From 1905 to Our Time

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Sheila Cohen

THE 1905 REVOLUTION consisted of a series of mass strikes which pushed the Tsarist regime into at least the promise of major constitutional change. The focus here, however, is not on the “results” of the 1905 revolution, but on its “prospects”;1 on what its process promised and still can promise, even in so much less revolutionary times. 1905 was a crucial year not only for its revolutionary content but for its expression of the dynamic, and form, of working-class struggle.

There are a number of key points to be made about this dynamic. First — with all due respect to the role of the party (see below) — grassroots class struggle is “spontaneous.” This doesn’t mean spontaneity is enough. But whatever the accuracy of the revolutionary analysis which predicts, builds and guides such eruptions, they occur almost entirely independently of the role and pronouncements of revolutionary organizations. There are countless examples of this including, notably, the strikes of 1905.

A Drink of Water: Dynamic of Struggle

The second factor might be called the “spark.” Few major working-class struggles evolve gradually. The beginning of major unrest is almost always explosive, sparked by a “last straw” that symbolizes all that has gone before. In 1905, it was punctuation marks:

“The typesetters at Sytin’s print-works in Moscow struck on September 19. They demanded a shorter working day and a higher piecework rate per 1,000 letters set, not excluding punctuation marks. This small event set off nothing more nor less than the all-Russian political strike — the strike which started over punctuation marks and ended by felling absolutism.”2

The original strike which sparked off the events of 1905, at the giant Putilov engineering works in St Petersburg, was for reinstatement of four workers sacked for organizing; in Trotsky’s words, “an economic strike sparked off by incidental causes spread to tens of thousands of workers and so became transformed into a political event.”3

As with the strike that “felled absolutism,” that spark is almost always based in material issues — workplace conditions, wages, shift patterns etc. The Decatur War Zone of 1993, a conflagration of class struggle amongst previously conservative, impeccably “Middle American” workers, began with a strike over the imposition of new working patterns. The final straw which pushed starvation wage Immokalee farmworkers to begin organizing for justice in the mid-1990s was seeing an 11-year-old boy beaten for taking a drink of water.

An equally crucial aspect of the class struggle dynamic illustrated by 1905 is its creation of new, independent organizational forms unique to grassroots struggle. Again, this phenomenon is not confined to periods of outright revolutionary upsurge. In the decidedly non-inflammatory 1950s, U.S. activist Stan Weir noted the development of “informal underground unions” in workplaces across the country; these constituted “the power base for…insurgencies from below…”4 In Britain, similar independent rank-and-file workplace-based groups grew into the shop steward networks and industry-wide “combine committees,” which lent thousands of workers real power during the rank-and-file upsurge of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Workers’ Organizational Forms

On a more revolutionary scale, such forms developed entirely independently from one another in the inter-embrasa (inter-factory committees) of the 1974 Portuguese revolution, the 1973 Chilean cordones in which networks of rank-and-file workers organized factory occupations in support of Allende’s doomed regime; and the Iranian shuras of 1979.

Such alternative structures express an impulse towards the union form, rather than “the union” as institution. Yet this strengthens, rather than undermining, the process of worker organization. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, writing of 1905:

“While the guardians of the German trade unions fear that organizations will fall in pieces in a revolutionary whirlwind like rare porcelain, the Russian revolution shows us exactly the opposite picture; from the whirlwind and the storm, out of the fire and glow of the mass strike and the street fighting rise again, like Venus from the foam, fresh, young, powerful, buoyant trade unions…”5

It was this “revolutionary whirlwind,” rooted not in parties and programs but in direct, materially-based class action, which created that most archetypal of independent working-class organizational forms — the Soviet. Out of the “punctuation marks” strike of September 19th came the great October strike, the most clearly revolutionary of that revolutionary year; and out of that revolutionary strike, the Petersburg Soviet — a constellation, literally a “council,” of workers’ deputies from factory committees throughout the city.

Trotsky wrote of the Petersburg Soviet: “…this purely class-founded, proletarian organization was the organization of the revolution as such…The Soviet was, from the start, the organization of the proletariat, and its aim was the struggle for revolutionary power.”6 Lenin welcomed the Soviets as “organs of the general revolutionary struggle against the government.”7

Yet not long after its birth, even major revolutionaries appeared to have “given up on” or even overlooked the significance of the Soviet. Rosa Luxemburg, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of workers’ self-organization, failed to mention it in her classic treatment of 1905, The Mass Strike; Trotsky omitted the Soviet completely from his 1906 post-mortem Results and Prospects.

Why the ambivalence? Part of the problem was that the Soviet, despite its revolutionary trajectory, could not lead the revolution. In the coda to the argument quoted above, Lenin makes it clear that: “It was not some theory…not party doctrine, but the force of circumstances that…transformed [Soviets] into organs of an uprising…’Soviets’ and similar mass institutions are in themselves insufficient for organizing an uprising.”8

Trotsky makes the same point from the opposite point of view: “The social-democratic [revolutionary] organization …was able to speak for the masses by illuminating their immediate experience with the lightning of political thought; but it was not able to create a living organizational link with these masses…”9 The “lightning of political thought” was missing from the essentially event-driven, materially-based dynamic of the Soviet; the “link” with that dynamic was missing through the party’s relative lack of influence and position within the masses at that time.

Party and Class

The dialectical opposition indicated in both these comments tells us not only why the Soviet could not perform the work of the party, but also, of course, why the party would have been nothing without the Soviet, or at least the living, breathing mass revolt it represented. This dialectical opposition looks almost like common sense. But not all revolutionaries are keen to acknowledge the interaction between these two sides of the insurrectionist coin.

Even Gramsci, a brilliant exponent of the contradictory and dynamic nature of class consciousness in struggle, remarked in an amused (and rather patronizing) response to The Mass Strike: “Rosa — a little hastily, and rather superficially, too — theorized the historical experiences of 1905. She in fact disregarded the.organizational elements which were far more extensive and important in these events than — thanks to a certain ‘economistic’ and spontaneist prejudice — she tended to believe.”10

In fact, the essential point is that political organization and “spontaneism” are not mutually exclusive; the place of a conscious revolutionary leadership is with the class, rather than above or beyond it. As Engels complained of the 19th-century British sect, the Social Democratic Federation: “It insisted upon..unfurling the red flag at the [1889] dock strike, where such an act would have ruined the whole movement, and, instead of gaining over the dockers, would have driven them back into the arms of the capitalists.”11

Lenin, usually regarded (unfairly)12 as the arch apostle of the theory that revolution can only be “brought to” the working class “from without,” moved away from that position both before and after its classic expression in the 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done — each time as a result of struggle. In 1899, moved by the mass strikes already gripping Russia, he wrote: “Every strike brings thoughts of socialism very forcibly to the workers’ mind..”13 Still more enthusiastically, in 1905: “One is struck by the amazingly rapid shift of the movement from the purely economic to the political ground…and all this, notwithstanding the fact that conscious Social-Democratic influence is lacking or is but slightly evident.”14

In 1917, on the eve of the Russian revolution, Lenin concluded that “A specifically proletarian weapon of struggle — the strike — was the principal means of bringing the masses into action…Only struggle educates the exploited class…”15

In alternating between “optimistic” and “pessimistic”16   views of the potential of trade union struggle, Lenin’s writings simply reflect the two poles of the dialectic which constitutes the logic of working-class struggle and consciousness, itself reflecting the contradictory character of capitalist production relations. While the experience of exploitation may not generate revolutionary consciousness, it also precludes uninterrupted acceptance of the status quo — simply because the system itself disrupts that very status quo, time and again.

The exigencies of profitability preclude any lasting stability, sustained reforms or uninterrupted advances in working-class standards of living. In this way those at the sharp end of the contradiction, whatever their pre-existing consciousness, are pushed time and again into struggle against, or at the very least disillusionment with, the system — a point recognized by the Lenin of 1905, if not by the Lenin of What Is to Be Done.

Occasionally and in Flashes

Clearly, both sides of the dialectic of “spontaneous” struggle and effective politics have to be held in view at the same time. And the hinge of the dialectic? Consciousness. As Lenin had argued, “it was not some theory” which drove the revolutionary spirit behind the Soviets. The direction of revolutionary, political, consciousness is not down from the party to the class, but out of the “consciousness-raising” quality of class struggle towards openness to revolutionary theory, which begins to seem increasingly relevant to the concrete concerns of the working class.

Yet the contradictory, uneven and unpredictable dynamic of such struggle belies static conceptions of “stages” in the growth of class consciousness. As Rosa Luxemburg put it, working-class consciousness “does not proceed in a beautiful straight line but in a lightning-like zigzag.”17

One major analyst of the kind of “leaps” or “breaks” in consciousness experienced in struggle is Antonio Gramsci. Pinpointing the “contrast between thought and action” among workers in struggle, whose actions often contradict their ideological awareness, Gramsci points out that “the social group in question may indeed have its own conception of the world, even if only embryonic; a conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes — when.the group is acting as an organic totality.”18

The essential element here is the break, which, “lightning-like,” can take ideologically-colonized workers from passive acceptance to outrage and resistance. In the stifling consumer culture of modern times, the idea that any small example of economistically based struggle can shake the foundations of an apparently seamless hegemony appears laughable. Yet the impact of such struggle on the consciousness of those involved, over and over, is to release them into a sphere in which perceptions of the world undergo a 360-degree turnaround.

In the words of yet another “economistically” motivated striker, in yet another bulk-standard American struggle of the 1980s: “You have to understand what it was like…There was a lot of solidarity, togetherness…It was kind of a revolution, like during the sixties, during the Civil Rights movement or.the Vietnam war….You had the company and you had us…it was no longer a big family. Everyone was choosing up sides.”19

From a bad labor contract to “a kind of a revolution;” from piecework rates for punctuation marks to the genuine article: the dynamic is the same. In celebrating the determined, passionate, inspiring spirit of hundreds of thousands of far from “ordinary” workers in the great struggles of 1905, we remember them, as French workers remembered the Communards in 1968, as the pioneers of an ongoing struggle, a struggle which, however pedestrian its forms, however stifled by the somatic blandness of 21st-century America, is the one thing the ruling class is unable to eradicate — and the one hope of freedom for us all.

1. Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects, 1906.
2. Leon Trotsky, 1905, Vintage Books, 1971, 85.
3. Ibid, 74.
4. Stan Weir, U.S.A. — The Labor Revolt, New England Free Press, 279.
5. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, Merlin Press, 1906, 63.
6. Trotksy, 1905, 104, 251.
7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 8, 124-5.
8. CW, Vol. 11, 124-5.
9. Trotsky, 1905, 105.
10. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, 1971, 223.
11. Interview with The Daily Chronicle, July 1, 1893.
12. Hal Draper, “The Formation of the Bolshevik Party: Myth and History,” Lecture, 19 March 1963; cited in Alan Johnson, “Hal Draper: A Biographical Sketch,” Historical Materialism No 4, 1999, and What Next? (UK, ed. Bob Pitt) No 12, 1999.
13. Lenin, “On Strikes,” 1899, CW, Vol 4, 1960, 315.
14. Lenin, “The St. Petersburg Strike,” CW, Vol 8, 92-3.
15. Lenin, “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” (1917), CW, Vol 23, 239-42.
16. Richard Hyman, Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unionism, Pluto Press, 1971. Most of the quotes used here are taken from this pamphlet.
17. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, 73.
18. Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks, (ed. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith), International Publishers, 1971, 327.
19. Marc Lendler, Crisis and Political Beliefs: The Case of the Colt Firearms Strike, Yale University Press, 1997, 42-43.

ATC 119, November-December 2005