On January 9th 1905, hundreds of thousands of Russian workers flooded out on a massive demonstration in Petersburg, then the capital of Russia, to demand from the Tsar that he implement their demands. They were met by the Imperial Guard, who brutally shot into the crowds leaving over 200 dead, hundreds wounded and thousands under arrest. But the day, which became known as “Bloody Sunday” marked the start of what was to become the 1905 Russian Revolution, a dress rehearsal for 1917, during which the “Soviet of Workers’ Deputies” emerged as the organiser of revolutionary action.
The events of 1905 provide many lessons for today. As with many of the protests we see around the world today, the consciousness of those participating in the early stages is undeveloped, many have illusions and hopes that sections of the ruling class will help them. But as they meet with reaction and repression, ideas are tested out and new methods of struggle are developed. The existence of a youthful, organised revolutionary force capable of guiding these processes are essential.
In October 1905, Lev Davidovich Trotsky was elected, at just 25 years of age, to head the Soviet. He described the events of “Bloody Sunday” in the following way.
“Sire! We workers, our children and wives, the helpless old people who are our parents, we have come to you, Sire, to seek justice and protection. We are in great poverty, we are oppressed and weighed down with labors beyond our strength; we are insulted, we are not recognized as human beings, we are treated like slaves who must suffer their lot in silence. And we have suffered it, but we are being driven ever deeper into beggary, lawlessness, and ignorance. Despotism and arbitrary rule are strangling us, and we are suffocating. Sire, our strength is at an end! The limit of our patience has been reached; the terrible moment has come for us when it is better to die than to continue suffering intolerable torment”.
Thus began the celebrated petition of the Petersburg workers. In these words the proletarian threat may ring more true than the pleading of loyal subjects. The petition went on to describe all the oppressions and insults which the people had to suffer. It listed everything, from unheated factories to political lawlessness in the land. It demanded amnesty, public freedoms, separation of church from state, the eight-hour working day, a fair wage, and the gradual transfer of land to the people. But at the head of everything it placed the convening of a Constituent Assembly by universal and equal suffrage.
The petition ended:
“These, Sire, are our greatest needs which we bring before you. Command and swear that they will be satisfied, and you will make Russia great and glorious and imprint your name eternally upon our hearts and the hearts of our descendants. But if you do not grant them, if you fail to hear our plea, we shall die here, in this square in front of your palace. We have nowhere else to go and no other cause to serve. Before us lie only two paths: to freedom and happiness, or to the grave. Sire, point either of those paths to us and we shall follow, even if it is the path towards death. Let our lives be sacrificed for long-suffering Russia. We are not sorry to make this sacrifice; we shall make it willingly”.
And they made the sacrifice.
The workers’ petition not only replaced the hazy phraseology of liberal resolutions with the incisive slogans of political democracy, but also filled those slogans with class content by demanding the right to strike and the eight-hour day. Its historical significance lies, however, not in the text but in the fact. The petition was only a prologue to an action which united the working masses. They were united momentarily in their appeal to an idealized monarchy; then, in the recognition that the proletariat and the real monarchy were mortal enemies.
The course of events is still alive in the memories of all. It covered only a few days and it unfolded in a strange way, as though according to a plan. On January 3 a strike broke out at the Putilov works. By January 7 the number of strikers had reached 140,000. The culminating point of the strike was on January 10. By the thirteenth, work was already resuming. Thus, there was first an economic strike sparked off by incidental causes. It spread to tens of thousands of workers and so became transformed into a political event. The strike was organized by the “Association of Factory and Plant Workers,” an organization which had its origins in the police. The radicals, whose banqueting policy had reached a dead end, were burning with impatience. Dissatisfied with the purely economic character of the strike, they pushed Gapon, its leader, forward to a more political position; but he found such discontent, anger, and revolutionary energy among the workers that the petty plans of his liberal backers were completely swamped. The social democrats moved to the fore. Met with hostility at first, they quickly adapted themselves to their audience and took control of it. Their slogans were taken up by the masses and incorporated in the petition.
The government withdrew into complete inactivity. For what reason? Cunning provocation? Pathetic confusion? Both. The bureaucrats of Prince Svyatopolk’s type lost their heads stupidly. Trepov’s gang, anxious to put an end to the “spring” and for that reason consciously hoping for a massacre, let events develop to their logical conclusion. The telegraph was allowed complete freedom to inform the entire world about every stage of the January strike. Every Paris concierge knew three days in advance that there was going to be a revolution in Petersburg on Sunday, January 9. And the Russian government did not move a finger to avoid the massacre.
Meetings went on incessantly in eleven sections of the workers’ “Association.” The petition was drafted and plans for the march to the palace were discussed. Gapon went from section to section; the social-democratic agitators grew hoarse and dropped to the floor with exhaustion. The police did nothing to intervene. The police did not exist.
As agreed, the march to the palace was a peaceful one, without songs, banners, or speeches. People wore their Sunday clothes. In some parts of the city they carried icons and church banners. Everywhere the petitioners encountered troops. They begged to be allowed to pass. They wept, they tried to go around the barrier, they tried to break through it. The soldiers fired all day long. The dead were counted in the hundreds, the wounded in the thousands. An exact count was impossible since the police carted away and secretly buried the bodies of the dead at night.
At midnight on January 9, Georgiy Gapon wrote:
“My pastor’s curse upon the soldiers and officers who are killing their innocent brothers and their wives and children, upon the oppressors of the people. My blessing on those soldiers who help the people to strive for freedom. I absolve them from their military oath to the traitor Tsar who ordered the shedding of innocent blood.”
History used Gapon’s fantastic plan for its own ends – and all that was left for Gapon to do was to sanction its revolutionary conclusion with his authority as a priest.
At a meeting of the Committee of Ministers on January 11, Count Witte, not then in power, proposed that the events which had taken place on the ninth and the measures “for the future prevention of such regrettable events” be discussed. Witte’s proposal was rejected as “not falling within the Committee’s competence and not included in the agenda for the present meeting.” The Committee of Ministers allowed the beginning of the Russian revolution to go unnoticed because the Russian revolution was not on its agenda.
The forms taken by the historic events of January 9 could not, of course, have been foreseen by anyone. The priest whom history had so unexpectedly placed for a few days at the head of the working masses imposed the imprint of his personality, his views and his priestly status on the events. The real content of these events was concealed from many eyes by their form. But the inner significance of January 9 goes far beyond the symbolism of the procession to the Winter Palace. Gapon’s priestly robe was only a prop in that drama; the protagonist was the proletariat. The proletariat began with a strike, united itself, advanced political demands, came out into the streets, drew to itself the enthusiastic sympathy of the entire population, clashed with the troops and set off the Russian revolution. Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise. The son of a priest, and then a seminarian and student at the Aeligious Academy, this agitator, so obviously encouraged by the police, suddenly found himself at the head of a crowd of a hundred thousand men and women. The political situation, his priestly robe, the elemental excitement of the masses which, as yet, had little political consciousness, and the fabulously rapid course of events turned Gapon into a “leader.”
A spinner of fantasies on a psychological subsoil of adventurism, a southerner of sanguine temperament with a touch of the confidence man about him, a total ignoramus in social matters, Gapon was as little able to guide events as he was to foresee them. Events completely overtook him.
The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9 lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the social democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to. But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves.
But although, on the very next day after Bloody Sunday, we ascribed to Gapon a wholly subordinate political role, we all undoubtedly overestimated his personality. With his halo of holy anger, with a pastor’s curses on his lips, he seemed from afar almost to be a Biblical figure. It seemed as though powerful revolutionary passions had been awakened in the breast of this young priest employed at a Petersburg transit prison. And what happened? When the lights burned low, Gapon was seen by every one to be the utter political and moral nonentity he really was. His posturing before socialist Europe, his pathetic “revolutionary” writings from abroad, both crude and naive, his return to Russia, his conspiratorial relations with the government, the pieces of silver dealt out by Count Witte, Gapon’s pretentious and absurd interviews with representatives of the conservative press, and finally, the wretched betrayal which caused his end – all these finally destroyed any illusions concerning the Gapon of January 9.
We cannot help recalling the shrewd words of Viktor Adler, the leader of the Austrian social democrats, who, on reading the first telegram which announced Gapon’s departure from Russia, said: “A pity … It would have been better for his name in history if he had disappeared from the scene as mysteriously as he had come upon it. We would have been left with a beautiful romantic legend about the priest who opened the floodgates of the Russian revolution. There are men,” Adler added with the subtle irony so characteristic of him, “whom the role of martyrs suits better than that of party comrades.”
“There is not yet such a thing as a revolutionary people in Russia.” Thus wrote Peter Struve in his paper Osvobozhdenie (Liberation), published abroad, on January 7, 1905 – precisely two days before the guards regiments crushed the Petersburg workers’ demonstration.
“There is no such thing as a revolutionary people in Russia,” said Russian liberalism through the lips of a renegade socialist, having managed to persuade itself in the course of a three-months’ banqueting jamboree that it was the principal actor on the political scene. The statement had not had time to reach Russia before the telegraph wires carried to all corners of the earth the great news of the beginning of the Russian revolution.
We had waited for it; we had never doubted it. For long years it had been for us the only logical conclusion of our “doctrine” which was mocked by nonentities of every political hue. They did not believe in the revolutionary role of the proletariat; instead, they believed in the force of the zemtsy’s petitions, in Witte, in Svyatopolk-Mirsky, in jars of dynamite. There was no political prejudice in which they did not believe. Our belief in the proletariat was the only thing they regarded as prejudice.
Not only Struve, but also that “educated public” whose service he had lately joined were taken by surprise. With eyes gaping in terror and impotence they watched through their windows the unfolding of the historical drama. The intelligentsia’s intervention in the events was truly pitiful and negligible. A deputation of several literary men and professors visited Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky and Count Witte “in the hope,” as the liberal press explained, “of illuminating the problem in such a way that the use of military force might be avoided.” A mountain was moving against another mountain and meanwhile this democratic handful believed that a visit to a couple of ministerial ante-rooms would suffice to avoid the inevitable. Svyatopolk refused to receive the deputation. Witte only gestured hopelessly. And then, as though availing themselves of Shakespeare’s license to introduce an element of farce into the greatest tragedy, the police declared the pathetic deputation to be the “provisional government” and dispatched it to the Fortress of Peter and Paul.
Yet the January days drew a sharp dividing line across the amorphous blurred field of the intelligentsia’s political conscience. The intelligentsia temporarily relegated to the archives our traditional liberalism with its faith in the happy succession of governmental personalities. Svyatopolk-Mirksy’s foolish reign had been the era of such liberalism’s finest flowering, the reformist ukase of December 12 its ripest fruit. But January 9 swept away the “spring,” replacing it by a military dictatorship and giving unlimited powers to Trepov, the unforgotten general, whom the liberal opposition had only just removed from the post of Moscow’s police chief. At the same time the distinction between democrats and the official opposition became increasingly clear in liberal society. The workers’ action strengthened the position of the radical elements within the intelligentsia, just as the zemtsy’s conference had earlier put a trump card in the hands of the opportunist elements. The question of political freedom took on concrete form for the first time in the consciousness of the left wing of the opposition. They saw it in terms of struggle, the balance of forces, the onslaught of powerful popular masses. And now, the revolutionary proletariat – yesterday’s “political fiction of the Marxists” – was seen to be a powerful reality.
“Is this the moment,” wrote the influential liberal weekly Pravo, “after the bloody January days, to cast doubt on the historic mission of the Russian urban proletariat? It is evident that this question, for the present moment in history at least, has been solved – not solved by us, but by those workers who, during the memorable January days, by the force of the terrible and bloody events, wrote their names in the sacred book of Russia’s social movement.” Only a week had passed between the publication of Struve’s article and the writing of those lines; yet a whole historical epoch lies between them.
January 9 was a turning point in the political consciousness of the capitalist bourgeoisie.
During the years just preceding the revolution and to the great dissatisfaction of capital, a whole school of government demagogy (the so-called Zubatov school) had come into being.
Its aim was to provoke workers towards economic clashes with the manufacturers and thus divert them from a clash with the state. But now, after Bloody Sunday, the normal course of industrial life came to a complete standstill. Work was only done in snatches, in the intervals between moments of unrest. The enormous profits from deliveries to the armed forces did not go to industry, which was in a state of crisis, but to a small group of privileged and predatory monopolists. There was nothing to reconcile industry with the state of growing chaos. One branch of industry after another passed to the opposition. Stock-exchange associations, industrial congresses, so-called “consultative bureaus” – that is to say, camouflaged syndicates – and other organizations of capital, politically virginal only yesterday, now vented their distrust of the autocratic police-state system and began to speak the language of liberalism. The city merchant showed that in the cause of opposition he had nothing to yield to the “enlightened” landowner. The dumas not only joined the zemstvos but, in some cases, placed themselves at their head. And the Moscow duma, which was an organization of merchants, moved into the front rank.
The struggle of various branches of capital among themselves for the favors and bounties of the Ministry of Finance temporarily receded in face of the universal demand for the renewal of civil and state order. Instead of simple notions about concessions and subsidies, or side by side with these, more complex ideas about the development of productive forces and the expansion of the domestic market began to emerge. Side by side with these dominant ideas, a sharp interest in calming the worker and peasant masses made its appearance in all the petitions, memoranda and resolutions of the employers’ organizations. Capital was disillusioned with the panacea of police repression, which is like a rope that lashes at the living bodies of the workers with one end and whacks the industrialists’ pockets with the other; and so it arrived at the solemn conclusion that the peaceful course of capitalist exploitation needed a liberal regime. “Et tu, Brute!” the reactionary press howled as it watched the Old Believer merchants of Moscow, pillars of ancient tradition, supporting the constitutional “platforms.” But the howling did not bring the Brutus of the textile industry to a stop. He had to describe his political parabola, in order, at the end of the year, when the proletarian movement reached its apex, to claim once more the protection of the holy, the one and indivisible policeman’s whip.
But the most profound and significant effect of the January massacre was upon the Russian proletariat. A tremendous wave of strikes swept the country from end to end, convulsing the entire body of the nation. According to approximate calculations, the strike spread to 122 towns and localities, several mines in the Donets basin and to railways. The proletarian masses were stirred to the very core of their being. The strike involved something like a million men and women. For almost two months, without any plan, in many eases without advancing any claims, stopping and starting, obedient only to the instinct of solidarity, the strike ruled the land.
At the height of the storm of strikes, in February 1905, we wrote:
After January 9 the revolution knows no stopping. It is no longer satisfied with the hidden underground work of continually arousing new strata of the population; it is now making an overt and urgent roll call of its fighting companies, its regiments, battalions and divisions. The proletariat is the main force of its army and that is why the revolution has made the strike its means of carrying out this roll call.
Trade after trade, factory after factory, town after town are stopping work. The railway personnel act as the detonators of the strike; the railway lines are the channels along which the strike epidemic spreads. Economic claims are advanced and are satisfied, wholly or in part, almost at once. But neither the beginning of the strike nor its end is fully determined by the nature of the claims made or by the form in which they are met. The strike does not occur because the economic struggle has found expression in certain well-defined demands; on the contrary, the demands are chosen and formulated because there has to be a strike. The workers have to reveal to themselves, to the proletariat in other parts of the country, finally to the nation at large, their accumulated strength, their class responsiveness, their fighting readiness. Everything has to be submitted to the universal revolutionary appraisal. The strikers themselves and those who support them, those who fear them and those who hate them, all realize or dimly sense that this furious strike which leaps from place to place, then takes off again and rushes forward like a whirlwind – that this strike is not merely itself, that it is obedient to the will of the revolution which has sent it down upon the land. Over the operational area of the strike – and that operational area is the country at large – there hangs something menacing, sinister and defiant.
After January 9 the revolution knows no stopping. Without a care for military secrecy, openly, noisily, mocking the routine of life, dispelling its drugged dullness, the revolution leads us to its own culminating point.