“A tremendous wave of strikes swept the country from end to end, convulsing the entire body of the nation ... The working-class masses were stirred to the very core of their being.”

So Leon Trotsky described the impact of the Bloody Sunday massacre in Saint Petersburg on 9 January 1905, when the Russian king’s troops fired into a crowd of protesting workers. The Saint Petersburg soviet, or the council of workers’ deputies, emerged out of the revolutionary struggle ten months later, and Trotsky was elected its chair at just 26 years of age.

The soviet was an innovation of momentous significance. It remains of fundamental importance in the struggle for socialism as the key site where workers organise in times of revolutionary upheaval. The most democratic institutions ever seen, soviets comprise delegates elected from workplaces, in which they continue working, rather than becoming detached representatives like the politicians in Western democracies. The composition of soviets is responsive to changes in political consciousness because delegates can easily be replaced if opinions change.

In the 1917 revolution, Trotsky and Lenin drew on the experience of 1905, winning majority support for their slogan “All power to the soviets!” and for the overthrow of the capitalist provisional government. Workers’ councils have been the hallmark of workers’ revolutionary struggles ever since. Here we look at how Trotsky recorded their role in his book 1905.

The turmoil ebbed and flowed all year. In September, print workers’ strikes over wages sparked a surge of mass strikes. By 10 October, trains were stationary, the telegraph was silent, industry was grinding to a halt and banks were closing. All this needed coordination.

In a first step towards “creating a revolutionary workers’ council of self-management”, about 40 workers, at the suggestion of socialists, called on the working class of Saint Petersburg to launch a general strike and to elect delegates. The proclamation they drafted stated:

“Decisive events are going to occur in Russia within the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events in full readiness, united by our common soviet.”

Trotsky wrote:

“It was ... authoritative and yet had no traditions; which could immediately involve a scattered mass of hundreds of thousands of people while having virtually no organisational machinery; which united the revolutionary currents within the working class; which was capable of initiative and spontaneous self-control—and most important of all, which could be brought out from underground within 24 hours.”

From then on, the soviet was “the cornerstone” of events, “the freely elected parliament of the working class”.

The Petersburg soviet was a model for Moscow, Odessa and several other cities. Above all, “this purely class-founded, proletarian organisation was the organisation of the revolution as such. The soviet was the axis of all events, every thread ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it”.

The soviet employed a range of tactics, from verbal appeals to forcible coercion, to deepen the strike. A delegate reported that he addressed the manager of a textile factory still working: “In the name of the soviet I call for the immediate closing down of your factory”. The manager replied, “Very well, we shall stop work at 3pm”.

By 16 October, all workplaces were on strike in the working-class areas. Trotsky described the dynamic:

“By spreading the strike, the soviet expanded and consolidated itself. Every striking factory elected a representative ... The second meeting was attended by delegates from 40 large plants, two factories and three trade unions.”

Its meetings “resembled a council of war more than a parliament ... The questions under discussion—the spreading of the strike and the demands to be addressed to the duma—were of a purely practical nature and were debated briefly, energetically and in a business-like manner. One felt that every atom of time was accounted for”.

A deputation was to submit their demands to the state dumaa new parliament founded as a concession to the revolution but elected by a very limited franchise.

Before they would address this citadel of the property-owning classes, they demanded it declare that if any workers’ deputies were arrested it would inform higher authorities that it considered this an insult to itself.

After demanding that food supplies be distributed to workers, their spokesperson concluded:

“The soviet of workers’ deputies demands—and it has a right to demand, not to ask, since it represents several hundred thousand workers, inhabitants of this city, whereas you represent only a handful of electors ... that the property of the city be placed at the disposal of all the city’s inhabitants for the satisfaction of their needs ... We need places where we can meet, open to us our municipal buildings!

“We need funds for continuing the strike: allocate municipal funds for this purpose, not for supporting the police and the gendarmerie!

“We need arms to gain our freedom and preserve it. Allocate funds for the organisation of a working-class militia!”

It was an agitational display, not a plea they expected to win any concessions. By this kind of action, Trotsky explained, “the soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront”.

Strike committees accepted the soviet’s authority. “By placing many disconnected organisations under its control, the soviet united the revolution around itself.”

A manifesto issued by the king granting concessions did not guarantee freedom of the press, provoking the soviet to proclaim:

“The soviet of deputies resolves that only those newspapers may be published whose editors ... refuse to submit their issues for censorship ... Typesetters and other workers of the press will work only after editors have declared their readiness to put the freedom of the press into practice ... The soviet of deputies will take all necessary measures to pay the comrades on strike all wages due to them. Newspapers which fail to accept the present resolution will be confiscated.”

This became the new press law. The monarchy’s manifesto had to be printed by soldiers and appeared only in the Government Gazette. When the reactionary Svet (Light) was published without the knowledge of its own typesetters, its print shop was duly wrecked.

In response to government threats, the soviet executive committee announced that Izvestia, the soviet’s paper, would be printed in print shops seized from their owners. Four issues were published in this way. Trotsky explained the soviet’s stance:

“Would it not have been possible for the soviet to exempt the legal social-democratic papers from the strike, thus relieving itself of the necessity to raid the print-works of the bourgeois press? If the question is put in isolation, it cannot be answered. But everything becomes clear if we see the soviet as a whole, in its origins and in all its tactics, as the organised embodiment of the supreme rights of the revolution at its moment of extreme tension, when it cannot and does not wish to adapt itself to the enemy ... 

“During general strikes, when all life came to a standstill, the old regime considered it a point of honour to continue printing its Government Gazette without interruption, and it did so under the protection of its troops. To this the soviet opposed its armed workers’ detachments, which ensured the publication of the revolution’s own newspaper.”

Trotsky argued that, due to their small numbers, Marxist revolutionaries in Saint Petersburg were “not able to create a living organisational link with these masses”. This meant:

“The creation of a non-party organisation [was] absolutely essential. In order to have authority in the eyes of the masses on the very day it came into being, [it] had to be based on the broadest representation ... Since the production process was the sole link between [workers] who, in the organisational sense, were still quite inexperienced, representation had to be adapted to the factories and plants.”

This is not just specific to Russia, or the consequence of small revolutionary forces. Soviets are necessary to mould the working class into a united, powerful force. The workers’ council creates a forum in which all shades of opinion can be debated. The less class conscious can be drawn into the struggle and can learn for themselves and become conscious, active participants in changing society.

The regime fomented horrendous pogroms to create disarray in the revolution. The Petersburg soviet’s role was of paramount importance in preparing to defend the city:

“The gun shops, ignoring all police restrictions, carried on a feverish trade in Brownings [a type of gun]. But revolvers cost a great deal ... and the revolutionary parties and the soviet had difficulty in arming their fighting detachments ... All plants and workshops having any access to iron or steel began ... to manufacture side-arms. Several thousand hammers were forging daggers, pikes, wire whips and knuckledusters. In the ... soviet, one deputy after another mounted the rostrum, raising their weapons high above their heads and transmitting their electors’ solemn undertaking to suppress the pogrom as soon as it flared up.”

In the factory areas, they organised a real militia. Special protection of the buildings of the revolutionary press was organised while “the journalist wrote and the typesetter worked with a revolver in his pocket”.

The monarchy could not stop soldiers guarding the factories being influenced by the workers. They were saying: “As soon as you rise, we’ll rise too; we’ll open up the arsenal for you”.

The existence of the soviet enabled these informal links to become formal, with soldiers speaking at its meetings. The soviet in Saint Petersburg issued a Manifesto to the Soldiers which read in part:

“You often turn to us ... for advice and support ... Brother soldiers, you are right ... The government set up a court-martial to judge sailors and soldiers in Kronstadt, and immediately the workers of Petersburg went on strike everywhere ... We are bound by the same chains. Only the united efforts of the people and the army will break those chains.”

A soviet of soldiers’ deputies was formed, and soldiers’ representatives joined the workers’ soviet.

Workers in Saint Petersburg began to work an eight-hour day, rather than wait until it became law. With the defeat of the revolution, the eight-hour day was systematically reversed. A soviet executive member concluded: 

“We may not have won the eight-hour day for the masses, but we have certainly won the masses for the eight-hour day. Henceforth the war-cry: Eight hours and a gun! shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker.”

The centralised, democratic structure of the soviet made organising all these struggles much more effective than if left to random workplaces operating independently. It enabled the working class to begin to act as an alternative government.

In 1905, the Saint Petersburg soviet stood at the centre of the revolution. When it was crushed by the authorities, it signalled the beginning of the defeat of the revolution.

On 4 December, armed police and soldiers loyal to the monarchy surrounded the soviet as delegates from industry after industry reported support for the Moscow soviet’s call for another general political strike. They would be arrested, and the revolution crushed, but they made one last stand of defiance:

“The sound of loud metallic banging came from downstairs. It was as though a dozen blacksmiths were working at their anvils. The delegates were smashing their Brownings so as to prevent them falling into the hands of the police!”