On November 8th, 2014 Workers Unity Trade Union and the 505 Army Bays Workshop Employees Union jointly organised a gathering of workers, trade unionists and activists in Delhi to revisit the role of trade unions in the Great October Socialist Revolution and to understand the present crisis in the trade union movement in India.
The meeting was chaired by Kuldip Singh of the Marxist Communist Party of India (United).Amongst the speakers were Padam Kumar and Ali Sher from the Workers Unity Trade Union; Mukesh Jatav of the 505 Army Bays Workshop Employees Union; Gautam Mody, General Secretary of the New Trade Union Initiative; Aurobindo Ghose, Advocate; S.A. Azad of the Nirman Mazdoor Shakti Sangathan.
Here we give a summary of the talk of Dr. Tripta Wahi. It is planned to publish in future the talks of other speakers.
Dr. Tripta Wahi began by laying out the theoretical pillars of a Marxist understanding of the capitalist system. She emphasised the inherent contradiction between the producer or worker and capitalist. The current world is divided along the lines of the sellers of labour power (workers) and the appropriators of labour. Since the relationship involves the appropriation by one from the other it is necessarily an antagonistic one. This basic fact of the current structural juncture is often ignored. The October revolution must be thought of as a historical element and that to learn from it one needs to understand it as a historical culmination of several processes and elements at work. Thus, it becomes necessary to trace the historical origins of the Bolshevik revolution from the beginning of capitalist enterprise in Russia and its relationship with the enterprises in Western Europe. Along with a tracing of the growth of capitalism one also needs to trace the moments and movements of struggle against it by the workers of Russia. After underlining the need for a historical understanding, the speaker went on to explore the role of the trade union movement in the making of the October Revolution.
Capitalism began to take root in Russia around a hundred and fifty years ago in the mid nineteenth century. It arrived late in Russia when compared to western Europe which had seen capitalist development for around fifty years prior to its arrival in Russia. Russia, at this juncture, was primarily a peasant nation and was bound by the fetters of feudalism and tsarism. Capitalism arrived in Russia from outside and it exploited the old means of surplus appropriation and invented new forms of appropriation as well. As capital began to enter Russia a process of modernisation was initiated which transformed the physical landscape of Russia. One of the major developments that took place were in the sphere of transport through the coming of the railways and roadways. The capitalist enterprises appropriated through investing in the building of the railways and taking heavy interest for the same.
Along with the railways came the mills and along with the mills came the proletariat. The workers in the mills served under unimaginable conditions. They were rarely paid their full salary as “fines” were used regularly by the management to cut into the worker’s wages. Additionally, the workers worked for 12-16 hours a day. The strikes in the mills till 1880 happened without the help of trade unions, for example, the 1875 strike which covered around 5-6 mills, which took place without the assistance of a union, demanded that the full income be paid, fines be reduced and that better conditions of work be organized for children. Soon, however, strikes became illegal.
The form of exploitation at that historical juncture was a combination of the capitalist and feudal. Workers struggle took place but the workers, till now, had not begun to grasp the nature of the capitalist system and the basis of its exploitation. But soon a new life force entered the Russian world to take its working class towards emancipation- Marxism. Marxism is a scientific method of analysis which explained the basis of capitalist exploitation. It entered Russia slowly and in different ways. The first Russian translation of Marx’s Das Kapital came out in 1872 and some Russian comrades attended the First International. Marxism also spread through the several study groups (150-200) which were initiated in Russia. Slowly a consensus was born that Tsarism needed to be destroyed for the progress of the country.
Russian Workers Union was born in 1875 and the Northern Union of Russian Workers began to place demands of better living and working conditions. However along with the growth in the struggle for working and living conditions the need arose to develop a revolutionary consciousness. Worker’s newspapers and pamphlets were used for this purpose. Workers Dawn was one of the first such papers. It focused on criticizing political policies and demanded the freedom to speak as this freedom is fundamental to the development of working class politics. The strike of 1885 and the court case that followed it was a landmark event in the development of working class politics and the trade union movement. The strike was declared illegal by the management and a case was fought in the court. This allowed the issues of the workers and their experiences of work to be shared in a public platform. The jury was sympathetic to the strikers and declared it legal.
As industrialization and the railways progressed between 1890 and 1895 so did working class politics. Fragmented strikes and unions in different factories began to come together in the period to lead to the national strike in which two lakh and twenty-one thousand workers struck work all over the country. For the first time in its history the working class of Russia spoke and acted as a national working class and not just as a fragmented and particular community. They demanded reduction in the hours of work and increase in wages. Lenin was instrumental in this strike. The Tsar finally succumbed to the force of the working class and agreed to the demands.
As working class activity was on the rise a paper was needed to steer it. Pravda was initiated in 1902 and several revolutionaries began to distribute papers and to read Capital to workers in factories. Till the first Russian revolution in 1905 the strikes intensified. However, after 1905 the workers were met with heavy repression and from 1906 to 1910 the strikes declined in frequency and intensity. After 1910, annual strikes came back due to the economic crisis.
The role of the Bolsheviks was extremely important in the coming years as they were the ones who organized and gave direction to the working class activities and allowed for the development of trade union consciousness to revolutionary consciousness.
The February Revolution which led to the end of Tsarism was the result of the dynamics of a strong contradiction in Russian society. But the provisional government that was formed was supported both by capitalist and feudal elements and supported them in turn. It was the linkages that the Bolshevik party formed with the soviets and other unions in Russia that allowed for the October Revolution to become a reality. It was Lenin and his comrades who allowed the development of revolutionary consciousness in the Soviets which in turn led to the capture of state power in the October Revolution. But Tripta Wahi also brought our attention to the role played by the different workers unions. The railway workers, for example, blocked the counter-revolution by cutting the railway lines. Sections of the armed forces were instrumental in the struggle.
The speaker ended her presentation by underlining the need for workers to have a medium through which they can understand both society and the context in which they are living.
The speaker taught History at Hindu College, University of Delhi.Click here to return to the April 2015 index.