Our Revolution

The Proletariat and the Revolution


The essay The Proletariat and the Revolution was published at the close of 1904, nearly one year after the beginning of the war with Japan. This was a crucial year for the autocratic rulers of Russia. It started with patriotic demonstrations, it ended with a series of humiliating defeats on the battlefields and with an unprecedented revival of political activities on the part of the well-to-do classes. The Zemstvos (local elective bodies for the care of local affairs) headed by liberal landowners, conducted a vigorous political campaign in favor of a constitutional order. Other liberal groups, organizations of professionals (referred to in Trotsky’s essay as “democrats” and “democratic elements") joined in the movement. The Zemstvo leaders called an open convention in Petersburg (November 6th), which demanded civic freedom and a Constitution. The “democratic elements” organized public gatherings of a political character under the disguise of private banquets. The liberal press became bolder in its attack on the administration. The government tolerated the movement. Prince Svyatopolk-Mirski, who had succeeded Von Plehve, the reactionary dictator assassinated in July, 1904 by a revolutionist, had promised “cordial relations” between government and society. In the political jargon, this period of tolerance, lasting from August to the end of the year, was known as the era of “Spring.”

It was a thrilling time, full of political hopes and expectation. Yet, strange enough, the working class was silent. The working class had shown great dissatisfaction in 1902 and especially in summer, 1903, when scores of thousands in the Southwest and in the South went on a political strike. During the whole of 1904, however, there were almost no mass-manifestations on the part of the workingmen. This gave an occasion to many a liberal to scoff at the representatives of the revolutionary parties who built all their tactics on the expectation of a national revolution. To answer those sceptics and to encourage the active members of the Social-Democratic party, Trotsky wrote his essay. Its main value, which lends it historic significance, is the clear diagnosis of the political situation. Though living abroad, Trotsky keenly felt the pulse of the masses, the “pent up revolutionary energy” which was seeking for an outlet. His description of the course of a national revolution, the role he attributes to the workingmen, the non-proletarian population of the cities, the educated groups, and the army; his estimation of the influence of the war on the minds of the raw masses; finally, the slogans he puts before the revolution, – all this corresponds exactly to what happened during the stormy year of 1905. Reading The Proletariat and the Revolution, the student of Russian political life has a feeling as if the essay had been written after the Revolution, so closely it follows the course of events. Yet, it appeared before January 9th, 1905, i.e., before the first great onslaught of the Petersburg proletariat.

Trotsky’s belief in the revolutionary initiative of the working class could not be expressed in a more lucid manner.

M. Olgin

The proletariat must not only conduct a revolutionary propaganda. The proletariat itself must move towards a revolution.

To move towards a revolution does not necessarily mean to fix a date for an insurrection and to prepare for that day. You never can fix a day and an hour for a revolution. The people have never made a revolution by command.

What can be done is, in view of the fatally impending catastrophe, to choose the most appropriate positions, to arm and inspire the masses with a revolutionary slogan, to lead simultaneously all the reserves into the field of battle, to make them practice in the art of fighting, to keep them ready under arms, – and to send an alarm all over the lines when the time has arrived.

Would that mean a series of exercises. only, and not a decisive combat with the enemy forces? Would that be mere manoeuvers, and not a street revolution?

Yes, that would be mere manoeuvers. There is a difference, however, between revolutionary and military manoeuvers. Our preparations can turn, at any time and independent of our will, into a real battle which would decide the long drawn revolutionary war. Not only can it be so, it must be. This is vouched for by the acuteness of the present political situation which holds in its depths a tremendous amount of revolutionary explosives.

At what time mere manoeuvers would turn into a real battle, depends upon the volume and the revolutionary compactness of the masses, upon the atmosphere of popular sympathy which surrounds them and upon the attitude of the troops which the government moves against the people.

Those three elements of success must determine our work of preparation. Revolutionary proletarian masses are in existence. We ought to be able to call them into the streets, at a given time, all over the country; we ought to be able to unite them by a general slogan.

All classes and groups of the people are permeated with hatred towards absolutism, and that means with sympathy for the struggle for freedom. We ought to be able to concentrate this sympathy on the proletariat as a revolutionary power which alone can be the vanguard of the people in their fight to save the future of Russia. As to the mood of the army, it hardly kindles the heart of the government with great hopes. There has been many an alarming symptom for the last few years; the army is morose, the army grumbles, there are ferments of dissatisfaction in the army. We ought to do all at our command to make the army detach itself from absolutism at the time of a decisive onslaught of the masses.

Let us first survey the last two conditions, which determine the course and the outcome of the campaign.

We have just gone through the period of “political renovation” opened under the blare of trumpets and closed under the hiss of knouts [1], the era of Svyatopolk-Mirski – the result of which is hatred towards absolutism aroused among all the thinking elements of society to an unusual pitch. The coming days will reap the fruit of stirred popular hopes and unfulfilled government’s pledges. Political interest has lately taken more definite shape; dissatisfaction has grown deeper and is founded on a more outspoken theoretical basis. Popular thinking, yesterday utterly primitive, now greedily takes to the work of political analysis.

All manifestations of evil and arbitrary power are being speedily traced back to the principal cause. Revolutionary slogans no more frighten the people; on the contrary, they arouse a thousandfold echo, they pass into proverbs. The popular consciousness absorbs each word of negation, condemnation or curse addressed towards absolutism, as a sponge absorbs fluid substance. No step of the administration remains unpunished. Each of its blunders is carefully taken account of. Its advances arc met with ridicule, its threats breed hatred. The vast apparatus of the liberal press [2] circulates daily thousands of facts, stirring, exciting, inflaming popular emotion.

The pent up feelings are seeking an outlet. Thought strives to turn into action. The vociferous liberal press, however, while feeding popular unrest, tends to divert its current into a small channel; it spreads superstitious reverence for “public opinion,” helpless, unorganized “public opinion,” which does not discharge itself into action; it brands the revolutionary method of national emancipation; it upholds the illusion of legality; it centers all the attention and all the hopes of the embittered groups around the Zemstvo campaign, thus systematically preparing a great debacle for the popular movement. Acute dissatisfaction, finding no outlet, discouraged by the inevitable failure of the legal Zemstvo campaign which has no traditions of revolutionary struggle in the past and no clear prospects in the future, must necessarily manifest itself in an outbreak of desperate terrorism, leaving radical intellectuals in the role of helpless, passive, though sympathetic onlookers, leaving liberals to choke in a fit of platonic enthusiasm while lending doubtful assistance.

This ought not to take place. We ought to take hold of the current of popular excitement; we ought to turn the attention of numerous dissatisfied social groups to one colossal undertaking headed by the proletariat, – to the National Revolution.

The vanguard of the Revolution ought to wake from indolence all other elements of the people; to appear here and there and everywhere; to put the questions of political struggle in the boldest possible fashion; to call, to castigate, to unmask hypocritical democracy; to make democrats and Zemstvo liberals clash against each other; to wake again and again, to call, to castigate, to demand a clear answer to the question, “What are you going to do?” to allow no retreat; to compel the legal liberals to admit their own weakness; to alienate from them the democratic elements and help the latter along the way of the revolution. To do this work means to draw the threads of sympathy of all the democratic opposition towards the revolutionary campaign of the proletariat.

We ought to do all in our power to draw the attention and gain the sympathy of the poor non-proletarian city population. During the last mass actions of the proletariat, as in the general strikes of 1903 in the South, nothing was done in this respect, and this was the weakest point of the preparatory work. According to press correspondents, the queerest rumors often circulated among the population as to the intentions of the strikers. The city inhabitants expected attacks on their houses, the store keepers were afraid of being looted, the Jews were in a dread of pogroms. This ought to be avoided. A political strike, as a single combat of the city proletariat with the police and the army, the remaining population being hostile or even indifferent, is doomed to failure.

The indifference of the population would tell primarily on the morale of the proletariat itself, and then on the attitude of the soldiers. Under such conditions, the stand of the administration must necessarily be more determined. The generals would remind the officers, and the officers would pass to the soldiers the words of Dragomirov: “Rifles are given for sharp shooting, and nobody is permitted to squander cartridges for nothing.” [3]

A political strike of the proletariat ought to turn into a political demonstration of the population, this is the first prerequisite of success.

The second important prerequisite is the mood of the army. A dissatisfaction among the soldiers, a vague sympathy for the “revoluters,” is an established fact. Only part of this sympathy may rightly be attributed to our direct propaganda among the soldiers. The major part is done by the practical clashes between army units and protesting masses. Only hopeless idiots or avowed scoundrels dare to shoot at a living target. An overwhelming majority of the soldiers are loathe to serve as executioners; this is unanimously admitted by all correspondents describing the battles of the army with unarmed people. The average soldier aims above the heads of the crowd. It would be unnatural if the reverse were the case. When the Bessarabian regiment received orders to quell the Kiev general strike, the commander declared he could not vouch for the attitude of his soldiers. The order, then, was sent to the Cherson regiment, but there was not one half-company in the entire regiment which would live up to the expectations of their superiors.

Kiev was no exception. The conditions of the army must now be more favorable for the revolution than they were in 1903. We have gone through a year of war. It is hardly possible to measure the influence of the past year on the minds of the army. The influence, however, must be enormous. War draws not only the attention of the people, it arouses also the professional interest of the army. Our ships are slow, our guns have a short range, our soldiers are uneducated, our sergeants have neither compass nor map, our soldiers are barefooted, hungry, and freezing, our Red Cross is stealing, our commissariat is stealing, – rumors and facts of this kind leak down to the army and are being eagerly absorbed. Each rumor, as strong acid, dissolves the rust of mental drill. Years of peaceful propaganda could hardly equal in their results one day of warfare. The mere mechanism of discipline remains, the faith, however, the conviction that it is right to carry out orders, the belief that the present conditions can be continued, are rapidly dwindling. The less faith the army has in absolutism, the more faith it has in its foes.

We ought to make use of this situation. We ought to explain to the soldiers the meaning of the workingmen’s action which is being prepared by the Party. We ought to make profuse use of the slogan which is bound to unite the army with the revolutionary people, Away with the War! We ought to create a situation where the officers would not be able to trust their soldiers at the crucial moment. This would reflect on the attitude of the officers themselves.

The rest will be done by the street. It will dissolve the remnants of the barrack-hypnosis in the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people.

The main factor, however, remain the revolutionary masses. True it is that during the war the most advanced elements of the masses, the thinking proletariat, have not stepped openly to the front with that degree of determination which was required by the critical historic moment. Yet it would manifest a lack of political backbone and a deplorable superficiality, should one draw from this fact any kind of pessimistic conclusions.

The war has fallen upon our public life with all its colossal weight. The dreadful monster, breathing blood and fire, loomed up on the political horizon, shutting out everything, sinking its steel clutches into the body of the people, inflicting wound upon wound, causing mortal pain, which for a moment makes it even impossible to ask for the causes of the pain. The war, as every great disaster, accompanied by crisis, unemployment, mobilization, hunger and death, stunned the people, caused despair, but not protest. This is, however, only a beginning. Raw masses of the people, silent social strata, which yesterday had no connection with the revolutionary elements, were knocked by sheer mechanical power of facts to face the central event of present-day Russia, the war. They were horrified, they could not catch their breaths. The revolutionary elements, who prior to the war had ignored the passive masses, were affected by the atmosphere of despair and concentrated horror. This atmosphere enveloped them, it pressed with a leaden weight on their minds. The voice of determined protest could hardly be raised in the midst of elemental suffering. The revolutionary proletariat which had not yet recovered from the wounds received in July 1903 was powerless to oppose the “call of the primitive.”

The year of war, however, passed not without results. Masses, yesterday primitive, today are confronted with the most tremendous events. They must seek to understand them. The very duration of the war has produced a desire for reasoning, for questioning as to the meaning of it all. Thus the war, while hampering for a period of time the revolutionary initiative of thousands, has awakened to life the political thought of millions.

The year of war passed not without results, not a single day passed without results. In the lower strata of the people, in the very depths of the masses, a work was going on, a movement of molecules, imperceptible, yet irresistible, incessant, a work of accumulating indignation, bitterness, revolutionary energy. The atmosphere our streets are breathing now is no longer an atmosphere of blank despair, it is an atmosphere of concentrated indignation which seeks for means and ways for revolutionary action. Each expedient action of the vanguard of our working masses would now carry away with it not only all our revolutionary reserves, but also thousands and hundreds of thousands of revolutionary recruits. This mobilization, unlike the mobilization of the government, would be carried out in the presence of general sympathy and active assistance of an overwhelming majority of the population.

In the presence of strong sympathies of the masses, in the presence of active assistance on the part of the democratic elements of the people; facing a government commonly hated, unsuccessful both in big and in small undertakings, a government defeated on the seas, defeated in the fields of battle, despised, discouraged, with no faith in the coming day, a government vainly struggling, currying favor, provoking and retreating, lying and suffering exposure, insolent and frightened; facing an army whose morale has been shattered by the entire course of the war, whose valor, energy, enthusiasm and heroism have met an insurmountable wall in the form of administrative anarchy, an army which has lost faith in the unshakable security of a regime it is called to serve, a dissatisfied, grumbling army which more than once has torn itself free from the clutches of discipline during the last year and which is eagerly listening to the roar of revolutionary voices, – such will be the conditions under which the revolutionary proletariat will walk out into the streets. It seems to us that no better conditions could have been created by history for a final attack. History has done everything it was allowed by elemental wisdom. The thinking revolutionary forces of the country have to do the rest.

A tremendous amount of revolutionary energy has been accumulated. It should not vanish with no avail, it should not be dissipated in scattered engagements and clashes, with no coherence and no definite plan. All efforts ought to be made to concentrate the bitterness, the anger, the protest, the rage, the hatred of the masses, to give those emotions a common language, a common goal, to unite, to solidify all the particles of the masses, to make them feel and understand that they are not isolated, that simultaneously, with the same slogan on the banner, with the same goal in mind, innumerable particles are rising everywhere. If this understanding is achieved, half of the revolution is done.

We have got to summon all revolutionary forces to simultaneous action. How can we do it?

First of all we ought to remember that the main scene of revolutionary events is bound to be the city. Nobody is likely to deny this. It is evident, further, that street demonstrations can turn into a popular revolution only when they are a manifestation of masses, i.e., when they embrace, in the first place, the workers of factories and plants. To make the workers quit their machines and stands; to make them walk out of the factory premises into the street; to lead them to the neighboring plant; to proclaim there a cessation of work; to make new masses walk out into the street; to go thus from factory to factory, from plant to plant, incessantly growing in numbers, sweeping police barriers, absorbing new masses that happened to come across, crowding the streets, taking possession of buildings suitable for popular meetings, fortifying those buildings, holding continuous revolutionary meetings with audiences coming and going, bringing order into the movements of the masses, arousing their spirit, explaining to them the aim and the meaning of what is going on; to turn, finally, the entire city into one revolutionary camp, this is, broadly speaking, the plan of action.

The starting point ought to be the factories and plants. That means that street manifestations of a serious character, fraught with decisive events, ought to begin with political strikes of the masses.

It is easier to fix a date for a strike, than for a demonstration of the people, just as it is easier to move masses ready for action than to organize new masses.

A political strike, however, not a local, but a general political strike all over Russia, – ought to have a general political slogan. This slogan is: to stop the war and to call a National Constituent Assembly.

This demand ought to become nation-wide, and herein lies the task for our propaganda preceding the all-Russian general strike. We ought to use all possible occasions to make the idea of a National Constituent Assembly popular among the people. Without losing one moment, we ought to put into operation all the technical means and all the powers of propaganda at our disposal. Proclamations and speeches, educational circles and mass-meetings ought to carry broadcast, to propound and to explain the demand of a Constituent Assembly. There ought to be not one man in a city who should not know that his demand is: a National Constituent Assembly.

The peasants ought to be called to assemble on the day of the political strike and to pass resolutions demanding the calling of a Constituent Assembly. The suburban peasants ought to be called into the cities to participate in the street movements of the masses gathered under the banner of a Constituent Assembly. All societies and organizations, professional and learned bodies, organs of self-government and organs of the opposition press ought to be notified in advance by the workingmen that they are preparing for an all-Russian political strike, fixed for a certain date, to bring about the calling of a Constituent Assembly. The workingmen ought to demand from all societies and corporations that, on the day appointed for the mass-manifestation, they should join in the demand of a National Constituent Assembly. The workingmen ought to demand from the opposition press that it should popularize their slogan and that on the eve of the demonstration it should print an appeal to the population to join the proletarian manifestation under the banner of a National Constituent Assembly.

We ought to carry on the most intensive propaganda in the army in order that on the day of the strike each soldier, sent to curb the “rebels,  should know that he is facing the people who are demanding a National Constituent Assembly.

Explanatory Notes (By M. Olgin)

1. “The hiss of the knout” which ended the era of “cordial relations” was a statement issued by the government on December 12, 1904, declaring that “all disturbances of peace and order and all gatherings of an anti-governmental character must and will be stopped by all legal means in command of the authorities.” The Zemstvo and municipal bodies were advised to keep from political utterings. As to the Socialist parties, and to labor movement in general, they were prosecuted under Svyatopolk-Mirski as severely as under Von Plehve.

2. “The vast apparatus of the liberal press” was the only way to reach millions. The revolutionary “underground” press, which assumed towards 1905 unusual proportions, could, after all, reach only a limited number of readers. In times of political unrest, the public became used to read between the lines of the legal press all it needed to feed its hatred of oppression.

By “legal” press, “legal” liberals are meant the open public press and those liberals who were trying to comply with the legal requirements of absolutism even in their work of condemning the absolutist order. The term “legal” is opposed by the term “revolutionary” which is applied to political actions in defiance of law.

3. Dragomirov was for many years Commander of the Kiev Military region and known by his epigrammatic style.