A Lost History

Socialists have long championed the struggles of all oppressed peoples, not just the white male factory worker.

Illustration of a scene from the 1905 Russian Revolution. (Alexander Petrovich / Fine Art Images / Heritage Images via Getty Images)

“Marxism, filtered through Leninism and social democracy, has expressed the interests of a limited sector of the world proletariat, that of white, adult, male workers, largely drawing their power from the fact that they work in the leading sectors of capital industrial production.”

With those words, feminist scholar Silvia Federici captured a concern shared by many activists who feel that the Marxist tradition is solely concerned with privileged industrial workers. Today’s struggles for liberation, they argue, cannot rely on the Left’s old exclusionary strategies.

The actual history of socialist efforts to build a just society, however, has a different spirit. While granting early Marxism’s real limitations, we cannot reduce its politics and practices to the defense of white male factory workers.

In theory, Marxists always envisioned a broad workers’ movement that would lead all oppressed peoples in the fight for democracy and socialism. In practice, too, many socialist parties promoted the struggles of — and were often led by — a wide range of marginalized groups, including non-industrial workers, women, peasants, and colonized peoples.

Yet too many of those who otherwise share our goal of a humane world dismiss Marxist politics on the grounds of the “white male factory worker” myth. Reclaiming this lost history might help build a more vibrant and inclusive movement.

Class and Oppression

In 1892, Karl Kautsky published The Erfurt Program. The pamphlet quickly became an influential text, training a generation of Marxists, including Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks.

Kautsky paints an inclusive picture of the working class. He describes it as being composed of all those who own no property that would allow them to survive (like factories, businesses, or land) — writing that “the recruiting ground of socialism is the class of the property-less.”

Industrial workers are of significance, but all wage earners — employees in commercial stores; service workers like barbers, waiters, and cab drivers; and the “educated proletarians” including intellectuals, teachers, and artists — belong to this class.

The working class, Kautsky argues, already makes up most of capitalist countries’ populations — and it will only continue to grow as an increasing number of occupations undergo proletarianization. Though he puts industrial workers at the center of his analysis, he also sees capitalism’s link to the “plundering of foreign lands, from piracy, smuggling, slave-trading and war.”

His political strategy, moreover, rejects any exclusive focus on the top layers of the proletariat, denouncing the tendency of the most privileged workers — what he calls “the aristocracy of labor” — to promote their particular interests at the expense of the rest of the class. The workers’ movement is that “part of the proletariat which is fighting for the interests of the whole class.”

This extends past organizing labor to resist capital; Kautsky argues that socialist parties must increasingly become the representative “of all laboring and exploited classes, or, in other words, of the great majority of the population.”

As such, The Erfurt Program declares that Marxists oppose “not only the exploitation and oppression of wage-workers, but also every form of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race.”

Kautsky cites the socialist movement’s active support of the American abolitionist movement and its championing of Polish and Irish national liberation struggles as concrete examples of the movement’s larger focus.

The pamphlet similarly demands universal suffrage “without distinction of sex” and the “abolition of all laws that place women at a disadvantage compared with men.” Socialism, Kautsky continues, will establish full gender equality in social life and free women from “household slavery” by making domestic labor the responsibility of society as a whole. He concludes:

The Socialist Party represents the interests of all non-capitalist classes, not only in the future, but in the present. The proletariat, as the lowest of the exploited strata, cannot free itself from exploitation and oppression without putting an end to all exploitation and oppression. It is, therefore, their sworn enemy, no matter in what form they may appear; it is the champion of all the exploited and oppressed.

Of course, as a product of its time, the text has significant weaknesses. It assumes that the (predominantly male) industrial working class will always be the leading sector in the struggle against capitalism.

While this may have corresponded to the German and broader European experience at the time, subsequent history has certainly demonstrated that factory workers do not inevitably constitute the vanguard of popular struggle.

Similarly, Kautsky’s wide vision of class and his inclusive political orientation stand in tension with his portrayal of male factory workers as the prototypical proletarians. Though the call for equal pay for women had been adopted by the founding congress of the Socialist International in 1889, this demand was noticeably absent in Kautsky’s pamphlet.

These and other weaknesses, however, do not negate The Erfurt Program’s call for a broad anticapitalist movement. Kautsky articulated a framework that not only allowed for but in fact necessitated engagement with a range of dominated groups beyond adult male industrial workers.

Of course, words and deeds in politics often diverge. But Kautsky’s perspective took on concrete form less than fifteen years after its publication.

The 1905 Revolution

Nowhere in the world were Kautsky’s writings more popular and influential than in the Russian Empire, where the social-democratic movement got its first chance to put his program into practice during a large-scale revolution, not just day-to-day struggles.

Kautsky’s broad definition of the working class fit the dynamics of the 1905 upheaval that shook the Tsarist empire, an autocratic multi-national state that spanned a fifth of the world. Most of imperial Russia’s working class were not employed in industry, and a wide range of groups participated in class struggle and socialist politics.

A militant wave of strikes, usually under socialist leadership or influence, spread far beyond the factories: maids, farm laborers, hairdressers, musicians, drugstore attendants, servants, lighthouse keepers, hospital staffers, waiters, firemen, teachers, salesclerks, newspaper sellers, cab drivers, theater troupes, and even synagogue workers.

In this spirit, white-collar workers in Moscow published a Marxist newspaper, proclaiming that “although we wear clean starched linen, we are only slaves, just like those smoke-blackened and dusty proletarians.”

These actions and organizations played a central role in the overall struggle. In 1905, the largest Marxist party was the Jewish Bund, which organized precarious artisans and handicraft workers who, by virtue of their religion, were systematically excluded from large-scale industry. One of the revolution’s key turning points was November’s empire-wide postal and telegraph workers’ strike. And in Latvia — the empire’s most militant region — the Congress of School Teachers and the Congress of Rural Delegates led workers, peasants, and democratic activists to seize power across the region.

Nor was class struggle confined to workplaces: Marxists led major battles to reduce rents in Warsaw, to provide relief for the unemployed in Baku, and to democratize social and political life throughout the empire. During the revolution’s peak in November-December, mass democratic workers’ organizations took advantage of the Tsarist authority’s collapse and began directing most towns and cities, regulating transportation, taxes, food prices, and rent; building communal dining halls; and replacing the police with people’s militias.

Wage workers weren’t the only ones who joined the upsurge. Students, for instance, became an important part of the movement. One liberal professor in Kiev lamented that from “a peaceful place of science, the university has gradually degenerated into a peculiar type of political club. Lectures are continuously interrupted through illegal political meetings where revolutionary speeches are made and radical revolutionary resolutions are passed.”

After months of escalating actions, the turning point came in the fall. Students from St. Petersburg to Odessa occupied the universities and opened them to workers and revolutionary organizations, transforming them into public centers for mass assemblies, popular education, and performances of radical plays, poetry, and music.

Tsar Nicholas wrote to his mother to complain: “God knows what happened in the universities. Every kind of riff-raff walked in from the streets, riot was loudly proclaimed — nobody seemed to mind.”

Though high schools and universities were one hub, Jewish children aged nine to fourteen formed their own socialist group called the Little Bund. Denouncing the Tsar, capitalism, and Zionism, they raised the slogan “Teenagers of all cities, unite!” During Passover in Belorussia, Little Bund members took over the main thoroughfare, fired shots from a revolver, waved red flags, and chanted revolutionary slogans.

As peasants made up the majority of the Russian Empire’s population, socialists in many regions sought to link up the urban and rural revolts. In Latvia, Ukraine, and the Caucasus, Marxists led the agrarian revolutions, often engaging in guerrilla warfare against the nobility and Tsarist authorities.

The most successful example of this was Georgia’s “Gurian Republic,” which presaged later socialist-led peasant rebellions in China, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Under the leadership of the local Marxist party, peasants in Guria displaced the Tsarist authority and established their own revolutionary rule.

Political power was held by village mass meetings — comprised of both men and women — which democratically decided on all local affairs, from land rights to educational curricula and the administration of popular justice.

Guria’s example spread across Russia, pushing many socialists to adjust their previous skepticism about peasants’ revolutionary potential. Leon Trotsky wrote in 1906 that

Kautsky speaks of Social Democracy in terms of revolutionary leadership of the peasantry. In that respect he merely describes the situation that already exists in the Caucasus. Guria is the finished model of revolutionary relations between the peasantry and the party of the proletariat.

As could be expected in a multi-national state in which the ruling nationality — Russians — accounted for a minority of the population, struggles for national liberation also arose in 1905. Indeed, the revolution advanced furthest — and socialist parties were strongest — in the dominated non-Russian periphery.

Leaning on Kautsky’s writings, these borderland revolutionaries developed sophisticated theories and strategies of anti-imperialist Marxism, which predated the better known revolutionary anticolonialism of the Communist International in the 1920s and the Third World Marxism of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The Hummet-Muslim Social Democratic Party in Baku — the oil-town capital of Azerbaijan — was one of the more historically significant of these non-Russian parties. Founded in 1904 as  the world’s first socialist organization of and for a Muslim population, the Hummet’s history undermines widespread assumptions about socialism’s supposed irrelevance to non-European peoples.

Denouncing the claim that believers in Islam “are alien to the class struggle,” Muslim workers joined picket lines demanding universal health care, equal pay, paid prayer time, maternity leave, and breaks for breast-feeding. The Hummet focused especially on women’s equality, denouncing patriarchal practices, leading popular education classes for women, and helping establish an autonomous Muslim women’s organization.

Hummetists of both genders participated in the Baku Soviet, built armed self-defense squads, and organized mass rallies of Muslim workers, calling for resistance to the Tsar and the bourgeoisie (including local capitalists), equal rights for all, and global solidarity with workers and revolutionaries.

Allied with (and joining) local Bolshevik groups, Hummetists often represented the region’s far left. Mammad Amin Rasulzade, the Hummet’s leading writer, declared:

The Social Democratic organization always fights for the happiness of the people and protects its interests. Waking humanity through the means of revolution, it aims to eliminate violence and oppression from the world, to free the poor and disadvantaged from the pressure of the exploiters and the state. It is the party of the people, humble, disadvantaged, and disenfranchised.

After the revolution was defeated, many Hummetists crossed Russia’s southern border into Iran, where they helped found the Iranian Social Democratic Party and went on to play a leading role in the “Constitutional Revolution” that overthrew the British- and Russian-backed Shah of Iran in 1909.

Contrary to the myth that most European Marxists in this period supported colonialism, Europe’s major socialist parties championed the anti-imperialist and anti-autocratic revolution in Iran.

Women’s participation in the 1905 revolution was not limited to the Hummetist movement. Female workers, intellectuals, and housewives played a major role in all aspects and at all levels of the socialist movement.

For the most part, this took place in the broader actions and organizations of the workers’ and revolutionary movements, which led the struggle both to call for equal rights for women (such as universal suffrage and an end to legal and institutional discrimination) and to support female workers’ specific demands (like childcare, medical services, and an end to sexual abuse by supervisors).

Socialists also built autonomous women’s organizations, publications, and struggles. For instance, Marxist-feminist militant Estera Golde, a leader in the Polish Socialist Party, co-organized the 1905 Polish Women’s Congress and edited the newspaper Robotnica (Woman Worker).

The most important autonomous organization of the period was Finland’s socialist-led League of Working Women. It united maids, housewives, and a wide range of working-class women. In alliance with the Finnish Social Democratic Party (SDP), the league won full suffrage for women in 1906, making Finland the world’s first country to grant that demand.

The lead-up to this historical victory began in October, with the general strike that shook both Finland and the empire as a whole. The league’s newspaper noted:

The strike week was a wake-up week for the rights of women . . . As soon as the strike began, women started to hold special meetings in which they debated their economic position, and these meetings were flooded by people. It was as if it took the breakout of the general strike to make women realize that it would depend on themselves whether the status of women improved or not.

The league followed up the strike by launching mass demonstrations and hundreds of assemblies to demand universal suffrage. It declared that a new general strike would be initiated if women were excluded from the vote.

Miina Sillanpää, the socialist leader of the maid’s union and the league, called on men to stay home and watch the children so their wives could participate in political activities. Many men supported women’s equality, noted the league’s newspaper,

but only within the established limits. As soon as women’s endeavors have anything to do with the emancipation of mothers from the chains binding her into home’s narrow scope, then resistance is encountered.

For the most part, the SPD actively supported extending the vote to women. But when some members began to waver, league leaders announced that they would denounce those who opposed women’s suffrage as collaborators of the bourgeoisie. Some working women threatened to go on a cooking strike at home to force skeptical husbands to support their struggle.

The male members of the SPD, and the party as a whole, ultimately upheld their commitment to the vote for all. On July 20, 1906, the Tsar conceded universal suffrage to Finland, a historic event that would have been inconceivable without the ongoing revolutionary upsurge across the empire.

Marxists saw this struggle, which spread across myriad popular formations during the 1905 revolution, as an implementation of — not a break from — Kautsky’s political orientation. The white male factory worker myth erases this important experience.

Struggle and Strategy

But we shouldn’t idealize or simplify the history of early Marxism. Socialist parties in Tsarist Russia participated in sharp debates over which sectors of the working class they should focus on, which non-proletarian sectors could be counted on as allies, and which demands should be raised.

While the best of the political approaches described above have animated Marxist theory and practice to this day, various parties did deny the political importance of the struggles of peasants and oppressed nationalities. Or they claimed to support these movements, but did not translate this into action.

Similarly, though socialists put forward important immediate demands for women and made liberation from “household slavery” a part of their imagined future, they nevertheless tended to accept and reproduce dominant gender norms and relations. As was seen in Finland, even male socialists who actively supported women’s political rights generally resisted efforts to make family relations more equitable.

Socialists also erred in the opposite direction after the Tsarist state’s bloody suppression of the revolution. Demoralized by their defeat, many parties lost their confidence in the working class and mass struggle.

After 1905, nationalism spread across the empire. Various socialist parties disconnected the anticolonial struggle from the fight for working-class unity and socialism, which frequently produced alliances with the upper classes.

The extent of this political evolution became evident when revolution erupted again in 1917. Many leftists now stood on the wrong side of barricades, often in the name of national liberation. The movement would soon discover the pitfalls of separating these struggles.

For example, the socialist-led Ukrainian government maintained a nationalist bloc in 1917 instead of granting the workers’ demands, including land redistribution. Volodymyr Vynnychenko, the top leader of the Ukrainian Marxist movement, later acknowledged the damage done by prioritizing national unity above class struggle, stating,

The only salvation would have been to not go contrary to the sentiments of the masses, to agree to their desire to change the government and its social policy, and in so doing to keep the government in national Ukrainian hands, to not create a conflict between the national and social idea among the masses.

Socialist concessions to nationalism also sidetracked the revolutions in Azerbaijan, Estonia, Poland, and beyond.

Today it is far more common to dismiss the working class than to idealize it. Liberal identity politics has spread so widely that even a corporate politician like Hillary Clinton can plausibly discuss intersectionality. This climate demands that we rediscover the hidden history of the labor movement’s struggle against all forms of oppression.

Criticizing early Marxists’ shortcomings is certainly justified. Representing the whole working class and all oppressed peoples was — and continues to be — easier said than done. But this should not obscure the fact that the longstanding political strategy of socialists has always aimed for more than just ending class exploitation.

In the words of Kautsky, “This social transformation means the liberation, not only of the proletariat, but of the whole human race.”