Vera Zasulich 1897

The Working Class Movement in Russia

Source: Zasulich, 1897 “The Working Class Movement in Russia” Justice, (2,141 words) 1st May, 1897, p.12 & 13.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Russian Labour movement is the youngest and the weakest in Europe. Only a year ago, and its very existence was denied by the Russian Government, the whole Russian Press, and all Russian society. It was only a handful of Social-Democrats who patiently laboured to free this movement, long since born, from its swaddling clothes. And, lo! at the present moment the German Government is hardly more afraid of the great German Social-Democratic Party than is the Russian Government of our young movement. At the first rumour of the last strike, during the beginning of January, and which affected over 5,000 cotton-spinners and weavers, extraordinary Cabinet Councils were called, and sat for several days. It is not easy to say what these Cabinet meetings decided. The factory inspectors received certain instructions in a circular; then the decision there notified was reversed, the circular withdrawn, and ‘another circular issued — the diametrical opposite of the first one. It reminded cane of the French Cabinet Councils during the February days of 1848. And all this because of a perfectly quiet, well-conducted, and orderly strike. Nevertheless, there is ground enough for anxiety on the part of the Ministers. The Russian Labour movement is not at the prevent moment in the least antagonistic to the industrial interests of the country. On the contrary, what tlrc; workers demand — a shorter working day and higher wages — would compel the employers to cease the senseless competition now raging, a competition based upon a fourteen hours’ day, and deductions from wages amounting on an average to 30s a month, and would force them to compete with each other by means of improved machinery, better methods of production, and a higher quality of goods — all of which world further the growth of capitalism. But the Labour movement is antagonistic to autocracy, however modest its immediate demands.

Try and, imagine what the state of things was during the great strike last summer. For the last few years our press has been forbidden to mention labour disputes, and so it came to pass that the deadlock in the St. Petersburg cotton industry, which the whole press of Europe was discussing, was never so much as referred to in Russian newspapers and periodicals! To the centre of the city itself the fact that there was a strike going on in its suburbs was only made known by people who happened to have been in the suburbs. In Moscow it was a week after the movement had begun that vague rumours spread from mouth to mouth that something was going on, only the Moscow League” receiving “detailed information. In other towns, where there was no well-defined labour organisation, the news of the great strike probably arrived long after it was over. It is not likely that this prohibition to speak of the strike was made with a view to sparing the feelings of our bourgeoisie, or our nobility, or our clergy; it was directed against the working-class. And yet it was in the working-class quarters that the leaflets of the “League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Classes” had an immense circulation, not only among those directly involved, but among the workers in other industries. The strike, which did not exist for the “legal” press, was the chief topic of discussion in the persecuted but free press of the proletariat. And the leaflets issued by the League certainly had more influences than any ordinary newspapers could have had, especially as the strike was known to be forbidden fruit. Then the workingmen began to like these leaflets, they had confidence in them; the whole working population began to be familiar with there those who could reading out, the contents to the illiterate. And so the strike became a matter of profound interest not only to the spinners and wavers themselves but to the entire proletariat of St. Petersburg and later on of Moscow.

The creation of this free press seems to me to be the chief merit of the Social Democratic League of Struggle, which was founded in the autumn of 1895. The labour Movement in Russia had indeed existed for some years previous to this date, and with each year a thirst for knowledge grew among the wage earners. Reading clubs, mainly for the purpose of studying social and labour problems multiplied. On the other hand, strikes became more and more frequent but all this was somewhat vague; there was no definiteness of aim, no unity. Slowly the influence of those workers whose minds acquired clear, definite ideas spread amongst their fellows, who were certainly discontented, but who did not yet take an interest in the larger more general, problems of industrial and political life. And the strikes themselves remained isolated attempts, unknown to the mass of the workers, ignored by the press, and therefore unable to exercise such an educational effect as those of the last eighteen months. The League has welded together all the various elements into one great whole, which has made its power felt, not only among the workers themselves, but in the ranks of the enemies of the workers. The League began its work by simply formulating all the demands and complaints of the employees, and then spreading broadcast these simple leaflets in the factories and, workshops that were more than ripe for them. These leaflets, setting forth the conditions of labour in this or the other factory, were usually written by the workers of the particular factory dealt with, or the facts were dictated by there. Thus there was always an abundance of details, current terms, special trade words, etc. Readers found these facts exactly what they themselves were talking about, but when such demands and grievances were clearly formulated in writing they became a revelation, a fighting programme. The demands and the details given as to the condition of the various mills and factories thus gradually grew into a complete picture of the condition of the whole wage-earning class of St. Petersburg. The salient features of this picture are an abnormally long working day, low wages that are constantly made even lower by the infliction of tyrannical fines, wages paid quite irregularly, merciless deductions for purely arbitrary disapproval of work done. Certain of these abuses were prohibited some tine ago by the Factory Acts, but, the workers not knowing this, the abuses continued, not only in private concerns, but even in Government workshops. The mere appearance of these leaflets, denouncing such abuses, and giving the text of the Acts prohibiting them, was for a time sufficient to stop these malpractices. To this work of pointing out these illegal abuses, and the formulating of the minimum, direct demands of the various trades, the League at first only added some general statements of principle, repeating such statements in every publication, as, for example: — “The working class has nothing to hope from anyone but itself; the workers cannot ameliorate their position except by energetic and combined efforts for its own interests.” Apart from these leaflets on the minimum and the immediate demands of the workers, the League from time to time issued others of a more general character. The leaflet published on the First of May, 1896, which dealt with the struggles and the victories of their western brethren, met with a tremendous success, and the workers say that the discussions and the interest it evoked contributed not a little to the great activity displayed during the June strike. While furiously persecuting it, the Government is nevertheless obliged to recognise the enormous power of this working-class Press. During the strikes last summer, when Witte, the Minister of Finance, wished to reply to the leaflets of the League, he had his proclamations to the strikers printed on the same kind of paper, the same size, and general set-up, type, &-c., as the publications of the League he evidently knew that was his only chance of getting the workers to read them. From the very beginning the League has been relentlessly persecuted by the Government. Never before were the St. Petersburg and Moscow prisons half so full as they have been during the last year. Never before did the gendarmes and police make such frequent raids, arresting peaceful inhabitants, often hundreds of people in one night. But all this was of no avail against the strength and growth of the St. Petersburg League, and — for the last ten months against that of Moscow. The entire press of our propertied class speaks only by permission of the government, becoming silent at the slightest nod. At the present time the whole Russian press is prohibited by the Government not only from speaking on the labour question, but even to publish such words as “labour question” or “proletariat”. The working class only uses the free press it has itself created, regarding it as valuable enough to be worth risking imprisonment for.

All collective action, such as declarations, or even petitions, are prohibited in Russia; the Government, by an official fiction is supposed to know all the needs of its subjects. The workers, giving vent to their collective demands, enforce them by gigantic strikes, and it was during the strike in June last that the Government, first in the person of the Chief of Police, then in that of the Minister of Finance, promised to satisfy the demands thus illegally put forward! The workers gave the Government time to fulfil its promises to the new year. Through its spies the Government became aware that another strike was brewing, and sent word to the employers to suppress it at the very beginning. The strike broke out at the appointed time — and the Government lost its head, and did not know what to do; first it decided to recognise the strike as legal, then grew afraid of its own decision, and finally gave a solemn pledge to introduce, in the, middle of April, a shorter working day, while before the strike broke out the idea of legally shortening the hours of labour had not even been introduced into the State Council. The proletariat had hardly appeared upon the scene and it had forced the Government to throw overboard its most cherished principles, thus showing in the face of all Russia the utter impotence of this sane Government before the collective force of the united mass breaking what in despotic countries is termed “the law.”

Faithful to itself, the Government now only remains in the persons of its gendarmes and police. But, however roomy Russian prisons may be, they are already full to overflowing, and the whole proletariat cannot be locked up. On the other hand, experience has shown that arresting as many as 1,500 at a time does not intimidate the workers.

Essentially of a trade unionist character, if political liberty existed in Russia this mass movement would have resulted in the formation of powerful trade unions — unions the more needed that in Russia the innumerable and ever growing agrarian proletariat is constantly forcing down the subsistence level of the town proletariat. But, thanks to Czardom, this trade union movement has assumed a clearly defined political character, and whatever the Government may now do, this movement will continue to determinedly oppose autocracy.

Will the First of May be celebrated in St. Petersburg this year? During the recent years, when the movement was a propaganda movement, not having acquired as yet the character of a mass agitation, small groups of workmen — 200 or 300 — used to meet for the celebration of that day at some spot outside the town, where speeches were pronounced mostly on the struggle which the Western brethren wage. Now the movement has outgrown celebrations of such kind. The desire to celebrate the First of May certainly exists with many a thousand or even tens of thousand of workmen of St. Petersburg alone. But is the fulfilment of this desirable? As reported by officers, the soldiers brought down to the working class quarters during the strikes sympathised with the latter; so did the shopkeepers, who gave food to the strikers, in spite of the orders of the police. The strikes, in fact, are intelligible to the great mass of the population, but not so is a May Day demonstration. It is understood only by the workers and by a part of the students and the educated classes, and the Government would easily enough be in a position to use arms. The celebration would take place at too great a cost. But April 15 (o.s.), on which the Government has promised to introduce, by legislation, a shorter working day, coincides with April 28 (n.s.). If the Government does not keep its word, the beginning of May coincides with the beginning of a new mass strike in St. Petersburg and Moscow.