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  • The Workers Question and Revolutionary Gamesmanship in 1917
  • Boris N. Mironov (bio)
    Translated by Jan M. Surer

The Russian people did not like Tsar Nicholas II and got it into their heads to remove him. The tsar carried out the desire of the people and abdicated. Having received freedom, the people began to rob and kill each other.

On the first of March tsarism was overthrown, and the Provisional Government took its place. But it soon reduced Russia to an impossible state.

—From essays submitted by students in the lower grades of a Moscow gymnasium, 19171

The comments offered by my discussants are at once interesting and open to debate. All three wish I had engaged a greater number of issues in the article and gone into greater detail, but it is simply not possible in a text of 7,000 words to take on the entire issue of the history of the working class. The specific objective of my article determined its perspective and focus, which was primarily to show the untenability of the Marxist claim that the workers represented the most progressive class in Russian society in the early 20th century. Naturally I focused on those themes that seemed most pertinent to this particular question. Thus I paid special attention to the workers' cultural level, because I see this as having been critical in determining their mental outlook, their ability to assimilate Marxist ideas, and their ability to serve as leaders of the revolutionary movement. My interest in describing the workers' social marginality as well as their age, gender, and family profile stems from the fact that these factors, too, help us understand their mentality. I devoted considerable space to their length of employment, social origin, and ties to the village for the same reason. [End Page 401]

It is important to distinguish between the transformation of workers into a social class in generic sociological terms—that is, as one part of the broader process of the creation of an industrial society—and the formation of the proletariat as a class in the Marxist sense. Like any other social class, workers possess a distinct status, power, material position, education, and way of life. They have an image of themselves as well as of other groups and the broader social hierarchy around them. They may even perceive the need and the means to change their social circumstances. But their ideology need not necessarily be pro-Marxist.2

Russian workers in the early 20th century did not possess all the essential characteristics of a class not only in the Marxist sense but also in the general sociological meaning of the term. Their community did not have well-defined social boundaries. Their class identity was also problematic from the perspective of self-identification and cross-identification. By law individual workers did not possess equal rights either in their own milieu or beyond it. Instead, their rights and obligations were those of their estates of origin, and they indeed took their origin from all the social estates of the empire, including the nobility and clergy. The majority of workers characterized themselves in estate terms, while other social groups perceived them (and themselves) in the same way.3 This was because a class-based society was only just coming into being in the late imperial decades. Meanwhile, for workers to have acquired a class-based identity the classes around them would have to have acquired this class-based outlook as well. The prevailing age and gender structure among working people was such that Russian workers could not reproduce themselves, demographically speaking, which further compounded the situation. The ranks of the workers, in effect, always needed replenishment, and these new members came largely from the village. Furthermore, those working people who managed to obtain more education and move higher up the social ladder ultimately ceased to be employed as workers. This upward social mobility also impeded the workers' maturation as a social class.

Sarah Badcock's critique reflects the values of traditional historical research—that is, the importance that all historians place on drawing from and speaking to one's sources and of reasoning from the particular to the general. Hence her deep...


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pp. 401-415
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