The Lessons of the Great Year
"This essay was published in a New York Russian newspaper on January 20th, 1917, less than two months before the Second Russian Revolution. Trotsky then lived in New York. The essay shows how his contempt, even hatred, for the liberal parties in Russia had grown since 1905-6." - M. J. OLGIN
Revolutionary anniversaries are not only days for reminiscence, they are days for summing up revolutionary experiences, especially for us Russians. Our history has not been rich. Our so-called “national originality” consisted in being poor, ignorant, uncouth. It was the revolution of 1905 that first opened before us the great highway of political progress. On January 9th the workingman of Petersburg knocked at the gate of the Winter Palace. On January 9th the entire Russian people knocked at the gate of history.
The crowned janitor did not respond to the knock. Nine months later, however, on October 17th, he was compelled to open the heavy gate of absolutism. Notwithstanding all the efforts of bureaucracy, a little slit stayed open – forever.
The revolution was defeated. The same old forces and almost the same figures now rule Russia that ruled her twelve years ago. Yet the revolution has changed Russia beyond recognition. The kingdom of stagnation, servitude, vodka and humbleness has become a kingdom of fermentation, criticism, fight. Where once there was a shapeless dough – the impersonal, formless people, “Holy Russia,” – now social classes consciously oppose each other, political parties have sprung into existence, each with its program and methods of struggle. January 9th opens a new Russian history.
It is a line marked by the blood of the people. There is no way back from this line to Asiatic Russia, to the cursed practices of former generations. There is no way back. There will never be.
Not the liberal bourgeoisie, not the democratic groups of the lower bourgeoisie, not the radical intellectuals, not the millions of Russian peasants, but the Russian proletariat has by its struggle started the new era in Russian history. This is basic. On the foundation of this fact we, Social-Democrats, have built our conceptions and our tactics.
On January 9th it was the priest Gapon who happened to be at the head of the Petersburg workers, – a fantastic figure, a combination of adventurer, hysterical enthusiast and impostor. His priest’s robe was the last link that then connected the workingmen with the past, with “Holy Russia.” Nine months later, in the course of the October strike, the greatest political strike history has ever seen, there was at the head of the Petersburg workingmen their own elective self-governing organization – the Council of Workmen’s Deputies. It contained many a workingman who had been on Gapon’s staff, – nine months of revolution had made those men grow, as they made grow the entire working class which the Soviet represented.
In the first period of the revolution, the activities of the proletariat were met with sympathy, even with support from liberal society. The Milukovs hoped the proletariat would punch absolutism and make it more inclined to compromise with the bourgeoisie. Yet absolutism, for centuries the only ruler of the people, was in no haste to share its power with the liberal parties. In October, 1905, the bourgeoisie learned that it could not obtain power before the back-bone of Tzarism was broken. This blessed thing could, evidently, be accomplished only by a victorious revolution. But the revolution put the working class in the foreground, it united it and solidified it not only in its struggle against Tzarism, but also in its struggle against capital. The result was that each new revolutionary step of the proletariat in October, November and December, the time of the Soviet, moved the liberals more and more in the direction of the monarchy. The hopes for revolutionary co6peration between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat turned out a hopeless Utopia. Those who had not seen it then and had not understood it later, those who still dream of a “national” uprising against Tzarism, do not understand the revolution. For them class struggle is a sealed book.
At the end of 1905 the question became acute. The monarchy had learned by experience that the bourgeoisie would not support the proletariat in a decisive battle. The monarchy then decided to move against the proletariat with all its forces. The bloody days of December followed. The Council of Workmen’s Deputies was arrested by the Ismailovski regiment which remained loyal to Tzarism. The answer of the proletariat was momentous: the strike in Petersburg, the insurrection in Moscow, the storm of revolutionary movements in all industrial centers, the insurrection on the Caucasas and in the Lettish provinces.
The revolutionary movement was crushed. Many a poor “Socialist” readily concluded from our December defeats that a revolution in Russia was impossible without the support of the bourgeoisie. If this be true, it would only mean that a revolution in Russia is impossible.
Our upper industrial bourgeoisie, the only class possessing actual power, is separated from the proletariat by an insurmountable barrier of class hatred, and it needs the monarchy as a pillar of order. The Gutchkovs, Krestovnikovs and Ryabushinskys cannot fail to see in the proletariat their mortal foe.
Our middle and lower industrial and commercial bourgeoisie occupies a very insignificant place in the economic life of the country, and is all entangled in the net of capital. The Milukovs, the leaders of the lower middle class, are successful only in so far as they represent the interests of the upper bourgeoisie. This is why the Cadet leader called the revolutionary banner a “red rag”; this is why he declared, after the beginning of the war, that if a revolution were necessary to secure victory over Germany, he would prefer no victory at all.
Our peasantry occupies a tremendous place in Russian life. In 1905 it was shaken to its deepest foundations. The peasants were driving out their masters, setting estates on fire, seizing the land from the landlords. Yes, the curse of the peasantry is that it is scattered, disjointed, backward. Moreover, the interests of the various peasant groups do not coincide. The peasants arose and fought adroitly against their local slave-holders, yet they stopped in reverence before the all-Russian slave-holder. The sons of the peasants in the army did not understand that the workingmen were shedding their blood not only for their own sake, but also for the sake of the peasants. The army was an obedient tool in the hands of Tzarism. It crushed the labor revolution in December 1905.
Whoever thinks about the experiences of 1905, whoever draws a line from that year to the present time, must see how utterly lifeless and pitiful are the hopes of our Social-Patriots for revolutionary cobperation between the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie.
During the last twelve years big capital has made great conquests in Russia. The middle and lower bourgeoisie has become still more dependent upon the banks and trusts. The working class, which had grown in numbers since 1905, is now separated from the bourgeoisie by a deeper abyss than before. If a “national” revolution was a failure twelve years ago, there is still less hope for it at present.
It is true in the last years that the cultural and political level of the peasantry has become higher. However, there is less hope now for a revolutionary uprising of the peasantry as a whole than there was twelve years ago. The only ally of the urban proletariat may be the proletarian and half-proletarian strata of the village.
But, a skeptic may ask, is there then any, hope for a victorious revolution in Russia under these circumstances?
One thing is clear – if a revolution comes, it will not be a result of cooperation between capital and labor. The experiences of 1905 show that this is a miserable Utopia. To acquaint himself with those experiences, to study them is the duty of every thinking working-man who is anxious to avoid tragic mistakes. It is in this sense that we have said that revolutionary anniversaries are not only days for reimniscences, but also days for summing up revolutionary experiences.