The Rhetoric of the Russian Revolution: On Barbara C. Allen's "Leaflets of the Russian Revolution

The Rhetoric of the Russian Revolution: On Barbara C. Allen's "Leaflets of the Russian Revolution

Barbara C. Allen (editor and translator) | Leaflets of the Russian Revolution: Socialist Organizing in 1917 | Haymarket Books | November 27, 2018 | 174 Pages


The revolutionary fervor that gripped the Russian empire by February of 1917 brought with it an impetus for the unprecedented eradication of the social and economic inequalities that daily plagued the toiling masses.  Socialist rhetoric throughout the period promised salvation from the abuses that three and a half centuries of Tsarist rule had firmly embedded in the fabric of social life. In Leaflets of the Russian Revolution: Socialist Organizing in 1917, Barbara C. Allen provides us with a panoramic view of the language of revolution, as well as the appeals that socialists made to the working peoples of Russia and beyond, in the hopes of bringing knowledge of their mutual exploitation to the level of the collective proletarian consciousness.  The words of the revolutionaries reveal the breathless tempo of the political organization of the masses and the urgency with which socialists strove to call the disenfranchised worker majority to action.

Leaflets unveils its argument within the demagogic harangue that took place in the socialist propaganda machine between the February and October Revolutions of 1917.  Allen uses published leaflets to illustrate the sorts of issues that were on the minds of Russia’s socialist reformers, and how they attempted to use the written word to inspire workingmen and women to a common revolutionary zeal.  Many of these leaflets were distributed throughout Petrograd and Moscow by a group of Social Democrats called the “Interdistrictites” (Mezhraionka), and they reflected the opinions of some of Russia’s most radical political parties, including the Socialist Revolutionaries, Left Social Democrats, and Bolsheviks.  What is so fascinating about these sources is how they were situated in a context of World War and intense social unrest, factors which ensured that the ideas they promoted achieved popularity within the increasingly broad swath of Russia’s disillusioned and dissatisfied population.  The demographics targeted by this propaganda – university students, factory workers, union activists, women’s organizations, soldiers, etc. – represented those people who stood to gain the most from a regime change, and in many ways the fight for better working conditions, fair treatment, equitable distribution of wealth, and an end to bureaucratic abuse was indicative of a struggle for equality that is of the same substance to that which minority groups in general have striven for in several other historical contexts of oppression.

Consider female factory workers, who were one such minority that socialist agitators appealed to in their leaflets.  Russia’s women were perhaps the most unexpected of the country’s disenfranchised social groups to generate support for the revolutionary unrest that took Russia out of the days of monarchy and into the utopian state-building project.  Thus, in an ironic turn of events, it was to be International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917, that would ignite the spark to set Petrograd’s Revolution into motion. Socialist leaflets provoked women by appealing to their sense of motherhood and, after food and fuel shortages led to a closing of the bakeries, placating those who feared that their hungry children were going to starve.  The language and pacing of the March 6 handout that the Petrograd Mezhraionka distributed to women textile workers is revealing of such socialist efforts at persuasion: “Women workers, you should not hold back those male comrades who remain, but rather you should join them in fraternal struggle against the government and the factory owners.” At this point one might be reminded of the admonitions of prominent feminist writers such as Virginia Woolf, who only two decades later entreated her fellow housewives and daughters to follow the procession of educated men, to join with them, to constantly work and think with them, and to fight alongside them for the charitable reorganization of rights and opportunities between the sexes.  The propaganda of the Revolution anticipated the activism of Woolf and women like her, who advocated for equality in the generations succeeding Russia’s initial, tumultuous demonstration of female workers.

The ideological publications of the fledgling Communist Party almost universally expressed the common desire, shared throughout the country by the soldiers, peasants, and workers, to bring an end to the War immediately.  Allen compellingly demonstrates how the issue of the War, particularly how to get Russia out of it, was something that appealed to a wide variety of audiences.  Organized committees of students, inspired by the discussions at the Zimmerwald conference in Switzerland in 1915, spread propaganda throughout universities all over Russia, urging them to desist from remaining idle and to take a stance against the Tsarist monarchy, which had invidiously dragged the country into a bloody and destructive war.  Menshevik revolutionary “defensists”, who held the majority opinion in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, frequently appealed to its own citizens, socialists across Europe, and Russia’s frontline soldiers, to throw down their weapons and put an end to the capitalist war. For the Mensheviks (and generally for socialists of every color), the War represented a most outrageous abuse of imperial power; the culmination of capitalist avarice was so profound that the rich not only demanded from the world proletarian community their property and labor, but even their very lives: “Countless victims are sacrificed on the altar of imperialism, where they lose their lives, their health, their fortune, and their freedom.  They carry the burden of unspeakable deprivations.” The rhetoric of the socialist cause made clear that the only path open to individuals of a revolutionary and reformative spirit was the path of peace, to throw off the deplorable sufferings of the capitalists’ War and to take retribution for the sacrifices of the world’s working people through the grand triumph of Communist ideology.

Allen extensively details the works and writings of one of the most prominent revolutionists of the period between February and October, the Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov. A member of the Russian Bureau of the Russian Social Democratic Worker’s Party, he was named chair of the Petrograd Metalworkers’ Union and was responsible for creating the Red Guard as an entity separate from the Petrograd regiment.  Shlyapnikov was very active in producing socialist literature, in which he justified many of his reform efforts, which were moderate in comparison to the demands made by more radical Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev or Lenin. One of the crowning achievements of his time as union chair was his negotiation of a wage rate agreement between Union leaders and the Petrograd Society of Factory Owners. Among other things, Shlyapnikov argued for the advantage of organizing workers through the unions rather than the factory committees and setting a universal standard wage that was to be based on a number of factors, including pay that was in accordance with the cost of living and equal representation for both skilled and unskilled factory workers.  Many historians have referred to Shlyapnikov as one of the most powerful Bolshevik leaders in the years before the October Revolution, and Allen skillfully brings his story to life by providing us with a snapshot of his activism on behalf of Petrograd factory workers.

Leaflets presents a lively picture of the world of revolutionary ideology at a time when its public expression was at its highest.  It is energetic and descriptive, and its content provides valuable insights for both experts and common readers alike. For trained historians, Allen has gathered an easily accessible collection of primary source materials in one place, and has brought the arguments of specific revolutionaries like Shlyapnikov to scholarly consciousness by highlighting the publications that would have made their ideologies available to the masses.  For the curious reader, Leaflets showcases the inner dynamics of a world that was in many ways similar to our own.  The arguments that socialists made on behalf of union rights, for example, have been recently echoed in America’s own experiences with organized labor and the discrepancies, solidified in the Janus v. American Federation of State decision, that exist between represented and unrepresented workers.  Certainly, the refugees and other victims of Russia’s international conflicts today in places like Ukraine, Syria, or Georgia would concur with the conclusions of the revolutionary socialists and their vehement denunciations of the “capitalist war” that they had to contend with in their own time.  Allen’s meticulously compiled work therefore has wide ranging implications, permitting the messages that were propounded by the original tinkerers of utopian aspirations to continue to resonate with our own current-day dreams of egalitarianism.


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