Tony Cliff

Lenin 1

Chapter 12
The Great Dress Rehearsal

ALTHOUGH IT ended in defeat, the 1905 Revolution was extremely important in revealing the interests and aims of the different social classes, their respective strengths and weaknesses, their relative importance in Russian society, and the changing relationships between them. It also provided a searching, although not final, test for the main existing parties.

The years of revolution and decline – 1905-07 – were in Lenin’s eyes a tremendous opportunity for millions to obtain experience, to learn a lesson that would enter into the lifeblood, into the nervous system, into the hearts and brains of the people.

The real nature of class and party were clearly exposed. All the parties completed the “foetal stage of their development” during this period.

For the first time the classes have achieved a definite cleavage and taken shape in open political struggle during this period: the political parties which now exist ... express with previously unheard-of exactness the interests and viewpoint of classes which during the three years have matured a hundred times more than during the preceding half century. [1]

First of all “society” exposed itself. The liberals showed their true colours.

What before the revolution was known as liberal and liberal-Narodnik “society,” or the spokesman and “enlightened” part of the “nation” at large – the broad mass of well-to-do, noblemen’s and intellectuals’ “opposition,” which seemed to be something integral, and homogeneous, permeating the Zemstvos, the universities, all the “decent” press, etc. – has displayed itself in the revolution as the ideologues and supporters of the bourgeoisie, and has taken up what all can recognise now as a counterrevolutionary position in respect of the mass struggle of the socialist proletariat and the democratic peasantry. The counterrevolutionary liberal bourgeoisie has come into existence and is growing. [2]

Above all the stormy events exposed the role of the proletariat in the revolution.

The leading role of the proletarian masses all through the revolution and in all the fields of struggle, from demonstrations, through insurrection, to (in chronological order) “parliamentary” activity, has become apparent for all to see during this period, if we look over it as a whole. [3]

The revolution was a magnificent mass school.

Millions among the population have gained practical experience, in the most varied forms, of a genuinely mass and directly revolutionary struggle, including a “general strike,” the expulsion of landowners, the burning of their country-houses, and open armed uprising. [4]

The best education is gained through struggle. In a lecture on the 1905 Revolution delivered at a meeting of young workers in Zurich on 9 January 1917, Lenin said:

When the bourgeois gentry and their uncritical echoers, the social-reformists, talk priggishly about the “education” of the masses, they usually mean something schoolmasterly, pedantic, something that demoralises the masses and instils in them bourgeois prejudices.

The real education of the masses can never be separated from their independent political and especially revolutionary struggle. Only struggle educates the exploited class. Only struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizon, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind, forges its will. [5]

It is in this awakening of tremendous masses of the people to political consciousness and revolutionary struggle that the historic significance of January 22, 1905, lies. [6]

Although the workers had not won the revolution, the revolution had won the workers.

By the heroic struggle it waged during the course of the three years [1905–07] the Russian proletariat won for itself and for the Russian people gains that took other nations decades to win. It won the emancipation of the working masses from the influence of treacherous and contemptibly impotent liberalism. It won for itself the hegemony in the struggle for freedom and democracy as a precondition of the struggle for socialism. It won for all the oppressed and exploited classes of Russia the ability to wage a revolutionary mass struggle, without which nothing of importance in the progress of mankind has been achieved anywhere in the world. [7]

The mass of workers would never forget 1905:

Just wait, 1905 will come again. That is how the workers look at things. For them that year of struggle provided a model of what has to be done. For the intellectuals and the renegading petty bourgeois it was the “insane year,” a model of what should not be done. For the proletariat, the working over and critical acceptance of the experience of the revolution must consist in learning how to apply the then methods of struggle more successfully, so as to make the same October strike struggle and December armed struggle more massive, more concentrated and more conscious. [8]

It is said that beaten armies learn well ... there is one gain from the first years of the revolution and the first reverses in mass revolutionary struggle about which there can be no doubt. It is the mortal blow struck at the former softness and flabbiness of the masses. The lines of demarcation have become more distinct. The cleavage of classes and parties has taken place? [9]

The revolution had moulded each of the main political parties into a permanent shape that the vicissitudes of the struggle could never entirely change.

In the periods of direct revolutionary struggle deep and lasting foundations of class groupings are laid, and division into large political parties take place, which thereafter persist even in very long periods of stagnation. Some parties may go underground, give no sign of life, disappear from the front of the political stage: but at the slightest revival the main political forces inevitably will give signs of themselves again. Perhaps in an altered form but with the same character and direction of their activity, so long as the objective tasks of the revolution, which has suffered defeat to this or that extent, are not fulfilled. [10]



Lenin’s Stress on the Initiative of the Masses

What 1905 meant, more than anything, to Lenin was the practical confirmation of his belief in the tremendous creative abilities of the working class. In The Victory of the Cadets and the Tasks of the Workers’ Party, written in March 1906, he says:

It is just the revolutionary periods which are distinguished by wider, richer, more deliberate, more methodical, more systematic, more courageous and more vivid making of history than periods of philistine, Cadet, reformist progress. But the Liberals turn the truth inside out! They palm off paltriness as magnificent making of history. They regard the inactivity of the oppressed or downtrodden masses as the triumph of “system” in the work of bureaucrats and bourgeois. They shout about the disappearance of intellect and reason when, instead of the picking of draft laws to pieces by petty bureaucrats and liberal penny-a-liner journalists, there begins a period of direct political activity of the “common people”, who simply set to work without more ado to smash all the instruments for oppressing the people, seize power and take what was regarded as belonging to all kinds of robbers of the people – in short, when the intellect and reason of millions of downtrodden people awaken not only to read books, but for action, vital human action, to make history. [11]

And again:

the organising abilities of the people, particularly of the proletariat, but also of the peasantry, are revealed a million times more strongly, fully and productively in periods of revolutionary whirlwind than in periods of so-called calm (dray-horse) historical progress. [12]

Years later, Lenin returned to the same theme: “A democrat ... whatever illusion he may at times entertain regarding the interests and aspirations of the masses ... has faith in the masses, in the action of the masses, in the legitimacy of their sentiments and the expediency of their methods of struggle.” [13]

In the Zurich lecture already referred to, Lenin said about 1905 that it

does show how great the dormant energy of the proletariat can be. It shows that in a revolutionary epoch – I say this without the slightest exaggeration, on the basis of the most accurate data of Russian history – the proletariat can generate fighting energy a hundred times greater than in ordinary, peaceful times. It shows that up to 1905 mankind did not yet know what a great, what a tremendous exertion of effort the proletariat is, and will be, capable of in a fight for really great aims, and one waged in a really revolutionary manner! [14]



Learn from the Masses

We have seen that the Bolshevik Party lagged behind the masses between January 9 and the establishment of the Petersburg Soviet. Lenin always emphasised that the party must rely on the masses: “The slogans of the revolutionaries not only evoked a response but actually lagged behind the march of events. January 9 and the mass strikes that followed it, and the Potemkin were all events which were in advance of the direct appeals of the revolutionaries.” [15]

The central role of the party was “to give full scope to the revolutionary creative activity of the masses, who participate but little in this activity in time of peace, but who come to the forefront in revolutionary epochs” [16], to realise “that the political consciousness of the masses is the main force” [17], to prize “above everything the development of the political and class consciousness of the masses.” [18]

The party must always be with the masses in struggle, whether in victory or defeat, whether they act correctly or commit blunders. As Lenin put it many years later, after the victory of the October Revolution:

Unbreakable ties with the mass of the workers, the ability to agitate unceasingly among them, to participate in every strike, to respond to every demand of the masses – this is the chief thing for a Communist Party. [19]

Mistakes are inevitable when the masses are fighting, but the communists remain with the masses, see these mistakes, explain them to the masses, try to get them rectified, and strive perseveringly for the victory of class consciousness over spontaneity. [20]

When Lenin talked about the fighting masses, he did not necessarily mean the majority of the working class. A revolutionary party has to be based in the working class, but not necessarily in the class as a whole. For a whole historical period it may be established only among a minority of the class – its vanguard. As Lenin wrote on 22 August 1907:

Not to support a movement of the avowedly revolutionary minority – means, in effect, rejecting all revolutionary methods of struggle. For it is absolutely indisputable that those who participated in the revolutionary movement throughout 1905 were the avowedly revolutionary minority: it was because the masses who were fighting were in a minority – they were nonetheless masses for being in a minority – that they did not achieve full success in their struggle. But all the successes which the emancipation movement in Russia did achieve, all the gains it did make, were wholly and without exception the result of this struggle of the masses alone, who were in a minority. [21]

In January 1905, most workers thought that the Tsar could be spoken to like a decent person. “Bloody Sunday” opened the eyes of millions. In October, the same workers believed that to shake a fist at the Tsar would be enough to force him to grant concessions. The general strike of October proved to them that this was not so. The use of arms was the next step. But again this idea was not accepted by the majority of the working class. Only a minority of Moscow workers participated in the December armed uprising.

The revolutionary party, rooted in the advanced section of the class, learns from the workers in the struggle, and teaches them at one and the same time.



1905 – School for Bolsheviks

The revolution of 1905 was also a great school for the revolutionary workers’ party. The revolution is the best test of theories and programs. It destroys every kind of political ambiguity and fiction. Revolution demands ideological irreconcilability. It purges the consciousness of the advanced workers of routine, inertia, and irresolution. At the same time, it demands from the party, because of the sharp changes in direction the struggle takes, remarkable tactical skills and adaptability to the swiftly changing needs of the movement.

The revolution threw into sharp relief not only the relation of the vanguard party to the class, but also that of the party leader to the party. In 1905, Lenin’s leadership of his own faction was on the whole incontestable. But it demanded from him a continuous effort of thought and organisation – he had, in a sense, to reaffirm his leadership and reconquer his party every day. On the evidence of 1905, supported by the experience of 1917, one could write instructive chapters on what happened to the leadership of the Leninists without Lenin. If 1905 steeled the Bolsheviks, even more so did it steel Lenin. His ideas, program, and tactics were put to the stiffest test during those days.

Lenin was quite clear about the leading role of the proletariat and its independence from the liberals, about the role of the Soviet as the form of organisation of the revolutionary struggle and as the form of the revolutionary government of the future, about the art of insurrection. The 1905 Revolution failed in spite of Lenin’s correct tactics and strategy. It failed because the proletariat and its party were insufficiently developed. For Lenin, 1905 was a magnificent training school, preparing him and his party for the great days of 1917.

In the same way as Marx and Engels in the years of dull “normalcy” looked back again and again to 1848 as the point from which to determine the future pattern of the revolutionary workers’ movement, so Lenin in the coming years looked back to 1905. The mass revolutionary struggle of this period was the point of departure for his formulation and reformulation of the strategy and tactics of Bolshevism.




1. Lenin, Collected Works, vol.15, pp.268

2. ibid.

3. ibid., p.269.

4. ibid., p.268.

5. ibid., vol.23, p.241.

6. ibid., p.237.

7. ibid., vol.16, p.387.

8. ibid., vol.15, p.53.

9. ibid., pp.208–09.

10. ibid., p.274.

11. ibid., vol.10, pp.253–54.

12. ibid., p.259.

13. ibid., vol.17, p.293.

14. ibid., vol.23, p.240.

15. ibid., vol.13, p.26.

16. ibid., vol.8, p.563.

17. ibid., vol.11, p.435.

18. ibid., vol.16, p.123.

19. ibid., vol.29, p.563.

20. ibid., p.396.

21. ibid., vol.13, p.65.


Last updated on 10.12.2003