Lessons of first Russian revolution


By Sam Marcy ( Feb. 9, 1995)
Of all the great revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, the one most eagerly awaited by what seemed to be all sections of society was the Russian Revolution of 1905.

It started in January--exactly 90 years ago--after the czar's troops fired on an unarmed crowd of petitioners. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday.

In the United States, the coming uprising had been the main preoccupation of the many Russian exiles here. It seemed almost universally agreed that it was time for big changes in Russia. Not everyone agreed, however, on what those changes should be. The most common view was that Russia should have a constitutional monarchy, very much like that in Britain.

Some went much further. But the trend to do away with the old aristocratic, despotic Russian czarist regime seemed almost universal. It was hard to find friends of the monarchy who could debate the question.

The people, it seemed, were ready to bring about a change. And nothing but the czarist troops could stop them. If ever there was a time when all classes seemed to be greatly anticipating what would occur once the storm broke, it was 1905 in Russia.

And then the revolution came, like a mighty torrential rain.

But fairly quickly, a new mood was generated--quite the opposite of what had been anticipated. The apparently unprecedented unity of purpose and political outlook seemed to disintegrate into thin air.

The working class, which had been depended on to carry out the program if not the full wishes of the bourgeoisie, was instead acting in its own interests. This was not a vague, amorphous so-called popular uprising, but a workers' insurrection.

The workers were rebelling and dominating the streets. And, like revolutionary workers everywhere when they are not held back by reactionary tradition, they acted instinctively in their own interests. The most eloquent testimony to this was the manner in which the workers were taking over the plants and enterprises and occupying them.

This frightened the bourgeoisie, not to speak of the aristocracy and its would-be reformers. The revolution was not at all what it had been imagined to be. In bourgeois and aristocratic anti-czarist circles, the talk had always been about who would be the prime minister, what the cabinet would be like, and above all what parliament would look like.

Or was one really needed? Wasn't it better to go slow and develop according to the old British model, which took a couple of centuries to reach the present level?

All this had been hotly debated in circles wherever Russian emigres congregated, and nowhere more than in New York City.

But now the popular masses, as they were called in Russia, were taking a sharp turn. Instead of acting as temporary custodians or guardians of the vast industrial establishments and later of the landed estates, they tended rather sharply to act as if they were the owners.

This was not what was expected. It was certainly not what the ruling classes, either in Russia or the U.S., hoped for.

But the sweep of the movement was so broad that it affected all classes and all groups, isolating the czarist autocracy and its regime. It seemed the monarchy would be toppled by this fast-moving train.

Of what now remained, who would become the leaders of the new regime?

A spontaneous uprising

Force has always been the arbiter in every great revolution. The masses had moved. But it was a truly spontaneous uprising, in all its greatness and with all its faults. There was no plan on what to do or how to do it.

Bourgeois and aristocratic hangers-on of the monarchy everywhere were discussing and planning what to do. Those in the bourgeoisie who had taken the measure of the working-class revolution were not merely disturbed but frightened by its sweep. They began to hurry back and renew contacts with whoever from the camp of the monarchy had not run away in fear for their lives.

The temper of the propertied classes changed. Workers doing their own thing was an awful sight to behold for the exploiters and oppressors. Instead of looking forward to a new revolutionary day, they began to look backward to their would-be friends, associates and businesspeople in the czarist hierarchy.

The bourgeoisie cured itself of any type of revolutionism. From here on it would steer, if possible, toward a conservative line in alliance with its old and more reactionary opponents who supported the monarchy. There was no time to lose.

Just as in the past, reliance on what force was available to them seemed the most welcome and appropriate measure to be used against the workers. The czarist aristocracy had not been broken. The monarchy had been shaken but not destroyed. There was time for an alliance with them to push back the workers' movement.

And what was the medium for such an eventuality? The remnants of the czar's military and police forces.

Within a short while, the revolution that had begun with high expectations was being drowned in blood. The leaders of the bourgeoisie, who after all relied on the monarchy for business, connived with the czar's troops. Thus came the end of the most widespread insurrection of the workers to that point in history.

With the workers pushed back, the bourgeoisie would now come into its own. But some in the czarist regime were now contemptuous of the bourgeoisie, understanding its cowardice.

In all this, where were the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, the majority and minority of the Russian Marxists, the Social Democratic movement?

They were in the leadership of the new workers' councils or Soviets, in Moscow, and most important, in Petrograd. But they were not yet organized political parties with a definite program, least of all a plan. Everything spoke of spontaneity. Everything was makeshift in the Soviets. It was a spontaneous uprising and the leadership was unprepared for it.

The Bolsheviks vied with the Mensheviks in denouncing the regime. But there seemed no way at this early stage to direct the masses to take power into their own hands. That would happen 12 years later.

Main menu Yearly menu