Continuing a series of extracts from Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Here Trotsky explains how the 1905 revolution — a popular revolt against the Tsar — was a “dress rehearsal” for the events of 1917.
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 Tsarism 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 Tsarism 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, Tsarism came out of the experience of 1905 alive and strong enough. What changed in eleven years?
The bourgeoisie became economically more powerful, but its power rested on a higher concentration of industry and an increased predominance of foreign capital. Impressed by the lessons of 1905, the bourgeoisie had become more conservative and suspicious. The relative weight of the petty and middle bourgeoisie, insignificant before, had fallen still lower. The democratic intelligentsia generally speaking had no firm social support whatever. In these circumstances only the youthful proletariat could give the peasantry a programme, a banner and leadership. The gigantic tasks thus presented to the proletariat gave rise to a urgent necessity for a special revolutionary organisation capable of quickly getting hold of the popular masses and making them ready for revolutionary action under the leadership of the workers.
Thus the soviets of 1905 developed gigantically in 1917. That the soviets, we may remark here, are not a mere child of the historical backwardness of Russia, but a product of her combined development, is indicated by the fact that the proletariat of the most industrial country, Germany, at the time of its revolutionary high point — 1918 to 1919 — could find no other form of organisation.
The revolution of 1917 still had as its immediate task the overthrow of the bureaucratic monarchy, but in distinction from the older bourgeois revolutions, the decisive force now was a new class formed on the basis of a concentrated industry, and armed with new organisations, new methods of struggle. The law of combined development here emerges in its extreme expression: starting with the overthrow of a decayed mediaeval structure, the revolution in the course of a few months placed the proletariat and the Communist Party in power.