The origins of Bolshevism: The first workers' unions

Submitted by Anon on 25 February, 2004 - 1:29 Author: John O'Mahony

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"The question of the city workers is one of those that it may be said will be moved forward automatically by life itself to an appropriate place, in spite of the a priori theoretical decision of the revolutionary leaders".
G V Plekhanov, in the journal of Zemlya i Volya

The history of the beginnings of a labour movement in Russia is a subordinate part of the history of populism. The first Russian labour movement was a populist movement. It was initiated by populists who "went to the people" in the cities. It was made up of workers whose political outlook was populist.

They were socialists, but populist-socialist. They subscribed to the idea that socialism in Russia could be erected on the basis of the village commune, the "obshchina", and the people in it, the "mir". When "native" working-class leaders emerged, the most developed of them journeyed as populists through the different stages of populism, which I have described in earlier articles in this series.

Some of them moved from anarchist rejection of "politics" all the way to Narodnaya Volya's politics of systematic terrorism in support of the "immediate demand" for the granting by the Tsar of a constitution and the convocation of a Constituent Assembly.

Initially the populists sought in the town proletariat, most of whom were still half-rooted in the peasant villages, recruits who could be sent back to the villages as populist missionaries. The idea that a proletariat of the sort that the populists saw in Western Europe - people with no land and nothing but the sale of their labour power to live on - should not be allowed to develop was one of their energising principles.

Over time some of them began to relate to the urban "peasants" as a specific and permanently urban proletarian class. But would take time.

One of the first labour organisations, the Southern Union of Russian Workers, founded and led by populists, was conceived as a workers' movement that would immediately develop its own "fighting organisation" and use terror and the threat of it against employers of labour to force concessions from them and thereby improve the workers' conditions.

Some of the best early working-class leaders were hanged for terrorist activities. So would be some of the upper-class populists who had been heavily involved in work with the factory proletariat, Sofia Perovskaya for example.

Some of the early working-class leaders embodied in their personal history the dilemma that would be posed in various forms to the revolutionary Marxists a quarter of a century late. Which was it to be: build a movement of the workers that would concern itself primarily or exclusively with day to day issues, or develop a working-class movement, and a movement of the socialist intelligentsia based on the working class, which would concern itself primarily with the political struggle to overthrow Tsarism (in the case of the early working-class leaders, by political terrorism)?

The conundrum that would play an enormous part in the development of 20th century socialism, and in 20th century discussions about socialism and Bolshevism - does "socialism" emerge spontaneously in the working class, or it is brought to the working class "from outside", by the "intelligentsia" - was, in the first Russian working-class movement, answered very clearly in terms of fact. Socialism came from outside the working class.

Even when the socialism consisted of a special conception of Russian history and of the potential the populist-socialists thought existed in the village community, it was brought to the Russian proletariat by members of the intelligentsia, those who sometimes referred to themselves as the "proletariat of thought". The idea of a labour movement came from Western Europe.

The "Chaikovists", the most important populist group of the early 1870s in the build-up of forces that would in the "mad summer" of 1874 "go to the people" - to the villages - were the first to "go to the proletariat".

As the historian Franco Venturi puts it in his monumental history of Russian populism, Roots of Revolution, they were "the first to plant the seeds of a genuine working-class organisation".

He goes on: already "the local unorganised and spasmodic fighting spirit of the workers themselves had produced spontaneous revolts", but the Chaikovists "provided the impulse for a working-class movement which, despite its original limitations and the violence of the persecution it had to face, always thereafter maintained some measure of continuity, and which grew in scope and influence as revolutionary populism developed during the [1870s]". They triggered a movement of the working class that was not primitive and not merely episodic revolt with no continuity between isolated outbreaks of resistance, but continuous.

The Chaikovists included the anarchist propagandist Peter Kropotkin, a full prince no less, from a very ancient family, who would become well-known throughout the socialist and labour world, and whose writings, including his "Appeal to the Young" to devote themselves to the socialist struggle, would influence generations of western socialists. Beginning in the summer of 1872 in the Vyborg district of St Petersburg, they sent people - disguised with false papers and false personal histories - into the factories to work there and to talk to and recruit workers to their study circles.

They who would find it impossible to move or even educate the peasantry, the real "people" of their theories, found the working class responsive. The workers were more mobile. They had a broader view of the world than peasants ignorant of all but their own villages and own concerns. They were concentrated in sizeable groups in their working lives, not only in an occasional gathering in the village.

They lived in a world where things were less fixed and less set in age-old nature-limited routines and the inexorable movement of the seasons than they were in the peasants' world. The will and decisions of the employer were the easily identifiable cause of major events that would affect them - and that will and those decisions could be resisted.

There was often a spontaneous spirit of rebellion among them. Workers responded and fought back where the rustic "people" did not.

What did the Chaikovists and later populists doing the same work - and, after them, the fully-fledged Marxists - say to the workers? They explained to them their own situation, and gave them an overall picture of the society in which they lived.

They taught them to read and write. Even in England in the late 1880s and early 1890s, Eleanor Marx had to teach some of the proletarian leaders of the new mass unions to read and write - famously, Will Thorne, founder of what is now the GMB. In Russia, leaflets and pamphlets usually had to be read out to the mass of workers. Later in the 1870s, the young populist women who "colonised" themselves into the factories won influence and a degree of leadership simply by reading out leaflets, official statements, and employers' regulations, and explaining them to their workmates.

The populists taught workers buried deep in the medieval backwardness of Russia the things that elementary schooling would have taught them - basic geography, for example. They gave them some idea of the history of Europe and the world. They told them about political liberty in other countries, about the Western labour movements, their history, and the socialist society with which they fought to replace capitalism and class society. Thus they gave the Russian workers an idea of what they themselves could do. They taught political economy, using Karl Marx's work.

They told them about populist struggles in other countries, giving them accounts of the fight by "the Irish populist party" - the Land League - against the landlords in Ireland.

They taught them the history of Russia, giving them an account of how the world they lived in and the institutions and classes that made it up had come into existence. They showed them that things which seemed immutable were themselves the products of change and of struggles in the past, and so could be changed in their turn.

Accounts of history turned easily and naturally into a radical critique of the Russian workers' own world.

Naturally, the populists explained to the workers their own conception of the reality and the possibilities of Russia.

They found that the workers responded especially to history, that they drew out of it a sharpened conception of themselves of their place in the world, and of what they could hope to do in it if they educated and organised themselves.

They told them of the great revolts by Cossacks and Ukrainian peasants in the 17th century, led by Stenka Razin, and in the 18th century, led by Pugachev. Myth-enshrouded, uncritical accounts of those revolts, held up as great ideals of revolutionary action, played a central part in all populist propaganda, perhaps especially in that of the Bakuninists.

The development of critical account of those events in the educational and discussion circles of the working class in the late 1870s - for example, of Pugachev's attempts to make himself "alternative" Tsar, replacing Catherine "The Great" - would mark a sharp shift towards proletarian self-differentiation from peasant myths and hopes.

N Flerovsky, who travelled to observe conditions through the Empire and in 1869 published a study entitled The situation of the working class in Russia (by working class, he meant all the working people, peasants and workers alike) which was greatly praised by Karl Marx, defined what was different about the town working class.

"Whereas the peasant in the north and east of Russia remains apathetic for part of the year, without work or the hope of obtaining it, the worker in industrial Russia is never quiet.

"Here one can hear complaints on all sides that there is now worker, that the rewards are not high enough. Here machinery is hated because it lowers wages and gives profits to the capitalists. Here the capitalists are hated when wages go down.

"Here the mentality and determination of the workers are more highly developed... There are strikes. Methods are found to fight against the capitalists and increase pay.

"But though the workers are bolder in their fight to live, the conditions of their lives are even more oppressive [than those of the peasants]".

In his memoirs Peter Kropotkin described what the Chaikovists did:

"Many of [the workers] lives grouped in small artels of ten or twelve people who lives and ate together. At the end of the month each bore his share of the common expenses. We began to frequent these communities. Very soon the textile workers introduced us to other artels of stone workers, carpenters, etc. In some of these groups our comrades had become part of the family; all night through they discussed Socialism with them. In many districts and suburbs of St Petersburg we had rooms which our comrades had rented for this very purpose. Every evening about a dozen workers came to learn to read and write, and then to chat".

The result was that the populists set in motion a movement that would soon develop its own momentum. The difficulty was that police supervision in the towns was far more intensive than in the countryside. The groups of populists targeting the factory and workshop proletarians for their agitation faced savage repression that would again and again destroy their organisations.

In the first case, that of the Chaikovists in St Petersburg, the result of police action was that the grouping no longer existed by the winter of 1873. Kropotkin escaped to the West. Other populists deserted the cities to go "to the people" in the countryside, abandoning activity among the factory workers which in any case (it will be remembered) had the goal of recruiting workers who would leave the town and go back to the countryside to spread the ideas which the populists had planted in them.

We saw in earlier articles the stages of development which the working class had gone through after the abolition of serfdom in 1861. It took time for a working-class mentality to become distinct. For a long time most workers, especially those engaged in digging, in building, and in less skilled work in the cotton industry, did not see their condition as permanent. A sharp distinction existed within the working class between them and the more skilled permanent proletarians such as the metal workers in the workshops of St Petersburg.

The normal economic strike as we now know it is, despite what bourgeois propaganda maintains, a finely tuned weapon designed to put maximum pressure on the employer without breaking the nexus binding the worker and the employer who hires his or her labour power. It is a rational means to reach a definite objective. Strikers formulate demands.

It took time for that norm to emerge in Russia, and for workers' revolts to become means of exerting pressure for defined goals within the proletarian-capitalist relationship.

At first workers' struggles often took the form of fleeing back to the countryside, or rioting rather than striking.

On the other side, too, it took time for the "normal" attitude to wage labour to emerge. We saw that the early workers sometimes had to fight to receive any wage at all. Employers initially treated workers as serfs. In 1861 fifty free workers digging a canal were flogged by their employer.

The struggle of the workers against the bosses' imposition of fines that ate into their wages went on for decades in Russia as in every capitalist country. In the 1860s there were only 50 recorded strikes in Russia. In the 1870s strikes became much more frequent, reaching a peak at the end of the decade. One account puts the total at 326 strikes.

That was the background against which the populists turned to the working class, though in fact the peak of working-class resistance coincided with the desertion of the towns by the young people going to the peasantry.

The state too needed time to clarify its response to strikes. At first "ringleaders" might be deported home to their villages, or given a few days in jail. Repression quickly became more severe.

By the mid 1870s it had become savage. Sentences of years, sometimes ten or even fifteen years, at hard labour in chains were handed down. "Outside" agitators were treated with special severity.

The arrests of the Chaikovists would eventually lead to a trial of 193 persons, one of a number of such mass trials in the 1870s. For educating workers and "spreading disaffection" among them, sentences of three and even nine years were handed down. Two of those jailed would die in prison, one first driven mad.

In the summer of 1873 another group of populists in St Petersburg found itself able to assemble groups of thirty or forty workers to hear the group's organiser, S Sinegub, expand their ideas. Sofia Perovskaya did work around the Tortini factory. Here too repression in late 1873, with the arrest of the "intellectuals" and some of the workers, smashed the work.

The "seed-sowing" effect of what proved to be short-term populist work within the proletariat took forms other than the implantation of ideas. They gave the workers the tools of knowledge, not only teaching some of them to read and write, but helping them assemble libraries.

For example, the group started in the summer of 1873 set up a library, and workers regularly paid in two per cent of their wages to keep it going. The books would be dispersed among a number of custodians, hidden like armaments from the state, which rightly regarded books and knowledge as dangerous high explosives.

Trotsky once remarked on the paradox that it was not the terrorists with their bombs and guns who smashed Tsarism, but the Marxists who started out with books, like Marx's Capital. The populists too started out with books, and by imparting simple literacy to the proletarian "people" to which they "went".

The other "institution" which the interaction of the populists with the proletariat would often leave, when arrests or migration had taken the populists away, was the mutual aid bank, a credit union maintained by the workers. The workers would learn to organise such credit unions for themselves. The administration of such institutions helped train leaders of working class political and trade-union organisation.

It took time before the distinction between "temporary" and "permanent" proletarians faded, and time for a distinct proletarian mentality to become dominant, but if the first step in the creation of a working-class consciousness had often been the need after the abolition of serfdom in 1861 to insist that the workers were entitled to wages, the second was the realisation that they were not peasants any more but something distinct.

Inadvertently, and contrary to what at first they intended, the educational work of the populists helped create this proletarian mentality, not least by bringing to the Russian workers knowledge of the working class and labour movements of the West.

The arrests of 1873 and the abandonment of the towns in 1874 by the populists going to the countryside left the seeds they planted to grow. Over time leaders would emerge from within the working class itself.

The political police in Tsarist Russia - as later in Stalinist Russia - were often the best informed commentators on what was happening in the society trapped under the carapace of the authoritarian and totalitarian state. Venturi quotes a police report on the state of things in the St Petersburg working class after the impact of the populists.

"The gross, vulgar methods employed by factory employers are becoming intolerable to the workers. They have obviously realised that a factory is not conceivable without their labour. The employers feed them, but without workers they can do nothing.

"A realisation of this has now given rise to that spirit of solidarity among the workers which has so often been noted these days.

"Two or three years ago the employers' affairs were no better than they are at present. Then, too, it often happened that the workers did not receive their wages on time. Yet then everything went smoothly. The cunning employer flattered his workers and said good-naturedly that he could not pay them at the right time, and they withdrew in silence, and next day turned up quite normally for work.

"But now as soon as even the most popular employer holds back wages for only three or four days, the crowd begins to murmur and curse, and strikes often break out. Even in the workshops, where money for wages can never been lacking - as this is a State industry - the spirit of opposition to be found among the workmen has appeared on a scale utterly unknown before. There have been cases of work stopping because the men were not satisfied with an insufficient wage or because of oppression exercised by the management of the workshops.

"All this, taken as a whole, clearly betrays the influence of the propagandists, who have been able to sow among the workers hatred for their employers and the belief that the forces of labour are being exploited".

It was not in St Petersburg but in Odessa, in the south, on the Black Sea, that the first distinct working-class organisation in Russia emerged. 30,000 of Odessa's 200,000 population were proletarians. Here too the story began with the work of a populist, E Zaslavsky, which lasted nine months before he was arrested.

He was a noble, but not rich. In 1872-3 he had anticipated the mass movement of 1874 from the towns to the peasants, and gone out to "the people" on his own. He came back disabused and convinced that the "people" to work with were the urban proletariat. He moved in the opposite direction to the majority of the populists at that time.

Zaslavsky was a believer in Lavrov's policy of long-term work through propaganda, and not the Bakuninist one of trying to foment immediate revolt. He circulated Lavrov's émigré paper, Vpered (Forward). In 1873 he became a teacher in an existing small group of populists who worked around the Bellino-Vendrich factory, which had about 500 workers.

He tried to teach political economy and working-class history, but abandoned that for simply reading aloud Chernyshevsky's didactic novel What Is To Be Done? (Lenin would later appropriate the title for his 1902 pamphlet).

The group printed and distributed illegal leaflets, and helped workers form a library and start a communal bath.

350 workers in the factory set up a credit union. The activity of organising the workers in this mutual-aid bank eventually led to the creation of a workers' organisation of 200 members. They had a structured leadership, an entrance fee, a subscription, and regular meetings. This was the nucleus of the Union of Workers of Southern Russia. It spread to other factories across Odessa.

What was the "Union of Workers of Southern Russia"? A trade union? A political party? A mutual aid society? It was all of them!

These were its regulations:
"(1) In view of the fact that the present order does not, as far as the workers are concerned, correspond to the genuine requirements of justice; and that the workers can get their rights recognised only by means of a violent revolution capable of destroying all privilege and inequality by making work the foundation of private and public welfare; and that this revolution can only occur (a) when all workers are aware that there is no escape from their present situation; (b) when they are fully united; we, the workers of Southern Russia, join together in a union which will be called the Union of the Workers of Southern Russia.
And we lay down as our aims: (a) to propagate the idea of the liberation of the workers from the oppression of capital and the privileged classes; (b) the union of the workers in the region of Southern Russia; (c) the coming fight against the existing economic and political regime.
(2) The Union has a bank the funds of which are to be used at first to spread the idea of the liberation of the workers, and later to fight for this idea.
(3) Membership of the Union is open to workers of every kind who have close relations with the working class and not with the privileged classes; who feel and act in accordance with the fundamental desires of the working class, i.e. the struggle against the privileged classes in order to win freedom.
(4) The duties of each single member towards the Union and vice versa are determined on the following basis: All for each and each for all...
(6) Every member must be prepared for any sacrifice, if such sacrifice is needed for the safety of the Union".
It emphasised its distinctive working-class nature. This led to moves to exclude non-workers, and soon there was internal war between Bakuninists and others that led to a split. But the organisation survived."

What did it do? It made propaganda, held classes, fought the working-class struggle. It supported strikes, for example at the Bellino-Vendrich factory and at the Gullier-Blanchard factory. It published a manifesto on those struggles that was distributed in the towns along the Black Sea coast.

Virtually everything the union did was, of course, illegal. In late 1875 it was virtually destroyed by police action. Some of its organisers got ten years hard labour. Zaslavsky got ten years. He went half-mad in jail, and died there of TB in 1878.

From then on the Bakuninists, the "rebels", the Zemlya i Volya organisation of 1867-9, predominated in attempts to revive the Union.

Pavel Axelrod, one of the future consistent Marxists, was still a Zemlya i Volya Bakuninist, but already working-class oriented and heavily influenced by the workers' movement in the West. He desired, as he put it, to "let the voice of the working classes be heard". He had been working in Kiev since 1872, and there, in 1879, he started the "Workers' Union of South Russia", deliberately reviving the name of the Odessa organisation of 1875.

That union soon disintegrated when Axelrod, who after the June 1879 split in Zemlya i Volya was now with Plekhanov and Zasulich in Cherny Peredel, went to St Petersburg. In terms of the history of the Russian working-class movement, it was however very important, because its programme was an eclectic hybrid of Bakuninist and Western social-democratic approaches.

Axelrod was in transition to West European style social democratic politics in which the proletariat, not, as in populist socialism, the peasantry, was central. The union's goal was to be an anarchist stateless society, but it advocated immediate democratic freedom in Russia. It advocated palliatives and reforms, such as the reduction of hours of work. It had a variant of the minimum-maximum programme, split between short and long-term objectives, typical of the Western Social Democrats, and with an anarchist rather than a Marxian socialist "maximum" programme.

The Workers' Union was restarted in Kiev in 1880 by two young populists of a different political bent, Nikolai Shchedrin and Elizaveta Kovalskaya, who believed in vigorous economic terrorism - the use in the towns of the sort of violence against exploiters and officials which Zemlya i Volya had advocated and used in the countryside.

Shchedrin took work in a railway centre, and soon a dozen railworkers formed the nucleus of the revived organisation. It spread. The Ukrainians in the organisation objected to recruiting Jewish workers - "they killed Christ". The organisers had to fight such attitudes, and they did.

Venturi tells us that the following year an anti-Jewish pogrom was started - Jewish quarters were attacked, people maimed and killed, and women raped, with the police and soldiers looking on or participating. Shchedrin was already in jail, but the workers he had educated, whose anti-semitism he had confronted, put out a leaflet urging the people to fight their exploiters and not the "poor Jews".

The organisation had 600 members and held mass meetings in the open air, outside the town. The methods of the Union were a hybrid of elite combat action for terror against the exploiters, the Bakuninist Zemlya i Volya policy of calls for immediate revolt, and working-class mass action. The workers were still feeling their way, enshrouded still in the integument of populism and populist methods. Many of them still retained the mentality of peasants, looking for help to their "little father", the Tsar.

The organisation was strong in the Kiev Arsenal, but they fought there not by mass working-class action but by publishing a manifesto threatening the director of the Arsenal with death if he did not give the workers what they wanted. He did as he was told! The working day was reduced by two hours.

The Union saw it as a central task to create for the workers their own "fighting organisation" - that is, an organisation to wage terrorist guerrilla war as a weapon of the working-class struggle against exploitation.

But theirs was a working-class terrorism. Venturi quotes Axelrod's memoirs to the effect that Narodnaya Volya, with its concentration on killing the Tsar and on winning the support of the upper layers of society, objected to this economic terrorism against the capitalists because it would alienate the bourgeoisie when they sought support and money.

By late 1880 the leaders were in jail. Shchedrin paid for his brief activity with a sentence of death, commuted by the Tsar to hard labour for life. He continued to fight in jail, and was again sentenced to death for striking an army officer. Again the sentence was commuted. He went mad and spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum, dying there in 1919. Elizaveta Kovalskaya eventually escaped from jail.

The work of building the Russian labour movement did not come cheap in human cost. Up to the revolution, the typical career of those who built the movement would be to spend a few months or a year at liberty working underground and then to spend years in jail or Siberian exile. The road to the October Revolution would be paved with the bones and skulls of many thousands of such people.