The 1905 revolution and its lessons

by Doug Lorimer

Doug Lorimer is a member of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia. This is a talk presented to the DSP's January 2005 Marxism Summer School.


Soviets of workers' deputies

January 1905 protest

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

Anti-feudal revolution

Marxism versus Narodnism

Marxism and the peasantry

Monopoly capitalism

Russo-Japanese War

Lessons drawn by Lenin



One hundred years ago this month, the first proletarian revolution in the new imperialist epoch of capitalism began. This revolution, the first Russian revolution, was born of mass discontent aggravated by a deeply unpopular war, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. It began with a wave of strikes, riots and street demonstrations protesting the police shooting on a peaceful mass workers' demonstration in St Petersburg, the capital of the vast Russian Empire, on Sunday, January 22, 1905 (January 9 in the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time), killing 1000 and wounding 2000 of the 200,000 marchers.

The revolutionary upsurge reached its highpoint with a political general strike in St Petersburg in October under the slogan "An eight-hour day and arms!", which led to the establishment for 50 days of an elected city-wide strike committee called the Council of Workers' Deputies (in Russian, Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov) and an unsuccessful insurrection in December by 2000 armed and 4000 unarmed workers in Moscow, organised by the Bolshevik-led Moscow Soviet of Workers' Deputies.

While the revolutionary mass movement peaked with these events and began to ebb afterward, being brutally crushed in June 1907, the lessons learned by tens of thousands of class-conscious Russian workers in the course of the mass struggles of those two-and-a-half years helped prepare them to lead the Russian working people to carry out a successful revolutionary struggle for power in 1917. The Bolshevik-led revolution of November 1917 brought into being in July 1918 the world's first socialist state, the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, which, in December 1922, united with the Ukrainian, Belarussian and Transcaucasian Federation of Soviet Republics—that is, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia—to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the Soviet Union.

Soviets of workers' deputies

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founding leader of the Russian Soviet Republic, in a lecture on the 1905 revolution given to young Swiss worker-socialists in Zurich in January 1917, noted that in several Russian industrial towns the elected strike committees, the soviets of workers' deputies, "began more and more to play the part of a provisional revolutionary government, the part of organs and leaders of the uprising". In these towns, Lenin added. the "government authorities were deposed and the Soviet of Workers' Deputies actually functioned as the new government".1

This was the case, for example, in the town of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, where the first soviet of workers' deputies was formed. Only a few years earlier, Ivanovo-Voznesensk had been an out-of-the-way little rural town where pigs and chickens roamed the streets. By 1905 it had mushroomed into a major industrial centre with 70,000 workers, most of whom toiled for 16 or 17 hours a day in its new textile mills. On May 9, 1905, the town's Bolshevik workers held a clandestine conference in a nearby forest and decided to issue a call for a general strike.

Three days later the workers of the town's textile mills, mostly women and children, went on strike. They were joined by railway and metal workers. At a town rally, the workers decided to elect a centralised body to direct the strike—a soviet of workers' deputies consisting of 151 of their most trusted comrades. In the course of the general strike, the soviet set up strike, food supply and finance commissions, and after the shooting of workers by police on June 3, the soviet set up a workers' militia to protect strike leaders and workers' meetings and to prevent strikebreakers from entering workplaces.

The last meeting of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet took place on July 19, 1905. With the general strike having forced the factory owners to concede to most of the workers' demands for higher wages and shorter working hours, the soviet decided to end the general strike and dissolve itself. On July 23 the workers returned to their factories in an organised manner. The general strike and the soviet in Ivanovo-Voznesensk had lasted 72 days, one day longer than the 1871 Paris Commune, up until then the only example of a revolutionary working people's government.

From its very first days, the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet operated as a revolutionary government, ignoring or countermanding the orders of the tsar's provincial governor. It ordered the factory owners to continue to pay the striking workers their wages. It forbade factory owners to evict workers from factory living quarters, and it made merchants give the strikers food supplies. Later it set up a cooperative to provide strikers with foodstuffs.

One of the Ivanovo-Voznesensk soviet's first acts was a decision to close the town's liquor shops. This decision was taken to stop the struggle being drowned in an orgy of drunkenness.

Some indication of why this was such an acute issue may be gleaned from the following description of the life of Russian industrial workers at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries contained in the 1948 autobiography of A. S. Shapovalov, a St Petersburg worker who later became a Bolshevik:

I was 13 years old when [in 1884] the railway repair workshop accepted me in its embrace … and although I had not been spoiled by fate and had already graduated from a hard school, still, after one day spent under the authority of the coppersmith, Aleksey Ignatievich Sokolov, I wanted to run away. Instead of giving me a chance to learn a trade, I spent the whole day being sent out to fetch vodka … Boozeups were organised for any excuse. The birth of a child, a baptism, a funeral, a wedding—all these were marked with boozeups. When a new worker started at the works, he had to buy "welcoming" drinks for his comrades. When he was discharged, they demanded a "farewell". They drank most on the saint's day of the icon which hung in the workshop …

The most backward of the railway workers were the foremen and labourers. They lived in barracks, which were filthy. They were peasants torn from the plough, who had come to St Petersburg merely to earn a bit and return to their villages.

"Recognition of their human worth was rare among the workers", he wrote. The workshop owner "was a `tsar', a `god' … When he walked through the workshop, the workers … would humbly bow, stutteringly remove their hats and say: `Good morning, our lord and master!'"2

January 1905 protest

It was with this sort of serf-like mentality that tens of thousands of workers in St Petersburg, led by a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Georgy Gapon, marched solemnly on January 22, 1905, to the Winter Palace, the residence of the Russian Empire's absolutist monarch, Nikolai Romanov II, in order to present him with a petition containing the people's grievances. The petition read in part:

We working men of St Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless and aged men and women, have come to you, our ruler, in quest of justice and protection … We have no strength at all, O Sovereign. Our patience is at an end. We are approaching that terrible moment when death is better than the continuance of intolerable sufferings…

Every worker and peasant is at the mercy of your officials, who accept bribes, rob the Treasury, and do not care at all for the people's interests. The bureaucracy of the government has ruined the country, involved it in a shameful war and is leading Russia nearer and nearer to utter ruin. We, the Russian workers and people, have no voice at all in the expenditure of the huge sums collected in taxes from the impoverished population. We do not even know how our money is spent. The people are deprived of any right to discuss taxes and their expenditure. The workers have no right to organise their own labour unions for their own interests…

Is this, O Sovereign, in accordance with the laws of God, by whose grace you reign? … Break down the wall between yourself and your people … The people must be represented in the control of their country's affairs … Do not reject their help, accept it, command forthwith that representatives of all classes, groups, professions and trades shall come together. Let capitalists and workers, bureaucrats and priests, doctors and teachers meet together and choose their representatives … let the election of members of a Constitutional Assembly take place in conditions of universal, secret and equal suffrage.

This is our chief request; upon which all else depends.

The petition ended with the following words: "Sire, do not refuse aid to Thy people! Demolish the wall that separates Thee from Thy people. Order and promise that our requests will be granted, and Thou wilt make Russia happy …"3

In his January 1917 Zurich lecture, Lenin commented:

The unenlightened workers of pre-revolutionary Russia did not know that the tsar was the head of the ruling class, the class, namely, of big landowners, already bound by a thousand ties with the big bourgeoisie and prepared to defend their monopoly, privileges and profits by every means of violence …

"There is not yet a revolutionary people in Russia", wrote Mr Pyotr Struve, then leader of the Russian liberals and publisher abroad of an illegal, uncensored organ, two days before "Bloody Sunday". The idea that an illiterate peasant country could produce a revolutionary people seemed utterly absurd to this "highly educated", supercilious and extremely stupid leader of the bourgeois reformists. So deep was the conviction of the reformists of those days—as of the reformists of today—that a real revolution was impossible!

Lenin added:

Prior to January 22 (or January 9, old style), 1905, the revolutionary party of Russia consisted of a small group of people, and the reformists of those days (exactly like the reformists of today) derisively called us a "sect" … This circumstance gave the narrow-minded and overbearing reformists formal justification for their claim that there was not yet a revolutionary people in Russia.

Within a few months, however, the picture changed completely. The hundreds of revolutionary Social-Democrats [here Lenin was referring to the Bolsheviks] "suddenly" grew into thousands; the thousands became the leaders of between two and three million proletarians. The proletarian struggle produced widespread ferment, often revolutionary movements among the peasant masses, fifty to a hundred million strong; the peasant movement had its reverberations in the army and led to soldiers' revolts, to armed clashes between one section of the army and another. In this manner a colossal country, with a population of 130,000,000, went into the revolution; in this way, dormant Russia was transformed into a Russia of a revolutionary proletariat and a revolutionary people.4

Bolsheviks and Mensheviks

The Russian socialists entered the 1905 revolution divided into two separate party organisations—the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks, or majorityites) and the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Mensheviks, or minorityites). Liberal historians invariably attribute this split to Lenin's supposed intolerance toward anyone who did not fully agree with him. A somewhat more sophisticated liberal explanation, which was also presented in the official 1938 Stalinist History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks), is that, as the US liberal historian Alexander Rabinovitch put it in a 1976 book, Prelude to Revolution:

In 1903 Lenin had permanently shattered the unity of the Russian labor movement with his fanatical insistence that only a small, professional, and highly centralized revolutionary organisation was capable of leading the Russian proletariat in a socialist revolution, this at a time when many Russian Social Democrats desired a more democratically organized, broadly tolerant, mass Marxist party.5

In reality, Lenin recognised that only a democratically organised, mass Marxist party would be capable of leading a proletarian revolution. But he also favoured the creation of a centralised organisation of professional revolutionaries, of people who made revolutionary propaganda, agitation and organisational work their life's commitment. He favoured such an organisation because he believed it was the only way to get a democratically organised, mass Marxist party.

Thus, shortly after the fifth RSDLP congress, held in London in July 1907, when the party had become a democratically organised, mass Marxist party with 150,000 members—46,000 of whom were Bolsheviks and 38,000 of whom were Mensheviks—Lenin argued that this had proven the correctness of the earlier struggle to create a party of professional revolutionaries. In a preface to a collection of some of his main writings, including What Is To Be Done?, Lenin wrote:

Iskra [the Russian Marxist paper established abroad by Lenin, Plekhanov and Martov] fought for an organisation of professional revolutionaries. It fought with especial vigour in 1901 and 1902, vanquished Economism, the then dominant trend, and created this organisation in 1903. It preserved it in face of the subsequent split in the Iskrist ranks and all the convulsions of the period of storm and stress; it preserved it throughout the Russian revolution; it preserved it intact from 190102 to 1907.

Take the whole pre-revolutionary period and the first two and a half years of the revolution (190507). Compare our Social-Democratic Party during this whole period with the other parties in respect of unity, organisation, and continuity of policy. You will have to admit that in this respect our Party is unquestionably superior to all the others.

Lenin also noted that "the Social-Democratic Party, earlier than any of the other parties, was able to take advantage of the temporary spell of freedom to build a legal organisation with an ideal democratic structure, an electoral system, and representation at congresses according to the number of organised members".

"The question arises", Lenin asked, "who accomplished, who brought into being this superior unity, solidarity, and stability of our Party?" Lenin's answer was unambiguous: "It was accomplished by the organisation of professional revolutionaries".6

In any event, it was not Lenin's insistence, whether this was fanatical or otherwise, on the need for an organisation of professional revolutionaries that shattered the unity of the RSDLP in 1903. In fact, it was the refusal of a minority of Iskraists led by Yuli Martov to respect the most elementary principles of democratic organisation—that is, to respect the decisions adopted by the majority of delegates at the 1903 congress—that led to the split, which did not occur at the congress, but after it.

At the congress, Lenin had proposed that the editorial board of Iskra, which it had been agreed would henceforth be the party's organ, be reduced from its previous six (self-appointed) members to three, nominating himself, Georgy Plekhanov and Martov. These three had carried out the bulk of the actual editorial work on the old editorial board and represented the distinct political trends within the Iskraists. This composition would ensure that decisions could not be deadlocked and gave the Iskraist majority control over the central organ.

However, Martov opposed this proposal, wanting to elect the original six editors. Lenin's proposal was adopted by 25 votes to 2, with 17 abstaining.

Martov and his supporters then refused to participate in the election of the three-person central committee, as a result of which it was composed exclusively of supporters of the Iskraist majority (henceforth known as the Bolsheviks), and Plekhanov was elected president of the party council—the highest decision-making body between congresses, composed of two members designated by the central committee, two designated by the Iskra editorial board and a president elected by the congress.

Following the congress, Martov and his supporters—who henceforth became known as the Mensheviks—refused to accept these decisions, forming a secret faction to overturn them.

Under the pressure of the Mensheviks' campaign, Plekhanov wavered and then capitulated, uniting with Martov to coopt the three other former board members—Pavel Axelrod, Alexander Potresov and Vera Zasulich—onto the editorial board, acting in clear violation of the decision of the congress and turning Iskra into an organ of the Mensheviks. On October 30, 1903, Lenin resigned from the board and was coopted onto the central committee.

Then, at a meeting of the party council in mid-January 1904, Plekhanov joined with Axelrod and Martov (the two representatives of the Iskra editorial board) to overturn the Bolshevik majority on the central committee by coopting Mensheviks onto the body. Lenin responded by moving a resolution for the convening of a new party congress, which was voted down by Plekhanov, Axelrod and Martov.

Writing to Lenin at the beginning of 1904, a worker active in the RSDLP inside Russia denounced all of the leaders abroad as "political intriguers", but also touched on the important point at issue in the dispute between Lenin and the Mensheviks:

What's the use of having congresses if their decisions are ignored and everybody does just as he pleases, saying that the congress decision is wrong, that the central committee is ineffective, and so on. And this is being done by people who before the congress were always clamouring for centralisation, party discipline, and so on, but who now want to show, it seems, that discipline is only meant for ordinary mortals, and not for them at the top.

In reply, Lenin wrote:

The squabbles abroad among the writers and all the other generals (who you too harshly and bluntly call intriguers) will cease to be dangerous to the party only when the leaders of committees in Russia become more independent and capable of firmly demanding the fulfillment of what their delegates decide at the party congress.7

During 1904, the Mensheviks tried to justify their overturning of the decisions of the second party congress by waging a furious demagogic campaign against Lenin, accusing him of being an advocate of "bureaucratic centralism"—for insisting that they abide by the decisions of the party congress. In response to this campaign, in May 1904 Lenin published his booklet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, giving a detailed account of what had transpired at and after the congress and explaining from a Marxist standpoint what was at stake in the dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, pointing out that the Mensheviks were reviving the previously defeated conceptions of the Economists.

Thus Axelrod had begun to argue that the Russian Marxists should strive for the creation of an all-inclusive, non-party, workers' organisation, which in practice would have meant the liquidation of the still very weak revolutionary socialist party. In One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, Lenin observed:

The party, as the vanguard of the working class, must not be confused, after all, with the entire class. And Comrade Axelrod is guilty of just this confusion (which is characteristic of our opportunist Economism in general)… [I]t would be "tailism" to think that the entire class, or almost the entire class, can ever rise, under capitalism, to the level of consciousness and activity of its vanguard, of its Social-Democratic Party.8

At the end of July 1904, Lenin convened a conference of 22 Bolsheviks in Switzerland at which an appeal "To the Party" was issued calling for a struggle to convene a new RSDLP congress. Over the following few months, conferences of local party committees inside Russia declared in support of this call and in December 1904 elected a Bureau of Majority Committees, which began publishing a weekly paper, Vperyod (Forward), and constituted itself as the organising committee for the third congress of the RSDLP This is the real story of how the Russian socialists came to be divided into two rival party organisations only a month before Russia was plunged into a revolution.

Anti-feudal revolution

In his January 1917 Zurich lecture, Lenin pointed out that the peculiarity of the 1905 revolution was that "it was a bourgeois-democratic revolution in its social content, but a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle". Expanding on this point, he said:

It was a bourgeois-democratic revolution since its immediate aim, which it could achieve directly and with its own forces, was a democratic republic, the eight-hour day and confiscation of the immense estates of the nobility—all the measures the French bourgeois revolution in 1792-93 had almost completely achieved.

At the same time, the Russian revolution was also a proletarian revolution, not only in the sense that the proletariat was the leading force, the vanguard of the movement, but also in the sense that a specifically proletarian weapon of struggle—the strike—was the principal means of bringing the masses into motion and the most characteristic phenomenon in the wavelike rise of decisive events.9

This peculiar combination of bourgeois and proletarian revolutions was a product of the peculiar combination of socio-economic relations that had been produced by the late development of capitalism within the Russian Empire. In his 1917 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin observed that at the beginning of the twentieth century Russia was a country "where modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed … in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations".10

In the mid-nineteenth century, when bourgeois revolutions freed the majority of European nations from the final vestiges of feudal economic and political relations, serfdom—the right sanctioned by law of the landowning nobility to use peasants as they thought fit—remained the foundation on which the despotic Russian monarchy rested.

Serfdom was legally abolished in Russia only in 1861. The tsarist autocracy took this step after the ignominious defeat of its army during the 1854-56 Crimean War. The Emancipation Act of 1861 was enacted principally in order to modernise the tsarist army—to transform it from a large standing army of untrained, poorly armed serfs into a smaller and much less expensive standing army of trained, paid soldiers, equipped with industrially produced weapons.

The failures of the Russian army during the Crimean War had also driven home to the tsarist government the need to create an extensive network of railways to supply quickly Russian soldiers on the battlefield with food, munitions and reinforcements.

At the end of the 1850s, though, the tsarist government did not have the revenue to fund a large-scale program of railway construction. Indeed, not only was the government bankrupt, but the army was absorbing up to half its expenditures.

The tsar's economic advisers believed that the abolition of serfdom would stimulate peasant production of commodities for an expanding market and generate a new class of rich peasant farmers, who would provide a new base for government revenue. The poorest peasants would be free to migrate to the cities and towns, thus providing an expanding pool of wage workers for the emerging class of capitalist factory owners.

While formally ending 1000 years of feudalism in Russia and legally opening the way for 23 million serfs to own land, in practice the Emancipation Act changed little. It declared that all land on landlords' estates belonged legally to the hereditary nobility, other than the land on which the peasants' households were situated. To become legal owners of the farm land, including land they had previously used to support themselves, the peasants—who at that time made up ninety-four per cent of Russia's population—had to purchase it from the landlords, under the supervision of new local government bodies.

Prior to the 1861 reform, all local government powers had been exercised by the landowners over their serfs. The Emancipation Act granted certain powers of self-government to peasant village associations, but subordinated these powers to local government officials who, under an 1864 law, were to be selected by district and provincial assemblies (zemstvo), made up of delegates elected from different social classes. Up to 1906, these were the only elected government bodies. They tended to be overwhelmingly dominated by the hereditary, landowning nobility.

At the end of the 1850s, there were about one million nobles in the Russian Empire, of whom 250,000 belonged to the hereditary nobility, and of these only 90,000 owned serfs. Most of these nobles were so poor that they lived like peasants alongside their serfs. About 18,000 nobles each owned100 or more serfs, and it was from this small group—constituting, with their families, about 0.5 per cent of the total population—that the government ministers, provincial governors and the top echelons of the civil and military bureaucracy were drawn.

The nobles themselves wanted to abolish serfdom, in order to rid themselves of their debts to the government. By 1858, around sixty per cent of landlords had mortgaged their serfs to the government to cover their tax bills. The Emancipation Act transferred these mortgages from the landlords to the newly freed serfs, giving them a period of 49 years to pay off these mortgage debts.

The "great reforms" of the early 1860s left the peasantry in possession of about three-quarters of the land they had previously regarded as theirs. Population growth during the next half century further reduced the average landholdings of the peasantry, making land hunger a problem serious enough to turn the peasants into a potentially powerful force for revolutionary change. Between 1860 and 1900, the average allotment of farm land per male peasant declined by about forty-six per cent, from 5.2 to 2.9 hectares, which was too little for them to live off. About two-thirds of all peasant households were not able to make a living from their tiny farms, and their members had become semi-proletarians relying for the most part on income from wages, from the sale of their labour power either to the big landowners or to richer peasants to produce agricultural or handicraft commodities.

Marxism versus Narodnism

Widespread disillusionment among liberal-minded university students at the results of Tsar Aleksandr II's "great reforms" led to the formation of a petty-bourgeois revolutionary democratic current in Russia—the Populist or Narodnik current.

The Narodniks held out the hope that capitalist development could be bypassed in Russia through a peasant revolution that would not only overthrow the tsarist autocracy but create a "socialist" society based upon the peasants' communal landholdings. Marx and Engels, who throughout their political lives had regarded tsarist Russia as the bastion of reaction in Europe, welcomed the emergence of the Narodnik current as a potential ally of the socialist workers' movement in western Europe, and many Narodniks became interested in Marx and Engels' writings. They organised the first translations of a number of them into Russian, including Marx's Capital. In turn, Marx and Engels both learned Russian in order to read the literature and correspond with Russian revolutionary democrats.

Against the Narodniks' perspective of "agrarian socialism", Marx and Engels argued that without the assistance of proletarian revolutions in the much more industrially developed West, a process of capitalist development in Russia and the breaking up of peasants' communes (mir) was inevitable. In their jointly authored 1882 preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx and Engels argued, "If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as a starting for a communist development".

In 1879 the principal Narodnik organisation, Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty), split into two rival organisations. The majority formed the Narodnaya Volya (People's Will), while the leaders of the minority—Plekhanov, Zasulich and Axelrod—evolved toward Marxism, founding the first Russian Marxist organisation, the Emancipation of Labour group, in exile in 1883.

In opposition to the Narodniks, the pioneer Russian Marxists argued that Russia had already entered the road of capitalist development, and that the principal task of Russian socialists was to organise the emerging urban working class as the leading force in the struggle against the despotic tsarist regime. In his speech to the 1889 Paris international meeting of socialist parties, for example, Plekhanov argued:

In order to overthrow and finally destroy tsarism, we must rely on a more revolutionary element than student youth [which was the real social base of Narodnism—dl], and this element, which exists in Russia, is the class of proletarians, a class which is revolutionary by reason of its distressing economic situation, revolutionary in its very essence.

In conclusion I repeat—and I insist on this important point—the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph only as a working-class movement or else it will never triumph!11

When Lenin became a Marxist in the early 1890s, Russia was undergoing a rapid process of capitalist industrialisation. By the end of 1890s, Russia had become the world's sixth largest industrial power, with some 6000 industrial plants, and ranked tenth in the world, just behind Italy, in per capita industrial production of goods. In the thirty years between the early 1860s and 1890, the number of industrial workers—wage-workers employed in large mills, mines and factories—doubled to 1.4 million. In the 1890s, however, the rate of capitalist industrial growth accelerated enormously. By end of that decade, the number of industrial workers had doubled again to about 2.8 million, which was about half the size of the industrial work force in the United States. Almost sixty per cent of these workers were employed in large factories (factories having more than 500 workers), which accounted for seventy per cent of the country's total industrial output. By comparison, enterprises employing more than 500 workers accounted for only one-third of the US industrial workforce.

Like Plekhanov's Emancipation of Labour group, Lenin saw the principal task of Russian Marxists as building a revolutionary socialist party capable of leading the Russian working class in the struggle for democracy and socialism. But more than any other Russian Marxist, he emphasised the enormous importance of the struggle for democracy—including the agrarian question—and its relationship to the struggle for socialism. In an 1894 polemic against Narodnism, Lenin wrote:

In Russia the relics of medieval, semi-feudal institutions are still so enormously strong (as compared with Western Europe), they are such an oppressive yoke upon the proletariat and the people generally, retarding the growth of political thought in all estates and classes, that one cannot but insist on the tremendous importance which the struggle against all feudal institutions, absolutism, the social estate system, and the bureaucracy has for the workers. The workers must be shown in the greatest detail what a terribly reactionary force these institutions are, how they intensify the oppression of labour by capital, what a degrading pressure they exert on the working people, how they keep capital in its medieval forms, which, while not falling short of the modern industrial forms in respect of the exploitation of labour, add to that exploitation by placing terrible difficulties in the way of the fight for emancipation. The workers must know that unless these pillars of reaction are overthrown, it will be utterly impossible for them to wage a successful struggle against the bourgeoisie because so long as they exist, the Russian rural proletariat, whose support is an essential condition for the victory of the working class, will never cease to be downtrodden and cowed, capable only of sullen desperation and not of intelligent and persistent protest and struggle. And that is why it is the direct duty of the working class to fight side by side with the radical democracy against absolutism and the reactionary social estates and institutions—a duty which the Social-Democrats must impress upon the workers, while not for a moment ceasing also to impress upon them that the struggle against all these institutions is necessary only as a means of facilitating the struggle against the bourgeoisie, that the worker needs the achievement of the general democratic demands only to clear the road to victory over the working people's chief enemy, over an institution that is purely democratic by nature, capital, which here in Russia is particularly inclined to sacrifice its democracy and to enter into alliance with the reactionaries in order to suppress the workers, to still further impede the emergence of a working-class movement.12

Lenin concluded the polemic by summarising the perspective that was to guide his work for the next three decades:

The political activity of the Social-Democrats lies in promoting the development and organisation of the working-class movement in Russia, in transforming this movement ... into an organised struggle of the WHOLE Russian working CLASS directed against the bourgeois regime and working for the expropriation of the expropriators and the abolition of the social system based on the oppression of the working people. Underlying these activities is the common conviction of Marxists that the Russian worker is the sole and natural representative of Russia's entire working and exploited population.

Natural because the exploitation of the working people in Russia is everywhere capitalist in nature, if we leave out of account the moribund remnants of serf economy; but the exploitation of the mass of producers is on a small scale, scattered and undeveloped, while the exploitation of the factory proletariat is on a large scale, socialised and concentrated. Accordingly, it is on the working class that the Social-Democrats concentrate all their attention and all their activities. When its advanced representatives have mastered the ideas of scientific socialism, the idea of the historical role of the Russian worker, when these ideas become widespread, and when stable organisations are formed among the workers so as to transform the workers' present sporadic economic war into conscious class struggle—then the Russian WORKER, rising at the head of all the democratic elements, will overthrow absolutism and lead the RUSSIAN PROLETARIAT (side by side with the proletariat of ALL COUNTRIES) along the straight road of open political struggle to THE VICTORIOUS COMMUNIST REVOLUTION.13

The idea that only a party of class-conscious workers could provide consistent leadership to the working masses in the struggle to overthrow the tsarist autocracy and secure political liberty was in no way particular to Lenin. As the manifesto adopted by the first congress of the RSDLP in 1898 demonstrated, this was the commonly held view at the time among the Russian Marxists. The manifesto, written ironically by Pyotr Struve, the future political leader of the liberal bourgeoisie, observed:

The further to the east of Europe (and Russia, as we know, is the east of Europe) the weaker, more cowardly and baser in its political attitude is the bourgeoisie, and the greater the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat. The Russian working class must and will take upon its strong shoulders the task of winning political freedom. This is a vital, but merely an initial step towards realising the great historical mission of the proletariat: namely, the creation of a social system in which there will be no exploitation of man by man. The Russian proletariat will cast off the yoke of autocracy in order to pursue more energetically the struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie until the total victory of socialism.14

Marxism and the peasantry

This statement and Plekhanov's earlier 1889 statement that the overthrow of tsarism required a working-class revolution debunk the later contentions by liberal, Menshevik and Trotskyist writers that Mensheviks, including Plekhanov, were defending orthodox Marxism when they argued from 1905 onward that the objective conditions did not exist for a proletarian revolution in Russia.

This liberal myth is in turn based on another—that it was Marx and Engels' view that proletarian revolutions would occur first in the most developed capitalist countries. In fact, they expected the first proletarian revolutions to occur in less economically developed capitalist countries. Thus, in the first programmatic statement of the proletarian socialist movement, the Communist Manifesto of 1848, Marx and Engels did not call on the international communist vanguard to turn its attention to England, the most highly developed capitalist country not only in Europe but in the entire world, where uniquely the proletariat constituted a majority of the population, but to Germany, which at that time was one of the most backward capitalist countries of Europe, still under feudal rule:

The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.15

After the liberal bourgeoisie had betrayed the 1848-49 German bourgeois-democratic revolution—by supporting the feudal rulers' military suppression of the peasants' revolutionary war against the landed nobility—Marx drew the conclusion that the complete victory of bourgeois-democratic revolution in Germany would require a proletarian revolution. In a letter to Engels in 1856, Marx wrote: "The whole thing in Germany will depend on the possibility of backing the proletarian revolution by a second edition of the Peasant War. Then things will go splendidly."16

This statement also demonstrates the falsity of another liberal myth, also first spun by the Mensheviks, namely that Lenin broke with orthodox Marxism by regarding the peasantry as a potential anti-capitalist revolutionary force, a potential ally in the proletariat's struggle for socialism. In fact, again it was Marx who first expounded this supposedly heterodox "Leninist" view.

Thus, in his 1850 work The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850, Marx argued that a decisive factor in the defeat of the first attempted proletarian revolution, the revolutionary uprising of the Parisian workers in June 1848, had been its failure to appeal to and enlist the French peasantry, who still constituted the big majority of France's population at the time, in the anti-capitalist struggle. "Only the fall of capital", Marx wrote, "can raise the peasant, only an anti-capitalist, proletarian government can break his economic misery, his social degradation.17

He returned to this point in his 1852 work The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, arguing that with the complete abolition of feudal relations, the peasants would be subjected to economic ruination by big capital and that this would give them a material interest in taking joint action with the most powerful anti-capitalist social force, the urban wage workers. "Hence the peasants", Marx wrote, "find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task is the overthrow of bourgeois rule". Furthermore, Marx stressed that with the support of the peasants, "the proletarian revolution will obtain that chorus without which its solo song becomes a swan song in all peasant countries".18

It is certainly true that Lenin, more than any other Russian Marxist, stressed that a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance, led by a class-conscious workers' party, was key to a successful struggle for democracy and socialism in Russia. But in doing so, he was not departing from orthodox Marxism, but applying it and enriching it in the context of the concrete socio-economic conditions of tsarist Russia.

Monopoly capitalism

Bourgeois historians like to lay great stress on the fact that tsarist Russia was a country in which the peasantry constituted the big majority of the population, in order to affirm that in early twentieth century Russia the objective socio-economic conditions did not exist for an anti-capitalist revolution. They downplay, and even deny, the fact that by the beginning of the twentieth century, capitalism had become the economically dominant system of production in Russia. For example, in his 2001 book Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution, James White, reader in Russian and east European history at Glasgow University, claims, "There is no doubt that Lenin came to power with abundant theoretical preparation, but in the event none of it proved of any great relevance. If anything, it was a revolution made on false premises."19

According to White, the chief false premise was the view that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, capitalism had become the dominant system of production in Russia. In his 1899 book The Development of Capitalism in Russia, Lenin provided a detailed demonstration of this fact. White, however, dismisses all the factual evidence assembled by Lenin in his book by claiming that since the categories of handicraft, manufacture and machine industry could also be found in Russia in the 1850s, "not a great deal had changed in the post-reform era. The same categories of industrial undertaking, for example, can be found."20

Then, in a demonstration of his own utter ignorance even of bourgeois economics, White presents the following refutation of Lenin's analysis

Lenin's approach to the question is legalistic. It is sufficient for him to show that the economic categories which Marx had used in his analysis of the capitalist system could be applied to Russia. Thus, all economic phenomena are interpreted as manifestations of capitalism, in particular all goods produced for sale are regarded as commodities. What is missing is some criterion for judging whether goods are or are not commodities.

White does not seem to have noticed that in the immediately preceding sentence he has already acknowledged that Lenin does provide such a criterion, the criterion used not only by Marxists but by bourgeois economics, that is, "all goods for sale are regarded as commodities". What Lenin demonstrated in his 1899 book was that capitalist production and circulation of commodities, production and circulation of commodities by wage labour, by workers employed by capitalist firms, dominated Russia's economic life.

Concluding his refutation of Lenin's analysis of the development of capitalism in Russia, White states:

Goods produced for sale would be commodities if production for the market were generalised, if commodity production were the system which prevailed. But at the time Lenin was writing not even he would have maintained that capitalism was the predominant economic system in Russia.21

But that is precisely what—only a few sentences earlier, White correctly acknowledges—Lenin set out to demonstrate in his 1899 book!

In fact, by the beginning of the twentieth century, not only was economic production in Russia subordinate to the international and domestic capitalist market, but Russian capitalism had—like the capitalisms of the other major industrial powers—entered capitalism's imperialist stage—the stage in which the various branches of production are dominated by monopolistic associations of capitalists, by a small number of big capitalist corporations, what bourgeois, particularly US, economic analysts have subsequently called "corporate capitalism".

Three corporations dominated the Russian oil industry; a single one was in almost complete control of the production of railway carriages. Another giant corporation marketed more than 80 per cent of Russia's iron and steel output. Behind these corporations stood a handful of giant banking corporations, which at the beginning of the century already controlled half of Russia's steel output, sixty per cent of its coal and eighty per cent of its electrical goods production. The rate of monopolisation in industry and banking in tsarist Russia was actually higher than in France and Britain, being behind only the rate in Germany and the United States.

While foreign capital, either as loans or direct investments, accounted for forty per cent of the total capital invested in Russian industry, unlike the colonial and semi-colonial countries, where foreign capitalist investment took direct control of branches of production that were peripheral to the development of domestically oriented production, foreign capitalist investment in Russia was in the key branches of domestically oriented industry and in partnership with the Russian monopolists.

Russo-Japanese War

Tsarist Russia was also a major colonial power, having an empire that, in population terms, was the third largest in the world—after Britain's and France's. Russia's colonial possessions, however, were not overseas territories, but countries directly on its borders on the Baltic Sea, in eastern Europe and in central Asia.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the imperialist states began an intense struggle for mastery over China. In 1898, the tsarist government forced China to surrender the Liaodong Peninsula with its fortress and naval base at Port Arthur [Lushun], opening the way for Russia to lay its hands on Manchuria and Korea.

The annexationist policy in the Far East brought Russia into direct collision with another imperialist predator, Japan, which sought to transform Korea and China into colonial possessions. On the night of January 24, 1904, without declaring war, the Japanese navy attacked and set siege to Port Arthur. The tsarist government welcomed the war, hoping that it could be used to whip up a patriotic fervour among the Russian masses that would stifle the growing, and potentially, revolutionary, opposition to the government among workers and peasants. In early 1904, the tsar's minister of internal affairs was reported to have told a critic of the war: "You are not familiar with Russia's internal situation. We need a little victorious war to stem the tide of revolution."22

However, the war that followed turned out to be neither "little" nor "victorious" for Russia, but a series of disasters for the ill-prepared and incompetently commanded tsarist navy and army. The Japanese navy quickly sank most of the Russian Pacific Fleet. An attempt by 300,000 Russian troops to break the siege of Port Arthur resulted in another disastrous defeat, 120,000 Russian soldiers being killed, wounded or taken prisoner in a single battle.

The war brought new sufferings to the Russian working people. Indirect taxes, to fund the war, were sharply increased, causing consumer prices to soar. The real wages of the workers dropped by twenty-five per cent, while hundreds of thousands of working-class and peasant families lost their primary breadwinners to military service. As a result, the war was highly unpopular among the Russian masses.

The pro-war patriotic fervour that the tsarist government hoped the mass media would whip up failed to eventuate because the capitalist class, which owned most of the mass media, was from the outset not only opposed to the war, but stood for the tsarist regime's defeat, hoping in this way to force political concessions out of it, particularly a constitution that would enable them to share political power with the landed nobility. The bourgeoisie knew perfectly well that if Russia was victorious, the autocratic regime would be politically strengthened and any hope of it acceding to their calls for a constitution and a parliament—i.e., the sharing of power between the landed nobility and the bourgeoisie—would be ruled out for years to come.

The series of disastrous defeats suffered by the tsar's navy and army emboldened public opposition to the war and to the autocracy, hastening the outbreak of revolution. In many towns large protest rallies—all of which were illegal—were held under the slogan "Down with the war!". The capture of Port Arthur by Japan in December 1904 brought a fresh wave of antiwar street demonstrations across Russia. This was the context in which the mass march took place on January 22, 1905. The brutal attack on this march was the spark that ignited a wave of strikes and rallies in February, in which the main slogan was "Down with the autocracy!" Russia had entered the road of revolution, but this the revolutionary movement of 1905 failed to topple the tsarist regime.

Lessons drawn by Lenin

In the years after the revolution's definitive defeat in June 1907, Lenin devoted considerable time to analysing the reasons for this, so that the class-conscious Russian workers would be better prepared when the next revolutionary crisis erupted in Russia.

In his 1917 Zurich lecture, Lenin pinpointed the key reasons for the failure of the revolutionary upsurge to overthrow the autocratic government. He noted that "the combination of the proletarian mass strikes in the cities with the peasant movement in the rural areas was sufficient to shake the `firmest' and last prop of tsarism", that is, the army. Continuing, Lenin said:

The revolutionary ferment among the people could not but spread to the armed forces. It is indicative that the leaders of the movement came from those elements in the army and the navy who had been recruited mainly from among the industrial workers and of whom more technical training was required, for instance, the sappers. The broad masses, however, were still too naive, their mood was too passive, too good-natured, too Christian. They flared up rather quickly; any instance of injustice, excessively harsh treatment by the officers, bad food, etc., could lead to revolt. But what they lacked was persistence, a clear perception of aim, a clear understanding that only the most vigorous continuation of the armed struggle, only a victory over all the military and civil authorities, only the overthrow of the government and the seizure of power throughout the country could guarantee the success of the revolution.

Later in the lecture, Lenin pointed out that these weaknesses were true not just of the broad masses of workers and peasants in uniform, but of the broad masses of workers and peasants in general:

The movement spread to all sections of the people, and for the first time in Russia's history involved the majority of the exploited. But what it lacked was, on the one hand, persistence and determination among the masses—they were too much afflicted with the malady of trustfulness—and, on the other, organisation of revolutionary Social-Democratic workers in military uniform—they lacked the ability to take the leadership into their own hands, march at the head of the revolutionary army and launch an offensive against the government.

Hammering home this crucial lesson to his audience, Lenin remarked:

The history of the Russian revolution, like the history of the Paris Commune of 1871, teaches us the incontrovertible lesson that militarism can never and under no circumstances be defeated and destroyed, except by a victorious struggle of one section of the national army against the other section. It is not sufficient simply to denounce, revile and "repudiate" militarism, to criticise and prove that it is harmful; it is foolish peacefully to refuse to perform military service. The task is to keep the revolutionary consciousness of the proletariat tense and train its best elements, not only in a general way, but concretely, so that when popular ferment reaches the highest pitch, they will put themselves at the head of the revolutionary army.

Referring to massive wave of peasant revolts that swept Russia in the latter part of 1905, Lenin drew out the same basic lesson:

Unfortunately, the peasants destroyed only one-fifteenth of the total number of landed estates, only one-fifteenth part of what they should have destroyed in order to wipe the shame of large feudal landownership from the face of the Russian earth. Unfortunately, the peasants were too scattered, too isolated from each other in their actions; they were not organised enough, not aggressive enough, and therein lies one of the fundamental reasons for the defeat of the revolution.

A little over a month after Lenin gave this lecture, a new revolution erupted in Russia. This time the revolutionary Marxists, the Bolsheviks, entered the revolutionary struggle not with a few hundred relatively new and inexperienced members but with 23,000 battle-tested professional revolutionaries, who had thoroughly assimilated the lessons of the 1905 revolution. In the course of the next nine months of revolutionary ferment, they recruited more than a quarter of a million new members to the Bolshevik Party, reflecting their success in imbuing the millions of workers and peasant soldiers with a level of proletarian class consciousness, persistence and determination sufficient to carry the proletarian revolution to victory.


1. V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964, p. 248.

2. Quoted in D. Christian, Power and Privilege: Russia and the Soviet Union in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Pitman Publishing, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 94-95.

3. Quoted in ibid., p.109.

4. Lenin, op. cit., p. 238.

5. A. Rabinovitch, Prelude to Revolution, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1968, p. 16.

6. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 13, pp. 102-04.

7. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 34, p. 209.

8. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 7, p. 260.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 23, pp. 238-39.

10. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1999, p. 86.

11. G. Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, Vol. 1, p. 406.

12. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 1, pp. 29092.

13. ibid., p. 298300.

14. Reprinted in G. Zinoviev, History of the Bolshevik Party—A Popular Outline, New Park Publications, London, 1973, p. 202.

15. K. Marx and F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1998, p. 73.

16. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Correspondence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975, p. 86.

17. K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France—from the February Revolution to the Paris Commune, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2003, p. 102.

18. ibid., p. 210.

19. J. White, Lenin: The Practice and Theory of Revolution, Palgrave, New York, 2001, p. 202.

20. ibid., p. 42.

21. ibid.

22. Quoted in D. Christian, Power and Privilege, p. 198.