Common Work: Considering 1917 in 2017

Common Work: Considering 1917 in 2017


An audio version of this article is available on SoundCloud

This centenary of Red October is an opportunity to remember the element of the October Revolution of 1917 that is most often overlooked: the anonymous thousands of advanced workers and party members who carried out the proletarian revolution and organized the inauguration of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Workers like Ivan Babushkin:

He was a factory worker

He was a member of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party

He agitated in the factories, organizing party committees and labor organizations

He did time in prison and internal exile

He was shot dead by a punitive expedition

In his obituary for Babushkin, Lenin called him, “the pride of the Party.” Babushkin’s name would be invoked by Lenin several times after his death, including in the well-known pamphlet, “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” where he wrote:

“Under tsarism we had no “legal opportunities” whatsoever until 1905. However, when Zubatov, agent of the secret police, organized Black-Hundred workers’ assemblies and workingmen’s societies for the purpose of trapping revolutionaries and combating them, we sent members of our Party to these assemblies and into these societies (I personally remember one of them, Comrade Babushkin, a leading St. Petersburg factory worker, shot by order of the tsar’s generals in 1906). They established contacts with the masses, were able to carry on their agitation, and succeeded in wresting workers from the influence of Zubatov’s agents” (Chapter 7, ‘Should Revolutionaries Work in Reactionary Trade Unions?’)

Babushkin is also mentioned by name in later prominent works, such as The History of the All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik): Short Course, and an official biography was written by Cecilia Bobrovskaya in 1932 and translated by the Communist International into many languages. Bobrovskaya is best remembered for her memoir Twenty Years in Underground Russia: Memoirs of a Rank and File Bolshevik, published in 1934, and her nearly 60 years spent as an Old Bolshevik through all prevailing political environments in Russia and later the Soviet Union. Despite such works being written and published at the peak of the Stalin years in the Communist Party, the details of Babushkin’s life included in both the Short Course and the official biography are confirmed by Lenin’s much earlier biographical sketches of Babushkin and the written works of other well known figures in the party in the 1930’s who were political opponents of Stalin (like Preobrazhensky).

The reason Babushkin was named in such high profile works for so many years after his death was because he represented the archetypal party member. But more than that, he was a formative personification of the party of a new type.

Babushkin was shot 11 years before the October Revolution. Nevertheless, he is directly relevant to the story of October because the revolution was an outcome of the preceding 25 years of deliberate organizing and common work before 1917. 

His introduction to the organized socialist movement was through a legally existing workers’ school in St. Petersburg in 1892, which was organized and tutored by revolutionaries. One of his teachers was Nadya Krupskaya, a future Bolshevik cadre and Lenin’s future wife. It was through his contacts at the workers’ school that Babushkin joined a Marxist circle in St Petersburg in 1893—led by Lenin. He is credited with drafting and then disseminating the very first agitational leaflet from Marxists to factory workers in Russia in 1894. When the St Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working-Class was formed in 1895 through the merger of the dozens of Marxist circles in the city, Babushkin was its model member.

Later that year, Lenin and the leading group of the League were arrested, and Babushkin continued to write and distribute leaflets, engaging in agitation and organizing work on behalf of the League. Shortly thereafter, he too was arrested and eventually sentenced to internal exile. In exile in Ekaterinoslav, Babushkin organized a local branch of the League of Struggle and continued his revolutionary activities.

When Lenin organized Iskra, Babushkin became the first worker-correspondent for the newspaper, writing articles for it, distributing the press and using the paper as an organizing tool. After the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was formed, Lenin sent him to St Petersburg to carry on a struggle against economism in the local party committee.

When the revolution of 1905 broke out, Babushkin was at that time serving another sentence of internal exile in Siberia. In December of that year, he was working in Chita (where the armed insurrection had not yet been crushed by the Tsar) when he was dispatched to re-establish a party committee in Irkutsk. It was on the way to Irkutsk that a punitive expedition killed him.

Babushkin’s personal development from an apolitical factory worker to a leading party member gives flesh and breath to the party of a new type. His personal working relationship with Lenin and a number of other (future) prominent Bolsheviks in the early days of the workers’ party in Russia allows him to serve as a representation of all of the more or less anonymous advanced workers and party members who carried out the tasks of constructing a workers’ party, developing the organization of the working-class and facilitating its revolutionary struggles.

Tens of thousands of advanced workers and party members whose names have been forgotten were responsible for the October Revolution. The relationship between members and leaders in the workers’ party was not one of a formless mass divorced from the theoretical, political and practical questions which occupied the leaders. The party was a complex of organizations and as such was actively constructed by revolutionaries in various stages of individual development.

Common Work

During the 3rd Congress of the Communist International, it was said that:

“The Communist Party should be a working school of revolutionary Marxism” (‘Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of their Work’, section III)

Common work is the basis of the simultaneous development of both individuals and the revolutionary organization. The Babushkin of 1892 was not capable of leading the theoretical-political struggle against economism in a party committee (as he would 10 years later) or facilitating an armed uprising (as he would 13 years later). In 1892 he was an apolitical factory worker just then being drawn into the orbit of revolutionary Marxism by means of an anti-government leaflet passed to him by a co-worker and, subsequently, accepting an invitation to study at a workers’ school on his day off. But the process of development which began with an anti-government leaflet and attendance at a workers’ school tutored by revolutionary Marxists not only cultivated Babushkin’s political maturation as an individual, but served the larger efforts at that time to form a revolutionary workers’ political party.

From the workers’ school, Babushkin’s initiative to seek out both like-minded and like-acting revolutionaries led him to a Marxist workers’ circle, where joint study, discussion and practical activity in the class struggle continued to raise the degree of his political maturation while contributing to that of the other members of the circle in a mutually reinforcing process. This common work included studying and discussing Capital and other Marxist texts, formulating content for leaflets which were then circulated in the factories and during strikes and participating in the political struggles over the question of revolutionary organization.

His pioneering role in the life of Iskra contributed directly to the struggle for the construction of a workers’ party in the Russian Empire. At the peak of his political maturation, Babushkin is said to have stood his ground in debates with Plekhanov, and he had become a veteran organizer, agitator, party member and insurrectionary—capable of initiating, participating in or leading theoretical, political, economic and physical struggles.

His relationship with Lenin began as one of leader and led when Babushkin was a new member of Lenin’s small workers’ circle in St Petersburg. But in a very short period of time, it can be said they became co-workers, and Babushkin’s strong influence on Lenin’s political development can be seen in both his posthumous appraisal of Babushkin as the pride of the Party and enduring references to him in works which were written over 15 years after his murder by the Tsarist generals.

There is nothing inherently unique to Babushkin’s story, other than his early association with the major figure of the proletarian revolution of October 1917. His personal political maturation and development as a revolutionary was mirrored in an unknown number of individuals, both within and outside of the party’s ranks, who together facilitated, organized, led and implemented the proletarian revolution at all levels throughout the Russian Empire. They were the architects of proletarian dictatorship.

That is what we ought to remember about 1917. It wasn’t a shot in the dark; it didn’t strike like lightning without warning. The revolution was organized and was being organized for decades before it happened. It wasn’t carried out by a handful of formal party leaders. It was carried out by workers like Babushkin.

Please direct all comments to this Red Marx thread


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