The Struggle for the Creation of a Social-Democratic Labour Party in Russia
(1883 - 1901)
1. Abolition of Serfdom and the Development of
Industrial Capitalism in Russia. Rise of the Modern Industrial
Proletariat. First Steps of the Working-Class Movement
Tsarist Russia entered the path of capitalist development later than
other countries. Prior to the sixties of the past century there were
very few mills and factories in Russia. Manorial estates based on
serfdom constituted the prevailing form of economy. There could be no
real development of industry under serfdom. The involuntary labour of
the serfs in agriculture was of low productivity. The whole course of
economic development made the abolition of serfdom imperative. In 1861,
the tsarist government, weakened by defeat in the Crimean War, and
frightened by the peasant revolts against the landlords, was compelled
to abolish serfdom.
But even after serfdom had been abolished the landlords continued to
oppress the peasants. In the process of "emancipation" they robbed the
peasants by inclosing, cutting off, considerable portions of the land
previously used by the peasants. These cut-off portions of land were
called by the peasants otrezki (cuts). The peasants were compelled to
pay about 2,000,000,000 rubles to the landlords as the redemption price
for their "emancipation."
After serfdom had been abolished the peasants were obliged to rent land
from the landlords on most onerous terms. In addition to paying money
rent, the peasants were often compelled by the landlord to cultivate
without remuneration a definite portion of his land with their own
implements and horses. This was called otrabotki or barshchina (labour
rent, corvee). In most cases the peasants were obliged to pay the
landlords rent in kind in the amount of one-half of their harvests.
This was known as ispolu (half and half system).
Thus the situation remained almost the same as it had been under
serfdom, the only difference being that the peasant was now personally
free, could not be bought and sold like a chattel.
The landlords bled the backward peasant farms white by various methods
of extortion (rent, fines). Owing to the oppression of the landlords
the bulk of the peasantry were unable to improve their farms. Hence the
extreme backwardness of agriculture in pre-revolutionary Russia, which
led to frequent crop failures and famines.
The survivals of serfdom, crushing taxation and the redemption payments
to the landlords, which not infrequently exceeded the income of the
peasant household, ruined the peasants, reduced them to pauperism and
forced them to quit their villages in search of a livelihood. They went
to work in the mills and factories. This was a source of cheap labour
power for the manufacturers.
Over the workers and peasants stood a veritable army of sheriffs,
deputy sheriffs, gendarmes, constables, rural police, who protected the
tsar, the capitalists and the landlords from the toiling and exploited
people. Corporal punishment existed right up to 1903. Although serfdom
had been abolished the peasants were flogged for the slightest offence
and for the non-payment of taxes. Workers were manhandled by the police
and the Cossacks, especially during strikes, when the workers downed
tools because their lives had been made intolerable by the
manufacturers. Under the tsars the workers and peasants had no
political rights whatever. The tsarist autocracy was the worst enemy of
Tsarist Russia was a prison of nations. The numerous non-Russian
nationalities were entirely devoid of rights and were subjected to
constant insult and humiliation of every kind. The tsarist government
taught the Russian population to look down upon the native peoples of
the national regions as an inferior race, officially referred to them
as inorodtsi (aliens), and fostered contempt and hatred of them. The
tsarist government deliberately fanned national discord, instigated one
nation against another, engineered Jewish pogroms and, in
Transcaucasia, incited Tatars and Armenians to massacre each other.
Nearly all, if not all, government posts in the national regions were
held by Russian officials. All business in government institutions and
in the courts was conducted in the Russian language. It was forbidden
to publish newspapers and books in the languages of the non-Russian
nationalities or to teach in the schools in the native tongue. The
tsarist government strove to extinguish every spark of national culture
and pursued a policy of forcible "Russification." Tsardom was a hangman
and torturer of the non-Russian peoples.
After the abolition of serfdom, the development of industrial
capitalism in Russia proceeded at a fairly rapid pace in spite of the
fact that it was still hampered by survivals of serfdom. During the
twenty-five years, 1865-90, the number of workers employed in large
mills and factories and on the railways increased from 706,000 to
1,433,000, or more than doubled.
Large-scale capitalist industry in Russia began to develop even more
rapidly in the nineties. By the end of that decade the number of
workers employed in the large mills and factories, in the mining
industry and on the railways amounted in the fifty European provinces
of Russia alone to 2,207,000, and in the whole of Russia to 2,792,000
This was a modern industrial proletariat, radically different from the
workers employed in the factories of the period of serfdom and from the
workers in small, handicraft and other kinds of industry, both because
of the spirit of solidarity prevailing among the workers in big
capitalist enterprises and because of their militant revolutionary
The industrial boom of the nineties was chiefly due to intensive
railroad construction. During the course of the decade (1890-1900) over
21,000 versts of new railway line were laid. The railways created a big
demand for metal (for rails, locomotives and cars), and also for
increasing quantities of fuel – coal and oil. This led to the development
of the metal and fuel industries.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, as in all capitalist countries, periods of
industrial boom alternated with industrial crises, stagnation, which
severely affected the working class and condemned hundreds of thousands
of workers to unemployment and poverty.
Although the development of capitalism in Russia proceeded fairly
rapidly after the abolition of serfdom, nevertheless, in economic
development Russia lagged considerably behind other capitalist
countries. The vast majority of the population was still engaged in
agriculture. In his celebrated work, The Development of Capitalism in
Russia Lenin cited significant figures from the general census of the
population of 1897 which showed that about five-sixths of the total
population were engaged in agriculture, and only one-sixth in large and
small industry, trade, on the railways and waterways, in building work,
lumbering, and so on.
This shows that although capitalism was developing in Russia, she was
still an agrarian, economically backward country, a petty-bourgeois
country, that is, a country in which low-productive individual peasant
farming based on small ownership still predominated.
Capitalism was developing not only in the towns but also in the
countryside. The peasantry, the most numerous class in
pre-revolu-tionary Russia, was undergoing a process of disintegration,
of cleavage. From among the more well-to-do peasants there was emerging
an upper layer of kulaks, the rural bourgeoisie, while on the other
hand many peasants were being ruined, and the number of poor peasants,
rural proletarians and semi-proletarians, was on the increase. As to
the middle peasants, their number decreased from year to year.
In 1903 there were about ten million peasant households in Russia. In
his pamphlet entitled To the Village Poor, Lenin calculated that of
this total not less than three and a half million households consisted
of peasants possessing no horses. These were the poorest peasants who
usually sowed only a small part of their land, leased the rest to the
kulaks, and themselves left to seek other sources of livelihood. The
position of these peasants came nearest to that of the proletariat.
Lenin called them rural proletarians or semi-proletarians.
On the other hand, one and a half million rich, kulak households (out
of a total of ten million peasant households) concentrated in their
hands half the total sown area of the peasants. This peasant
bourgeoisie was growing rich by grinding down the poor and middle
peasantry and profiting from the toil of agricultural labourers, and
was developing into rural capitalists.
The working class of Russia began to awaken already in the seventies,
and especially in the eighties, and started a struggle against the
capitalists. Exceedingly hard was the lot of the workers in tsarist
Russia. In the eighties the working day in the mills and factories was
not less than 12½ hours, and in the textile industry reached 14
to 15 hours. The exploitation of female and child labour was widely
resorted to. Children worked the same hours as adults, but, like the
women, received a much smaller wage. Wages were inordinately low. The
majority of the workers were paid seven or eight rubles per month. The
most highly paid workers in the metal works and foundries received no
more than 35 rubles per month. There were no regulations for the
protection of labour, with the result that workers were maimed and
killed in large numbers. Workers were not insured, and all medical
services had to be paid for. Housing conditions were appalling. In the
factory-owned barracks, workers were crowded as many as 10 or 12 to a
small "cell." In paying wages, the manufacturers often cheated the
workers, compelled them to make their purchases in the factory-owned
shops at exorbitant prices, and mulcted them by means of fines.
The workers began to take a common stand and present joint demands to
the factory workers for the improvement of their intolerable
conditions. They would down tools and go on strike. The earlier strikes
in the seventies and eighties were usually provoked by excessive fines,
cheating and swindling of the workers over wages, and reductions in the
rates of pay.
In the earlier strikes, the workers, driven to despair, would sometimes
smash machinery, break factory windows and wreck factory-owned shops
and factory offices.
The more advanced workers began to realize that if they were to be
successful in their struggle against the capitalists, they needed
organization. Workers' unions began to arise.
In 1875 the South Russian Workers' Union was formed in Odessa. This
first workers' organization lasted eight or nine months and was then
smashed by the tsarist government.
In 1878 the Northern Union of Russian Workers was formed in St.
Petersburg, headed by Khalturin, a carpenter, and Obnorsky, a fitter.
The program of the Union stated that its aims and objects were similar
to those of the Social-Democratic labour parties of the West. The
ultimate aim of the Union was to bring about a Socialist
revolution – "the overthrow of the existing political and economic
system, as an extremely unjust system." Obnorsky, one of the founders
of the Union, had lived abroad for some time and had there acquainted
himself with the activities of the Marxist Social-Democratic parties
and of the First International, which was directed by Marx. This
circumstance left its impress on the program of the Northern Union of
Russian Workers. The immediate aim of the Union was to win political
liberty and political rights for the people (freedom of speech, press,
assembly, etc.). The immediate demands also included a reduction of the
The membership of the Union reached 200, and it had about as many
sympathizers. It began to take part in workers' strikes, to lead them.
The tsarist government smashed this workers' Union too.
But the working-class movement continued to grow, spreading from
district to district. The eighties were marked by a large number of
strikes. In the space of five years (1881-86) there were as many as 48
strikes involving 80,000 workers.
An exceptional part in the history of the revolutionary movement was
played by the big strike that broke out at the Morozov mill in
Orekhovo-Zuyevo in 1885.
About 8,000 workers were employed at this mill. Working conditions grew
worse from day to day: there were five wage cuts between 1882 and 1884,
and in the latter year rates were reduced by 25 per cent at one blow.
In addition, Morozov, the manufacturer, tormented the workers with
fines. It was revealed at the trial which followed the strike that of
every ruble earned by the workers, from 30 to 50 kopeks went into the
pocket of the manufacturer in the form of fines. The workers could not
stand this robbery any longer and in January 1885 went out on strike.
The strike had been organized beforehand. It was led by a politically
advanced worker, Pyotr Moiseyenko, who had been a member of the
Northern Union of Russian Workers and already had some revolutionary
experience. On the eve of the strike Moiseyenko and others of the more
class-conscious weavers drew up a number of demands for presentation to
the mill owners; they were endorsed at a secret meeting of the workers.
The chief demand was the abolition of the rapacious fines.
This strike was suppressed by armed force. Over 600 workers were arrested and scores of them committed for trial.
Similar strikes broke out in the mills of Ivanovo-Voznesensk in 1885.
In the following year the tsarist government was compelled by its fear
of the growth of the working-class movement to promulgate a law on
fines which provided that the proceeds from fines were not to go into
the pockets of the manufacturers but were to be used for the needs of
the workers themselves.
The Morozov and other strikes taught the workers that a great deal
could be gained by organized struggle. The working-class movement began
to produce capable leaders and organizers who staunchly championed the
interests of the working class.
At the same time, on the basis of the growth of the working-class
movement and under the influence of the working-class movement of
Western Europe, the first Marxist organizations began to arise in
NARODISM (POPULISM) AND MARXISM IN RUSSIA. PLEKHANOV
AND HIS "EMANCIPATION OF LABOUR" GROUP. PLEKHANOV'S FIGHT AGAINST NARODISM.
SPREAD OF MARXISM IN RUSSIA