Rehearsing for 1917: Russia’s 1905 Revolution

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

David Finkel

AGAINST THE CURRENT is delighted to publish the following three centenary essays on “The First Russian Revolution,” the upheaval of 1905 that came to be seen as the rehearsal for February and October 1917.

As our regular readers know, throughout this year we’re offering a collection of commemorations on the world-historic events of 1905, from a mass strike in Guyana to the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to Albert Einstein’s pathbreaking scientific papers of that year. But the outbreak of a revolutionary struggle that shook the Russian autocracy, the lynchpin of political and social reaction in Europe for the preceding century, was the greatest of them all — despite its defeat, a promise of triumph to come.

It began when the Czar’s troops, in January 1905, massacred a march (led by a priest, a police agent no less) carrying a peasants’ petition to the ruler they called “Little Father.” It ended by shaking the empire. As Nikolai Preobrazhenskii’s essay on the Unemployed Soviet in St. Petersburg shows, even 100 years later the 1905 Revolution continues to yield new lessons, with hidden chapters of struggle recovered to inspire and educate us.

New Debates

The 1905 revolution put into the spotlight methods of struggle that were either new, or at least insufficiently noticed previously — the workers’ council (soviet) formation and the Mass Strike, discussed here in Hillel Ticktin’s contribution. The St. Petersburg Soviet brought to prominence the previously little-known young Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

The revolutionary upsurge also brought to international attention the factions within a divided Russian Social Democratic party, including the revolutionary Bolshevik wing, led by Lenin, that proclaimed the program of a “democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry.”

In the revolution’s aftermath, the inability of the weak Russian bourgeoisie to carry its “historic democratic task” of overthrowing Czarism would lead to Trotsky’s formulation of a theory of Permanent (i.e. uninterrupted) Revolution — that only the working class could lead the revolution from start to finish — from the fight for democracy right through to the overthrow of capitalism.

This was connected, implicitly at least, to a conception that capitalism was in “decline” even before its ruling class had completed its struggle for political power (see Ticktin’s essay).

All these questions may now seem like “old debates” in the socialist movement after decades of repetition and argumentation; but they were as novel then as the revolution was exciting and hopeful.

Luxemburg’s Foresight

The Mass Strike impelled Rosa Luxemburg to one of her greatest writings on “The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions.” That work, and its fate in subsequent Communist factional warfare, is the subject of Lea Haro’s contribution.

Luxemburg’s point of departure was the stunning wave of strikes that hit Russia in 1905, exploding out of a period of relative calm. These appeared to come out of nowhere and spread like wildfire across Russia, to the surprise of everyone including the left, often following the path of the rail lines, finding major echoes in central Europe. Luxemburg’s fundamental contribution is the analysis of this phenomenon.

Implicitly following Marx’s thesis that changing activity precedes/provides the material basis for changing consciousness, she argues that people sprang into mass action, as an expression of pressures that had built up in the social and political economy — yet there was an irreducible spontaneous element in their movement.

This had nothing to do with a mythical theory of “spontaneism” attributed to Luxemburg, which she never held. It meant that the mass strike’s timing, and what would trigger it, was not entirely predictable. Hence it could not be called on or off at will; nor could the traditional separation between “economic” (trade union) and “political” (party) issues be maintained in this kind of wave, as each fed the other.

The masses’ action expressed grievances and interests, but could not usually be directly explained by them, since these were often of long standing. If anything could directly explain it — though Luxemburg didn’t actually invoke this — it was a kind of moral anger, “we’re not going to take it any more.”  Luxemburg’s dialectical point was that the mass strike explained workers actions; by the same token individuals’ interests/motivations agglomerated could never explain the mass strike.

Collective struggle, Luxemburg shows, transforms workers’ outlook. One day, their outlook is formed by their individual self- interested action,  in competition with other workers selling their labor power on the market. The very next day, having been thrown into collective action by the mass strike and having amassed new power by means only of that collective action, the same workers have undergone a political and moral transformation, realizing that now, in contrast with yesterday, the good of all is the precondition for the good of anyone.

Luxemburg’s point is therefore that, quite suddenly, workers can adopt a whole new outlook entailing a radical, even revolutionary outlook, because their new power, dependent on collective activity, has rendered that agenda realistic. They now view their comrades as ends in themselves, the collectivity as means. They may be in a position to conquer the world.

Luxemburg sees the job of socialist organizations to help the mass strikers become fully conscious of what they are doing and to plan, so far as possible, what comes next. She understands the necessity of the revolutionary party as well as anyone…though it takes her a long time, just as it took Lenin a long time, to realize that world Social Democracy, especially its German “jewel”, could never function as such, and that a party of committed revolutionaries had to be formed by breaking up the old reformist, corrupted International.

Because Luxemburg understood the radicalizing, even revolutionary, potential of the mass strike and saw the role of socialists to nurture and offer leadership to it, she was vehemently opposed both by the trade union leaderships and the party leaderships. The mass strike would upset the conservative calculus of the trade union officials, designed to safeguard the trade union organization as an end in itself.

The mass strike would upset the conservative horse trading of socialist party politicians, who were coming ever closer to assuming the responsibility of government under capitalist rules of the game. The latter gave lip service to the need for revolution, but saw it as legitimate only as a “defensive action,” on the day after socialists achieved a parliamentary majority and capitalists sought to use force to prevent majority rule.

The mass strikes, and Luxemburg’s attitude toward them, constituted a huge threat to official Social Democracy. The main political-ideological form of the apparatus’s assault on Luxemburg was to associate her with an older, discredited and utopian concept of overthrowing capital without politics, through a “general strike.”  Luxemburg had no interest in this nonsense, because she did not think in any case that this type of action could be sucked from the thumb of socialists or trade unionists.

If, at the peak of revolutionary struggle, a general strike might be appropriate, so be it; but this was irrelevant to the current scene and debate that presented itself in 1905. Luxemburg’s warnings of the conservatizing role of party and trade union officials alike would prove remarkably prescient.

ATC 118, September-October 2005