Besieged by the forces of reaction across Europe, the French Revolution had waged defensive and offensive military campaigns that disrupted traditional power relations on the continent. Even after the counterrevolutionary ascension of Bonaparte’s dictatorship and the creation of the “empire,” France played a decisive role in shattering many of the remnants of feudalism beyond its borders in the Napoleonic Wars. By the early 19th century, France and much of Europe were governed by conservative monarchies that were nonetheless committed to capitalist development to varying degrees. French historian Albert Soboul, in his Understanding the French Revolution, sums up the impact of the revolution on the social structure of France and Europe:
“Upon seizing power in 1799, Bonaparte declared, ‘the Revolution is over.’ He thus assigned an end point to the task of demolishing the Ancien Régime. But it was not in the power of a single man, no matter how brilliant, to change the characteristics of the new society that had already been clearly sketched. The actions of the First Consul, then the Emperor, whatever his evolution may have been, essentially belonged to the line of the revolutionary heritage.…
“The characteristics that we have just sketched account for the repercussions of the French Revolution and its value as an example in the evolution of the contemporary world. Without a doubt, the armies of the Republic and then of Napoleon knocked down the Ancien Régime in the European countries they occupied, more by force than by ideas. By abolishing serfdom, by freeing the peasants of seigniorial fees and ecclesiastical tithes, by putting in circulation the wealth of the mainmorte, the French conquest cleared the path for the development of capitalism. If nothing remained of the continental empire that Napoleon had had the ambition to found, it nevertheless destroyed the Ancien Régime everywhere it had time to do so. In this sense, his reign prolonged the Revolution, and he was indeed its soldier, a fact for which the sovereigns of the Ancien Régime never ceased reproaching him.”
In 1815, the Bourbon monarchy was restored and semi-feudalist reaction gained the upper hand across Europe, in some countries in alliance with select conservative elements of the big bourgeoisie. As historian Eric Hobsbawm observed in The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, there followed two waves of revolution in Europe (with reverberations in Latin America, where Spanish colonies gained their independence): the first began in 1820, centered on Spain, Greece and Naples; the second began in 1830, centered on France. Except in Greece, where a short-lived bourgeois republic was created, these revolutions largely failed to achieve the goals of the popular masses that were their driving force. The July Revolution of 1830 created a constitutional monarchy in France under King Louis Philippe and a marginally more liberal regime, resting not on the industrial capitalist class, which was allowed to serve as a “moderate” opposition, but on its upper financial sector. Throughout this period, the self-consciously revolutionary opposition to the absolutist or bourgeois monarchies was an eclectic mix of radical bourgeois conspiratorial societies inspired by the Jacobin tradition and radical “democratic” forces encompassing petty-bourgeois social reformers and various shades of socialism.
In the autumn of 1847, economic crises broke out in Europe, generating enormous social tensions and political conflict threatening to topple the monarchist regimes. In late February 1848, an unprecedented revolutionary wave – the so-called Springtime of Peoples – swept across much of Western and Central Europe, beginning in France and extending to what today we call Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy and the Czech Republic. Under pressure from plebeian layers, the liberal bourgeoisie was in many cases forced to assume control of newly-founded republics in which radical democratic forces exerted influence. From the standpoint of social program, the revolutions were contradictory. On the one hand the bourgeoisie was handed state power by the very classes it exploited, but on the other, the proletariat had developed both in numbers and political maturity since 1789. The working class believed that the republics they helped establish should be “social republics,” which was an ambiguous radical democratic idea suggesting a socialistic and even anti-bourgeois character. This frightened the liberal bourgeoisie who responded by seeking to form a “party of order” with the deposed monarchist and conservative layers against the working class.
The unfolding of events in France illustrates most clearly the contradictions of the 1848 Revolutions. On 22 February, the masses of Paris rose up in protest against a government crackdown on opposition activity, erecting barricades and engaging in street fighting. Two days later, the king abdicated, creating a power vacuum. Although the monarchy had been overthrown by the working class, the Provisional Government that took its place was composed chiefly of representatives of the bourgeoisie (the moderate liberals) and the petty bourgeoisie (the radical democrats). The workers were given only two representatives, Louis Blanc and Alexandre Martin, aka “Albert”. A Second French Republic – the so-called “democratic and social” republic based on universal adult male suffrage – was proclaimed the next day. In the beginning, the pressure exerted on the Provisional Government by the Parisian working class was significant – indeed, it was the working class that pushed the liberals and radicals into declaring the republic in the first place. Louis Blanc and Albert were charged with overseeing a special commission to improve the lot of the working class through the creation of public works programs (“national workshops”). Karl Marx, living in exile in Brussels, was invited by a member of the Provisional Government to come to Paris, where he lived for a short time before moving to Cologne to participate in the revolution there. In Cologne, Marx, Engels and others published the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, which initially saw itself as the far left, proletarian-socialist wing of “the democracy,” i.e., the mass of politicized oppressed layers.
The reality of the class dynamics of the situation soon put to rest any notion that the “social republic” would prepare the way for socialism. Fearful of the armed Parisian working class, the Provisional Government recruited thousands of lumpenproletarian elements to form Mobile Guards to reinforce the bourgeois National Guard, which itself was growing hostile to the vacillating Provisional Government. The government staged a provocation against the workers on 16 April by recalling the army to Paris. Following country-wide elections, the National Assembly convened on 4 May, excluding workers’ representatives Louis Blanc and Albert, who had been denounced a few weeks earlier, alongside other socialist leaders Louis Auguste Blanqui, Etienne Cabet and Franšois-Vincent Raspail, as conspirators in a workers’ communist plot to overthrow the government. Raspail, Albert, Blanqui and others were arrested following an attempt by workers to storm the National Assembly on 15 May.
Responding to the further provocation of a reduction in the public works program, the Parisian working class insurrected on 22 June in what Marx described as “the first great battle […] between the two classes that split modern society” (The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850). Lured into a decisive confrontation for which it was not prepared, the proletariat suffered a major defeat – over 3,000 workers were murdered in the conflict’s aftermath, and the split between the working class and the republic was confirmed. In December, Napoleon’s nephew Louis Bonaparte was elected president, initiating a turn toward authoritarianism that would be consolidated three years later with his coup d’état and the creation of the Second Empire – famously described by Marx as a farcical replay of Napoleon’s ascension.
The counterrevolution assumed even clearer forms elsewhere in Europe, where the old regimes were restored by the end of 1849. The defeat of the revolutions of 1848 marked a turning-point in the history of European capitalism, demonstrating that the bourgeoisie had ceased to be a revolutionary agent in any sense, as it was more fearful of the increasingly numerous, organized and class conscious proletariat than it was interested in securing unfettered conditions for its own economic development. In fact, the bourgeoisie was able to flourish even under a power-sharing relationship with elements of the reactionary aristocracy, as the 1850s and 1860s witnessed steady industrial expansion and capitalist accumulation. Politically, the betrayal of the working class during the revolutions split the radical democratic movement along class lines, giving birth to the modern proletarian socialist movement and to Marxism.
Friedrich Engels concluded in hindsight that the 1848 revolutions demonstrated that the potential for proletarian socialist revolution had been limited in practice by the underdevelopment of the working class and by the fact that capitalism had not exhausted its historically progressive character:
“History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at that time  was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has seized the whole of the Continent, and has caused big industry to take real root in France, Austria, Hungary, Poland and, recently, in Russia, while it has made Germany positively an industrial country of the first rank – all on a capitalist basis, which in the year 1848, therefore, still had great capacity for expansion.”
—Introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France 1848 to 1850
In the decades that followed the 1848 revolutions, capitalism developed at an impressive pace, transforming the economies of Europe and beyond as it expanded the productive forces. In so doing, it laid the groundwork for the establishment of a classless society – and, by eventually constraining the further qualitative development of the forces of production, it created the historical necessity of forging a road to communism.
In March 1850, Marx and Engels wrote an important “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” lucidly articulating the case for the political independence of the working class not only from the bourgeoisie but also from the petty-bourgeois “radical democrats.” The events of 1848, Marx and Engels argued, had definitively proved that the proletariat was the only consistently revolutionary class in modern society, and that it would come to power following a series of conflicts in a “protracted revolutionary development”:
“While the democratic petty bourgeoisie want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.”
Making the “revolution permanent” meant an uninterrupted series of revolutionary assaults to put the working class in power and clear the path for socialism. Despite Engels’ later acknowledgment that this perspective was premature for this period, the assessment of the counterrevolutionary character of both bourgeois liberalism and petty-bourgeois radical democracy proved to be entirely accurate.
Six years earlier, in his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx had concluded that the revolution required to shake Germany free from the political remnants of feudal bondage could not rely on the cowardly German bourgeoisie, whose “philistine mediocrity” had prevented it from playing the role its French counterpart had fulfilled in 1789. Marx argued that the proletariat would have to take the lead:
“Germany can emancipate itself from the Middle Ages only if it emancipates itself at the same time from the partial victories over the Middle Ages. In Germany no form of bondage can be broken without breaking all forms of bondage. Germany, which is renowned for its thoroughness, cannot make a revolution unless it is a thorough one. The emancipation of the German is the emancipation of man. The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart the proletariat.” [emphasis in original]
Although initially limited to Germany, Marx’s analysis pointed to the emerging historical obsolescence of bourgeois revolution in general: the bourgeoisie would be unwilling to do away with the remaining vestiges of feudalism, so any revolution that aimed at the complete modernization of German society could not be led by them. Social revolution would have to take the form of proletarian revolution, although it could be facilitated by “democracy” – hence Marx’s initial view that proletarian communist forces should be an integral and hegemonic component within a broader revolutionary “democratic” (or social-democratic) movement.
Yet the shift from bourgeois to proletarian revolution was not simply a matter of which class would take the lead in clearing away the remnants of feudalism – it would have to involve a complete transformation of what a revolution meant in the modern era. The self-emancipation of the property-less proletarians, who were described in the Communist Manifesto as having “nothing to lose but their chains,” would mean the liberation of all of humanity. In setting itself against all forms of oppression, the working class lays the groundwork for undoing humanity’s “alienation” from itself, including the existence of the coercive state power standing above society. Proletarian revolution involves seizing political power in order to create the material conditions necessary to gradually dissolve compulsion in human relations by encouraging the development of an “organic,” classless society governed by the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”:
“All revolution – the overthrow of the existing ruling power and the dissolution of the old order – is a political act. But without revolution, socialism cannot be made possible. It stands in need of this political act just as it stands in need of destruction and dissolution. But as soon as its organizing functions begin and its goal, its soul emerges, socialism throws its political mask aside.”
—“Critical Notes on ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform,” July 1844
Marx’s recognition of the revolutionary capacity and historical mission of the proletariat were grounded in his acute observations of the class struggle unfolding in Germany and beyond in the mid-1840s. His critique of bourgeois political economic thought allowed him to understand how the proletariat’s singular revolutionary role was rooted in the development of capitalism itself:
“The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.”
—Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844
Marx reiterated this view a quarter century later as part of his mature elaboration of capitalism’s “laws of motion”:
“Capitalist production … reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited.…
“The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus-value, but it also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage-labourer.”
—Capital, Vol. I, 1867
The real historical development of these “laws of motion” creates the material conditions for proletarian revolution. An “era of social revolution” opens for the same reasons it did in late feudalism: the prevailing relations of production become a fetter on the further development of the productive forces. In Capital, Marx explained that the labor-saving drive of capitalist production exhibits a labor-displacing bias as the capitalists seek to reduce their dependence on an antagonistic class of proletarians. The proportion of surplus value – the form taken by society’s surplus product and the basis of profit – declines relative to the total capital advanced for production. This tendency of the average rate of profit to fall periodically pushes capitalism into severe economic crises, provoking working-class resistance and eventually revolutionary upsurges.
The ever-increasing centralization of economic power and production in the hands of a smaller number of capitalists anticipates, in a deformed fashion, the socialization of the means of production. Unlike the bourgeoisie, which was able to develop its own economic system within feudalism, the proletariat is unable to build up power which it could use to overturn the old order because the working class does not own the emerging “collectivized property” under capitalism (which still takes the form of private property). Yet Marx saw that the growing contradiction between the maintenance of bourgeois property relations and humanity’s need to continue developing the forces of production would eventually explode in an open struggle for power: “The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
Far from being an objectivist notion of proletarian revolution, Marx’s expectation that the trajectory of capitalist development pointed toward the socialization of the means of production sought to inform practical political organizing and agitation. Marx understood that the active intervention of revolutionaries was required to prepare the working class to fulfill its historic mission of seizing state power, expropriating monopoly capital and reorganizing social relations in accordance with the requirements of an egalitarian, communist mode of production.
The working class first seized power in the French revolution of March 1871, establishing the Paris Commune. In truth it was not a “French” affair, as the revolution was limited to the capital city, although sympathetic stirrings occurred in proletarian centers across the country. Indeed, this isolation was a key factor contributing to its downfall two months later. Despite its failure, the Paris Commune represented the first appearance of the dictatorship of the proletariat on the historical stage. It was in some respects an atypical transfer of power to a new social class. The working class created its own state almost by accident, in the context of a militarily defeated bourgeoisie losing control of the repressive state apparatus and abandoning Paris. Despite its failure, the Paris Commune heralded the coming birth of the age of proletarian revolution, which would be definitively marked half a century later by the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Eight months earlier, France had declared war on Prussia, which under Otto von Bismarck was attempting to unify the German states and create a powerful counterbalance to France in Europe. Within a couple of months, the German army had inflicted major defeats on its French counterpart, capturing Napoleon III (Louis Bonaparte). The masses of Paris immediately insurrected on 4 September 1870, and a bourgeois republic under the control of a Government of National Defense was declared.
The situation in 1871 was different from that of 1848 in important respects. First, the French bourgeoisie was at war and Paris under siege by the German army. Second, the population of Paris was more proletarian than it had been a generation before, though the city still had a sizable petty-bourgeois component. Third, the combination of these factors meant that the National Guard – not the regular army, but the citizens’ militia which was created by the Revolution of 1789 and which had been protecting the capital since the capitulation of the emperor – was largely proletarian in its social composition. The workers of Paris were therefore armed. Politically, the working class was led by a combination of radical democrats (many of them adherents of some form of petty-bourgeois “socialism”), socialist followers of Blanqui and supporters of the International Workingmen’s Association, also known as the First International, a multi-tendency organization that included Marx’s followers as well as anarchists. Proudhonist anarchists dominated the Parisian sections of the International, some of whom staged an uprising against the Government of National Defense on 31 October 1870, though the effort immediately failed, dispersed by armed forces including some regiments of the National Guard.
Under siege for months, Paris finally capitulated to the Germans on 28 January 1871. It was more of a defeat for bourgeois Paris than proletarian Paris: the regular army and Mobile Guards were disarmed (and many bourgeois citizens fled the capital), but the National Guard was allowed to keep its weapons under an armistice with the German forces, who were not permitted to enter the city. The National Guard was now under the control of revolutionaries and radical democrats and had become a democratic institution of the armed proletariat of Paris.
Meanwhile in Versailles, the government of Adolphe Thiers plotted to disarm the National Guard, eventually sending troops on the night of 17-18 March. National Guardsmen overwhelmed the troops, who either joined them or left the city unharmed. The population rose up, killing two captured generals. Thiers immediately evacuated the city, and what remained of the repressive apparatus of the Third Republic in the capital dissolved. Paris was now in the hands of the insurgent working class led by the Central Committee of the National Guard.
On 26 March, elections to the municipal council – known as the “commune” in French political terminology dating back to 1789 – were held on the basis of universal adult male suffrage. Given that most bourgeois citizens had fled the city, and that the elections occurred under the protection of the proletarianized National Guard, the resulting Paris Commune that met at City Hall two days later was in fact a working-class government – the first in history.
Marx and Engels had warned that an uprising would be premature but nonetheless welcomed the revolution when it came. In his introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, Engels recalled:
“On March 30 the Commune abolished conscription and the standing army, and declared that the National Guard, in which all citizens capable of bearing arms were to be enrolled, was to be the sole armed force. It remitted all payments of rent for dwelling houses from October 1870 until April, the amounts already paid to be reckoned to a future rental period, and stopped all sales of articles pledged in the municipal pawnshops. On the same day the foreigners elected to the Commune were confirmed in office, because ‘the flag of the Commune is the flag of the World Republic’.
“On April 1 it was decided that the highest salary received by any employee of the Commune, and therefore also by its members themselves, might not exceed 6,000 francs. On the following day the Commune decreed the separation of the Church from the State, and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes as well as the transformation of all Church property into national property; as a result of which, on April 8, a decree excluding from the schools all religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers – in a word, ‘all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience’ – was ordered to be excluded from the schools, and this decree was gradually applied. On the 5th, in reply to the shooting, day after day, of the Commune’s fighters captured by the Versailles troops, a decree was issued for imprisonment of hostages, but it was never carried into effect. On the 6th, the guillotine was brought out by the 137th battalion of the National Guard, and publicly burnt, amid great popular rejoicing. On the 12th, the Commune decided that the Victory Column on the Place Vend˘me, which had been cast from guns captured by Napoleon after the war of 1809, should be demolished as a symbol of chauvinism and incitement to national hatred. This decree was carried out on May 16. On April 16 the Commune ordered a statistical tabulation of factories which had been closed down by the manufacturers, and the working out of plans for the carrying on of these factories by workers formerly employed in them, who were to be organized in co-operative societies, and also plans for the organization of these co-operatives in one great union. On the 20th the Commune abolished night work for bakers, and also the workers’ registration cards, which since the Second Empire had been run as a monopoly by police nominees – exploiters of the first rank; the issuing of these registration cards was transferred to the mayors of the 20 arrondissements of Paris. On April 30, the Commune ordered the closing of the pawnshops, on the ground that they were a private exploitation of labor, and were in contradiction with the right of the workers to their instruments of labor and to credit. On May 5 it ordered the demolition of the Chapel of Atonement, which had been built in expiation of the execution of Louis XVI.”
All the old state institutions were replaced with new ones based on the working class. Positions were filled by election, and every official was paid a worker’s wage and subject to recall at any time by the electors.
Yet the leaders of the proletariat failed to understand the fundamental meaning of the creation of the Paris Commune. They did not take the decisive actions necessary to consolidate working-class power in either the military or the political sphere and limited their program to radical reforms, not even expropriating the Bank of France from which they borrowed money to run the city. In collusion with the German army which permitted it passage into the city, the French army went on the offensive and the Paris Commune eventually succumbed on 28 May 1871. Captured “Communards” were simply lined up and shot. All told, close to 20,000 revolutionaries were slaughtered as the Third Republic re-established its authority. Marx eulogized: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priests will not avail to redeem them” (The Civil War in France).
The defeat of the Paris Commune was a major blow to the cause of proletarian revolution. Other uprisings followed, including the 1873 cantonalist rebellion in Spain, but nowhere was the working class able to seize power as it had in 1871 in Paris. Instead, an era of building working-class organization in the form of mass socialist (or social-democratic) political parties and trade unions emerged in Western Europe by the last decade of the 19th century. Corresponding to the transition of capitalism to its monopolist/imperialist phase of development, the rise of these mass proletarian organizations (culminating in the formation of the Second International) represented a contradictory achievement for the proletariat. Nominally Marxist socialism had come to dominate working-class politics in many countries, but these workers’ organizations increasingly expressed reformist accommodation to the status quo. The growing bureaucratic features of the parties and trade unions rested in part on what Engels called the “aristocracy of labor,” those relatively privileged layers of the working class that received certain benefits from their bourgeoisie’s participation in the emerging imperialist world order. Within the Second International there was a vibrant left wing in every section, but nowhere was proletarian revolution on the immediate horizon.
Another generation would pass before revolution was once again on the order of the day – and this time in Russia, a bulwark of feudalist reaction throughout the 19th century. Partially to assert its growing imperial ambitions, and partly to quell civil unrest (especially within the working class), the Tsar launched a war against Japan in 1904. Although it temporarily dampened opposition to the regime, the maneuver backfired when it became clear that Russia was losing the war. A defeatist attitude sank in even amongst the bourgeoisie and peasantry, while the small, but increasingly economically important, industrial proletariat was heavily influenced by various strands of socialist thought (often under the leadership of émigré groups in Western Europe): the Menshevik and Bolshevik wings of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, as well as the Social Revolutionaries and other, smaller, socialist and/or labor currents. Liberal tendencies within the bourgeoisie and landed aristocracy grew increasingly more assertive, with speeches in the zemstvos (municipal governments), petitions and a campaign of oppositional “banquets.” Anarchist and populist “terrorist” assassinations also spread, as did peasant upheavals and workers’ strikes – in particular, a powerful strike wave beginning in December 1904 at the Putilov Ironworks factory in St. Petersburg.
On 9 January 1905, a mass of workers led by the priest Georgy Gapon marched to the Winter Palace to present the Tsar with a petition. Gapon (later revealed as a police agent) was the leader of the Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers of St. Petersburg, which had influence in the Putilov factory and elsewhere around the capital, and was attempting to channel mass proletarian discontent into a loyal campaign to beg the Tsar for economic and political reforms. Trotsky’s book 1905 outlines the contents of the petition:
“It listed everything, from unheated factories to political lawlessness in the land. It demanded amnesty, public freedoms, separation of church from state, the eight-hour working day, a fair wage, and the gradual transfer of land to the people. But at the head of everything it placed the convening of a Constituent Assembly by universal and equal suffrage.”
Instead of receiving the petition (let alone meeting its demands), the Tsarist administration ordered the police to fire on the demonstrators, hundreds of whom were slaughtered in what became known as Bloody Sunday. The repression unleashed a torrent of outrage. Illusions in the “Little Father” (the term of reverential endearment the masses had for the Tsar) shattered immediately. A revolutionary situation erupted and quickly spread from St. Petersburg to industrial centers across the empire, where general strikes were declared.
Over the course of the following six months, the Tsar attempted to appease the insurgent working class by offering hollow concessions such as the creation of a merely consultative State Duma (parliament) of the Russian Empire. The bourgeoisie was pushed into the camp of opposition to the regime, which was proving itself unable to contain the unrest and restore conditions for profit-making. Trotsky writes:
“Capital was disillusioned with the panacea of police repression, which is like a rope that lashes at the living bodies of the workers with one end and whacks the industrialists’ pockets with the other; and so it arrived at the solemn conclusion that the peaceful course of capitalist exploitation needed a liberal regime.”
In January and February 1905, approximately a million workers were on strike in the mines, factories and railroads across the Tsarist Empire. Radical elements in the armed forces plotted rebellion, the most notable example of which was the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin in June. Rank-and-file sailors in the Imperial Navy had been planning an insurrection for July, but the crew of the Potemkin rose up prematurely after their officers had attempted to force them to eat maggot-infested meat. A heroic confrontation ensued, as sailors on ships sent to defeat the Potemkin either sabotaged their commanders’ efforts or themselves mutinied. The ship initially headed for Odessa, where a general strike was underway, but later decided on Romania, where the crew surrendered.
The most explosive period of revolutionary unrest began three months later in October, when, despite lack of central coordination, an huge strike wave swept the empire. Trotsky describes the events:
“The strike began confidently to take over the country. It finally bade farewell to indecision. The self-confidence of its participants grew together with their number. Revolutionary class claims were advanced ahead of the economic claims of separate trades. Having broken out of its local and trade boundaries, the strike began to feel that it was a revolution – and so acquired unprecedented daring.”
“It followed a grandiose plan – that of halting industrial and commercial life in the country at large – and in following this plan it did not overlook a single detail. Where the telegraph refused to serve it, it cut the wires or overturned the telegraph poles. It halted railway engines and let off their steam. It brought the electric power stations to a standstill, and where this was difficult it damaged electric cables and plunged railway stations into darkness. Where it met stubborn resistance, it did not hesitate to disrupt lines, break signals, overturn engines, put obstacles across lines or place railway carriages across bridges. It penetrated into lift systems and stopped the hoisting winches. It halted goods trains wherever it found them, while passenger trains were usually run to the nearest junction or to the place of destination.
“Only for its own purposes did the strike allow itself to break the vow of immobility. When it needed news bulletins of the revolution it opened a printing works; it used the telegraph to send out strike instructions; it let trains carrying strikers’ delegates pass.
“Nothing else was exempt: the strike closed down industrial plants, chemists’ and grocers’ shops, courts of law, everything.”
Political general strikes were proclaimed in every major city across Russia between 10 and 17 October. In many cities in the south, the workers threw up barricades and seized weapons. More importantly, they created a novel institution: councils of workers’ representatives, known as soviets. The first soviet was organized by striking factory workers in the industrial city of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, but the practice quickly spread, most significantly to St. Petersburg:
“The Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies was constituted on October 14, 1905, and had a career of fifty days. Its first president was Khrustalev-Nosar, a radical lawyer, who joined the Menshevik wing of the Social-Democratic Party during the period of the Soviet. The Soviet quickly acquired an organization, issued a weekly newspaper (the Izvestiya Soveta Rabochikh, ancestor of the more famous Izvestiya of 1917), and at its height numbered some 550 delegates, representing 250,000 workers. The most prominent social-democrat in its ranks was Trotsky, who quickly emerged as an energetic and resourceful leader and, when Khrustalev-Nosar was arrested at the end of November 1905, became its president for the last few days of its existence.”
—Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917-1923, Vol. 1
Trotsky was the first prominent socialist leader to return to Russia from exile, having arrived in February 1905. Organizationally, he stood between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks, though politically he was much closer to the latter. Trotsky’s political authority rose in the working class due to tireless application of his clear-sighted revolutionary orientation. Lenin remained in exile until November 1905, and the Bolshevik leaders on the ground often proved themselves inept and sectarian – they tended to view the soviets as competitors to the party and did not understand their historical significance.
In the face of the revolutionary turn in the working class, the liberal bourgeoisie retreated back into the arms of the autocracy and on 17 October worked out a deal for a reform program that granted political freedoms and the franchise and called elections to an authoritative State Duma. The strike wave subsided – the Petersburg Soviet, following Trotsky’s advice, called off the general strike. Trotsky famously tore up the Tsar’s “manifesto” at a mass meeting outside the University of St. Petersburg, warning the crowd that the liberties granted by the emperor would have to be enforced by the workers.
Near the end of October, the Tsar placed Poland – then in rebellion – under a state of siege and announced that Kronstadt sailors would be court-martialed. In response, the Petersburg Soviet called a new general strike, though Trotsky was soon arguing to bring it to an end. Despite its important victories, the working class was still too weak to overthrow the government and replace it with its own rule, and Trotsky was keenly aware of the need not to rush unprepared into decisive battle. The new administration under Count Witte reinstated press censorship and arrested some of the leaders of the Soviet, including Khrustalev-Nosar, in late November. As Isaac Deutscher writes in The Prophet Armed:
“Once again the Soviet was faced with the familiar dilemma. The Social Revolutionaries pressed for reprisals against the Tsar’s ministers. Others preferred to retort by a general strike. The Social Democrats were on principle opposed to terroristic reprisals; and they were wary of calling another general strike. Once again it fell to the exuberant Trotsky to plead for cool-headedness and for a further postponement of the final trial of strength. He submitted a motion proposing that ‘the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies temporarily elect a new chairman and continue to prepare for an armed rising’. The Soviet accepted Trotsky’s recommendation and elected a three-headed Presidium, consisting of Yanovsky (this was Trotsky’s cover name), Sverchkov, and Zlydniev. The preparations for the rising which Trotsky had mentioned had so far been less than rudimentary: two delegates had been sent to establish contact with provincial Soviets. The sinews of insurrection were lacking.”
The government moved to liquidate the St. Petersburg Soviet on 3 December 1905, arresting Trotsky and the other leaders. In response, Moscow workers called a general strike, erecting barricades and battling the police for 10 days before being defeated. Revolts occurred throughout the country in December 1905 and January 1906, but they were put down through a combination of police repression and the violence of the proto-fascist Black Hundreds. The revolution – really a prolonged revolutionary crisis ending in a failed revolution – came to an end.
Trotsky and others referred to 1905 as the “dress rehearsal” for the Russian Revolution of 1917. Trotsky wrote in The History of the Russian Revolution:
“The events of 1905 were a prologue to the two revolutions of 1917, that of February and that of October. In the prologue all the elements of the drama were included, but not carried through. The Russo-Japanese war had made tzarism totter. Against the background of a mass movement the liberal bourgeoisie had frightened the monarchy with its opposition. The workers had organised independently of the bourgeoisie, and in opposition to it, in soviets, a form of organisation then first called into being. Peasant uprisings to seize the land occurred throughout vast stretches of the country. Not only the peasants, but also the revolutionary parts of the army tended toward the soviets, which at the moment of highest tension openly disputed the power with the monarchy. However, all the revolutionary forces were then going into action for the first time, lacking experience and confidence. The liberals demonstratively backed away from the revolution exactly at the moment when it became clear that to shake tzarism would not be enough, it must be overthrown. This sharp break of the bourgeoisie with the people, in which the bourgeoisie carried with it considerable circles of the democratic intelligentsia, made it easier for the monarchy to differentiate within the army, separating out the loyal units, and to make a bloody settlement with the workers and peasants. Although with a few broken ribs, tzarism came out of the experience of 1905 alive and strong enough.”
More than in any previous upheaval, the revolutionaries of 1905 debated the social character and corresponding political strategies of the revolution on a high theoretical level. Shortly before Bloody Sunday, Trotsky, influenced by the Russian émigré theorist Parvus and drawing on the ideas advanced by Marx and Engels in 1850, had already sketched out the basic elements of what would become his theory of “permanent revolution.” The theory began from the premise that the importance of the proletariat meant that an anti-feudal revolution in Russia would take a different form, as Trotsky subsequently explained in The History of the Russian Revolution:
“Not only England of the seventeenth century, but also France of the eighteenth had no proletariat in the modern sense. In Russia, however, the working class in all branches of labour, both city and village, numbered in 1905 no less than 10 million, which with their families amounts to more than 25 million – that is to say, more than the whole population of France in the epoch of the great revolution. Advancing from the sturdy artisans and independent peasants of the army of Cromwell – through the sansculottes of Paris – to the industrial proletarians of St. Petersburg, the revolution had deeply changed its social mechanism, its methods, and therewith its aims.”
Opinion among Marxists was split during and after the 1905 Revolution into three distinct views: the Menshevik, the Bolshevik and Trotsky’s. All agreed that the Russian proletariat would have to play an important role in the coming revolution to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy, and that the social character of the revolution would be “bourgeois” insofar as it would have to establish democracy, destroy the remaining elements of feudalism, institute land reform and recognize national rights. They differed over the questions of which social class or classes would lead the revolution and the social nature of the regime it would create.
The Mensheviks concluded that the liberal bourgeoisie would have to play the leading role and expected it to follow the model of 1789 by convoking a constituent assembly and sweeping away the remnants of feudalism, opening the door to the political and economic “modernization” of Russia. After a long period of subsequent industrial capitalist development, the social weight of the working class would grow while that of the petty-bourgeois peasantry shrank, and eventually socialist revolution would be on the agenda.
The Menshevik conception required that the working class, represented by the Social Democratic party, would not enter into a revolutionary government but instead serve as a loyal opposition aiming “to stir bourgeois democracy to political life, to push it forward and to radicalize bourgeois society” (Martynov, cited in Carr). Although they admitted the possibility that a European socialist revolution might create conditions in which the working class could take power in Russia even before a bourgeois revolution, in practice the Mensheviks never had a view of a proletarian seizure of power because they did not think revolution in the West was likely in the immediate future. They thus sought to politically subordinate the working class to the liberal bourgeoisie.
The Bolsheviks adopted a radically different perspective. They viewed the Russian bourgeoisie as counterrevolutionary, too connected to the aristocracy and too fearful of an agrarian peasant revolution and the independent actions of the working class to be capable of leading the bourgeois revolution. That task would fall to the working class in alliance with the peasantry. Lenin captured this with the (algebraic) slogan of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” which would overthrow the old order, establish a republic and bring in land reform. Acknowledging that the numerically dominant peasantry had no interest in creating socialism, the Bolsheviks knew that a “democratic dictatorship” with that class would not be of indefinite duration. Sooner, rather than later, the working class would have to prepare to fight for its own independent interests through a socialist revolution.
In Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, written in the summer of 1905, Lenin argued that the creation of the revolutionary “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in Russia “will enable us to rouse Europe; after throwing off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, the socialist proletariat of Europe will in its turn help us to accomplish the socialist revolution.” The interval between the bourgeois and the socialist revolution might be so short that it would constitute an “uninterrupted” process akin to that sketched by Marx and Engels in 1850. Indeed, as Carr points out, Lenin used the Russian word for “uninterrupted,” nepreryvnaya, interchangeable in this context with permanentnaya, “permanent” – in an article in September 1905: “from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way” (“Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement”). In practice, the Bolsheviks’ perspective was one of resolute hostility to all shades of liberalism combined with the political preparation of the working class for socialist revolution.
During 1905, Trotsky went beyond Parvus’ initial projection of the possibility of the working class coming to power on its own at the head of the bourgeois revolution. Trotsky saw not only that the revolution would have to be made by the proletariat but that, once in power, the proletariat could not stop at solving the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Instead, the socialist revolution would immediately grow out of the bourgeois revolution under these conditions. This theory of permanent revolution was superior to Lenin’s perspective in two important respects. First, it obliterated any suggestion of different “stages” of the coming revolution by exposing the absurdity of what Trotsky called the bourgeois “self-limitation” by the proletariat once in power (1905). Second, it argued that the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was an impossibility since the working class, having taken state power, would have to encroach on bourgeois property rights and exercise its own dictatorship if it was to survive. Trotsky believed that any elements of the petty bourgeoisie, including the peasantry, that participated in the revolutionary regime would do so on the terms of the proletariat:
“One may, of course, describe such a government as the dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, a dictatorship of the proletariat, peasantry and intelligentsia, or even a coalition government of the working class and the petty-bourgeoisie, but the question nevertheless remains: who is to wield the hegemony in the government itself, and through it in the country? And when we speak of a workers’ government, by this we reply that the hegemony should belong to the working class.”
—Results and Prospects
Trotsky later summarized his theory as follows:
“[T]he complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is conceivable only in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, leaning on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which would inevitably place on the order of the day not only democratic but socialistic tasks as well, would at the same time give a powerful impetus to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West could protect Russia from bourgeois restoration and assure it the possibility of rounding out the establishment of socialism.”
—“Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution”
Trotsky’s perspective paralleled Marx and Engels’ observations regarding the inability of the bourgeoisie in mid-19th century Europe to mimic the French bourgeoisie of 1789. His theory of permanent revolution grew out of his analysis of the “peculiarities of Russian historical development,” particularly the fact that the economic backwardness of the Tsarist Empire compelled the state not only to promote domestic capitalist development but also to welcome economic penetration by the more advanced capitalist countries of Western Europe. The initial elaboration of permanent revolution was thus grounded in Trotsky’s understanding of the combined and uneven development of Russian capitalism.
Later, in his analysis of revolutionary upheaval in China in the 1920s, Trotsky generalized his theory of permanent revolution to all backward countries in the age of imperialism – the monopoly capital phase of the bourgeois mode of production, which had demonstrated definitively its historic obsolescence in the mass destruction of productive forces during World War I. The Russian Revolution of October 1917 had announced to the world that the era of the revolutionary bourgeoisie was over. Henceforth, proletarian socialist revolution – and only proletarian socialist revolution – was on the historical agenda.
Next: Part IV: The Lessons of October