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Russian factory workers 

The continuing industrialization accelerated the growth of the class of urban wageworkers. So novel was the class of factory workers to Russia that there was no legal provision to define its place in Russia’s social structure: in their passports the workers were referred to by the traditional labels as peasants or town dwellers. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Russian working class represented an excellent example of a destitute and exploited labor force, characteristic of the early stages of capitalist development described so powerfully by Marx in Capital. 

Workers’ wages were a quarter to a third of those in Western Europe; the proportion of well-paid workers was very small. The majority of Russian workers worked and lived in squalid conditions; hours of work were long, accident rates were high, and discipline was harsh. Not surprisingly, the Russian workers began to organize to better their lot. This restricted even further the bourgeoisie’s freedom of maneuver and made it even more predisposed to political compromise. It saw the autocracy as less of a threat to itself than the revolutionary-minded working class.

Despite Russia’s impressive economic growth, its per capita industrial production and per capita national income were still far behind the leading group of industrialized nations. Huge newly built modern industrial plants coexisted with thousands of small archaic mills. The agrarian sector remained dominant, and capitalist relations in agriculture developed at a slower pace due to the numerous vestiges of the old serfdom system. In 1913 only 18 percent of the population lived in towns, and industry still produced only 20 percent of national income. Russia was still a mainly agricultural, underdeveloped country.

Ultimately, it was the social and economic backwardness of the countryside that was to have the most fatal consequences. The pace of the development of capitalist relations in agriculture lagged far behind the rapid growth of industrial production. After 1907, the Stolypin plan authorized the destruction of the commune. The intention was to create a new class of independent, economically viable proprietors in the countryside attached to the principle of private property. This step, desirable as it was, was far too little and too late. The reform added new problems to the old by helping to stratify the peasant masses and creating hostility between different groups of peasants.

The government’s inability to regulate the relations between different social groups and to curb the excessive exploitation of wage labor forced the working masses to adopt a radical, revolutionary course of struggle for their legitimate demands. Russia’s peasants and workers lent a ready ear to the Bolshevik call “Expropriate the expropriators!” As for the middle class, it was too small to serve as a counterweight to radical, extremist slogans. The social explosion of February 1917 culminated in the inglorious collapse of the tsarist government and the end to the three-century-old rule of the Romanovs.

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