Mass Action in Russia

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 7. January 1917. Pages 410-413.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

Among the European Left Wing Socialists, no historic event prior to the world war has had a greater influence upon general conceptions than the mass actions during the revolutionary period in Russia.

Under most difficult conditions of Absolutism and unscrupulous brutal police power, the achievements both in the way of economic improvements and political results have been astonishing. Out of the actual practice of the fighting grew a unity of action in which demands for wage increases and the eight-hour day were intermixed with political demands, such as free speech and free press, recall of cruel bureaucrats and a Democratic Republic instead of the Absolutistic government.

The form of this gigantic struggle was mostly that of mass strikes and street demonstrations, accidentally leading to actual resistance against police and military forces.

To those who cannot see beyond parliamentary reforms and the labor union fight for keeping up the standard of living, this period of class struggle must look like another world. Those, however, who feel that capitalism can never be overcome by talking reforms or by arbitrating about the standard of living, the study of this period is most instructive and promising. And especially to our American comrades, this knowledge must be highly valuable, because they are confronted by the same brutal methods and a similar absolutistic government, be it in a democratic disguise, that had to be dealt with by the Russian workers. A similar situation is growing all over the world, now that we enter the period of industrial Feudalism or Imperialism, and the lessons of the Russian revolutionary period deserve the general interest, but as the United States is ahead in this development, they certainly are not the least interested party.

It is beyond the scope of an article in a REVIEW, and it would certainly annoy the readers to give too much in detail the facts and results of this interesting period of class struggle. Those who feel the importance of the subject should read "Massenstreik, Partei and Gewerkschaften," by Rosa Luxembourg [sic]; "Algemeene Werkstaking en Socialdemocratie" and "Geschiedenis von den Proletarischen Klassenstrijg," by Henriette Roland Holst, translated into German, Lettisch and Russian; "Politische Streik," by Laufenberg, or some of the other books and pamphlets on this subject, none of which, however, has been translated into English, as far as I know, and all of which were written before the world war.

I will try to give a few facts, a few examples which may appeal to those minds that have already a notion of the importance of mass action in future class struggles. Of course, it is essential to bear in mind that conditions in Russia at that time had their own character and that we can never expect to imitate methods which were themselves the result of historic developments and conditions and by no means brought about according to some scheme of a clever headed man or group of men.

Conditions in Russia no doubt were most unfavorable to any kind of action, the workers being under the iron heel of an absolutistic government, unorganized, uneducated, a large percentage of them knowing neither how to read nor write. And notwithstanding this, not-withstanding mistakes and disappointments, we notice results that compel us to ask. What could not have been accomplished if similar methods were backed up by the organization and intelligence of a modern machine proletariat.

The high mark of the proletarian movement in Russia was after the defects [sic?] of Russia in the Russian Japanese war in 1905 and 1906, but the specific methods already had originated before the war.

Especially the years 1902 and 1903 show an extensive and successful action in the southern part of Russia, and as early as 1896 and 1897, there was a period of big strikes in St. Petersburg (Petrograd).

In the spring of 1902, several cities, such as Batum, Nischni Nowgorod and Saratow, had their mass meetings and street demonstrations against deportations of "undesirables" by the Russian Government, at which meetings workers were fired upon and which resulted in the imprisonment of a great number of workers.

But the same year had another wave of mass actions, originating in Rostow. This time it was a demand for the nine hour day, increase of wages, etc., which led to a general tie-up of labor, and mass meetings in Rostow, which were daily attended by fifteen to twenty thousand workers. This movement was organized by a committee of social democrats; and freedom of speech and press for some time was actually conquered and used to its full extent for education and attacks upon the Government. The movement spread to Tichoretzkaja, but was finally beaten up by police and cossacks, only to spring up again a few months afterwards in the middle of 1903 all over southern Russia: Baku, Tiflis, Batum, Jelissawetgrad, Odessa, Kijew, Nikolajew, Jekaterinoslow, etc. Originating in different cities with demands for increase in wages and other direct improvements, the movement soon grew beyond the scope of purely economic action into a more general or political class issue.

In Odessa, for instance, the railroad workers asked an increase in wages. Three days afterwards the longshoremen joined; two days more brought the seamen into the movement; five days later the streetcars were tied up. A meeting of seven to eight thousand workers decided to visit all the factories and their number grew to forty or fifty thousand men, who tied up the harbor and all the industries. In Kijew, the movement also started among railway men who claimed wage increases, followed by the foundry workers. The Government threw two railway delegates in prison and in a general protest, it was decided that the trains should not leave the station. A big crowd of workers with wives and children stood on the track to prevent the trains from running. Soldiers shot into this mass, killing many of them, among whom were women and children. This was the sign for a general strike, mass meetings, speeches as well as the killing and imprisonment of more workers. The movement ends, but starts again in Nikolajew and Jekaterinoslow and results not only in some material improvements, but also in a most remarkable spiritual uplifting of these most oppressed workers.

To quote a bourgeois paper, Oswobozhdenje: "The workers embrace each other in the streets, cries of delight and enthusiasm, songs of freedam [sic], gay laughing, humor and joy are heard among the masses of many thousands who move through the town from morning to evening. The spirit is noble, it could not be imagined that a new and better life on earth had sprung up. A highly earnest and at the same time idealistic and touching picture." Such was the impression even on a non-socialist newspaper writer.

After a period of less action during the first part of the Russian-Japanese war, the growing unemployment leads to a general strike in Baku in December, 1904, which puts the control of the city during a couple of weeks fully into the hands of the workers.

In January, 1915, a general strike becomes effective in St. Petersburg, as an immediate result of the discharging of two workers of the Putilow Works (munitions and steel), which caused a sympathetic strike of 12,000 workers. The Social democrats thereupon started an extensive campaign and a program was adopted containing the eight hour day, freedom of organizations, speech and press, etc. In a few days, one hundred and forty thousand workers joined the strike and meetings were held, the discussions on which resulted in the adoption of the program with the eight hour day as principal demand. It was this program that was to be put before the Czar by a procession of two hundred thousand men and women at the head of which marched the priest Gapon and which resulted in the massacre of two thousand men, women and children by the Russian cossacks. (The "Red Sunday," January 22, 1905).

This massacre was the signal for a real wave of mass actions and general strikes all over Russia, in Poland, in Lithuania, in the Baltic provinces, as well as in the Caucasus and Siberia. This time it was not so much economic demands broadening into political action, but rather the reverse. In all parts of Russia social democratic committees issued proclamations to arouse protests against the massacre in St. Petersburg and brutality of the existing Government. And these general strikes of protest develop finally into innumerable local and partial strikes for direct improvements in all parts of the country, in which railway strikes play an important part with here and there even military strikes, such as the revolts of the mariners in Sebastopol, Kronstadt, Libau, Vladivostock, etc.

This splitting up of the general strike into minor actions for direct improvements, must look rather discouraging to those among syndicalists as well as socialists, who have a conception that the "general strike" or the "political revolution" once upon a day will change the hell of Capitalism into the heaven of Socialism. This kind of "revolutionists" generally prove to be opportunists as far as actual fighting is concerned, which is logical: if you expect that the capitalist Society can be overthrown by some big action and the time for that supreme action has not yet arrived, you may as well try to make the best of the present state of things and combine opportunistic action with revolutionary education for the "great day."

The revolutionary period in Russia, however, is a splendid example to prove that education and action always have to go hand in hand and that revolution does not fall from heaven or as the result of some accident, but grows out of the intensified normal fighting in the class struggle. And it shows at the same time, that political and economic action finally become so interwoven and mixed up, that it is hardly possible to tell where the demands for direct improvements end and general or political demands start in.

The more we proceed into the highest developments of revolutionary mass action, the more we shall find that there is only one class struggle all along the fighting line against capitalism. Which does not mean that we have to overlook the historical necessity of having both socialist political parties and labor or industrial unions and which, of course, is the very opposite of a conception which wants no political action at all.

The revolution is a long social process with victories and defeats, but even the defeats will often result in direct improvements as is shown during the Russian revolutionary period. The result of this period has been, that the standard of living of the industrial proletariat has been improved. In a great number of industries all over Russia, the eight hour day was actually conquered. In other parts, it was a nine hour or a ten hour day and at the same time, wages were increased and conditions improved. It is true that many of these advantages were lost again during the contra-revolutionary period that followed, but nevertheless, it shows what can be accomplished even under most unfavorable conditions and without any previous organization. The development of Russian industry is such that we could not expect a continued success, without co-operation from the rest of Europe.

What the Left Wing socialists in Europe at that time hoped for was that German socialists would learn from the Russian mass actions and bring this kind of action on a higher, stronger, organized plane, which, no doubt, would have backed up the Russian movement in return. We know that there was much discussion over the "general strike" at that time in Germany, and even a beginning of action, but the conservative leaders of the labor unions as well as most of the leaders of the Socialist party crushed this movement. And it will remain the everlasting disgrace to the memory of Kautsky, who had given a theoretical prediction of just this kind of action, that he failed when action was required and backed up the opportunistic leaders with his great influence upon the more revolutionary wing of the Socialistic party. A small group among whom Rosa Luxembourg [sic] was the most militant, did their utmost, but Kautsky's advice to use mass action only on the defensive, "Ermattungs-Strategie," was followed up and even the labor union leaders had no objection to declare for defensive mass action. By this advice, even more than by his advice not to vote against the war credits, Kautsky will have to bear his part of the responsibility of the failure of the German party in the war crisis.

The period of mass action in Russia can give us a better insight in the forms in which a proletarian revolution will have to develop, it shows how the results will strengthen the material position of the workers and at the same time mean an intellectual and cultural growth, which surpasses by far all that could be accomplished by the most extensive campaign on purely educational lines. And what is more perhaps even than this, the organization will grow in the fighting and will take new and really democratic forms. Out of the revolutionary mass action in Russia have sprung up a number of organizations that survived this period and this is the best answer to those "leaders" who never venture to act for fear that their organization (and by the way, their well paid jobs), will be destroyed. Maybe that a certain form of organization, which is no longer in harmony with historical developments, will be destroyed, but only to give rebirth to new and more efficient forms of organization, more elastic and more democratic.

For the Russian mass action has shown beyond all doubt that the rigid form of one-sided action according to certain well-established formulas with strong men in control, who, according to circumstances, may become labor leaders, or e.g., railroad presidents, is obsolete in the period of revolutionary fighting, which is on hand. Against each definite action of the workers, our enemies can put a more effective counterattack. Only in changing our fight from one place to another, from one industry to another, from day to day, breaking off a movement before a massacre can be arranged, only to start it elsewhere or to start it anew when the military forces are withdrawn, only by working hand in hand in claiming material improvements and political power, bread and rights, leisure and freedom, only by strikes of protest, as well as strikes of sympathy and strikes to force direct improvements, only by actually developing all these actions into an organized system of mass action in which, of course, the leaders will lose their predominant position, and success can only result if the rank and file gradually learns how to act and why to act, only in this higher form of flexible organization can we hope to win. For to win means to disorganize the present political system, means to create a higher form of organization than capitalism could produce.

It is not sufficient to follow the industrial organization of capitalism in replacing craft unionism by industrial unionism, but we must develop our organization beyond the highest form of capitalist organization into a unity of efficiency and democracy, a unity of economic and political action, into mass action.

The perfection of mass action in this sense, means upon a certain degree of development, the victory of the socialist commonwealth.