The Axis of All Events

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The 1905 Russian revolution, as described by Leon Trotsky.

October, November and December 1905 was the period of revolutionary culmination. It began with a modest strike of Moscow's typesetters and ended with government troops crushing the ancient capital of the Russian tsars. But with the exception of the final moment - the Moscow rising - Moscow did not occupy first place in the events of that period.

The role of St Petersburg in the Russian Revolution cannot be compared in any way with that of Paris in the French Revolution. The economically primitive nature of France (and, in particular, of the means of communication) on the one hand, and administrative centralisation on the other, allowed the French Revolution to be localised - to all intents and purposes - within the walls of Paris. The situation in Russia was entirely different. Capitalist development in Russia had created as many independent centres of revolution as there were centres of major industry - independent, that is, but also intimately linked with one another. The railways and the telegraph decentralised the revolution despite the centralised character of the state; but, at the same time, they brought unity to all its scattered manifestations.

If, as the result of all this, we recognise that St Petersburg had the leading voice in the revolution, it does not mean that the revolution was concentrated in Nevsky Prospect or outside the Winter Palace, but only that the slogans and fighting methods of St Petersburg found a mighty revolutionary echo in the country as a whole. The type of organisation adopted in St Petersburg, the tone of the St Petersburg press, immediately became models for the provinces. Local provincial events, with the exception of the risings in the navy and the fortresses, had no autonomous significance.

If, then, we are to recognise the capital on the Neva as the centre of the events of the final months of 1905, in St Petersburg itself we must recognise the Council (Soviet) of Workers' Deputies as the cornerstone of all these events. Not only because this was the greatest workers' organisation to be seen in Russia up until that time. Not only because the St Petersburg Soviet served as a model for Moscow, Odessa and a number of other cities. But, above all, because this purely class-founded, proletarian organisation was the organisation of the revolution as such. The soviet was the axis of all events: every thread ran towards it; every call to action emanated from it.

What was the Soviet of Workers' Deputies?

The soviet came into being as a response to an objective need - a need born of the course of events. It was an organisation which was authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the proletariat; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control - and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within 24 hours.

The social democratic organisation, which welded together a few hundred St Petersburg workers, and to which several thousand more were ideologically attached, 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 organisational link with these masses, if only because it had always done the principal part of its work in clandestinity, concealed from the eyes of the masses. The organisation of the socialist revolutionaries suffered from the same occupational disease of clandestinity, further aggravated by instability and impotence. Internal friction between two equally powerful factions of the social democrats on the one hand, and the struggle of both factions with the socialist revolutionaries on the other, rendered the creation of a non-party organisation absolutely essential.

In order to have authority in the eyes of the masses on the very day it came into being, such an organisation had to be based on the broadest representation. How was this to be achieved? The answer came of its own accord. Since the production process was the sole link between the proletarian masses who, in the organisational sense, were still quite inexperienced, representation had to be adapted to the factories and plants. Senator Shidlovsky's commission served as the organisational precedent. (One delegate was elected for every 500 workers. Small industrial undertakings combined into groups for election purposes. The young trade unions also received representational rights. It must be said, however, that numerical norms were not observed too strictly: in some cases delegates represented only 100 or 200 workers, or even fewer.)

On 10 October, at the moment when the largest of the strikes was imminent, one of the two social democratic organisations in St Petersburg took upon itself the task of creating a revolutionary workers' council of self-management. The first meeting of what was to become the soviet was held on the evening of the 13th in the Technological Institute. Not more than 30 to 40 delegates attended. It was decided immediately to call upon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates. The proclamation drafted at the first meeting states, 'The working class has resorted to the final, powerful weapon of the world workers' movement-the general strike.

'...Decisive events are going to occur in Russia within the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events in full readiness, united by our common soviet...'

This immensely important decision was adopted unanimously - and, what is more, without any discussion of principle concerning the general strike and its methods, aims and possibilities, although precisely these questions shortly thereafter provoked a passionate ideological struggle in the ranks of our party in Germany. There is no need to explain this fact by differences of national psychology; on the contrary, we Russians are almost pathologically prone to tactical sophistries and the most detailed anticipation of events. The reason lay in the revolutionary nature of the moment. From the hour it came into being until the hour it perished, the soviet stood under the mighty, elemental pressure of the revolution, which most unceremoniously forestalled the work of political consciousness.

Every step of the workers' representation was determined in advance. Its 'tactics' were obvious. The methods of struggle did not have to be discussed; there was hardly time to formulate them.

The soviet and revolution

The October strike was confidently nearing its climax. At its head marched the metal workers and the print workers. They had been the first to enter the fight, and on 3 October they clearly and unequivocally formulated their political slogans.

'We proclaim a political strike,' stated the Obukhov plant, a citadel of the revolution, 'and will fight to the last for the summoning of a Constituent Assembly on the basis of universal, equal, direct and secret suffrage to introduce a democratic republic in Russia.'

The workers from electric power stations advanced the same slogans and declared, 'Together with the social democrats, we shall fight to the end for our demands, and we proclaim before the entire working class our readiness to fight, weapons in hand, for the people's complete liberation.'

In sending their deputies to the soviet, the print workers formulated the tasks of the moment in even more resolute terms: 'Recognising the inadequacy of passive struggle and of the mere cessation of work, we resolve: to transform the army of the striking working class into a revolutionary army, that is to say, to organise detachments of armed workers forthwith. Let these detachments take care of arming the rest of the working masses, if necessary by raiding gun shops and confiscating arms from the police and troops wherever possible.'

This resolution was not just empty words. Armed detachments of print workers were extraordinarily successful in seizing the city's largest print shops for the printing of Izvestia Sovieta Rabochikh Deputatov (Tidings of the Council of Workers' Deputies) and performed invaluable services in organising the postal and telegraph strike.

On 15 October the majority of the textile factories were still at work. The soviet worked out a complete range of methods, from verbal appeals to forcible coercion, to involve non-strikers in the strike. But it turned out to be unnecessary to resort to extreme methods. Where a printed appeal had no effect, it was enough for a crowd of strikers to appear on the scene - sometimes only a few men - and work was immediately interrupted.

'I was walking past the Pecliet factory,' one of the deputies reported to the soviet. 'I saw it was still working. I rang and asked to be announced as a deputy from the Workers' Soviet. "What do you want?" the manager asks me. "In the name of the soviet I call for the immediate closing down of your factory." "Very well, we shall stop work at 3pm."'

By 16 October all the textile factories were out. Trade still continued only in the centre of the town; in the working class areas all shops were closed. By spreading the strike the soviet expanded and consolidated itself. Every striking factory elected a representative and, having equipped him with the necessary credentials, sent him off to the soviet. The second meeting was attended by delegates from 40 large plants, two factories and three trade unions - those of the print workers, shop assistants and office clerks. At this meeting, which took place in the physics auditorium of the Technological Institute, the author of these lines was present for the first time.

This was on 14 October, when the strike on the one hand and the split in the government on the other were inexorably approaching the moment of crisis. That was the day of Trepov's famous order: 'No blank volleys, and spare no bullets.'

Yet on the next day the same Trepov suddenly recognised that 'a need for gatherings has ripened in the people', and, while forbidding meetings within the walls of higher educational establishments, promised to set aside three municipal buildings for the purpose of meetings. 'What a change in 24 hours!' we wrote in Izvestia. 'Yesterday we were ripe only for bullets; today we are ripe enough for popular meetings. The murderous villain is right: in these great days of struggle the people of Russia are maturing by the hour.'

Despite the ban, on the evening of the 14th the higher educational establishments were overflowing with people. Meetings were held everywhere. 'We, gathered here, declare' - such was our reply to the government - 'that the mousetraps which General Trepov has set for us are not large enough to hold us. We declare that we shall continue to meet in the universities, in factories, in the streets and in all other places, wherever we may see fit.' From the assembly hall of the Technological Institute, where the need for demanding that the city Duma (parliament) should arm a workers' militia was discussed, we moved into the physics auditorium.

Here we first saw the Soviet of Deputies, which had been formed the day before. About 100 workers' representatives and members of revolutionary parties were seated on the amphitheatre benches. The chairman and secretaries were installed at the demonstration table. The meeting resembled a council of war more than a parliament. There was no trace of magniloquence, that ulcer of representational institutions. The questions under discussion - the spreading of the strike and the demands to be addressed to the Duma - were of a purely practical nature and were debated briefly, energetically and in a businesslike manner. One felt that every atom of time was accounted for. The slightest tendency towards rhetoric was firmly checked by the chairman with the stern approval of the entire meeting.

A special deputation was instructed to submit the following demands to the city Duma: (1) that measures be taken immediately to regulate the flow of food supplies to the workers; (2) that premises be set aside for meetings; (3) that all food supplies, allocations of premises and funds to the police, the gendarmerie, etc, be discontinued forthwith; (4) that funds be issued for the arming of the St Petersburg proletariat in its fight for freedom.

Given the fact that the Duma was composed of state officials and householders, approaching it with radical demands of this kind was a purely agitational step. It goes without saying that the soviet entertained no illusions on that score. It neither expected nor obtained any practical results.

On 16 October, after a number of adventures, attempted arrests, and so forth - let me remind the reader that all this happened before the publication of the constitutional manifesto - the soviet's deputation was received 'in private conference' by the St Petersburg city Duma. Before anything else was done, the deputation, energetically supported by a group of the Duma's own members, demanded that the Duma should decide, in the event of the arrest of any workers' deputies, to send the mayor to the city governor with a declaration stating that the Duma would consider such arrests as an insult to itself. Only then did the deputation present its demands.

This is how the deputation's speaker, Comrade Radin, concluded his speech: 'The revolution taking place in Russia is a bourgeois revolution; the property owning classes, too, have an interest in it. It is in your own interest, gentlemen, that it should be completed as soon as possible. If you are capable of any degree of far-sightedness, if you have a broad understanding of what is of advantage to your own class, you must do everything in your power to help the people towards the most rapid victory possible over absolutism. We want neither resolutions of sympathy nor platonic support for our demands. We demand that you show your collaboration by a series of practical actions.

'Because of our monstrous electoral system, the property of a city with a population of a million and a half is in the hands of the representatives of a few thousand property owners. The Soviet of Workers' Deputies demands - and it has a right to demand, not to ask, since it represents several hundred thousand workers, inhabitants of this city, whereas you represent only a handful of electors - the Soviet of Workers' Deputies demands that the property of the city be placed at the disposal of all the city's inhabitants for the satisfaction of their needs. And since the most important public task today is the struggle against absolutism, and for that struggle we need places where we can meet, open to us our municipal buildings!

'We need funds for continuing the strike: allocate municipal funds for this purpose, not for supporting the police and the gendarmerie!

'We need arms to gain our freedom and preserve it. Allocate funds for the organisation of a proletarian militia!'

The deputation left the meeting under the protection of certain members of the Duma. The Duma rejected all the principal demands of the soviet and expressed confidence in the police as the guardians of law and order.


As the October strike developed, so the soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront. Its importance grew literally hour by hour. The industrial proletariat was the first to rally around it. The railwaymen's union established close relations with it. The Union of Unions, which joined the strike from 14 October, was obliged to place itself under the soviet's authority almost from the start. Numerous strike committees - those of the engineers, lawyers, government officials - adapted their actions to the soviet's decisions. The soviet united the revolution around itself.

The split in the government ranks was growing at the same time. Trepov was for stopping at nothing, his finger on the trigger. On 12 October he compelled Nicholas to place him at the head of all the troops of the St Petersburg garrison. On the 14th he was already issuing the order to 'spare no bullets'. He divided the capital into four military areas with a general at the head of each. In his capacity as governor-general he threatened all foodstuff dealers with expulsion from the city within 24 hours in the event of closure of their shops.

On the 16th he closed down all St Petersburg's higher educational establishments and had them occupied by troops. Without any formal proclamation of martial law, he in fact imposed it. Mounted patrols terrorised the streets. At a time when even artists of the Imperial Ballet were joining the strike, Trepov persisted in filling the empty theatres with soldiers. He grinned and rubbed his hands in anticipation of a good fight. But he was mistaken in his calculations. The victory was won by the bureaucratic faction which was opposed to him, and which hoped to make a cunning deal with history. It is for this purpose that Counte Witte was called in.

On 17 October Trepov's henchmen dispersed the meeting of the Soviet of Workers' Deputies. But the soviet found a way of meeting again, decided to continue the strike with redoubled energy, advised the workers to pay no rent nor to pay for goods received on credit until the resumption of work, and called upon landlords and shopkeepers not to claim rents or cash payments from workers.

On 17 October the tsarist government, covered in the blood and curses of centuries, capitulated before the revolutionary strike of the working masses. No efforts at restoration can rub out this fact from the history books. The sacred crown of the tsar's absolutism bears forever the trace of the proletarian's boot.

Unfortunately the events described here by Trotsky did not signal the ultimate victory of the revolution. In December the St Petersburg Soviet is arrested en masse and the tsar and police are able to re-assert control. Trotsky, along with many others, is put on trial, and eventually sent to Siberia. However, the events of 1905 proved the perfect dress rehearsal for what happened in 1917 when the workers took power.