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 eve of the abolition of Russian serfdom, in 1861, many of the jobs which in Western Europe were performed by wage labourers - by legally free women, men and children who sold their labour power for specific periods of time to those who owned the means of production, the mills, mines, quarries, factories, etc. - were in Russia performed by unfree labour. One worker in three was a serf.
Of 565,000 workers in 1860, the year before the emancipation of the serfs, 135,000 were unfree. In some industries, the majority of the workers were serfs. Of 245,000 miners, 70% were serfs.
Overnight, as tens of millions of serfs became legally free peasants, the whole non-agricultural labour force in Russia was turned, at a stroke of Tsar Alexander's pen, from serfs into wage-workers, into proletarians with nothing to live on but the sale of their labour-power.
For those formerly serf workers, freedom meant that they could if they liked go back to their villages and to the land. Many of them did.
The number of workers declined in the first half of the 1860s. Thereafter, the working class grew in a process of recruitment of "voluntary" proletarians.
The proletariat was still a very small, scattered class. Around 1870, there were 800,000 proletarians; a decade later, about a million, in a population of perhaps 100 million.
Many workers in the less skilled, less specialised trades, in the cotton industry for example, remained half-peasants. In late summer many of them would go "home" for the harvest.
They retained peasant habits of living, dress, and drunkenness. Many of them lived in village-like communities. When the early working-class conflicts with the employers were being fought, the unorganised workers created committees or councils modelled on the rural assemblies of the mir, the people of the obshchina, the peasant commune which held land in common. Those assemblies also pointed to the future - to the soviets of 1905 and 1917.
For their part, the employers too were often slow to begin to behave as West European-style employers of wage labour. Often they would be days, or weeks, or months, late in paying wages. At first some of them did not pay their workers at all, insisting that workers who had possession of strips of land did not need wages!
Early working-class self-awareness was often angry insistence that they were entitled to receive a wage for their labour - that they were wage workers. Early labour conflicts were often about forcing the employers to pay any wage at all.
The Russian working class would remain a minority in the population for a long time, but soon it became very powerful, concentrated in giant factories and industries, built on up-to-date technology which was imported ready-made into backward Russia.
In little more than half a century, 56 years after the abolition of serfdom, the Russian working class would take and hold state power.
Russia would prove, as the populists insisted it was, "exceptional". But in a way starkly opposite to the populists' conception of what would be "exceptional" about Russian development.
The populists of all the different sorts, anarchists, Jacobins, and even pre-Plekhanov Russian Marxists, had thought that Russia's exceptionalism lay in the widespread existence there of the peasant communes, with their collective ownership and periodic redistribution of land.
They saw Russia, in its rural economy, in the peasant communes, as already socialist, needing only a political revolution to destroy or seize the state. In fact, Russia would ripen politically to the extent of workers seizing power in the October Revolution, but it would prove to be a Russia too socially backward for the realisation of socialism.
All the populists saw the development of capitalism, the encroachment of market relations in the countryside after 1861, which undermined the peasant commune, as a mortal threat to the prospects of rural-based Russian socialism.
In historical fact Russia's real exceptionalism would lie in the consequences of the development of that Russian capitalism which sapped the foundations of the "socialist" peasant commune. Russia's exceptionalism lay in the concentration, social strength, militancy and political acumen of the working class in late 19th and early 20th century Russia.
The Russian workers would be able to seize state power, not in a Russia where socialist relations of production already existed in the peasant commune, but in a Russia where socialism in isolation was - according to the conceptions of "Western" Marxism and of the Bolsheviks, who led the Russian workers - a stark impossibility because of Russia's overall economic and social backwardness.
The first phase in the political history of the Russian working class is the history of its interaction with the populists.
Not the least of the peculiarities of the populist experience was that though the peasant was essentially what they meant when they spoke of "the people", it was elements of the industrial urban working class who responded most readily to their appeals and activities. All the populist movements through the 1870s, culminating in Zemlya i Volya (1876-79) and then the terrorist Narodnaya Volya, found the urban workers far more responsive to their agitation than were the peasants.
The movement in 1874-5 to "go to the people" involved migration of the activists from the urban centres to the countryside, there to try to root themselves in the villages and educate the peasantry. The populist students abandoned their studies and attempted to transplant themselves among the people.
In so far as they concerned themselves with urban workers, they were concerned to recruit individual workers for their missionary work in the countryside. They saw the urban proletariat as a mere subsection of the peasantry - as peasant who had been forced by economic necessity to move to the towns, but who yet maintained links with their peasant roots and rural relatives, and would want to return.
Many of the urban workers did indeed retain connections with the countryside, especially those whose work was in the processing of agricultural products - cotton workers in Moscow, for example - and which required least skill, training and prior socialisation. It was only gradually, in the evolving experience of the generations, that the urban workers began to see themselves as a distinct, permanently urban, social group.
At first it was only the most skilled, the metal workers, for example, whose training, technical education and wages marked them out, who took it that they and their children were permanently rooted in town life.
It was a central idea of all the populists that Russia should avoid the creation of a proletariat like that of the West, an urban proletariat with no property in the means of production, uprooted forever from the land. They believed that once the existing Russian socialism of the obshchina, the mir, was freed from Tsarism and landlordism, then all the population, including peasants who had been forced into the towns, would be attached to a village commune.
Where there was only one case of a sizeable response - involving about a thousand people - to Zemlya i Volya's calls for peasant rebellion, workers' strikes and demonstrations, spontaneous (not rarely in the 1860s) or involving prior agitation by populists, flared up far more readily.
The town workers - or, as Zemlya i Volya saw it at first, the transplanted peasants of the towns - were more aware of the broader world they lived in, more mobile, more willing to act, more mentally attuned to think afresh. Life had already forced them to do that, giving them different worlds to contrast and compare, forcing them to change much in their old thinking.
Life itself was generating in them an irrepressible militancy, as they responded to their experience in the early capitalist hellholes and to populist agitation and propaganda.
It was as if a socialist propagandist had been in the habit of going to a house regularly to "explain" things to the father and the older brothers, "at" whom he talked at length and repeatedly, evoking perplexity, bemusement, and hostility - and then suddenly heard one of the growing children, who had been listening, pipe up: "That makes sense to me. I can see that. I'll help you. I'll do my bit".