The triumph and defeat of Narodnaya Volya

Submitted by Anon on 23 March, 2004 - 8:12 Author: John O'Mahony

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"The Russian proletarian is no novice in the revolutionary movement. You know that it was a worker who blew up the imperial palace in February 1880. The very idea for this action was conceived in a workers' group."

G V Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich, Letter to the International Socialist Congress, 1891

"And our proletariat? Did it pass through the school of the medieval apprentice brotherhood? Has it the ancient tradition of the guilds? Nothing of the kind. It was thrown into the factory cauldron, snatched directly from the plough. Hence the absence of conservative tradition, absence of caste in the proletariat itself, revolutionary freshness: hence - along with other causes - October, the first workers' government in the world. But hence also illiteracy, backwardness, absence of organisational habits, absence of system in labour, of cultural and technical education.

Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution

The Bolshevik historian Pokrovsky maintained that the Northern Union was the first workers' organisation in Russian history. He dismissed the claims of the Southern Union on the grounds that it was not organised by the workers themselves but by populists of another class, Shchedrin and Kovalskaya, and because of its tactics - the old rural economic terrorism practised by Zemlya i Volya and still advocated by Cherny Peredel, applied to the factories.

"The idea that mass organisations might become the instruments of revolution was entirely new to the men of the 70s; it was unquestionably suggested to them by working with the workers. It originated however in the head of an intellectual, for the statute of the Southern Union was drawn up by Zaslovsky, a member of the gentry".

Such a sharp distinction between the Northern Union and its Southern predecessors begs too many of the questions about the interactions of the workers with the revolutionaries - populists and then Social-Democratic Marxists - of another class that recur, in varying forms, until 1917 and beyond. It is however a matter of fact that the Northern Union was the first working-class organisation initiated and run entirely by the workers themselves.

Plekhanov would later proudly point to the programme of the Northern Union to claim that it was the working-class movement, embryonic though it was, that had first publicly raised the question of a turn to politics which the political terrorists of Narodnaya Volya would soon raise in their own way.

The union's programme was indeed notably political, and its politics were largely social-democratic, that is, in the idiom of the time, Marxist. It declared an affinity with "the Socialist Democratic Party of the West" (see box).

But the development of such working-class politics required political liberties that were unknown in Russia. Even strike action, which was illegal, brought the workers up against the need to win political liberty.

But how? What could they do to win the right to trade-union and political action that would not be crushed by the state?

What politics was possible in Russia, immediately?

Narodnaya Volya had an answer: strike at the Tsar and force his successor to grant constitutional rights. Khalturin's first answer was the Northern Union, the organisation of the working class. When the Northern Union was crushed by the police, Khalturin would see and share the logic of Narodnaya Volya's position: the only feasible politics was political terrorism.

Though he went over to Narodnaya Volya, Khalturin never subscribed to the general populist delusion that an agrarian socialism based on the peasant community was possible for Russia.

Plekhanov records that Khalturin thought the lucubrations of the populist intellectuals about the obshchina futile. "Do you really mean to say that this is important?", he used to tease the populist organiser Plekhanov.

Khalturin had said of the earlier terrorists that the only thing they did was "to shoot their own folk, the officials", and "get in the way of the workers organising".

He said there was "not a chance for us; as soon as we have started something going, bang, the intellectuals have killed somebody, and the police are on to us. Why don't they give us a chance to organise?" He eventually came to the view that only political terrorism could win from the Tsarist state "a chance to organise" for the working class.

Plekhanov reported that Khalturin envisaged the revolution not as a politically focused outburst such as the populists expected but as a general strike - which, Plekhanov justly noted, was exactly how it did develop in 1905. But that was a generation in the future.

Pavel Axelrod vainly tried to revive the Northern Union. At that stage of the development of the Russian working class, the Tsarist state was strong enough to stifle all attempts to create an organised labour movement.

Should the activists accept that it would take a more or less long time before capitalist development would render the Tsarist state incapable of suppressing the working-class movement, and that therefore all that could be done now was to prepare for that?

In fact it would be the mid 1890s before the Russian working class movement, augmented by the tremendous industrial expansion of the 1880s and 90s, even began to reach such a stage.

None of the revolutionaries consciously chose that perspective. Plekhanov, Axelrod, Deutsch, and Zasulich, the future Marxist social democrats, who would eventually accept that logic, did not. They wanted to continue as ZiV had been, organising, appealing for revolt, using terrorism to "disorganise" its enemies or in the way we saw the organisers of the Southern Union at the end of the 1870s (who were supporters of Plekhanov's Cherny Peredel) use it.

The other logical choice was the one which Narodnaya Volya elaborated - an immediate attempt to blast the Tsarist state out of the power to repress all social movements such as those of the Northern Union.

The second logic proved all-powerful with most of ZiV, including, as we have seen, the working-class leader Khalturin.

Repression became especially fierce after an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander II in 1879. Russia was divided into six districts, each under the rule of a political-military dictator appointed by the Tsar.

In the spring and early summer of 1879 sizeable numbers of terrorists and Zemlya i Volya people who fired on police to try to avoid arrest were hanged.

Narodnaya Volya was organised in the autumn of 1879. Like ZiV and Cherny Peredel it would attempt to base itself on the urban working class as well as on the urban intelligentsia.

What it offered was the creation of a revolutionary party, made up of militants from different classes and backgrounds but primarily from the intelligentsia, which would capture the imagination of the people and establish itself with them as a sort of collective anti-Tsar.

The historical transmutation envisaged in Antonio Gramsci's conception of the revolutionary Marxist party of the 20th century as "the Modern Prince", the collective equivalent of the single rulers, the princes, of Renaissance Italy, had already been postulated in those terms by Mikhail Bakunin. It was the clearly expressed design to which the founders of Narodnaya Volya worked.

In April 1879 the leading article in Zemlya i Volya declared:

"More than anything else, it is essential to turn ourselves into the people and live within the people; to become a force not only acting in the people's interests, but with sufficient force to hold firm for itself and the people. We must put the revolutionary party in the place that the mythical Tsar now holds in the eyes of our citizens" (emphasis added).

As to the question, what would this party, the collective anti-Tsar, do, the Narodnaya Volya faction of ZiV had a compelling answer: the collective anti-Tsar would do bloody single combat above society with the Tsar and his lieutenants.

Most of those populists from the intelligentsia who had been involved in the work around the factories, in both Northern and Southern Russia, went over to Narodnaya Volya. The fragments of the suppressed Northern Union supported Narodnaya Volya, not Cherny Peredel.

Khalturin asked Plekhanov to put him in contact with Narodnaya Volya. He made one of the unsuccessful attempts to kill the Tsar, going to work as a carpenter in the Tsar's Winter Palace in September 1879.

He himself had thought it best to kill the Tsar with gun or knife - he had once found himself alone in a room with him! - but the organisation believed a bomb was more sure, and Khalturin accepted that view. He set off a bomb in the Tsar's palace in February 1880 which killed 11 people but failed to kill Tsar Alexander.*

The killing of Tsar Alexander II on 1 March 1881 was followed, not immediately but soon, by the destruction of the Narodnaya Volya military organisation which had killed him. The last members of the "Executive Committee" were rounded up.

Elements of the shattered organisation would survive, as would the mystique of its example and the tradition embodied in that mystique. It would inspire those who planned to kill the Tsar in 1887, for which Lenin's brother Alexander Ulyanov and four others would be hanged.

A newspaper in the name of Narodnaya Volya would continue, edited in exile by no less than Pyotr Lavrov, Karl Marx's friend and the prophet of the earlier "educationalist" populism which had inspired those who "went to the people" in 1874-5. He rallied to support the heroic fighters of NV. So, in his own way, did Karl Marx, who was full of admiration and praise for the simple heroism with which the assassins of Alexander II conducted themselves in court and on the scaffold.

As an organised fighting force Narodnaya Volya was now done for. Not only was its centre shattered, but, most importantly, the ratio between the casualties it endured from the Tsarist police and the new recruits to replace them turned drastically unfavourable for the organisation's survival.

In part that was because of the relentless terror inflicted by the state on anything that moved in Russian society. But that could only have the effect it did because the spectacular achievement of the goal Narodnaya Volya had set itself, the beheading of the autocracy by destroying the reigning autocrat, Alexander, had incontrovertibly shown that political terrorism too could not move Russian forward.

The Tsarist regime automatically extruded another "head" to replace Alexander II - his son Alexander III, who was, even in comparison with his father, a thoroughgoing reactionary.

Narodnaya Volya's spectacular success in their chosen means had produced only pointed failure in achieving the end to which the killing of the Tsar was supposedly the means.

No outbreak of popular revolt followed the assassination of the Tsar. Indeed, the most common peasant and still-peasant-linked working-class explanation for what had happened to the "Tsar Liberator", who had freed the serfs 20 years earlier, was that he had been killed by the landlords in revenge for ending serfdom. The liberal segments of the bourgeoisie recoiled in fear and horror.

Ironically, on the eve of his death the Tsar had, against the opposition of his son and successor, planned to grant limited liberal reforms. The political reaction unleashed by the assassination put an end to all hope for that.

In the next decades much that had been populists would evolve into bourgeois liberalism - indeed, as we saw, the "operational politics" of Narodnaya Volya itself, despite its long-term "socialist goal", had been nothing but the winning of a liberal bourgeois constitution.

With the destruction of Narodnaya Volya, the early labour movement which populism had inspired and influence also went down to destruction.

Stepan Khalturin had been more than a populist, but the heroic end of that working-class leader turned Narodnaya Volya fighter on the gallows nonetheless symbolised the inextricable connections with populism of the first attempts at creating an organised labour movement.

We will find that much of the polemic between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks after 1903 would centre on an alleged analogy or identity between Lenin and the populists and early Russian Jacobins. Following on from those disputes, a veritable academic industry would grow up around the proposition that Lenin's "real" political predecessor and teacher was not Plekhanov but Peter Tkachev, the Jacobin-populist.**

* The statement in the last Solidarity that Khalturin was captured and hanged for this was mistaken. He was hanged in 1882 for assassinating one of the Tsar's satraps.

** The issue of whether, as ZiV had believed, the revolutionaries should follow the people, or try to lead them, emerged very sharply with the pogroms against Jews in 1881.

NV chose to reflect the popular Christian anti-semitism. It hailed the pogroms as a splendid manifestation of popular revolutionary initiative. Plekhanov and his comrades denounced NV's support of the pogromists and their work.
In practice, generally, NV did not simply reflect the opinions of "the people", but tried to lead them and to shape their consciousness.

The light in the dark 1880s

A year after 1 March 1881 the triumph of social inertia and Tsarism seemed absolute. More than a decade would pass before things began to stir on the surface again. By then Marxism would be a growing force. In the depths of society, Russia would undergo a tremendous economic transformation. The proletarian gravediggers of capitalism would multiply and grow into the mighty force that would bury Tsarism.

Consumer industries, such as cotton and sugar-beet processing, using machinery and hired free labour, existed before 1861. Even so, in 1861 Russia had still had a largely "natural" or subsistence economy. That is, most of the country was still entirely agricultural, and most people consumed only what they could cultivate or make in and around their villages.

Russia was where the advanced countries of Europe had been five or six hundred years earlier, locked in an overpowering medievalism. And if Russia had been left to its own tempo of development, it would probably have taken hundreds of years to reach West European levels.

The key to subsequent Russian history is that it was not isolated, but drawn into a "combined" development, in the course of which the still fundamentally backward Russia would adapt to itself the most advanced technology from countries in the West which were, in terms of linear time, hundreds of years ahead of it.

In 1861, trade beyond the village communities, money, markets, banks, consumer goods from outside beyond a few things like salt, and iron for tools, played little part in the lives of the overwhelming mass of the people. Russia exported a vast amount of grain, but the consumer goods of international trade entered into the needs and lives only of the upper classes.

Apart from industries run by the state to produce the necessities of war, iron foundries for example, there was very little factory production. Most industry was handicraft production in small workshops.

Russia was almost without railroads. (It had one thousand miles of track in 1861). It had no banking system beyond the financial institutions of the state. There were almost no private trading companies.

The whole society was inimical to the spirit of capitalist free enterprise.

Civil liberties - habeas corpus, free speech, an uncensored press, the right to form voluntary associations, freedom of religion, and much else, did not exist in the Russian Empire. The towns were few and small, and were administrative centres of the state rather than centres of trade. It was not a capitalist, but a pre-capitalist, feudal society, on top of which reared up a gigantic state apparatus crowned by the autocrat Tsar.

That state had much in common with the states of Asiatic despotism in India and China before the forcible intrusion of the capitalist West.

The obshchina, and its people, the mir, which the populists idealised for their common property in land, were in fact immensely conservative and historically inert institutions, which locked the lives of all their people into a rigidly patriarchal society. Individuals did not have the right to leave and, for example, go to the towns to sell their labour power, without formal permission and a passport from the community - whose members were collectively responsible to the state for taxes - and, usually, a commitment to go on paying obshchina taxes.

Karl Marx bracketed the obshchina with the self-sufficient Indian village community. There, unlike in Western Europe, agriculture and handicrafts had never specialised and separated to generate trade. Trade would have broken the barbaric self-sufficiency of the village community, knitted the villages together in a broader economic network, and thus generated urban centres of trade.

Such communities could and did remained unchanged for centuries and even millennia in India and China, no matter what changed in the state above them, until bourgeois Britain disrupted them in the 18th and 19th centuries.

They were locked into a matrix formed by a powerful bureaucratic state which, in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, Inca Peru, etc, though not in Russia, performed certain functions essential to the economy of the village communities - for example, the maintenance of irrigation canals, or the management of regular alluvial floods.

These economically inert but self-sufficient village communities were, in Marx's judgment, the basis on which the states of Oriental Despotism rested. The Russian state and society lay somewhere between the states and societies of Western Europe and of India.

"The West European city was a craft-guild and trade-league city; our cities were above all administrative, military, consequently consuming, and not producing, centres. The craft-guild culture of the West formed itself on a relatively high level of economic development when all the fundamental processes of the manufacturing industries had been distinguished from agriculture, and had been converted into independent crafts, had created their own organisations, their own focuses - the cities - and at first a limited (belonging to local districts), but nevertheless stable, market.

"At the basis of the medieval European city therefore lay a comparatively high differentiation of industry, giving rise to regular interrelations between the city centre and its agricultural periphery.

"Our economic backwardness, on the other hand, found its expression in the fact that craft, not yet separated from agriculture, preserved the form of home industry. Here we were nearer to India than to Europe, just as our medieval cities were nearer to the Asiatic than the European type, and as our autocracy, standing between the European absolutism and the Asiatic despotism, in many features approached the latter".

(Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution).

The standard and quality of life for most people was wretchedly bad, without hope of improvement and with no consolation but religion and vodka. This was still a largely medieval world untroubled by progress.

The Russian Orthodox church was still medieval, but with the difference from the Church in medieval Western Europe that it was entirely an arm of the state. It had no contradictory outside loyalties to a Roman or other Pope. Russia had had no Reformation. Religious opposition was confined to persecuted peasant sects (the Rashkolniki) of the sort that European had known in pre-Reformation, pre-Renaissance times.

The freeing of the serfs in 1861 struck a fatal blow at that natural economy, but it took a time to give way to a money and market economy. The ancient formula was that the peasants, in their communities, owned the land, and the landlord owned the peasants. As part of the "deal" when the serfs were freed, land (perhaps as much as 50% of all the land: assessments vary) was taken from the communities and given to the landlords. Peasants wound up having to rent land back from the landlord.

Payment was still feudal-style work for the landlord, but a part of it had to be paid in money. And for their redemptions, the ex-serfs were obliged for many years ahead to pay dues, calculated in money. The peasants had to seek cash. That compelled them to sell crops, and, the poorest, to hire out their own labour power for a wage.

As we saw, the first consequence of 1861 was a movement back to the villages. Serf workers in the factories and mines responded to the fact that they were free by going home. About one in three factory workers had been serf, and of those serfs over half are said to have returned to their villages. It would take time before the flow natural in a developing society, from the villages and the countryside to the towns and industry, set in.

We have seen how workers responded to working in industry, the growth of a permanent working class which defined itself as not peasant, the methods of the early struggles of this still half-peasant working class, the attempts of the populists to rouse and organise the working class, and the weak beginnings of a self-sufficient working-class movement.

All that was still the pre-history, the childhood, of the Russian working class. In 1881, when the populist movement climaxed with the killing of Tsar Alexander II, both the working class and the industry in which it operated were still very small. The population was still only 90 million.

One historian wrote: "The 80s cut across the history of the Russian intelligentsia and of Russian civilisation like a belt of darkness. Something had been broken".

Yet it was in the depths of the repression and reaction after 1881 - a reaction which even saw the reimposition of aspects of serf-like control on the ex-serfs in the countryside - that industry and the working class began to develop. Phenomenally. It was in dark years of repression, in the 1880s and 90s, that the foundations of a mass revolutionary movement were laid down.

Where before revolutionary movements had involved only a thin layer of the intelligentsia, unable to reach or activate their chosen people, the peasants, industrialisation was laying the foundations of a mass working class movement.

Population rose from 74 million in 1861 to 90 million in 1880 and then 174 million in 1917.

Government initiative, government financing, government tariff and fiscal policy, and government guarantees for foreign loans, were central in developing industry.

The central organiser was Sergei Witte, who was Minister of Finance in 1892-1903, though the shaping policies started long before Witte.

As one writer puts it: "At the heart of Witte's system was an attempt to create favourable trade balances by forcing increases in grain exports". By the turn of the 20th century Russia exported 15% of its grain crop, three times the level of 20 years earlier.

That also meant that Russia was vulnerable to fluctuations in the international grain market. Loans also drew it into the world credit system, breaking its isolation.

After its defeat in the Crimean War (1854-5) Russian abandoned protectionism. In the 70s it started to go back to it. From 1877 the tariff on imports had to be paid in gold. Since the paper rouble was one-third below par, this rule in effect raised all tariffs on all imports by 33%.

The aim was to encourage home manufacture in place of imported goods, which were now made artificially dear by government policy, and also to stop the export of gold and encourage foreign investment in Russia.

Specific tariffs were imposed. The tariff on pig iron went up from 5 to 45 kopeks gold. French, Belgian and British capitalists were indeed attracted.

Industry expanded rapidly, starting from the low level of 1861. It grew at an average rate of 5 per cent a year, though some of it was still handicraft and not factory production.

For the most part, mechanical equipment in industry - and agriculture and transportation - had to be imported, right up to World War One.

At the start of World War One, industry employed a little over five per cent of the entire labour force, producing, however, one fifth of Russia's national income. There were all sorts of other proletarians, including those in agriculture. The Bolshevik historian Pokrovsky, writing in the 1920s, argued that there were ten million proletarians in Russia in 1904, meaning those who were 100% dependent on their wages, and twenty million poor peasants who sold their labour power to supplement inadequate income from their farms.

How could such a small working class go on to seize power? Because the bare figures are misleading.

The growing industries of textiles, coal-mining, oil extraction, iron and steel making, etc., employed not only foreign capital but also the most up-to-date techniques imported from Europe and America. Around them grew up gigantic concentrations of workers.

The working class acquired weight and power out of all proportion to its numbers in the population as a whole. And as the bourgeoisie imported Western technology and capital, the working class imported the experience of the West European labour movements and the ideas of consistent Marxism.

Concentration magnified the importance of the working class. Industry was concentrated in distinct regions - in the coal and iron region of the Donets and the Dneiper in the South; in the Moscow region; in the vicinities of Petersburg; and in Russian Poland.

The Russian economy was still, even in 1914, predominantly agricultural and backward. Large numbers of industrial workers still held plots of land in their villages.

Yet, while the proportion of all industrial workers employed in large factories with more than 500 workers was only 31% in the USA, which in general was far more developed than Russia, in Russia it was 53%.

By the early 20th century the percentage of workers engaged in plants employing from 21 to 100 workers was 10% in Russia and 22% in Germany; between 101 and 500, 17% in Russia and 21% in Germany; between 500 and 1000, 10% in Russia and 6% in Germany; and over 1000 workers, 24% in Russia to only 8% in Germany.

Nine great iron and steel plants accounted for more than 50% of Russia's production of pig-iron. Nine tenths of the enormous production of rails came from seven firms. Six enterprises accounted for two thirds of oil production in the Baku region, in the Caucasus.

There were startling contrasts. In Russia, which was still rooted in backward agriculture, the mechanical horsepower per worker in industry (excluding coal-mining) was about two thirds of the equivalent figure for the UK, and higher than France or Germany.

In the iron industries of the south of the Russian Empire, the blast furnaces in use were larger than in Germany, twice as large as in Britain, and three-fifths as large again as in the USA. [Maurice Dobb, Russian Economic Development Since 1917, 1948].

Those concentrations of advanced industry gave the Russian working class great social weight. The context and background is shown in other figures.

Real income per head in Russia was in 1913 only one third of what it was in the USA and the UK, and one half what it was in Germany.

In 1914 not quite 13% of Russia's total population lived in towns. Less than ten per cent of Russia's population derived its income from industry alone.

The great locomotive, so to speak, of the growth of heavy industry in Russia, and of the knitting-together of agricultural markets, was the state-fostered rail-building programme.

The Russian state needed railways as it needed up-to-date guns - to enable it to assert control. It organised loans from the Bourse, the French money market. Russian railways expanded enormously, from 1000 miles of track in 1861 to more than 40,000 at the beginning of World War One. Even so, Russia still only had one quarter the mileage of the USA.

In 1887 the government decided to build the Trans-Siberian Railway. Constructing that railway absorbed half the iron and steel production of Russia.

Between 1891 and 1904, 5,500 miles of rail lines were built to link Moscow to Vladivostock on the Pacific coast.

The production of rail lines led to the large-scale expansion of iron and steel production. Between 1887 and 1897 it grew three fold. Before 1887 there had been only two iron foundries in the whole of South Russia - Hughes and Pastukhov's. Very soon the mammoth works arose - Alexandrovsky, Kamenskoy, Gdontsevo, Drughkovka, etc.

By 1899 there was 17 big iron works in the South, with 27 blast furnaces working and twelve under construction. The rail building boom led to a vast expansion of pig-iron production from 507,795 tons in 1885, to 2,227,747 in 1898.

Railway-making involved not only developing the iron and steel industries but also construction. The better and longer-distance transport which railways made possible opened up large markets for sugar and grain crops. It encouraged concentration of people, and urbanisation.

The railways provided jobs. By 1913 there were 800,000 rail workers.

This industrial development did not create the possibility for abundance, and therefore for socialism, in Russia. It did create the proletariat which seized power in 1917.

Driven by need into the factories (while often, even in 1917 and after, retaining plots of land in native villages) the working class that was shaped in the new industries had to fight for everything it needed to make life tolerable, from better wages through stopping ill-treatment by overseers to better housing (many workers lived in barracks).

In those struggles they learned to know their own strength.

The bald figures tell the story. On the eve of World War 1, which would change everything, factories and mines employed three and a half million workers; non-factory manufacturing, three million; construction, one and a half million; transport and communications, not quite one and a half million.

Agricultural labourers, domestic servants and white-collar workers numbered 8.5 million.

Between the end of serfdom and World War One, the number of factory workers quadrupled, and artisans also increased fourfold.

When, at the "Trial of Fifty" in 1877, the worker Peter Alexseyev, one of those tried for the first working-class-initiated political demonstration, in Kazan Square in 1876, told the Tsarist court that "the sinewy arms of millions of workers will be raised and the yoke of despotism, protected by the bayonets of the soldiers, will be smashed to pieces", the proletariat did not yet number millions. His speech was a pledge for the future.

The working class called into existence in the depths of political reaction, after the defeat of NV and of all the populist hopes, would in the mid 1890s rise in mass strikes, in tremendous waves of industrial rebellion, to write what Rosa Luxemburg would call an entirely new chapter in the history of the international working class.

Programme of the Northern Union of Russian Workers

To the Russian worker:

Recognising the extremely harmful aspect of the political and economic oppression... the whole intolerable burden of our social condition which deprives us of every opportunity and hope for some kind of tolerable existence [and which becomes] more and more impossible to endure... which threatens us with complete material deprivation and the paralysis of our spiritual strength, we, the workers of Petersburg, at a general assembly from 23 to 30 December 1878, have conceived the idea of organising an all-Russian union of workers which, uniting the uncoordinated forces of the urban and rural working population and explaining to it its own interests, aims and aspirations, will serve it as a sufficient bulwark in the struggle with social injustice and will give it the organic internal bond that it needs for the successful conduct of the struggle.

The organisation of the Northern Union of Russian Workers should have a strictly defined character and should pursue precisely those aims which are laid down in its programme.

Workers will only be elected to membership of this Union by at least two people who are more or less well known.

Every worker who wishes to become a member of the Union mist acquaint himself beforehand with the programme which follows and with the essence of its social teaching.

All members of the Union must maintain complete solidarity amongst themselves and whoever breaches this will be immediately excluded. A member who attracts the suspicion that he bas betrayed the Union will submit to a special elected court.

Every member is obliged to contribute to the general fund of the Union a fixed sum determined at the general assembly of members.

The affairs of the Union will be conducted by an elected committee consisting of ten members, in whose charge will also lie the responsibility for the fund and the library. General assemblies of the membership are held once a month, at which the activity of the committee is reviewed and the affairs of the Union are discussed...

The committee [has] the right to establish relations with the representatives of provincial circles and sections of the workers of Russia who have accepted the programme of the Northern Union...

The library is intended to supply free of charge the needs of the workers of the capital, even of those who do not belong to the Union.

The costs of stocking it and of issuing books is to come from the Union fund and from sums donated by the workers.

The Northern Union of Russian Workers, closely allied in its objectives with the Social Democratic Party of the West, lays down as its programme:

  1. The overthrow of the existing political and economic order of the state as one which is extremely unjust.
  2. The establishment of a free popular federation of communes, founded on complete political equality and with full internal self-government on the principles of Russian common law.
  3. The abolition of private land ownership and its replacement by communal land ownership.
  4. The just associative organisation of labour, placing in the hands of the worker-producers the products and tools of production.

As political freedom assures for each person independence of beliefs and actions, and as it above all assures the resolution of the social question, the following should be the immediate demands of the Union:

  1. Freedom of speech and of the press, the right of assembly and meeting.
  2. The abolition of the criminal investigation department and trial for political crimes.
  3. The abolition of class rights and privileges.
  4. Compulsory and free education in all schools and educational institutions.
  5. A reduction in the size of the standing army or its complete replacement by the arming of the people.
  6. The right of the rural commune to decide matters that concern it, such as: the rate of tax, allotment of land and internal self-government.
  7. Freedom of movement and the abolition of the [internal] passport system.
  8. The abolition of indirect taxes and the institution of direct taxation corresponding to income and inheritance.
  9. The limitation of working hours and the prohibition of child labour.
  10. The institution of production associations, loan funds and free credit for the workers' associations and the peasant communes.
    That, in its main features, is the programme that the general assembly of Petersburg workers resolved to be guided by on 23-30 December.

By tireless and active propaganda among its brothers the Northern Union hopes to achieve results that will advance the workers' estate and compel it to start talking about itself and its rights; and hence it is the sacred duty of every member of this Union to do what lies in his power to carry out agitation among the working mass, oppressed, and sympathetic to demands for justice.

His services will not be forgotten by posterity and his name will be reversed as an apostle of the evangelical truth and will be written in the chronicle of history.

Workers! We summon you now; we appeal to your voice, your conscience and your consciousness!

The great social struggle has already commenced - and we must not wait: our brothers in the West have already raised the banner of the emancipation of the millions - and we have only to join them. Arm in arm with them we shall move forward and in brotherly unity merge into a single fearsome fighting force.

Workers, a great task has fallen to us - the task of our emancipation and the emancipation of our brothers; it is our duty to renew the world, which is wallowing in luxury and draining our strength - and we must carry it out.

Remember who was the first to respond to the great words of Christ, who was the first bearer of his teaching that love and brotherhood would overturn the whole of the old world? - the simple settlers...

We are also called upon to preach, we are also summoned to be the apostles of a new, but in essence only a misunderstood and forgotten, teaching of Christ.

We shall be persecuted as the first Christians were persecuted; we shall be beaten and taunted, but we shall be undaunted and we shall not be ashamed of their desecrations, because this animosity towards us itself demonstrates its weakness in the struggle with the moral greatness of the ideas, in the struggle with the force that we represent.

"You corrupt the world", they say to us, "you destroy the family, you scorn property and profane religion".

Now, we shall reply to them, we are not the ones who are corrupting the world, it is you; we are not the cause of evil - you are. On the contrary, we are going to renew the world, revive the family, establish property as it should be and resurrect the great teaching of Christ on brotherhood and equality...

Workers! Stand bravely beneath our banner of social revolution, join a harmonious, fraternal family and, arming yourselves with the spiritual sword of truth, go and preach your gospel in the towns and villages!

Your future lies in this propaganda of salvation, and your success depends on your moral strength; with it you are mighty, with it you will subdue the world. Know that in you is contained the entire strength and significance of the country, you are the flesh and blood of the state and without you the other classes which now suck your blood, would not exist....

Source: Marxism in Russia: Key Documents 1879-1902, edited by Neil Harding

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