Workers' organisations and the development of worker-identity in St. Petersburg 1870-1895: a study in the formation of a radical worker-intelligenty

Jackson, John (2012) Workers' organisations and the development of worker-identity in St. Petersburg 1870-1895: a study in the formation of a radical worker-intelligenty. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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In the last three decades of the 19th century small groups composed of primarily skilled, male workers in Petersburg factories developed and refined a specific form of worker identity, that of the worker-intelligent. This identity was the product of a combination of an ideal conceptualisation of proletarian man derived from readings of western socialist literature and ideas introduced into the workers’ environment by members of the radical intelligenty alongside their material experience of work in the rapidly developing industries of the capital. Seeking to appropriate the ‘intelligence’ of their radical intelligentsia mentors to create ‘Russian Bebels’, from the early 1870s small groups of workers aspired to develop their own worker organisations to give voice to the specific needs, demands and assumed aspirations of the emerging working-class within an autocratic society that maintained the fiction that a specific industrial working-class did not exist.

Whilst workers enthusiastically welcomed the intelligentsia as bearers of the knowledge essential to construct their own specific identity, the process of identity creation frequently led to power struggles with the intelligentsia over the latter’s role and control of knowledge. It is in the often contested relationships between workers and intelligentsia that vital clues emerge as to how workers perceived themselves and others within the worker-class. Within this contested arena the radical worker-intelligenty frequently articulated their independence from the intelligentsia who they frequently regarded as a temporary ally, essential to satisfy their initial thirst for knowledge and to fulfil certain technical tasks, but who eventually should be subordinate to the workers’ movement that workers alone were capable of leading. Although workers eagerly embraced the revolutionary ideals received from the intelligenty, these were processed and reconstructed in terms of a worker-hegemony in the revolutionary process, taking entirely literally the dictum that ‘the liberation of the workers must be a cause for the workers themselves.’ This represented the essence of the worker-intelligenty belief system and, when taken in conjunction with their conviction that the mass of workers remained ‘backward,’ incapable of effecting their own liberation, produced a strongly held belief that it was incumbent on enlightened workers to act as advocates of the whole class, irrespective of the degree to which the mass of workers conformed to their vision of the ideal revolutionary worker.

These early Petersburg workers’ organisations are of historical importance as from their inception they articulated a specific ‘worker’ ideology opposed to both the political regime and emerging Russian industrial capitalism, an opposition that would subsequently be
transformed in Soviet Russia into an historical narrative that presented them as a vanguard for the working-class and the precursors of the Soviet ‘new man.’ In the process of fusing of the mind of the intelligenty within the body of a worker, the first generations of worker- intelligenty consistently sought to demonstrate in practice their own revolutionary primacy. Painfully aware of the disparity between their ideal proletarian man and the reality of the
‘backwardness’ of the mass of their fellow workers, the early worker-intelligenty developed and nurtured their own particular institution - the workers’ circle, kruzhok, an institution which simultaneously reinforced their own sense of identity and worth whilst providing a space in which they could receive their necessary enlightenment from the radical intelligentsia. Rather than viewing workers as passive objects, the Petersburg worker-intelligenty was instrumental in its own creation, throughout the period under discussion acting as a revolutionary subject in its own right, to a significant extent determining the nature and content of study involving the intelligenty, establishing clear organisational frameworks to govern relationships with intelligenty groups, and, critically, seeking opportune moments to enter the public sphere and declare their presence as workers, revealing themselves as a social force to be recognised.

In the historiography of the revolutionary working-class in Russia these worker-led organisations have been largely ignored or subsumed under the rubric of the name of a leading member of the radical intelligenty associated with workers’ circles, as for example in the so-called Brusnev organisation. For a long period Soviet and western historians privileged the role of the radical intelligentsia, reflecting competing ideological biases that in the case of the Soviet interpretation viewed workers as a dependent category requiring enlightenment from an external Marxist party, whilst much western research focused on ideological debates amongst intelligenty ‘leaders’ and/or incipient reformist and non- revolutionary tendencies amongst worker activists. Although in more recent time a number of historians have explored the autonomous nature of worker activism in 1905 and 1917, whilst others have explored the cultural attitudes and beliefs of workers, the first specifically worker-led organisations created by worker-intelligenty have been largely ignored. What remains missing is a study that addresses the actual historical practice of the worker-intelligenty during its formative years and how it sought to give form to its self- realisation and express its received knowledge as the advanced representative of its class. The discourse of class not only gave life to the worker-intelligenty but critically guided its first at times uncertain footsteps towards fulfilling what it had come to believe was its ‘historic’ role.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Petersburg industrialisation, worker-intelligentsia, worker education, relationship with revolutionary intelligentsia, autonomous activities of radical workers.
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HX Socialism. Communism. Anarchism
H Social Sciences > HC Economic History and Conditions
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, Prof. Geoffrey
Date of Award: 2012
Depositing User: Mr John Jackson
Unique ID: glathesis:2012-3699
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 02 Nov 2012
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 14:09

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