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 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.

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