Lessons from the 1905 Revolution

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

Hillel Ticktin

1905 WAS A decisive year in Socialist History in that the working class movement developed two crucial weapons in its armory: Soviets (workers’ councils), which were new, and the general strike, which was not. Since that time both political forms have been extensively used and theorized.

It is notable that such basic weapons in working-class struggle either appeared first or were taken furthest in one of the least developed countries in Europe. In the opening chapters of 1905, Leon Trotsky develops his theory of the nature of Russian political economy, tracing its origins and its destiny in what came later to be called the epoch of capitalist decline.(1)

The concept of decline was novel. Trotsky does not use the word decline, speaking rather of the weakness and cowardice of the capitalist class. Rudolf Hilferding’s book on Das Finanz Kapital appeared in 1910 but Hilferding did not develop a theory of decline, though he argued that finance capital is the highest (i.e. final) stage of capitalism.(2) Lenin’s theory of Imperialism as the phase of capitalist decline only appeared six years later, in 1916.(3)

Trotsky, on the other hand, is quite clear that capitalism has entered a new period, that of finance capital, already when writing in the period 1906-9. “The new Russia acquired its absolutely specific character because it received its capitalist baptism in the latter half of the nineteenth century from European capital which by then had reached its most concentrated and abstract form, that of finance capital.”(4)

Trotsky and a co-thinker Parvus put forward a concept of Permanent Revolution that argues that the bourgeoisie cannot fulfil its own tasks because, in effect, the decline of capitalism has made it too dangerous for it to do so (although they do not use the word decline). They argued that as a result, it falls to the working class to undertake those responsibilities.

Marx had argued that the revolution became “permanent” (uninterrupted) only when the working class had taken power. Trotsky is arguing that the theoretically intermediate phase — when the bourgeoisie and/or the petite bourgeoisie would impose bourgeois democracy, removing all feudal remnants and absolutist heritage — could no longer establish itself.

He developed this case in the period January to October 1905(5); the prognosis was proved correct when the Tsar granted a limited Parliament, the Duma, suppressed the general strike of November/December, and then withdrew most of the political concessions he had granted. The bourgeoisie were opposed to the second general strike and did little to mitigate the massive repression that followed.

Trotsky had stood between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks after 1904 and it was precisely for that reason that he was acceptable to both as the de facto leader of the Petrograd Soviet. The two factions remained to a large degree unformed in January 1905, compared with their later evolution.(6)

Trotsky was critical of Lenin for his authoritarian stance on the nature of the Party, as he argued in his 1904 work Our Political Tasks. It was essentially only after 1903 that the Mensheviks began to shift towards an alliance with liberals,(7)  and Trotsky grew more critical of their organizational stance as well as of their gradual conversion to the support of the “middle class.”

Trotsky therefore stood in a very different theoretical position from either of the two factions, one that proved to be correct in 1917 and which Lenin then adopted.

Theories of Revolution

In reality the nature of the Russian Revolution, as it unfolded, could give rise to three possible interpretations. One was the increasingly pessimistic Menshevik conclusion that the autocracy could only be overthrown through the leadership of the bourgeoisie. That was almost certainly based on their interpretation of the relative strengths of the working class and sections of the ruling class, and reinforced by the defeat of the 1905 revolution.

The second was that of Trotsky, who had observed the realities of the struggle during 1905, when the working class established itself as a self-conscious independent decision-making entity, leading the struggle. He concluded that any struggle to overthrow the autocracy would necessarily take the same form and that the working class would be compelled to take that struggle to its necessary socialist conclusion.

The third was that of Lenin, who formulated the goal as the “democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry,” arguing that there would be a bourgeois democratic phase before moving to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

So far did Lenin argue this case that he even said that in 1905 the aim of the proletariat was to achieve a republic, a bourgeois republic, in which the proletarian party should take part in government.(8) He was defying the general socialist ban on taking part in bourgeois governments by theorizing that such a bourgeois government (which in his view would be dominated by a radicalized peasantry) would be a revolutionary bourgeois government.(9)

It should be noted that the real difference with the Mensheviks was the less active role they attributed to the working class at a time of the overthrow of the autocracy. Both Lenin and Trotsky saw the working class as the mainstay of the revolution, but Lenin felt that it could not succeed without the support of the mainly peasant mass of the non-proletarian population, including the revolutionary section of the bourgeoisie, and hence the proletariat would subordinate its class interest until it was ready to take power in its own name.

While Menshevik theory was clearly in transition and hence composed of different conflicting strands, Lenin’s view was internally conflicted in that he was arguing two points. The first was that the proletariat had to engage in armed struggle, win over the army, and then take power but hand it over to a Constituent Assembly as part of a bourgeois republic, because the proletariat needed allies.

Lenin’s second argument was that the proletariat and its parties would remain independently organized and responsible only to itself, at a time when its success in the revolution made it the most powerful party in the country.

Trotsky’s view was similar to Lenin up to the point where a successful revolution takes place. He takes Lenin to his logical conclusion. If the bourgeoisie itself will not be the leading party in the revolution and it is replaced by the proletariat, why does the proletariat have to abstain from pursuing its own goals? If Lenin at this time had held his later view of the decline of capitalism, he ought logically to have come to Trotsky’s conclusion that there could not be such a thing as “revolutionary bourgeois democracy,” a term he was wont to employ in the debates around 1905.

Political Economy of Russia

Neither Lenin nor the Mensheviks had a theory of the nature of the Russian autocracy. Lenin had criticized the Narodniki (populists) and written on the nature of Russian agriculture, but he had not tried to explain the nature and evolution of Russian history. Trotsky at the age of 26-7 had already formulated an overall political economy for the Russian Empire, which explained its dynamic.(10)

He argued that it was not feudal but semi-Asiatic. This much Trotsky derived from Plekhanov. What was crucial was the extraction of the surplus product and its distribution. He saw Russia’s defense of its borders as playing the same role as irrigation in the Asiatic Mode of Production. The surplus product went into the military to maintain the Russian state, besieged as it was, on all sides.

As a result, the peasants were reduced to a new serfdom, with a close resemblance to slavery. This in turn resulted in a low level of productivity and so a relatively small surplus product, which in turn meant that taxation was high and the state disproportionately large and bureaucratic in order to maintain the stability of the system.

Unlike in the Asiatic Mode of Production, there were landlords but they were part of the state bureaucracy. By 1905 the peasants were no longer enserfed but their economic position was often worse than before their emancipation in 1861.

This was neither feudalism nor capitalism. It was clear that the autocracy had no place in its social structure for the rising capitalist class and the accompanying “middle class” of professionals and others. Likewise, the autocratic social structure had no future in a capitalist society. Logically, the two sides stood opposed. Indeed, the students were overwhelmingly critical of the Tsarist autocracy.

The fact that the bourgeoisie supported the October 1905 strike showed where they stood — and yet they did not carry through their demands for the full removal of the old state and its replacement by a bourgeois democratic structure, which could have provided the necessary environment for the full development of capital. Trotsky argued that they were afraid to go further because they knew that they would be replaced by the working class, once the Tsarist bureaucratic police-state was removed.

Western Europe, including Germany, had had a long evolution of the market in which a bourgeoisie had developed, while sometimes enveloped in feudal remnants. Landlords were part of the market, even while maintaining semi-feudal aristocratic forms, so it was not surprising that the Junkers could carry through the unification of Germany.

That was not the case in Russia, where the extraction of the surplus product remained bound to the old forms of the semi- Asiatic mode of production of the village commune, ties to the land and the brutal assertion of bureaucratic and landlord authority.

This meant that the rising capitalist class would have had to assert itself in revolutionary, not gradualist form in order to establish its own dominion, even though there was a world capitalist market. While it had been prepared to do so in France in earlier times, it could not do so in the Russia of the twentieth century.

As noted above, this bourgeoisie was afraid to act in case it would destroy the very bulwark that prevented its left taking power; but it also had another reason, which presaged the events of the late twenties. Finance capital had come to dominate modern capitalism, and that meant foreign investment in Russia played a critical role in the emerging industrial economy.

The short-termist nature of finance capital is its hallmark. Hilferding theorized it as abstract capital that therefore had no specific location, industry or worker to which it was tied, unlike industrial capital. Its only aim was to make money out of money. This meant that it was not interested in the development of Russia, only that it made the maximum return on its investments.

Logically, as today in post-Soviet Russia, it sought out extractive industry, whose output was largely exported. Nonetheless, it also financed railway and industrial expansion, and as Trotsky put it: “The European entrepreneurs took direct possession of the most important branches of Russian industry. Europe’s finance capital, by assimilating the lion’s share of the Russian state budget, returned it in part to Russian territory in the form of industrial capital.”(11)

However, the interests of this section of capital were much more tied to stability and the strong state rather than the overthrow of the Tsarist system. Indigenous industrial capital was therefore too weak to assert itself. It constituted a relatively weak force within the state capitalist enterprises and the operations of foreign finance capital.

Capital’s Internal Conflict

In principle, Trotsky was arguing that capital wanted to remove absolutism but would be pusillanimous at best in removing the autocracy. He was essentially making the very modern case that the development of capitalism requires the extension of civil rights to the whole population, and he makes the case explicitly, citing case after case in which sectors of Russian capital explicitly make their case for democracy.(12)

Why then did he argue that they would not go the whole way? In 1905, once the Tsar had granted a parliamentary system and civil rights, the bourgeoisie was satisfied.
Trotsky, at the time, argued that the Tsarist concessions were a sham and that the democratic struggle had to push for immediate concessions like an amnesty and release for political prisoners, removal of the old Tsarist ministers, the standing down of the army, in short an immediate shift in power.

The promised new constitution, he insisted, was little more than a sham. So indeed, it proved to be as the regime had prepared both a massacre and a pogrom, which was wisely avoided by the Soviet.(13)

There were essentially two issues. The first was that the autocracy did not want to concede anything if it could help it and if it could undo any concessions it would do so, once it felt sufficiently strong. The bourgeoisie was not, however, prepared to fight to the bitter end for its own demands. One had to conclude, therefore, that they were prepared to accept a malfunctioning and limited market. This was not the bourgeoisie of the French Revolution but a bourgeoisie afraid of its successor.

The second issue concerned the demand for workers’ rights, which were in themselves not socialist, and which the bourgeoisie of the West had implemented or conceded decades or centuries previously.

One aspect of bourgeois democracy is that labor power be free. In Russia, however, personal rights were limited and one of the most obvious limitations, as in Stalinist Russia (and for Blacks in apartheid South Africa), was the internal passport, which was a major grievance. Censorship was another violation of civil rights, and the printers acted to remove it in 1905. Mass education was an elementary demand that was essential to raise the level of productivity.

The demand for the eight-hour work day, which a century later is still not fully implemented in many countries, clearly went further. How radical it is can be seen in the absurd discussion in the British press in May 2005, which largely supported the British rejection of a maximum 48-hour week imposed by the European Union!

The point, however, is that all these demands are not in themselves socialist, but the Russian bourgeoisie refused to support them when the Petrograd Soviet called the second general strike in November 1905.

One can, however, make the case that these demands are inherently favorable to workers and hence are workers’ issues. The problem with such an argument is that a mature capitalism with a confident bourgeoisie at its head would have no problem implementing them, and more, in its own interest.

In principle, capital needs conditions for abstract labor, which requires a fully flexible, fluid and well trained labor force and without those conditions it can only be crippled. It became clear that capital in Russia had accepted its limited role and hence could not perform its own tasks.

Trotsky does not use the phrase “decline of capitalism,” but that is the only conclusion that one can draw.(14)

The General Strike, Soviets and Their Meaning

Following Trotsky’s analysis, one can see why Soviets and the general strike showed themselves in all their glory in Russia of 1905. Capitalism, in its decline, had come to incorporate Trade Unions as tolerated non-political entities; but in Russia Trade Unions could not easily function as non-political entities within an autocratic police state and consequently were not tolerated, except for those few which were economistic (i.e. renounced political issues altogether).

Migratory illiterate labor, living under appalling conditions, had little use for trade unionist bargaining when they needed more radical solutions. Militant workers’ committees at the point of work were an obvious development, not least because they immediately posed the question of power at the workplace.

As long as these committees had the support of their constituents there was no point in arresting them. In themselves, they did not pose the question of socialism. For that there had to be direction, coming from the Marxist leaders.

In the past 15 years down to 2005, we have seen many examples of de facto Soviets being set up but leading nowhere, such as in Albania and Ecuador. After a time they become demoralized as they go nowhere and then are suppressed. That did not happen in Russia of 1905: The process snowballed in the towns and the countryside and built up to the point through two general strikes where ultimately the Bolsheviks ended up fighting the Tsarist army in Moscow. This cannot be explained as a purely spontaneous series of actions.

The first general strike, with the Petrograd Soviet at its head and Trotsky effectively its leader, had a series of demands with a wide leadership, which called off the strike after 10 days, when the Tsar made his concessions. It was consciously and coherently led. There were, of course, a number of parties involved, not just one, but that does not alter the point: This was as far as the bourgeoisie would go. It did not want to overthrow the system.

The second general strike, now based on the working class and the support of the socialist parties, was again very consciously led. It might be argued that a fully developed, prepared and conscious underground socialist party could have succeeded where the Petrograd Soviet and the Marxists failed. As there was no such party, the argument could be regarded as speculative if it were not for the fact that just such a party succeeded 12 years later.

In the upshot, the Tsarist system went for wholesale repression on an extreme scale and it took until 1912 before the left began to recover. We can ask whether the second strike was a mistake, and it is obvious that the outcome could lead to such a conclusion.

Trotsky had no illusions in the results. Speaking of the 1905 revolution, he said: “Yet at the same time there can be no doubt that no revolution in the past has absorbed such a mass of popular energy while yielding such minimal positive results as the Russian revolution has done up to the present.”(15)

Yet every revolutionary movement has to learn its lessons and every leadership has to be tested in battle. It may have been wiser to call off the strike earlier, when it was clear that it could not succeed, but it was clearly right to have called it in the first place. One can question whether it was right to pursue it to a doomed armed struggle.


One of the features of finance capital to which Hilferding pointed was the fact that it can act as the organizational center of capital. In its decline, capital has developed a highly conscious nucleus that can plan its defence, which in turn requires an equally conscious trained socialist nucleus.

Soviets or workers’ committees are not enough to ensure that a general strike succeeds in overthrowing the system. Spontaneity cannot succeed against a trained, determined and highly conscious opponent. Nor is a general strike in itself sufficient to change a regime.

We have to understand 1905 as the revolution that led to the evolution of the theory of permanent revolution, the need for the formation of a theoretically armed and militant working-class party, an understanding of the limited importance of Soviets and a rather better appreciation of the role of the general strike.

Workers’ democracy or working class representation have evolved over time and the Soviets of 1905 took one step further beyond the Paris Commune. They showed their importance in 1917, but it does not follow that they are the last word on the form of working-class struggle.


  1. Leon Trotsky: 1905, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1972. This book as Trotsky makes clear (x) was a reconstruction of his German edition of 1908-9, written in 1922. It includes chapters of his book Our Revolution, written in 1907, which in turn included work originally written in 1906, which is extant in his untranslated Collected Works. Results and Prospects, the usual work to which reference is made, was an added chapter of Our Revolution. Anyone looking at 1905 and Results and Prospects will note that the first three chapters are similar, but amplified in 1905.
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  2. “As capital itself at the highest stage of its development becomes finance capital so the magnate of capital, the finance capitalist, increasingly concentrates his control over the whole national capital by means of his domination of bank capital.” Hilferding: Finance Capital, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1985, 225.
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  3.  V.I. Lenin: Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916.
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  4. Trotsky, 1905, op. cit., 50.
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  5. Ibid., 6.
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  6. Isaac Deutscher: The Prophet Armed, Oxford University Press 1954, 118 and 130-131.
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  7. Ibid.
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  8. Lenin: The Revolution of 1905, Little Lenin Library, Volume 6, “The Revolution of 1905, The Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry,” Vperyod, no 14, April 12, 1905, 18-21.
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  9. This policy would have put Lenin to the right of the Mensheviks and not just of Trotsky, if it were not for his insistence on armed struggle at the time: “Only an armed people can be a real stronghold of national freedom.” Lenin, ibid. “The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia,” 11.
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  10. Trotsky, op cit., 3-10.
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  11.  Ibid., 16.
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  12. Leon Trotsky: Sochinenii Vol 2, 71-79, Our Revolution: Capital in Opposition, 1906.
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  13. 1

  14. Isaac Deutscher, op cit., 28-134.
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  15. Compare Trotsky in 1935: “History places this task squarely before us. If the proletariat is, for one reason or another, incapable of routing the bourgeoisie and of seizing power, if it is, for example, paralysed by its own parties and trade unions, the continued decay of economy and civilization will follow, calamities will pile up, despair and prostration will engulf the masses, and capitalism — decrepit, decayed, rotting — will strangle the people with increasing strength, and will thrust them into the abyss of a new war.” Leon Trotsky’s “Whither France? Once Again, Whither France?” Part I, March 28, 1935.
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  16. Trotsky, 1905, 55. Later in the same book he quotes Marx to the effect that at a decisive moment in a revolution it is necessary to stake everything, whatever the chances of the struggle. Ibid., 266.
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ATC 118, September-October 2005