Direct Action and the General Strike in Russia

Peter Kropotkin

“L’Action directe et la Grève générale en Russie”, Les Temps Nouveaux, 2 December 1905[1]

It will be remembered that after being rendered detested by the massacres of January 22 in St. Petersburg, by the slaughters which accompanied the great strikes in Poland a few days later, as well as by the atrocities that marked the reign of the police throughout the empire, Tsar Nicholas II finally in August resigned himself to sign the manifesto that established the famous Duma.

This was a general disappointment. Russia, without doubt, was right to call for the holding of elections, but the franchise was so limited that less than one hundred thousand people alone, out of 135 million inhabitants who make up the empire, were to be allowed to vote. The peasants, who are 90 million, were only to be allowed have to elections with three degrees, so that they were given in the final analysis only a few thousands of voters. Finally, the Duma only had the right to give advice to the autocrat. He alone, in his Council of State which he appointed, was to continue to decide upon everything.

So a few fanatics of parliamentarianism and the most timid of the liberals were the only ones to propose accepting such an electoral system and such a Duma.

Furthermore, the stage of siege continued to exist, the press dared not speak, the governors acted in the provinces with a rigour of satraps, exiling on their own initiative the malcontents. The empire was ablaze and embattled. In Poland, police, gendarmes and spies were being killed at a rate of three a week; in Baku and Nakhchivan, the Tatars massacred Armenians; in the Baltic provinces, insurrection was permanent, and in Riga and Reval there were all out battles in the streets; Finland threatened a general uprising; in Odessa, half the ships in the port were burned and the sailors of the [Battleship] Potemkin had risen. The whole of Russia was champing at the bit.

* * *

Meanwhile, in October the general strike which had been talked about for a long time broke out, which as early as February Poland had successfully tried, and, as a result, the Revolution took another step forward.

Even though no newspaper appeared any more in St. Petersburg, the workers’ Council published its Bulletin every day; they could see in the street the delegates of the council, whose names and addresses were not known but the assembled crowd listened. They had been appointed by the workers themselves – just like the insurrectional Commune of 10 August 1792 – and an executive of eight members had been taken from their amidst.

Today it appears that the 300,000 workers of St. Petersburg are divided into groups of 500, and each group appoints a delegate. This very much reminds us of the Central Committee which preceded the Paris Commune of 1871, and it is certain that workers across the country should organise on this model. In any case, these councils represent the revolutionary strength of the working class.

Would you like to know how censorship was abolished? While Witte’s functionaries painfully developed a bad little law on the press, on 3 November the workers’ delegates established the freedom of the press. They put in their Bulletin the following announcement: “If as of tomorrow an editor of a newspapers sends his paper to the censor before sending out of the printers, we will confiscate all the copies in the streets, we will invite the printers to walk out of the print-shops, while instructing the strike committee to compensate them; but if they do not quit, they will be boycotted and their presses smashed.”

Thus the preventative censorship was abolished in St. Petersburg. It was the same in Moscow a little later. And today, November 24, we learn that a similar measure has just been taken by the printers’ union for “all books and other printed matter.”

This is direct action at work and these are the first results. Let it not then be said that the workers of the Latin nations, by preaching the general strike and direct action, have taken the wrong path. The Russian working people, by applying these for themselves, have proven that their brothers in the West were perfectly right.

* * *

It is true that it is just political reforms that have been achieved so far, reforms that do not add a gram of bread and meat to the usual meagre diet of the worker. Certainly. But revolutionaries will not limit their action to just achieving these reforms.

And already, while the legal working day in Russia is eleven hours (66 hours a week), as in Germany, the country of the Social-Democrats, the Russian workers, at least in St. Petersburg, only work, strictly speaking, eight hours a day and often even 42 hours a week.

The proceed by direct action. They do what we have always recommended: after eight hours of work, they say good-night to the boss and leave. So the heads of industry are despairing. On Monday, the workers had worked ten or eleven hours, and on Tuesday they left after eight hours! On Wednesday, they do the same and then the boss, furious, closes his factory and nobody works anymore. And this has been repeated everywhere since 22 January. In the end, the workers will force the bosses to accept eight hours and it will be all to the good. It will probably still be four or five hours too long, given their awful wages. But a victory won by direct action is always a great victory.

And then it is certain that the workers who succeeded in forcing the autocracy to capitulate will also force capitalism to do so. They will do more. They will be able to find forms of communal industrial organisation. But first they must first send packing the hypnotisers [endormeurs[2]] who tell them: “Just make the political revolution; it is too early for the social revolution.”

This is what happened in Moscow. The bakers went on strike. Printers and typographers did likewise. Again, the socialist organisations had nothing to do with it: they were workers who wanted to improve their condition.

The government sent in troops. But the workers had had enough of massacres. Three hundred armed bakers, some with revolvers, barricaded themselves into a granary and fought a real battle with the Cossacks there. The latter obviously had the upper hand, and the bakers were massacred. But all the proletariat took up the cause of the victims, and while the socialist theoreticians strove to prove the impossibility of any general strike, they, the workers, began to go through the workshops, putting a stop to work everywhere.

After a few days the strike was absolutely general, both in the city and on the railway lines which converged there. The great city was hungry, and we can imagine what the workers had to suffer but they held out. The provisions which arrive daily from neighbouring provinces rotted along the railway lines. There was no bread, no water, no gas nor electricity – complete darkness – no smoking factories, no trams, no newspapers, except the announcements of the strike committee. By the thousands, travellers were crowded, camped and hungry in the stations; hundreds of letters piled up in the post office, which rented special warehouses to store them.

Then, little by little, the strike burst out from Moscow over the provinces. Petersburg, Poland, Finland, and soon all industrial Russia followed Moscow. The enthusiasm of the workers spread to the other social classes. Shop assistants, bank and commercial employees, teachers, then actors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers and even judges made common cause with the strikers. They saw waiters turning off the lights after 7 o’clock. In Finland, the maids were given by the strikers the order to work only from 7 am to 7 pm.

It was a whole people going on strike. All, except the troops. And yet, were not officers and officials in uniform not seen at the meetings of the strikers and soldiers amongst the columns of demonstrators?

And what exasperated the authorities was that the demonstrators avoided any conflict with the troops. Thus, in Moscow, a column of strikers approached the platform for the Petersburg line. It sees the company [of soldiers], immediately stops, turns back, disbands – and a quarter of a hour later you could see the locomotives of that line, launched at full speed, destroy each other and the wagons aflame, a few hundred steps behind the company!

Then Nicholas II, after sometimes consulting with the reactionaries and sometimes with Witte, seeing that the former dared not risk their heads to save the autocracy, decided in favour of the second, and signed the 30 October manifesto which was, in short, an abdication of the autocracy.

A new force was thus established by the strike: the force of the workers asserting themselves for the first time and setting in motion this lever of any revolution – direct action.

* * *

We must say a few more words about the other powerful element of the Russian Revolution – these are the peasant revolts.

We know that the French Revolution would have come to nothing if the peasant revolts had not continued for four or five years, until the abolition of feudal rights without redemption (June and July 1793).

It is the same in Russia. The peasant insurrections have lasted for more than a year. But, as always, they grow at the beginning of winter to decrease at the time of the harvest, when everyone is exhausted in the fields. Furthermore, while last winter they broke out mainly in the West, they now take place in the East. It is the village assembly that decides they will begin on such a day. On that day, they harness their carts and go to the lord. They take from the granaries what they need of corn, from the forests what they need of wood, then they return in the utmost order. If there is no resistance from the lord, then nothing will be touched but the wheat and the wood. It is only if the lord requests troops that they ransack and burn all his property. But the peasants have still never killed anyone. Those who kill are the defenders of property. Thus they have just massacred over a hundred peasants in a province of Tambor.

Then, everywhere, with a remarkable unity, the peasants declare that the land belongs to them and take possession of it. On this point, all peasant Russia agrees. Many would still consent to the introduction of some kind of redemption by the State but, they say, the land must “be ours.” It is the unanimous will, expressed in congresses, of which two general ones have taken place taken place officially so to speak and others have been held by the revolutionaries in over a hundred villages.

It may be taken for granted, against some revolutionaries in the cities who fear the contrary, that the government will never succeed in gaining the sympathy of the peasants. Their demand for the land far exceeds what any feudal or bourgeois government can grant. The peasant revolt will continue until the day when they finally decide to take the land themselves.

It is equally obvious, furthermore, that the revolution will not be the work of a few months, but of several years. At the very least, what has been accomplished so far proves that this revolution will be of a social nature. No one can predict how far it will go in this direction. But it is impossible that a half-century of socialist development will be wasted and the revolution will feel the effects of the propaganda that has been directed against capital since 1848.

Nevertheless, bourgeois elements have already faded behind the two great forces of the peasants and the workers, and the two great means of action have been the general strike and direct action.

There is every reason to believe that the workers of the cities will understand the strength conferred by direct action added to the general strike and, imitating in this the peasant rebels, they will likely be led to get their hands on all that is necessary to live and produce. Then they can lay in the cities the initial foundations of the communist commune.

End Notes

[1] An English translation entitled “The Revolution in Russia and the General Strike” appeared in Freedom (November/December 1905) under the name “S” along with the letter “The Revolution in Russia.” (Translator)

[2] Kropotkin is referring to those who seek to beguile, smooth-talk or otherwise pacify the working class with hopes of change by means of reforms legislated by politicians rather than, as anarchists argued, by direct action and economic self-organisation. It should be noted that in June-July 1869, shortly after joining the International, Bakunin wrote a series of articles for L’Égalité on this issue entitled “Les endormeurs.” (“The Hypnotizers,” The Basic Bakunin: Writings, 1869–1871 [Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1992]). (Translator)