Open the Door to Revolution

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The 1905 Russian uprising inspires Megan Trudell.

This special issue of the Revolutionary History journal is a real treat. A world away from dry accounts of historical events, it succeeds in shedding much new light on the 1905 Russian Revolution in an accessible and exciting way. A selection of extracts from those involved in the revolution has been chosen to bring it alive in this, its anniversary year. Most are available in English translation for the first time.

Writing and eyewitness accounts from rank and file socialists, women workers and sailors are included alongside selections from Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, and together they provide a richly detailed and vivid account of the revolution's events and political lessons. These are the voices of the revolution, heard alongside a clear explanation of its significant moments, processes and personalities.

The selections draw out three interconnected processes in the development of the great struggles of the first Russian Revolution - the rising tide of struggle, the uneven development of different sections of the working class during the revolution, and the ways in which socialist parties adapted (or not) to both. Providing the background to the seismic events are accounts of the strikes in the first years of the century and the outbreak of war with Japan in 1904 which precipitated the crisis of Tsarism.

When demonstrators petitioning the Tsar on 'Bloody Sunday', 9 January 1905, were massacred, killing over a thousand, the shock 'blew open the door to revolution'. Personal accounts bring human detail to bare statistics, as here when street children who climbed trees to act as lookouts watching the troops moving on the demonstrators were fired on: 'Many of them fell like stones and were left lying in the snow, unnaturally contorted. Cossacks rushed at the fleeing crowd.'

Lukerya Bogdanova, a textile worker in St Petersburg, recorded that Bloody Sunday was the day she stopped believing in god and the Tsar. She was not alone - the events marked a significant shift in the beliefs of huge numbers of workers. However, as the pieces here make clear, that process was not an instantaneous conversion but a slow and painful shedding of many previously held ideas about the world and the collective development of new ones in the course of argument, debate and protest.

The strike wave that followed shook the country for two months, only quelled by promises of a consultative assembly from the Tsar. Then a general strike in October was followed by a campaign for the eight-hour day and a - tragically defeated - insurrection in Moscow in November.

The revolution gave birth to organisations of workers' democracy, the soviets, where delegates were elected by factories, plants and unions to represent them, convened with this call: 'In uniting our movement, this committee will give it organisation, unity and strength. It will represent the needs of the Petersburg workers before the rest of society.'

When racist groups launched pogroms with the collusion of the state, attacking Jews, socialists and strikers, racism and intimidation were met with workers' solidarity. Organisations trying to print racist leaflets 'came up against a totally unforeseen difficulty: the typesetters refused to set them. Masses of drafts of these leaflets began to be brought to the soviet with protests against the printing firms for accepting the orders, and declarations of the workers' unwillingness to fulfil them.'

The journal includes an excellent piece by Mike Haynes, which analyses the strike statistics for 1905 and what they can tell us about the revolution - the way different sections of workers took action in the ebbs and flows of struggle over the year and the shifting of the geographical centre of the revolution from Petersburg to Moscow, but also how those statistics can illuminate patterns of workers' consciousness.

There is no space for more than the briefest flavour of the depth and detail of the pieces here, which include leaflets from the movement against the Russo-Japanese War, sailors' recollections of the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in the summer, Rosa Luxemburg's writings on the revolt in Poland, resolutions from factories supporting the demand for an eight-hour day, and soviet publications - including the resolution proposing that workers in shops and cafes refuse to serve police or Cossacks food, even if they paid!

Revolutionary History has given us a marvellously inspirational read, an invaluable resource, and a collection that tells us much about the strengths and weaknesses of mass movements, how diverse elements of strike action, mutiny and national revolt become knitted together, and the challenges for socialists in relating to mass movements they are active in.

The Russian Revolution of 1905
Editor: Pete Glatter
Revolutionary History £12.95