The Revolutionary Masses
discontent quickly spread to the whole of society and, in
particular, to its lower strata. ‘Down with autocracy!’ was the
revolutionary slogan and the battle cry that was supported and even
enthusiastically embraced by an ever growing part of the population.
The workers, in particular, became restless. They were no longer
prepared to put up with the outdated economic and legal conditions
of their existence. They had developed new cultural and material
needs, a feeling of human dignity and formidable class solidarity.
The workers’ movement now fought to resolve a broad range of vital
social and political issues. Its growing strength was revealed in
the dramatic increase in the volume of strikes - with more than
530,000 striking workers over the period of 1901-4.
unprecedented growth of working-class unrest, the workers, for the
most part, voiced their grievances and demands by means of strikes
and protests that would be regarded as legitimate and permissible by
the standards of civilized states. To the tsarist government,
however, such expressions of popular discontent appeared unlawful.
The Russian authorities interpreted the workers’ economic demands as
an attempt to alter the foundations of the existing order, and they
severely suppressed it.
Much of the
workers’ dissatisfaction arose from Russia’s lack of proper labor
legislation which would regulate relations between capitalists and
workers. There was no legal provision for the operation of
trade-unions, for national insurance for illness and work accidents,
or for a system of old-age pensions. If the government had had the
wisdom to give thought to comprehensive labor legislation of this
kind, it is possible that this policy might have diffused an
explosive social situation. However, such a policy would have
conflicted with the interests of the employers. Foreign investors in
particular demanded firm protection of their business interests in
Russia, and the government was reluctant to quarrel with them. It
found it easier to pursue its traditional policy of the suppression
of discontent instead.
As a result,
the government unwittingly forced the workers to adopt a more
radical, revolutionary course of struggle for their legitimate
demands. They began to establish closer links with the radical
intelligentsia and, first of all, with the Marxists. This new
alliance would rock the Romanovs’ empire to its foundations and
would ultimately destroy it. By dismissing the very possibility of
Western-type reformism in Russia, the government pushed the masses
to making ever more radical demands and taking revolutionary action.
In the early
twentieth century the popular anti-autocratic movement had entered a
new and crucial stage. It became nation-wide in scale and was
increasingly guided by the revolutionary parties as well as
organizations of a liberal-democratic orientation. The situation was
pregnant with cataclysmic consequences. The social, political and
ethnic unrest which had been gathering in the preceding years
erupted in the First Russian Revolution of 1905.