V. Lessons of the Working-Class Movement in Russia Applicable to Germany

Submitted by libcom on April 9, 2005

V. Lessons of the Working-Class Movement in Russia Applicable to Germany

Let us now see how far all these lessons which can be learned from the Russian mass strikes are applicable to Germany. The social and political conditions, the history and status of the labour movement are widely different in Germany and Russia. At first sight the inner law of the Russian mass strikes as sketched above may appear to be solely the product of specifically Russian conditions which need not be taken into account by the German proletariat. Between the political and economic struggle in the Russian Revolution there is a very close internal connection; their unity becomes an actual fact in the period of mass strikes. But is not that simply a result of Russian absolutism? In a state in which every form and expression of the labour movement is forbidden, in which the simplest strike is a political crime, it must logically follow that every economic struggle will become a political one.

Further, when, contrariwise, the first outbreak of the political revolution has drawn after it a general reckoning of the Russian working class with the employers, that is likewise a simple result of the circumstances that the Russian worker has hitherto had a very low standard of life, and has never yet engaged in a single economic struggle for an improvement of his condition. The proletariat in Russia has first, to a certain extent, to work their way out of these miserable conditions, and what wonder that they eagerly availed themselves, with the eagerness of youth, of the first means to that end as soon as the revolution brought the first fresh breeze into the heavy air of absolutism?

And finally, the stormy revolutionary course of the Russian mass strike as well as their preponderant spontaneous, elementary character is explained on the one hand by the political backwardness of Russia, by the necessity of first overthrowing the oriental despotism, and on the other hand, by the want of organisation and of discipline of the Russian proletariat. In a country in which the working-class has had thirty years experience of political life, a strong social democratic party of three million members and a quarter of a million picked troops organised in trade unions, neither the political struggle nor the mass strike can possibly assume the same stormy and elemental character as in a semi-barbarous state which has just made the leap from the Middle Ages into the modern bourgeois order. This is the current conception amongst those who would read the stage of maturity of the social conditions of a country from the text of the written laws.

Let us examine the questions in their order. To begin with it is going the wrong way about the matter to date the beginning of the economic struggle in Russia only from the outbreak of the revolution. As a matter of fact, the strikes and wage disputes in Russia proper were increasingly the order of the day since the nineties of the last century, and in Russian Poland even since the eighties, and had eventually won civic rights for the workers. Of course, they were frequently followed by brutal police measures, but nevertheless they were daily phenomena. For example, in both Warsaw and Lodz as early as 1891, there was a considerable strike fund, and the enthusiasm for trade unionism in these years had even created that "economic" illusion in Poland for a short time which a few years later prevailed in Petersburg and the rest of Russia.

In the same way there is a great deal of exaggeration in the notion that the proletarian in the czarist empire had the standard of life of a pauper before the revolution. The layer of the workers in large industries in the great towns who had been the most active and jealous in the economic as in the political struggle are, as regards the material conditions of life, on a scarcely lower plane than the corresponding layer of the German proletariat, and in some occupations as high wages are to be met with in Russia as in Germany, and here and there, even higher. And as regards the length of the working day, the difference in the large-scale industries in the two countries is here and there, insignificant. The notion of the presumed material and cultural condition of helotry of the Russian working-class is similarly without justification in fact. This notion is contradicted, as a little reflection will show, by the facts of the revolution itself and the prominent part that was played therein by the proletariat. With paupers no revolution of this political maturity and cleverness of thought can be made, and the industrial workers of St. Petersburg and Warsaw, Moscow and Odessa, who stand in the forefront of the struggle, are culturally and mentally much nearer to the west European type than is imagined by those who regard bourgeois parliamentarism and methodical trade-union practice as the indispensable, or even the only, school of culture for the proletariat. The modern large capitalist development of Russia and the intellectual influence of social democracy exerted for a decade-and-a-half, which has encouraged and directed the economic struggle, have accomplished an important piece of cultural work without the outward guarantees of the bourgeois legal order.

The contrast, however, grows less when, on the other hand, we look a little further into the actual standard of life in the German working-class. The great political mass strikes in Russia have, from the first, aroused the widest layers of the proletariat and thrown them into a feverish economic struggle. But are there not in Germany whole unenlightened sections amongst the workers to which the warm light of the trade unions has hitherto scarcely penetrated, whole layers which up to the present have never attempted, or vainly attempted, to raise themselves out of their social helotry by means of daily wage struggles?

Let us consider the poverty of the miners. Already in the quiet working day, in the cold atmosphere of the parliamentary monotony of Germany-as also in other countries, and even in the El Dorado of trade unionism, Great Britain-the wage struggle of the mine workers hardly ever expresses itself in any other way than by violent eruptions from time-to-time in mass strikes of typical, elemental character. This only shows that the antagonism between labour and capital is too sharp and violent to allow of its crumbling away in the form of quiet systematic, partial trade-union struggles. The misery of the miners, with its eruptive soil which even in "normal" times is a storm centre of the greatest violence, must immediately explode, in a violent economic socialist struggle, with every great political mass action of the working class, with every violent sudden jerk which disturbs the momentary equilibrium of everyday social life.

Let us take further, the case of the poverty of the textile workers. Here also the bitter, and for the most part fruitless, outbreaks of the wage struggle which raged through Vogtland every few years, give but a faint idea of the vehemence with which the great agglomerate mass of helots of trustified textile capital must explode during a political convulsion, during a powerful, daring mass action of the German proletariat. Again, let us take the poverty of the home-workers, of the ready-made clothing workers, of the electricity workers, veritable storm centres in which violent struggles will be the more certain to break out with every political atmospheric disturbance in Germany, the less frequently the proletariat take up the struggle in tranquil times; and the more unsuccessfully they fight at any time, the more brutally will capital comply them to return, gnashing their teeth to the yoke of slavery.

Now, however, whole great categories of the proletariat have to be taken into account which, in the "normal" course of things in Germany, cannot possibly take part in a peaceful economic struggle for the improvement of their condition and cannot possibly avail themselves of the right of combination. First and foremost we give the example of the glaring poverty of the railway and the postal employees. For these government workers there exist Russian conditions in the midst of the parliamentary constitutional state of Germany, that is to say, Russian conditions as they existed only before the revolution, during the untroubled splendour of absolutism. Already in the great October strike of 1905 the Russian railwaymen in the then formally absolutist Russia, were, as regards the economic and social freedom of their movement, head and shoulders above the Germans. The Russian railway and postal employees won the de facto right of combination in the storm, and if momentarily trial upon trial and victimisation were the rule, they were powerless to affect the inner unity of workers.

However, it would be an altogether false psychological reckoning if one were to assume, with the German reaction, that the slavish obedience of the German railway and postal employees will last forever, that it is a rock which nothing can wear away. When even the German trade-union leaders have become accustomed to the existing conditions to such an extent that they, untroubled by an indifference almost without parallel in the whole of Europe, can survey with complete satisfaction the results of the trade-union struggle in Germany, then the deep-seated, long-suppressed resentment of the uniformed state slaves will inevitably find vent with a general rising of the industrial workers And when the industrial vanguard of the proletariat, by means of mass strikes, grasp at new political rights or attempt to defend existing ones, the great army of railway of railway and postal employees must of necessity bethink themselves of their own special disgrace, and at last rouse themselves for their liberation from the extra share of Russian absolutism which is specially reserved for them in Germany.

The pedantic conception which would unfold great popular movements according to plan and recipe regards the acquisition of the right of combination for the railway workers as necessary before anyone will "dare to think" of a mass strike in Germany. The actual and natural course of events can only be the opposite of this: only from a spontaneous powerful mass strike action can the right of combination from the German railway workers, as well as for the postal employees, actually be born. And the problems which in the existing conditions of Germany are insoluble will suddenly find their solution under the influence and the pressure of a universal political mass action of the proletariat.

And finally, the greatest and most important: the poverty of the land workers. If the British trade-unions are composed exclusively of industrial workers, that is quite understandable in view of the special character of the British national economy, and of the unimportant part that agriculture plays, on the whole, in the economic life of Britain. In Germany, a trade-union organisation, be it ever so well constructed, if it comprises only industrial workers, and is inaccessible to the great army of land workers, will give only a weak, partial picture of the conditions of the proletariat. But again it would be a fatal illusion to think that conditions in the country are unalterable and immovable and that the indefatigable educational work of the social democracy, and still more, the whole internal class politics of Germany, does not continually undermine the outward passivity of the agricultural workers and that any great general class action of the German proletariat, for whatever object undertaken, may not also draw the rural proletariat into the conflict.

Similarly, the picture of the alleged economic superiority of the German over the Russian proletariat is considerably altered when we look away from the tables of the industries and departments organised in trade-unions and bestow a look upon those great groups of the proletariat who are altogether outside the trade-union struggle, or whose special economic condition does not allow of their being forced into the narrow framework of the daily guerrilla warfare of the trade-unions. We see there one important sphere after another, in which the sharpening of antagonisms has reached the extreme point, in which inflammable material in abundance is heaped up, in which there is a great deal of "Russian absolutism" in its most naked form, and in which economically the most elementary reckonings with capital have first to be made.

In a general political mass strike of the proletariat, then, all these outstanding accounts would inevitably be presented to the prevailing system. An artificially arranged demonstration of the urban proletariat, taking place once, a mere mass strike action arising out of discipline, and directed by the conductor's baton of a party executive, could therefore leave the broad masses of the people cold and indifferent. But a powerful and reckless fighting action of the industrial proletariat, born of a revolutionary situation, must surely react upon the deeper-lying layers, and ultimately draw all those into a stormy general economic struggle who, in normal times, stand aside from the daily trade-union fight.

But when we come back to the organised vanguard of the German industrial proletariat, on the other hand, and keep before our eyes the objects of the economic struggle which have been striven for by the Russian working class, we do not at all find that there is any tendency to look down upon the things of youth, as the oldest German trade-unions had reason to do. Thus the most important general demand of the Russian strikes since January 22-the eight-hour day-is certainly not an unattainable platform for the German proletariat, but rather in most cases, a beautiful, remote ideal. This applies also to the struggle for the "mastery of the household" platform, to the struggle for the introduction of workers' committees into all the factories, for the abolition of piece-work, for the abolition of homework in handicraft, for the complete observance of Sunday rest, and for the recognition of the right of combination. Yes, on closer inspection all the economic objects of struggle of the Russian proletariat are also for the German proletariat very real, and touch a very sore spot in the life of the workers.

It therefore inevitably follows that the pure political mass strike, which is operated with for preference, is, in Germany, a mere lifeless theoretical plan. If the mass strikes result, in a natural way from a strong revolutionary ferment, they will equally naturally, exactly as in Russia, change into a whole period of elementary, economic struggles. The fears of the trade-union leaders, therefore, that the struggle for economic interests in a period of stormy political strife, in a period of mass strikes, can simply be pushed aside and suppressed rest upon an utterly baseless, schoolboy conception of the course of events. A revolutionary period in Germany would also so alter the character of the trade-union struggle and develop its potentialities to such an extent that the present guerrilla warfare of the trade-unions would be child's play in comparison. And on the other hand, from this elementary economic tempest of mass strikes, the political struggle would always derive new impetus and fresh strength. The reciprocal action of economic and political struggle, which is the main-spring of present-day strikes in Russia, and at the same time the regulating mechanism of the revolutionary action of the proletariat, would also naturally result in Germany from the conditions themselves.