Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Byltingin Í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia

In 1921 socialist students in Reykjavik published a little book called The Revolution in Russia, Byltingin í Rússlandi. The author Stefán Pjetursson was then studying Law in the University of Iceland. He was assisted by Stefán Jóhann Stefánsson, Jón Thoroddsen, Tómas Jónsson, Sigurður Jónasson who were all undergraduates and Einar Olgeirsson who was still in High School.[1] The young Icelandic socialists wanted to counter the misinformation of  the opponents of the revolution. Various authors in right wing Icelandic papers such as Morgunblaðið were writing about the horrors of the revolution and the Civil War and blaming the Bolsheviks for the chaos, hunger and violence.

Byltingin Í Rússlandi 

These young people were not merely writing about world shaking events from the isolation of their rocky outcrop of Europe. Icelandic young people with sponsors or family money[2] often went to the capital cities of mainland Europe to work and study. Before the University of Iceland was founded in 1911 there was no other way to gain a degree. Hendrik Ottósson[3] had met Swedish communists in Copenhagen when he was studying there in 1918-9 and was invited to the 2nd Congress of the Communist International [Comintern] in 1920 by telegram from Fredrik Ström.[4] On his way there he met his old school friend Brynjólfur Bjarnason and with Ström’s help they both managed to attend the Comintern as observers. They joined the meetings held in Russia, organised by the Bolsheviks, with delegates from all the foreign communist parties that agreed to the conditions for membership of the Communist International, A year later Hendrik and Brynjólfur went to the Third Congress of the Comintern with Ólafur Friðriksson, editor of the Social Democrats paper Alþýðublaðið and Ársæll Sigurdsson who represented the Icelandic left in Copenhagen, mostly students.

When Byltingin Í Rússlandi was published the Civil War in Russia was over and the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky had won. The cost of this achievement in the face of an international blockade and invasion by at least fourteen countries was terrible. The infrastructure was almost wrecked and the working class almost wiped out as people from cities left for the countryside to avoid starvation and disease.  Lenin and the Bolsheviks knew that if the revolution did not spread to Germany[5], then their own revolution would be strangled.  The millions, who wanted to see the working class and oppressed peoples running the world for themselves - for the benefit of the majority - expected the revolution to spread throughout Europe and then rest of the world soon.

Byltingin Í Rússlandi is a defence of the Russian Revolution in the face of the Icelandic establishment, its capitalists and their mouthpieces. It also tries to shore up the confidence of the Icelandic left and trade unionists and arm them against pessimism.

“The Revolution cannot develop if it is hemmed in by capitalists on all sides, says Stefán, but there is a growing proletariat in all countries and neither mourning nor Old Wives Tales will prevent the progress of our party because it is based on Marx’s golden words from the Communist Manifesto.”

Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

Proletarians of all countries, Unite!

Unfortunately Byltingin Í Rússlandi is not available online. It also does not appear in the National Library of Iceland’s database, at least not in the online search engine. In 2003 it did appear on their database as a reference book unavailable for loan but it could not be found during the week I spent four days in the library. At the time there was at least one copy in a private collection in Reykjavik and two copies in the library in Ísafjörður. I have since found a copy in the Kolaport market but it is fragile, and though I photocopied it to read I’m reluctant to unwrap it again for scanning when there maybe very few copies left. That said if no one else puts it online in the next six months I will have too. In the meantime I will put up a translation a chapter at a time.

Finally a note about the language of the book which is remarkable; it is full of Danish spellings of Icelandic words, so ‘jeg’ is used instead of ég, ‘sjer’ instead of sér and dozens of others. This is the kind of language that appears very often in Morgunblaðið at the time. Meanwhile the workers’ papers such as Verkamannablaðið use direct Icelandic without any Danish-isms.  I’ll come back to this subject later as the fight for ‘pure’ Icelandic is part of the two struggles for Icelandic independence. One bourgeois and the other working class and peasant.  

[1] Kommúnistahreyfingin á Íslandi 1921-34, Þór Whitehead p10
[2] Ólafur Friðriksson, future editor of the Social Democrats paper Alþýðublaðið, was sent out to Copenhagen by his father to learn double-entry bookkeeping in 1906 when he was twenty. He met Jack London and was employed by him to review books, which Ólafur said paid well. Klukkan var Eitt, p24-28
[3] Hendrik Ottósson, Hvíta Stríðið p15 and Frá Hlíðarhúsum 294-5 cited  Kommúnistahreyfingin á Íslandi 1921-34, Þór Whitehead, p10
[4] Fredrik Ström had sided with the far left of the SDP headed by communists. The group supported the Bolsheviks and formed the first Swedish Communist Party
[5] At the time Germany had the largest, best educated and most highly organised working class in the world.
The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-23, Chris Harman; How the Revolution was Lost, Chris Harman and The German Revolution 1917-23, Pierre Broué

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