6) Combined and Uneven Development

By the end of the 1860s, there were only 1,600 kilometers of railway lines in the whole country. In the following two decades this figure had increased 15 times. In the ten years between 1892 and 1901, no fewer than 26,000 kilometers of railway lines were built. Alongside the traditional industrial centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, new ones sprang up in areas such as the Baltic, Baku, and Donbass. Between 1893 and 1900, the production of oil experienced a two-fold increase and that of coal went up three times. True, the development of industry did not have the organic character of the rise of capitalism in Britain, described by Marx in Capital. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 provided the material premise for the development of capitalism. But the Russian bourgeoisie came on to the stage of history too late to take advantage of the opportunity. The puny and underdeveloped forces of Russian capitalism could not compete with the powerful developed bourgeoisie of Western Europe and America. In common with the ex-colonial countries today, Russian industry was heavily dependent upon foreign capital, which exercised a crushing domination over the economy, principally through its control of the banking and financial system:

“The confluence of industry with bank capital,” wrote Trotsky, “was also accomplished in Russia with a completeness you might not find in any other country. But the subjection of the industries to the banks meant, for the same reasons, their subjection to the Western European money market. Heavy industry (metal, coal, oil) was almost wholly under the control of foreign finance capital, which had created for itself an auxiliary and intermediate system of banks in Russia. Light industry was following the same road. Foreigners owned in general about 40 percent of all the stock capital of Russia, but in the leading branches of industry that percentage was still higher. We can say without exaggeration that the controlling shares of stock in the Russian banks, plants and factories were to be found abroad, the amount held in England, France and Belgium being almost double that in Germany.”43

The penetration of Russian society by foreign capital gave a sharp impetus to economic development, shaking the giant out of 2,000 years of barbarism and into the modern era. But precisely this gave rise to an explosive social situation. Large numbers of peasants were torn from the changeless routine of village life and thrust into the inferno of large-scale capitalist industry.

The Marxist theory of combined and uneven development found its most perfect expression in the extremely complex social relations in Russia at the turn of the century. Side by side with feudal, semi-feudal, and even prefeudal modes of existence there sprang up the most modern factories, built with French and British capital on the latest models. This is precisely the phenomenon we now see in the whole of the so-called Third World, and was most strikingly revealed by the development of Southeast Asia in the first half of the 1990s. This provides a most remarkable parallel with the development of Russia exactly a hundred years earlier. And it is entirely possible that the political outcome could be similar. The development of industry in such a context acts as a spur to revolution. Russia shows just how quickly that can occur. Out of the stormy development of Russian capitalism in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties came the equally stormy awakening of the proletariat. The wave of strikes in the 1890s was the preparatory school for the revolution of 1905.

In just 33 years—from 1865 to 1898—the number of factories employing over 100 workers doubled—from 706,000 to 1,432,000. By 1914, more than half of all industrial workers were actually employed in plants with over 500 hands, and nearly one quarter in plants with over 1,000 hands—a far higher proportion than in any other country. Already in the 1890s, seven big factories in the Ukraine employed two-thirds of all the metal workers in Russia, while Baku had almost all the oil workers. Indeed, until 1900, Russia was the largest oil producer in the world.44

Nevertheless, despite the tempestuous upsurge of industry, the general picture of Russian society remained one of extreme backwardness. The mass of the population still lived in the villages, where the rapid development of class differentiation was given a powerful impulse by the crisis in European agriculture in the 1880s and early 1890s. The falling price of grain ruined whole layers of the peasantry, the appalling nature of whose existence is starkly portrayed in Chekhov’s short stories In the Ravine and Muzhiks. The rural semi-proletarian, deprived of land, hawking his labor around the villages, became a common sight. On the other end of the social spectrum the new class of emerging rural capitalists, the kulaks, growing rich at the expense of the village poor, could afford to buy land from the old landowners—a situation reflected with great wit and insight in Chekhov’s famous play The Cherry Orchard.

In spite of all the attempts of the tsarist regime to shore it up, the old village community, the mir, which according to the Narodnik theoreticians was to provide the basis for peasant socialism, was rapidly breaking up along class lines. Those unable to find work in the village swarmed into the towns, providing an immense pool of cheap labor for the newly established capitalist enterprises. The rapid growth of industry produced a growing class polarization within the peasantry, with the crystallization of a class of rich peasants, or kulaks, and a mass of landless rural poor who increasingly drifted to the towns in search of work. The fierce arguments between the Marxists and Narodniks about the inevitability or otherwise of the development of capitalism in Russia were being conclusively settled by life itself. Lenin’s earliest works, such as New Economic Developments in Peasant Life, On the so-called Market Question, and The Development of Capitalism in Russia were written to settle accounts with the Narodniks. But unlike the earlier writings of Plekhanov, these works are based on the irrefutable language of facts, figures and arguments.

The development of capitalism in Russia also meant the development of the proletariat, which soon served notice on the whole of society of its intention to place itself in the front rank of the struggle for change. The highly concentrated character of Russian industry rapidly created industrial armies of workers, organized and disciplined, and placed at the strategic points of society and the economy. The graph of the strike movement clearly indicates the rising confidence and class consciousness of the Russian working class in this period.





Number of strikes




Number of workers involved




(Source: Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 96)

Starting in the spring of 1880, industry was hit by a crisis which lasted several years. This was a period of mass unemployment, in which the employers ruthlessly pushed down the already miserable wages of the workers. In addition to all the other problems, the workers were continually oppressed with all kinds of petty restrictions and arbitrary rules designed to keep them in subservience. Chief among these was the custom of imposing fines for a whole series of real or imagined offenses against the employers. The indignation and accumulated discontent of the workers finally exploded in a wave of labor agitation in 1885–86 in Moscow, Vladimir, and Yaroslavl, which culminated in the strike at the Nikolskoye Mill owned by T.S. Morozov.

The 11,000 workers at the Morozov works had their wages cut no fewer than five times in two years. At the same time, enormous fines were imposed for singing, talking loudly, walking past the manager’s office with a cap on, and so on. These fines frequently amounted to a quarter of a worker’s wage, and sometimes one-half. On December 7, 1885, all the pent-up rage and frustration at the years of petty vexations, theft, and arbitrariness burst forth with elemental force. The leader of the strike, Pyotr Anisimovich Moiseyenko (1852–1923), was an experienced revolutionary, an ex-member of Khalturin’s Northern Union, who had served a term in Siberian exile. A remarkable man, one of those natural leaders of the working class, Moiseyenko later wrote: “I first learned to understand, then to act.”

The enraged workers vented their anger by smashing up the factory food store, where the truck system compelled them to buy food at inflated prices, and the home of the hated foreman Shorin. Alarmed by the violence of the outbreak, the governor of Vladimir province drafted in troops and Cossacks. The workers presented the governor with their demands, but were met with repression. Six hundred workers were arrested. Troops surrounded the factory and the workers were forced back to work at the point of a bayonet. Nevertheless, such was the mood of the workforce that the factory was not fully operational until one month later.

The Morozov strike ended in a defeat. Yet the effect it had on the minds of workers all over Russia prepared the way for the mass strikes of the coming decade. In the trial of the strikers held in Vladimir in May 1886, Moiseyenko and the other defendants put up a spirited defense which turned into such a devastating indictment of factory conditions that the charges were quashed and the workers’ case upheld. The verdict of the Morozov trial sent a shock wave throughout Russian society. Thoroughly alarmed, the reactionary paper Moskovskiye Vedmosti protested:

But it is dangerous to joke with the masses of the people. What must the workers think, following the not-guilty verdict of the Vladimir court? The news of this decision spread like lightning through the whole of this manufacturing area. Our correspondent, who left Vladimir immediately after the announcement of the verdict, heard of it at all the stations . . .45

The Morozov strike showed the enormous potential power of the proletariat. The lesson was not lost on the tsarist regime, which, for all its support for the factory owners, decided that it would have to make concessions to the workers. This it did on June 3, 1886, when the Law on Fines was passed, limiting the amount which could be imposed and stipulating that the proceeds should not be appropriated by the employers, but be deposited in a special benefit fund for the workers. As always, reform is a byproduct of the workers’ revolutionary struggle to change society. Like the “Ten hour bill” legislation passed in Britain in the last century, the Law on Fines was an attempt to pacify the workers and prevent them from moving in a revolutionary direction, while simultaneously trying to lean on the workers to curb the demands of the bourgeois liberals. Such “benevolent” legislation did not prevent the savage repression of strikes and the wholesale arrest and deportation of workers’ leaders in the coming period. Nor did the new law have the desired effect of dampening down the strike movement. The Morozov strike inspired the workers with fresh courage, while the concessions granted by the all-powerful autocracy showed what could be gained by boldly fighting for their interests. In 1887, the total number of strikes exceeded those of the two previous years put together. Two years later, police chief Plehve was forced to report to Alexander III that in turn 1889 was “richer than 1887 and 1888 in disorders called forth by factory conditions.”46

The elemental upsurge of the strike movement indicated the increasing awareness of the workers of themselves as a class and a force within society. The more advanced strata, represented by people like Moiseyenko, were groping for ideas which could shed light upon their condition and show the way forward. This movement had a two-fold significance. On the one hand, these spontaneous outbreaks, frequently accompanied by acts of Luddism47 which bore witness to its as yet unorganized and semiconscious nature, announced to the world the emergence of the Russian working class on the stage of history. On the other hand, it furnished irrefutable proof of the correctness of the theoretical arguments of Plekhanov and the Emancipation of Labor Group. In the white heat of the class struggle, the basis was now laid for the coming together of the still numerically weak forces of Marxism and the powerful, but as yet incoherent forces of the Russian proletariat.

From the Marxist point of view, the importance of a strike goes far beyond the fight for immediate demands over hours, wages and conditions. The real significance of strikes, even when lost, is that the workers learn. In the course of a strike the mass of workers, their wives, and families inevitably become aware of their role as a class. They cease to think and act like slaves, and begin to raise themselves up to the stature of real human beings with a mind and will of their own. Through their experience of life and of struggle—particularly of great events—the masses begin to transform themselves. Beginning with the most active and conscious layer, the workers become profoundly discontented with their lot, and keenly feel their own limitations. Defeats, still more than victories, force upon the worker-activist the burning need for a clear understanding of the workings of society, of the mysteries of economics and politics.

The growth of capitalist industry itself produces a mighty army of the proletariat. But even the best army will be defeated if it lacks generals, majors and captains well schooled in the business of war. The stormy strike battles of the 1880s proclaimed to the world that the heavy battalions of the Russian proletariat were ready and willing to fight. But they also revealed the weakness of the movement, its spontaneous, unorganized, and unconscious nature, its lack of direction and leadership. The army was there. What was necessary was to prepare the future general staff. This conclusion now dawned irresistibly on the consciousness of the best workers. And with the serious and single-minded approach which characterizes worker-activists the world over, they settled down to learn.


43 Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 32.

44 Figures from F. Dan, The Origins of Bolshevism, 150 and B.H. Sumner, A Survey of Russian History, 324–31.

45 Quoted in LCW, Explanation of the Law on Fines Imposed on Factory Workers, vol. 2, 38.

46 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 100.

47 Luddism is the name given to a movement of the English workers in the early years of the industrial revolution. The rise of unemployment was blamed on the introduction of machines, which the workers smashed.

7) The Period of Small Circles

The fierce ideological battles of the previous decade had not been fought in vain. An increasing number of young people in Russia now looked towards Marxism as a means of changing society. For these young men and women, the watchwords were no longer “Go to the people,” but “Go to the workers!” Under the prevailing conditions, the work had to be conducted on strict underground lines. The usual method of the underground propaganda circle was to set up a kind of school in the factory districts where, under the guise of adult education classes, they would expound the basic ideas of socialism to small groups of workers. This is a period of many names—mostly strange and unfamiliar to the modern reader. The small groups which sprang up in one town after another must have appeared to the tsarist authorities as the result of some virulent and inexplicable virus.

Despite all their efforts, the Narodniks were completely incapable of linking up with “the people,” nor could they ever hope to do so, on the basis of false theories, program, and methods. Yet this seemingly intractable problem was now solved with complete ease by the Marxists. A solid bridgehead was rapidly constructed to link the latter with the workers. In all the major centers of industry, study circles, educational classes and “Sunday schools” sprang up, providing the seedbed for a whole new generation of working class revolutionary Marxists, the backbone of the future party of October. Thus began the so-called period of propaganda or kruzhovshchina (based on the Russian word for study circle). Here, after an exhausting day’s work under appalling conditions, many a horny-handed factory worker, fighting off mental and physical fatigue, spent long hours wrestling with the difficult chapters of Marx’s Capital—that same book which the tsarist censor considered too dry and abstruse to represent a danger. So great was the workers’ desire to learn that many a volume of Capital was torn apart in order to distribute it, chapter by chapter, among the largest possible number of people.

Through the pages of the police archives, the faces and numbers of arrested revolutionaries passed with monotonous regularity—just so many bacilli isolated and removed for the health of the body politic. Most of these men and women have long passed into obscurity. And yet upon the bones and nerves of these heroes and martyrs, the Russian workers’ movement was constructed. Perhaps the most vivid account of how these early Marxist propaganda circles functioned is contained in Krupskaya’s book about Lenin. Contact was made through a workers’ study circle, where the teaching of the “3 Rs” would be skillfully combined with at least the elementary ideas of socialism. Such a group was the Smolensk Sunday Evening Adult School, in the working class stronghold of Schlisselburg, where Nadezhda Krupskaya gave classes. The young lecturers were popular with the workers, with whom they established a very close rapport.

“Workers who belonged to the organization,” wrote Krupskaya, “went to the school to get to know people and single out those who could be drawn into the circle and the organization.”48

Elsewhere she recalls:

It was a kind of silent conspiracy. We were actually able to talk about anything in the school, although there was rarely a class without a spy; one had to refrain from using the terrible words “tsar,” “strike,” etc., and the most fundamental problems could be referred to. But, officially, it was forbidden to discuss anything at all: on one occasion they closed down the so-called recapitulatory group, because an inspector who had put in an unexpected appearance discovered that the ten times table was being taught there, whereas, according to the syllabus, only the four rules of arithmetic were allowed to be taught.49

At the same time that Plekhanov and his collaborators were establishing the Group for the Emancipation of Russian Labor abroad, the first genuine Social Democratic (i.e., Marxist) circle appeared in St. Petersburg, set up by a young Bulgarian student, Dimiter Blagoev (1856–1924)—the future leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In 1884, his group took the name “The Party of the Russian Social Democrats” and even began to publish a paper—Rabochii (The Worker). However, the group did not last long before it was smashed by the police. But the process was now too far advanced to be halted by police action. The following year another Social Democratic group was formed in the capital, this time with closer links with the working class. The group of P.V. Tochissky included apprentices and craftsmen and styled itself the “Brotherhood of St. Petersburg Artisans.”

Further afield in the Volga area of Central Russia, in Kazan, Nikolai Fedoseyev (1871–98) organized a group of students, one of the members of which was a young student by the name of Vladimir Ulyanov, later known as Lenin. The first seeds had been planted, and the first recruits had been won, albeit in tiny handfuls, in Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Saratov, Rostov-on-Don, and other towns in the region. This group disintegrated when Fedoseyev was arrested in the summer of 1889. Many years later, in December 1922, Lenin was to write a brief note on Fedoseyev to the Party History Commission in which he paid a warm tribute to “this exceptionally talented and exceptionally devoted revolutionary.”50

Working against tremendous odds, under intolerable difficulties and always at personal risk, the Marxist propagandists stubbornly persevered in their task. Many of them never lived to see the result of their labor. They never fought in the final great battles, nor did they see the old, hated structures of society topple. Their role was the hardest task of all. The arduous task of beginning; of building the movement out of nothing; of patiently winning over the ones and twos; of explaining, arguing, convincing; of attending to the thousand and one mundane, routine day-to-day tasks of building an organization, which pass unobserved by historians, but which lay at the heart of a great historical enterprise. Despite all the difficulties, the slow, patient work of the Marxists now began to bear fruit. Marxist groups were springing up all over Russia. In imitation of the Emancipation of Labor Group, they called themselves Leagues of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. At the same time, the movement of the workers was assuming a mass character. Then, like a thunderbolt from a clear sky, something happened which completely transformed the situation.

In 1891 and 1892, a terrible famine swept the country, causing widespread starvation in the villages and a steep rise in food prices. Famine, cholera and typhus affected 40 million souls; whole villages perished, especially in the Volga region. Hungry peasants flooded into the towns, willing to accept work at any price. This, combined with an economic upturn, which paradoxically coincided with the famine, produced a wave of strikes, especially in the center and West of Russia, the centers of the textile industry. They were accompanied by clashes with police and Cossacks, notably in the strike of the Polish textile workers in Lodz in 1892.

The famine served to expose the bankruptcy of the autocracy and the corruption and inefficiency of the bureaucracy. The fate of the starving millions had a profound effect upon the youth. The student movement flared up again in Moscow and Kazan. The general stirring of society also had an effect on the liberals. Silenced by the reactionary regime of Alexander III, the Zemstvos were reawakened to life by the famine. All over Russia, well-to-do liberals based on the Zemstvos launched famine relief campaigns. The Zemstvo liberals, many of them ageing leftovers from the “going to the people” movement of the 1870s, eased their consciences by setting up soup kitchens. They did their best to give the struggle against the famine a harmless, non-political coloration, in line with their general policy of “small deeds.” But the social and political ferment provoked by the famine and the chaotic response of the tsarist administration served to stir up the intelligentsia, and provided numerous new recruits for the Marxists, who were locked in furious combat with the representatives of the liberal Narodnik trend. The bitterness of the struggle is reflected in an episode recalled by Krupskaya of one of Lenin’s first interventions, shortly after he arrived in St. Petersburg:

The conference was disguised as a pancake party . . . The question came up as to what ways we should take. Somehow general agreement was lacking. Someone said that work on the Illiteracy Committee was of great importance. Vladimir Ilyich laughed, and his laughter sounded rather harsh (I have never heard him laugh that way again). “Well, if anyone wants to save the country by working in the Illiteracy Committee,” he said, “let him go ahead.”51

Watching the situation attentively from afar, Plekhanov immediately understood that a fundamental change was taking place which demanded a shift in the methods hitherto employed by the Russian Marxists. The famine had exposed the bankruptcy of the autocracy to an unparalleled degree. The idea of a representative assembly, a Zemsky Sobor, began to gain ground among the liberal intelligentsia. Plekhanov seized the opportunity with both hands. In his pamphlet All-Russian Ruin, published in Sotsial Demokrat, issue 4, Plekhanov explained that the causes of the famine were not natural but social. Setting out from the chaotic situation brought about by the corruption and ineptitude of the tsarist authorities, he showed the need to conduct widespread propaganda and agitation, linking the concrete demands of the masses to the central idea of the overthrow of the autocracy.

Of course, the slogan of a Zemsky Sobor in the hands of the liberals was given a completely reformist and therefore utopian character. But Plekhanov, displaying a keen revolutionary instinct, advanced this demand as a militant, fighting slogan, as a means of mobilizing the masses and attracting the best sections of the democratic intelligentsia to the idea of an open struggle against tsarism.

“All those honest Russians,” he wrote, “who do not belong to the world of mere money-makers, kulaks, and Russian bureaucrats must at once begin to agitate for the Zemsky Sobor.”52

Plekhanov’s article represented the first concrete attempt to come to grips with the question of how to relate the workers’ movement to the movement of other oppressed classes against the common enemy, tsarism. Under conditions of tsarist enslavement, temporary and episodic blocs with the most radical elements of the petty bourgeoisie or even the bourgeois liberals were inevitable. Such agreements, however, in no sense presupposed the existence of programmatic agreement. On the contrary, the prior condition thereof was precisely that every party should march under its own banner: “March separately and strike together.” While defending the liberals and petty bourgeois democrats against tsarist persecution, and occasionally arriving at episodic agreements for practical questions such as the transportation of illegal literature, defense of arrested comrades, etc., the Marxists simultaneously subjected them to a merciless and unremitting criticism for their vacillations and confusions. Such a policy was designed to make use of each and every opportunity to push the movement forward while strengthening the position of Marxism and the independent class standpoint of the proletariat, in the same way that a mountain climber skillfully makes use of every chink and crevice in order to haul himself up to the summit.

The main thrust of Plekhanov’s argument was that the “total economic ruin of our country can be averted only by its complete political emancipation.” The appalling problems of the masses directly posed the question of revolutionary struggle against tsarism, in which the working class would play the key role. While, at this stage, no one yet spoke of the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia, the skillful use of revolutionary-democratic demands, like the convening of a Zemsky Sobor, undoubtedly played an important agitational role in marshalling the revolutionary forces around the Marxist program. This policy had nothing in common with the latter-day policies of the Mensheviks and Stalinists, who, under the guise of “uniting all progressive forces,” try to subordinate the working class movement to the so-called progressive bourgeoisie. Both Plekhanov and, especially, Lenin poured scorn on the idea of a “People’s Front” which a section of the Narodniks were peddling even at this time. Before he became a Menshevik, when he still defended the ideas of revolutionary Marxism, Plekhanov answered those who accused him of frightening the liberals with the following rebuff: “In any case, we consider that the most harmful kind of ‘frightening’ is the frightening of socialists with the specter of frightening the liberals.”53


48 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 17.

49 N.K. Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893-1917), 6.

50 LCW, A Few Words About N.Y. Fedoseyev, vol. 33, 453.

51 N.K. Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin, 12–13.

52 Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 16.

53 G. Plekhanov, Sochineniya, vol. 1, 403.

8) From Propaganda to Agitation

The new emphasis upon mass revolutionary agitation caught many by surprise. Future Economists like Boris Krichevsky were not slow to criticize the Emancipation of Labor Group for its “constitutionalism,” not understanding the need to advance democratic slogans alongside the elementary class demands of the proletariat. At the same time, many of the old hands even in Russia were reluctant to recognize the changed situation. The old habits of small propaganda circle activity died hard. In many cases, the transition to mass agitation was only accomplished after painful arguments and divisions. In his article On the Tasks of the Russian Social Democrats during the Famine in Russia (1892), Plekhanov gave the classic Marxist definition of the difference between propaganda and agitation:

A sect can be satisfied with propaganda in the narrow sense of the word: a political party never . . . A propagandist gives many ideas to one or a few people . . . Yet history is made by the masses . . . Thanks to agitation, the necessary link between the “heroes” and the “crowd,” between “the masses” and “their leaders” is forged and tempered.

Plekhanov stressed the urgent necessity for the Marxists to penetrate the broadest layers of the masses with agitational slogans, beginning with the most immediate economic demands, such as the eight-hour day:

Thus all—even the most backward—workers will be clearly convinced that the carrying out of at least some socialist measures is of value to the working class . . . Such economic reforms as the shortening of the working day are good if only because they bring direct benefits to the workers.54

This gives the lie to the reformist opponents of Marxism who argue that the Marxists are “not interested in reform.” On the contrary, throughout history, the Marxists have been in the forefront of the struggle for the improvement of the lot of the workers, fighting for better wages and conditions, shorter hours, and democratic rights. The difference between Marxism and reformism does not consist in the “acceptance” or otherwise of reforms (you only have to pose the question to see its patent absurdity). On the one hand, is the fact that serious reforms can only be won by mobilizing the strength of the working class in struggle against the capitalists and their state and, on the other, that the only way to consolidate the gains made by the workers and to guarantee all their needs, is to break the power of capital and carry out the socialist transformation of society. The latter is, however, unthinkable without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism which serves to organize, train, and educate the working-class, preparing the ground for the final settling of accounts with its enemies.

The conditions for the transition to mass agitational work were prepared by the development of Russian capitalism itself. Throughout the decade of the 1890s, the graph of the strike movement continued on the upturn, and at the heart of the movement stood St. Petersburg. Here were the heavy battalions of Russian labor—the metal workers, 80 percent of whom were concentrated in big factories like the Putilov works. St. Petersburg was the place where the working class was growing fastest. Between 1881 and 1900, the working class of the capital grew by 82 percent—Moscow grew by 51 percent in the same period. A relatively high proportion of the Petersburg proletarians were literate—74 percent against 60 percent for the rest of Russia.

It was a new and youthful population. In 1900, over two-thirds of St. Petersburg had been born outside the city, and over 80 percent of its workers. They came from all over the Empire—hungry, penniless peasants, desperately seeking work. Those who were lucky entered the big textile and metal factories. The decisive sector in St. Petersburg was the metal industry, whereas in Moscow, textiles predominated. Well over half the workers of St. Petersburg were employed in big factories of 500 or more, while nearly two-fifths worked in giant works of over 1,000. The unlucky ones became beggars, street vendors or prostitutes.

The working day was long—between 10 and 14 hours—and conditions and safety were appalling. Workers often had to live in overcrowded factory barracks, where bad housing was made worse by polluted air and water and defective sewage, giving St. Petersburg its reputation as the most unhealthy capital in Europe. The conditions of the textile workers were particularly barbaric, working very long hours doing monotonous jobs amidst deafening noise, in unhealthy, hot, and humid conditions, the results of which, in the words of a government inspector,

. . . can be visually confirmed by [the workers’] outward appearances—emaciated, haggard, worn out, with sunken chests: they give the impression of sick people, just released from the hospital.55

About half the textile workers were women. This particularly exploited section of the class, mainly newly arrived peasants and unskilled laborers, proved to be extremely volatile. The revolutionary potential of the textile workers had already been demonstrated in the strikes of 1878–79, when the first confused attempt was made to link up the strikes and the revolutionary movement. These strikes frightened the authorities into making concessions. The First Factory Act of June 1, 1882 prohibited the employment of children under 12 years of age from working in factories, and limited the working day for children between 12 and 15 to between eight and 15 hours. A further Act of 1885 prohibited night work in certain branches of industry, and so on.

The workers were not destined to enjoy the fruits of their victory. The strikes were the reflection of an economic boom, related to the Russo-Turkish war, but, in the slump which followed, the capitalists took their revenge. Throughout the 1880s, a severe depression caused massive layoffs and unemployment, especially in the metal industry. Thousands of workers and their families were reduced to destitution. Those who remained in the factories had to keep their heads down and grit their teeth while the factory owners ruthlessly lowered wages. At the start of the 1890s, the economy began to pick up once more. The change was particularly noticeable from 1893 onwards. Major construction on the railways further stimulated growth in the metal industry in St. Petersburg and the south of Russia. Oil and coal fields were booming. And at once the fresh breezes of the class struggle began to blow. The idea of agitation immediately caught the imagination of the youth inside Russia. Already many of the youngsters were growing impatient with the limitations of work in the propaganda circles. The trail was blazed by the Social Democrats in the western areas of Lithuania and Poland, where the Lodz strike and May Day demonstration of 1892 indicated the explosive nature of the situation.

Tsarist Russia was, to use Lenin’s celebrated phrase, a “veritable prison-house of nations.” In the period of rampant reaction following the assassination of Alexander II, national oppression was intensified. Under the grim surveillance of Pobedonostsev, the twin watchdogs of autocracy—the police and the Orthodox Church—cracked down on everything which smacked of dissent—from independent thinkers like Leo Tolstoy to Polish Catholics, Baltic Lutherans, Jews and Moslems. Marriages consecrated in Catholic churches were not recognized by the Russian government. Under Nicholas II, the church property of the Armenian Christians was confiscated by the state. The places of worship of the Kalmyks and Buryats were closed. Forced russification was accompanied by what amounted to compulsory conversion to the Orthodox faith.

The development of industry took place very early on in the western fringes of the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania. More industrialized than the east, more literate, and with a strong German influence, these areas were quickly penetrated by the Social Democracy. However, the workers’ movement here was immensely complicated by the national question. Oppressed by tsarist Russia, the Polish and Baltic workers and peasants had a double yoke to bear. The dismemberment of Poland, carved up between Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia, created a bitter legacy of national oppression, the effects of which were to have serious consequences for the future development of the labor movement. Memories of the defeat of 1863 and the horrific repression that followed kept alive a hatred for Russia among Poles.

The Russian authorities, especially sensitive about unrest in the Polish provinces, cracked down ruthlessly on the first Polish Social Democratic groups with arrests, torture and long sentences of hard labor. But the movement, like a hydra-headed monster, reacted to the lopping off of one head by immediately sprouting two new ones. The Baltic soon became a focal point of Marxist agitation and propaganda, serving as the entry point for illegal literature and correspondence between the émigré Emancipation of Labor Group and the Marxist underground in the interior. Bernard Pares comments on the state of affairs in Poland:

Warsaw University had been completely russianized, and Poles were taught their own literature in Russian; in 1885 Russian was introduced into primary schools as the language of teaching; Polish railway servants were sent to serve in other parts of the empire; in 1885 Poles were forbidden to buy land in Lithuania or Bolhynia, where they had constituted the majority of the gentry.56


54 Quoted in V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 17 in both quotes.

55 Quoted in G.D. Surh, 1905 in St. Petersburg: Labor, Society and Revolution, 54.

56 B. Pares, History of Russia, 465.

9) The Jewish Workers’ Movement

Paradoxically, tsarism encouraged the industrial development of Poland as a “shop window” and in a vain attempt to head off the nationalist movement. But the very development of industry was undermining the regime and creating a fever of discontent in the towns and cities of Russia’s western borderlands. Conditions and wages were appalling, but profits of 40–50 percent were usual, while profits of 100 percent were not uncommon. The superexploitation of the workers created favorable conditions for the spread of socialist propaganda. In the midst of this lunar landscape of bleak reaction, the party known as Proletariat—the “hopeful forerunner of the modern socialist movement in Poland”57—was launched by the student Ludwig Warjinski. Warjinski’s group of socialist students formed circles of workers and embryonic trade unions. In 1882, the different groups coalesced to organize Proletariat, which led a series of strikes, culminating in a mass strike in Warsaw, which was violently put down by troops. Many of the leaders of Proletariat were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Four were hanged. Warjinski himself was not so fortunate. Sentenced to 16 years hard labor in the notorious Schlusselburg Fortress near St. Petersburg, he died a slow death.

After the arrests, Proletariat practically fell to pieces. By the time the young Rosa Luxemburg joined the movement, only remnants were left. Leo Jogiches, the son of a wealthy Jewish family, used his considerable personal income to finance the setting up of a new socialist group in Vilna in 1885. The Vilna Social Democrats later played a pioneering role, developing the technique of mass agitation among the workers, which was later taken up by the Marxists all over Russia. The young forces of the Polish proletariat received a powerful impulse from the newly awakened forces of the Jewish working class.

The majority of Jews lived in Poland and the western provinces, which were declared from 1881 to constitute the only place where Jews were allowed to live. Jews were dismissed en masse from all administrative posts and excluded from most professions in 1886. Only 10 percent of Jews were allowed to go to university (five percent in Moscow and St. Petersburg). From 1887, the same rule was applied to secondary schools. In 1888, all Jews in receipt of government scholarships were registered as Orthodox. Children were baptized against the wishes of their parents. Jews who became Orthodox were given a divorce with no questions asked. Special taxes were imposed on synagogues and kosher meat. As a means of dividing and disorienting the workers, the authorities organized bloody pogroms against the Jews; houses were sacked, and men, women, and children killed and maimed by lumpenproletarian mobs in connivance with the police.

The sizeable Jewish population in these areas, with its numerous artisans and small businesses, lived permanently on the brink of the abyss. The most oppressed layer of society, the Jewish workers and artisans, naturally provided fertile ground for the spread of revolutionary ideas. Not by accident, Jewish revolutionaries provided the Marxist movement with a number of leaders out of all proportion to their specific weight within society. Cosmopolitan Vilna, with its large concentration of Jewish workers and artisans, was one of the earliest strongholds of Social Democracy in the Russian Empire. From 1881 right up to the October Revolution, the outbreak of these barbaric acts of racial savagery were a permanent threat hanging over the heads of the Jewish people. The pogromists stirred up the backward Polish and Russian peasants against the Jews, making use of religious prejudice (the most common time for pogroms was Easter), and the hatred of the Jewish trader and moneylender. But the overwhelming majority of the Jews were poor workers and artisans. In 1888, a government commission reported that 90 percent of Jews were

a mass that lives from hand to mouth, amidst poverty and most oppressive sanitary and general conditions. The very proletariat is occasionally a target of tumultuous popular uprisings [i.e., pogroms] . . .58

The Jewish workers’ movement in western Russia, Poland and Lithuania had a long history. The strike wave which swept through these regions beginning in 1892 produced a ferment among all oppressed nationalities, especially the Jews, who suffered the most extreme national oppression. Cultural life began to stir in a kind of national renaissance. Breaking free from the deadweight of a culture fossilized for 2,000 years, the Jewish intelligentsia became open to the most radical and revolutionary ideas. In place of the old exclusivism and isolationism, they eagerly sought contact with other cultures, particularly Russian culture. As early as 1885, a section of the poor yeshivah students, training to become Rabbis, helped to launch the Narodnik revolutionary organization in Vilna. Now Jewish workers joined the struggle, eagerly learning Russian in order to read books and discover the new ideas for themselves.

Jewish workers had organized friendly societies or kassy, which collected funds for mutual benefit for as long as anyone remembered—possibly ever since Jews were expelled from the guilds in Germany and Poland. The structure of these societies recalled that of the medieval guilds themselves, or the early British craft unions, with their solemn initiation rituals, annual guild holidays, and strict secrecy concerning all their affairs. The artisans and workers organized in the kassy were conservative in outlook, hostile to socialist ideas and usually connected with the synagogue. Yet, the double burden which the Jewish workers had to bear, being oppressed as workers and as Jews, created exceptionally favorable conditions for the spread of revolutionary and socialist ideas. “A spontaneous movement,” wrote Akimov, “swept like a strong wind through the lower depths of Jewish society, through strata which had seemed immobile and incapable of comprehending or guiding themselves by any conscious ideas.”59 Precisely because of this, the Jewish socialist workers and intellectuals played a role in the Russian Revolutionary movement out of all proportion to their numbers.

The funds raised by the kassy were originally used not just for sick benefits and the like, but for clubbing together to buy a copy of the Torah! However, in the new climate of class struggle, the workers’ funds were used increasingly for labor disputes. The first documented strike of Jewish workers took place in Vilna in 1882—a strike of hosiery workers in which, significantly, the women played a major role. The most active elements were the Jewish craftsmen and artisans—jewellers, stocking makers, locksmiths, tailors, carpenters, printers, shoemakers. By 1895, there were 27 craft organizations in Vilna alone, with a total membership of 962. “Within the Jewish labor movement itself, it was the craftsmen who pioneered, and the cigarette and match factory workers who lagged behind.” This class composition of the Jewish labor movement, no different to its fraternal organizations in the rest of Russia, was undoubtedly a factor in the conservative role played by the Bund, the Jewish organization, in the early years of the RSDLP. The most advanced sections of Jewish society were far from being affected by the kind of Jewish nationalism later advocated by the Zionists. On the contrary, they saw the salvation of the Jewish people in the rejection of the age-old, hide-bound traditionalism and entry into the mainstream of Russian cultural and political life. “We were assimilationists,” wrote a socialist activist of this period, “who did not even dream of a separate Jewish mass movement. We saw our task as preparing the cadres for the Russian Revolutionary movement, and acclimatizing them to Russian culture.”60 The Jewish Social Democrats wore Russian dress carried Russian books and spoke Russian as much as possible.

In the socialist circles, a whole generation of Jewish youth was awakened to political and cultural life. Particularly striking was the courage of young Jewish girls from working class backgrounds, determined to participate in the movement, despite the implacable hostility of their elders:

“I see them now,” recalled a participant, “crate makers, soap workers, sugar workers—those among whom I led a circle . . . Pale, thin, red-eyed, beaten, terribly tired.”

They would gather late in the evening. We would sit until one in the morning in a stuffy room with only a little gas lamp burning. Often little children would be sleeping in the same room and the women of the house would walk around listening for the police. The girls would listen to the leader’s talk and would ask questions, completely forgetting the dangers, forgetting that it would take three-quarters of an hour to get home, wrapped in a cold, torn remnant of a coat, in the mud and deep snow: that they would have to knock on the door and bear a flood of insults and curses from their parents: that at home there might not be a piece of bread left and they would have to go to sleep hungry . . . and then in a few hours arise and run to work. With that rapt attention, they listened to the talks on cultural history, on surplus value . . . wages, life in other lands . . . What joy would light their eyes when the circle leader produced a new number of Yidisher Arbayter, Arbayter Shtimme, or even a brochure! How many tragedies young workers would suffer at home if it became known that they were running around with Akhudusnikers, with the “brothers and sisters,” that they were reading forbidden books—how many insults, blows, tears! It did not help. “It attracts them like magnets” mothers wailed to each other.

Here, in Lithuania and Belarus, the Jewish workers and the wholly russified Jewish intelligentsia were carrying on a kind of agitation which was far more broadly based than the limited propaganda activity common in Russia proper. They published leaflets written in the language of the mass of Jewish workers—Yiddish—which dealt with the immediate demands of the masses. At this time, a 19-year old student called Julius Martov, expelled from St. Petersburg for revolutionary activity, arrived in Vilna, already a thriving center of the Social Democracy. Martov recalled how the issue of agitation was raised by the workers themselves, compelling the Marxists to go beyond the limits of circle work:

“In my work,” he wrote, “I twice detailed talks on the aims and methods of socialism, but real life kept interfering . . . Either the members of the circle would themselves raise the question of some event that had occurred in their factory . . . or someone from another workshop would appear and we would have to spend the time discussing conditions there.”61

The success of the Vilna group led them to publish a pamphlet which caused quite a stir at the time: On Agitation, written by Arkady Kremer and Martov, became known as “The Vilna Program.” Despite traces of “spontaneism,” the document, with its central idea that the task of the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the workers themselves, aroused a lot of interest in the period 1893–97, when furious discussions were taking place everywhere on the turn to agitation. It basically represented a healthy reaction against the narrow “small circle” mentality and a desire to forge contacts with the masses. The new pamphlet threw down a bold challenge to existing conditions: “The Russian Social Democratic movement is on the wrong path,” it proclaimed. “It has locked itself up in closed circles. It should listen for the pulse beat of the crowd and lead it. Social Democrats can and must lead the working masses because the proletariat’s blind struggle inevitably leads it to the same goal and the same ideal which the revolutionary Social Democrats have consciously chosen.”62


57 Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, 20.

58 Nora Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements 1871–1917, 16.

59 V. Akimov, On the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism 1895–1903, 209.

60 Quoted in N. Levin, Jewish Socialist Movements, 226 and 234.

61 Ibid., 240 in both quotes.

62 Ibid., 240–41.

10) The Petersburg League of Struggle

In the autumn of 1893 the Petersburg Social Democrats were only just recovering from the arrest of their leader, Mikhail Ivanovich Brusnyev. Up to this time, the orientation of the group can be seen in Brusnyev’s own words:

Our main and fundamental role [was to] turn the participants . . . in the workers’ circles into fully developed and conscious social democrats, who could in many ways replace the intellectual propagandists.63

Already by 1891, the group was able to mobilize 100 people at the funeral of the old revolutionary N.V. Shelgunov. There were contacts in the big factories and all the main workers’ districts. The work had been started by young students, but gradually the class composition of the group underwent a change. The students painstakingly set about the task of creating working-class cadres or “Russian Bebels,” as they expressed it. After the wave of arrests which carried off Brusnyev and many others in 1892, the group had been reorganized by S.I. Radchenko. It included a group of students from the Technical Institute, some of whom were destined to play a significant role in the development of the party, including Nadya Krupskaya, Lenin’s future wife and lifelong companion.

The basic method of the group was to organize study circles of workers from the main factories. Through individual worker contacts, others were drawn into the circle in the way described above by Krupskaya. The original contacts developed theoretically and themselves became organizers of other circles. In this way an ever-wider network of worker study circles was established. Lenin, who had arrived in St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1893, participated as a lecturer in these circles under the alias, Nikolai Petrovich. Lenin’s work in the circle is described by Krupskaya:

Vladimir Ilyich was interested in the minutest detail describing the conditions and life of the workers. Taking the features separately he endeavored to grasp the life of the worker as a whole—he tried to find what one could seize upon in order better to approach the worker with revolutionary propaganda. Most of the intellectuals of those days badly understood the workers. An intellectual would come to a circle and read the workers a kind of lecture. For a long time, a manuscript translation of Engels’ booklet The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was passed round the circles. Vladimir Ilyich read with the workers from Marx’s Capital, and explained it to them. The second half of the studies was devoted to workers’ questions about their work and labor conditions. He showed them how their life was linked up with the entire structure of society, and told them in what manner the existing order could be transformed. The combination of theory with practice was the particular feature of Vladimir Ilyich’s work in the circles. Gradually, other members of our circle also began to use this approach.64

The circles did valuable work in assembling the working class cadres in ones and twos. But they also created certain conservative habits of mind which later proved an obstacle to the development of the movement. The young Martov confessed his mortification when an older worker-Marxist, a member of Brusnyev’s group, instead of inviting him to join the organization, presented him with a pile of books on ancient history and the origin of the species:

“Brought up in the previous period of complete social stagnation,” Martov writes, “S . . . apparently could not imagine any other way of training a revolutionary than having him work out, over a period of years, a complete theoretical worldview, the crown of which would be admittance to practical work. For us, who had already read the speeches of the SPD workers of May 1, 1891, and had been shaken by the bankruptcy of the regime in the face of the famine, it was psychologically inconceivable to condemn ourselves to such a long period of waiting.65

The “Vilna turn” caused a big impact on the movement in Russia and was hotly debated in the circles. Martov brought a copy of the pamphlet to St. Petersburg in the autumn of 1894. In her Memories of Lenin, Krupskaya recalls that:

When the Vilna pamphlet On Agitation appeared the following year, the ground was already fully prepared for the conducting of agitation by leaflets. It was only necessary to start work. The method of agitation on the basis of the workers’ everyday needs became rooted deeply in our party work. I only fully understood how fruitful this method of work was some years later when, living as an émigré in France, I observed how, during the tremendous postal strike in Paris, the French Socialist Party stood completely aside and did not intervene in the strike. It was the business of the trade unions, they said. They thought the work of the party was simply the political struggle. They had not the remotest notion as to the necessity for connecting up the economic and industrial struggles.66

By 1895, Lenin’s group had about 10–16 members, who between them organized the work of between 20 and 30 workers’ study circles, which in turn had up to 100–150 contacts.67 The group was connected to the workers’ circles through area organizers. By the end of the year, it was active in practically all the workers’ districts. In November, a decisive step was taken when a newly established Social Democratic group, including Martov, fused with the “veterans” to form the St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor—a name which was adopted in solidarity with Plekhanov’s Emancipation of Labor Group, apparently at Martov’s suggestion. A division of labor was established in the group’s activities—finance, contact with groups of revolutionary-minded intellectuals, the printing of leaflets, etc. The group maintained contact with the underground printshops run by a group of Petersburg Narodniks, and so on. The leaders of the group were Lenin and Martov.

Well, brother, I can’t think what’s gotten into them these days, sending us all these political muzhiks all of a sudden! Before they used to bring us all upper class people and students, real gentlemen. But now in walk the likes of you—just a common muzhik—a worker!68

With these words the prison warder of the Taganskaya prison greeted the arrival of M.N. Lyadov, one of the leaders of the Moscow Workers’ League in the year 1895. In his own way, the old warder had grasped the profound change which had taken place in the Russian Revolutionary movement in the 1890s. The more or less rapid growth of the Petersburg League reflected a change in the objective situation. The upsurge in the strike movement presented unprecedentedly wide opportunities for agitation through popular leaflets. The latter enjoyed instant success and served to bring the small forces of Marxism into contact with ever wider layers of the workers. The young people, mostly new recruits with little understanding of Marxist theory, threw themselves enthusiastically into the work of factory agitation, mostly on “bread and butter” issues. This had spectacular results, meeting with instant success among even the most benighted, ignorant and oppressed layers of the class.

In just one strike, according to Fyodr Dan, the League put out more than 30 leaflets.69 Agitation was conducted as a dialogue with the workers. The League would carefully listen to workers’ grievances, take note of their demands, and collect reports of the struggles in different factories. They would then return this information to the workers in an agitational form, together with organizational directives, exposures of the maneuvers of management and the authorities, and appeals for support. Thus, the strike movement of the 1890s became a gigantic preparatory school of struggle, serving to educate a whole generation of workers and Marxists. In the absence of an organized, legal labor movement, the tiny leaflets caused a sensation. The appearance of a leaflet would cause a buzz of expectation on the shop floor. Whenever they could escape the watchful eye of the overseer, the workers would gather in small groups (the favorite location being “the club”—i.e., the factory toilet), where the leaflet would be read aloud to a chorus of “Well said!” and “Absolutely right!” Takhtarev recalls that a typical reaction would be: “To the director! Send it to the director!” and that in a very short time, “rumors about the leaflets circulated throughout the factories of St. Petersburg. Soon the intelligentsia no longer needed to seek out the workers, who avidly inquired after the ‘students’ and requested leaflets”.70

The success of the new approach is reflected in Trotsky’s autobiography:

We found the workers more susceptible to revolutionary propaganda than we had ever in our wildest dreams imagined. The amazing effectiveness of our work fairly intoxicated us. From revolutionary tales, we knew that the workers won over by propaganda were usually to be counted in single numbers. A revolutionary who converted two or three men to socialism thought he had done a good job of work, whereas with us, the number of workers who joined or wanted to join the groups seemed to be unlimited. The only shortage was in the matter of instruction and in literature. The teachers had to snatch from each other in turn the single soiled copy of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels that had been translated by many hands in Odessa, with many gaps and mutilations of the text.

Soon we began to produce a literature of our own: this was, properly speaking, the beginning of my revolutionary work, which almost coincided with the start of my revolutionary activities. I wrote proclamations and articles and printed them all out in longhand for the hectograph. At that time we didn’t even know of the existence of typewriters. I printed the letters with the utmost care, considering it a point of honor to make them clear enough so that even the less literate could read our proclamations without any truble. It took me about two hours to a page. Sometimes I didn’t unbend my back for a week, cutting my work short only for meetings and study in the groups.

But what a satisfied feeling I had when I received the information from the mills and workshops that the workers read voraciously the mysterious sheets printed in purple ink, passing them about from hand to hand as they discussed them! They pictured the author as some strange and mighty person who in some mysterious way had penetrated into the mills and knew what was going on in the workshops, and 24 hours later passed his comment on events in newly printed handbills.71

The reaction of ordinary workers to the leaflets is reported by Takhtarev, writing while the comments were still fresh in his mind, in 1897:

‘Just think of the times we live in! . . . We used to work and work, and never see daylight. You could see it with your own eyes how they swindled us, but what could you do about it? . . . But now we have our boys who notice everything, everywhere, and take it down. Tell it to the Soyuz (League), you hear, we have to let them know about this.’

‘Who passes the leaflets?’

‘Students, I suppose. God grant good health to those people who print the leaflets.’ Whereupon the worker devoutly crossed himself.72

By energetically participating in agitation, the small forces of Marxism were able to play a role out of all proportion to their size. The small hectographed leaflets met a ready response. Often the mere appearance of these leaflets would suffice to plunge a whole factory into a ferment and discussion, exercising a major influence on the course of a dispute. Precisely the success of this agitation soon attracted the attention of the tsarist police. Well aware of the explosive mood of the workers in Petersburg, the authorities developed a healthy respect for what the leaflets could achieve. When, in February and April of 1896, a leaflet appeared voicing the demands of the workers in the shipbuilding yards in Petersburg, the Minister of the Interior, fearing a strike, ordered an investigation, which advised the port commander to concede the workers’ demands.

However, the transition from propaganda in small groups to mass agitation was not carried out painlessly or without internal strains and tensions. For many, the underground had become a way of life. It had a certain routine to which one became accustomed. A prolonged period of existence in small, underground circles fostered a certain narrow “circle mentality.” Paradoxically, despite the difficulties and dangers, it had a certain “cozy” side. The conditions of circle life did not demand much outward-going activity. One moved exclusively among comrades or advanced workers, in circles where everyone knew practically everyone else. By contrast, agitation among the masses seemed like a leap in the dark. Routine would be disrupted, ideas and methods radically altered. No wonder the proposal was met with mistrust and hostility on the part of a layer of the “old men”. Krassin and S.I. Radchenko warned of dire consequences if the new tactic were pursued: it would undermine the underground work, cause mass arrests, put comrades in danger, and disorganize the work.

The question of the “new turn” was thrashed out, first of all in the narrow circles of the veterans, and then presented for discussion at broader gatherings of workers, where extracts from Kremer’s pamphlet On Agitation were read out and debated. The St. Petersburg worker-propagandist, V.I. Babushkin, recalls his reaction to the new proposals:

I absolutely rebelled against agitation, though I saw the undoubted fruits of its work in the general upsurge of enthusiasm among the worker masses; for I was very much afraid of another such wave of arrests [as that which carried off some of the “old-timers,” including Lenin, in December 1895] and thought that now all would perish. However, I proved to be mistaken.

Martov recalls how this same Babushkin protested angrily to him about the new methods: “Here you begin throwing leaflets in all directions and in two months you’ve destroyed what it took years to create . . . The new youth, brought up in this agitational activity, will tend to be superficial in outlook.”73 Subsequent development showed that Babushkin’s fear was not entirely without foundation. Some of those who enthusiastically espoused “agitation” and poo-poohed theory and “circle narrowness” were not merely superficial, but downright opportunists. However, despite an element of youthful exaggeration, the reaction against the “circle mentality” was a necessary corrective to a conservative trend which, had it remained unchecked, would have converted the massive movement into a sect. Many years later, Trotsky was clearly thinking of this period when he wrote that:

Every working class party, every faction, during its initial stages, passes through a period of pure propaganda, i.e., the training of its cadres. The period of existence as a Marxist circle invariably grafts habits of an abstract approach onto the problems of the workers’ movement. Whoever is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian.74

An example of how the work was being held back by conservative attitudes was the discussion that took place among the Marxists in Moscow on how to intervene in the May Day of 1895. Mitskevich recalls the horrified reaction when he proposed to organize a clandestine meeting in the woods:

When I put the question to my comrades, they decided to celebrate inconspicuously and not to raise a ruckus. They were anxious not to spoil our work and they feared arrest. The comrades said: “It’s too early to speak up, our forces are still too small for open action: the idea of a big celebration—that’s an idea for the intelligentsia.”75

But life itself was preparing a big surprise—a sudden turn in the situation which stood all the old schemas on their head.

On May 23, 1896, a strike of the spinning assistants at the Russian Spinnery in the Narva district of St. Petersburg signalled the outbreak of a mighty wave of strikes. The textile workers improvised flying pickets which rapidly extended the strike. The lightning speed with which the strike spread was an indication of the explosive mood that had built up over the preceding decade. A major strike wave gripped the capital, and for the first time, the St. Petersburg Marxists found themselves at the head of a mass movement of the working class.

The changed conditions brought about by the strike wave provided the small forces of Marxism with colossal opportunities to spread their influence. Yet in the initial period, opportunities were frequently missed because of the resistance of the more conservative layers to the new methods. Thus, during the important strike of 2,000 weavers in Ivanovo-Voznesensk in October 1895, the leaders of the local Workers’ League initially opposed the proposal that they should send agitators to contact the strikers, and approach other factories to organize support for the strike. Eventually a compromise solution was reached that the League would accept no responsibility for the strike but that individual members would be allowed to participate at their own risk! Similar disputes arose in practically every social democratic circle. But gradually the new methods were accepted, and obtained spectacular results.

The Marxists did not limit themselves to agitation on economic questions, but also tried to place political ideas before the workers. After the arrests of December 1895, the Petersburg group published the leaflet: “What is a socialist and a political criminal?” In the first period of agitation, while setting out from the immediate grievances of the workers, every attempt was made to raise the workers’ horizons to broad political questions, linking the struggle for immediate demands to the central objective of the overthrow of the autocracy. By means of a bold participation in agitation, the influence of Marxism grew by leaps and bounds among ever wider layers of the working class. Despite the smallness of their forces, and the tremendously difficult objective situation, the Marxists had at last broken down the barriers separating them from the masses. The road was now open for the creation of a strong, united party of the Russian proletariat.


63 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 159.

64 Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893–1917), 6–7.

65 J. Martov, Zapiski Sotsial Demokrata, 92, quoted in A.R. Wildman, The Making of a Worker’s Revolution-Russian Social Democracy 1891–1903, 37.

66 Krupskaya, Memories of Lenin, (1893–1917), 7.

67 Istoriya KPSS, vol. 1, 222.

68 I. Verkhovtsev, (ed.) Bor’ba za Sozdanie Marksistskoi partii v Rossii (1894–1904), 3.

69 F. Dan, Origins of Bolshevism, 205.

70 Quoted in A.R. Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 63.

71 Trotsky, My Life, 110.

72 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 64.

73 Ibid., 53 in both quotes.

74 Trotsky, Writings, 1935–36, 153.

75 Quoted in Wildman, Making of a Worker’s Revolution, 54–55.