Union of Struggle for The Emancipation of Labor

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Although preceded by several smaller groups, the Union of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class was the first important Marxist revolutionary organization founded inside Russia in the 1890s. Established in 1895 in St. Petersburg, it adopted its permanent name in December of that year. Its twenty or so members, mainly students and student-age intellectuals, included future leaders of Social Democracy, the movement that gave birth to Bolshevism, Menshevism, and the October Revolution. Among them were Vladimir Ulyanov (Lenin), the future Bolshevik, and Iuly Tsederbaum (Martov), the future Menshevik. Some workers were associated with the Union, but not with membership rights.

During its first years the Union's most noteworthy activity was the distribution of agitational leaflets to Petersburg workers in support of their strike actions. As a matter of caution, the Union tended to avoid leaflets that were overtly political or revolutionary, but because strikes were still illegal, even leaflets confined to workers' economic grievances were treated as acts of rebellion by the police. In the winter of 18951896 and again that summer, the Union was weakened by arrests, anticipating many more arrests and hence frequent turnovers in its membership and a weakening of its effectiveness. Nevertheless, it continued functioning, and in early summer 1896 and January 1897 it played a major role in supporting the militant textile strikes that forced the government to recognize the power of workers and to reduce the length of the workday (law of June 2, 1897). During this period the Union spawned similar organizations in other cities and maintained contact with revolutionaries abroad.

In 1896 and 1897 the successes of the Petersburg workers' movement precipitated conflicts within the Union. Younger members (molodye ) believed that the time was ripe to open the organization's ranks to worker representatives chosen by participants in the grassroots labor movement, while the somewhat older "veterans" (stariki ), including exiled founders of the Union such as Lenin, while not opposing the admission of individual workers who met their political and ideological standards, balked at the admission of workers chosen by worker groups lest their presence dilute the Union's political ideology. Tensions over this issue persisted, but as Lenin and the stariki became less influential, the organization became increasingly worker-friendly. From 1898 to 1902 it was run mainly by worker-phile Marxists whose position was subjected to intense and exaggerated criticism by Lenin, Martov, and others, who accused it of economism. Although the influence of the Union waxed and waned, it managed to survive this period of internal disagreement, rivalry, and fragmentation among Russia's Marxists, remaining a focal point of organized Social Democracy in St. Petersburg. Until the summer of 1902, when it briefly and tentatively adhered to the organization "Iskra"then dominated by Leninist fears of worker spontaneitythe Union was mainly a close ally of workers' organizations. By 1903, however, its independent identity was lost, as its niche in the organizational life of Russian Marxism became indistinguishable from that of the Petersburg Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party.

See also: bolshevism; mensheviks; social democratic workers' party; workers


Frankel, Jonathan, ed. (1969). Vladimir Akimov on the Dilemmas of Russian Marxism, 18951903. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Haimson, Leopold H. (1955). The Russian Marxists and the Origins of Bolshevism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Keep, John L. H. (1963). The Rise of Social Democracy in Russia. London: Oxford University Press.

Pipes, Richard. (1963). Social Democracy and the St. Petersburg Labor Movement, 18851897. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wildman, Allan K. (1967). The Making of a Workers' Revolution: Russian Social Democracy, 18911903. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Reginald E. Zelnik

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Union of Struggle for The Emancipation of Labor