On October 17, the Tsarist government, covered in the blood and curses of centuries, capitulated before the revolutionary strike of the working masses. No efforts at restoration can rub out this fact from the history books. The sacred crown of the Tsar’s absolutism bears forever the trace of the proletarian’s boot.
Both in the internal and the external struggle, the herald of Tsarist capitulation was Count Witte. A plebeian parvenu among the noble ranks of the upper bureaucracy, closed, like all bureaucrats, to the influence of any general ideas or political and moral principles, Witte held an advantage over his rivals precisely because, as a parvenu, he was not bound by the traditions of the court, the nobility or the cavalry stables. This fact helped him to develop into the ideal bureaucrat, free not only from nationality, religion, conscience, and honor, but also from caste prejudice. The same fact made him more responsive to the elementary demands of capitalist development. Among the hereditary imbeciles of the cavalry regiments he appeared as a statesman of genius.
Count Witte’s constitutional career was built wholly on revolution. For ten years the autocracy’s uncontrolled bookkeeper and cashier, he was relegated in 1902 by his antagonist, Plehve, to the powerless post of chairman of the pre-revolutionary committee of ministers. When Plehve himself had been “retired” by a terrorist’s bomb, Witte, with the help of obliging journalists, began to put himself forward, not without success, in the role of Russia’s savior. It used to be said, with suitably grave mien, that he supported all Svyatopolk-Mirsky’s liberal steps. Confronted with defeats in the East he perspicaciously shook his head. On the eve of January 9 he told the terrified liberals: “You know that power is not mine." In that way terrorist assaults, Japanese victories, and revolutionary events cleared the path before him. From Portsmouth, where he had signed a treaty dictated by the world stock exchange and its political agents, he returned in triumph. Anyone might have thought that not Marshal Oyama but he, Witte, had won all the victories in the Asian East. The attention of the entire bourgeois world was centered on this providential man. The Paris Matin exhibited in its window a piece of blotting paper which Witte had used to blot his signature at Portsmouth. Everything thenceforth attracted the interest of the rubbernecks of public opinion: his tremendous height, his shapeless trousers, even his half-sunken nose. His audience with the Emperor Wilhelm confirmed still further his aureole of a statesman of the highest rank.
On the other hand, his conspiratorial chat with the émigré Struve testified to his success in taming the seditious liberals. The bankers were thrilled: here was a man who would make sure that interest was punctually paid. On his return to Russia, Witte resumed his powerless post with apparent confidence, made liberal speeches in the committee and, obviously gambling on revolution, called a deputation of railwaymen on strike “the country’s finest forces.” He was not mistaken in his calculations: the October strike raised him to the post of autocratic minister of constitutional Russia.
In his programmatic “Most Loyal Report” Witte struck his highest liberal note. The report tries to rise above the court lackey’s, the fiscal bureaucrat’s point of view, and to achieve the heights of political generalization. It recognizes that the unrest which is gripping the country is not simply the result of incitement but is due to the disturbed balance between the ideological aspirations of Russia’s “thinking public” and the outward forms of its life. But if one forgets for a moment the intellectual level of the milieu within which and for which the report was written, if one takes it as the program of a statesman, one cannot but be struck by the paltriness of its thought, the cowardly evasiveness of its form and the pathetic bureaucratic inadequacy of its language. The statements concerning public freedoms are made in a form whose vagueness is merely underlined by the energy of the limiting explanations.
Summoning up the courage to take the initiative of constitutional reform, Witte does not pronounce the word “constitution.” He hopes to bring it about in practice without anybody noticing, because his power rests on the support of those who cannot bear to hear its name. But to do this he needs a period of calm. He declares that although arrests, confiscations, and shootings will still be carried out on the basis of the old laws, they will henceforth be carried out "in the spirit" of the manifesto of October 17. With his trickster’s simplemindedness he hoped that the revolution would immediately capitulate before his liberalism, just as, the day before, the autocracy had capitulated before the revolution. In this he was severely mistaken.
Witte came to power as a result of the victory, or rather of the incomplete nature of the victory, of the October strike. But the same conditions put him into an absolutely hopeless position from the very start. The revolution proved insufficiently strong to destroy the old machinery of the state and construct a new one out of the elements of its own organization. The army continued to remain in the same hands. All the old administrators, from governor to village policeman, who had been originally selected to serve the needs of the autocracy, remained in their posts. Likewise, all the old laws remained inviolate pending the issuing of new ones. Thus absolutism as a material fact was preserved in its entirety. It was preserved even as a name, since the word “samoderzhets” – autocrat – was not removed from the Tsar’s title. True, the authorities were ordered to apply the laws of absolutism “in the spirit” of October 17. But this was the same as telling Falstaff to lead his dissolute life “in the spirit” of chastity.
As a result, the local autocrats of Russia’s sixty satrapies completely lost their heads. They trailed in the wake of revolutionary demonstrations and saluted the red flag, they parodied Gessler and insisted that the population should take off their hats before them because they represented His Majesty’s sacred person, they allowed the social democrats to march at the head of troops going to take the oath, they openly organized counterrevolutionary beatings. Complete anarchy reigned. No legislative authority existed, and it was not even known when and how such an authority would be set up.
Doubt as to whether the Duma would ever be convened increased. And above all this chaos there hung Count Witte, trying to deceive both Peterhof and the revolution and succeeding most of all, perhaps, in deceiving himself. He received endless deputations, both radical and reactionary, was equally courteous with both, developed his plans incoherently in front of Western correspondents, wrote daily government communiqués tearfully admonishing high-school boys not to participate in anti-governmental demonstrations and recommending to all schoolboys and all classes of society that they pull themselves together and return to work. In short, he completely lost his head.
On the other hand, the counter-revolutionary elements of the bureaucracy were hard at work. They had learned to value the support of “public forces,” were calling pogrom organizations into being everywhere and, ignoring the official bureaucratic hierarchy, were organizing themselves into a unified body, having their own man – Durnovo – inside the cabinet itself. This most foul specimen of the Russian bureaucracy’s foul mores, this thievish official whom even the unforgettable Alexander III himself was obliged to throw out with the energetic words: “remove this swine,” this Durnovo was now brought out of the rubbish bin to provide a counterweight to the “liberal” Prime Minister in the capacity of Minister of Home Affairs.
Witte accepted this collaboration—an indignity even to someone like himself—and, presently, it reduced his own role to the same fictitious level as the actual practice of the bureaucracy reduced the manifesto of October 17. Having published a wearisome series of liberal-bureaucratic commonplaces, Witte arrived at the conclusion that Russian society was bereft of elementary political sense, moral strength, and social instincts. He became convinced of his own bankruptcy and foresaw the inevitability of a bloody policy of reprisals as a “preparation” for the introduction of a new regime. But he did not consider himself destined to implement such a policy, lacking the “necessary capabilities,” and promised to cede his place to another person. Here, too, he proved a liar. He was to retain his post of powerless premier, despised by all, throughout the period of December and January, while Durnovo, the master of the situation, rolled up his sleeves and got on with his bloody work as the counter-revolution’s butcher.