To the Working Men of Europe in 1877
Source: in The Labor Standard, March 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31, 1878;
The past year has been an eventful and a fruitful one for the Working Class of Europe. Great progress has been made in almost all countries with regard to the organization and extension of a Workingmen’s Party; unity, threatened at one time by a small but active sect, has been virtually restored; the working-class movement has forced itself more and more into the foreground of every-day politics, and, a sure sign of approaching triumph, political events, no matter what turn they took, always turned out, in some way or other, favorable to the progress of that movement.
At its very outset, the year 1877 was inaugurated by one of the greatest victories ever gained by workingmen. On the 10th of January, the triennial elections, by universal suffrage, for the German Parliament (Reichstag) took place; elections which, ever since 1867, have given the German Workingmen’s Party an opportunity of counting their strength and parading before the world their well organized and ever increasing battalions. In 1874, four hundred thousand votes fell to the candidates of labor; in 1877, more than six hundred thousand. Ten workingmen candidates were elected on the 10th, while twenty-four more had to be ballotted for in the supplementary elections which took place a fortnight after. Of these twenty-four, only a few were actually returned, all other parties uniting against them. But the important fact remained, that in all the large towns and industrial centres of the Empire the working-class movement had advanced with giant strides, and that all these electoral districts were certain to fall into their hands at the next ballotting in 1880. Berlin, Dresden, the whole of the Saxon manufacturing districts, and Solingen had been conquered; in Hamburg, Breslau, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Brunswick, in Schleswig-Holstein and the manufacturing districts of Westfalia and the Lower Rhine, a coalition of all the parties had scarcely sufficed to defeat the working-class candidates by bare majorities. German democratic socialism was a power, and a rapidly growing one, with which henceforth all other powers in the country, governing or otherwise, would have to reckon. The effect of these elections was enormous. The middle class were seized with a perfect panic, all the more so as their press had constantly represented social democracy as dwindling down into insignificance. The working class, elated at their own victory, continued the struggle with renewed vigor and upon every available battlefield; while the workingmen of other countries, as we shall see, not only celebrated the victory of the Germans as a triumph of their own, but were stimulated by it to fresh exertions in order not to be left behind in the race for the emancipation of labor.
The rapid progress of the Workingmen’s Party in Germany is not bought without considerable sacrifices on the part of those who take a more active part in it. Government prosecutions and sentences of fine, and oftener of imprisonment, hail down upon them, and they have long since had to make up their minds to passing the greater part of their lives in prison. Although most of these sentences are for short terms, a couple of weeks to three months, long terms are by no means of rare infliction. Thus, in order to protect the important mining and manufacturing district of Saarbrucken from the infection by social democratic poison, two agitators have recently been sentenced to two years and a half each, for having ventured upon this forbidden ground. The elastic laws of the Empire offer plenty of pretexts for such measures, and where they are not sufficient, the judges are mostly quite willing to stretch them to the point required for a conviction.
A great advantage to the German movement is that the Trades’ organization works hand in hand with the political organization. The immediate advantages offered by the Trades’ organization draw many an otherwise indifferent man into the political movement, while the community of political action holds together, and assures mutual support to, the otherwise isolated Trades Unions.
The success obtained in the elections to the German Parliament has encouraged our German friends to try their chance on other electoral fields. Thus, in two of the State Parliaments, in the smaller States of the Empire, they have succeeded in electing workingmen, and have also penetrated into a good many Town Councils; in the Saxon manufacturing districts, many a town is governed by a social democratic Council. The suffrage being restricted in these elections, no great result can be hoped for; still, every seat carried, helps to prove to the governments and the middle class that henceforth they will have to reckon with the workingmen.
But the best proof of the rapid advance of conscious workingclass organization is in the growing number of its periodical organs in the press. And here we have to overstep the boundaries of Bismarck’s “Empire,” for the influence and action of German social democracy is in no ways limited by these. There were publishing in the German language on the 31st of December 1877, in all, not less than seventy-five periodicals in the service of the Workingmen’s Party. Of these in the German Empire 62 (amongst which 15 organs of as many Trades Unions), in Switzerland 3, in Austria 3, Hungary 1, America 6; 75 in all, more than the number of workingmen’s organs in all other languages put together.
After the battle of Sedan, in September 1870, the Executive Committee of the German Workingmen’s Party told their constituents that by the results of the war the centre of gravity of the European working-class movement had been shifted from France to Germany, and that the German workmen had thus become invested with a higher trust and with new responsibilities which required on their part renewed exertions. The year 1877 has proved the truth of this, and has proved, at the same time, the proletariat of Germany to have been in no wise inferior to the task of temporary leadership imposed upon it. Whatever mistakes some of the leaders may have made — and they are both numerous and manifold — the masses themselves have marched onwards resolutely, unhesitatingly and in the right direction. Their conduct, organization and discipline, form a marked contrast to the weakness. irresolution, servility and cowardice so characteristic of all middle-class movements in Germany. But while the German middle class has closed its career by sinking down into a more than Byzantine adulation of “William the Victorious” and by surrendering itself, bound hand and foot to the wayward will of the one Bismarck, the working class is marching from victory to victory, helped onwards and strengthened even by the very measures which government and middle class contrive in order to suppress it.
Great as was the effect of the German elections in the country itself, it was far greater abroad. And in the first instance, it restored that harmony to the European working-class movement which had been disturbed, for the last six years, by the pretensions of a small but extremely busy sect.
Those of our readers who have followed the history of the International Workingmen’s Association, will recollect that, immediately after the fall of the Paris Commune, there arose dissensions in the midst of the great labor organization, which led to an open split, at the Hague Congress 1872, and to consequent disintegration. These dissensions were caused by a Russian, Bakounine, and his followers, pretending to supremacy, by fair means or by foul, over a body of which they formed but a small minority. Their chief nostrum was an objection, on principle, to all political action on the part of the working class; so much so, that in their eyes, to vote at an election, was to commit an act of treason against the interests of the proletariat. Nothing, but downright, violent revolution would they admit as means of action. From Switzerland, where these “anarchists,” as they called themselves, had first taken root, they spread to Italy and Spain, where, for a time, they actually dominated the working-class movement. They were more or less supported, within the “International,” by the Belgians, who, though from different motives, also declared in favor of political abstention. After the split they kept up a show of organization and held congresses, in which a couple of dozen men, always the same, pretending to represent the working class of all Europe, proclaimed their dogmas in its name. But already the German elections of 1874, and the great advantage which the German movement experienced from the presence of nine of its most active members in Parliament, had thrown elements of doubt in the midst of the “anarchists.” Political events had repressed the movement in Spain, b which disappeared without leaving scarcely a trace; in Switzerland the party in favor of political action, which worked hand in hand with the Germans, became stronger every day and soon outnumbered the few anarchists at the rate of 300 to I; in Italy, )2 after a childish attempt at “social revolution” (Bologna, 1874) at which neither the sense nor the pluck of the “anarchists” showed to advantage, the real working-class element began to look out for more rational means of action. In Belgium, the movement, thanks to the abstentionist policy of the leaders, which left the working class without any field for real action, had come to a dead stand. In fact, while the political action of the Germans led them from success to success, the working class of those countries, where abstention was the order of the day, suffered defeat after defeat, and got tired of a movement barren of results; their organizations dropped into oblivion, their press organs disappeared one after the other. The more sensible portion of these workmen could not but be struck by this contrast; rebellion against the “anarchist” and abstentionist doctrine broke out in Italy as well as in Belgium, and people began to ask themselves and each other, why for the sake of a stupid dogmatism they should be deprived of applying the very means of action which had proved itself the most efficacious of all. This was the state of things when the grand electoral victory of the Germans settled all doubts, overcame all hesitation. No resistance was possible against such a stubborn fact. Italy and Belgium declared for political action; the remnants of the Italian abstentionists, driven to despair, attempted another insurrection near Naples; some thirty anarchists proclaimed the “social revolution,” but were speedily taken care of by the police. All they attained was the complete breakdown of their own sectarian movement in Italy. Thus the anarchist organization, which had pretended to rule the working-class movement from one end of Europe to the other, was again reduced to its original nucleus, some two hundred men in the Jura district of Switzerland, where from the isolation of their mountain recesses, they continue to protest against the victorious heresy of the rest of the world, and to uphold the true orthodoxy as laid down by the Emperor Bakounine, now defunct. And when in September last the Universal Socialist Congress met at Ghent, in Belgium — a congress which they themselves had convoked — they found themselves an insignificant minority, face to face with the delegates of the united and unanimous great working-class organizations of Europe. The Congress, while energetically repudiating their ridiculous doctrines and their arrogant pretensions, and establishing the fact that they repudiated merely a small sect, extended to them, in the end, a generous toleration.
Thus, after a four years’ intestine struggle, complete harmony was restored to the action of the working class of Europe, and the policy proclaimed by the majority of the last Congress of the International was thoroughly vindicated by events. A basis was now recovered upon which the workingmen of the different European countries could again act firmly together, and give each other that mutual support which constitutes the principal strength of the movement. The International Workingmen’s Association had been rendered an impossi-[...] many, which forbade the workmen of these countries to enter into any such international bond. The Governments might have spared themselves all this trouble. The working-class movement had outgrown not only the necessity but even the possibility of any such formal bond; but not only has the work of the great Proletarian organization been fully accomplished, it continues to live itself, more powerful than ever, in the far stronger bond of union and solidarity, in the community of action and policy which now animates the working class of all Europe, and which is emphatically its own and its grandest work. There is plenty of variety of views amongst the workmen of the different countries, and even of those of each country taken by itself; but there are no longer any sects, no more pretensions to dogmatic orthodoxy and supremacy of doctrine, and there is a common plan of action originally traced by the International but now universally adopted because everywhere it has grown consciously or unconsciously out of the struggle of the necessities of the movement; a plan which, while adapting itself freely to the varying conditions of each nation and each locality, is nevertheless the same everywhere in its fundamental traits, and thus secures unity of purpose and general congruence of the means applied to obtain the common end, the emancipation of the working class through the working class itself.
In the preceding article, we have already foreshadowed the principal facts of interest connected with the history of the working-class movement in Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Belgium. Still, something remains to be told.
In Spain, the movement had rapidly extended between 1868 and 1872, when the International boasted of more than 30,000 paying members. But all this was more apparent than real, the result more of momentary excitement, brought on by the unsettled political state of the country than by real intellectual progress. Involved in the Cantonalist (federalist-republican) rising of 1873, the Spanish International was crushed along with it. For a time it continued in the shape of a secret society, of which, no doubt, a nucleus is still in existence. But as it has never given any sign of life save sending three delegates to the Ghent Congress, we are driven to the conclusion that these three delegates represent the Spanish working class much in the same way as whilom the three tailors of Tooley-street represented the People of England .149 And whenever a political revulsion will give the workingmen of Spain the possibility of again playing an active part, we may safely predict that the new departure will not come from these “anarchist” spouters, but from the small body of intelligent and energetic workmen who, in 1872, remained true to the International and who now bide their time instead of playing at secret conspiracy.
In Portugal the movement remained always free from the “anarchist” taint, and proceeded upon the same rational basis as in most other countries. The Portuguese workmen had numerous International sections and Trades’ Unions; they held a very successful Congress in January 1877, and had an excellent weekly: “O Protesto” (The Protest). Still, they too were hampered by adverse laws, restrictive of the press and of the right of association and public meeting. They keep struggling on for all that, and are now holding another Congress at Oporto, which will afford them an opportunity of showing to the world that the working class of Portugal takes its proper share in the great and universal struggle for the emancipation of labor.
The workmen of Italy, too, are much obstructed in their action by middle-class legislation. A number of special laws enacted under the pretext of suppressing brigandage and wide-spread secret brigand organizations, laws which give the government immense arbitrary powers, are unscrupulously applied to workmen’s associations; their more prominent members equally with brigands are subjected to police supervision and banishment without judge or jury. Still the movement proceeds, and, best sign of life, its centre of gravity has been shifted from the venerable, but half-dead cities of Romagna to the busy industrial and manufacturing towns of the North, a change which secured the predominance of the real working-class element over the host of “anarchist” interlopers of middle-class origin who previously had taken the lead. The workmen’s clubs and Trades’ Unions, ever broken up and dissolved by the government, are ever reformed under new names. The Proletarian Press, though many of its organs are but short-lived in consequence of the prosecutions, fines and sentences of imprisonment against the editors, springs up afresh after every defeat, and, in spite of all obstacles, counts several papers of comparatively old standing. Some of these organs, mostly ephemeral ones, still profess “anarchist” doctrines, but that fraction has given up all pretensions to rule the movement and is gradually dying out, along with the Mazzinian or middle-class Republican party, and every inch of ground lost by these two factions is so much ground won by the real and intelligent working-class movement.
In Belgium, too, the centre of gravity of working-class action has been shifted, and this action itself has undergone an important change in consequence. Up to 1875, this centre lay in the French-speaking part of the country, including Brussels, which is half French and half Flemish; the movement was, during this period, strongly influenced by Proudhonist doctrines, which also enjoin abstention from political interference, especially from elections. There remained, then, nothing but strikes, generally repressed by bloody intervention of the military, and meetings in which the old stock phrases were constantly repeated. The work-people got sick of this and the whole movement gradually fell asleep. But since 1875 the manufacturing towns of the Flemish-speaking portion entered into the struggle with a greater and, as was soon to be proved, a new spirit. In Belgium there are no factory laws whatever to limit the hours of labor of women or children; and the first cry of the factory voters of Ghent and neighborhood was for protection for their wives and children, who were made to slave fifteen and more hours a day in the Cotton Mills. The opposition of the Proudhonist doctrinaires who considered such trifles as far beneath the attention of men occupied with transcendent revolutionism, was of no avail, and was gradually overcome. The demand of legal protection for factory-children became one of the points of the Belgian working-class platform, and with it was broken the spell which hitherto had tabooed political action. The example of the Germans did the rest, and now the Belgian workmen, like those of Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Portugal, Hungary, Austria and part of Italy, are forming themselves into a political party, distinct from, and opposed to, all other political parties, and aiming at the conquest of their emancipation by whatever political action the situation may require.
The great mass of the Swiss workmen — the German-speaking portion of them — had for some years been formed into a “Workmen’s Confederation” which at the end of 1876 counted above 5,000 paying members. There was, alongside of them another organization, the “Grütli Society,” originally formed by the middle-class radicals for the spread of Radicalism amongst workmen and peasants; but gradually social democratic ideas penetrated into this widely-spread association and finally conquered it. In 1877, both these societies entered into an alliance, almost a fusion, for the purpose of organizing a Swiss political labor party; and with such vigor did they act that they carried, at the national vote, the new Swiss Factory Law, of all existing factory acts the one which is most favorable to the work-people. They are now organizing a vigilant supervision to secure its due execution against the loudly proclaimed ill-will of the mill owners. The “anarchists,” from their superior revolutionary standpoint, as a matter of course violently opposed all this action, denouncing it as a piece of arrant treason against what they call “the Revolution”; but as they number 200 at the outside and here as elsewhere are but a general staff of officers without an army, this made no difference. — The programme of the Swiss workingmen’s Party is almost identical with that of the Germans, only too identical, having adopted even some of its more imperfect and confused passages. But the mere wording of the programme matters little, so long as the spirit which dominates the movement, is of the right sort.
The Danish workingmen entered the lists about 1870 and at first made very rapid progress. By an alliance with the small peasant proprietors’ party, amongst which they succeeded in spreading their views, they attained considerable political influence, so much so that the “United Left,” of which the peasant party formed the nucleus, for a number of years had the majority in parliament. But there was more show than solidity in this rapid growth of the movement. One day it was found out that two of the leaders had disappeared after squandering the money collected for party purposes from the workingmen. The scandal caused by this was extreme, and the Danish movement has not yet recovered from the discouragement consequent upon it. Anyhow, if the Danish workingmen’s party is now proceeding in a more unobtrusive way than before, there is every reason to believe that it is gradually replacing the ephemeral and apparent domination over the masses, which it has now lost, by a more real and more lasting influence.
In Austria and Hungary the working class has the greatest difficulties to contend with. Political liberty, as far as the press, meetings and associations are concerned, is there reduced to the lowest level consistent with a sham constitutional monarchy. A code of laws of unheard-of elasticity enables the Government to obtain convictions against even the mildest expression of the demands and interests of the working class. And yet the movement there, as well as elsewhere, goes on irrepressibly. The principal centres are the manufacturing districts of Bohemia, Vienna, and Pesth. Workingmen’s periodicals are published in the German, the Bohemian and the Hungarian languages. From Hungary the movement has spread to Servia, where, before the war, a weekly newspaper was published in the Servian language, but when the war broke out the paper was simply suppressed.
Thus, wherever we look in Europe, the working-class movement is progressing, not only favorably but rapidly, and what is more, everywhere in the same spirit. Complete harmony is restored, and with it constant and regular intercourse, in one way or another, between the workmen of the different countries. The men who founded, in 1864, the International Working Men’s Association, who held high its banner during years of strife, first against external, then against internal foes, until political necessities even more than intestine feuds brought on disruption and seeming retirement — these men can now proudly exclaim: “The International has done its work; it has fully attained its grand aim — the union of the Proletariat of the whole world in the struggle against their oppressors.”
Our readers will have noticed that in the three preceding articles there has been scarcely any mention made of one of the most important countries of Europe — France, and for this reason: In the countries hitherto treated of, the action of the working class, though essentially a political action, is not intimately mixed up with general, or so to say official politics. The working class of Germany, Italy, Belgium etc., is not yet a political power in the State; it is a political power only prospectively, and if the official parties in some of these countries, Conservatives, Liberals, or Radicals, have to reckon with it, it is merely because its rapid onward progress makes it evident, that in a very short time the Proletarian party will be strong enough to make its influence felt. But in France it is different. The workmen of Paris, seconded by those of the large provincial towns, have ever since the great Revolution been a power in the State. They have been for nearly ninety years the fighting army of progress; at every great crisis of French history, they descended into the streets, armed themselves as best as they could, threw up barricades and provoked the battle, and it was their victory or defeat which decided the future of France for years to come. From 1789 to 1830, the revolutions of the middle class were fought out by the workmen of Paris; it was they who conquered the Republic in 1848, having mistaken that Republic to mean emancipation of labor, they were cruelly undeceived by the defeat inflicted on them, in June of the same year; they resisted on the barricades Louis Napoleon’s Coup d'État 1851 and were again defeated; they swept away in September 1870 the defunct Empire which the middle-class Radicals were too cowardly to touch. In March 1871 Thiers’ attempt to take away from them the arms with which they had defended Paris against foreign invasion, forced them into the revolution of the Commune and the protracted struggle which ended with its bloody extinction.
A national working class which thus, for nearly a century, not only has taken a decisive part in every crisis of the history of its own country, but at the same time has always been the advanced guard of European Revolution, such a working class cannot live the comparatively secluded life which is still the proper sphere of action of the rest of the continental workmen. Such a working class as that of France is bound to its past history and by its past history. Its history, no less than its acknowledged decisive fighting power, has mixed it up indissolubly with the general political development of the country. And thus, we cannot give a retrospect of the action of the French working class without entering into French politics generally.
Whether the French working class had been fighting its own battle or the battle of the Liberal, Radical, or Republican middle class, every defeat it suffered has hitherto been followed by an oppressive political reaction, as violent as it was enduring. Thus, the defeats of June 1848 and December 1851 were succeeded by the eighteen years of the Bonapartist Empire, during which the press was fettered, the right of meeting and of association suppressed and the working class consequently deprived of every means of inter-communication and organization. The necessary result was that when the revolution of September 1870 came, the workmen had no other men to put into office, but those middle-class radicals who under the Empire had formed the official parliamentary opposition and who as a matter of course betrayed them and their country. After the stamping-out of the Commune, the working class, disabled for years in their fighting power, had but one immediate interest: to avoid the recurrence of such another protracted reign of repression, and with it the necessity of again fighting, not for their own direct emancipation, but for a state of things permitting them to prepare for the final emancipatory struggle. Now, in France there are four great political parties: three monarchist, the Legitimists, Orleanists and Bonapartists, each with a separate pretender to the crown; and the Republican party. Whichever of the three pretenders were to ascend the throne, he would in every case be supported by a small minority only of the people, he would consequently have to rely upon force only. Thus, the reign of violence, the suppression of all public liberties and personal rights, which the working class must wish to avoid, was the necessary concomitant of every Monarchist restoration. On the other hand the maintenance of the established Republican government left them at least the chance of obtaining such a degree of personal and public liberty as would allow them to establish a working-class press, an agitation by meetings and an organization as an independent political party, and moreover, the conservation of the Republic would save them the necessity of delivering a separate battle for its future re-conquest.
It was thus another proof of the high instinctive political intelligence of the French working class, that as soon as, on the 16th May last, the great conspiracy of the three Monarchist factions declared war against the Republic, the workmen, one and all, proclaimed the maintenance of the Republic to be their chief immediate object. No doubt in this they acted as the tail of the middle-class Republicans and Radicals, but a working class which has no press, no meetings, no clubs, no political societies, what else can it be but the tail of the Radical middle-class party? What can it do, in order to gain its political independence, but support the only party which is bound to secure to the people generally, and therefore, to the workmen too, such liberties as will admit of independent organization?, Some people say, the workmen at the last election ought to have put up their own candidates, but even in those places where they could have done so successfully, where were the working-class candidates, well known enough amongst their own class to find the necessary support? Why, the government since the Commune have taken good care to arrest, as a participator in that insurrection, every workman who made himself known even by private agitation in his own district of Paris.
The victory of the Republicans at the elections last November was signal. It was followed by still more signal triumphs at the departmental, municipal and supplementary elections which followed it. The Monarchist conspiracy would, perhaps, not have given way for all that; but its hand was lamed by the unmistakable attitude of the army. Not only were there numerous Republican officers especially in the lower grades; but, what was more decisive, the mass of the soldiers refused to march against the Republic. That was the first result of the reorganization of the army, by which bought substitutes had been done away with and the army transformed into a fair representation of the young men of all classes. Thus, the conspiracy broke down without having to be broken up by force. And this, too, was much in the interest of the working class which, too weak yet after the blood-letting of 1871, can have no wish to waste again its greatest, its fighting power, in struggles for the benefit of others or to engage in a series of violent collisions before it has recovered its full strength.
But this Republican victory has yet another significance. It proves that since 1870 the country people have made a great step in advance. Hitherto, every working-class victory gained in Paris, was nullified in a very short time by the reactionist spirit of the small peasantry who form the great mass of the French population. Since the beginning of this century, the French peasantry had been Bonapartist. The second Republic, established by the Paris workingmen in February 1848, had been cancelled by the six million peasant votes given to Louis Napoleon in December following. But the Prussian invasion of 1870 has shaken the Imperialist faith of the peasantry, and the elections of November last prove that the mass of the country population had become Republican, and this is a change of the highest importance. It does not only mean that henceforth all Monarchist restoration has become hopeless in France. It means also the approaching alliance between the workingmen of the towns and the peasantry of the country. The small peasant proprietors established by the great Revolution are proprietors of the soil, but in name. Their farms are mortgaged to usurers; their crops are spent in the payment of interest and law-expenses; the notary, the attorney, the bailiff, the auctioneer are constantly threatening at their doors. Their position is fully as bad as that of the workingmen, and almost as insecure. And if these peasants now turn from Bonapartism to the Republic, they show by this that they no longer expect an improvement of their condition from those Imperialist miracles which Louis Napoleon ever promised and never performed. Thiers’ faith in the mysterious powers of salvation held by an “Emperor of peasants” has been rudely dispelled by the second Empire. The spell is broken. The French peasantry are at last in a state of mind rational enough to look out for the real causes of the chronic distress and for the practical means to do away with it; and once set a thinking they must soon find out that their only remedy lies in an alliance with the only class that has no interest in their present miserable condition, the working class of the town.
Thus, however contemptible the present Republican government of France may be, the final establishment of the Republic has at last given the French workingmen the ground upon which they can organize themselves as an independent political party, and fight their future battles, not for the benefit of others, but for their own; the ground, too, upon which they can unite with the hitherto hostile mass of the peasantry and thus render future victories not, as heretofore, short-lived triumphs of Paris over France, but final triumphs of all the oppressed classes of France, led by the workmen of Paris and the large provincial towns.
There is still another important European country to be considered — Russia. Not that there exists in Russia a working-class movement worth speaking of. But the internal and external circumstances in which Russia is placed are most peculiar and big with events of the highest importance with regard to the future, not only of the Russian workingmen, but those of all Europe.
In 1861 the government of Alexander II carried out the emancipation of the serfs, the transformation of the immense majority of the Russian people from bondsmen, attached to the soil and subject to forced labour for their landlord, into free peasant proprietors. This change, the necessity of which had long been evident, was effected in such a way that neither the former landlords nor the former serfs were the gainers by it. The peasant villages received allotments of soil, which henceforth were to be their own, while the landlords were to be paid for the value of the land thus ceded to the villages, and also, to a certain extent, for the claim they hitherto had possessed to the peasant’s labor. As the peasants evidently could not find the money to pay the landlords, the State stepped in. One portion of this payment was effected by transferring to the landlord a portion of the land hitherto cultivated by the peasants for their own account; the rest was paid in the shape of government bonds, advanced by the State, and to be repaid to it with interest, in yearly instalments, by the peasants. The majority of the landlords sold these bonds and spent the money; they are thus not only poorer than before, but cannot find laborers to till their estates, the peasants actually declining to work upon them and to leave their own fields uncultivated. As to the peasants, their shares of land had not only been reduced in size from what they had been before, and very often to an extent which, under Russian circumstances, left them insufficient to maintain a family; these shares had, in most instances, been taken from the very worst land on the estate, from bogs or other unclaimed lands, while the good land, hitherto owned by the peasants and improved by their labor, had been transferred to the landlords. Under these circumstances, the peasants, too, were considerably worse off than before; but besides this, they were expected to pay every year to the government the interest and part of the capital advanced by the State for buying them off, and, moreover, the taxes levied upon them increased from year to year. Furthermore, before emancipation, the peasants had possessed certain common rights on the estate lands of pasture for their cattle, the hewing of timber for building and other purposes, etc. These rights were expressly taken from them by the new settlement; if they wanted to exercise them again, they had to bargain with their former landlord.
Thus, while the majority of the landed proprietors became even more indebted, in consequence of the change, than they had been before, the peasantry were reduced to a position in which they could neither live nor die. The great act of emancipation, so universally extolled and glorified by the Liberal press of Europe, had created nothing but the groundwork and the absolute necessity of a future revolution.
This revolution, the government did all in its power to hasten on — the corruption pervading all official spheres, and leaving whatever power for good they might be supposed to possess — this hereditary corruption remained as bad as ever, and came to light glaringly in every public department at the outbreak of the Turkish war. The finances of the empire, completely disordered at the end of the Crimean war, were allowed to go from bad to worse. Loan after loan was contracted, until there was no other means of paying the interest of the old debts except by contracting new ones. During the first years of Alexander’s reign, the old imperial despotism had been somewhat relaxed; the press had been allowed more freedom, trial by jury established and representative bodies, elected by the nobility, the citizens of the towns, and the peasants respectively, had been permitted to take some share in local and provincial administration. Even with the Poles some political flirtation had been carried on. But the public had misunderstood the benevolent intentions of the government. The press became too outspoken. The juries actually acquitted political prisoners which the government had expected them to convict against evidence. The local and provincial assemblies, one and all, declared that the government, by its act of emancipation, had ruined the country, and that things could not go on in that way any longer. A national assembly was even hinted at as the only means of getting out of troubles fast becoming insupportable. And finally, the Poles refused to be bamboozled with fine words, and broke out into a rebellion which it took all the forces of the empire, and all the brutality of the Russian generals, to quell in torrents of blood. Then the government turned round again. Stern repression once more became the order of the day. The press was muzzled, the political prisoners were handed over to special courts, consisting of judges packed for the purpose, the local and provincial assemblies were ignored. But it was too late. The government, having once shown signs of fear, had lost its prestige. The belief in its stability, and in its power of absolutely crushing all internal resistance, had gone. The germ of a future public opinion had sprung up. The forces could not be brought back to the former implicit obedience to government dictation. Discussion of public matters, if only in private circles, had become a habit among the educated classes. And finally, the government, with all its desire to return to the unbridled despotism of the reign of Nicholas, still pretended to keep up, before the eyes of Europe, the appearances of the liberalism initiated by Alexander. The consequence was a system of vacillation and hesitation, of concessions made to-day and retracted to-morrow, to be again half-conceded and half-retracted in turns, a policy changing from hour to hour, bringing home to everybody the intrinsic weakness, the want of insight and of will, on the part of a government which was nothing unless it was possessed of a will and of the means to enforce it. What was more natural than that every day should increase the contempt felt for a government which, long since known to be powerless for good and obeyed only through fear, now proved that it doubted of its power of maintaining its own existence, that it had at least as much fear of the people as the people had of it? There was only one way of salvation for the Russian government, the way open to all governments brought face to face with overwhelming popular resistance — foreign war. And foreign war was resolved upon; a war, proclaimed before Europe as undertaken for the deliverance of Christians from protracted Turkish misrule, but proclaimed before the Russian people as carried on for the bringing home of their Slavonic brethren in race from Turkish bondage into the fold of the Holy Russian Empire.
This war, after months of inglorious defeat, has now come to an end through the equally inglorious crushing of Turkish resistance, partly by treachery, partly by immensely superior numbers. But the Russian conquest of the greater part of Turkey in Europe is itself only the prelude to a general European war. Either Russia, at the impending European Conference (if that Conference ever meets), will have to recede so much from the position now gained, that the disproportion between the immense sacrifices and the puny results must bring the popular discontent to a violent revolutionary outburst; or else, Russia will have to maintain her newly conquered position in a European war. More than half exhausted as she is already, her government cannot carry her through such a war — whatever may be its final result — without important popular concessions. Such concessions, in the face of a situation as that described above, mean the commencement of a revolution. From this revolution the Russian government cannot possibly escape, if even it may succeed in delaying its outbreak for a year or two. But a Russian revolution means more than a mere change of government in Russia herself. It means the disappearance of a vast, though unwieldy, military power which, ever since the French Revolution, has formed the backbone of the united despotisms of Europe. It means the emancipation of Germany from Prussia, for Prussia has already been the creature of Russia, and has only existed by leaning upon her. It means the emancipation of Poland. It means the awakening of the smaller Slavonic nationalities of Eastern Europe from the Panslavist dreams fostered among them by the present Russian government. And it means the beginning of an active national life among the Russian people themselves, and along with it the springing up of a real working-class movement in Russia. Altogether, it means such a change in the whole situation of Europe as must be hailed with joy — by the workingmen of every country as a giant step towards their common goal — the universal emancipation of Labor.
The International Workingmen’s Association
1864 - 1876