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  • Cannon Fodder for the RevolutionThe Russian Proletariat in 1917
  • Boris N. Mironov (bio)
    Translated by Nicholas Seay

According to Marxist theory, the working class represents the principal dynamic force of the revolution because of its important intrinsic qualities—namely, its discipline and capacity to organize, its sense of solidarity and collective spirit, and its ability to engage in collective action. The workers' most important quality, however, is their supposed understanding and mastery of the socialist creed (simvol sotsialisticheskoi very), which is itself understood to be the direct result of their class consciousness. A true proletarian understands the difference between capitalism and socialism, between bourgeois and socialist revolution, and he knows the path ahead. He also appreciates the leading role he is expected to play in the necessary destruction of capitalism and the building of socialism, fully aware of his calling as the obvious dominant power (gegemon) and vanguard of the revolution.

According to the tenets of Soviet historiography, the formation of the proletariat as a class in Marxist terms had been effectively accomplished in late tsarist Russia by the 1880s. By that time, workers were fully conscious of themselves as proletarians, which was regarded as the necessary proof that the class itself had come into being as a social formation. By 1917, this established social class was primed to carry out a socialist revolution and therefore readily assumed its appropriate leading role in the revolutionary movement. Following the end of the USSR in 1991, the problem of how the Russian working class actually became mobilized to do this predictably lost some of its urgency. Certain studies, however, continued to engage the topic and offered at least a partial revision of the standard Soviet position, suggesting that the workers coalesced as a class not in the 1880s but later, during World War I.1 [End Page 351]

As for historians writing outside the country, there has never been a Soviet-like consensus on the problem of the Russian working class. However, an influential school of social historical research nonetheless agreed that a bona fide working class had effectively formed by 1917 and that, by then, a significant share of workers had begun to self-identify as proletarians. Scholars from this school of thought acknowledged the legitimacy of the revolution based on the framework of modernization theory. The workers and the soldiers represented the driving force of the revolution, after all, not the Bolsheviks.2

Soviet historians reached their conclusions by combining deductive reasoning with Marxist definitions of the proletariat and socialist revolution. By contrast, non-Soviet specialists based their views on inductive reasoning drawn largely from empirical analysis. The logic of Soviet historians was straightforward: if the workers were the social group that played the most active role in overthrowing the monarchy and later the Provisional Government and were the most ardent in displaying their revolutionary fervor, then, naturally, they possessed a proletarian consciousness.

Using deductive reasoning to resolve historical questions, however, does not work. This is especially true when the original theory at issue is itself subject to serious doubt. The use of inductive reasoning, however, also has its limitations. The empirical material on which historians have drawn to support their conclusions about workers during the revolution, for example, rests solely on assessments of the workers' exterior involvement in revolutionary events. By contrast, their interior motivations, incentives, and [End Page 352] self-reflections as to how and why they engaged in revolution have generally been overlooked. Yet it is precisely such interior questions that are critical to understanding the extent to which workers endorsed socialist doctrine. The mere fact that a deviant act occurs is not enough to describe it as a "crime." One has to determine criminal intent, the offender's awareness of the criminal nature of his/her intent, and his/her participation in the crime. The case of the revolutionary nature of worker behavior is not much different. Their behavior was certainly revolutionary. But what motivations lay behind their actions? Were workers indeed acting out of a sense of proletarian consciousness, or were they instead operating according to a plebian-proletarian consciousness that included a predisposition toward anarchy, disorder, violence, and chaos, as has been suggested...


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pp. 351-370
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