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The Russian upheaval

The pseudo-socialist Press and organisations, who here at home are preaching social reform and palliation as bona fide Socialism with impunity, have naturally not the least compunction in presenting international labour struggles or national working-class action in other countries in the light of the reform movement. Their accounts and criticisms of recent Russian events have been so grossly misleading and exaggerated as to the real proletarian position that it becomes necessary to place before the workers of this country, however briefly, the situation in Russia from the Socialist standpoint.

Some of the aforementioned critics have asserted that large numbers of those Russian workers who have been and are now engaged in strikes and demonstrations against the Government are class-conscious Socialists fighting the “social battle” of the working-class; others have praised the principles of the General Strike as deserving emulation by a “United Socialist Party in Great Britain” and especially as a prelude to the “Social Revolution”; and others again, particularly those who, believing in the emancipation of the workers by a long series of reforms enacted by a Liberal-cum-Labour party, have expressed their admiration of the intelligence and tact displayed by the Russian toilers in “working so gallantly hand-in-hand with the other forces of progress and revolution in the corrupt Empire of the Czar” for, as they call it, the “freedom of all”.

No one can gainsay the fact that the Russian workers have in the present upheaval shown great power of organisation and class solidarity, but, on the other hand, nobody understanding even in the smallest degree the causes of the great Russian crisis can honestly assert that the struggle in which the Russian workers now are taking part by means of strikes and demonstrations is distinctly working-class in character.

In order to obtain a clear conception of the real meaning of the whole outbreak it is necessary to consider briefly the historic course and present stage of Russian economic development.

Although factories and workshops in Russia date from the period in which Peter the Great ascended the throne (1696), the beginning of modern capitalism, the industrialism of this epoch, can be distinctly traced to the sixties of the nineteenth century. When in 1861, Alexander the Second by an imperial ukase abolished serfdom it was not for the purpose of uplifting the toilers, but this breaking of ancient ties, so vociferously applauded at the time by the bourgeoisie of other countries, had become an economic necessity. Russia, whose industrial activity had until then almost exclusively been given to agriculture, was suddenly roused to the fact that the new world with its virgin soil, its highly developed machinery and scientific methods of production was becoming not only a formidable competitor in the international markets of agricultural produce, but that Russia ran the risk of being altogether cut out, unless it encouraged and helped on agricultural production on modern capitalist lines. Above all was the “Liberation of the serfs” directed towards the creation of a working-class, free to sell its labour power to the highest bidder, a class which, being without property and unable to find employment on the land, would migrate to the towns, there to enable the bourgeoisie to develop industrialism like the rest of western civilisation.

At the present time two-fifths of the land in Russia is held by the State, consisting mostly of forests and wasteland; one-fourth is owned by land proprietors, and one-third by peasants. Of a population estimated at 140 millions, about half belong to the peasantry, and quite 20 millions to the agricultural labouring class employed by the land proprietors. The industrial population of the towns, including railway workers and miners, does not exceed 15 millions in number, that is to say, there are only about 3 million industrial workers throughout the whole of Russia.

And now as to the economic position of the working population. The peasants’ conditions of existence are becoming more and more intolerable owing to their intense exploitation by means of imperial and local taxes, direct and indirect, and to the keen competition of the large agriculturists in Russia and abroad. The only means of keeping the peasant in subjection is a sop of a little more land to increase the scope of his income. But this remedy is impossible for a length of time and applicable only sectionally with the aid of the aristocratic land proprietors, who run in fear of losing their lives should the peasantry rise in rebellion against them. The agricultural labourers working for the farm proprietors are gradually reduced in circumstances. Great numbers of them, having been thrown out of employment, migrate to the towns, and still more congest and overcrowd the industrial labour market, making the conditions of the industrial workers more and more deplorable. Competition is increased, the level of subsistence is lowered, and very little new capital is being invested in industrial undertakings owing to the financial insecurity of aristocratic rule, the exploitation of all those producing is becoming unbearable. The largest proportion of the wealth exploited from the peasants, the agricultural labourers and the industrial workers finds its way into the pockets of the Ruler and his family, the aristocratic land proprietors, the bureaucracy, and the merchant princes. The smaller capitalists of the bourgeois class, denied the opportunity of exploiting labour without let or hindrance, owing to the privileges and powers of mediaeval origin possessed by the ruling class, make common cause with the workers, whom they induce, by means of the strike, to fight out the political battle of the capitalist bourgeoisie.

Now it must be borne in mind that although Feudalism was formally discarded in Russia in 1861, the social and juridical changes that have in every other country accompanied the economic revolution ushering in the capitalist system of unhampered competition were stubbornly withheld. Capitalism without universal capitalist conditions in the social and juridical respect must naturally produce economic dilemma, and in Russia the thirty years of capitalist industrialism in an economic atmosphere nourished on the social and political soil of autocracy were bound to bring this pronounced contradiction to a head, an unhappy, disastrous war completing the chain of economic failure. Thus it is that we have on the one hand the peasants sucked completely dry by the ruthless taxation, the agricultural labourers despoiled to starvation level, many deprived of employment altogether owing to aggravated competition within the country and from abroad; the industrial workers collapsing under the super-human burden of oppression, over-work and starvation pay, more and more influenced by the growing number of unemployed agricultural labourers pouring into the towns in search of work, and on the other hand ever more wealth accumulation on the part of the Autocrat and his henchmen, the archdukes, aristocrats, large land-owners, high officials, merchant princes, and big capitalists.

The disgusted and envious bourgeoisie comprising the manufacturers, merchants, and professionals in Law, Art, Science and Literature forced to stand by and see the wealth scooped in by their superiors in privilege, corruption and violence, raise an outcry for capitalist liberty and equality, and the revolutionary spirit seizing the enraged and oppressed working-class, they join the revolution in sheer despair, hoping to gain some amelioration by participating in the fight for a “free capitalist Russia”.

The bourgeoisie by the aid of working-class strikes and demonstrations succeed in removing the terrible contradiction in the semi-capitalist system, a constitution is granted and all capitalists, small and great, and their hangers-on rejoice, for now at last will they be able to flourish in the enjoyment of free competition.

But for the working-class there is nothing but a return to wretchedness and the outlook of gloom and despair and unless indeed they have learned the lesson of reliance upon no other class but their own to effect that amelioration in their condition that they desire, so only will they attain to that class-consciousness with its appreciation of the universal solidarity of proletarian interests that shall presently deliver them and with them the whole human family from the throes of slavery for evermore.

H.N.
(Socialist Standard, December 1905)