V. I.   Lenin

An Era of Reforms

Published: First published Iskra, No. 46, August 15, 1903. Published according to the Iskra text.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 6, pages 510-517.
Translated: ??? ???
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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Yes, we are undoubtedly passing through an era of reforms, strange as these words may sound when applied to present-day Russia. There is stagnation in all spheres of home policy, except where these are linked up with the fight against the internal enemy, and despite this—or, to be more exact, precisely because of this—constant and unceasing efforts are being made to institute reforms, attempts at reforms in the sphere of the most critical and most salient social and political relations. The proletariat, which is awakening to class-conscious life, came forward fairly long ago as the real, the main, as the only irreconcilable foe of our autocratic police regime. However, an enemy such as the foremost social class cannot be fought with force alone, even with the most ruthless, best organised, and most thorough-going force. Such an enemy makes itself reckoned with and compels concessions, which, though they are always insincere, always half-hearted, often spurious and illusory, and usually hedged round with more or less subtly hidden traps, are nevertheless concessions, reforms that mark a whole era. Of course, these are not the reforms that denote a down-grade in political development, when a crisis has passed, the storm has abated, and those who have been left masters of the situation proceed to give effect to their own programme, or (as also happens) the programme taken over from their opponents. No, these are the reforms of an up-grade, when ever greater masses are being drawn into struggle, when the crisis is still in the offing, when every clash, in which hundreds of victims are carried off the field of battle, produces thousands of new fighters who are even grimmer, bolder, and better trained.

Such reforms are always foretokens and precursors of revolution. The recent measures partly effected and partly only projected by the tsarist government are indubitably of this nature, viz., the Bill on workers’ mutual aid societies (this Bill has not been made public by the government and is known only from reports in the liberal bourgeois Osvobozhdeniye), the laws on compensation for injured workers and on factory stewards. It is on this latter law that we now propose to dwell in greater detail.

The gist of the new law is that, under certain circumstances, the workers may have the right to representation in their relations with the employers, the right to certain rudiments of organisation. These rights are circumscribed by an incredible number of police regulations, restrictions, and qualifications. And indeed, it is first of all necessary to take into consideration that, according to the new law, the right of the workers to representation depends on the consent and initiative of the factory management and on the permission of the Boards for Factory and Mining Affairs. The right to representation may be accorded the workers by the factory owners, but they are in no way bound to do so under this law, besides which the Factory Board may refuse to permit representation, even if requested by the employer, on any grounds or even on no grounds whatever. Hence, from the very outset, the right of the workers to representation has been completely, unconditionally, and conclusively left to the discretion of the employers and the police. If it appears advantageous and desirable to the employers and the police, they may set up workers’ representative bodies (on a very restricted basis)—that is the substance of the reform. I would add parenthetically that the law makes no mention whatever of workers’ representation at government factories: at privately owned factories the workers’ representatives may turn out to be new agents, new factory watchmen controlled by the police; at government factories there is always a sufficient number of agents and watchmen! The police do not ask for a reform in this field—hence, reform is not necessary here.

Further, workers’ representation itself has been given an ugly twist. The workers are to be disunited, divided into categories; the regulations governing the division into   categories are subject to approval by the governor, as are all regulations in general that have any bearing on the organisation of representative bodies under the new law. The manufacturers and the police can and of course will arrange the categories in such a way as to hinder workers solidarity and unity in every way possible, rouse and in flame discord not only among the various crafts and shops but also among workers of different nationalities, sex, age groups, degrees of skill, wage levels, etc., etc. Workers’ representation can be and is useful to the workers exclusively in their uniting in a single body, for their unity, organisation and solidarity are the only source of strength to the downtrodden, oppressed wage-slaves of our civilisation, ground down as they are by toil. The tsarist autocracy wants to give the workers representation of such a kind and on such terms as to disunite them in every way possible and thus make them powerless.

The police-established categories will have to elect candidates for the post of steward on the basis of detailed police rules, the number of candidates to be designated by the police. The factory management will endorse one of the candidates at its own discretion, while the governor always has the right to remove any steward who “does not meet the requirements of his office,” as the law puts it.

This whole police scheme is not so very subtle! The “office” of a steward obviously consists in being useful to the police, in being acceptable to them. The law says nothing about this, for such conditions are not spoken of; they are engineered. And it is more than simple to engineer this, once the governor, who is the head of the local police, is given the unrestricted right to remove an undesirable steward. Once again: would it not be more correct to call such a factory steward a factory watchman? The police can decide on the election of a very large number of candidates, of whom only one will be endorsed; for example, each category of say 50 to 100 people will be told to vote for 5 or 10 candidates. Will it not be possible in some cases to turn the list of elected candidates into a list of people to be kept under special surveillance or even subject to arrest? Formerly such lists were drawn up only by spies; but now will they not perhaps sometimes be drawn up by the workers   themselves? To the police there is nothing dangerous or even inconvenient in a list of candidates, since it is always the worst of them that will be endorsed, or no one at all, and new elections will be ordered.

In its effort to have the factory stewards meet the requirements of their police “office,” the new law (like the majority of the Russian laws) has even overdone things. Candidates must not he under 25 years of age. The original Bill proposed a minimum age of 21; higher government circles deemed it more cautious and statesmanlike to raise it by four years so as to eliminate in advance “the most unruly elements of the industrial population,” which, “according to information in possession of the Department of Police, are within the 17-20 age group” (from the explanatory motives of the Ministry of Finance, published in abridged form in Vestnik Finonsov, and in full in Osvohozhdeniye). But that is not all. The factory management and the police may, in each particular instance, i.e., for each separate establishment, demand, firstly, a higher minimum age and, secondly, a certain length of service of the particular worker in the factory. It is, for example, possible that they may demand a minimum age of 40 and a service record of not less than 15 years as a condition for the right to be elected as candidate for the post of steward! There is one thing, however, to which the authors of this law, who so zealously safeguarded the interests of the police, did not apparently give sufficient thought: under such conditions will workers be at all eager to accept this “post” of steward? After all, the steward will be placed almost as much at the arbitrary disposal of the police as a mere village constable. The steward may be turned into an ordinary messenger boy, conveying the orders and explanations of the factory management to the workers. The steward will undoubtedly be required to render sheer spying services and to give accounts of the meetings of the workers’ categories which are called by him and for the orderly conduct of which he is responsible. And yet, while providing for rules about stewards being released from work to perform their duties, the law maintains a modest silence as to whether the stewards ·are to receive remuneration, and if so from whom. Do the authors of this law really   think that stewards who have been released from work will not demand pay from the factory for this “free” time? Would they really serve as stewards, at the will of the manufacturers and governors, out of sheer love for these true friends of the working people?

The desire to turn stewards into factory watchmen is particularly evident also in Clause 3 of the new law: stewards are recognised as being representatives empowered to speak for the workers’ categories only on matters concerning fulfilment of the terms of hire. When it comes to changing the terms of hire the stewards have no right even to hint at this! Fine workers’ “representatives” indeed. And how absurd this ruling is, even from the standpoint of the authors of the law, who wanted to make it easier “to ascertain the true desires and needs of the workers” “particularly at a time when discontent and unrest have already arisen.” In nine cases out of ten, unrest is the result of this very demand to change the terms of hire, and to bar the stewards from taking a hand in this matter is tantamount to reducing their role to practically nil. The authors of the law have become entangled in one of the countless contradictions of the autocracy, for to accord the workers’ representatives (their genuine representatives, and not representatives by permission of the police) the right to demand changes in the terms of hire would mean granting them freedom of speech and inviolability of the person.

In general there can be no question of regarding the factory stewards as genuine representatives of the workers. Representatives must be elected only by the workers, with out any endorsement by the police. A representative must be removed as soon as the workers who elected him pass a vote of non-confidence in him. A representative must render an account to a meeting of the workers whenever they demand this of him. According to our law, however, the steward alone is authorised to convene the workers of the category which has elected him, and, besides, this must be done when and where the factory management wants it. In other words, the steward is not obliged to call the workers together, and the management does not have to provide the time and the place. It would perhaps be more expedient not to talk about workers’ representation at all than to   annoy the workers with this mere pretence of representation.

Workers’ meetings inspire the autocracy with such fear (and a justified fear) that it categorically bans joint meetings of the various categories. “For the discussion of matters concerning several categories,” the new law decrees, “the stewards of these categories alone shall meet.” For the capitalists, and for the police government which protects them, it would indeed be extremely advantageous to set up numerically small categories of foremen, office employees, and highly paid workers, to set up numerically large categories of unskilled workers and ordinary workers—and then to permit meetings only of the stewards of different categories. But this means reckoning without the real master: the class-conscious proletariat is the master of its own fate and it will spurn these miserable police partitions in which they would segregate it. The workers will meet together to discuss their own affairs and will organise secret meetings of their own, genuine, Social-Democratic stewards, despite all bans.

But if this miserable reform to such a degree infects the embryo of workers’ representation with a spirit of police espionage, would it not be better for the class-conscious workers to have nothing whatever to do with the election of factory stewards or the meetings of the “categories”? We believe that it would not. Refusal to take an active part in present-day political life, however disgusting it may be, is the tactic of anarchists, not of Social-Democrats. We shall and must be able to promote a widespread struggle of the workers against every loathsome trap in the new law, against every spying manoeuvre made with the help of the new law—and this fight will rouse the most back ward workers, and will develop the political consciousness of all who take part in the Russian workers-police-gendarme spy “representation.” The Zubatov meetings corrupted workers’ minds far more and much more directly than their minds will be corrupted by stewards who kowtow to the authorities, and yet we sent to those meetings class-conscious workers who themselves learned and taught others, and yet this entire Zubatov epic ended in a miserable fiasco, after working to the advantage of Social-Democracy far more   than to that of the autocracy: the Odessa events[2] have left no shadow of doubt on that score.

The autocracy is beginning to talk about workers’ meetings. Let us take advantage of this for the widest propaganda and agitation in support of the Social-Democratic demands for the full freedom of meetings and assembly. The autocracy is beginning to talk of elections; let us take advantage of this to acquaint the working masses with the meaning of elections, with all systems of elections, with all the tricks of the police during elections. And let the workers know this not only from books and talks, but from practice. from the example of the Russian, police-controlled elections, and by participating in these elections,[1] the class-conscious workers will teach ever greater masses to carry on election agitation. conduct meetings, defend their demands both at meetings and before the stewards, and organise a constant watch over the activities of the stewards. The autocracy is talking about workers’ representation. Let us take advantage of this to spread correct ideas about genuine representation. Only a free workers’ union, with members in many factories and many cities, can represent the workers. Factory representation, bodies representing the workers at each factory separately, can not satisfy the workers even in the West, even in the free states. The leaders of the Social-Democratic Labour Party, in Germany for example, have frequently protested against factory representation. And this can be readily understood, for the yoke of capital is too heavy, and the right to dismiss workers—the sacred right of capitalist free contract—will always render the representative body of the workers in each individual factory powerless. Only a workers’ union which organises the workers of many factories and many localities will do away with dependence of the workers’ representatives on the individual factory owner. Only a workers’ union will provide all the means of struggle that can at all possibly exist under capitalism. But free-workers’ unions are out of the question unless we have political liberty, inviolability of the person, freedom of assembly   and meetings, and the right freely to elect deputies to a national assembly.

Without political liberty all forms of workers’ representation will remain a miserable fraud, and the proletariat will remain in prison as hitherto, without light, with out air, and without the elbow-room it needs for the struggle to attain its complete emancipation. In this prison the government is now cutting a tiny aperture instead of a window, and in such a manner that this aperture is of more use to the gendarmes and spies who guard the prisoners than it is to the prisoners themselves. And this is the reform that the butchers of the Russian people want to pass off as a benefaction of the tsarist government! But the Russian working class will use this aperture to build up fresh energy for battle; it will raze to the ground the walls of the accursed all-Russian prison and win for itself free class representation in a bourgeois-democratic state.


[1] Naturally, organised workers should in no case be elected to the post of steward; suitable people from among the unorganised masses should be put forward as candidates. —Lenin

[2] Lenin is referring to the strike of Odessa workers in July 1902. Despite the efforts of the local Zubatov organisation to deflect the workers from the revolutionary struggle, the strike assumed a markedly political character. Mass political strikes in 1903 embraced almost the whole of South Russia (Kiev, Ekaterinoslav, Nikolayev, Elizavetgrad, and other towns).

Lenin’s Iskra gave detailed accounts of the Odessa events in No. 45, August 1. 1903.

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