The origins of Bolshevism: The workers awaken in Petersburg

Submitted by Anon on 6 March, 2004 - 8:25 Author: John O'Mahony

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part

John O'Mahony continues his series of articles on the roots of Bolshevism

Populism "denied a future to Russian capitalism. The proletariat was assigned no independent role at all in the revolution. It happened accidentally, however, that propaganda designed in its content for the villages found a sympathetic response only in the cities... assembling only the intelligentsia and some individual industrial workers".

Leon Trotsky, The Young Lenin

The Workers' Union of South Russia (described in my last article) survived the arrest of its leaders for a while, and took on a different political coloration.

Its programme now, though it did not demand a constitution, called for:

  • Factory legislation which would protected the workers against the capitalists' arbitrary control of their lives;
  • Freedom of speech, of assembly, and for a working-class press;
  • Freedom to form unions, credit unions, etc.
  • Higher wages, and an end to oppressive taxation of the peasants;
  • Reduction in the hours of work.

By late 1881, the Workers' Union of South Russia had been smashed by the police.

In this article, I will continue to outline the history of the Russian working-class movement, without which the disputes between the Marxists, Bolsheviks against Mensheviks etc., make little sense. I will tell the story of the Union of Workers of North Russia, created in Moscow and St Petersburg around the same period.

In 1875 and early 1876 a group of populists published the first Russian working-class paper, Robotnik (Worker). It explained that the Russian workers must "join together with other workers into a great obshchina, to create a world in which the land belongs to all, everything belongs to all".

Despite its openly populist ideas, Robotnik marked a new stage in the separating-out of a distinct consciousness of the workers. It discussed such things as the British trade unions, critically, but nonetheless in order to see what could be learned from them.

It told of the Babeuf-communist left wing in the French Revolution. It criticised the peasant hero Pugachev, leader of the Rising of 1773-5, for wanting to be Tsar and for not "hanging" merchants and usurers as he hanged landlords.

The base of the group was Moscow, where they had about 20 people working to spread its ideas and win support for them.

Still populists in their goals and conceptions - they raised the slogan, "the cause of the workers and the peasants is one" - they had decided to "go to the people" in the factories. They told the workers: "We need to seize the factories like the peasants need to seize the land".

One of the activists, Vera Figner, explained their ideas in a fine passage:

We read the Organisation du Travail, Cabet's Voyage en Icarie, Proudhon's Plan for a People's Bank, and everything seemed to us to be practical and feasible. The word 'utopia' did not exist for us. We saw only 'plans' to bring about a social revolution, and we were equally enthusiastic when we read the speeches of the genius Lassalle, who summoned the workers to conquer the State, as when we read the anarchist pamphlets of Bakunin, who repudiated the State and appealed for the ruthless and implacable destruction of its whole edifice.

Most of us thought that this last idea was best suited to the conditions of Russian life. For us parliament did not exist. There was no question of even thinking of universal suffrage and elections and workers' delegates.

In Old Russia there had been governments of the people, as Kostomarov had described; there were artels which we read about in the works of Flerovsky; there was the obshchina... This obshchina was the prototype and at the same time the germ of the just organisation of the future society.

All the new ideas of democracy and economic equality seemed to us quite irrefutable from the point of view of logic. And if anyone made any objections to them, we thought that he could only be inspired by motives of egoism and fear...

In the world as it then was, during the time of propaganda, when all those in power were hostile to Socialism, when the government offered only persecution, anyone who took this road must be prepared for every kind of material and moral privation. To be up to the task that awaited him, he must prepared himself for all the blows of fate.

The asceticism of some who wanted to give up all the goods of the earth achieved the impossible. One day, unawares, the daughter of a landlord from the region of Tambov, called Bardina [of whom we we will learn more later], admitted that she liked strawberries and cream, and was teased by the group to which she belonged. From that day on Vera Lyubatovich, with perfect sincerity, looked upon her as 'bourgeois'.

When... the programme of the new revolutionary organisation came under discussion, the girls proposed that it should include a renunciation of marriage. The men protested, and the clause was not accepted.

Militant Socialism, which promised real liberty, equality and fraternity to the workers and the oppressed; Socialism which refused to recognise the strength and wealth of the powerful, and which was persecuted for the truth which it discovered - this seemed to me a new Gospel... Christian concepts and feelings, the ideas of the sanctity of asceticism and sacrifice, all these led me to the new doctrine... This was the really apostolic mission of our time.

A number of women, disguised with false papers and imaginary life-histories, went to work in the factories in order to merge themselves with the workers. That meant living in the barracks-like dormitories of the women workers. They were soon exposed and sacked. But they had made contact - and some of the contacts were continued and developed. In a short time they had supporters in 20 factories and small workshops, and their connections spread to the region around Moscow.

Venturi quotes these descriptions of what they did.

Beta Kaminskaya took advantage of every possible pretext to start discussions with the workers. If she saw a young man holding the book which his employer had given him and which contained the rules concerning the workers' duties, Kaminskaya read it to him aloud, explaining the meaning of each rule and showing the workers how each one of the articles was harmful to them and advantageous only to the employer.

She spoke to them of the lives of workers in the West, of their solidarity and their struggle against exploitation by their employers. Gradually as she got deeper into the conversation, she spoke of history, and told them of episodes of the revolution in France and elsewhere.

Naturally the workers were very amazed by these stories. Kaminskaya had said that she was of peasant origins; her seriousness and her culture, which were so unusual in a peasant, made the workers conclude that she belonged to the Raskol [the heretical religious sects]. For the women of the Raskol are indeed the best educated of the inhabitants of Russian villages...

Sofya Bardina took the first opportunity to begin to read a booklet which she had with her, The Story of the Four Brothers. The success was enormous. A large crowd collected round her.

When she stopped reading, the questions were endless: "Where do you come from? Who are you? Who has taught you to read so well?"

Bardina said that she was from the Raskol, that as a girl she had been employed as a maid by the gentry and that she had learned to read. She had gone back to her village, and there had become a devout reader of the [Christian] scriptures, but now necessity had driven her to try and find work in the factories...

From then on Bardina frequently visited the men's dormitories... The workers were proud of her, and on their day of rest, in the inns, they turned to her beseeching her to read them the newspapers.

Eventually the populists were denounced to the police, and the group was smashed. Many workers were arrested, as well as the 'outsider' populist intellectuals. After three years in jail, they were tried - it became known as the 'Trial of the Fifty' - and seized the chance to use the courtroom to explain themselves and their cause.

One of them, Pyotr Alexeyevich Alexeyev, a worker won over by Sofia Perovskaya, came to be the first proletarian in recorded Russian history to speak 'on the record' for himself, for workers like him, and for his persecuted brothers the peasants too, indicting Tsarism.

Born in 1849, the son of serfs, he had become a weaver as a boy. At 17 he taught himself to read. The populist propagandists had given him the beginnings of a working-class world outlook. He declared in court:

I know something about the problems of our Western brothers. Their conditions are in many ways different from those in Russia. Over there they do not persecute, as they do here, those workers who devote all their free time and many sleepless nights to reading. Indeed, there they are proud of them, and speak of us Russians as a people of slaves and semi-barbarians.

And how else can one speak of us? Have we any free time to apply ourselves to anything? Are our poor folk taught anything in their childhood? Are there any useful and accessible books for the workman? Where and from whom can he learn anything?...

The peasant reform of 19th February 1861 - this reform which was a 'gift' - even though it is indispensable, was not provoked by the people itself, and does not guarantee the peasant's most indispensable needs. Just as before, we were left without a piece of bread, and with a completely inadequate strip of land, and so we passed under the control of the capitalists...

If we are unlucky enough to be forced again and again to demand an increase in wages which the capitalists are constantly decreasing, they accuse us of striking and deport us to Siberia. And so this means that we are still serfs!

If we are forced by the capitalist himself to leave the factory, they accuse us of organising a revolt and use a soldier's rifle to force us to continue our work, and some are deported as instigators to distant lands. And so that means that we are still serfs!

From all that I have just been saying it is obvious that the Russian workman can have hope only in himself, and can expect help only from our young intelligentsia which has stretched out a brotherly hand to us.

It has understood in the depth of its soul the meaning and origin of the desperate complaints which come in from all sides. It can no longer look on coldly at the persecuted, oppressed peasant as he weeps under the yoke of despotism. It alone, like a good friend, has held out a brotherly hand, and in all sincerity wants to lift us out of our difficulties and put us on the right road for all the oppressed. It alone is tireless and leads us on...

And it alone, united with us, will accompany us until he time when the muscular arm of millions of workers will arise and the yoke of despotism, defended by the soldier's bayonet, will fall to pieces.

The court's response was to sentence Alexeyev to ten years' hard labour. Sofya Bardina, of whose taste for strawberries and work inside one of the factories we heard above, also got ten years' hard labour. After some years she escaped from Siberia, but she committed suicide in exile.

Many others were given heavy sentences. The organisation was wiped out. No organised working-class movement remained in Moscow.

In St Petersburg working-class organisation in St Petersburg had not been destroyed when its populist organisers, the Chaikovists, were arrested early in 1874. The workers themselves kept the organisation going and spread its ideas. It developed underground.

After 1874, Venturi writes, it was no longer only the revolutionary students who sought contacts in the factories. The workers themselves, once they had been converted by propaganda, took the initiative in tying together broken threads, and repeatedly asking for support and help. Indeed they themselves were now stretching out a 'brotherly hand' to those intellectuals who could give more significance to their dissatisfaction and revolutionary spirit.

The beginnings of a self-driven working-class movement, capable of sustaining itself, now existed in St Petersburg. When Zemlya i Volya, a tightly organised party of professional revolutionaries whose organisers went armed and were willing to use both terrorisation and terror against oppressors and officials - who would try to kill policemen who attempted to capture them - emerged in the mid 1870s, that is what they found in St Petersburg.

Venturi: By about 1875 there was already a large number of workers in St Petersburg who were not only keen to learn and to read - typical self-educated men from workshops and factories - but who were also well able to hold their own views on the various political ideas about which they had heard the students speak. They were able in fact to contrast populist propaganda with the events of their own lives...

These workers... were at this time acquiring new personalities through their first experience of political activity.

In 1875 and early 1876 the surviving Chaikovists resumed work around the St Petersburg factories. G V Plekhanov was involved.

Plekhanov, who did most of his work for Zemlya i Volya among the town workers, wrote a book, The Russian workers in the revolutionary movement, about these working-class militants and their movements.

He found that the mental transformation of those workers, awakened by politics to a new sharp view of their own lives and of their surroundings, generated in them an enormous drive for knowledge and culture.

Marx had explained the purpose of atheist propaganda against religion in these terms.

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

And so it was when the populist propagandists stripped away the illusions of the workers in their "Little Father", the Tsar, in the Church, in God, and in the ruling class. They unleashed an energetic need to understand and to know the truth.

This would be a great fermenting power in the Russian labour movement, as it has been in all labour movements - sharper self-awareness and the sense of ignorance generating the drive for knowledge and leavening the economic and political struggles for working-class self-betterment.

Plekhanov commented:

When I asked the workers themselves what exactly they wanted from revolutionary writings, I met with the most varied answers. In most cases each of them wanted a solution to those problems which for some reason were of special interest to my individual hearer at each particular moment.

In the mind of workers such problems were increasingly enormously, and each had his favourite questions according to his own tendencies and character. One was particularly interested in the problem of God and claimed that revolutionary literature ought to use its energies mainly for destroying the religious beliefs of the people.

Others were interested in historical or political problems, or in the natural sciences. Among my acquaintances in the factories, there was also one who was specially interested in the question of women.

Workers who became 'educated' would become political and 'self-motivating' populists. But there were other processes at work too.

In St Petersburg the more educated metalworkers predominated - those workers who were more distant from peasant roots. Elements of the typical town worker's contempt for the ignorant country bumpkin peasants would soon, even among workers who in general accepted the outlook of the populists, help workers define themselves as distinct from the peasants.

The emergence of Zemlya i Volya in the mid 1870s was a product of harsh and sobering experience in the shambolic 'going to the people' in 1874 and after. ZiV's solution was to rouse the peasants to revolt not for socialism, but, immediately, for 'land and freedom'.

From the beginning it also turned to the urban working class, agitating on working-class issues. They hoped to use the workers eventually to reach the peasants, but they got drawn into the working class struggle. They helped organise strikes in St Petersburg in the late 1870s.

They helped organise the first working-class-initiated political demonstration, in St Petersburg, in the square of Our Lady of Kazan, on 6 December 1876, at which the 20 year old Plekhanov was the speaker, risking ten years hard labour if he were taken by the police.

On the morning of 6 December, perhaps 300 workers and a larger number of students and intellectuals gathered in the square, outside the church. Plekhanov shouted, 'Long Live Land and Freedom!'. Workers unfurled a big red banner with 'Land and Freedom' written on it, and Plekhanov started to speak.

The police immediately attacked the demonstration, but the crowd stopped them seizing Plekhanov. A large number of demonstrators and bystanders were attacked and arrested.

In the ensuing trial, the court was savage with the intellectuals, but relatively lenient with the workers. The strange half-medieval character of the society in which the workers were laying the foundations of a great labour movement is shown in the sentences meted out to some of the workers. They were sent to serve period of retreat and prayer in a Russian Orthodox monastery! Others were deported to Siberia.

By contrast, the intellectual Alexei Emelyanov got 15 years in jail, where he was flogged with such violence that he went mad and died in jail. Two other intellectuals got ten years' hard labour, and one six.

The populists could not but be poignantly aware of the sharp contrast between the mobility and combativity of the urban workers and the inertia in the countryside. Venturi quotes a reflective report for the leading layer of Zemlya i Volya written after Kazan Square. Its author might be Plekhanov, but Venturi thinks probably not.

The important result of the entire affair is the union that has now been brought about between the intelligentsia and the people. The author contrasted the workers with the liberals.

The Russian liberals were very learned. They even knew that liberty had been conquered in the West. But obviously one ought not to try to apply this knowledge to Russia.

Russia is led along the road to political freedom not by the liberals but by dreamers who organise ridiculous and childish demonstrations; by men who dare to break the law, by men who are beaten, sentenced and reviled.

The Russian workers had shown themselves more united and compact because of the equality of their conditions; more developed because of the variety of their impressions of town life and because of their frequent and bitter conflicts with the representatives of the government and the ruling classes; and, finally, more open to socialist propaganda...

The worker is always clearly aware of the injustice of the social regime that oppresses him... He can see that the luxury which is the work of his own hands is enjoyed by others. And so his mentality is attuned to demand a fight which will produce immediate results.

He does not want to postpone the battle, but he wants to obtain (if not everything he wants) at least as much as possible as can be obtained at that given time. He wants to make at least a breach in that order of things which has become unbearable for him.

He wants to be a free man with the right to think and speak openly in accordance with his opinions. In fact he sees that to fight against his economic exploiters he must make use of what is called political freedom.

But this freedom he will have to conquer and he will therefore have to enter into conflict with the very essence of our State system. His activities along the road to freedom inevitably taken on a political character. The events of 6th December are the result of this state of mind among the most conscious of the working classes.

The author concluded that the Kazan Square demonstration showed that in Russia, "the movement would follow the same direction as in the West, i.e. from the town to the country and not vice versa". Therefore the revolutionaries should organise the urban workers and win them over politically.

The ferment in the working class of St Petersburg and the surrounding region helped make this possible. There was a general revival of the working-class movement. It would culminate politically in the public proclamation of the Northern Union of Russian Workers at the end of 1878, at the height of a strike wave.

In December 1877 an explosion occurred at one of the St Petersburg armaments factories. The workers there believed it to be due to the negligence of the management. Six workers were killed.

An organised group of politically conscious workers had existed in the factory for some years. Stepan Khalturin, who would be the main organiser of the Northern Union of Russian Workers and who would be hanged for an attempt to kill the Tsar, had worked there.

The armaments workers decided to turn the funeral of the six workers, where workers could legally assemble, into a political demonstration. They asked ZiV for help and the organisation mobilised its supporters to join the funeral demonstration. A worker whose name is not known spoke at the funeral denouncing the factory management. He said they were burying six victims 'not of the Turks' - Russia was then at war with Turkey in the Balkans - "but of the fatherly administration of the factory". The crowd thwarted an attempt to arrest him.

Plekhanov wrote a manifesto to the armaments workers on the events. It ended as follows:
Workers, now is the time to understand reason. You must not expect help from anyone. And do not expect it from the gentry! The peasants have long been expecting help from the gentry, and all they have got is worse land and heavier taxes, even greater than before... Will you too, the workers in towns, put up with this for ever?

In February 1878, an important strike broke out when two thousand cotton workers, who worked a 13-hour day, struck to stop their wages being reduced. These were the previously most backward workers, half peasant and half worker.

At first they had appealed for 'justice' to the authorities. The chief of police to whom they appealed promised to help them, but did not. Then they struck.

It would take nearly two decades more, and the slaughter of five hundred and wounding of thousands on 9 January 1905, before the Russian labour movement would outgrow the illusion that those 'above' them, and in the first place the Tsar, could be prevailed on to take their side.

An organised group of Northern Union workers was active in the cotton mills, but the group was new and inexperienced, so the Northern Union sent more experienced people in to help. ZiV involved itself.

How precarious the work of these revolutionaries often was is shown by the fate of the ZiVist Aron Gobst, who made the initial contacts there. He was a former junior officer, on the run for making revolutionary propaganda among the troops in Odessa.

Four months after his involvement with the cotton workers, Gobst was caught, taken to Kiev, and there hanged.

Plekhanov, introducing himself to the workers as a lawyer, and other ZiVists, tried to lead and shape the strike. It would be over a decade in the future - in a strike on the other side of Europe, in the most advanced capitalist country in the world, which nevertheless had much in common with the St Petersburg cotton workers' strike - that skilled and politically educated workers like John Burns and Tom Mann would 'intervene' from outside to lead the previously backward London dockers into winning a wages battle and setting up their own union.

Plekhanov wanted to teach the workers by their own experience exactly how things stood between them and the autocracy. He raised the idea of a workers' procession to present a petition to the heir to the throne. They did that peacefully. The petition ended: "If our demands are not satisfied we will know that we have no-one in whom we can hope, that no-one will defend us, and that we must trust in ourselves and in our own arms".

ZiV collected money for the strikes from middle-class sympathisers. They proposed an attempt to spread the strike to other factories, thus helping the workers understand the power their own solidarity could give them.

ZiV arranged for short reports on the strike movement by Plekhanov to be published in a conventional newspaper. When the reports of their deeds were read out to them, the workers felt enhanced by their own reflection in print.

The strike ended when some workers went back to work, believing vague promises, and the remainder were driven back by force.

Some workers learned that the heir to the throne was no friend of theirs. Strikes in cotton broke out at intervals throughout the winter, to be met by extreme political violence and arrests. A large-scale battle in the centre of St Petersburg was fought between police and workers trying to free arrested comrades.

Workers began to see that politics - the overall power in society - had to be an integral part of their struggle. It was a lesson that would lead them to back the politics-by-terrorism of Narodnaya Volya in the months ahead.

St Petersburg experienced 26 such strikes between 1877 and 1879. Sometimes the workers won, stopping wage cuts for example. They established connections, factory to factory. And they built the Northern Union of Russian Workers.

It was founded by the skilled metalworkers, better paid and better educated than the cotton workers. A nucleus had been formed in 1876 of men who made themselves living links between the different factories by getting jobs in them successively. At the height of the strike wave they founded the Northern Union of Russian Workers.

Their rules and programme were agreed in the course of two meetings at the end of December 1878. ZiV printed their programme.

It began by denouncing "the political and economic yoke which threatens the workers with total material privation and a paralysis of their spiritual forces". Their goal, they wrote, was to create an all-Russian "Union of Workers, which, by grouping together the forces of the workers which are now dispersed in the towns and villages, and by enlightening them as regards their own interests, aims, and aspirations, will be of real help in the struggle against social injustice and will constitute the internal, organic link which is indispensable for the successful prosecution of the struggle".

They declared: "Members of the Union must be chosen exclusively from the workers".

It was to be a select organisation. Each candidate for membership had to be introduced by at least two members. Each member must know the programme of the union and "the essentials of its doctrine". The organisation would establish an illegal library, whose use was not confined to members of the union.

The leader in this enterprise was Stepan Khalturin.

Khalturin, who would end his life on the gallows as a member of Narodnaya Volya, came from a family of prosperous peasants, and had had a good education. He was a blacksmith and mechanic, who become a socialist in his mid teens and almost went to America to found a utopian-socialist colony.

Plekhanov wrote a description of him.

Young, tall and strong, with a fine complexion and expressive eyes, he impressed us as a splendid fellow...But his engaging, and at the same time rather ordinary, appearance did not reveal the strength of his character and his exceptional intelligence. What mostly struck me in his behaviour was his retiring, almost feminine gentleness...

Not that he himself did not want to speak - and not just with his working class comrades but with the intelligentsia also. When his activities were still on the right side of the law, he willingly met students and tried to make their acquaintance, getting every kind of information from them and borrowing books.

He often stayed with them until midnight, but he very rarely gave his own opinions. His host would grow excited, delighted at the chance to enlighten an ignorant workman, and would speak at great length, theorising in the most 'popular' way possible.

Stepan would stay there listening. Only rarely did he put in a word of his own. And he would gaze carefully, looking up at the speaker. Every now and then his intelligent eyes would reflect an amiable irony. There was always an element of irony in his relations with the students...

With the workers he behaved in a very different way... he looked upon them as more solid and, so to speak, more natural revolutionaries, and he looked after them like a loving nurse. He taught them, he sought books and work for them, he made peace among them when they quarrelled, and he scolded the guilty...

Among the workers of St Petersburg there were people just as educated and competent as he was; there were men who had seen another world, who had lived abroad. The secret of the enormous influence of what can be called Stepan's dictatorship lay in the tireless attention which he devoted to each single thing.

Even before meetings began, he spoke with everyone to find out the general state of mind; he considered all sides of the question; and so naturally he was the most prepared of all. He expressed the general state of mind....

Compared to those of Zemlya i Volya, Khalturin was an extreme Westerner. This Westernism was born and rooted in him thanks to the general situation of working-class life in the capital, which alone interested him; and thanks also to various casual circumstances. Indeed, he had been in contact with the Lavrovists before the Populist 'rebels', and the Lavrovists were able to stimulate among the workers an interest in the German social-democratic movement.

In the paper Zemlya i Volya of February 1879, Plekhanov reported on the state of the working class. "Agitation in the factories increases daily. That is the news of the day".

Venturi: The first months of 1879 constituted the golden age of the Northern Union. All the working-class districts of St Petersburg had their own organised groups linked to the central body. They could count on about 200 organised men and 200 more in reserve, carefully distributed in the various factories. Their library, one of Khalturin's main concerns, was satisfactorily split up among the various clandestine centres, so as not to risk falling into the hands of the police. It was extensively used even by those not affiliated to the union.

But the workers lived under the guns of the Tsarist state. Everything that the Northern Union of Russian Workers did was illegal. Early in 1879 the work of a spy enabled the state to smash it. Khalturin escaped arrest. He would live to become a Narodnaya Volya fighter who would organise to kill Tsar Alexander II in February 1880.