A Mistaken Take on Revolutionary Strategy, the Case of 1905

Capitalism is drenched from head to foot in the blood of the working class. This is one reason why socialists believe that if we are to rid ourselves of this murderous system then we must mobilise the full weight of our class against all our oppressors: mass revolutionary struggle is the order of the day. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the capitalist class will use always use violence to defend their pernicious system from democratic accountability. So, if we are serious about cleansing our world of a political system that looks more favourably upon fascism than socialism, workers must be able to defend themselves while struggling for this change.

To date the most important revolutionary movement that wrested power from the powerful and placed it firmly in the hands of organised workers was the Russian Revolution of October 1917. As such critical lessons can be learned from this historic event. First off, we should note that the transfer of power to the Russian masses is commonly disparaged by its ideological opponents as representing a coup d’état that was carried through by a small band of revolutionaries. This is a lie: because the October Revolution’s success was built upon the power of a genuine mass movement of millions. Secondly, the Revolution is presented by its critics as an act of violent bloodletting when it was nothing of the sort. The real violence came through the capitalist counterrevolution. Rather than let Russia’s democratic workers’ state remain intact, more than twenty foreign states unleashed a vicious civil war on the Russian people.

Violence on trial

In recent years one of the most influential books to create a false equivalence between state violence and the determined resistance of armed workers is Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-violent Conflict (St Martin’s Press, 2015). Written by two State Department theoreticians, this mammoth tome celebrates a hundred years of mass struggles for justice – which, as the authors admit, have taken place against a backdrop of “wars, genocide, carpet bombing, and terror”. Their book’s primary objective, however, is highly problematic, as the authors seek to convince their readers that capitalist democracy is the only remedy for oppression, and that non-violent tactics alone are the most effective method for ensuring such change.

Perhaps of most interest to socialists, the first (and longest) chapter of A Force More Powerful deals with the Russian Revolution of 1905. Lenin famously referred to this titanic year of struggle like this: “Without the ‘dress rehearsal’ of 1905, the victory of the October Revolution in 1917 would have been impossible.” Ackerman and DuVall beg to differ and summarise this mass uprising like this:

“When Lenin wrote from Geneva before the march [led by Father Gapon] on the Winter Palace [in January 1905] that the people had to be armed to secure their liberty, he would soon be disproved, as strikes and nonviolent resistance frustrated the regime at almost every turn and opened the way for constitutional change. But he and his party went right on believing it.

“The Marxists were wrong, of course. The sponsors of violence in 1905 derailed the Russian people’s first genuine assertion of democratic power in their history. Moreover, violence in 1905 sowed the seeds for violence in 1917, creating then a new regime dedicated even more systematically than the Tsar’s to violence as the basis for state power.”

But it is Ackerman and DuVall who are wrong, of course. The sponsors of the violence in 1917 were the capitalists. In the five years succeeding the revolution the armies of more than twenty foreign nations waged a bloody civil war that decimated the fledging workers’ state, liquidating millions of lives and depleting the revolutionary state of most of their leading activists. It was this ultra-violence that helped lay the groundwork for Stalin’s eventual seizure of power and the flourishing of Stalin’s anti-democratic regime. With Stalin’s betrayal of socialist ideals being encouraged by capitalist elites but bravely resisted by real revolutionaries like Leon Trotsky and thousands of others who made up the Left Opposition. Yet genuine Marxists, following in the tradition of Trotsky, have always been clear that there can be no political short-cuts on the path to socialism. The only way for the working-class to assume power is when they themselves rise-up in their millions to smash our chains of capitalist exploitation.

The authors of A Force More Powerful as forthright defenders of capitalisms global beneficence have set themselves the unenviable task of falsifying history by proving that nonviolence is the only force capable of extracting meaningful reforms from violent elites. “Tyrants were toppled, governments were overthrown, occupying armies were impeded, and political systems that withheld human rights were shattered,” all successes that were apparently obtained through nonviolent collection action alone. Furthermore, what Ackerman and DuVall refuse to mention is that most of the case studies provided in their book demonstrate how the working-class have been forced to topple violent capitalist-backed dictatorships.

Of police unions and nonviolence

In setting out their pacifying history of social change, A Force More Powerful begins with a forensic, if deeply flawed, interpretation of the 1905 revolution — a historic event which in the hands of Ackerman and DuVall places overwhelming emphasis on the role of a single act of mass nonviolence that kicked off an epic year of struggle. They surmise: “In 1905 an Orthodox priest, Georgii Gapon, persuaded 150,000 workers to walk the icy streets of Russia’s ancient capital in the century’s first public challenge to autocratic power. He ignited mass action nationwide that led to the country’s first popularly elected national parliament.” But herein lies the first example of the authors nonviolent distortions: first off, this was not the centuries first public action challenging the Tsar’s despotism, the entire country of 150 million people had been in turmoil for decades. And second, while it is true that this mass act of civil disobedience did ignite a revolutionary upsurge, the result of that year of bloody struggle was the creation of a toothless parliament with the Tsar still safely ensconced at its helm. The other major response of the Russian state to the 1905 uprising was to release a new wave of terror upon the masses, cojoined by a new wave of anti-Jewish pogroms. That is why the real victory for workers came not after this first struggle for emancipation, but after the subsequent waves of mass resistance that finally allowed workers to take power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, after getting off to an inaccurate start, the opening chapter of the book does go some way towards correcting itself. It begins by foregrounding the immense violence of the Tsar’s Christian fiefdom, noting how governors of the state “could order anyone detained without trial, and associations or clubs of the most innocent kind could be forbidden. Autocracy, in short, meant that there were no rights.” Yes, in the preceding decades ordinary people had attempted “to liberate the country from absolutism” but to no avail. Some of these underground groups in desperation therefore turned to acts of individual terror, with a focus on assassinating political opponents. And as Ackerman and DuVall observe, “a new terrorist group, the ‘Battle Organization’ of the Socialist Revolutionary (SR) Party, had become active after the turn of the century.” In their next sentence however, the authors correctly acknowledge that genuine Marxists – like those in the tradition of the leaders of the October 1917 revolution — rejected such terroristic tactics. They write: “Other radicals rejected terrorism and tried instead to organize peasants or workers for popular uprisings. Marxist ideas tempted many young people, and socialists had agitated among workers in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere since the 1890s.”

With the Tsar inhabiting an alternative universe imbued with the tradition of plebian bloodletting, it is understandable why the head of the Russian Empire felt his authoritarian rule would remain immune from the organising efforts of the masses. But other members of the ruling-class were more cognisant of the growing threat posed by ordinary people and “feared that the state would lose ground to revolutionaries in the battle for workers’ allegiance.” “Strikes in St. Petersburg, and the involvement of Marxist activists in organizing them,” thus had a clarifying effect upon the minds of those few ruler’s conscious of this growing democratic threat. This led Sergei Zubatov, who was the head of the political police in Moscow, to set out to undermine the Marxists’ in a novel way by creating “state-sponsored mutual aid societies” which were run “under the supervision of police agents.”

By 1902 Zubatov had been transferred to St. Petersburg which soon brought him into a working relationship with the now famous Father Gapon. The priest was not altogether stupid and saw the limitations of Zubatov’s police-centred approach — which for obvious reasons did not engender the trust of most workers — and subsequently he created a more sophisticated version of such police unions. In late 1903 Gapon thus chose to launch his Assembly of Russian Factory and Mill Workers having “convinced officials…to keep the police out of day-to-day operations of the Assembly.” In contrast to genuine democratic organs of the working-class, however, it is critical to note that this new Assembly was under the total and conspiratorial control of just one person, Father Gapon.

Igniting a revolution: the nonviolence of Bloody Sunday

With the working-class striving for their collective freedom from despotism, the priest’s efforts to provide a pro-Tsarist alternative to democratically-run trade unions were never going to be easy for one person to control, and soon Gapon’s work to misdirect the working-class became overwhelmed by the democratic impulses of his deeply frustrated members. “In early December four Assembly members who worked at the giant Putilov metal factory, the largest industrial plant in Russia, were fired or threatened with firing.” This attack had the effect of forcing Gapon’s hand, because if he couldn’t convince the employer to reinstate his members, he would lose the trust of the thousands of the members of his now powerful Assembly. The bullying factory bosses were evidently not as politically sophisticated as the priest and so refused to reinstate the four workers. And although under Gapon’s pacifying leadership the Assembly had made a principle out of opposing all strikes, events soon overtook the priest, such that the “only thing left was the sanction of last resort: a strike.” Now the workers added more demands, demands that Gapon’s Assembly had adopted as a direct result of the influence of former Marxist organisers who had helped popularise the work of the Assembly. Aleksei Karelin, for instance, succeeded in pushing forward socialist demands within the Assembly, having already helped fill-out the ranks of the Assembly because of the “’unshakeable authority’ [he maintained] among the city’s factory workers”.

“On Sunday, January 2, 6,000 Putilov workers met at the Assembly’s Narva branch and voted to strike the next day to protest the firings. By Tuesday they had closed down the plant and idled over 12,000 workers. Their demands: rehiring the fired workers, a board of workers’ representatives to oversee pay rates, an eight-hour day, the end of overtime work, and free medical care. Putilov strikers began to make the rounds of other factories, and by the end of the week, over 110,000 workers at more than 400 factories in St. Petersburg had joined the strike.”

Still, with no sign of the bosses backing down, and with the credibility of his Assembly at stake, Gapon, under the pressure of events beyond his control now felt compelled to declare that he would lead a peaceful march on the Winter Palace. And it was on this march that he planned to present a petition to the Tsar that demanded justice for all workers. Gapon it seems believed that the Tsar would have to listen — after all he wasn’t demanding a revolution, quite the contrary, his Assembly had always actively supported the Tsar’s rule. But the 150,000 strong protest, as we now know – which took place on Sunday, January 9 — and was tragically drowned in the blood of workers… hence its name, Bloody Sunday.

In the events leading up to this historic protest Marxists had warned their fellow workers that the peaceful march would be repressed, so they had urged attendees that they should be prepared to defend themselves if necessary. But with Gapon’s influence in ascendence among the masses, revolutionaries lost this important argument, and with much trepidation these same Marxists joined the march that was headed towards inevitable state violence. The result: by the end of the day, hundreds, if not thousands, lay slaughtered in the streets, but a revolution had been ignited.

“Making hollow the Tsar’s claim that he adored his people, the regime’s violence on Bloody Sunday accomplished what revolutionary agitation could not. The hope of St. Petersburg’s workers that their ruler heard their cries for justice or would act on their behalf was ravaged. No one voiced his outrage more plainly than Father Gapon.”

At an emergency meeting held on the night of the massacre, Gapon, now disguised to present his arrest “shouted out, ‘Peaceful means have failed! … Now we must go over to other means!’” However, when the violent-minded priest (now shorn of his familiar beard) “was recognized, the meeting flew into an uproar, and he fled through the back door—and then into foreign exile, no longer part of the movement he had helped create.”

When a priest allies with terrorists

Although not discussed by the authors of A Force More Powerful, Gapon would now join the ranks of the leading (non-Marxist) group utilising terrorism, the Socialist-Revolutionaries. And when he finally returned to Russia in late 1905 – at the height of the revolutionary movement – Gapon soon dropped his SR friends to intervene in the revolution on behalf of the Tsar. This neglected part of Gapon’s career is discussed in the book that Ackerman and DuVall relied heavily upon in writing their own chapter, this being Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905: Russia in Disarray (Stanford University Press, 1988). Within this text we find further highly significant details about Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigues.

It is apparent that despite Gapon’s best intentions to help his royal friends, the Tsar’s governors had insisted that Gapon would serve a more useful role for them back in Western Europe. Thus after his return to Russia Gapon was dispatched back to Europe where he…

“…assumed the role of a leader of a resurgent loyal workers’ movement. He attracted maximum publicity in the press by appealing to workers to avoid violence and by assailing the extremism of the revolutionary parties. He even spoke favorably of [the authoritarian government minister Sergei] Witte as the only man capable of saving Russia from the abyss.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.99)

It was only in late December that Gapon was allowed to return to Russia, where he re-established connections with both the police and with the prominent SR leader Petr Rutenberg. Gapon of course hadn’t changed, and he now tried to persuade Rutenberg to enter into a bizarre conspiracy that would enable the SRs to get 100,000 rubles from the police. Rutenberg then “talked to E.F. Azef, the then head of the [SR] party’s ‘Combat Organization’ and later exposed as a police agent, who insisted Gapon must be killed.”[1] This intrigue soon led to Gapon’s execution. And the Russian people, who had initially been part of the priest’s covert power play, now had to wait until 1917 for an end to the Tsar’s despotic rule.

In the intervening years it is worth highlighting that it was Marxists who had argued most vigorously against the SRs advocacy of terrorism. And when Azef’s true identity as a police spy was finally revealed in 1909 it was Leon Trotsky who, in his popular article “The bankruptcy of terrorism,” reiterated how it is always those with “a lack of confidence in the revolutionary masses” that drift towards using such defeatist and counter-revolutionary violence as individual terrorism.

Self-defence within a revolutionary explosion

Returning now to the events of Bloody Sunday: no-one was prepared for the explosion of working-class anger that led to and followed on from the peaceful march on the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, general strikes now spread across the entire nation, injecting new life into the class struggle — actions which vindicated all those Marxist organisers who had spent years popularising such militant forms of industrial action. Indeed as Trotsky correctly observed: “Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise.”[2]

Gapon had unwittingly set-in chain a series of events that shook the world — demonstrating once and for all where the real power lies in society, with the people. Yet not everyone agreed with such analyses, not least Russia’s liberal intellectuals who most of all feared the consequences of unleashing the democratic power and aspirations of the working-class. Commenting on the nonsense of these intellectuals’ concerns, Trotsky pointed out how:

“The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9 lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the [Marxist] Social Democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to. But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves.”

With Gapon fleeing to exile and with strikes and peasant uprisings convulsing the nation, Marxists continued to argue for a more democratic means of coordinating this almighty display of popular resistance. State violence was of course a norm that workers knew that they had to put up with (for the time being anyway). So, workers armed themselves in self-defence, not because Marxists forced or tricked them into adopting violent countermeasures, but because they were left with no option if they wanted to survive.[3]

Demonstrating the serious threat posted to life by the Tsar’s militarism, the authors of A Force More Powerful explainhow on February 17 the government of St. Petersburg “declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers” to crush the “self-governing peasant republic” of Guriia. Such a full-frontal attack was deemed necessary because the peasants there had been in democratic control of their own affairs for the past few years. Panicking at the peasants spreading influence, the government now sought to extinguish their rebellion where “all power… was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate.”

In recounting this story about an inspiring democratic movement that was led by Marxists, Ackerman and DuVall however twist it to serve the opposite purpose, with the rebellion apparently proving Leo Tolstoy’s pacificist maxims. “Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they [the peasants of Guriia] were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.” A Force More Powerful’s ‘historians’ ignore the fact that the Marxist-led peasant republic was more than capable of using violence to defend itself, just as they had done in early 1906 when the Tsar finally succeeded in crushing this insurrection. It is also worth pointing out that when the Tsar had sent in the 10,000 troops in February 1905 to behead the uprising the military had proved powerless in the face of a determined mass movement that was prepared to defend itself. Indeed, if we refer to the source that Ackerman and DuVall draw upon in making their lopsided argument, we learn that the troops…

“…spent four months in the region without launching an attack. Not only did the rebellious peasants enjoy enormous support, but [General] Alikhanov-Avarskii feared that his troops would fraternize with them. In July he withdrew his forces completely, only to return in October to assault the insurgents in earnest. But it was not until January 1906, when the government was reasserting its authority throughout the Empire, that the insurrection in Georgia was fully crushed, and then only after much blood had been shed.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.154-5)[4]

In yet another example of workers organising militant industrial action A Force More Powerful goes on to highlight a dispute which marked the formation of what is widely hailed as the first forerunner of the peoples’ Soviets.

“In Ivanovo-Voznesensk, a major textile center, more than 30,000 workers went out on strike on May 12. Workers from each factory elected representatives to an Assembly of Delegates, which conducted negotiations for the strikers. It drew up a list of demands, including an eight-hour day, higher wages, maternity leave, and freedom of speech and assembly, and it formed a militia to prevent violence. Only after troops attacked workers at a meeting in late May, whipping many and killing a few, did the strike turn violent: For eight days workers rioted, looted, and scuffled in the streets with police and soldiers. The strike dragged on until the end of June, when employers, under pressure from authorities, offered a few minor concessions and exhausted strikers returned to their jobs.”[5]

Although these workers failed to win most of their stated goals, this heroic struggle inspired workers far and wide particularly because of the successful formation of their democratic assembly of Deputies. Moreover, “Outside the Kingdom of Poland, it was the longest and most disciplined strike between January and October.” And most significantly, the request by the Assembly of Delegates to form an armed workers militia was prohibited by the Tsar because it effectively represented a demand “for police powers, which was even more threatening to the authorities than the demands for freedom of speech and assembly.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.150.) So, considering the murderous response of government officials throughout 1905 and beyond it is entirely understandable why workers demanded that they had a democratic right to defend themselves.

Tsardom on the brink of collapse

Strikes and protests now continued to develop across the nation (albeit sporadically), and by August the Tsar, forced by mass pressure, very reluctantly approved the formation of a consultative assembly, or Duma. This was too little too late, and the limited suffrage on offer meant “that in St. Petersburg, a city of over a million people, only about 7,000 would be eligible to vote.” Little wonder the workers were not overly impressed. When a printer’s strike then broke out in Moscow in mid-September it didn’t take long for the dispute to spread, and Ackerman and DuVall observe that soon workers “elected deputies to a council, called a ‘soviet,’ to coordinate the strike” – a strike that had spread to St. Petersburg by the beginning of October. At the same time a rail strike took the entire country by storm and “acted as a catalyst for a general strike that suspended urban life in much of the Russian empire.” Now with the collective experience gained since Bloody Sunday, workers were embarking on a political strike of historic proportions. On this development Ackerman and DuVall point out that:

“Even as they were acting together with other citizens in the general strike, the workers of St. Petersburg were setting themselves apart, as a force to defy the regime. The Menshevik faction of the Social Democrats [which included Trotsky] had been pressing workers since the summer to form grass-roots organizations. Instead of waiting for the state to grant reforms, the Mensheviks wanted workers to take the initiative and develop their own institutions, as popular movements would do in nonviolent conflicts later in the century. On October 10 they called on workers in the capital to elect deputies to form the Petersburg General Workers’ Committee. Three days later 40 deputies went to the Committee’s first meeting; by the third meeting two days later, there were 266 deputies from almost 100 factories as well as a number of unions. On October 17 the Committee voted to rename itself the St. Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.”

Now “the [revolutionary] socialists found themselves in the forefront of a people’s movement”; and “None of them had a higher profile than Leon Trotsky… [who] became a leader among the city’s revolutionaries and a key strategist in the Soviet.” Yet despite these kind words for Trotsky’s leadership skills, the authors of A Force More Power are intent on blaming Trotsky and other Marxists for imposing violence upon what they believe was an otherwise organically nonviolent mass movement. Ackerman and DuVall therefore berate the leaders of the Soviet – most of whom, we should remember, were not Marxists like Trotsky – for forgetting “that the strike had spread easily because it was nonviolent”. Of course, strikes were usually nonviolent, so long as they were not being attacked by the state; but when threatened we should be clear that most workers were prepared to defend themselves, and so it is entirely disingenuous to pretend that it was just the revolutionaries who argued that workers should be armed.

It is also critical to emphasize that the actions taken by the Soviet were done so in the most democratic fashion in contrast to Father Gapon’s Tsarist escapades. Ackerman and DuVall admit as much: “While the Assembly had been run from the top by Father Gapon and his circle, the Soviet’s members were enamored of doing things democratically.” Moreover, while the two authors, as determined advocates of nonviolence, believe that violence should play no role in mass movements, they argue that “the Soviet helped make the October general strike into a vibrant nonviolent campaign, the century’s first.” This is true, but at the same time Marxists always argued that peaceful strikes alone would never be enough to bring an end to the oppression faced by the working-class.

Resistance amidst pogroms

State violence never relented in its attempts to obliterate the workers’ movement throughout 1905, and on October 12 the Tsar demanded that the governor-general put up signs in the streets saying “I have ordered the troops and police to suppress any such attempt [to create disorders] immediately and in the most decisive manner [and] upon a show of resistance to this on the part of the crowd—not to fire blank volleys and not to spare cartridges.” “The public were not intimidated,” as Ackerman and DuVall recognised, and the people responded by taking control of the streets. This meant that on the day the Tsar’s message was put out in St. Petersburg “40,000 people demonstrated in the streets”. As if were not bad enough for the Tsar, as the days went on it became apparent that the ruling-class was increasingly losing control over his own repressive state apparatus. This became clear when the Tsar “opted for a crackdown [on October 17] and asked the Grand Duke Nikolai to assume the responsibilities of military dictator.” But the Duke refused, and with the Tsar’s authority visibly collapsing the despot was forced by the pressure of the masses on the streets to finally offer them his “October Manifesto” for reform (also on October 17).

Revolutionaries recognised this about face for the weakness that it was, and urged Russian workers onwards, to demand more, and to organise so they could oust the Tsar and seize the reins of power for themselves. Contrast this reaction with the liberal trend of analysis presented in A Force More Powerful which predictably sides with the Tsar, not the masses. Hence the two authors blithely assert that the mass revolutionary movement should have immediately dissolved itself, resting happy that the people had won something positive from the despot. And at this stage, in order to denigrate the revolutionary’s insistence that workers press on and fight for the end of absolutism, Ackerman and DuVall refer to the short shrift Trotsky gave to the Tsar’s Manifesto.

“From a university balcony, Leon Trotsky insisted to a horde of workers and students flying red banners that the struggle was not over. ‘Citizens! Now that we have got the ruling clique with its back against the wall, they promise us freedom,’ Trotsky bellowed. ‘Is the promise of liberty the same as liberty itself? … With sword in hand we must stand guard over our freedom. As for the Tsar’s manifesto, look, it’s only a scrap of paper. Here it is before you—here it is crumpled in my fist. Today they have issued it, tomorrow they will take it away and tear it into pieces, just as I am now tearing up this paper freedom before your eyes!’”

Not wanting to knit-pick, but Ackerman and DuVall’s decision to use a derogatory word like horde is noteworthy, as in this instance Trotsky was speaking to a 100,000 strong crowd of citizens who were fighting for their futures against a regime that had showed time and time again that it had no respect for human life. Moreover, the working-class had good reasons for not trusting the Tsar at his word. This is because at exactly the same time that the Tsar’s Manifesto was released (on October 17) the Tsar had imposed “a torrent of violence” upon the people. “The police tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged” this mayhem, the authors of A Force More Powerful remind us. “Right-wing crowds called ‘Black Hundreds’ roved Moscow and St. Petersburg for days,” Ackerman and DuVall continue, “smashing shop windows, and beating and sometimes killing students, workers, and others suspected of revolutionary activity.”

Thus, “precisely at the moment when the autocracy was at its weakest, when it had been compelled to grant it first major concession, the defenders of the old order unleashed their most intense and ferocious attack on the advocates of change.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.253) The depth of this violence knew few ends, and just months later (in February 1906) it was publicly revealed by the Director of Police in the Ministry of Internal Affairs “that in October and November 1905 a secret press in the police headquarters in the capital [St. Petersburg] had printed ‘thousands of proclamations’ urging ‘all true Russians to ruse and exterminate all foreigners, Jews, Armenians, etc. and all those who were advocates of reform and talked of restricting the autocratic power of the Sovereign.’ It also emerged that General Trepov had personally made corrections on the proofs of some of the proclamations.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.259)

An insurrectionary moment

A state-sanctioned rage that was propelled forward by the Tsar and his noblemen now ravaged the entire country from October onwards. The monarch was not known for being either rational or reasonable, and Ackerman and DuVall spotlight his reactionary nature when they write:

“The Tsar took heart from right-wing appeals. The ‘whole mass of loyal people,’ he wrote to his mother on October 27, were lashing out against the small number of ‘bad people’ who had led them astray, including ‘the kikes’ but also Russian intellectuals and agitators.”

If not clear to the above authors, it was abundantly apparent to millions of oppressed Russians that democracy could only be won by ending the Tsar’s oppressive regime; indeed, Ackerman and DuVall were right when they said: “if they stopped fighting as the Tsar was on the ropes, they could forfeit the chance for an even larger victory.” Such a victory however was never going to be inaugurated by simply striking or pleading peacefully outside of the Tsar’s Palace. Vivid memories of what had happened when 150,000 people had marched to the Winter Palace were already etched into the working-classes memories, as were a hundred other acts of brutality. It was widely understood that the Tsar was not going to hand over power without a fight, and so it was logical that socialists would argue that his regime could only be ousted by a democratic and armed uprising of the masses: a strategic decision that was democratically affirmed by the St. Petersburg Soviet the day after the October Manifesto had been announced.[6]

It is worth dwelling on the point that violence harnessed to a democratic movement is an entirely different phenomena to the violence welded by an autocratic regime or to the violence used by individual terrorists. Revolutionaries start from the premise that it is legitimate and necessary for workers to defend themselves. This is important as the masses need to able to organise the type of nonviolent protests/strikes that can allow the working-class to assert their authority over their oppressors.

But when Marxists talk about the need for armed workers and for an armed insurrection, they are not fetishizing violence. They are merely accepting what is objectively necessary to pass from capitalist brutality to a socialist democracy. Marxists are categorical that only when the majority of people want to oust their rulers — or are at least sympathetic to such action – can a minority-led insurrection ever be instigated. This is no coup. It is at that decisive moment that power can and must be wrested from the oppressors to allow workers to control their futures. But even then, the success of any revolution remains dependent on winning the backing of the military, persuading them, by dint of the widespread support on the streets and by the masses unswerving will to win, that they should transfer their allegiance to the insurrection. It is by following such a revolutionary strategy, that, with next to no blood being spilt, the Bolshevik’s were able to seize power in October 1917.

Nevertheless, Ackerman and DuVall assert that because revolutionaries like Trotsky had insisted that the Tsar would not hand over power to the majority without a fight, it was the formers advocacy of violent means that meant they were to blame for the violence that continued to befall the people. Yet at the risk of sounding repetitive, the nonviolent provocateurs are wrong in demanding that workers who are engaged in a mass struggle for democracy must be entirely peaceful. Ackerman and DuVall might as well demand that the Tsar renounce his life’s work and become a pacifist instead! But we know the real reason why the same two authors would never place such a ridiculous demand upon the Tsar; it is because they know that the Tsar would never give-up his ability to crush his mortal enemies — the masses who were the true harbingers of a new democratic order.

In 1905 a revolutionary situation did exist, and everything was to play for, and workers had no choice but to redouble their fight to win their struggle against despotism. As Trotsky put it:

“What was there left for the Soviet to do? Pretend that it did not see the conflict as inevitable? Make believe that it was organizing the masses for the future joys of a constitutional regime? Who would have believed it? Certainly not absolutism, and certainly not the working class.

“The example of the two Dumas was to show us later how useless outwardly correct conduct – empty forms of loyalty – are in the struggle against absolutism. In order to anticipate the tactics of ‘constitutional’ hypocrisy in an autocratic country, the Soviet would have had to be made of different stuff. But where would that have led? To the same end as that of the two Dumas: to bankruptcy.

“There was nothing left for the Soviet to do but recognize that a clash in the immediate future was inevitable; it could choose no other tactics but those of preparing for insurrection.”

We should also be mindful that a violent insurrection in 1905, if it had been successful, would have caused far less violence than the continuation of the Tsar’s regime. If successful, a mass insurrection would have succeeded in winning the military to its side just as the peoples’ movement did in October 1917. The workers had to move forward. Thus, to return to Trotsky’s analysis of 1905.

“[I]in a developing revolutionary situation a planned retreat is, from the start, unthinkable. A party may have the masses behind it while it is attacking, but that does not mean that it will be able to lead them away at will in the midst of the attack. It is not only the party that leads the masses: the masses, in turn, sweep the party forward. And this will happen in any revolution, however powerful its organization. Given such conditions, to retreat without battle may mean the party abandoning the masses under enemy fire.”

Although it may have been true that the objective conditions in 1905 were not conducive to a successful revolution, what we do know is that military revolts and mutinies had been a persistent feature of this joyous year of mass struggle. Moreover, a revolutionary movement does not have the luxury of waiting until the military has been completely won over before striking their collective blow for freedom. Again, as Trotsky reminds us:

“The army’s political mood, that great unknown of every revolution, can be determined only in the process of a clash between the soldiers and the people. The army’s crossing over to the camp of the revolution is a moral process; but it cannot be brought about by moral means alone. Different motives and attitudes combine and intersect within the army; only a minority is consciously revolutionary, while the majority hesitates and awaits an impulse from outside. This majority is capable of laying down its arms or, eventually, of pointing its bayonets at the reaction only if it begins to believe in the possibility of a people’s victory. Such a belief is not created by political agitation alone. Only when the soldiers become convinced that the people have come out into the streets for a life-and-death struggle – not to demonstrate against the government but to overthrow it – does it become psychologically possible for them to ‘cross over to the side of the people.’”

Blame cannot lie with the participants of the St. Petersburg Soviet who democratically debated their options and determined that an armed insurrection was necessary, and that they must establish an armed militia — a force of ordinary workers who, in this case, exerted significant positive influence over the Tsar’s police.[7] Yes, with the benefit of experience the struggle might have been waged more effectively. But Ackerman and DuVall always know better, and despite acknowledging that “In the six weeks following October 17, there were well over a hundred military mutinies”,[8] they insist on lecturing the leaders of the revolution by saying: “If soldiers and sailors had been recruited methodically to join the opposition in 1905, the government’s means of coercion might have been less reliable when it chose to crack down”.

Why not settle for reforms?

Of course we should not really expect any political insight into matters of revolutionary struggle from Ackerman and DuVall. This is because both authors are diehard defenders of capitalism and remain doggedly opposed to the socialist transformation of society. This defence of the indefensible helps explain why they write: “If the movement against the Tsar had capitalized on certain key opportunities, Nicholas [the despotic Tsar] might have been pressed to enlarge the scope of reform, averting the sequence of events that led to the Bolshevik revolution twelve years later.” Always prioritising reform over revolution, the capitalist-loving authors likewise blame the 1905 opponents of the Tsar’s anti-democratic regime for not “embrac[ing] the October Manifesto as the breakthrough it was—an admission that the people possessed power and inherent rights—rather than as a set of half measures to be disdained…”

Ackerman and DuVall are now on a roll. If the mass movements, and the revolutionaries among them, had simply called off the struggle and accepted the Tsar’s pledge to reform his despotism then “the friends of reform inside the palace might have persuaded the Tsar that repression was unneeded.” Hence by not accepting the word of the Tsar at face value the two gurus of nonviolence are confident that the real people at fault in misleading the revolution were the hot-headed radicals; “violence from the right and overconfidence on the left sabotaged this opening.” An opening to what? Do the authors really believe that if revolutionaries had simply given up then the Tsar would have inflicted less violence upon them. Maybe the hate-filled Tsar might have even called off the pogroms.

But if we are to defend the actions of the revolutionaries in their decision to refuse to cooperate with the Tsar we can simply turn to one of the main books that Ackerman and DuVall repeatedly leant on in writing A Force More Powerful. This book is Abraham Ascher’s The Revolution of 1905, a book which makes it clear that it was not just hot-headed radicals who rejected the October Manifesto as a farce.

“Far from pacifying the population, the October Manifesto triggered disorders more violent and widespread than any that had occurred since the beginning of the revolution. Witte’s attempts to detach the moderate liberals from the opposition movement ended in failure.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.273)

In fact, “During the Days of Liberty, stretching from October 18 until early December… the left in fact did succeed in greatly strengthening its forces…” Trotsky’s militant writings were particularly popular amongst the residents of St. Petersburg, and Russkaia gazeta, the newspaper he coedited, “appeared in print runs of over 100,000 copies.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.275, p.276)

Revolutionary lessons

What we do know is that socialists of all hues were able to grasp many vital lessons from the unexpected revolutionary upsurge of 1905, hard-won lessons that were gained through collective action and that proved essential in enabling the successful revolution of 1917. But again, we need to correct the deliberate historical distortions that have been repeated ad infinitum over the past century by commentators who insist the revolution was violence personified; no matter that the death toll of the revolution was minuscule. Furthermore, in the short-term the success of October 1917 helped bring an end to orgy of violence that was World War One, a needless bloodbath whose foremost critics had been radical revolutionaries (see for example Trotsky’s best-selling 1914 pamphlet “The War and the International”). The structural violence of capitalism was further demonstrated in the wake of the 1917 revolution, which saw twenty-one capitalist states support the White Armies counterrevolutionary forces. Although this civil war was eventually defeated, the violence inflicted upon the people’s democratic and socialist state stole the lives of around seven million people.

Marxists not pacifists are the foremost proponents of “drawing on the power of the people” (Ackerman and DuVall’s words) to build mass movements for socialist change. Marxists however do not accept that capitalists will give up their control of our class-riven society without a fight. We want to act to ensure the socialist transformation of political relations worldwide. And socialists believe that workers will need to be able to defend themselves. It would be nice if this were not necessary, but history has shown that capitalists are quite effective at crushing workers movements through force; and flowers and nice words are never enough to see off an enemy whose entire economic and political system rests upon a bedrock of violence. At the same time socialists remain determined fighters for reforms within capitalism; but we always make it clear that such reforms will always be taken away from workers as long as the ruling-class directs society. That is why alongside fighting for reforms we argue for the need for democratic workers’ control of the state. But when the workers’ movement is strong enough, there can be no avoiding it — our class will need to seize power to rid ourselves of capitalism’s toxic priorities for ever more.


[1] The full story of Gapon’s anti-democratic intrigue involving Rutenberg are recounted in Walter Sablinsky’s The Road To Bloody Sunday: Father Gapon And The St. Petersburg Massacre of 1905 (Princeton University Press, 1976), pp.305-22. This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text.

[2] Leon Trotsky, 1905 (first published in German in 1909). This book is also used as a source in Ackerman and DuVall’s own text if only to attack Trotsky and mispresent socialist ideas.

[3] Writing in January 1905 in an article responding to Bloody Sunday Lenin explained: “The government deliberately drove the proletariat to revolt, provoked it, by the massacre of unarmed people, to erect barricades, in order to drown the uprising in a sea of blood. The proletariat will learn from these military lessons afforded by the government. For one thing, it will learn the art of civil war, now that it has started the revolution. Revolution is war. Of all the wars known in history it is the only lawful, rightful, just, and truly great war. This war is not waged in the selfish interests of a handful of rulers and exploiters, like any and all other wars, but in the interests of the masses of the people against the tyrants, in the interests of the toiling and exploited millions upon millions against despotism and violence.” Lenin, “The plan of the St. Petersburg battle,” Vperyod, January 31, 1905.

[4] Contrast this summary of events with that served up by Ackerman and DuVall, who stated in full: “On February 18 the government declared martial law in Georgia and sent in 10,000 soldiers. Since 1903 peasants in the remote Guriia region had not been heeding any government authority. They refused to pay taxes and burned portraits of the Tsar; they also killed a few officials (whom the gravediggers would not bury, as part of the boycott). All power in Guriia was in the hands of the Guriian Social Democratic Committee, which held weekly public meetings featuring unrestrained debate. In effect, Guriia had become a self-governing peasant republic. The great novelist Leo Tolstoy, who had long preached noncooperation with state power, wrote to a Georgian follower, telling him that the Guriians were doing exactly what he had been writing and thinking about for over twenty years. Rather than looking to the government to help them, Tolstoy said, or attacking the authorities, they were simply making themselves independent of their rulers.”

[5] Ackerman and DuValll’s sole historical source for this section of their analysis is Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, pp.146-9.

[6] “After the October Manifesto, revolutionaries took their bid for an armed uprising to the Soviet. The very next day, Nosar’ read deputies an executive committee resolution proposing that they arm themselves ‘for the final struggle,’ and Trotsky alerted them to prepare for ‘an even grander and more impressive attack on the staggering monarchy, which can be conclusively swept away only by a victorious popular uprising.’ The Soviet endorsed both the Nosar’ and Trotsky statements, but asking for the Tsar’s downfall inevitably separated the revolutionaries from their erstwhile allies the liberals, who disavowed any desire to overthrow the government.” (A Force More Powerful)

[7] “The boldest undertaking of the Soviet was the establishment of its own militia, whose members, identified by special armbands, ‘interfered in the affairs of the police, gave… [them] orders and made demands of them.’” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.277)

[8] “All told, 211 separate mutinies were recorded in the Russian army alone between late October and mid-December 1905… The elite corps, the Cavalry and Cossacks, were virtually untouched by mutiny, but one-third of all infantry units experienced some form of disturbance, and the navy was so riddled with disorders that the government feared that it could no longer be relied upon to carry out its mission.” (Ascher, The Revolution of 1905, p.272) Ascher goes on to note that the crushing of the revolution in mid-December changed the “psychology of the soldier and sailors… as suddenly and drastically as it had in mid-October. with the restoration of authority in the civilian sector, the men in uniform again submitted to the orders of their superiors.”  (p.273)

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).