Yelena Sergeyevna Alexandrova and other staff at the INION social science library in Moscow, not forgetting those in the photocopying department; Ian Birchall, for having had the original idea; Melanie Bourne; British Library staff, especially in the Humanities Two Reading Room; Alexei Gusev; Chris Harman, for reminding me about the importance of defending the Bolshevik tradition in a way that might make sense to an 18-year-old; the prolific Mike Haynes, for being an unfailing source of intellectual inspiration and support; Louis Loizou; Brian Pearce, for his painstaking checks on my rendering of Russian sources and his informal master classes on the art of political translation; Monica Riveros, without whom the whole thing would have been impossible; Russian State Library (formerly Lenin Library) staff in Moscow — again not forgetting the hard-pressed photocopying worker; Mark Thomas, for books I would not have had access to otherwise.

Other individual acknowledgements appear at appropriate places in the text. My apologies to anyone I have missed.

I also acknowledge my debt to a number of organisations and groups. Pride of place here must go to the members of the Revolutionary Historyeditorial board for their unstinting support, especially Ted Crawford and Paul Flewers, whom I have worked particularly hard. The Socialist Workers Party, of which I am a member, is a constant source of inspiration. So is the International Socialist Tendency, to which the SWP belongs, especially, in my case, Workers Democracy in Cyprus, which I know chiefly through the indomitable Phaedonas Vassiliades. I have had the good fortune to be in a position to learn from workers’ struggles, sometimes at first hand, in a number of countries as well as Britain, including Portugal in 1975, Italy in the late 1970s and Russia since 1989. The greatest debt I have of this kind is to other rank-and-file activists, too numerous to name, in trade unions where I have worked and in tenants’ organisations where I live.

Like millions of others, I have experienced the surging anti-capitalist and anti-war movements of recent years and have been renewed by them. It is in the nature of my debt to these movements, as with other such debts, that I feel myself to be the richer for them.

Note on Transliteration and Dates

There is no really satisfactory way of transliterating from Russian. I have used the standard Library of Congress method for details of all Russian publications, in case anyone should want to trace them. Otherwise, I have tried to transliterate names, etc, in such a way as to make it as easy as possible for English speakers to pronounce them.

The old Russian calendar, which was in force at the time of the 1905 revolution, was 13 days behind the Western calendar. This meant that Bloody Sunday, for example, occurred on 9 January in Russia and 22 January elsewhere. I have tended to use the old calendar because it is the one used in the sources. Where both dates are given, I hope the difference is obvious.

Pete Glatter

June 2005


[1].      For an example of rediscovering popular voices from the past — the term often used is discourses — see Mark D Steinberg, Voices of Revolution, 1917 (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2001). This has been something of an academic fashion. But rather than rescuing these voices from the condescension of posterity, much of this writing has reinforced that condescension. 

[2].      Though not the biggest. For an excellent short guide to the working class of Tsarist Russia (and much else besides), see Mike Haynes, Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000(Bookmarks, London, 2002), p22. I have not gone into the way these processes affected other social groups such as the peasantry, which formed the majority of the population, for reasons of space.

[3].      VI Lenin, ‘Lessons of the Moscow Uprising’, Collected Works, Volume 11 (Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1962), p172.

[4].      Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography(Pathfinder, New York, 1970), p72.

[5].      Tony Cliff, ‘Nothing So Romantic’, in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968(Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976), pp441-42.

[6].      Leon Trotsky, 1905(Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973), p125.

[7].      Leon Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany(Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1975), p170.

[8].      See below Chapter 3: The Decisive Days, I: A United Front Against Tsarism; Trotsky, 1905, op cit, p158.

[9].      This is a major problem for conventional historians who tend to see 1905 as a liberal democratic revolution which failed. If only the working class hadn’t existed, if only it hadn’t been so unreasonably assertive! But the working class did exist. The moment it challenged the prerogatives of its employers as well as those of the Tsar, the liberals recoiled into the arms of the great landowners and their absolute state, with its reassuring apparatus of military repression. See, for example, Abraham Ascher, The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray(Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1988); Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924(Pimlico, London, 1997); Sidney Harcave, The Russian Revolution of 1905(Collier, London, 1970).

[10].    See below Chapter 1: The Road to Bloody Sunday.

[11].    For more on the Bolshevik-Menshevik split and its evolution, see, for example, Tony Cliff, Lenin, Volume 1 (Pluto Press, London, 1975); David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism: A Social and Historical Study of Russian Social-Democracy 1898-1907(Martin Robertson, London, 1975); Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin(Merlin Press, London, 1980).

[12].    Much fuller and more sophisticated versions can be found in the works listed in the previous footnote and in Duncan Hallas,Trotsky’s Marxism(Pluto Press, London, 1979); Trotsky, 1905, op cit. Both the Bolshevik and the Menshevik perspectives were wrong, and Trotsky’s perspective, based on his theory of permanent revolution (which he derived from the experience of 1905), was right, as the Bolsheviks accepted in 1917. However, the formal correctness of theoretical perspectives is not all there is to it, as I go on to argue.

[13].    Solomon M Schwarz, The Russian Revolution of 1905: The Workers’ Movement and the Formation of Bolshevism and Menshevism(University of Chicago Press, London, 1967), p29.

[14].    I especially regret to have to leave out the international dimension. As far as I know, the only work on the international impact of 1905 is Ivar Spector’s The First Russian Revolution: Its Impact on Asia(Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs NJ, 1962). Such was the enthusiasm in Britain, for example, that the Labour Representation Committee, which was the then forerunner of the Labour Party, raised more money for strikers, widows and orphans in distant Russian cities than it did for its own activities at home (Walter Kendall, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900-1921(Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London, 1969), p342).