From Independence to Power:
The Workers Movement from 1848 to 1917

by Chris Gaffney

We start our brief survey at 1848, the year of the Communist Manifesto and the year of revolutions throughout Europe. It was the French working class that led the way.

For the first time in history the working class had shown itself as an independent force in society. It had in the revolutionary turmoil, imposed its own demands on the government. It fought a four day battle on the barricades in defence of its interests. Independent in the sense that they did not follow the political leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie that is the political leadership of the private owners of the means of production, the capitalists.

With the failure of either of the major contending classes to gain secure control of society, the capitalists turned to the rule of the army. The army took power into its own hands but guaranteed peaceful and profitable conditions for capitalist expansion. This situation is known as Bonapartism after Napoleon Bonaparte who performed the same role for the bourgeoisie in 1799.

The workers had been easily defeated as they had put their faith in a government talking shop called the Luxembourg Commission. While workers talked with the boss's representatives the capitalists were preparing to physically crush the workers' movement.

Following the defeat of the revolutions of 1848 a period of reaction followed. Industry grew quickly and production dramatically increased. In the process small peasants went to the wall and small business (the petty bourgeoisie) were hit badly, but the size of the working class increased.

England become the workshop of the world. France was developing, but small scale development still dominated.

In this situation the labour movement made little progress. Wages were high, and there was little unemployment. The unions were organised along narrow craft lines. They were conservative and fearful of political action, and they were prepared to support the liberal bourgeoisie. In 1859 a crisis broke out and the capitalists sought to put the burden of the crisis on to the backs of the workers. There were many strikes particularly in the building trades in 1859/60. These forced the unions to organise on a larger scale and in 1861 the first London Trades Council was formed.

In France

The defeats of 1848 and the large number of petty bourgeois led to the dominance of the ideas of Proudhon.

Proudhon opposed socialism, rather he argued that the workers should fight to establish credit unions and co-ops within capitalism.

He opposed political struggle and strikes, and urged passivity towards the state. His goal was a society of small producers. He advocated private property but was opposed to large scale capitalism.

The ideas of Proudhon fitted the small scale producers who dominated French production.

The other tendency in the French labour movement was the Blanquists, who paid no attention to social and political questions. They were a conspiratorial group who looked for a chance to stage a coup d'etat to transform society.

In Germany

The growth of capitalism brought into existence a labour movement. In 1863 Lassalle urged a break with the liberal bourgeoisie and established the Union of German Workers. Lassalle opposed class struggle, preferring negotiations with the bosses. He saw the ballot box as the way to improve the lot of the workers.

In 1869 the German Social Democratic Worker's Party was established.

The First International

Labour activities increased throughout Europe in the 1860's. The American civil war (1861-1865 ) starved Europe of cotton and textile workers in particular were hit. The British and French workers' organisations exchanged greetings of solidarity and co-operated in joint activity. This was the first step in the establishment of the First International. This co-operation was extended in 1863 when the workers of a number of European countries supported the Polish people in their revolt against Russian rule. Further co-operation against scabs led to the establishment of the International Working Men's Association in 1863. Karl Marx was elected onto its committee and wrote its first manifesto.

From the first the International was never of one view. It contained in it the major ideological tendencies operating in the labour movements of Europe. The Congresses held in 1867 and 1868 saw the struggle between the ideas of Proudhon and Marx. The International's help to the French strikes in 1869 led to a ban on the International in France but it also led to a decline of Proudhon's influence. The International in its resolutions established the idea that the workers would need to win power to win their liberation. After Proudhon a bigger challenge rose in the form of the anarchist Bakunin. He believed

  1. that we should forget day to day struggles and prepare for insurrection.
  2. in the political and economic equality of the classes and was against class struggle.
  3. that Marx exaggerated the importance of the working class and that the revolution would be led by those who suffered most like the unemployed, women, and various minority groups.

The anarchists were stronger in Italy, Spain and Switzerland than elsewhere. They dissolved their Anarchist alliance and joined the International. The differences between them and Marx would come to a head during the period of the Paris Commune.


In 1870 war broke out between Prussia (the most powerful kingdom of Germany) and the French. The French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, was, unlike Bonaparte, a rotten general and soon Prussian forces were threatening Paris.

Louis Napoleon fled but the ruling class Government of National Defence that took his place soon showed itself to be a 'Government of National Betrayal' to use Marx's expression. They were far more concerned with defeating their own working class than they were in defending France. On January 28th 1871 they concluded an armistice with the Prussian Bismarck, but were hampered in their efforts by the existence of the National Guard. The National Guard based in Paris was overwhelmingly working class. It was armed and ready to defend Paris. When the Government attempted to steal the cannon of the National Guard they were spotted by women early in the morning. There was an uprising and the National Guard took control of Paris. With no one group dominating and no clear leadership the National Guard became fearful of the responsibility of power and handed power over to an elected Commune.

Marx believed that the government of the Commune was the working class in power and that this was the form in which the emancipation of the working class would happen. It also showed Marx that the working class could not simply lay hold of the existing state apparatus and wield it for its own purposes. Rather that it would have to demolish the existing state and replaced it with a state of its own.

Bakunin believed that the source of evil was the state itself, and that the Commune had made a mistake in establishing a revolutionary dictatorship of the workers.

Though it only lasted 100 days the achievements of the Commune were considerable.

All officials were elected, subject to recall and paid no higher than the ordinary worker.
Judges were elected and subject to recall. The police were made the servants of the people.
They annulled rents for 9 months.
They fixed prices for necessities.
They established labour exchanges and made unemployment payments.
They fed 300,000 people on an emergency basis
They started plans for the workers to take over closed factories.
They stopped employers fining workers.

Sadly they did not seize the assets of the Bank of France nor did they destroy the Theirs government which fled to the palace at Versailles.

Marx said of Theirs, the leader of the government.

“A monstrous gnome with class prejudices standing him in the place of ideas and vanity in the place of a heart. His private life was as infamous as his public life was odious who in his long political career had never been guilty of even the smallest measure of any practical use.”

Theirs appealed to Bismarck to release captive French troops to smash the Commune. Beginning on April 1st 1871 Theirs began to shell Paris. The Commune was divided between the Proudhonists, Anarchists and supporters of the First International and there was a lack of common purpose. On May 28th 1871 the Commune fell. After the battle came the revenge. 30,000 people were killed, 50,000 were imprisoned and many were sent to New Caledonia.

Marx said,

“The civilisation and justice of the bourgeois order comes out in its lurid light whenever the slaves and drudges of that order rise against their master. Then the civilisation and justice stand forth as undisguised savagery and lawless revenge. A glorious civilisation indeed, the great problem of which is how to get rid of the heaps of corpses it made after the battle was over." (Marx, The Civil War in France)

In 1918 after the victory of the socialist revolution Lenin remarked,

“We are standing on the shoulders of the Commune."

The First International supported Marx's ideas on the Paris Commune and affirmed the need for an independent workers party. Bakunin was expelled and set up his own organisation but Marx and Engels saw the continued existence of such a mixed body as the International as useless. They proposed that the International be situated in America so that the English trade unions and the Anarchists would not take it over. In 1876 the International was dissolved. The next international, said Marx, would be directly communist.


After the Commune there was a flourishing period for capitalism encouraged by the expansion to the non- capitalist world particularly in the 1870's and 1880's. The growth of huge industrial combines and bank concentrations ushered in the era of imperialism.

The Marxists saw the rivalry by the great powers for markets as eventually leading to a world wide war, but the atmosphere was ripe for a belief in reforms because

  1. There had been no crisis or war in Europe for 20 years.
  2. The workers had won reforms as capitalism was prepared to concede reforms to the workers rather than risk industrial unrest which might interrupt production.
  3. The conclusion was drawn that capitalism had changed and that Marx had been wrong. Parliamentary action could get the necessary concessions from the capitalists.

The 2nd International was formed in 1889. Marx had died in 1883. Every section was autonomous and the dominant ideology was reformist.

In 1898 E. Bernstein in his Problems of Socialism argued that capitalism would not collapse because it could now adapt to any situation because of the development of (1) the credit system and (2) the development of cartels and trusts.

Furthermore the unions were lowering the rate of profit by forcing up wages to a point that no surplus value would remain. Bernstein's work had to be answered because if the contradictions of capitalism were not increasing then Bernstein was right and then there was no need for socialism.

In 1899 Rosa Luxemberg answered Bernstein in her work Reform and Revolution.

She argued that while credit might help the individual capitalist its effect overall was quite different.

Capitalist economic crisis developed from contradictions between capitalism's permanent tendency to extend production and the limited capacity of the capitalist market to consume it.

Credit had the effect of ever extending the productive capacity beyond the capacity of society to consume it. At the moment of crisis when credit could have saved the day for capital, it takes flight and is quite useless. It calls in its debts and so intensifies the crisis.

Credit also assists the concentration of capital and weakens the vitality of smaller undertakings which collapse at the first sign of the crisis.

As for cartels they could solve the crisis only if they were universal, but in fact they were essentially national, and in competition with each other.

Lastly Rosa showed that the unions could not end capitalism. They were defensive organisations of the workers which helped the workers get the market value of their labour power in the capitalist market. They were not the instruments of the destruction of that law which treats human labour power as a commodity.

Rosa showed that Marx's theory of the crisis of overproduction really only applies when the world market was fully developed and could no longer be endlessly enlarged. Thus the crises prior to 1873 were crises of sudden growth as the world market was still expanding. Credit and the growth of cartels would not save this situation but rather it would hasten this development of the world market and so bring on the capitalist crisis that much sooner.

A year later (1900) a crisis did break out ,and the effects were worse in those industries where credit and the cartels were most developed.

Rosa had refuted the reformist Bernstein but reformism was here to stay, and it developed powerful organisations . The fight amongst the capitalists organised in cartels fighting over fewer and fewer areas in which to expand led inevitably to the first world war. The late developing imperialist powers like Germany excluded from the scramble for colonies were determined to obtain for themselves "a place in the sun."

The parties of the second international pledged that they would support each other against their own governments if war came, but when war was declared, all of them except the Russian Bolsheviks, voted war credits to their own governments.

The second international was finished.


We must ask two questions:

Why was there a revolution ? and secondly why was there a socialist revolution in a backward country?

Marx had supposed that a socialist revolution would occur as a result of the overipening of conditions in advanced capitalism. Russia was only beginning to enter a capitalist phase, and in the country at least, little had changed since the 17th century. Serfdom had only been formally abolished in 1863 but even this changed little for the peasants who were 75% of the population. 90% of the people were illiterate and some 30.000 landowners owned as much as land as 30 million peasants.

From 1870 on industrialisation began, sponsored by the czarist state. This was largely non - indigenous capital and was drawn mainly from the British and French. Unlike Britain for example, the development of industry did not go through a long period of development from small to large industry but started at the most advanced level. Consequently within the predominately feudal landscape we find isolated concentrations of the most advanced industry employing thousands of workers. These workers had no rights, no legal unions and no parliamentary tradition to incline them to adjust to their wretched conditions. From the first the option of reform did not exist for these workers. In France in 1789 it was the bourgeoisie that had led the peasants against feudalism and many of the Russian Marxists expected that this would happen in a similar way in Russia. In Russia the native bourgeoisie was small, a Johnny come lately, and dominated by foreign capital. It was also dependent on the Czar and the state. The working class, though it was only 25% of the population, was concentrated and had a social strength out of all proportion to its numbers. As Trotsky had argued and after April 1917 Lenin had agreed, it was the working class and not the bourgeoisie that would have to lead the peasants in revolution against the Czarist state.

Within the revolutionary movement the first opposition to the Czarist regime were the peasant anarchists called the Narodniks and the Populists. They were based on the peasantry and believed that capitalism would not come to Russia. They thought that the Czar could be undone by terrorist methods. Lenin's own brother was a member of one of these groups and was hung in 1880 when the Czar was assassinated.

Lenin in his The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1893) showed that capitalism was developing in Russia.

In 1900 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was formed.

Within the party there were three different views as to how the movement should unfold.

  1. The Menshevik view- they argued that Marx had seen capitalism as being the next stage after feudalism because it was capitalism that would develop the productive forces to the level that would make socialism possible. Therefore the worker's movement should support the bourgeoisie to take power.
  2. The Bolshevik view- They agreed but believed that the bourgeoisie would not do it of its own accord. The workers and peasants must take power on their behalf but only to put capitalism on the agenda and to do away with feudalism.
  3. The view of Trotsky- After the failed revolution of 1905 Trotsky developed the theory of permanent revolution which argued that the workers must lead the peasants against feudalism but that they will not stop at the tasks that one normally associates with capitalism (such as land reform and the abolition of feudal rule) but will proceed directly to socialism as the first stage of world revolution. He argued that in the era of imperialism that there are no stages and that nations will not mechanically repeat the evolution of centuries past.

Lenin came to the same position once he arrived back in Russia in April 1917.

The R.S.D.L.P. formed in 1900 but in 1903 there was a split between the Mensheviks (meaning minority in Russian) and the Bolsheviks (meaning majority in Russian) on the question, amongst others, of who should be a member of the party.

The Mensheviks wanted all who agreed with the programme of the party to be members but the Bolsheviks wanted a party of active professional revolutionaries in a party using the principles of "democratic centralism." This was not the bureaucratic centralism in fact practised under Stalin in the name of "democratic centralism." Rather it meant the greatest democracy possible in the party in the making of decisions combined with complete unity in action (See What is to be Done by V.I. Lenin)


In 1905 war broke out between Russia and Japan and to everybody's surprise the Japanese won (it was over influence in Korea).Within Russia there was a crisis and the regime tottered. The bourgeoisie would not take power but the first soviets (workers' councils) arose spontaneously within the working class without any lead from the various left parties. A young Trotsky became the President of the Petrograd Soviet. The Czar was still able to rely on the army (mostly peasants) and the revolution was defeated. Most of the left revolutionaries had to flee the country, in Lenin's case not to return until April 1917. Trotsky was sent to Siberia but escaped. (see 1905 by Leon Trotsky)

In 1914 Russia entered the war on the side of British and the French. Russia, the weakest link in the imperialist chain, broke down soonest. There was chaos, a lack of food, transport and bullets, a working day for the workers of up to 14 hours while speculators made fortunes out of the war.

On International Women's Day March 8th 1917 (which in the old Russian calendar occurred 10 days earlier in February) the women started a spontaneous revolt which led rapidly to the fall of the Czar.The women were demanding bread from the authorities which in Trotsky's words "was like demanding milk from a he-goat." Soviets again re-appeared and they were in defacto control. The Soviets were under the domination of the Mensheviks who in line with their ideas on the revolution, handed power to members of the Duma a defunct fake parliament of the Czar. They, with Soviet support, constituted themselves as the Provisional Government. This was a bourgeois government with links to the British and the French and they were determined to keep the war going.

The Bolshevik position was for ending the war but their attitude to the government was less clear. Stalin stated that the Bolsheviks should bring pressure to bear to force the Provisional Government to make peace. Lenin in his Letters from Afar describes this as pointless "as preaching morality to the keeper of a brothel.”

Gradually during the course of 1917 the soviets became a rival government to the Provisional Government. A situation of dual power was developing.

In April 1917 Lenin arrived back in Russia in a train supplied by the German High Command. He called for "Bread Peace and Land "and "All power to the Soviets.”

This change in policy was fought by the old guard of the Bolsheviks.

In June Trotsky arrived and went straight on to the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. He and Lenin were as one on the way forward and Trotsky now accepted the Bolshevik model of the party which he earlier had opposed.

After an early success in the war by the Provisional Government, defeat followed. None of the problems of food or the wretched condition of the people had been addressed, so that by July there was a mood of rebellion. The Provisional government was now headed by Kerensky and members of the Mensheviks and the Social Revolutionaries (the peasant party) now entered the government. The Bolsheviks believed that the time for the revolution had not yet come for although Petrograd and Moscow would fall, the rest of the country had yet to catch up. The revolt began anyway with the Bolsheviks leading the way. The revolt was put down as sections of the army, which was mainly peasants, were still loyal to the Czar. Lenin and Trotsky went into hiding.

By August Bolshevik slogans were seen everywhere at demonstrations of soldiers and workers. The mood was changing quickly. In September the Bolsheviks became the majority in the Soviets and Trotsky became President. Soldier and peasant soviets spread and Bolshevik agitators seemed to be everywhere.

At the end of September a Czarist general named Kornilov began marching on the cities to liquidate the revolution and restore the Czar. The question arose in the Bolshevik party. Should we now support the Provisional Government against Kornilov? Some of the old Bolsheviks favoured this but Lenin was clear. We will march against Kornilov under our own banners. We will not lose our class independence from the capitalist's government.

The Provisional Government was getting desperate. They had not freed the oppressed nationalities, they had begun no real land reform and made no move to a constituent assembly although this was promised for sometime in the future. Now the Provisional Government invited the Soviets into a preparliament to lay the basis for a future assembly. Again the old Bolsheviks were tempted. After all this had been Bolshevik policy until April 1917. Lenin won the day with his insistence that the soviets were a higher form of democracy that truly represented the workers and peasants far better than any bourgeois assembly could.

Immediately Trotsky was appointed to head the Military Revolutionary committee to organise the uprising. On November 7th 1917 the Bolsheviks seized power and the very next day handed power to the All Russian Congress of Soviets which was then meeting.

The eyewitness account of John Reed in his Ten days that shook the World describes the scene at the Petrograd Soviet.

“The people around me appeared to be in ecstasy. They seemed about to burst forth spontaneously in a religious hymn. Trotsky read a resolution to the general effect that they were ready to fight for the workers and peasants to the last drop of their blood. Who was in favour of this resolution? The immense crowd raised their hands as a single man. Trotsky went on. The hands remained raised. Trotsky said, "Let this vote be your oath. You swear to give all of your strength, not to hesitate before any sacrifice to support the Soviet which undertakes to win the revolution and give you bread peace and land." The hands remain raised. The crowd approved, they took the oath and the same was repeated all over Petersburg. The last preparations were made, everywhere they swore the last oath: thousands ,tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of men. It was insurrection.”

This was no coup d'etat as those who would have us forget the Russian revolution would argue. N.N.Sukhanov a politician completely opposed to the Bolsheviks makes it clear in his book on The Russian Revolution (1917, Vol.2 p. 579 Oxford 1955) that "the party was followed by the overwhelming majority of the people ".... "when the party had already de facto conquered all real power and authority:"

Talk of a military conspiracy "was clearly an absurdity."

Said Lenin to the Congress,

“In Russia the immense majority of the peasants have said enough of this game with the capitalists. We shall march with the workers. They will understand that their salvation is with the workers. We shall set up workers control of industry. We are going to build the socialist society.”