Does the history of Russia between 1905 and 1917 suggest that peaceful evolution towards constitutional government was possible

The October Manifesto of 1905 created for the first time a form of organization, which may be recognised as a legal political party. These ‘parties’ were split between Social Democrats (Bolshevik and Menshevik groups), Socialist Revolutionary groups, Liberals (such as the Kadets) and the rightists. Each socialist facet of the political proto-system, and also Tsar Nicholas II, promoted some form of radical social and political change within Russia.

The Social Democrats assumed a Marxist viewpoint that a bourgeois revolution would beget a working class proletariat uprising in the very near future; the Socialist Revolutionaries were of the opinion that their strength from the October ‘victory’ had to be consolidated and used to build up a revolutionary support base; and the Tsar was intent on dispensing with politicians and rescinding his ‘unnecessary’ weakness shown in 1905, and flooding any attempt at government with right-wing inclined peasants.

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The Revolution of 1905-1907 was, to all intents and purposes a failure. The 1905 strikes had allowed parties, but the weak, overly ambitious strikes from the socialists against the Tsar had not achieved their aim of ousting him from power. No revolution took place. On the other hand, Nicholas II was not the strong ruler he had committed himself to being in 1905. The SRs, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks were hardly crushed.

In fact, Stolypin’s attempt to advance the Tsar’s position through the introduction of the Third of June electoral Law, guaranteeing a rural nobility majority in government and the Duma, curtailing representative government, did little more than to convince sceptical Mensheviks, particularly Trotsky, to unite behind the liberal’s struggle against Stolypin’s system and continue the fight against Tsarism.

Yet, one must not forget that, with the exception of the Tsar, a cripple and unimpressive figure increasingly considered a lame duck by his court and officials, each group advocating revolution automatically assumed that at the end there would be some form of multi-party democratic government based on a new and radical constitution, but certainly not dictatorship. Lenin used the term dictatorship in his work What is to be Done? 1902), but only to clarify the governmental system which would introduce complete democratisation, implicitly suggesting that accommodation of all points of view would be a feature of post-revolutionary ‘dictatorship’. It is not until 1917 that Lenin uses the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, dispensing with the idea of complete democracy and inclusion of the peasantry. It is perhaps useful to clarify what constitutional government means.

Whilst one may argue that government need not consist of many strata, a government that is without many strata is, in effect, a dictatorship. However, the term constitutional government does not preclude the idea of a constitutional dictatorship, only totalitarian or authoritarian rule. In effect, the constitutional rights of each individual as an equal entity precluding non-democratic dictating forms as good a constitutionally controlled government as any other system.

This vision of equality for all and each mans voice counting as much as the next is obviously not practical in a regime operated by a centralist urban proletariat, with a senior party structure necessary for distribution of land or grain. In light of this, we are left with the definition of constitutional government as a party or system controlled by constitutional or doctrinal principles. In effect, is it possible that the Tsar could have held onto power, or was it reasonable to expect a system to casually usurp the Romanovs and continue with a modified constitution without the need for revolution?

One must assume that revolution not only marginalizes but also financially destroys certain areas of society; this provokes ‘hunger jerk’ reactions, necessarily leading to a need for suppression of anti-revolutionary trends. This assumption is key, since whilst one has to analyse if the effects of 1905-1907 precluded a transition to consensus politics, one must also consider if the revolution itself was inevitable? The Socialist Revolutionaries’ leader, Victor Chernov, expressed before a 1908 party conference that another full-scale revolution was a certainty.

When one considers this statement, it is more useful not to look at the potential revolutionaries since it is almost certainly the case that they would have continued the fight against Tsarism regardless of other factors, but to look at the power base to be overcome. In this case Nicholas II and the existing constitution. The Third of June electoral rule in 1907 committed rural nobility to the government. As Hans Rogger has pointed out, this was hardly the best environment building a broad-based democratic system or labour movement.

This consolidated the Tsar’s power significantly and warned the Mensheviks and SRs that the preconditions for a proletariat revolt did not yet exist. But it also had another effect, pushing the Bolsheviks further towards the Marxist doctrine of the proletariat, heartening Lenin and showing him that the peasantry were a cause to be worked at rather than be reconciled with, and so the embryonic red/white divide emerged. By 1910, the Social Democratic Party saw a declining membership. In 1907 the membership was 150,000, by 1910 it had been reduced to 10,000.

The Duma was quickly becoming an organisation that was controlled by the moderates and tsarist Kadets. It is from this point that one may ask how, by 1917, the Duma had been so weak as to render it almost incapable of curtailing a rather latent rise of opinion and political manoeuvre by the Bolsheviks? Part of the reason is that the Dumas were riddled with dysfunction. The Duma, with its new (limited) constitutional power granted by the Tsar realised its need to safeguard the gains of October.

By 1909, the more conservative liberals (Nationalists and Moderate Rightists) had overtaken the more moderate liberals (Kadets and Progressives) as the mediators between state and people. This fundamental disagreement between the left and right ‘whites’ posed a problem to the stability of socialist opposition. The Fundamental Laws guaranteed in October as citizen rights and a basis for constitutional reform at a pan-social level, were already being arbitrarily violated by landowners and businessmen who saw these violations as “regrettable but necessary to stop the revolution”.

The leftists, led Miliukov, recognised by 1908 that constitutional reform had not gone deep enough and needed to move Octoberism further towards a guarantee of stability. By 1909, the Octobrists, advocating far-reaching reform and a commitment to representative government, had broken free of the rightists, which had formed themselves into a party called the Russian Nationalists. This had the consequence of bringing Stolypin to rely on these as upholders of agrarian noble privilege.

This is important when one considers that if Stolypin had continued to work with the Octobrists, and not insisted on the passing of the unconstitutional Western Zemstvo Bill in violation of the Fundamental Laws, that the centrist claims for a representational democracy could have soon been realised if the Tsar could have been pressured to abdicate. Stolypin’s course of action, however, sealed the polarisation of the liberal forces in the Duma. By the time the Fourth Duma was elected, it held a restricted franchise and was dominated by men of property and privilege.

This left the opposition floundering and fractious. Industrial strife exploded after February 1912 as living costs rose exponentially faster than wages. By 1914, the political and economic situation looked menacing. Was this inevitable? It is quite obvious that the spread of Marxist ideology through the early 1900s was becoming stronger and swifter. Recurring poor harvests and a quickly growing, but poorly funded and under fed, urban sector stood testament to this.

To this extent, the action of Stolypin to promote the growth of a ‘kulak’ class in the rural areas was the only hope that the Tsar had for his survival. Equally, the passing of the Fundamental Laws were necessary to balance the October Manifesto’s creation of a political voice, which was, in turn, the only reasonable solution to quelling anti-tsarist trends. In essence, the political situation had to be linked to the peasantry in order for the conservative liberal forces in the government to dominate.

This tied the food producing class, and therefore economy, to the Duma, creating a new class of super-peasant. These peasants inevitably acted as quasi-businessmen, withholding much produce from the urban areas, exacerbating urban, and therefore Marxist tensions. In effect, the growth of Marxism was inevitable. Yet this does not explain whether the revolution was necessary, surely the growing Marxist forces could be contained by mediation and compromise whilst maintaining a liberal consensus in the Duma.

Here two factors come into play which have an important bearing on the events of 1917: Firstly, the Fundamental Laws were necessary to keep the absolute sovereignty of the Tsar. The association of the Tsar with a divine providence meant that the Duma was bound to act in the Tsar’s best interests, and therefore the leaders of the Duma were chosen by the Tsar himself; guaranteeing control from the centre.

Without the Laws, the Romanovs would quickly have become obsolete; it is not reasonable to expect the Tsar to agree to this, however committed to a constitutional democracy the members of the Duma were, a transference towards a constitutional government in 1906 was simply not going to happen with the victorious Tsar rolling to one side merely as a gesture of goodwill, and giving away control of the army to conservative liberal peasants who wanted rid of Marxism for good.

The result of the Fundamental Laws was that rather than be an authoritarian figurehead, the Tsar now had to become a diplomat and politician, and keep the Duma under control, from a centre that was far from politically stable. The second issue is the First World War. It is debatable whether the First World War was inevitable; there is certainly much evidence to say that it was a cultural and historical certainty. Russia’s involvement in the war was, however, a certainty.

To not enter it would have been to show a weak, fractious front and to invite invasion. It was also in Russia’s interest that it fought for lands in Poland, which provided a certain buffer between a hostile Germany and itself. The war had certain consequences in Russia. Whilst it exacerbated nationalist tensions, it also necessitated a huge industrial surge to produce arms. Arms were sent to Marxist centres of influence, notably St Petersburg and Moscow, by the west.

In effect, the Marxist support apparatus, the proletariat, grew immeasurably. Added to this was the huge disruption of the rural areas, where peasants called to fight were destroyed in huge numbers on the battlefield due to poor training, creating huge demographic anomalies in Russia and devastating communities by killing the young fit agricultural workers. These communities, whether later affiliated to white causes or red, had their political pretensions transformed from curiosity into anger.

The result of these two factors is obvious. The political tensions that came with a growing industrial class automatically meant an increase in a political ideology, which was excluded to a large extent by an unrepresentative government. At the same time the Tsar had to keep control of an ever more difficult situation. Not least the task of keeping control of a central organisation which is dominated by the peasantry, the most decentralised, unorganised and widespread body in the world, probably at any stage of its development to date.

The consequence of this is that the Tsar mattered. His personality, his choice of situation, his diplomatic skill, and his willingness to compromise are all called into question here. His weak handling of the 1905 demonstrations stand testament to his weak control. His statement afterward that he would never be as weak again and refusal to listen to political advisors leaves him comparable to Charles II of England. An ignorance disguising a weakness eventually killed them both.

When tensions mounted, as they inevitably would, Nicholas II, like his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm, could not keep control. The February Uprising stood testament to the ease with which Nicholas accepted defeat. His refusal to entertain diplomatic discussion was mixed with an ignorant apathy towards the Duma. The Fundamental Laws were often broken, particularly by Stolypin; the Tsar’s replacement for Witte intended to be a ‘puppet’ but whom until his assassination was effectively ‘puppet master’.

This allowed the political tensions to increase whilst constitutional ambiguity clouded the issues. Freedom was allowed the Duma, but tensions had to grasp hold of something, and that was manifest in the wave of anti-Tsarism towards the end of Russia’s involvement in the War. As may be seen here, the Social Democrats themselves did not make a transformation to constitutional government impossible. The Bolsheviks were not an organisation that chose to come into being.

The adherence to Marxist doctrine as advocating a ‘place in the sun’ for the working class was an inevitable function, as was the desire to rid the nation of an outdated dynasty, which could no longer provide effective government or sufficient control on undesirable aspects of the nation. A government consensus under the conditions presented to Russia was impossible. Exacerbated tensions were inevitable, The Tsar’s position was inevitably fixed, the Tsar’s control was inevitably doomed to fail, lack of control inevitably begets a search for control.

This is not to say constitutional government was impossible. It was, for a time, the desired option by all parties, including the Bolsheviks. However, it is fairly certain that it could not have come into being without a purge of political tensions, certainly not peacefully, and evolutionary only in the most broad sense of the word. Lenin, by 1920, saw the only solution to Russia’s problems as a ‘proletariat dictatorship’, maybe, by then he was right, the constitutional democratic boat had sailed, the constitutional government had failed in its apathy and lack of formal control.

The end of Tsarism left a power vacuum which was ideologically refused by so many groups which had become too far entrenched in their ideology that it was only by the Civil War that they realised ideology had to be compromised for a greater good. In effect, the factious groups of the Duma: the conservative rightist liberals, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, SRs; became so static in their ideology that it was impossible to evolve any sort of system, at least not without a free solo reign, and it was inevitable that one group had to pursue this aim.

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