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).

Monday, 1 May 2017

Happy May Day - the international workers holiday

Happy May Day everyone, here's a 1931 May Day march led by Iceland's Communist Party in Reykjavik.

Friday, 28 April 2017

International Workers Memorial Day - Mourn the dead and fight like hell for the living

Today—28 April—is International Workers Memorial Day when workers and their trade unions round the world, remember everyone killed at work. It’s a day to mourn the dead and demand better health and safety, better conditions and that if the worst happens that employers accept responsibility and pay proper compensation to workers’ families.

The history of fatal and serious accidents for every countries’ workers is very long. In Iceland, the highest numbers of deaths were probably amongst fishers—men and women—who were most likely to drown or die of cold. But farm workers also got killed collecting “scurvy grass” from cliffs, which was needed for its vitamin C. Women, whose work was washing clothes in rivers or geothermal hot water pools, drowned or suffered fatal burns.

Terrible conditions and weather caused accidents and often people assume these are historical events and don’t happen now. But in February this year one man was hospitalised and another died when hydrogen sulphide and carbon monoxide got into their accommodation through the water supply of the fish factory that employed them in Reykjanes, South West Iceland.

A worker running the Bæjarins bestu hot dogs kiosk in Reykjavik last September narrowly escaped being crushed when a crane from the building site adjacent collapsed against the door of the small building. The timber that the crane was carrying landed in the carp park next to it and Bæjarins bestu’s staff member had to get out by climbing through the window.

And in April last year fisherman Ólaf­ur Jó­hann­es Friðriks­son died when he fell overboard from a fishing boat in Húnaflói bay, Northwest Iceland.

It is easy to say accidents will always happen, but they are much more likely where workers are pushed to speed up, where companies cut corners to save money or small fishing boats lack the latest safety equipment.  Internationally there is a growing problem of suicide among workers and small farmers driven to despair by overwork and too little pay.

Trade unionised work places are safer workplaces. But to drastically reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries suffered at work, we are going to have to challenge the system that puts profit before safety and ordinary people’s lives, wherever they are.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

When news of the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution reached Iceland

Copenhagen 15 March 1917[1]
Last Sunday revolution began in Russia. Parliament refused the Emperor’s order to dissolve. An elected committee of 12 MPs declared itself the new regime in Russia. The new government arrested all politicians loyal to the Emperor. Thirty thousand troops and people of Petrograd support the new government. In three days the new government has taken power in Petrograd and announced nationwide that the revolution is necessary to secure transport and a national food supply. Petrograd's food shortages have caused the revolution. The Duma (Russian parliament) established an executive committee with Rodzianko as chair. General strike in Moscow.

Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið published the telegram with news of the first victory of the Russian Revolution—the fall of Tsar Nicholas—on 17 March 1917, two days after the bloody dictator abdicated. That day, the most radical left wingers of the Social Democrats in Reykjavik set up the Reykjavik Union of Socialists, Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavikur to work for socialism in Iceland.

The fall of the Russian dictator (left) and the price of bread (right),
push adverts off the front page

Socialist ideas were not new idea in Iceland. The first left wing paper published there— Alþýðublaðið, The People's Paper—edited by Pétur Georg Guðmundsson, came out in 1906 and socialist newspaper Dagsbrún, edited by Ólafur Friðriksson, started in 1915. Dagsbrún was bought in 1917 by Iceland’s Social Democratic Party, Alþýðuflokkurinn which was set up in 1916 to represent the trade unions, but almost immediately some of its members were discussing setting up a more radical group of socialists within it.

Russia’s revolution was the impetus they needed. Einar Olgeirsson says in his memoir, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar that the founding meeting of Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur was held in Bárubúð, the hall owned by the Seaman’s Union, Báran, on Vonarstræti, where Reykjavik City Hall is now. The group grew rapidly with a mixture of people who called themselves social democrats, communists and others who were somewhere in between and included lots of seamen[2].

Many of those joining Jafnaðarmannafélag Reykjavíkur went on to become leading socialists nationwide and in the trade unions. Einar Olgeirsson who was then 14 years old, became a leading member of Iceland’s Communist Party (ICP) founded in 1930 and was elected an ICP member of parliament.

The First World War

Despite the initial popularity of the First World War in Europe, its reality—the mass slaughter of young working class men, hunger and the indifference of their rulers meant that socialist ideas were spreading. In Iceland, news of the war was followed closely in the newspapers and newsreels in Reykjavik's cinemas, such as Gamla Bíó where the film, Battle of the Somme was shown three times a day from Sunday 11 March 1917. The film was made in 1916 shortly after the battle by Britain's War Office official photographers as propaganda for the Allies, but it shocked its audiences with the reality of the slaughter.

The war was also a disaster for ordinary people in Iceland. By 1914 the country’s economy was integrated into the world markets that the war had smashed up. Salt fish exports to Spain were disrupted, unemployment, hunger and shortages of essentials including heating oil, grew with the British and German attacks on shipping.

Morgunblaðið reported the calculations of the quarterly statistical paper Hagtíðindin of the price increases in Iceland's staple goods—80 percent on average, since the beginning of the war.

Price rises July 1914 – January 1917

65 %
Garden fruit & vegetables
Other fruit
Tea, chocolate, cocoa
Butter and fat
Milk, cheese and eggs
Bacon & salted lamb
Soda and salt

As the war dragged on, Dagsbrún, defined cheap as "an ancient word, no longer in use" and buying sugar as, "to stand about idly without success".

Thousands of Icelanders were colder and hungrier and wanted to change their lives.

News of the first week of the revolution reached Iceland in bits and pieces—the Russian emperor was in prison, his brother Michael had taken his place, an article considered the profound effects this must have on the Duma, the token parliament, which now, it said, held power. What about Russian politicians, Rodzianko, the serious thinker and his enemy the reactionary Protopopov? And Nicholas wanted to hand power to his young son.

In the first weeks of the revolution it appears that Icelanders didn't know that women in Russia marching for peace and bread on International Working Women's Day had sparked the movement that toppled the Tsar. Icelanders in Denmark may have heard, but letters home were censored by the British military. Still a Reykjavik newspaper quoted the paper of the Young Socialists in Stockholm saying Russia wanted to make an independent peace with Germany and had sent officials to Switzerland to negotiate.

Then the provisional government announced that political prisoners were to be freed, there was to be free speech and freedom of the press. A representative government would be established with free general elections and the old police force would be replaced by a citizens militia answerable to parliament. 

Kerensky, the minister of justice said that the old government would be held accountable for their crimes against the people but none of them would be condemned without a trial.

The allied powers, the news said, welcomed the revolution because they wanted to see Russia waging the war efficiently. The London papers embraced the new developments and only saw a risk in riled up Russian workers being distracted from war production. Leaders in England sent telegrams to the provisional government about it.

Women march for bread and peace in Russia 1917
on International Working Women's Day,
23 February Old Style and 8 March New Style 

The shock waves from revolutionary Russia in that first week gave millions of people the hope that life could be better than poverty and endless work. In underdeveloped Iceland, with its few small towns, isolated farmsteads and fishing stations, the revolutionaries' ideas and victories were to become the catalyst for trade unions, socialist and communist groups to mushroom in its poor soil.
In future posts, I'll be looking at the Icelanders who travelled to revolutionary Russia to learn from it and how their experiences came to shape generations of militant workers in Iceland.

[1] Russia used the Julian or Old Style calendar until 24 January 1918, which was 13 days behind, so 15 March in Europe and the United States was 24 February in Russia. To change to the Gregorian calander or New Style, add 13 days. 
[2] One Miraculous Generation, Kraftaverk Einnar Kynslóðar, Mál og Menning, p30.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Eight week fisheries strike bites hard as Iceland's establishment gets rattled

Icelandic fishers have been striking for two months and a report published yesterday by Iceland's Fisheries minister, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir shows just how much fishing is really worth to the government and employers.

Fisheries minister Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir

The report notes that since the start of the strike on 14 December 2016:
  • The production and export of fresh whitefish has dropped by 40-55 percent and export revenue is down by 3500-5000 million Icelandic króna (ISK)
  • Some 312 million ISK in unemployment benefit has had to be paid out and contributions to the unemployment fund paid by workers are down by 126 million
  • The treasury is losing tax and fishing fees
  • Central and local government income has been hit by 3,565 million ISK, of which 2,998 million would have come from fishers and 567 million from fish processing workers 
  • If the strike were to continue over the capelin fishing season it would cost the economy a further billion ISK
The report also notes how much fishing workers are sacrificing to fight for their terms and conditions, as their disposable income has dropped 3,573 million ISK and the fish processing workers' income is down 818 million. If the fishing unions had united and stayed out indefinitely as planned from 10 November last year, the workers' could have won weeks ago. But it looks as though Iceland's ruling class is trying to find a way to end the strike and save face.

Páll Magnússon, head of the parliament, the Alþingi, Industrial Affairs Committee was interviewed by state broadcaster RUV last week. It was remarkable enough that he said that the government could intervene without banning the strike. Iceland governments have made fishing strikes illegal before but it appears to recognise now that the well of bitterness beneath this strike is too deep to risk banning it. Instead he suggested that fishers' food allowance could partly be treated as a travel allowance and not fully taxed.

Former Minister of Fisheries and Agriculture Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, also raised the idea of reinstating fishers' tax breaks. These tax breaks, before they were abolished, went some way to recognise that fishing is hard and dangerous and makes huge amounts of profit for exporters and processing plant owners.

Remember president of seafood producers Samherji, Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson? He wrote an article saying Icelandic fishers earn £100,000s a year and are better off than their Norwegian counterparts. He was also Chair of Glitnir investment bank when it went belly-up in 2008 and an article published in Iceland last year said that Þorsteinn Már and his ex-wife Helga S. Guðmundsdóttir had been paid some 3.5 billion ISK over the last six years from the company Steinn Ehf. which holds their shares in Samherji. These enormous profits, journalist Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmsson said amounted to nearly 6.5 percent of 2015's budget for the National Hospital in Reykjavik and almost 65 percent of the revenue of Iceland's National Radio or the wages of 13,500 people on the minimum wage in 2016.

The CEO of Grimsby fish market Martyn Boyers knew this strike would hit profits quickly, back in November 2016 he said,
It is not permanent, but it is a bad thing. Because of the way the system works we have fish on its way. It won't affect this week but it will the week after. The biggest issue is we don't know how long it will be. Will it be a day and they'll be back fishing tomorrow? Could it be a week?, A month? It will not be permanent, but the way business works now there won't be a really good period to cover the bad.
Boyers also pointed out that Norway, Ireland and Scotland would not be able to fill the gap left by the strike and said that the Grimsby Fish Merchants Association would be trying to put pressure on the Icelandic government to get the employers and unions to end the strike. 

Whatever pressure they have tried has not worked. Boyars was quoted in an article in British newspaper The Guardian yesterday.
Since January we have had virtually no Icelandic fish. We are currently down 75% on Icelandic fish in weight terms over the last five weeks. It’s putting pressure on jobs in the supply chain and availability in shops.
The Guardian is a middle class newspaper, which explains why the article is mostly most worried about the price of fish and the shortage of courgettes in Britain due to cold weather in Spain. Leaving aside this editorial idiocy, Fisheries minister, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir's report may have be intended to load pressure on the strikers but it also clearly shows that this strike can be won.