Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 29, 2009

1905: Lessons for Iran

Filed under: Iran — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

Father Gapon

From V.I. Lenin, “Revolutionary Days”:

In reviewing the events of Bloody Sunday one is struck by the combination of naive patriarchal faith in the tsar and the fierce armed street fighting against the tsarist rule. The first day of the Russian revolution brought the old Russia and the new face to face with startling force and showed the death agony of the peasants’ age-old faith in “Our Father the Tsar”, and the birth of a revolutionary people, the urban proletariat. No wonder the European bourgeois newspapers say that Russia of January 10 is no longer the Russia of January 8. No wonder the cited German Social—Democratic newspaper[1] recalls how seventy years ago the working-class movement started in England, how in 1834 the English workers held street demonstrations to protest against the banning of the trade unions, how in 1838 they drew up the “People’s Charter” at monster meetings near Manchester, and how Parson Stephens proclaimed “the right, of every man that breathes God’s free air and treads upon God’s free earth to have his home and hearth.” And the same parson called on the assembled workers to take up arms.

Here, in Russia, too, a priest found himself at the head of the movement; one day he appealed for a march with a peaceful petition to the tsar himself, and the next day he issued a call for revolution. “Comrades, Russian workers!” Father Georgi Gapon wrote, after that bloody day, in a letter read at a meeting of liberals. “We no longer have a tsar.

Today a river of blood divides him from the Russian people. It is time for the Russian workers to begin the struggle for the people’s freedom without him. For today I give you my blessing. Tomorrow I shall be with you. Today I am busy working for our cause.”

This is not Father Georgi Gapon speaking. This is the voice of those thousands upon thousands, of those millions upon millions of Russian workers and peasants who until now could believe naively and blindly in the Tsar Father and seek alleviation of their unbearable lot from Our Father the Tsar “himself”, who put the blame for all the atrocities and outrages, the tyranny and plunder, only on the officials that were deceiving the tsar. Generation after generation of downtrodden, half-civilised, rustic existence cut off from the world tended to strengthen this faith. Every month of life of the new, urban, industrial, literate Russia has been undermining and destroying this faith. The past decade of the working-class movement has produced thousands of advanced proletarian Social-Democrats who have consciously broken with this faith. It has educated scores of thousands of workers in whom the class instinct, strengthened in the strike movement and fostered by political agitation, has shattered this faith to its foundations. Behind these scores of thousands, however, stood hundreds of thousands, millions, of toiling and exploited people, proletarians and semi-proletarians, suffering every insult and indignity, in whom this faith could still survive. They were not ready for revolt, they could only beg and plead. Their feelings and their mood, their level of knowledge and political experience were expressed by Father Georgi Gapon; herein lies the historic significance of the role played at the beginning of the Russian revolution by a man who, but yesterday unknown, has today become the hero of the hour in St. Petersburg and, as a result, in the entire European press.

It is clear now why the St. Petersburg Social-Democrats, whose letters we quoted above, at first treated Gapon, as they could not help doing, with distrust. A man who wore the cassock, who believed in God and acted under the august patronage of Zubatov and the secret police, could not but arouse suspicion. Whether he was sincere or not in rending his cassock and cursing the fact that he belonged to that vile social-estate, the priesthood, which robs and demoralises the people, no one could say with certainty, beyond those who knew him well personally, that is, a mere handful. Only the course of historical events could decide this, only facts, facts, facts. And the facts decided in Gapon’s favour.

Will Social-Democracy be able to gain the lead of this spontaneous movement? our St. Petersburg comrades asked themselves with concern, seeing the swift irresistible growth of the general strike, which is involving unusually broad strata of the proletariat, seeing the magnetism of Gapon’s influence on the “backward” masses who were so ignorant that they could be swept off their feet even by an agent-provocateur. And the Social-Democrats not only did not encourage any naive illusions with regard to the possibility of peaceful petitioning but, on the contrary, opposed Gapon in argument, openly and firmly defending all their views and their tactical line. History, which the working-class masses were making without Social-Democracy, has confirmed the correctness of these views and the tactical line. The logic of the proletariat’s class position proved stronger than Gapon’s mistakes, naïvetés, and illusions. Grand Duke Vladimir, acting on behalf of the tsar and invested with all the power of the tsar, undertook by his executioner’s exploit to demonstrate to the working-class masses the very thing that the Social-Democrats have always demonstrated and will continue to demonstrate to them through the printed and spoken word.

The masses of workers and peasants who still retained a vestige of faith in the tsar were not ready for insurrection, we said. After January 9 we have the right to say that now they are ready for insurrection and will rise. By his massacre of unarmed workers “Our Father the Tsar” himself has driven them to the barricades and given them their first lessons in barricade fighting. The lessons of “Our Father the Tsar” will not be lost.

It remains for the Social-Democrats to see to it that the news of the bloody days in St. Petersburg is spread as far and as wide as possible; to rally and organise their forces still better and popularise still more energetically the slogan they have long since advanced: general armed uprising of the people.

Leon Trotsky, “1905”:

The forms taken by the historic events of January 9 could not, of course, have been foreseen by anyone. The priest whom history had so unexpectedly placed for a few days at the head of the working masses imposed the imprint of his personality, his views and his priestly status on the events. The real content of these events was concealed from many eyes by their form. But the inner significance of January 9 goes far beyond the symbolism of the procession to the Winter Palace. Gapon’s priestly robe was only a prop in that drama; the protagonist was the proletariat. The proletariat began with a strike, united itself, advanced political demands, came out into the streets, drew to itself the enthusiastic sympathy of the entire population, clashed with the troops and set off the Russian revolution. Gapon did not create the revolutionary energy of the workers of St. Petersburg; he merely released it, to his own surprise. The son of a priest, and then a seminarian and student at the Aeligious Academy, this agitator, so obviously encouraged by the police, suddenly found himself at the head of a crowd of a hundred thousand men and women. The political situation, his priestly robe, the elemental excitement of the masses which, as yet, had little political consciousness, and the fabulously rapid course of events turned Gapon into a “leader.”

A spinner of fantasies on a psychological subsoil of adventurism, a southerner of sanguine temperament with a touch of the confidence man about him, a total ignoramus in social matters, Gapon was as little able to guide events as he was to foresee them. Events completely overtook him.

The liberals persisted for a long time in the belief that the entire secret of the events of January 9 lay in Gapon’s personality. It contrasted him with the social democrats as though he were a political leader who knew the secret of controlling the masses and they a doctrinaire sect. In doing so they forgot that January 9 would not have taken place if Gapon had not encountered several thousand politically conscious workers who had been through the school of socialism. These men immediately formed an iron ring around him, a ring from which he could not have broken loose even if he had wanted to. But he made no attempt to break loose. Hypnotized by his own success, he let himself be carried by the waves.

But although, on the very next day after Bloody Sunday, we ascribed to Gapon a wholly subordinate political role, we all undoubtedly overestimated his personality. With his halo of holy anger, with a pastor’s curses on his lips, he seemed from afar almost to be a Biblical figure. It seemed as though powerful revolutionary passions had been awakened in the breast of this young priest employed at a Petersburg transit prison. And what happened? When the lights burned low, Gapon was seen by every one to be the utter political and moral nonentity he really was. His posturing before socialist Europe, his pathetic “revolutionary” writings from abroad, both crude and naive, his return to Russia, his conspiratorial relations with the government, the pieces of silver dealt out by Count Witte, Gapon’s pretentious and absurd interviews with representatives of the conservative press, and finally, the wretched betrayal which caused his end – all these finally destroyed any illusions concerning the Gapon of January 9.

We cannot help recalling the shrewd words of Viktor Adler, the leader of the Austrian social democrats, who, on reading the first telegram which announced Gapon’s departure from Russia, said: “A pity … It would have been better for his name in history if he had disappeared from the scene as mysteriously as he had come upon it. We would have been left with a beautiful romantic legend about the priest who opened the floodgates of the Russian revolution. There are men,” Adler added with the subtle irony so characteristic of him, “whom the role of martyrs suits better than that of party comrades.”

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