Posts Tagged ‘Russia in Revolution’

Strikes and Industrial Protest in an Anti-Union State: Pre-Revolutionary Russia

February 20, 2016

Like just about all its predecessors, Cameron’s government is doing its level best to emasculate and destroy the trade unions. Thatcher did it back in the 1980s with her union-busting legislation, and then the highly militarised use of the police during the Miners’ strike. Cameron’s trying to destroy them and their political representation in the Labour party through attacks on the union levy, further legal limits on the right to strike, and the legalisation of the use of blackleg labour from agencies to stop strikes being anything but cosmetic. The International Labour Organisation in the UN have denounced this last piece of legislation. And David Davies, one of the most right-wing of the Tory MPs, called Cameron’s plan to force stikers on pickets to giver their names to the police as ‘Francoist’.

Dave Cameron hopes this legislation will leave the unions powerless, and the workforce cowed, willing to accept the very worst wages and conditions. In the short term, he’s probably right, but in the long term, probably not. Not from the example of pre-Revolutionary Russia. The lesson there is quite the opposite: if you grind people down into the dirt for long enough, and deprive them of the right to strike and form unions, they will nevertheless strike and form unions, and the strikes and unrest will get more severe the worse conditions gets and the more force is deployed.

Lionel Kochan, in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970) notes that in 19th century Russia it was illegal to form trade unions, go on strike or form any kind of collective organisation for the workers. (p. 42). There were no friendly societies or strike funds to support striking workers. Nevertheless, strikes became a feature of Russian industrial life. To be sure, not all workers went on strike. He states that between 1895 and 1904, only half the workers in factories tended to go on strike, most of which didn’t last very long. The average strike lasted about ten days. (p. 44).

Nevertheless, industrial unrest became so chronic that the government was forced to increase the police and the armed forces to put down strikes. The number of policemen was raised to 1 to 250 workers, and there was one factory inspector, whose duties included warning workers that they could not legally strike, and what would happen to them if they did, for every 3,000 workers. The army was called in to suppress strike action and workers’ demonstrations 19 times in 1893, 50 in 1899, 53 in 1900, 271 in 1901 and 522 in 1902. (p. 47). And the number of those on strike could be huge. During the revolutionary agitation of 1905, 111,000 people had gone on strike by 8th January. (P.88). At its height, there were 125,000 people on strike in the Russian capital. (p.94). In 1907, 740,000 people went on strike. (p. 160).

Most of these strikes were for purely economic reasons – an increase in wages and the betterment of working conditions, rather than for political reforms such as the establishment of a parliament and the right to vote. Nevertheless, the number of political strikes increased as the new century progressed. And this was despite some minimal concessions to modern representative politics, such as the establishment of a parliament – the Duma – albeit on a very restricted franchise by Nicholas II. In 1910 there were 222 strikes involving 46,000 workers. The following year, 1911, there were 466, with 105,110 workers. And the number of political strikes went up from eight in 1910 to twenty four in 1911. (p. 161). In 1912 the number of political strikes rocketed to 1,300. (P.162). And then in 1914, the year the War broke out, the number of strikes as a whole shot up to 3,466, of which 2,500 were politically motivated.(p. 164).

In many ways, this is to be expected. If you drive people down to the point where they have absolutely nothing to lose, they will revolt, and revolt violently. At one point wages were so low -just 40 kopeks – that they were insufficient for a worker to support a family. You can compare that to the in-work poverty today, where most welfare recipients are people working, often very long hours, but not earning enough to support themselves or their families.

Despite the glowing picture of the Developing World by the Tory writers of Britannia Unchained, which urged Brits to work harder for less money, ’cause that’s what workers outside the West are doing, parts of India is currently riven by Maoist rebels. I’ve mentioned the Naxites before, radical Marxists in the poorest states in Indian waging a guerrilla war on behalf of the peasants and Dalits. And much of the radical Muslim unrest and terrorism in India has concrete social and economic motives. In many areas, Muslims are treated as second-class citizens, given the worst jobs and with an unemployment rate higher than their Hindu compatriots. In fact, most of the Islamic unrest throughout the world probably has its origins less in religious doctrine and more in conditions of high unemployment, low pay, poor opportunities and political sclerosis.

By making democracy a sham, and repressing unions and other organisations trying to work for better wages and working conditions, Cameron is storing up problems for the future. The Fascist dictatorships of Salazar in Portugal and Franco in Spain collapsed, partly through workers’ strikes. As did the Communist dictatorships at the opposite end of Europe.

Now Cameron needs to maintain the illusion of democracy, and some minimal welfare state in order to deceive people that his government is actually democratic, and he is doing something to help them. After all, Bismarck said

Give the workman the right to work as long as he is healthy, assure him care when he is sick, assure him maintenance when he is old … If you do that … then I believe the gentlemen of the Social-Democratic programme will sound their bird-calls in vain. (Cited in Koch, p. 48).

Of course, Cameron is doing his best to make sure people don’t have the right to work, or are cared for and maintained in sickness and old age. He wants to pass welfare provision on to private industry, who will provide a much poorer service. But he needs to give the illusion that he is doing all the above. And it’ll probably work – for a time. Possibly even decades. But at the end there will be an explosion. And it may be all the more bloody, because of the way he has reduced democracy to a sham, so that people will just discard it in favour of authoritarianism, just as after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 millions of Germans were convinced that democracy had failed.

But what does Cameron care? He probably banks on being long dead by then, if he gives it any thought at all. Or perhaps he dreams of fleeing somewhere else, when the conflagration finally comes. To Switzerland, perhaps. Or the Cayman Islands. South America. Perhaps, America itself, always assuming Sanders doesn’t get in. And if it all kicks off before then, he, or Bojo, or some other Tory pratt, will indulge their stupid fantasy of being a great war leader, bravely reconquering the cities from Communist militants.

And we’re back to Orwell’s description of the future: a boot stamping on a human face. Forever.

Corporate Influence and Staffing of Government in Britain and Pre-Revolutionary Russia

April 28, 2014

One of the features of post-Thatcherite British government is the strong influence of big business on government policy and even the staffing of government departments. Government officials are frequently drawn from corporations, where they have directorships or occupy other positions in senior management. The conferences of all three main parties are sponsored by businesses hoping to influence government policy and win contracts or other business concessions from their political clients, once they are in government. The parties increasingly formulate their policies according to think-tanks, formed by and representing the views of particular industrial or corporate interests. Private Eye for years, since as far back as the ‘sleaze’ of John Major’s administration, has documented the way corporations and their employees have permeated government institutions. This has most often been done with the specific intentions of reducing or blunting government regulation of industry. Thus you can find the presence of various senior employees and directors of the big accountancy firms in the Inland Revenue, presenting the government with schemes on how the rich can become even richer by avoiding a tax. Officials drawn from the City have entered the various government bodies regulating the financial sector, to argue that the City should be less regulated. The result of this policy was the massive corruption and trading in toxic debt that created the present international financial crisis. And an extremely large number of the present government have links to private healthcare companies hoping to benefit from the privatisation of the NHS. One of these is Jeremy Hunt, the current Health Secretary, and IDS. I’ve blogged before about how the Nazis had a similar policy of co-opting leaders from business to staff the Reich industrial combines and organisations.

And it was exactly the same in Russia in the decade immediately preceding the Revolution. Big business deliberately set out to influence government policy. Business leaders entered the government, while ministers, senior civil servants and officers of the armed forces moved into posts in private industry. The regime was compromised and ultimately discredited by massive corruption. Kochan describes the situation in Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970).

Industrialists more and more put themselves at the service of the government in the economic development of the empire. An Association of Industry and Commerce, founded in 1906, and its journal Industry and Commerce, devoted themselves specifically to the purpose. The association was a federation of industrial organisations formed along geographic and functional principles, e.g. The mine owners of south Russia or the Baku oil producers. By the beginning of 1914 it embraced thirty-four banks and insurance companies, 251 industrial undertakings, eleven transport companies and nineteen trading concerns.

The association consistently advocated the further economic development of the empire through a policy of high entrepreneurial profits combined with austerity in consumption. It argued against free competition – ‘the anarchy of the market and a chaotic fluctuation of prices’ – and in favour of a five-, a ten- or even a fifteen-year plan, that would overcome Russian backwardness and free it from dependence on agriculture. It proposed cooperation between industry and the government in, for example, the irrigation of Turkestan for the cultivation of cotton, the construction of the Volga-Don canal, and the intensive exploitation of the Magnitogorsk iron deposits in conjunction with Siberian coal. … Planning from above, with the sympathetic stabilizing and regulatory intervention of the vast resources at the disposal of the Treasury would enable trade and industry to take their full share in industrial development, it was hoped. In the last resort, the association envisaged a type of corporate state in which industrial and commercial interests would play a co-determining role vis-à-vis the government in relation to economic policy.

For this reason the association scheduled its own congresses to take place during the Duma sessions – the membership overlapped in many cases – and ‘sometimes its debates were the more interesting and important of the two,’ noted one observer. The association functioned as a vast pressure group: ‘… Russian industry and commerce must, in the interests of self-preservation, ‘ declared an early initiator of the association, ‘express not only its broadly based views but also know how to present these views to those institutions and groups on whom will depend the putting into practice of this or that law or policy … Here lies the whole root and the whole meaning of the All-Empire congresses of the representatives of industry and commerce. (pp. 166-7)

What socio-economic influence was possessed by these conglomerates of power? This is not easy to analyse. It seems likely however, that they had a disintegrating influence in further corrupting and demoralising the Tsarist bureaucracy. An insider, V.I. Gurko, at one time assistant minister of the interior and member of the state council, avers that the integrity of the overwhelming majority of high officials was ‘beyond question’. But he must also admit that private concerns engaged prominent officials at ‘fabulous sums’ with a view to the man’s ‘official connexions and his knowledge of the methods necessary to obtain governmental backing … particularly to secure some state concession. ‘ The line between public and private interest became more and more difficult to draw. This applied particularly to the armament industry. Take Avdakov, for example, for some years the chairman of Produgol, then the Association of Industry and Trade and at the same time councillor in the ministry of industry and trade; or Lieutenant-General Brink, a former head of the department of naval construction and chief inspector of naval artillery, who became a director of the Putilov works; or Vice Admiral Bostrem, a former commander of the Black Sea fleet, who became president of the board of the Nikolaevsk naval construction company; or General Ivanov who joined the board of the same company; or General Miller, former head of the state-owned Obukhovo works, who became director of the Tsarizyn artillery plant.

Civilian official similarly moved between government posts and private industry, especially in they were engaged in the ministries of finance and trade and industry. There was Timryazev, for example, and Bark, Arandarenko, M.M. Fedorov, V.I. Kovalovsky, N.N. Pokrovsky, Langovoi, Litvinov-Falinsky – all these men moved at one time or another between their ministerial arm-chairs and an equally well-padded position in industry or industrial association. (p. 168).

This describes pretty much every government since Maggie Thatcher, including that of Cameron and Clegg today. And the Association’s policy of demanding high profits as well as austerity exactly describes the current government’s policies.

That all ended with the upheaval of the 1917 Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power. We don’t need a revolution with all its horror and bloodshed in Britain. But we do need proper government, where the public interest rules and where corporations are not allowed to corrupt, influence and direct government policy.

Tolstoy’s Prediction of the First World War

April 27, 2014

As I’ve mentioned before, this is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, and already the BBC has put on a season of programmes commemorating the conflict. I’ve blogged on Michael Gove’s criticism of the negative view of the First World War, which he feels denigrates the courage and patriotism of the soldiers. He attacked the Beeb’s comedy series, Black Adder Goes Forth, as an example of this, and compounded his argument with knee-jerk Tory anti-intellectualism by claiming that the view was promoted by ‘Left-wing intellectuals’. A number of bloggers have attacked this diatribe, including Mike over at Vox Political. It has also provoked a response from the creators of graphic novels, who are putting together several albums presenting the horrific reality of the conflict as a response to Gove’s Right-wing patriotic view of the War.

Many people in Europe in the late 19th and first decade of the 20th centuries were very much aware of the looming threat of world conflict. One of those who foresaw it and its mass carnage was the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. As well as a writer, Tolstoy was a pacifist Anarchist. He hated the horrors of modern, industrial society and the state that oppressed the Russian poor. He saw the solution in the abolition of the state and traditional peasant society, to the point where he gave up much of his life style as a Russian aristocrat to live, dress and work like a peasant. As a young man, he had, like many other noblemen, been a soldier and had fought in the wars to conquer Chechnya and the Caucasus. He had been highly impressed by ideas of a Chechen Sufi leader, who, when his nations’ attempts to resist the Russians through armed force were repeatedly suppressed, rejected violence and advocated instead a policy of non-violent civil disobedience. Tolstoy himself rejected violence, and took up the Sufi leader’s ideas. In turn, Tolstoy’s advocacy of the policy influenced Gandhi in his own campaign against British rule in India.

Tolstoy also campaigned on behalf of the Doukhobors, a heretical Russian Christian sect, that also rejected violence. It was due to Tolstoy’s support and that of British Quakers that the sect emigrated from Russia to settle in Canada.

He promoted his Anarchist and pacifist ideals in a series of books, What Then Must We Do?, The Kingdom of God is Within You and The Restoration of Hell. They also influenced his magnum opus, War and Peace. This was written to show that history was not made by a few great men, but by the actions of millions of ordinary people. Lionel Kochan discusses Tolstoy’s ideas, his criticisms of contemporary society, and prediction of the coming War in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970). Tolstoy attacked just about every aspect of contemporary society, including science, the press, religion, state education, and the state as a system of organised crime itself. Kochan writes:

Tolstoy, no doubt, showed little, if any, awareness of the deep-rooted complexity of the evils he stigmatized; no doubt, also, his positive doctrine was thin enough – the gospel of universal love, undogmatic Christianity, sexual abstinence, non-resistance to evil, the renunciation of tobacco and alcohol – for all that his later work constitutes an anarchist programme of profound strength. His unbridled criticism of society and its values, his corrosive and derisive scepticism, made him an anarchist more anarchic, a nihilist more nihilistic and a revolutionary more destructive than any whom Russia had yet brought forth – far more consistent and humanistic than Bakunin, far more hard-headed than Kropotkin.

What is science? He asked. Had it done anything of value to human life in determining the weight of Saturn’s satellites? What was universal suffrage? A means whereby the prisoners elected their own gaolers. Had industrialism raised the standard of living? Then look at the slums and doss-houses of Moscow. Tolstoy derided division of labour as a device for turning men into machines, book-printing as a medium for communicating ‘all the nasty and stupid things that are done and written in the world’, and reform for teaching people ‘that though themselves bad they can reform bad people’. What did the church do but maintain idolatry ‘in the most literal sense of the word – worshipping holy relics and icons, offering sacrifices to them and expecting from them the fulfilment of the worshippers’ wishes’? What did compulsory education do but ‘teach the savage superstition of patriotism and the same pseudo-obligation to obey the state’? What was the press but a means for ‘exciting feelings of mutual hostility between the nations’? What were the governments of the time, despotic and liberal alike, but – and her Tolstoy quotes Herzen’s phrase – ‘Genghis Khans with telegraphs’? The modern state was a mechanism so interlocked and interdependent that it became impossible to discriminate between the guilty and the innocent: ‘Some people demand the perpetration of a crime, others decide that it shall be done, a third set confirm that decision, a fourth propose its execution, a fifth report on it, a sixth finally decree it, and a seventh carry out the decree.’ Tolstoy’s apocalyptic vision of a state given over to destruction culminates in an anticipation of the imminent First World War:

‘The bells will peal and long-haired men will dress themselves in gold-embroidered socks and begin to pray on behalf of murder … The editors of newspapers will set to work to arouse hatred and murder under the guise of patriotism and will be delighted to double their sales. Manufacturers, merchants, and contractors for army stores will hurry about joyfully in expectation of doubled profits … Army commanders will bustle here and there, drawing double pay and rations and hoping to receive trinkets and crosses, stripes and stars, for murdering people. Idle ladies and gentlemen will fuss about, entering their names in advance for the Red Cross and getting ready to bandage those whom their husbands and brothers are setting out to kill – imagining they will be doing a most Christian work thereby.’

Kochan criticises Tolstoy for not understanding how enthusiastic and patriotic Russian servicemen initially were for the War. However, he then goes on to quote the great writer’s prediction of the condition of the soldiers in the War’s later stages, men who

‘will trudge where they may be driven, stifling the despair in their souls by songs, debauchery and vodka. They will march, freeze, suffer from hunger, and fall ill. Some will die of disease, and some will at last come to the place where men will kill them by the thousand. And they too, without knowing why, will murder thousands of others whom they had never before seen, and who had neither done nor could do them any wrong.’

For Tolstoy, the coming world war would ‘devour in a year more victims than all the revolutions of a century’. (pp. 157-8).
I strongly disagree with most of Tolstoy’s criticisms of contemporary society. He was, for example, wrong about science not benefitting humanity. it clearly has and had, most obviously in the improvements in medicine, that appeared in the 19th century. And printing and the press have increased knowledge and much good around the globe, despite the fact that they can often be used for evil. Having said that, he does have a point with the Sun, Daily Mail, and Express.

It will, however, be interesting to see if the BBC or anyone else, in their programmes on the Great War, mention Tolstoy’s prediction.

As a pacifist Anarchist, Tolstoy’s political views were strongly disapproved by Paul Johnson in the Spectator. In one of his articles in that journal he described the great novelists as somehow – I’ve forgotten quite what he wrote – being responsible for the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s tyranny. He never described how this was so. He simply asserted it, and went on. The only thing Tolstoy had in common with Stalin is that they were both radicals, who revolted against the Tsarist state. And possibly that they both had military careers. Apart from that, Tolstoy hated everything that Stalin stood for – militarism, an oppressive, coercive state, brutality and murder. And Tolstoy himself was far from unique in wishing to see a radical reform or overthrow of contemporary society. By 1905 the Tsar’s reluctance to establish any kind of constitutional reforms had pushed most sections of the Russian society in opposition. Even the Union of Unions, made up members of the liberal profession – doctors, lawyers, vets, scientists, engineers, teachers, university professors – not the usual bomb-throwing nutters – were advocating the use of violence if all else failed. There was another writer called, Tolstoy, Alexey, who survived into the Stalin era to write pieces praising the dictator. It looks like Johnson confused the two due to the same surname. But Leo Tolstoy would have been utterly opposed to the old thug.

The Coalitions’ Abolition of Legal Aid and Legal Restrictions against Workers Suing Management in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

April 25, 2014

A few weeks ago the Conservatives and their Tory Democrat accomplices abolished legal aid. This has the effect of making legal action by the poor prohibitively expensive, so that they are effectively denied justice due to the sheer cost involved. This has naturally caused indignation and protests, not least from the legal profession itself. In Bristol the lawyers went on a one-day strike against its abolition.

this attempt by the government to prevent the poor suing the rich also has a parallel in the legal restrictions and double standards the Tsarist government in pre-Revolutionary Russia used to oppress the workers in its attempt to protect and promote the country’s capitalist development. Lionel Kochan in his Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970) describes this legal double standard. Workers, who left their job before their contract was due to expire, were liable to criminal prosecution. However, if they wished to sue their employer for non-payment of wages, then this had to go through the civil courts, which was virtually impossible. (p. 44).

The Coalition really are following some of the most reactionary and oppressive regime’s in their attempts to stifle any kind of dissent or protest against their policies and increase the massive power of the rich against the working and lower middle classes, the poor and the disabled. In Russia, it ended with a Revolution. In Britain, let’s hope that it ends with them being voted out of office in the election next year.

1898 Call from Russian Workers to Form Union against Employers’ Abuses

April 24, 2014

I found this leaflet from the Ekaterinoslav Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class in Lionel Kochan’s Russia in Revolution (London: Paladin 1970) in 1898. It’s a protest against the appalling conditions and high accident rate at the Bryansk factory. If the direct causes of the strike were particular to late 19th century Russia, I was struck by how many of the issues are recurring in Britain in the early 21st century: starvation, low wages, refusal by the company to permit ‘necessary breaks’ – according to Owen Jones in Chavs, in one call centre workers have to put up their hands, as in school, every time they wish to take a comfort break. Unions and strikers were illegal in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and this government would very much like to go the same way. Boris Johnson has said that he would like to make strikes made illegal, if they were passed without fifty per cent of the workers attending the meeting, even if all the workers present voted overwhelmingly for the strike. The leaflet reads:

Every day we must hear, no here, now there, that a man has died and our blood-suckers continue to stuff their pockets, giving
no consideration to the men who have died, whose families have lost their bread-winner and are perhaps dying of starvation. The whole day we work, pouring out our blood and sweat. Every minute we expose our life to danger, we have no chance to use an essential break, and when there are accidents they accuse us of carelessness! The greed of the capitalists, the long working day, the meagre wage – there is the cause of all accidents. Even the holidays which we have had until now, have seemed too much to these beasts of prey and they have persuaded the government, which is always on the side of the capitalists, to reduce the number of holidays in the year … Comrades, they have fooled us, they have fed long enough on our blood and sweat. Our only salvation can be Friendly Workers’ Unions, against which nothing can stand. Let us join together, comrades, in one general union and demand from the office new changes in the regulations. (p. 45).

People are starving in Britain due to the government’s reforms of the benefits’ systems. Mike over at Vox Political has launched an FOI request and went to court to get the government to release the precise numbers of figures for those who are dying. It’s about 73 people a month, although it may well be much higher. And the Work Programme and various workfare policies, traineeships and unpaid internships are all about supplying industry with unpaid labour. It’s about time all this was stopped, and working people stood together to unite to force the Tories out and overturn their vile policies.