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Year One of the Russian Revolution by Victor Serge

From Serfdom to Proletarian Revolution


Sequences in world history are so tightly interconnected that it is often necessary to go back a long while in order to get some more than arbitrary idea of the causes of an event – especially when the event concerned is as grandiose as the Russian revolution.

The close of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth century are marked in the history of western Europe by a social transformation which is painful, radical and pregnant with immense possibilities: the bourgeois revolution.

The ancien-régime monarchies were the heirs of the feudal system over which they had triumphed in the bloody struggles of an earlier age, aided by the people of the communes, a revolutionary force of their time. These kingdoms rested on large-scale landed property (noble or feudal), on the bureaucratic absolutism of the royal dynasty, and on the hierarchy of orders in the realm, with the nobility and clergy taking precedence over the bourgeoisie. Of these social classes, the older dominant orders were in a state of decline and the other, the bourgeoisie of commerce, manufacturing, finance and parliament, was sinking powerful roots among the lower artisan classes, and developing traditions of work, thrift, business honesty, dignity and political liberty – the latter, as always, being greatly valued among the subject classes of society. Growing in strength and in the consciousness of its own needs – and principally of the necessity to sweep away all obstacles in the way of its own advancement – the bourgeoisie was making its way towards power. The French Revolution of 1789-93 opened the series of bourgeois revolutions. ‘What is the Third Estate [meaning the bourgeoisie]?’ the Abbé Sieyes, one of the future men of Thermidor and Brumaire, speculated in 1789. ‘Nothing. What must it become? Everything.’

It took until about 1850 to complete the bourgeois revolution in Europe. Napoleon’s armies carried it from Madrid and Lisbon as far as Vienna and Berlin. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848 are its final political convulsions. In the meantime, the industrial revolution had begun, a revolution perhaps even more radical (the first steam-engine, that produced by Watt, dates from 1769; Fulton invents the steamboat in 1807 and Stephenson the locomotive in 1830; Jacquard’s loom is from 1802). Large-scale mechanized industry, with assistance from the railways, fills the cities of work and misery with a new transforming force: the proletariat. Hot in the steps of the bourgeois revolution – characterized by the abolition of feudal privileges and the system of monarch, nobles and castes, the conquest of the freedoms necessary for industrial the social hegemony of the bourgeoisie and the omnipotence of money – fresh battles break out in the newly won terrain: the proletariat, even before it recognizes its mission as the liberator of humanity, demands its right to a human existence.

Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Russia remains outside the influence of the revolutionary convulsions in the West. The ancien régime (serfdom, privileges of nobility and Church, Tsarist autocracy) is here impregnable: the ‘Decembrist’ military conspiracy of 1825 scarcely ruffles it. From 1840 onwards, the need for serious reform does begin to be apparent: agricultural production is poor, grain exports low, the growth of manufacturing industry slowed down through the shortage of labour; capitalist development is being impeded through aristocracy and serfdom. It is a perilous situation, which is given a fairly astute solution in the act of ‘liberation’ of 19 February 1861, abolishing serfdom. The ‘emancipated’ peasant now has to buy up tiny, neatly truncated plots of land, and passes from a feudal subjection to an economic one. He must now work harder, and manufacturing industry will find in the countryside the ‘free’ manpower it needs so badly. With a population of sixty-seven million in this epoch, Russia had twenty-three million serfs belonging to 103,000 land-lords. The arable land which the ‘freed’ peasantry had to rent or buy was valued at about double its real value (342 million roubles instead of 180 million); yesterday’s serfs discovered that, in becoming free, they were now hopelessly in debt. Between this great reform of Alexander II, the ‘Tsar Liberator’, and the revolution of 1905, the lot of Russia’s peasants will worsen uninterruptedly. The reform of 1861 gave them about five hectares of land per male inhabitant; by 1900 the rapid population increase will leave the muzhiks with less than three hectares per head – seventy per cent of the farmers possessed an area of cultivation below the minimum needed to support, their families. On the other hand, in 1876, fifteen years after the reform, the export sales of Russian grain on the European market had risen by 140 per cent, causing a fall in the world price of cereals. In 1857-9 Russia exports only 8,750,000 quarters (English measure) of cereal crops; in 1871-2 it exports 21,080,000. For commerce, for industry, for landed property and for the governing bureaucracy, the emancipation of the serfs was good business. The peasants simply exchanged one form of slavery for another and became subject to periodic famines.

The abolition of serfdom in Russia coincides with the War of Secession and the abolition of slavery in the United States of America (1861-3). Both in the Old World and the New, the growth of capitalism demands the replacement of the slave or serf by the free worker – free, that is, to sell his toil. The free worker works better, more intensively and more conscientiously. Large mechanized industry is incompatible with primitive methods of compulsion; in their place it substitutes economic constraint, the concealed compulsion of hunger whose efficacy is different in nature from that of naked violence.


At the very time when his great reform was being implemented, in the year 1863, the Tsar Liberator crushed the Polish rising in the blood of its patriots: there were 1,468 executions.

The initial path of capitalist development in Russia may have been cleared by the reform of 1861, but the way ahead for it was not without obstacles. There was no equality of civil rights. Initiative was clogged by a rigid bureaucratic and police apparatus. Privileged castes maintained their position in the State; the bourgeoisie was kept at a distance from the levers of power, and saw its interests (which it sincerely identified with the general interests of progress) constantly misrepresented by reactionary values, or else sacrificed to the demands of the Tsarist court, the nobility or the big landlords.

Disturbances among the peasantry became a constant problem. Within the petty-bourgeoisie, deprived of any rights or assured future, and mauled both by the old régime and by ascendant capitalism, the young intelligentsia had become captivated by the advanced ideas of the West, and promised to be a favourable ground for the seeds of revolution. New reforms, such as the reorganization of the judiciary, the statute on local governments and the abolition of corporal punishment, co-existed with pitiless acts of repression such as the deportation of the thinker Chernyshevsky to Siberia, where he spent twenty years. The first important revolutionary movement in Russia, that of the Narodniki or Populists (from the word narod, meaning ‘people’), was impelled by a number of factors: the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie proper, which constantly tended towards compromise with reaction; the non-existence of any liberal movement; the desperate plight of the peasantry, the common people and the propertyless intellectuals; the rigours of repression and the influence of Western Socialism, with its heritage from the revolutionary tradition of 1848. The Narodniki hoped for a popular revolution and saw the old Russian rural commune, or mir, as the foundation on which a peasant Socialism could be built. They believed that enlightened minorities owed imperious duties towards the people; they had faith in an intellectual elite, in human personality, in ‘critical thought’ and in idealism. Pyotr Lavrov and Mikhailovsky equipped the movement with a philosophy, and the indomitable Bakunin gave it the lesson of struggle.

This is the period of ‘going to the people’. In their thousands, young men and women from the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie and the petty-bourgeoisie go to the people, forsaking career and comfort to work in manual labour, to experience hardship, hunger, toil and prison, Siberia and Geneva. Circles of ‘rebels’ are formed, attracting the sympathy of enlightened elements. They are persecuted and repressed. Out of their wreckage, in 1878, comes the secret society ‘Land and Liberty’, which soon splits into two parties, the ‘Black Partition’, which advocates propaganda in the countryside, and the Narodnaya Volya (‘People’s Will’), which promotes terrorism. ‘History is too slow,’ says one of its leaders, Zhelyabov. ‘We must hurry it on, or the nation will have degenerated before the liberals wake up and start work again.’ The party’s programme is somewhat confused: the land to the people, the factories to the workers; a Constituent Assembly and a republic; a constitution. Some of the Narodniki would have been content with a constitutional monarchy. They had a very clear idea of what had to be destroyed: they were far less preoccupied with what had to be built afterwards. In the absence of any other method of action, the men of the ‘People’s Will’ resorted to the assassination of individuals: ‘Our party has no other method it can use,’ one of them wrote a few days before mounting the scaffold. ‘Political assassination is one of our most efficient weapons in the struggle against Russian despotism,’ wrote the party’s organ Land and Liberty. The party numbered fewer than fifty members, but these were heroic and dedicated men, energetic, fearless, intelligent, willing to face death.

The first important attempt was that made by the student Vera Zasulich, who shot at General Trepov in 1878. A monster trial had just taken place, in which 193 defendants accused of revolutionary activities had appeared before the judges of St Petersburg. Out of 770 arrested, seventy had died in prison during the preliminary investigation, which had taken several years. The trial, which was a complete farce, ended with ninety-four acquittals, thirty-six deportations and one sentence of ten years’ hard labour. Meanwhile, Trepov, the St Petersburg Chief of Police, had a student who was in prison beaten with sticks. ‘The punishment was quite legal,’ he explained afterwards. ‘After all, B——, the condemned student, was not of noble blood.’ Vera Zasulich was acquitted in her trial. Russian terrorism, as can be seen, came to its fruition in a supercharged atmosphere.

Assassinations soon followed. The dreaded ‘Executive Committee of the People’s Will Party’ met in secret to pass sentences of death, complete with a statement of charges, and these were communicated to the persons concerned: the Tsar duly received his. Then the tribunal carried out sentence. The police chief Mezentsev was stabbed by unknown assailants [4] in a St Petersburg street; the governor of Kharkov, a prince of the Kropotkin family, was executed. The Tsar replied to the murder of his servants by referring all political cases before courts-martial and by having gallows erected for any who fell foul of police revenge. The nation was a mute bystander in this duel between the autocracy and a handful of revolutionaries. Between 1872 and 1882 there were six attempted assassinations (three of these successful) against high officials, four against police chiefs, four against Alexander II, nine executions of informers and twenty-four cases of armed resistance to the police. Thirty-one revolutionaries were hanged or shot.

The prime target for the ‘People’s Will’ was the head of the whole system, the ‘king stag’ of the herd. On 14 April 1879, the student Soloviev fired five pistol-shots at Alexander II. On 1 December the same year an explosion derailed the Imperial train not far from Moscow. On 17 February 1880, the dining-room in the Winter Palace exploded seconds before the Imperial family was due to enter it. On 1 March 1881, Alexander II at last met his death in St Petersburg, mangled by bombs. His five executioners, Sophia Perovskaya, Zhelyabov, Kibalchich, Mikhailov and Russakov, were hanged. With these casualties the party lost its finest leaders, some of them the finest revolutionary personalities known to history. The party was decapitated.

Other social forces, as yet unperceived, were now entering the battle.


Over the next ten years, from 1881 to 1890, reaction makes a determined counter-attack; serfdom is more than half reinstated. At his accession, the new Tsar, Alexander III, proclaims the autocracy to be ‘unshakable’: the establishment of the Okhrana (‘The Defensive’) follows, a political police armed with extensive powers and funds. A press law lays down preventive censorship for journals suspected by the authorities (1882); they can even be suppressed. In 1889 the legalized servitude of the peasant is sanctified with the creation of headships of rural communes (zemskye nachalniki), chosen from among the nobility on the nomination of the big landlords and endowed with wide authority. The rights of the aristocracy are extended; higher education is reserved by law for the governing classes; students have to wear compulsory uniform and are placed under strict police surveillance. A Nobles’ Rural Credit Bank and a Peasants’ Rural Credit Bank are founded, the first to assist the squirearchy and Ianded gentry, the second to further the progress of the rich peasants. The Russification of Poland, Finland, the Baltic provinces and the Caucasus is pursued relentlessly. The Jews, who have been harried by the recent pogroms of 1881-2, are now compelled to reside in the gubernias of the south-east and in Poland; residence in the provincial capitals is forbidden to them, and nearly a million and a half Jews, hounded from the cities where they were settled, return to their places of origin (1888). – Overcrowding and indescribable misery in the Jewish centres are the results of this legislation; it will not be repealed until 1917. The quota of places permitted to Jews in the universities is limited to ten per cent in so-called ‘Jewish territory’ and to two per cent in the capitals. M. Rambaud has remarked that under Alexander III ‘the fate of the Jews was rather like that inflicted on the Huguenots in France through the revocation of the Edict of Nantes’. [5]

The causes of this phase of reaction were entirely economic, as M.N. Pokrovsky has demonstrated. [6] We have noted the added impetus in corn exports from Russia (i.e. in the development of commercial capital) as the result of the emancipation of the serfs. At that period world corn prices were high: from 1870 onwards they declined. The price of Russian wheat abroad fell from 1 rouble 54 kopeks per pood (a pood being about thirty-seven pounds in weight) to 74 kopeks, or less than half. The export of grain now played a leading role in the Russian economy. The autocracy entered on a protectionist policy and insisted that customs dues had to be paid in gold. The cost of manufactured goods to the peasantry rose sharply; and since the best land had been taken off him after the ‘emancipation’ of 1861, he had to work still harder to make a living, and had to rent land often the same land that had been wrested from him – at a high charge. (The amount of rented land increasedtenfold in the Saratov gubernia between 1860 and 1880.) The pauperization of the peasantry was quick to follow: in eleven years in the province of Orel the number of cattle owned by the peasants fell by one fifth. In 1884 two and a half million peasant families out of a total of nine million did not own a horse (see Pokrovsky). The legal measures taken to prevent the proletarianization of the peasantry, according to the official dream, by attaching him to his plot, were powerless in the face of these economic factors.

It is at this moment that Russian industry begins to expand. Through the impoverishment of the countryside, ten million starving proletarians are placed at its disposal. A vast internal market is assured to it thanks to the more intensive labour of the peasants who are, increasingly, devoting all their time to the farming of grain crops and abandoning the local production of the fabrics, tools, etc. that they consume. Foreign capital gushes in. The total industrial production of Russia, valued in 1877 at 541 million roubles, rises to 1,816 million in 1897; and the stake of foreign capital in it rises to 1,500 million roubles. In ten years, from 1887 to 1897, the number of proletarians in the engineering industry goes up from 103,000 to 153,000 and in the textile industry from 309,000 to 642,000.

The condition of this proletariat was pitiful. The textile workers in the Moscow region usually lived inside the mill itself, sleeping in the workshops. Even in the case of the best-paid workers it was rare for a family to have the use of one whole room; several families would generally be crowded together in a single room. There was an entire population of wretched cellar-dwellers in the cities. Infant mortality was frightful, and the working day was often as long as fourteen hours. In 1899 the weavers of Petrograd, who till then had worked fourteen hours a day, waged a strike which won them a legal day of 112 hours. Wages were very irregularly paid. In 1883, in 110 Moscow factories out of a total of 181 the payment of wages was entirely dependent on the employer’s goodwill! Fines, inflicted on the slightest pretext, rained down on the worker’s wage-packet. Industry was a gold-mine for its owners.

From 1850 onward, strikes began to multiply. Towards 1875 Chaikovsky’s [7] little group, which includes Pyotr Kropotkin, is active among the workers of St Petersburg. In 1877, during a trial of working men, the weaver Pyotr Alexeyev utters memorable words: ‘The brawny hand of the worker will one day crush the autocracy into dust.’ The first Socialist demonstration by workers takes place in St Petersburg, in the open square before the Kazan Cathedral, on 6 December 1876: at it the student G.V. Plekhanov, the future leader of Russian Social-Democracy, unfurls the Red Flag for the first time on Russian soil.

The ‘Association of Workers of the North’ is founded in 1878-9 by the joiner Stepan Khalturin, a friend and comrade of Zhelyabov. Khalturin fails in his aim of forming a workers’ organization, turns to terrorism and dies on the gallows in 1882. The first victorious strike by Russian workers – victorious, in fact, despite the intervention of troops and the 600 arrests that initially gave formal victory to the employers – took place at the Morozov spinning-mills at Orekhovo-Zuev in 1885. In the following year a law was passed which satisfied the strikers’ demands.

The first Russian revolutionary grouping with a Marxist tendency is founded in Switzerland by G.V. Plekhanov in 1883, a year before the dissolution of the Executive Committee of the ‘People’s Will’. It is called the ‘Emancipation of Labour’ group, and numbers no more than five emigrés. The first Social-Democratic organization in Russia itself will not be founded till ten years later.

It is in 1892 that we see the beginnings, in St Petersburg and Moscow, of the ‘Unions of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class’. These are formed definitively only in 1895. The branch in St Petersburg has two founders: V.I. Lenin and Y.O. Martov. The school-teacher, N.K. Krupskaya, is also involved. Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who will later sign his writings N. Ilyin and then N. Lenin, is twenty-five. The son of a head teacher at Simbirsk, he is of petty-bourgeois stock, like most of the revolutionary intellectuals who founded the Russian Socialist movement. His brother Alexander, implicated in one of the last conspiracies of the ‘People’s’ Will, was hanged in 1887. The adolescent Lenin has matured in the shadow of the gibbet erected for his elder brother. His subversive opinions have caused him to be expelled from the University of Kazan, where he was reading law.


From now on, the history of Russia will follow two paths, distinct though converging. The attention of scholars has been focused only on one of these, the one that appears in broad daylight. Historians study the deeds and the laws of emperors, diplomatic activities, military conquests, changes of government and the various reforms; they perceive the famines (especially the great one of 1891) and sometimes the civil commotions. These events have their importance, which we would be the last to decry: but any observer today who wants to understand the history of Russia – and, indeed, of the world – must pay the greatest possible attention to other happenings: the troubles in the countryside, the strikes, the formation of the revolutionary parties, and the economic necessities which are linked with these events by bonds of direct causation.

The period we are now viewing, 1890 to 1903, is that of the rise of the proletarian party. It is marked by the Franco-Russian under-standing, soon to become an actual alliance (1891-4), by the advance of the Russians into central Asia (Turkestan and Pamir), where they collide with British interests, and into the Far East, where they help to rob Japan of the full fruits of her victory of 1895 over China; by the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey and the Balkan intrigues of Russian diplomacy, which succeed in getting the Bulgarian statesman Stambulov assassinated (1894); by the first Peace Conference at The Hague, summoned on the initiative of Nicholas II; by the war in the Transvaal, the Spanish-American war, the war against China, the Anglo-Japanese alliance, the beginnings of the encirclement of Germany. The colonial expansion of the European powers (in other words, the division of the globe among capitalist national blocs) is completed. This summary cataloguing of dates should be enough to display the profound forces which were already propelling capitalist society towards that final parting of the ways: the imperialist Great War. Equally in preparation were the forces of revolution, engendered by the same forces of capitalist development, but growing outside the public view, in the shadows.

The Second International of world Labour is resurrected in 1889, at its Paris Congress, where Plekhanov, as the representative of Russia’s first Social-Democratic group, affirms that ‘the Russian revolution will triumph as the revolution of the working class – else not at all’.

Lively polemics are being conducted in Russia within Socialist circles, between Populists (Narodniki) and Marxists. The former contend that the evolution of capitalism in agrarian Russia is neither necessary nor probable: in the ancient rural communities they discern the embryonic forms of a specifically Russian agrarian Socialism. The proletariat appears to them as an important but secondary element in the revolution, and the revolution itself is conceived by them as one which must replace the autocracy by a democratic régime founded on the people’s rights. Plekhanov and Lenin reply to them by establishing the inevitable nature of capitalist development in Russia, and by formulating the theory of the dominance of the proletariat, which is destined not to serve a revolution made by other classes but to make its own revolution, that is, to play the decisive role in the country’s destinies.

‘Unions of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class’ now exist in a number of places: in the St Petersburg branch the student Krassin is working, in Odessa Ryazanov, Steklov and Tsyperovich are active; in Tula there is Khinchuk. A little later, in 1896, at Nikolayev the student Bronstein, later to be known as Trotsky, assists in the foundation of the ‘Workers’ Association of South Russia’.

The first congress of Russian Social-Democracy is held at Minsk (White Russia) in 1894. It is attended by nine delegates. Pyotr Struve [9] is there, and draws up the manifesto of the party. In it we find the following pregnant statement: ‘ The farther east one goes in Europe, the more base, weak and cowardly does the bourgeoisie appear, and the more gigantic are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the lot of the proletariat.’

As Socialist propaganda penetrates the consciousness of the Russian labour movement, it falls also under the influence of the more advanced elements in the liberal bourgeoisie, who have joined Social-Democratic organizations: people like Prokopovich and Kuskova. [10] Russia’s brand of opportunism in this period receives the description of ‘Economism’; it declares that the workers’ only interest is in economic matters, that politics is of little or no account. It tries to direct the proletarian movement into a simple non-political trade-unionism. It condemns the idea of violent revolution (coinciding on this point with Bernstein, who is working away within German Social-Democracy on the ‘revision’ of Marx), and places its faith in the evolution of capitalism. This is the time when ‘Legal Marxism’ takes root in Russia: the liberal bourgeoisie finds it an excellent weapon. Plekhanov and Lenin devote themselves to fighting these ideologies, whose triumph would confuse and mislead the workers’ movement. The keen judgement, sharpness of view and proletarian intransigence evident in their polemic earn them much admiration. Later, Plekhanov will change: he will fail and then betray. Lenin will remain the same throughout his life, unshakably loyal to the class he has elected to serve, with the clear vision of genius.

It is in prison, in 1896, that Lenin writes his pamphlet On the Strikes, It is in exile in Siberia, in 1897, that he formulates the ‘Tasks of Russian Social-Democracy’ in a short programmatic text. Out of deportation, as an exile in Munich, he publishes in 1900 the first numbers of the first journal Iskra (The Spark), which devotes itself to two tasks: to safeguard proletarian ideology against deviations, mutilations and degeneracies; and to direct the sympathies of all revolutionary oppositional elements towards the proletariat. Iskra fights against all the varieties of Russian opportunism, the equivalent of Bernsteinism and French Millerandism; [12] it crosses swords with the first ‘Socialist-Revolutionary’ organizations of Russia; it struggles to rally the students and intelligentsia to the side of the proletariat. In the period 1894-1903 the students are in the vanguard of the revolutionary movement; with increasing sharpness, the middle classes are taking up a stand against Tsardom. ‘Lenin,’ V. Nevsky has written, [13] ‘and the other editors of Iskra repeatedly undertook the defence of the revolutionary intellectuals against the demagogic speeches of those who cried “Down with the intellectuals!”’ Iskra, finally, condemns the individual terrorism practised by the Socialist-Revolutionaries, preaching instead the cause of action by the masses.

In 1902 there appears What Is To Be Done?, one of Lenin’s key works. In it he insists on the necessity for forming, at long last, a revolutionary organization capable of decisive and consistent activity; its mainspring must be a body of ‘professional revolutionaries’ who are totally dedicated to the movement; only at this price will resistance to the autocracy’s formidable machine, and the final overthrow of the latter, be possible. Henceforth the building of this organization will guide all Lenin’s indefatigable efforts.

The Second Congress of Russian Social-Democracy meets in 1903 at Brussels; police interference compels the delegates to move from there to London. Sixty militants are present. They include Trotsky, now back from Siberia, Noah Jordania [14] and N. Bauman (who will be killed in 1905). The Congress splits into ‘majoritarians’ (Bolsheviki) and ‘minoritarians’ (Mensheviki), on a number of points defined by Plekhanov and Lenin, both of them Bolsheviki. Plekhanov demands a policy of no compromise with the liberals, defends the use of the death penalty against landlords and members of the Tsarist dynasty, and denounces parliamentary fetishism. Lenin, in a memorable debate on Article One of the Party Rules, insists that a condition of membership must be active participation in active work in an illegal organization – a condition which the Menshevik draft version tries to evade in order to keep the party open to sympathizing intellectuals. The Congress marks the definite split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.


The Socialist-Revolutionary party [15] grows up concurrently with a host of other groups which continue the Narodnik traditions opposed by Plekhanov and Lenin. In distinction from the Social-Democrats, who form the party of the proletariat, the Socialist-Revolutionary party tries to be the party of the proletariat, the peasantry and the advanced intelligentsia, all at once. As with the first Marxist organizations, the intellectuals are the most numerous element in it, but whereas Social-Democracy demands that these enter the service of the proletariat, and only gives them a hearing to the extent that they speak for the proletarian cause, in the Socialist-Revolutionary party it is the intellectuals as such who are given a decisive role. Narodnik theory teaches, in effect, that conscious individual personalities, ‘endowed with critical thinking’ and constituting a minority elite, have a crucial influence over the destinies of society. This conception, typical for an advanced intelligentsia in that it assigns a grossly exaggerated weight to ‘critical thinking’ and individual moral worth, is evidence of a serious failure to grasp economic factors, the role of the masses, the activity of the masses and the class struggle. The very idea of struggling against Tsardom by means of a single-party bloc of workers, peasants and intellectuals (i.e. the educated petty-bourgeoisie of the cities) represents, moreover, a misunderstanding of the class struggle. In such a party the workers will of necessity be kept in a subordinate role, cannot aspire to the working-out of their own politics, and in the end are bound to be used for the politics of the middle classes. Reviving the theories of the old Narodniki, the S-Rs saw the peasant communes as the basis for a future Russian Socialism. Their activity leant principally towards the young intelligentsia and the peasantry. As against the Social-Democrats, who condemned the tactic in the name of mass action (without, however, denying that some acts of reprisal or legitimate defence against the rulers were perfectly natural), they elevated individual terrorism into a strategy. Their resolutions demanded that such terrorism be exercised in step with the action of the masses, or else in order to stimulate mass action, and in any case under the strict control of the party. A party of intellectuals leaning on the peasantry for support is incapable of utilizing the activity of the worker-masses, of which the strike and the street demonstration are the simplest forms: it has no alternative but to resort to terrorist acts. The immensity of the abyss separating the S-Rs from the revolutionary Marxists is evident. In fact – as Lenin wrote long ago and as history has abundantly demonstrated – the S-R leaders were often no more than liberals armed with bombs and revolvers. Even so, up to 1917 (when it collapsed politically following the March revolution), the S-R party gave proof of excellent revolutionary qualities. Its petty-bourgeoisie fought hard and well. The mass membership of the party can only be admired. Along with the Social-Democrats (and that energetic minority, the anarchists) it was the S-Rs that populated the prisons, the convict settlements and the remotest corners of Siberia; they included many fine professional revolutionaries; they gave heroes and martyrs in hundreds to the cause of revolution. Their down-fall following March and October 1917 is all the more disillusioning: it reveals the incapacity of the middle classes to lead any revolution in our epoch, and the terrible danger of confused ideologies.

The various S-R organizations fused into one party in 1901. The main leaders of the party were: Catherine Breshko-Breskhovskaya, an old militant of great courage who, since her first arrest in 1874, had undergone two sentences of penal servitude, experiences of exile, and a life of permanent illegality; Grigori Gershuni, the founder of the party’s Battle Organization and a militant of sparkling intelligence and limitless devotion; Mikhail Gotz, an experienced veteran of the ‘People’s Will’; the politician Victor Chernov; [16] the engineer Evno Azef, a secret Okhrana agent who was later appointed to direct the party’s Battle Organization.

This organization was founded by Gershuni in 1902; its first act, in the same year, was the execution of the Minister of Education Sipyagin by the student Balmashev (who was later hanged). On the day after the murder, the S-R party published an official justification of the act. The following year Bogdanovich, Governor of Ufa, perished under a similar verdict. The arrest of Gershuni, who was delivered to the police by Azef, caused the latter’s pro-motion to the top leadership of the terrorist detachment. A man named Boris Savinkov, for whom terrorism was a vocation and whose courage was indomitable, now found himself under the orders of the agent-provocateur. In 1904 the Prime Minister, von Plehve, fell mutilated by Yegor Sazonov’s bomb. Sazonov had organized the assassination on instructions from Azef. Next came the turn of the Regent of Moscow, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, who was executed by Ivan Kalyaev. The terrorists Sazonov and Kalyaev should be numbered among the most impressive figures of Russian revolutionary history. Assassinations followed at a quickening pace. During the 1905 revolution, after the Imperial Edict of 17 October, the S-R party became totally demoralized and ordered an end to the terror; in the new era of reaction which followed, it ordered its Battle Organization into fresh activity. The number of terrorist acts committed by the party was fifty-eight in 1905, ninety-three in 1906 and seventy-four in 1907. [17]

As it was composed of very disparate trends the S-R party frequently experienced the departure from it of various elements of the Left or the Right. Around 1906 a Left wing with anarchistic tendencies broke off to form ‘The Union of Maximalists’, whose small groups distinguished themselves by terrorist acts of extra-ordinary daring.


It has often been remarked that the revolution of 1905 was the ‘dress rehearsal’ for the one of 1917. [18] It was a rehearsal for which the whole of previous Russian history had been preparing.

On the eve of 1905, ten million peasant families own seventy-three million desyatins19 of land; there are 27,000 landed proprietors of whom 18,000 own sixty-two million desyatins and of this huge area about one third belongs to 699 extremely rich landlords, the autocracy’s firmest backers. Naturally, the best of the land is kept out of the hands of the peasants. Ever since 1861 the plots of land have been parcelled out in such a way as to leave the former serf as dependent as possible on the old landlord, from whom he had to rent, usually on ruinous terms, more land in order to keep a livelihood. The peasant pays dues or ‘rights’ for farming on untilled land along the roads into his village, for grazing his cattle, for a thousand other pretexts. From 1900 world prices of cereals begin to recover; eager for their profit, the landed gentry raise land prices and rents, sometimes doubling them. The population on the land has now increased: in 1861 the peasantry owned an average of five desyatins of land per male inhabitant, in 1900 a holding of less than half this size is common. Statistical estimates of rural unemployment now run to ten million. 1895-6, 1897 and 1901 are famine years (and during them the export of grain continues …).

The misery of peasant and worker is a source of wealth for the propertied classes. From 1893 to 1896 the average annual value of Russian exports is 661 million roubles; from 1905 to 1908, in spite of an industrial crisis, the Russo-Japanese war and the revolution, the export average rises annually to 1,055,000,000 roubles. The annual accumulation of profits grows over the same period from 104 million to 339 million. Foreign capital flows into this land where labour is so cheap and fortunes are so quickly amassed. Between 1894 and 1900, nearly 500 million gold roubles’ worth of foreign investments enters Russian industry.

Despite its recent origins, Russian industry develops vigorously within its own peculiar terms. Its reserves of manpower are limit-less but skilled workers are very scarce: no labour aristocracy is formed. The technical level of industry in this backward country is usually primitive: it is just too easy to do good business. On the other hand, concentration of capital, under the influence of foreign investors, is more intense even than in German industry. Here is a capitalism with a modern structure, impeded by institutions which, compared with it, are more than a century behind the times.

There is little or no labour legislation; no trade unions; no rights of combination, assembly, strike or speech. The working class, quite simply, have no rights. The working day varies between ten and fourteen hours. In the engineering factories at Bryansk in the south, wages in 1898 are 70 kopeks for a twelve-hour day. Textile workers get 14 to 18 roubles a month, with swingeing deductions from the wage-packet. The working day is longer and the level of wages lower than anywhere else in Europe. This proletariat of mill and factory, concentrated in a few large centres, forms a compact mass of 1,691,000 workers (as of 1904).

This state of affairs had its repercussions even among the industrialists. The textile employers, who had only a wretched domestic market in the pauperized countryside, sympathized with the 1905 revolution, at least at first. The engineering employers, working on State orders, yielded, numbed, after the military disasters in Manchuria.

Discontent among the petty-bourgeoisie was mounting. The wealthy peasants could see the big land-owners blocking any further progress for them. Merchants, artisans, poor folk and, still more, the intellectuals felt their interests profoundly thwarted and their dignity affronted by the caste-system and its bureaucratic despotism. With the exception of the big landlords, the rich nobility, the Court and the fraction of the top bourgeoisie that was linked with Tsardom, all classes in society felt the need for serious changes.

1902 was marked by troubles in the rural districts. Whole villages were shot down or flogged. The great mass strike at Rostov-on-Don revealed the power of the working classes. In the next year, what amounted to a general strike swept the south. The anti-semitic progroms at Kishinev, organized by von Plehve’s police, were a response to these stirrings among the people: several hundred Jews were butchered. In this period, it occurred to the Tsar’s police officials that the labour movement might just as well be staffed and run by themselves. The police chief Zubatov encouraged the establishment, first at Moscow and then at St Petersburg, of working men’s associations enjoying the threefold protection of police, employers and clergy. However, the pressure of circumstances compelled even this ‘police Socialism’ to lend support to strikes: in 1905 a struggle broke out at the Putilov Works between the workers and the management, who had just sacked four members of the workers’ association patronized by the authorities and directed by the priest Gapon. This ‘black trade-unionism’ was thus catapulted into the leadership of an entire proletariat that had reached the limit of its patience.

Gapon is a remarkable character. He seems to have believed sincerely in the possibility of reconciling the true interests of the workers with the authorities’ good intentions. At any rate it was he who organized the movement to petition the Tsar which ended with the massacre of 22 January (9, Old Style) 1905. The petition of the workers of St Petersburg to Nicholas II, drafted by Gapon and endorsed by tens of thousands of proletarians, was both a lugubrious entreaty and a daring set of demands. It asked for an eight-hour day, recognition of workers’ rights and a Constitution (including the responsibility of ministers to the people, separation of Church and State, and democratic liberties). From all quarters of the capital the petitioners, carrying icons and singing hymns. set off marching through the snow, late on a January morning, to see their ‘little father, the Tsar’. At every cross-road armed am-bushes were waiting for them. The soldiers machine-gunned them down and the Cossacks charged them. ‘Treat them like rebels’ had been the Emperor’s command. The outcome of the day was several hundred dead and as many wounded. [20] This stupid and criminal repression detonated the first Russian revolution. It also ensured the suicide – for a date twelve years hence – of the Russian autocracy.


Over the length and breadth of the nation, whose discontents were already magnified through the Russo-Japanese war, this massacre of workers sent a gust of revolution. A general strike, virtually total, swept through 122 towns and industrial centres and along ten main railway-lines. At Warsaw the strike took on the character of an insurrection, attested by ninety dead, 176 wounded and 733 arrests. For a whole year the Russo-Japanese war had been simply a succession of defeats. The war’s causes were various. Tsardom, in furtherance of its policy of territorial aggrandisement, had cast its net into Manchuria, an excellent zone for colonization: possession of Port Arthur would open up China for Russian commerce; French capital, now engaged in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, had Far Eastern ambitions; the Tsar, now heading an Imperial family whose increasing numbers made it more difficult to provide them with endowments, dreamed of Korea as a base for extending the Romanov fortunes; finally, the statesmen of Russia were by no means averse to .the prospect of strengthening the autocracy at home by means of a military victory. Japan, for its part, had been deprived by Russia in 1894 of its spoils of victory over China; it was resolved to conquer Korea; and its designs for a forcible settlement of accounts with Russia were now being encouraged by British imperialism, which wanted a weakening of Russian influence in Asia. The war broke out in February 1904 and was ended by the treaty of Ports-mouth on 5 September 1905. The Russians were defeated in every single engagement (on the Yalu, at Lyao-Yang, at Mukden, at Port Arthur where they had to capitulate) and lost their entire fleet at the naval battle of Tsushima (May 1905). Each defeat, in displaying the military feebleness of the autocracy (which had never doubted its prospects of a hands-down victory), had even more serious repercussions on the domestic front than on the battle-field. These shameful defeats were the result of administrative incompetence, the incapacity of the men in charge, and the troubled situation at home, where most of the best troops had to be left. The war cost 1,300 million roubles. Nicholas raised practically the whole sum (around 1,200 million) from abroad, principally on the Paris Stock Exchange.

We can make no attempt to trace through, in a few pages, the complex fortunes of the 1905 revolution; we shall sketch only the most important dates and details. The rural troubles began in February. On the 4th of the month the Grand Duke Sergei was executed by the S-R party; on 17 April an Imperial edict (ukaz) proclaimed freedom of conscience for all – without touching the powers of the State Orthodox Church. In May there is the London Bolshevik Congress, the third congress of Russian Social-Democracy.

The Bolshevik faction of the movement has been going through a difficult phase since 1903. Plekhanov, the party’s leader, had shortly after the Second Congress gone over to the Mensheviks, as had Trotsky (the latter only for a short time: throughout the whole revolution he was to work with the Bolsheviks and was even somewhat to the Left of them). ‘It was a period of collapse, hesitation and disarray,’ Lenin observed. But in reality the Bolshevik party was forged in these terrible internal struggles. On the eve of the revolution it found itself the only organization that was in a state of readiness, the only one armed with clear ideas. The Mensheviks held power in the leading bodies of the party: despite the seriousness of the situation, they refused to call a Party Congress where they would have been put into a minority. The Bolsheviks held their own conference in London and the Mensheviks called one in Geneva.

Nothing can explain the Bolshevik victory of 1917 better than their attitude in 1905. The Mensheviks maintained that the coming revolution would be a bourgeois one, carrying the bourgeoisie into power and consolidating their rule, opening an era of expanding capitalist development in Russia. A workers’ insurrection would be madness. The Bolsheviks accused their adversaries of trailing behind the possessing classes. The proletariat, they insisted, must place itself at the head of the popular upheaval; a bourgeois revolution could only be truly realized within ‘the democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry’, whose victories would enable the proletariat to advance towards Socialism in the next stage. Lenin’s guiding idea was that, in the presence of a numerous, powerful and politically conscious proletariat, there could be no question of a purely bourgeois revolution. At this time Trotsky and Parvus formed a third tendency within Russian Social-Democracy: while steering clear of the opportunism of the Menshevik members, they linked the destinies of the Russian revolution to the fate of the European workers’ movement (in their theory of ‘permanent revolution’).

Lenin and Krassin persuaded the London Congress to agree to the party’s participation in the revolutionary government which would not recoil either from the accusation of ‘Jacobinism’ nor from the use of terror. ‘In a revolutionary period it is stupid and criminal to be afraid of participation in power.’ Following the report presented by Lunacharsky and Bogdanov, the Congress mandated the party with the task of preparing insurrection.

The first phase of the revolution was one of mobilization. Parties and groupings formed themselves: reactionaries, liberals, Zemstvos, [21] various petty-bourgeois societies, the peasants’ congress, the workers’ trade union.

Immediately after Bloody Sunday, trade unions began to spring up everywhere, illegal or semi-legal, often holding their meetings in the woods. Then events accelerated. On 15 June the battleship Knaz-Potemkin mutinied. [22] At the camp of Novaya Alexandria a soldiers’ mutiny erupted, organized by the officer Antonov-Ovseyenko. [23] There was street-fighting at Lodz, in Poland: 500 dead. The autocracy saw that it had to manoeuvre. On 6 August, an Imperial edict established the Duma of the Empire, in accordance with the project of the Bulygin commission. This assembly, purely consultative in character, was to be elected on a restricted franchise, by electoral colleges, through an extremely complicated system. Every big land-owner was an elector, but every ten small land-owners elected only one elector in their own college. In the towns only bourgeoisie could vote, the working classes being excluded. Of the intellectuals only the rich could vote (those with a salary of 1,300 roubles per annum). St Petersburg had an electorate of 9,500 out of its population of one and a half million. The bourgeoisie tried to console itself with this shadow of a parliament.

At the beginning of October, a general strike broke out, from a dispute which appeared to be very trivial. The compositors in Moscow came out to demand payment for punctuation marks at the same rate as for letters. Gradually, through solidarity action, the strike spread to the whole of Moscow: then the railway workers joined in throughout the country. It was a formidable stoppage, and a complete one: even the shops closed down. On the 13th the Soviet (or Council) of the St Petersburg workers was founded, on the basis of one deputy for every 500 workers. At this moment the revolt of the peasants engulfed almost the whole of Russia. The ‘lords’ nests’ were burnt down in hundreds: Two thousand land-owners’ homes were reduced to cinders. The autocracy hesitated between the path of military dictatorship and that of surrender. The rail strike and the poor state of the troops’ loyalties caused it to choose Count Witte’s plan, a relative surrender: the Imperial edict of 17 October elevated the Duma into a legislative assembly and gave the suffrage (at the second and third stages of election) to the urban petty-bourgeoisie and the workers. But this only became a further stimulus; all the democratic freedoms were seized as an accomplished fact; a revolutionary press sprang up and the authorities, powerless, had to tolerate it.

The following days saw more anti-semitic pogroms, [24] an amnesty for political offences and the granting of autonomy to Finland. The end of October was marked by the military rising of Kronstadt; then came the revolt of the Black Sea fleet, whose inspirer, Lieutenant Schmidt, a brave but irresolute man, knew only how to die courageously. A single decisive fact dominates these events: the army, in spite of these explosive defections, remains generally in a state of obedience.

The St Petersburg Soviet had been led at first by a popular lawyer, Khrustalev-Nosar: he was arrested after a short while and replaced by Trotsky. The Soviet, led by Trotsky and inspired by the Bolsheviks, waged a struggle that was all the more difficult since the weariness of the St Petersburg proletariat was becoming increasingly acute. It tried in vain to win the eight-hour day by strike action, but failed. A year of struggle had exhausted the workers of the capital: the arrest of the Soviet precipitated only a short strike by a section of workers.

In Moscow, on the other hand, where the proletariat had been less active over the preceding months, the fever of rebellion now reached its peak. In vain did the more far-sighted revolutionaries point to the probability of a defeat. The general strike began on 7 December, with the backing of the S-Rs and the Bolsheviks. It immediately took on an insurrectional character: the small combat-groups of the workers’ organizations covered the city with barricades, ready to resist the use of troops. They were too few, and too poorly armed; the movement had appeared too late, for a regiment in sympathy with the revolutionaries had been dis-’armed a short while before. The insurrection was decapitated by the chance arrest of most of the members of its leading committee. The working-class quarter of Krasnaya Presnya came late into the battle but defended itself magnificently. The artillery had to be brought in to crush it. Most of the insurgents managed to make good their escape. Nevertheless Admiral Dubasov, acting on the caprice of informers, had over 250 people shot.

The revolution had substantial successes in the south, and real victories in the Caucasus. January 1906 was a month of firing-squads. Punitive expeditions restored order everywhere with a cold ferocity. In the Baltic provinces, Siberia and the Caucasus they sowed the seeds of terrible hatreds.

Russia’s first revolution cost her people almost 15,000 dead, over 18,000 wounded and 79,000 imprisoned.

In 1905 the autocracy was saved through the hesitations and reactionary sympathies of the liberal bourgeoisie, the hesitations of the revolutionary middle classes, the inexperience and poor organization of the proletariat (for which its enthusiasm and solidarity were no substitute), the weakness of the proletarian party, [25] the primitive character of the movement in the country-side, the relative loyalty of the troops and the availability of French money.


The defeat of the first Russian revolution was by no means total. The workers and peasant masses had lost their respect for the autocracy and learnt to engage in combat against their oppressors. It was a psychological change of incalculable importance. Now, the workers could see a clearer pattern in the mosaic of parties: from now on, in increasing numbers, they turned to the party of their class. The hard core of the Bolshevik party steeled itself for the struggles to come, and drew the lessons of an experience al-ready formidable, during the moral crisis which followed. The years of reaction were painful to endure, like every aftermath of defeat: individualism, scepticism, discouragement, the spurning of the weak, all manifested themselves in a variety of forms. But the proletariat has no other school but struggle. The exploited class, the oppressed class, the class of the vanquished by definition, it learns, in its periods of reverse, how to conquer; the very fact that it rises from its feet and acts is already, in a certain sense, a victory; and its most telling defeats sometimes count, in the scale of history, as the equal of fruitful victories. So it was in 1905.

For the Russian bourgeoisie, by contrast, its democratic revolution of 1905 was an unmitigated failure. The role played in it by the proletariat struck them as singularly disturbing. The bourgeoisie had lacked all unity. The middle classes, in moments of ardour during the struggle, had supported the workers. But the big bourgeoisie, the financiers, the engineering bosses, terrified by the advance of Socialism, had shown themselves as only too inclined to make a deal with the large landlords and the autocracy. The caste-divisions of Russian society, the privileges of nobility, landlords, Church and Crown, the civil inequality, the autocracy, all survived the crisis of 1905; Russian capitalism remained tied down at every move, even with the wide possibilities of development that were offered it through the influx of foreign capital. The corruption, incompetence and bureaucracy of Tsardom continued their work of obstruction. None of the causes of the revolution had been removed, or suppressed.

The Witte Cabinet had rendered a signal service to Tsarism through its constitutional juggling; liberalism and conservatism had met in the service of counter-revolution. It was succeeded by Stolypin’s reactionary government, which was only too well aware that a final settling of accounts had only been postponed. In the face of this threat it undertook an intelligent manoeuvre in the agrarian reform of 1906-10, which encouraged the development of private property among the peasantry and the further enrichment of the better-off farmers. A ‘Peasant Bank’ allotted an ex-tension of land, though not nearly enough, among the peasantry. The poor peasants were urged to colonize Siberia, central Asia and the Far East. Stolypin’s policies were aimed at creating a stratum in the countryside that was rich, numerous, loyal to the régime and privileged; its property instincts would turn it into the ally of the reactionary nobility and the big bourgeoisie. Stolypin believed that the formation of this class of rich peasants would exorcise the peril of revolution forever within a space of twenty years. However, after 1912 came the revival of the working-class movement: then, the imperialist war.

While the Mensheviks were digesting ‘the historic error of the Moscow uprising’ (‘They should not have taken up arms!’ declared Plekhanov), Lenin and the Bolsheviks were drawing out the lessons of 1905. Lenin’s writings of 1905-6 should be required reading. They are a model of revolutionary dialectic, and more: an introduction to the history of the October Revolution. Lenin emphasized the significance of the Soviets as ‘organs of direct struggle by the masses’, ‘organs of insurrection’, and hence their fundamental incompatibility with the Tsarist régime. He used the Moscow events to demonstrate the necessity for revolutionary organization in an insurrection. He advocated guerrilla warfare, which the Bolsheviks took up in many areas (notably in Latvia) in order to resist reaction and prepare for later action. He developed his theory of the united front, ‘an agreement for purposes of struggle concluded by the proletarian party with the parties of revolutionary democracy’; he studied the technique of insurrection. Recent history had confirmed his evaluations of the liberal bourgeoisie and of Socialist opportunism. His active thought, the thinking of a revolutionary Marxist, was in constant opposition to the tired, rigid, bookish doctrines of the Mensheviks. On 30 September 1906 he wrote, in reply to those who accused him of being a ‘Blanquist’, ‘anarchist’ or ‘Bakuninist’:

Marxism distinguishes itself from all primitive forms of Socialism in the fact that it does not attach the revolutionary movement to any one form of struggle. It admits of the most different methods of action, without, however, ‘inventing’ them. It confines itself to generalizing, organizing and giving conscious purpose to those modes of action by the revolutionary classes which arise spontaneously in the course of the movement. A resolute enemy of all abstract formulas, all recipes in-vented by doctrinaires, Marxism demands an attitude of attention to-wards the struggle of the masses, a struggle which, in parallel with the development and the consciousness of the masses, and with the severity of economic and political crises, constantly calls forth new methods of attack and defence. Marxism does not reject any form of struggle… . Marxism never contents itself with forms of struggle which are actual or possible at a given moment: it recognizes the inevitability, as the situation changes, of modes of action which are still unknown to the militants of the present day. On this point it can be said that, far from having any pretensions to educate the masses in modes of action imagined by arm-chair inventors of systems, Marxism is always and only the school of the masses’ own practice.

… Marxism demands, unconditionally, the historical examination of the problem of forms of struggle. To pose this question outside the concrete historical situation is to fail to understand the ABC of dialectical materialism. To different moments of economic evolution, there correspond different forms of struggle, conditioned by political, national and cultural situations, as well as by customs which in their turn modify the auxiliary and secondary forms of action. [26]

His theory of civil war, whose application we shall see in October 1917, was already developed. One might well believe that these lines, extracted from an article of 29 August 1906, date from 1917:

Let us bear in mind that the great struggle of the masses is approaching. It will be the armed insurrection. It must be, as far as possible, simultaneous over the whole country. The masses must know that they are coming to an armed, bloody and desperate struggle. Contempt for death must imbue them and assure them of victory. The offensive must be pursued with all possible energy: attack and not defence must be the masses’ common slogan, the pitiless extermination of the enemy their objective; the organization of the struggle will be flexible and mobile; the vacillating elements among the fighters will be led on to enter battle. The party of the conscious proletariat must carry out its duty in this great struggle.


The first fourteen years of the twentieth century are occupied by the preparation of the imperialist war. The division of the world, among great powers governed economically and politically by high finance, is now complete. Germany, deprived of satisfactory colonies, threatens Britain’s control of the seas and, over the whole world, confronts British commerce with a competition for which there is no remedy except cannon-fire. On the two sides of the Rhine, the German and French engineering industries square up to one another. The German Empire covets France’s colonies and dreams of consolidating her own influence over Turkey. Her interests, along with those of the Austrian Empire, clash with the interests of Russia: for more than thirty years, Tsarist intrigues have dominated the politics of the small Balkan states, and Russia now casts longing eyes at Constantinople, essential to her grain exports. ‘From the end of the nineteenth century,’ writes M.N. Pokrovsky, ‘there exists a Franco-Russian imperialism.’ [27] In 1900 the capital invested in Russian industry (in millions of gold roubles) had reached the following levels: Russian capital, 447.2 (or twenty-one per cent); foreign capital, 762.4 (or 35.9 per cent); capital raised by selling Russian stocks abroad, 915.6 (or 43.1 per cent). In all, seventy-nine per cent of the capital invested is of foreign origin ! When one adds the 9,349,000,000 gold francs lent by the French Republic to Nicholas II, some idea will be conveyed of the hold exerted by French finance on the destinies of the Russian Empire. In 1914 the French capitalists had control of 60.7 per cent of Russia’s output of pig-iron and of 50.9 per cent of its coal. On the eve of the revolution the banks of Petrograd disposed of a capital of 8,500 million roubles, fifty-five per cent of which belonged to the French banks.

We shall not relate here the military preparation for the war, undertaken ever since 1907, if not before, by the French and Russian General Staffs in collaboration with the British Admiralty. At Irkutsk in 1920, shortly before he was shot, Admiral Kolchak testified that ever since 1907 the Russian General Staff and Admiralty had determined 1915 as the date for the outbreak of the European conflagration. It is known that the Russian General Staff speeded up the march to war (so ably directed by M. Poincare) through the provocation at Sarajevo. [28]

At the time when war broke out, large strikes in St Petersburg had just taken place, a symptom of working-class strength. The Bolshevik party had succeeded in publishing newspapers and magazines inside Russia (ceaselessly suppressed, and as ceaselessly springing up again), and in penetrating all working-class concentrations: it now participated in all movements by the proletarian masses. From 1910 on, the Russian proletariat had entered a phase of upsurge and activity: it was managing to increase its wages and reduce its working hours. The protests that followed the massacre at Lena were a witness to its awakening. The workers in. the goldfields at Lena, in the gubernia of Irkutsk in Siberia, were hideously exploited. Lodged in insanitary barracks, paid in truck by their company (which had British capital), they began a strike at the end of May 1912, demanding an eight-hour day (instead of ten hours), a thirty-per-cent wage increase and the dismissal of various members of the staff. At the company’s instigation, the crowd of strikers, unarmed, are fired on: there are 270 dead. Both in Moscow and in Petrograd huge strikes take place in protest against this employers’ crime.

In Russian Social-Democracy the split between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks (who had been briefly reunited at the Unity Congress at Stockholm in 1906) widens between 1906 and 1914. The Bolsheviks had been attacking the ‘liquidationist’ tendencies that ‘have arisen from the defeat of the revolution. (The liquidation in question is that of illegal work and revolutionary action.)

The war widens the gulf still further. The S-Rs have become converted to patriotism, and the Menshevik liquidators, in reply to a telegram from Vandervelde, [29] declare that ‘they are not opposing the war’; whereas the Bolshevik Central Committee, looking back to the Paris Commune and the decisions of inter-national Socialist Congresses, adopts the slogan formulated by Lenin: ‘turn the imperialist war into civil war’. The five Bolshevik deputies in the Duma are arrested in November 1914, along with Kamenev, and deported to Siberia. In Petrograd the Bolsheviks now number no more than a dozen groups of some 120 members altogether.

They set to work at once for the re-foundation of the International, which has expired on 2 and 4 August 1914. [30] They travel to Zimmerwald and Kienthal. The line taken by Trotsky, now outside both the main factions of Russian Social-Democracy, differs very little from that of the Bolsheviks. [31]


The Russian bourgeoisie, in contrast with the ruling clique of landlords, nobles and bureaucrats, welcome the war with enthusiasm. Surely the war was going to fulfil its dearest wishes, by compelling the autocracy to abdicate constitutionally, or at the very least to introduce far-reaching reforms? Besides, this bourgeoisie, with all its links with the capitalist classes of western Europe, was imperialist-minded.

The next years were to bring a number of fantastic spectacles: whole armies entering the field without munitions, fighting it out with sword and bayonet in mid-battle; treason at work in the General Staff and perhaps in the Court; sudden fortunes in the hands of manufacturers of war supplies; incompetent drunkards in responsible posts; a rakish staretz (or ‘holy old man’), Rasputin, as close adviser to the Tsar, appointing and dismissing ministers between one drunken orgy and the next; Russia sliding towards the abyss while the world watched. The war revealed the gangrene of the whole system.

In January 1917 higher prices were obviously outstripping wage increases, in the proportion 163 to 130. Production was declining. The Allies had urged Russia into its immense effort, which reached a climax in 1916 and then left the nation exhausted. Inflation. The railways worn down. Crisis of food supplies. The capital faced a bread and a fuel shortage. Assailed by speculation, the government vainly tried to tax foodstuffs and regulate the economy. The bourgeoisie under Allied influence would have liked a rapprochement with the autocracy, but the Court and the land-owning caste around the Tsar were inclined to see a separate peace with Germany as their only hope. This disquieting vacillation, and the terrible defeats sustained by the Russian armies, encouraged the Allies to nurture dreams of a coup d’état in the breasts of the Russian bourgeoisie. In 1917 most Russian politicians and generals, not to mention several Grand Dukes, were thinking of how they might avert a revolution in the streets by conducting one in the palace. Nobody dared to do anything. These conspiracies of the drawing-room resulted in nothing except the murder of Rasputin by Purishkevich, the leader of the extreme Right, acting with Prince Yusupov.

The revolution did come into the streets: it came down from the factories with thousands of workers out on strike, to cries of ‘Bread! Bread!’ The authorities saw it coming but could do nothing: it was not in their power to remedy the crisis. In the streets of Petrograd the troops fraternized with the workers’ demonstrations, sealing the fate of the autocracy (25 – 7 February 1917). The speed of events took the revolutionary organizations by surprise even though they had been working towards this goal.

Two governments soon come on the scene. The Duma’s Provisional Committee was a makeshift government of the bourgeoisie, headed by landed reactionaries whose sole idea after the abdication of the Tsar was the drafting of a constitution to pre-serve the royal dynasty and get the lower orders back into obedience; the Soviet of Workers and Soldiers was the government formed by the proletariat. The two rival powers at first hold their sessions side by side in the Tauride Palace, observing one another and avoiding collisions. The Mensheviks and S-Rs constituted the leadership of the Soviet: but the masses below pushed them, watched them and goaded them. The first Provisional Government headed by Prince Lvov, was actually steered by Milyukov, the leader of the Kadet (Constitutional Democrat) party of the liberal big bourgeoisie; its perspective was a constitutional monarchy under the Regency of Mikhail Romanov until the Tsarevich Alexei should attain his majority.

But the Soviet was acting. Its Decree (prikaz) No.1, of 1 March, abolished all titles of rank in the army, ordered the election of committees in all military units, and thus placed the soldiers at the effective disposition of the Soviet. It was at the Soviet’s insistence that the Emperor and Imperial family were arrested, it was the Soviet that stopped the Tsar from escaping to England. The Soviet proclaimed its desire for peace; the Provisional Government, its loyalty to the Allies. The duality of power meant a conflict of power.

A coalition ministry, consisting of bourgeois-liberals, Kadets, Mensheviks and S-Rs with Kerensky as Prime Minister, is formed in the first days of May. Its programme consists of a couple of words: democracy, Constituent Assembly. It proves powerless to meet the economic crisis: for that, energetic measures, which would have hurt the bourgeoisie, would have been necessary. It yields to Allied pressure and launches the offensive of 18 June, a futile slaughter, as was obvious beforehand. It refuses national independence to Finland and disintegrates, with the resignation of the bourgeois ministers, on the question of the Ukraine’s independence. A new Kerensky Cabinet follows, and in this the influence of the Kadets, who are determined to sabotage the revolution, is even stronger. This ministerial shuffle takes place amid the July rising, which foreshadows the October Revolution. The proletariat and the garrison have had enough of these ministerial games: ‘All power to the Soviets.’ The Bolshevik party judges the offensive to be premature: the provinces will not follow. Nevertheless, it sup-ports the action of the masses, and is promptly outlawed. Trotsky is arrested, Lenin and Zinoviev are wanted men. The press denounces the Bolsheviks as paid agents of Germany.

Russia has the choice of two dictatorships: either that of the proletariat or that of the bourgeoisie. The ‘State Conference’ in Moscow acclaiths General Kornilov, the prospective dictator, who wants discipline in the army – through the death penalty – order on the home front and a strong government. He attempts a coup on 9 September, in concert with Kerensky and the veteran S-R terrorist Savinkov. Kerensky lets him down and the coup collapses. But this exercise in adventurism has mobilized the masses and restored the streets to the proletariat. We will give some little-known quotations which reveal the bourgeoisie’s intentions in the period before Kornilov’s coup. At the ‘State Conference’ in Moscow on 13 August, Prokopovich puts the programme of the bourgeoisie: ‘Guaranteeing of proprietors’ rights, State control over production, maximum prices to regulate pro-fits, compulsory labour (with specified work-standards) for the proletariat.’ A few days later Ryabushinsky, one of the big Russian capitalists, declares at the Conference of Industry and Trade that ‘the Government must begin to think and act from the bourgeois viewpoint …. Perhaps it may need the bony hand of famine to take the false friends of the people by the throat …’ ‘Let the capitalist give up his excessive profits,’ says Prokopovich, and the worker his surplus leisure.’

The S-R party, which is now the real governing party, postpones the implementation of its agrarian programme, puts off the election of the Constituent Assembly, yields to the pressures of the bourgeoisie and does what the Allies demand. Famine is swiftly approaching. The Germans capture Riga and menace Petrograd, which seems abandoned to their invasion plans. After all, would not Ludendorff take over the pressing problem of controlling the proletariat of the capital? In the countryside, peasant rebellion is flaring up.

Three great problems cry out for urgent solution, expressed in the three words: peace, land, bread! Peace is wanted by millions of peasants and proletarians in the army, and the bourgeoisie cannot give it them because it is too busy waging its own war. Land is desired by millions of peasants: the bourgeoisie will not give it, because it is allied with the big land-owners and because it rejects any attack on private property, the principle of its own domination. Bread is demanded by the proletariat of the cities: the bourgeoisie cannot give it, for the famine is the offshoot of its war and its policies. … The overthrow of Tsardom has solved nothing. Another revolution has to be made.

This is what the masses feel and want. This is what the party of the proletariat knows and arms for.




[4] Mezentsev was executed by the writer Stepniak (Kravchinsky), the author of Underground Russia.

[5] A. Rambaud, A History of Russia from the Earliest Times to 1877 (New York, 1886).

[6] M.N. Pokrovsky, History of Russia (New York, 1931).

[7] The liberal N.V. Chaikovsky was to end his career unfortunately. For a long time he devoted his efforts to the Russian cooperative movement. Then in 1919, during the Allied intervention in Russia, he headed the White government at Archangel. He died in emigration in 1926.

[9] The evolution of Pyotr Struve deserves some attention; having passed from reformism to liberalism, he later became an admirer of Stolypin. Today, Struve is one of the leaders of the monarchist emigration; he played a prominent role in the circles around Denikin and Wrangel. [Author of numerous books on Russian politics and economics, Struve died in 1944.]

[10] Both belong today to the liberal emigration. In October 1917, Prokopovich succeeded Kerensky as head of the clandestine ‘government’ which directed sabotage against the revolution. [This attempt to reconstitute the ‘Provisional Government’ was short-lived. Prokopovich and his wife Kusskova went into exile and ran a Russian research institute in Prague. He died in 1955 and she in 1959.]

[12] The French Socialist Millerand joined, in 1899, a Cabinet of ‘republican defence’ where one of his colleagues was the executioner of the Paris Commune, Galliffet.

[13] V. Nevsky, History of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik): A Short Outline (Istoriya RKP (B): Kratki Ocherk) (Leningrad, 1926), p.170; Lenin intended the revolutionary organization to ‘unify the Socialist science and revolutionary experience, acquired over decades by the revolutionary intelligentsia, with the special skills of the advanced workers: knowledge of the working-class environment, and the gifts of mass agitation and mass leadership’.

[14] Jordania, from 1920 to 1922, was President of the Menshevik Republic of Georgia. [After the Bolshevik invasion of Georgia he went into exile and died in 1953.]

[15] See A.I. Spiridovich, The Socialist-Revolutionary Party and its Predecessors (Partiya Sotsialistov-Revoliutsionerov i ee Predshestvenniki), a work written by a police official from the documents of the Okhrana. [Not available in Russian: the first edition of 1915 was sold only to Tsarist officials, and the second augmented edition of 1917, after the opening of the Okhrana archives, was given to the Political Red Cross to sell, with a few copies for the S-R party itself. Spiridovich had another edition printed on the press of the Stavka, but this was seized by the Bolsheviks. There is a French translation, L’Histoire du Terrorisme Russe, 1886-1917 (Paris, 1930).]

[16] Mikhail Gotz died in 1908, and Gershuni died in Paris in 1920, following many years of bitter struggle on which he left some remarkable memoirs (available in a French translation); Breshko-Breshkovskaya, who went over to bourgeois liberalism in 1917, has become one of the ‘stars’ of the White emigration; V. Chernov, who is now in emigration, was one of Kerensky’s ministers and then Chairman of the Constituent Assembly, leading his party from the denial of its programme to political disaster. [Breshkovskaya died an exile in Prague in 1934; Chernov, after emigration in western Europe, died in New York in 1952.]

[17] Statistics supplied by the Museum of the Revolution in Leningrad. Terrorist acts of purely local significance (and there were hundreds of these) are not counted in these figures. [A more recent authority gives a figure of over 4,000 lives taken by S-R and anarchist terrorists during 1906 and 1907 alone: Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (Princeton, 1967), p.64.]

[18] M.N. Pokrovsky, A Brief History of Russia (New York, 1933), Pt.III; L.D. Trotsky, 1905 (Paris, 1923); N. Rozhkov, History of Russia (Istoriya Rossii) (Petrograd, 1926), Volumes 11 and 12.

[20] Gapon managed to escape and lived abroad for some while. He resumed contact with the Imperial police, took part in its schemes and was executed as an agent-provocateur in 1906 by a Socialist-Revolutionary acting under instructions from Azef.

[21] [The Zemstvos were organs of rural self-government encouraged in the late nineteenth century by Tsar Alexander II: though strictly limited from above, they organized local welfare services and provided an important focus for liberal-constitutional agitation in the 1900s.]

[22] The cruiser sailed under the colours of the Red Flag for eleven days. Other ships shrank from engaging in combat against her and her crew, and took refuge in Rumania once their supplies were exhausted.

[23] Antonov-Ovseyenko will appear again in our story when we come to the October Revolution.

[24] The initiative in the pogroms was taken by the police and by the ‘Black Hundreds’ (Union of True Russians), an ultra-reactionary organization under the patronage of the authorities. Nearly 4,000 Jews were killed and 10,000 injured in 110 separate towns and localities; 500 perished in Odessa alone.

[25] In 1905 the Bolshevik party had twelve or thirteen thousand members and, though including a large number of intellectuals, exercised its influence over the straightforwardly proletarian elements of society. The Mensheviks numbered about 15,000 members: their influence was chiefly among the petty-bourgeoisie, the artisans, and sometimes (in Georgia particularly) sections of the peasantry. The Russian proletariat amounted to some three million workers at this time. The two fractions of Russian Social-Democracy thus organized only one per cent of this total between them. See Nevsky, op. cit., Chapter 11. [Serge’s estimate of the influence of the two fractions of Social-Democracy among the Russian working class is a considerable over-simplification. Both Bolsheviks and Mensheviks had a working-class base in the main cities, even though their proletarian membership was relatively small. For a detailed presentation see J.L.H. Keep, The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia (Oxford, 1963), pp. 165-82, 230, 274. A recent careful statistical study does tentatively distinguish between the firmer working-class base of the Bolsheviks and the greater petty-bourgeois and national-minority composition of Menshevism over 1905-7: David Lane, The Roots of Russian Communism (Assen, 1969), pp.44, 49-51, 209-13.]

[26] On Guerrilla Warfare (30 September 1906); N. Lenin, Collected Works (London, 1969), Vol.11, pp.213-14.

[27] M.N. Pokrovsky, How Did the War of 1914 Begin?, in Proletarskaya Revoliutsiya, 7 (30), 1924.

[28] The assassination at Sarajevo was committed at the instigation of the Russian General Staff; see Victor Serge, La Verité sur l’Attentat de Sarajevo, in Clarte, No.74, 1 May 1924. [The evidence implicating the Tsarist General Staff is examined in V. Dedijer, The Road to Sarajevo (London, 1967); Dedijer rejects the incrimination of the Russians.]

[29] [Emile Vandervelde: leader of the Belgian Socialist party and a prominent figure in the Second International; fervent supporter of the Allied cause from the outset of the war, when he joined the Belgian government.]

[30] [2 August marked the day when the French Socialist party voted for ‘national defence’. 4 August was the day when the German Social-Democratic party voted unanimously for the war-credits in the Reichstag.]

[31] Nevsky, op. cit., p.386. [Probably an attempt by Serge to vindicate Trotsky’s war-time position by citing a recent and reputable party history.]


Last updated on: 7.2.2009

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