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..

Thursday 15 November 2012

Byltingin í Rússlandi: Chapter one - Reaction and Progress

At the links below you will find my introduction to the Icelandic socialists' 1921 book on the Russian Revolution and then the book's sources, preface and introduction. The translation is mine and I would really appreciate any comments.

Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia

Byltingin í Rússlandí, Sources, Preface and Introduction

Reaction and Progress

Russia had been backward for a long time. This was mostly due to its geography. At a time when there was less trade between states and travel was more difficult, western European culture reached Russia later than most of the rest of Europe.  Great changes were happening in the working life of Western Europe—the industrial century was gathering steam but the east remained the same. Russia continued to be a rural country. 

There were also few of the movements for freedom that there had been in Western Europe late in the 18th century. It was quite unlike other countries in Europe. The great change was caused by the Napoleonic wars at the beginning of the 19th century.

In 1812 Russia was famously the chief bulwark in mainland Europe against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. The war didn’t end until Russia and many other states sent troops to France to take control of Paris—the revolutionary city that reactionaries feared as much then as they fear Moscow now. 

Many parts of Western Europe were occupied by Russian soldiers then but nowhere more than Paris. They had severely criticised the great French Revolution and its headquarters, but it was one of the Russian officers named Pestel who said, ‘We were all against the French Revolution, I more than most, but because of what we’ve seen here we can tell there’s a lot going for it’. 

Russian soldiers realised how much they had missed and longed to bring new ideas from Western Europe and especially France to Russia. There the greatest obstacle to progress was the Tsar and the bureaucracy who took care that the ideas of the French Revolution did not get a foothold in the country, as well as the unfree and utterly impoverished serfs. 

The soldiers were not deterred and set up secret societies to develop plans. At first they intended to get peaceful reform but gradually realised the power of the Tsar stood in the way. 

They meant to found a democratic republic but Pestel, one of the leaders, went further. He said it would not be enough to just have a change of government, what was needed was to turn land over to common ownership— to get rid of serfdom. 

They saw their chance in December 1825 when Nicholas I came to the throne and there was an uprising in the Moscow. But it was ill prepared, misfired badly and the revenge of the government was terrible. 

Five of the most interesting, thoughtful people in Russia, including Pestel, were condemned to die. Many more were sent to lifelong slavery in Siberia

The new Tsar announced that he considered it his business to ‘protect Russia from the western European disease’ of movements for liberty.  Apparently he wanted to protect more than Russia from the ‘sickness’ judging by his dealings in Hungary, the Balkans and more widely. Soon all the conservatives across Europe looked on Nicholas I with awe. 

In Russia the worst reaction ruled and the government stood opposed to modernity. At the same time it wanted to lay railway tracks across the country. As one of his advisors put it, “We want to gradually release the culture of the age”.

The government banned the publishing of the books it felt could in any way spread ideas of freedom and much needed development. The university was similarly controlled but it was difficult for the government to keep students in same mental bondage as everyone else.  Moscow University, a centre of Western European culture, was particularly difficult to control.

The social lives of the students were rich with debates about politics and other topical subjects. Quickly they split into two main groups. One of them wanted to lay the best foundations of the country on all that was national and peculiarly Russian. They concluded that very little had been learnt from Western Europe before the days of Peter the Great and that it had been downhill ever since! 

The other group argued that it was nonsense to turn back to the past, when Russians themselves would bring current western culture to the country . This group had a really tough time of it because of the reality of Nicholas I’s oppressive rule. Many young and thoughtful Russians emigrated hoping to get on without the Russian regime over their heads. 

One of the most remarkable of these was Alexander Herzen, the Rousseau of the Russian revolutionaries. He was a true revolutionary. He had experienced the bureaucracy that held the country in chains with treachery and violence. He also knew Russian peasants were simple, peaceful and stoic. Their conditions were little better than slavery, they were oppressed by the landlords and the state. The landowners could load them with various obligations and taxes and force them to be their house servants. 

The peasants were technically free to leave and work for another landowner. But peasants who dared to put up opposition could be punished by being sent into slavery in Siberia or into the army for many years. 

How could the peasantry be helped? Herzen was convinced that the answers could be found in Western Europe. The West was freedom. He went straight to Western Europe to see the revolutions of 1848 but was bitterly disappointed. What Western European freedom hid was that the only ones who benefited were those that had money as their god. They used the working class to slave for them, indifferent to their freedom or conditions which is its parallel. 

Herzen was horrified to see the end result of the French Revolution when the rich allowed the workers to be killed in the streets of Paris in June 1848—precisely the people who had led the Revolution but were cheated of its fruits. Now he turned his back on the bourgeoisie. How could you possibly look for freedom from the kind of people who would allow money to be put before all else? He now became a revolutionary socialist with all his might and declared that socialism is the future. 

The time would come when the socialists would have to do battle with the liberals and Herzen was gladdened by thought of the future revolution that would rip up the basis of national unity, which held down progress and would clean all humanity. The more bloody the revolution, the more victims, the greater the success. 

When Alexander II came to the throne in 1855 many people looked to the new regime with high hopes. Herzen was in London and published a paper in Russian called The Time, in which he attacked everything old and outdated and demanded great reform. The paper was much too liberal for the censor to allow it to be read in Russia but nevertheless it was distributed in secret and was very influential. 

Most Russian progressives thought that they could pressurise the Tsar into reform and it seemed at first as though Alexander II too had his heart set on helping his people. By far the most important thing he did was the order in 1861 that abolished serfdom. The peasants were to get their personal freedom and escape the control of the landowners. What’s more their communes—the mir—would be given the chance to buy some land to share out between the peasants to use—not to own outright. 

Nobody doubted that the Tsar had made this decision in good faith but it was not as successful as it could have been. The peasants were very unhappy at having to buy access to the earth they had always considered to be theirs not the nobility’s. 

Besides, the communes got so little land that it was not nearly enough for the peasants. From then on they were sunk in poverty. Alexander was still popular amongst Russian reformers and they were optimistic about future reforms. That optimism disappeared after the 1863 Polish uprising. 

At the same time Herzen’s influence waned in Russia. He had sincerely discussed the Polish question but without success and was deeply upset. Of the Tsar he said, “You would have been numbered among the great, Alexander Nikolaevitch if you had died when you freed the serfs”.

But Herzen didn’t panic—he said about the coming revolution, “Russians will never be content with a half-finished job. They will not topple the rule of a monarch to have him replaced with another power in the same spirit”.  And that prediction has come true. 

Reaction now covered the country like a nightmare. Ethnic minorities were repressed and there was complete suppression of Poland after the uprising. Then the regime got rid of anyone associated with reform and replaced them with the most reactionary. 

Now domestic policy looked back to the old days but foreign policy was new. The Greater Slav policy intended to gather all Slav countries under Russia’s hegemony. The chief proponent of this idea was a newspaper editor Katkov in Moscow. The idea lived a long time and will raise its ugly head later in this history. 

These were terrible times for Russian progressives but they did not despair. No amount of repression could hold down the forces that were working to takeover Russia.  These years saw the rise of the Nihilism movement. Worldwide no movement has ever been so blackened. The Nihilists were trailblazers who wanted to reorganise and cleanse all of society—the state, religion, marriage and property rights. They were very influential, wanting to cut all the fetters of body and spirit, to begin to release people from the darkness of ignorance and prejudice. 

Many Nihilists were intellectuals and very sincere. There are very few movements that have been embraced with such enthusiasm by the young. Most of them were very young, educated in Mid or Western Europe where they came into contact with socialism and Marxism and the politics of Bakunin. Bakunin was very influential but most influential was the workers revolution, the 1871 Paris Commune. 

The Russian authorities looked askance at this youth movement from the beginning as was to be expected and wanted to prevent young people from going abroad to university in Western Europe, where they could drink in revolutionary ideas. So in 1873 to counter the pernicious growth of these ideas all Russian students were called home to remove them from revolutionary influences. 

These young, thoughtful people came home and brought the ideas with them. Their battle-cry became, “To the people” to spread new ideas. They went out to the countryside to work in ordinary jobs as labourers, cobblers, doctors and nurses. They wore peasant clothing and did all they could to blend in but they were a different class from the peasants which spoiled their wonderful work. 

The movement included some who became famous later, Peter Tchaikovsky and Peter Lavrov. But the most famous of all was Kropotkin.  Kropotkin had been to Switzerland and met Bakunin, that daring revolutionary who sacrificed his whole life to tear down the existing state structures. He was always foremost in the group where the fight was hardest against old and new wrongs. He never stopped and let nothing discourage him. 


Kropotkin was very proud of the anarchist programme and was its chief proponent after the death of Bakunin. Until 1880 he concentrated above all on revolutionary activities. After that he focused almost exclusively on the writing for which he became world famous. In his writings he tirelessly urged that it was not the struggle but co-operation and empathy that had to be strongest for mankind’s progress. 

The Nihilists' activities were entirely peaceful at first but the authorities gave them no way to spread their ideas. They were continually hounded by the police and by 1876 a crowd of educated Russians who had been ordered home by the authorities in 1873, were in jail. 

The Nihilists were forced to change tactics and from then on became a political movement against the monarchy and the bureaucracy. They were highly organised and elected an executive committee to direct their activities. They now planned to assassinate the most reactionary officials in the hope that this would terrify the authorities and force them to reform. For this the Nihilists have been most harshly judged with some good reason. However it should be remembered that they didn’t use terror tactics until the authorities forced them with their scandalous injustice for which they must bear some responsibility—people have rarely taken this into account when they have judged the Nihilists. 
Their first big operation was in February 1878 when Vera Zasulich killed the chief of Petrograd police Trepov[1] because he beat political prisoners. Democratic sympathies all supported Vera and people were jubilant when the jury acquitted her. Vera then escaped to Switzerland

Various other operations were now tried and when the Nihilists realised the authorities were not letting up they condemned the Tsar Alexander II to death. Two failed attempts were made on his life. 

It seemed that the Tsar had had enough. He appointed Loris-Melikov as minister who was considered liberal and who created a draft constitution for the country. But it was too late, before it was publicised Alexander II was killed by Nihilist bomb on 13 March 1881. 

Generally people were absolutely terrified when they heard the news of the Tsar’s murder. It seemed that the Nihilists had lost the sympathy that many people had for them. It also appeared that they themselves were not as united as they had been and of course this was the most dangerous time for them. Some had strongly opposed the use of terrorism but others thought it would influence the new Tsar Alexander III to really change how he governed. 

The executive committee published a letter to Alexander III ten days after the murder, which challenged him to summon a representative assembly and said that in return they would quit terrorism. But all such requests were unsuccessful. 

The new Tsar was as bloody as the old, and because of this the blood of his son, the last Tsar and his family has been shed. It was a debt repaid. It was impossible to see the Tsar and the people working together for the good of the nation. 

Alexander III made it his mission to hunt down the Nihilists and arrest them. The movement was repressed in a few years but only temporarily because, ‘ideas could not be repressed with bullets’. 

You can imagine, after all this, that the Tsar had no intention of reforming the government. Quite the contrary, he considered his business to preserve the monarchy as it had been of old. So he sacked Loris-Melikov and the other liberal ministers and replaced them with reactionaries. Of these, Pobedonostsev was the most influential and notorious. Public criticism of the repression of Finns, Poles and other oppressed peoples especially the Jews became impossible. The result was that there were very few in active opposition to the authorities except mostly young students, often of the upper class.  

There still wasn’t a large working class in the cities and peasants were reluctant to get involved. For this reason, Plekhanov, one of the first leaders of Russian socialism said quite rightly that a revolution in Russia would only win when the working class that was forming in the cities made it happen. 

Until 1861 Russia had been almost entirely agricultural with little more than cottage industries. There were huge changes after the serfs were freed.  Big property owners who sold land to the communes got the money to begin large scale urban industrial development. 

Industries sprang up incredibly quickly and scattered through the country. In the later years of Alexander III’s reign, the Russian authorities did their best to strengthen these businesses. Count Witte who was one of the most influential men in government from 1892 to 1903 was the life and soul of the authorities’ efforts to industrialise Russia. It is true that he was very successful. So Russia developed in the same way as other places, as industrial development took hold, cities grew rapidly and with them the working class. 

There was a great deal of opposition to Witte’s work, particularly from those who feared riots and revolution and saw the changes as strengthening dissidents and opposition to the monarchy.  Plehve was one of the most notorious and reactionary of Nicholas II’s ministers and for these reasons he fought Witte hardest. Plehve was right—the monarchy was most endangered by the workers movement as became clear later. Russian progressives saw this too but their response to the workers movement was to welcome it as much as Plehve and other conservatives feared it. 

Originally industry in Russia was organised so that those who worked were both workers and peasants, but as the factories developed those in them became solely workers. Once begun, the Russian proletariat in cities grew by leaps and bounds. In 1887 there were about 1 million industrial workers, but thirty years later in 1917 when the revolution began there were nearly ten million. 

The life of Russian workers was rotten from the beginning; the factory accommodation was terrible, working hours were extremely long and wages very low. The proletariat had little protection from the speculators who had gradually got their iron claws into the Russian nation. It was not easy to improve any of their conditions, whether they turned to the employers or to the authorities they had little success. Workers found neither mercy nor justice at their hands. They could only rely on themselves. 

It was also not easy to organise amongst workers themselves because the authorities were determined to repress any independent movement amongst ordinary people trying to improve their conditions. The authorities perfectly understood that the days of oppressive power were numbered when the workers became economically and spiritually independent, which is why they feared trade unions. It was a good thing for workers that many open minded, thoughtful and educated people paid attention to their interests. 

Some of the old Nihilists had been in Switzerland since 1880. Amongst them was the previously mentioned Plekhanov. He was now committed to socialism and had published a newspaper in the West called The Liberation of Labour. It wasn't long before he and some of his friends founded a workers party that took up their socialist programme and followed Marxist principles. 

Russian workers, who had to deal with both the injustice of the state and the repression of the capitalists, seized Marxism. They found it obvious that the division into capitalists and proletariat that Marx talked about was exactly what was happening in Russia. The authorities, the bureaucracy and employers were the capitalists, they were the oppressors. The workers were the proletariat, they were the oppressed. What could they do but take power for themselves by revolution? 

In the following years socialists multiplied in Russia. In 1896 Russian socialists for the first time took part in an international socialist meeting. Two years later the Russian Socialist party[3] was founded. The policies of the party were Marxist and rested their hopes for the future on the growing urban proletariat. Not all Russian reformers joined the party. For instance the Jews in western Russia had founded their own party—though it was also socialist. Eventually a new party emerged from the old Nihilist organisation in 1901, the Socialist Revolutionaries. They differed from the Socialist party in that they did all they could to arouse the peasantry to rise up against the authorities and thought that revolution was only possible if the peasantry backed it. 

Karl Marx

All of these parties competed to spread their message. The Socialist party was particularly successful until it was well known and had members in all large towns throughout Russia. This was the party that split suddenly at a meeting in 1903. 

The dispute was over how they organised. A minority wanted to work with the Russian bourgeoisie - well off people - and try to come to agreements with them for reforms a little at a time. Those who held this position at the meeting were later named mensheviks (the minority). Their policies in the main gradually became those of the German socialists. The majority wanted to stick to Marxism and refused all compromise and all political deals with the bourgeoisie that could delay the victory of the workers or betray them. The working class can never win otherwise than with revolution. The main proponent of this policy at the meeting was Lenin, who later became so famous.

It was at this meeting that for the first time Lenin had the decisive influence on the work of the Russian socialists. Those that agreed with him in this matter called themselves bolsheviks (the majority) and are the much discussed bolsheviks that by their theory and practice are now dividing the world into two parties that stand facing each other with drawn swords. 

By this time Nicholas II, last Tsar of the Romanov dynasty, had been in power for nine years. It can honestly be said of him that he was utterly unfit to be in such a difficult position. So he could not be expected to cope well. Nicholas was not endowed with great intellect. So much so that one of his teachers of military tactics went so far as to say that because of Nicholas' stupidity it would impossible for him to be of any use in military service anywhere. He was a dreamer, fickle and superstitious. As well as being the tool of cunning and partisan politicians. It would sit with a reputation for instability, to read about all the scandals of his years as ruler of Russia and not least about the Tsar's courtiers.

But of course Nicholas was never the actual ruler of the country. His advisors, who were extremely hostile to reform, were allowed so much free rein that they were either killed or otherwise cut down for their actions. The patience of the people was exhausted and ordinary people had armed themselves with weapons from which the reactionaries could not protect themselves. These weapons were the trade unions and the socialist movement. 

From the beginning strikes were one of the ways that workers could get their demands met. It has been rarely mentioned but really they had begun decisively before 1896 when a general strike happened in Petrograd.  More than forty thousand workers took part demanding that working hours be shortened so that their conditions weren’t so unbearable. It was a peaceful strike but the workers stood together and would in no way back down.

The economics minister Witte, then the most influential man in government, planned to use the army to force the workers back to work, but he couldn’t get permission.  Then the government saw an opportunity to defuse the workers with a decision to limit the working day to 11 hours.

But the matter was not finished and in 1898 the government again allowed unlimited overtime. This meant that they were back in the same corner with the workers feeling betrayed. Strikes broke out again across the country, all of them about shortening the working day. In the face of this movement the authorities didn’t dare do anything but make promises. These were again betrayed and the working day continued to be twelve, fourteen or even fifteen hours a day.

The government had no other tactics as the workers' organisations were too strong. The authorities needed a way to get some control of the trade unions. Most of all it feared that the unions could turn into an uprising. To prevent this government spies became workers leaders and part of their job was to prevent the unions turning against the government. Union activities carried on and many strikes happened. Time and again these government spies were arrested but also released again, which was misunderstood at first. This tactic of the authorities was called Zubatovism after one of the secret policemen in Moscow.

It cannot be denied that by this method the authorities were able to delay workers’ ability to take power. But progress continued because the strikes strengthened organisation and solidarity between workers, as the government learned later on.

But it wouldn’t be true to say that this was the worst of it. The authorities got the spies to find out who in the unions were the most serious, who most likely to lead and were the best politically developed. They were later arrested and convicted and so the unions lost many of their best men. Some were executed and some sent to Siberia.

It is hardly possible to imagine the repressive power that was so hostile to all progress and has now been destroyed. Throughout Russia government hirelings had their hands round the throats of the most worthy people in the country. These disappeared into secret courts and were never heard of again or not until they had spent many years of exile and slavery in Siberia.

There’s no good in describing such inhumanity except that it shows the growth of the organisation that was one of the props of the tradition of humiliating others, where life is like death.

In these years when it’s true to say that no one was safe in Russia, there was still one man against whom the authorities never dared use violence because of the respect he was held in both at home and abroad. This man was Tolstoy, despite his having always strongly opposed the government’s inhuman behaviour.

In 1902 he wrote a letter to Nicholas in which he described the countrywide anarchy and challenged him not to allow this to continue any longer. He specifically pointed out to the Tsar how much progress there could be for the country if the land were in common ownership and that the peasantry wanted nothing more badly than this.

Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was not a revolutionary and he thought that all this could happen peacefully. He focused on justice and brotherhood and thought that he could awaken a sense of justice, as well as opposition to injustice and ignorance. Otherwise Tolstoy’s life story was unlike that of most other Russians sharing a similar spirit as Tolstoy during the Tsar’s reign. He looked out over life’s tumult and took little direct part in public political activity.  He expressed his theory of brotherhood beautifully in his letter to bring them round to this way of thinking not just in Russia but in all nations. It has served more rage and passion than the other most important predecessors of the Russian revolution and few of them escaped their match with the Tsar, as well as Tolstoy did.

I have described the conditions in Russia before and after the turn of the century. Although everything was in complete chaos at home, it did not stop the authorities from wanting to expand Russia’s sphere of influence especially in east Asia. Against their efforts were many thorns in their flesh there but none more so than Japan. Eventually Russia started a war there in February 1904. All the failures that Russians met with in this war happened because of the weakness of the authorities and the treachery and corruption of the bureaucracy and others who ruled in Russia.

The resentment of ordinary people at home over the war and the actions of the government was boundless. This righteous anger turned first and foremost against those in power. Riots and protests broke out with students and workers in the cities leading the way. Many were killed, amongst them Plehve the Home Secretary, who had been one of the most conservative. This seriously worried the authorities who were unwilling to face that this could happen again. This is why the government called together a representative assembly (semstvo) that could propose government reform.

In December 1904 this meeting agreed almost unanimously to request that the government give the country a fairly liberal constitution. Particularly emphasized in the submission was the idea that the people should have a share in their own government. This was to happen with the founding of a parliament chosen by free elections across the country. The government dragged its feet over this proposal and promised other small reforms. But it couldn’t stop this great rumbling of the people.

On Sunday 22 January 1905, one of the workers leaders in Petrograd, the priest Gapon, went with a vast crowd of unarmed workers to the Winter Palace to hand in a petition for a constitution on behalf of the people. The result of this was horrific because before the crowd could reach the forum it was scattered by troops and more than three thousand people died. The events of that day, ‘Bloody Sunday’ as it became known, lit a bonfire in the capital city. Riots and strikes grew daily and spread like wildfire across the country. Two months later bloody street battles were fought in all the largest cities across Russia.

The government didn’t blink and decided to try to undermine the revolution. In August 1905 it announced that a representative assembly to be chosen by popular vote would be created soon. But the catch was that the right to vote for this ‘great assembly’ was so restricted that workers were generally excluded.  Of course people weren’t satisfied with such crumbs and riots broke out again. In October a general strike broke out in Moscow and quickly spread across the country. The railways, all cargo and industry ground to a halt and the government was left with only one choice.  On 30 October a representative assembly, the Duma, was announced chosen by universal suffrage. People had very high hopes of this Duma and the high tide of unrest across the country ebbed.

But it wasn’t the government’s plan that this assembly should hold any power. From its inception the government was determined to use it as a touchstone of the national mood in response to its actions. Reaction reasserted itself in Russia. At the first meeting of the Duma in May 1906 the Cadet party was in the majority. Parliamentary rule as part of the Cadets' policies as was common across Europe. (The name is formed from the c and d of constitutional democrats)[4]

The Socialist party took no part in the first election but workers and peasants took 107 representatives out of 524. Though the authorities didn’t like it, the assembly became very pliant and cracked almost immediately. It was then that Stolypin, the energetic tough-minded reactionary became prime minister. The authorities had found the man who wasn’t afraid to use violence against the assembly. When the new election was over and the socialists had 132 people, Stolypin did not hesitate to send the newly elected assembly home.

So that the authorities would not have to fear the next election turning out like the last, it violated the constitution and produced new electoral law that lowered the number of parliamentary representatives from 524 to 442. Then finally the authorities achieved a Duma that was conservative enough to throw out most of the socialists. There were just 28 in this third Duma.

Now the authorities were happy and used this to improve their own situation. They committed every kind of violence to avenge themselves against all those who had been foremost in the revolutionary movement of 1904 and 1905. They came down particularly hard on the socialists. Many of their leaders were arrested and condemned to exile in Siberia. Others managed to escape, of whom Lenin was one. The Socialist party went through a very difficult time over the next few years as the authorities did everything in their power to hold them down.

Just like the old days, the secret police sent their spies into the socialist groups to corrupt them. But these men, the bolsheviks, seem to have a remarkable attitude to comradeship. At least they do in this famous story, that Lenin joked about when he arrived in 1917, that on the whole, running your mouth off to these people had benefitted the bolsheviks more than the secret police.

What is not said is that in the decade before the revolution, when the third Duma came together, the real change was that the Duma helped the authorities ending with new elections in 1912. The Duma carried on mechanically producing whatever the authorities wanted. The most remarkable thing it did in these years was doubtless the agricultural law which was passed in 1910. This law was Stolypin’s work and abolished the customary communes of the peasants. But the law gave the more affluent peasants a much stronger footing than the poor and because of this was very much resisted. The socialists said that this was an obvious opportunity to create followers of the proletariat in the countryside and were proved right.

In these years the Russian authorities followed the example of companies in central and western Europe where the capitalist system had been developing longest, so the Russian socialists were hardly likely to agree with the bourgeoisie on their ways of working.

Whilst the bureaucracy embedded itself in power with violence in the Duma and country, the Tsar Nicholas II sat doing very little in his palace. He was a pawn in the hands of his bureaucrats and other adventurers. This especially was good reason to be one of the foxes that used the ignorant Tsar to advance themselves. Rasputin was such a man. He is a fine example of how corruption permeated Russian political life, the nobility and the court in Petrograd in the last chapters of the Tsar’s rule.

Rasputin was the son of a peasant from Tobolsk in Siberia. In his youth he had lived in drunkenness and a great deal of scandal had followed him. He had crawled from these sorry adulteries to become a monk and tell people’s fortunes. He was bright and was able to ingratiate himself because he was cunning and persuasive. Besides this he was handsome, tall and manly with dreamy eyes that had a peculiar influence on all the women he met.

In fortune telling he particularly concentrated on women so he always had remarkable success with women wherever he went. He took to healing and all kinds of quackery which aroused even more attention and the admiration of weak souls. By all these methods he propelled himself forwards from the lowliest position to the capital Petrograd itself. There he quickly encountered myriad ladies who developed the greatest affection for him. He held various prayer meetings or sat with them in great parties. However Rasputin most delighted in being in the bath with them for hours.

With the support of these noblewomen he was introduced to the Tsar and his family. This, it appeared to Rasputin, would be child’s play. He knew it wouldn’t be difficult to get a hold over the royal couple who were so fickle and superstitious.  But their relationship with him gave them little honour in the eyes of the public.

The joke went that Rasputin was with the Tsarina more than was strictly necessary but the Tsar appeared not to be able to exist without him, until Rasputin had considerable influence over the government for the decade that he was the royal couples' priest. Finally this raised so much public scandal that the Duma couldn’t ignore it any longer.

In 1912 one member of the Duma furiously attacked Rasputin and demanded that he be removed from all influence over government. So Rasputin was ejected from the court—against the Tsar’s wishes—because Rasputin had predicted that the royal family would come to harm in his absence. When the heir to the throne became ill shortly after his departure, the Tsarina insisted that Rasputin be called back to court and so he was. She was convinced because the heir got better quickly afterwards and so Rasputin’s influence was even greater than it had been before.

He himself made no bones about how much power he had in Russia and became famous for his work. But he didn’t publicise his political business. He was a kind of shadow leader and many people felt his power roughly.

As you can imagine Rasputin had many enemies, the liberal politicians in particular were extremely unhappy about his influence. Eventually he was murdered shortly after New Year in 1917, when it was not possible to get rid of him any other way. Many considered the country to be all the purer for it.

The Rasputin scandal showed quite clearly how the Tsar’s government was waning and how much was vanity. But this was not the middle of the 19th century—the Tsar was stripped of all real power. Nicholas II was sleepwalking to oblivion—he had lost any grip on the reins of power. Pure vandals ruled everything in Russia then as was commonly and thoroughly discussed.

The Tsar was an onlooker without power or influence as the bureaucrat class and the richest nobility had snatched all power for themselves.  This group of people pushed an expansionist, militaristic strategy in their own interests. They were to blame for the war with Japan and they were also partly responsible for the outbreak of the world war. Russia’s politics of ‘Balkanisation’ had often particularly been a source of trouble and so it continued to be.

The Tsar controlled little or nothing of Russia’s preparation for war in July 1914 rather it was the bureaucrats and capitalists that ruled him. Sukhomlinov the minister of war, who didn’t hesitate to lie to the Tsar, saying that Russia had stopped its war preparations so that it could attempt a compromise with the Germans, was chief amongst them.

They started the war by tricking the Tsar. By deceiving the nation they hoped after the war, to win a victory. Not a victory for the Russian nation but rather a victory for the bureaucrats’ and the rich nobility.

Nobody is saying the Russian people wanted war, they are a peaceful people. But they were drawn in by unscrupulous bureaucrats and capitalists. They were fooled into spilling their own blood for the financial interests of others. When the people finally saw through this treachery, they were not slow at grasping the tools that they saw could rid them of the war and the forces that had created it.

Those tools were revolution.

End of chapter one. 

[1] Fyodor Trepov was not actually killed and retired soon after.
[2] Its actual name was Russian Social Democratic Labour Party
[3] The original says k and d as there is no letter c in the Icelandic alphabet

Sunday 14 October 2012

Byltingin í Rússlandi, Sources, Preface & Introduction

This is the first part of my translation of Byltingin í Rússlandi - The Revolution in Russia by Stefán Pjetursson

A History of Russia, Alfred Nicolas Rambaud, 1895
Russia, Wallace West, 1912
The Old and the New Russia, Grossman, 1917
Six Weeks in Russia, Arthur Ransome, 1920
The Russian Republic, Cecil Malone, 1920[1]
Bolshevism at Work, William T Goode, 1920
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Fred Engels, 1848
The Communist Programme, Nikolai Bukharin 1919

The reason for this book is simple. I and many others have discussed how incomplete and wrong the history of the revolution in Russia has been that has reached Iceland. Recently the papers have carried reports that have barely tried to give an overview of these extraordinary events. They have just reported ill-considered and often untrue telegrams or dubious letters from the newspapers abroad. Despite this, it cannot be hidden that the Russian Revolution is absolutely extraordinary and must have far reaching consequences. So people will have little or no choice but to follow these events.

This book is an opportunity to give people a more complete account of the Russian Revolution, the events and their causes. How it got off the ground and the organisation behind it. Of course in such a short book it is not possible to do this other than in broad strokes.

To this end, I have tried to capture the reliable history of the Revolution and I have particularly chosen those events that have often been written about by both sides.

I know full well that many people will find fault with this book. Doubtless many more will find much of it questionable. But I invite the readers not to let prejudice against the Revolution both in Iceland and abroad cloud their judgement of the subject matter. The first condition for this is that reading it can be of use.

Reykjavík May1921

We Icelanders, who live at the ends of the earth, have escaped the worst of the horrors recently enacted throughout the civilised world. With growing astonishment we have heard how millions have been sent out to certain death, how whole states have starved and the same states, driven by necessity have risen against the men and parties who sent them down this impassable route.

We have seen empires like Austria fall and small countries rise up to trash them. We have seen states as important as Germany rise in its fury against the Kaiser's dynasty and its lackeys, and overthrow them in the hope that this way they could get a just peace.

But we have also seen how their hopes and those of other states have been defeated. How the right of the fist and shameful injustice triumphed at the so-called peace conference of Versailles.

The injustice of the result has fired the anger of all the best people in the world. There we sit for the time being - they may not challenge the authority of the victors, for behind the Versailles Peace treaty stands English, French and American capitalism. It remains to be seen how long they remain in agreement.

People’s hopes had been enormous and they had not thought it possible that war could happen between civilised states. Likewise, after the war, people told themselves that something great and extraordinary, something truly wonderful must spring from the blood spilt.

Some believed that the war would ensure the rights of small nations like the Allies said. That this was a war for peace - the last war that there ever would be.

Utterly empty delusions!

Now dread has struck mankind. People are asking—how are we to prevent this ever happening again?

At the same time as the victors of the world war have been dividing the spoils, they have caused the events in Eastern Europe that will have even greater repercussions than what happened in the world in previous years.

People are beginning to fall silent about the world war and the Versailles peace treaty and get louder about the Revolution in Russia, the proletarian movement that is called Bolshevism throughout the world.

Everywhere people are taking sides over this movement— for or against—revolution will plunge the world into ruin if not stopped, or Bolshevism is the only way to save mankind.

The present system had displayed all its weaknesses and had led to poverty and insecurity for most of the world. The question became whether people should turn and follow or be utterly hostile to this new movement. Many people both here in Iceland and abroad thought that the Russian Revolution was a whirlwind that would soon subside. If this were the correct way to look at it then it would mean that the movement did not have deep roots.

But for a whole century the revolution has been digging itself into Russia. It has been energetically prepared by many of the best people that Russia has. And it is precisely these people that it is necessary to get to know to understand the Revolution and form ideas about it, whatever future it has.

[1] Cecil Malone,Coalition Liberal MP for Leyton East, north east London, Britain

Thursday 27 September 2012

Cod in the North Sea - swimming against the stream

The Icelandic prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has tried very hard to get Iceland into the European union. Well Jóhanna has announced her retirement and the EU hasn't got any more stable since the beginning of the financial crisis. Here's a piece from this weeks Socialist Worker newspaper in Britain about overfishing and the disappearing cod. It finishes with this thought about the EU and it's planning,

'The EU’s quota system is sometimes presented as an alternative to the unrestrained competition of the market. In fact it institutionalises competition.
Individual states lobby for their own fishing industries and against others. For example, this summer British fisheries minister Richard Benyon met with other European fisheries ministers. He argued that Cornish fishing workers should get a larger share of the quota than Spanish ones.
As well as sowing nationalist division, the system creates enormous waste. One of the biggest problems is the fish that are caught but then thrown away to comply with quotas.
Fish of different species often swim together—and are caught in the same nets. Every year half the fish caught are thrown back into the North Sea.
The EU announced a plan to phase in bans on these “discards” by 2018. Celebrity cod-botherer Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall called it a “massive breakthrough”.
But the ban won’t make the problem go away. As long as there are quotas, the waste will continue. The solution is not EU bureaucracy, but a democratically planned economy.'

A democratically planned economy is a deeply unfashionable idea amongst the ruling class for the obvious reason that if we had real democracy we'd have no ruling class. For more on a democratically planned economy see John Molyneux's Future Socialist Society and an interview with Alex Callinicos posted in Capital and Class

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

Friday 27 July 2012

The Olympics: Raining on their parade

The 2012 Olympics opening ceremony has started tonight in London where the Olympic torch has lit a big bowl of fuel in East London. The torch relay was introduced in 1936 by the Nazi German government whose dreams of Aryan glory were shaken by African American Jesse Owens' multiple gold medals.
Halldór Kiljan Laxness, Iceland's greatest novelist, left-winger and future Nobel Laureate, was in Germany at the time visiting Leipzig. He went to see potential publishers for a German translation of his great novel Salka Valka and stopped off at Berlin when a friend managed to get him tickets to the Games. Unlike other Icelandic commentators, Halldór wasn't impressed that Icelandic athletes were there at all;

'It can be said in praise of the Icelandic "athletes" who were taking their ease there, that none of them had even the lowest level of ability that was required for these games, but got to be there, as far as I could understand, because they belonged to the fairer race, as the Germans consider themselves, and the only way they drew attention to themselves was by giving the fascist salute on the field and denying at the same time the one thing that they could have shown: respect for their own nation.'

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Normal Service Will be Resumed

For the next seven weeks or so  I will be submerged in preparation for and the aftermath of Europes largest festival of the Left Marxism 2012. So apologies for the hiatus but I will return in late July with Stefán Pjetursson’s book Byltingin í Rússlandi, the Revolution in Russia,first published in Reykjavik 1921. This was designed as a straightforward explanation of Russia's history and the background to the Revolution, and to counter the lies and misunderstandings of the rightwing Press. See you then..

Monday 30 April 2012

Women and Revolution - An angry Egyptian writes

Next weekend in Reykjavik a film festival of short films and documentaries about women and women's rights opens including Hidden Faces about Egyptian women.

In her blog An Angry Egyptian, Egyptian revolutionary socialist Gigi Ibrahim responds to feminist Mona El Tahawy who argues that women in the Middle East are oppressed because men hate them.  She also blames religion for misogyny and sexual violence. El Tahawy has been involved in the protests in Egypt but her understanding of oppression and religion cannot explain how women were able to sleep out in Tahrir Sq for weeks safely, nor why secular and Muslim Egyptians protected Christians whilst they prayed and Christians protected Muslims. In short she does not understand class. For her men can only be part of the problem. Nawal Al Sadawi, Egyptian author, doctor, activist and longtime women's rights campaigner, however does understand.

‘In the square, I felt for the first time that women are equal to men, It's like I carried a burden on my back, and now I feel free.' Al Sadawi was arrested and censored for her work under Anwar Sadat's and Hosni Mubarak's regimes. "Suzanne Mubarak silenced women, killed the feminist movement, and did nothing for us," she said, dismissing the former first lady's "National Council of Women" as little more than a PR campaign for the regime.’

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Lives unfettered by possessions or a home

Apologies to Comrade Markin for the slow response to your question. Commenting on To Talk about Women's Oppression We have to Talk about Class, you asked,

‘about the position of women you've described in early 20th Century Iceland. I get the impression that although the same material oppression was experienced as elsewhere in early capitalism, there is a countervailing tendency in that women worked from very early on in the development of capitalism. (In Britain, for instance, it wasn't until the end of the Industrial Revolution that large numbers of women were pulled into the factories). Is this impression correct and, if so, is there any cultural cause behind it?’

It’s true that women in Iceland were at the forefront of Iceland’s transition to capitalism, though women in Britain were also down the mines before they went into the factories.

To understand the way women became industrial workers we need to understand the peculiarities of Iceland’s material conditions and the legal constraints placed upon its peasantry to suit the economic demands of its ruling class.

Iceland was one of the last parts of Europe to be settled from the end of the 9th late C and roughly all the habitable land had been divided up into homesteads by the early 13th C. But the pioneers of one age, the rebellious class that ran away from the Norwegian King Harold Fairhair, were not so keen on rebellion when they had established their farms and needed obedient servants and farmworkers.

Norwegian rule gave way to a more powerful Danish state and monopoly trade with little investment through 17th & 18th C.

By the late 18th C the Icelandic ruling class, made up of landowners, Danish or Icelandic officers of the Danish Crown and its church Lutheranism, had become a conservative force that was actively blocking development. Farm leases were often very short, even two or three years which did not allow people time to improve their land and buildings. Then if tenants did manage to make improvements the rents often went up.[1] There was soil erosion and loss of trees yet the old technologies of drainage and manuring though well known in mainland Europe were barely used, so land was much less productive than it could have been.  

The legal obligations imposed on the peasantry by the Vistarband system saw any peasant family as a source of new paupers so the authorities actively tried to ensure that most people could not marry. By 1850 35- 40% of the population over 15 yrs old were servants. That is unmarried indoor and outdoor workers contracted 1 year at a time, for bed, board + low wages. They were essential to the hay harvest and in the winter women could work on wool processing while the men were sent to fish, for which they received no extra pay with all profit going to their employer. Added to this was a culture of young people being sent out to work and grow up on a farm away from that of their parents as part of their education.[2]

This meant that Iceland had a large highly mobile workforce that owned far fewer material possessions than a person could carry. For instance in the parish records in 1816 Sigríður Einarsdóttir aged 27 was a servant at the farm Hruni in Southern Iceland. In 1818 she moved a few miles west to Þrándarholt in the parish of Hrepphólar until she moved to Miðfell from1824 til 1836. She then moved to another farm in Hrepphólar, Dalbær from 1837-39 and in 1840 moved back to the parish of Hruni and worked at Syði Sandlækur until 1844. The following year Sigríður went back to Miðfell and moved again in 1847 to the parish of Hruni where she was registered as a servant in Hrunakrókur from 1847-50 moving within the same parish in the early 1850’s to Bryðjuholt where she was still registered as a servant in the 1855 census.

In 1816 16 year old Gróa Bjarnadóttir was also in Southern Iceland in the parish of Hruni as a servant at the farm Efrasel. From 1819-22 she moved to Berghylur in the same parish. From 1822-28 Gróa moved to Skipholt in the neighbouring parish of Tungfell. From 1829-1840 she doesn’t show up in the records but in 1840 was registered as a housekeeper in Gröf in the parish of Hruni. She remained at Gröf but after 1855 as a servant. In 1860 she was a servant at Þverspyrna still in the parish of Hruni, Southern Iceland and her final years were at Haukholt in Tungufell where she died in 1864.[3]

There were many reasons why people chose to move; to be near friends or family, to follow a good employer as they changed farm, for better wages and conditions or aging servants may not have had their contracts renewed, others could be sacked though not always with impunity.

'In 1916 Guðrún Þorleifsdóttir was sacked her for refusing to act as an unpaid servant to the local merchant in her free time. Guðrún had been hired to work in the hay and had brought her very young baby with her as was usual, and so argued that at the end of her working day she could expect to be free look after her child and herself. The farmer argued that she had to serve the merchant because the farm women had always done so. The farmer threatened to take her to court but let her off with just being sacked and turned out of the house. In January 1917 the Court found in Guðrún’s favour and the farmer had to pay her severance compensation.' 

Women in Iceland have never been a 'reserve army of labour'. However little they have been paid in money or board and lodgings, and however bad their conditions, they have lived by their work and when new opportunities came with fish and urbanisation they seized them with both hands.


[1] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930 pg 79

  [2] Loftur Guttormsson cited Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930pg 60

[3] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland1801-1930pg 82

Tuesday 27 March 2012

New Life Breathed into The old Co-op

The oldest building in the East coast village of Breiðdalsvík is the old Co-op built in 1906. It was the merchant's outpost serving the multiple, relatively small farms that in the 19th Cent filled the parish of Eydalir in the enormous broad valley, Breiðdalur. This is the building that in its run down state had become the foreigners’ house that we migrant workers lived in 1986.

The old Co-op 1986 with its rusty red roof

Now the old Co-op, which shortly after it was built looked like this,

Gamla Kaupfélagið

has been refurbished as a centre for trekking, historical and geological research and now looks like this.

Gamla Kaupfélagið

See Breiðdalsvík’s website for photos of the restoration of the house