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..

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia, part three Bolshevism and a portrait of Lenin

This is the beginning of part three of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson. This little book was published in 1921 by young Icelandic socialists who identified with the Revolution and wanted to defend and explain it to the left in Iceland. I am posting part three in mini-chapters because it is so long. The first part describes Lenin and what the author knew and understood about Lenin's character and politics.

Bylting í Rússlandi uses the New Style Russian calendar—the Gregorian calendar—introduced in Russia by the Bolsheviks in 1918 which added thirteen days to the Old Style Julian calendar. This is why the author refers to the revolutions in February and October as the March Revolution and the November Revolution.  I have not changed the dates back in my translation.

My introduction to Byltingin í Rússlandi

The Sources, Preface and Introduction contain more about their reasons for writing.

Part One: Reaction and Progress

Part Two: The Revolution

Part Three: Bolshevism


The 1917 November Revolution ended the bourgeoisie’s grip on power in Russia. Under the red revolutionary flag the proletariat—the workers—had risen against them and burst their fetters. Under the red flag the Bolsheviks changed their future and overthrew the capitalists. Now the proletariat held power.

Footnote in the original:
“The word öreigi, (in foreign languages proletariat) according to Marx and other socialist writers, refers to all those who have nothing to live on but their own work, they own neither the means of production nor do they employ workers. Therefore the proletariat is not just manual workers but also other waged workers such as civil servants, office workers and many others. In this book the word has the same meaning.”

The dictatorship of the proletariat was no longer a future dream—their leaders held power. They made no secret of their intention to break with the old system they said it was condemned to death. A new social order was coming that would change everyone’s quality of life so that they would be able to enjoy full maturity of mind and body.

They were also perfectly clear about how difficult this would be. The Bourgeoisie still had a large following to command in Russia. They rose against the dictatorship of the proletariat and armed themselves across the country. The old bureaucracy refused to obey the Bolshevik government. Russian ambassadors around the world refused to recognise it and despite being sacked and replaced, the problem was not solved as foreign governments refused to acknowledge the new ambassadors. 

Great property owners stopped paying tax, made a huge fuss in the papers and in meetings and used all kinds of armed violence to wreck the revolution. And the internal chaos was compounded by the invasion of the most destructive foreign enemies. Of all the agreements ever made, probably none was more difficult than that made by the Bolshevik government about the war. It was supported by the proletariat—the people, who bore the hunger and filth and soldiers who defended them against powerful domestic and foreign enemies whose armies were well armed and supplied.

Many would have been discouraged at such a prospect but not the Bolshevik government. With the gargantuan effort that only extreme danger can spur, they fought all their enemies at once to save the revolution and crush the opposition. In this great battle the entire revolutionary party was united. Many of its prominent people have proven to be the most heroic, but there are two who have been head and shoulders above the others and are the best known abroad. These men are Lenin and Trotsky, so it is appropriate to sketch their lives, work and teaching.

Lenin whose real name is Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov was born on 23 April 1870 in Simbirsk on the Volga. He is Russian and can trace his family to nobility, though his immediate forbears have been neither wealthy nor particularly badly off. When he was quite young he went to the Gymnasium school at Simbirsk and from there at 17 he went to the Kazan University. He soon learned about the grim reality of the authorities’ injustice when he hadn’t been in university a year and was thrown out for being part of a political student group involved in some minor fracas in Kazan. Lenin had been one of the most liberal students and for that he was expelled. That same year, his brother Alexander was executed in the capital for being part of a conspiracy against the Tsar, Alexander III. Despite this blow, Lenin did not allow himself to be discouraged. Now he began to think seriously about politics and quickly became a radical socialist.

In 1891 he came to the capital city and there read law but besides his studies, he put his heart and soul into spreading the socialist message writing many newspaper and magazine articles which were distributed surreptitiously. There was no freedom of the press and the authorities would have seized such articles if they had known they were spreading socialist ideas.

In 1895, Lenin was one of those trying to develop connections with industrial workers in the capital to improve their conditions. Then the Russian authorities decided he had been quite enough of a thorn in their side and arrested him with various other workers’ leaders. Lenin was sentenced to three years exile in Siberia and after exile was banned from major Russian cities, university towns and industrial centres. 

Lenin arrested 1895 [not in original]
It was clear that the authorities did not want to give him any chance to work amongst Russian workers. Though it was a difficult decision, Lenin chose to live abroad. Despite not being able to live and work at home because of the authorities’ injustice and violence, he focused all his energy on working for the victory of the working class, not just in Russia but around the world. 
Although he was in central and western Europe for the first 16 years of the 20th century he was in constant touch with the socialists in Russia and was one of the most influential members of their party. He wrote a great deal on many subjects in these years and published more than one newspaper. Some of what he wrote was smuggled into Russia and distributed widely. 

Lenin was a radical socialist from the start, he believed that revolution was the only way and refused to work with the bourgeoisie. Shortly after the turn of the century, this was the sharpest dispute in the Russian Socialist Party and why it split. At the meeting to discuss the matter, the majority agreed with Lenin and so were called Bolsheviki (those of the majority). It is Lenin who is the foremost theorist of Bolshevism, which in reality is only socialism in its most radical form. So when riots and strikes broke out all over Russia during the Russian-Japanese war, Lenin saw an opportunity for the working class to get started. He returned home and stayed in the capital for a while—it was then that he met Trotsky, one of the most important leaders of the Petrograd workers. 

It is well known that this revolution was crushed and reaction and oppression triumphed. The authorities used the opportunity to take revenge on people at the forefront of the struggle for freedom, whose only choice was to flee the country or risk being killed. Lenin went into exile but continued to work for his party. He had some good friends and supporters in those years, which have now become famous such as Zinoviev, Lunacharsky and Kamenev. These people went to great lengths so their strategy could be followed in Russia with newspapers, articles and the like. 

Lenin had little choice about how he lived in his exile years, but he did not much mind since he has never been known to look after his own interests. The most partial and ignorant of his opponents accuse him of selfishness and other low character flaws. Part of their campaign of lies is to damage Lenin in the eyes of the world and especially of ordinary people who all the fat cats fear will turn to follow the Bolsheviks’ strategy.

World War

When the world war began Lenin was in Galicia[1]
 and it appears that the Central Powers made no attempt to impose restrictions on him. It could well be that it occurred to the various authorities that the foremost theorist of the Russian revolutionaries could be useful to them. What is certain is that Lenin went to Switzerland without hindrance but the authorities made a mistake.

It is more likely that Lenin would gain a substantial following among ordinary people in Central Europe and elsewhere, than become a politician of the Central Powers. He has never been and never will be useful to their infamous methods.

In Switzerland, Lenin published a newspaper and made no secret of his wanting to see Russia lose the war. He said that the people of Russia would only be harmed by new conquests but on the other hand, he was sure that losing the war would at least wreck the Russian monarchy. Otherwise of course, Lenin was of one of the fiercest opponents of the war and one of the leaders of the group of socialists that set up the Zimmerwald meeting in September 1915 in Switzerland, to oppose the war and impress on ordinary people in the warring countries that to keep fighting was to spill their own blood to enrich capitalists and strengthen the chains that capitalism had laid on them.

Lenin was right when he thought that the defeat of Russia would bring down the monarchy. As already mentioned, the March [2] 
1917 revolution began when the war had been going for 32 months and Russia had lost many men and a great deal of land. The new authorities decided to give all exiles the opportunity which Lenin took to come home. It has since been repeatedly said that the Germans paid as much as they could for his journey and that he must have taken their money. It is probably true that the Central Powers hoped that Lenin would work for peace if he got home. But for Lenin to have taken money from them and become an agent of central European fat cats is incredibly unlikely. And of all the incidents pointed to later as such, not once has it been the peace treaty between Russia and the Central Powers because for so long Lenin was famously one of the most implacable opponents of the war waged throughout the world.

It is understandable that the capitalists put this story about with many others to undermine his influence, because capitalist oppression has hardly ever had a more dangerous enemy than Lenin. When he came home, Lenin threw himself into work with the Bolsheviks’ supporters and quickly became foremost amongst those who insisted that the revolution must continue until bourgeois rule was secure. The revolution, he said, could not succeed until the proletariat had taken all power into its own hands. And he worked entirely to this end. No other man has worked as energetically to seize all power from the capitalists and lay the foundations of a new classless order.

Few, who saw Lenin, would imagine that he is the outstanding man that he really is. It would not be said that he was much to look at. The Russian monarch’s secret police had described him in their files like this;
“Short, thick, short-necked, round and red in the face, shaven with a moustache and goatee beard, small nose that turns up slightly at the end, penetrating gaze, bald, high forehead; nearly always carries a raincoat on his arm, has various hats or caps, walks in a determined fashion”.

We may add to this description that he has a black goatee, small moustache and deep wrinkles on his forehead that have been carved by the tremendous effort and worry that have been loaded on him in the last few years.

Lenin is always good tempered and smiling but under this harmless exterior lies limitless self confidence, exceptional intelligence, steel hard concentrated will and great resolution. These fine commanding talents of Lenin’s are rarely, if ever used in overbearing or raging at subordinates or committee members as is often the case for people who hold similar positions. No, he avoids issuing orders—it is usually enough to advise his fellow committee members, since they assign so much importance to what he says.

To tell the truth Lenin has to carry little of the routine. It is said that his home life is exemplary and he is well married. He is so frugal that it is alarms everyone—those who know him and equally many of his opponents, he is amazingly unselfish in every way.

Lenin is not a sentimental man. Coldly and calmly, he worked to achieve the ends to which he has sacrificed his life. He has shown unswerving courage in the struggle against those who would hinder the proletariat’s progress under his leadership. Lenin did not hesitate for one moment to forge the way by whatever means necessary and though he is not at all vengeful, he is dauntless and relentless in the struggle to bring capitalist oppression to its knees.

[1] In 1917 Galicia was the largest and most northerly region of the Austrian Empire and straddles what is now the border between Poland and Ukraine—not to be confused with the region of Galicia in northern Spain.

[2] The first Russian revolution in 1917 began when women demonstrated on International Women’s day for bread and peace on 8 March (23 February OS).

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