Socialist Worker

From peasants to workers

Issue No. 2286

Russia’s revolutionary movement at the turn of the century was shaped by the country’s large peasantry and small and historically young working class.

The left was mostly made up of disparate intellectual study groups. The most coherent organisation, the Narodniks, thought the way to overthrow the system was to use terrorism against the ruling class that would inspire the peasantry to rise up.

But it became clear that this strategy was flawed.

Acting as individuals had allowed the Narodniks to be singled out.

In 1887, many Narodnik leaders, including Lenin’s brother Aleksandr, were hanged for an assassination attempt on the Tsar.

Where the Narodniks had identified the peasantry as the revolutionary class, Marx argued that it was the working class who were the gravediggers of the system.

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), first formed in 1898, aimed to organise workers. It pulled together revolutionaries who were scattered across Russia.

The centrality of the working class as a force for revolutionary change was a key founding principle. It was a huge step forward for the revolutionary movement.

The emerging workers’ movement meant political differences arose quickly within the RSDLP.

In 1903 an argument over the definition of a member split it into two factions.

The Bolshevik faction believed that a member was someone who actively participates in the party.

The Mensheviks defined a member as someone who associated with the party.

The argument may seem technical.

But at the heart of it was the question what kind of party socialists should build—one with a large, passive membership, or one where every member is a leader.

This row sowed the seeds of the final break in 1912.

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Article information

Tue 17 Jan 2012, 18:12 GMT
Issue No. 2286
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