The history and historiography of the Russian worker-revolutionaries of the 1870s

Meadowcroft, Jeff R. (2011) The history and historiography of the Russian worker-revolutionaries of the 1870s. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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In March, 1877, the radical worker Pëtr Alekseev gave his speech at the ‘Trial of Fifty,’ contributing to the social-revolutionary movement one of the founding documents in Russia’s fledgling, working-class history. In the decades that followed, many others of the workers’ circles of the 1870s would compose and contribute their own stories to this revolutionary, ‘workers’ history.’ It was understood that, for workers to ‘speak for themselves’ was one step towards a workers’ revolution, carried out by and for the working people. The ‘workers’ voice’ had been borne by Alekseev in 1877, and was shared by worker-memoirists and other worker-writers through the early twentieth century. Individual workers were called represent, embody, testify to and speak for the mass, or the working-class as a whole. Thus, the notion of the ‘workers’ voice’ tied together the propaganda, the historiography, and the philosophy of the Russian social-revolutionary movement. A study of the ‘workers’ voice’ in history and historiography reveals the connections between these areas of revolutionary thought and practice, and provides a better understanding of the role of individual workers - as activists and as writers - in the Russian socialist movement.

Revolutionary historiography developed alongside and in concert with political theories of the social revolution, mass action, social law and social determination, individuality, and consciousness. For a small number of radical democrats-turned-‘rebels,’ anarchists, and social-revolutionaries – most, if not all, born into the educated elite, a few to the families of the high, landed nobility - adherence to the narodnik tenet that ‘the emancipation of the working class should be conquered by workers’ themselves’ made their own, committed or conscious choice of the ‘cause’ over the existing system of things marginal to the historical and social forces driving Russia towards revolution. The ‘going to the people’ movement was aimed at bringing ‘workers themselves’ into their movement. By developing certain working people into carriers of the socialist message, the movement hitherto limited to students, publicists, and the wayward sons and daughters of state officials, merchants and clergymen would become the ‘a working-class matter.’ Thus, a special place was allotted to the ‘self-educated’ or ‘self-developed’ workers who, like the self-styled ‘intelligentsia,’ were consciously committed, synthesising ‘consciousness’ with their own class experience and the social necessity behind it. The political and historical valorisation of the ‘workers’ voice’ extended this idea into the documentation and the history of the popular and workers’ movements. Just as the workers would have to ‘emancipate themselves,’ so too would they speak for themselves and write their own history. This history, it was thought, would eventually belong to the workers by right. Thus, historical writing and the documentation of a workers’ history, informed by judgments regarding individuality, society, class, history, and their relationships, became politically significant for the revolutionary movement as working people began to enter it and ‘speak for themselves.’

Late in the nineteenth century, the worker-revolutionaries of the 1870s began to write their own memoirs of events. Entering the documentary record as individuals, it was their task to testify to working-class experience. Thus, at the point where working people became ‘individuals’ for history and for future historians, marking themselves as different from the mass by leaving their own writings, and stories, and memoirs, they were also tied inextricably to a political viewpoint that identified every and any worker as practically identical. As political figures, ‘conscious’ radicals who had taken responsibility for their own actions, their lives were historically definite; as ‘working men,’ sharing in a victimhood that was common to millions, their lives were indefinite, unhistorical, alienated. In the attempt to explain one part of their lives by the other, in the juxtaposition of class experience with political experience, in the light of a political function that had workers become witnesses rather than writers, the worker-revolutionaries reproduced in their political and historical writings the class categories that their radicalism had contradicted. The awkward position of worker-intelligent – in one half unique, conscious, definite, historical, active, by the other: plural, instinctive, indefinite, and passive – was stamped into ‘workers’ writings.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Russia, Russian, nineteenth century, workers, peasants, revolutionaries, historiography, lichnost', individuality, class, testimony, autobiography, memoir
Subjects: D History General and Old World > D History (General) > D204 Modern History
H Social Sciences > HX Socialism. Communism. Anarchism
D History General and Old World > DK Russia. Soviet Union. Former Soviet Republics
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Modern Languages and Cultures > Slavonic Studies
Supervisor's Name: Swain, Professor Geoffrey
Date of Award: 2011
Depositing User: Mr Jeff Richard Meadowcroft
Unique ID: glathesis:2011-3079
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 12 Jan 2012
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 14:03

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