In this struggle the proletariat stood alone. No one wanted or was able to help it. The point at issue this time was not the freedom of the press, nor the arbitrary rule of uniformed thugs, nor even universal franchise. The workingman was demanding a guarantee that his muscles, his nerves, his brain should be safeguarded. He had decided to win back for himself a part of his own life. He could not wait any longer – and he did not want to. In the events of the revolution he had sensed his own strength for the first time, and through the same events he had first come to glimpse a different, higher form of life. It was as though he had been born again for the life of the spirit. All his senses were tensed like strings on a musical instrument. New, immeasurable, radiant worlds opened up before him ... Will he be born soon, the great poet who is to re-create for us the revolutionary resurrection of the working masses?
After the October strike which had transformed smoke-grimed factories into temples of revolutionary speech, after a victory which had filled the weariest hearts with pride, the worker found himself once more in the damnable grip of the machine. In the half-sleep of a gray dawn, he plunged into the gaping mouth of the industrial hell; late in the evening, after the placated machine had blown its whistle, again half-asleep, he dragged his weary body to the dark, repellent hole that was his home. Yet all around bright lights were burning, so near and yet so far – lights that he himself had lit. The socialist press, political meetings, the party struggle – a tremendous and beautiful feast of interests and passions. Where was the solution? In the eight-hour working day. This was the program of programs, the precept of precepts. Only the eight-hour day could immediately release the class force of the proletariat for the revolutionary politics of the time. To arms, proletarians of Petersburg! A new chapter opens in the grim book of struggle.
Already during the great strike delegates had often said that, when work was resumed, the masses would on no account agree to work under the old conditions. On October 26 delegates from one of the Petersburg districts decided, without the knowledge of the Soviet, to introduce the eight-hour working day at their factories by revolutionary means. On the twenty-seventh the delegates’ proposal was unanimously adopted at several workers’ meetings. At the Alexandrovsky mechanical engineering works the question was decided by secret ballot to avoid pressure. The results were 1,668 for, 14 against. As of the twenty-eighth, several major metalworking plants began to work the eight-hour day. An identical movement flared up simultaneously at the other end of Petersburg. On the twenty-ninth the initiator of the campaign reported to the Soviet that the eight-hour day had been introduced “by takeover” means, at three large plants. Thunderous applause. No room for doubts and hesitations. Was it not the takeover that had given us the freedom of assembly and of the press? Was it not by revolutionary initiative that we had harvested the constitutional manifesto? Were the privileges of capital more sacred to us than the privileges of the monarchy? The timid voices of the skeptics were drowned in a wave of universal enthusiasm.
The Soviet adopted a decision of enormous importance: it called on all factories and plants to introduce the eight-hour working day by takeover means on their own initiative. This decision was adopted almost without debate, as though it were a completely natural step. The Soviet gave the workers of Petersburg twenty-four hours for preparatory measures. And the workers found this long enough. “The Soviet’s proposal was received with enthusiasm by other workers,” wrote my friend Nemtsov, a delegate from a metalworking plant.
In October we fought for the whole country’s demands, but now we are putting forward our own proletarian claim, which will clearly show our bourgeois bosses that we never for a moment forget the demands of our class. After discussion, the works committee (an assembly of workshop representatives; the leading role in the works committees was played by delegates from the Soviet) decided unanimously to introduce the eight-hour day as from November 1. On the same day the deputies announced the works committee’s decision in all the workshops, suggesting that the workers should bring food to work with them so as not to have to take the usual midday break. On November the workers turned up at the plant at 6:45 a.m. as always. At noon the whistle blew for the mid day break; this provoked many jokes among the workers, who had decided to take only thirty minutes off for lunch instead of the prescribed one hour forty-five minutes. At 3:30 p.m., the entire personnel of the plant stopped work, having worked exactly eight hours.
“On Monday October 31,” we read in No.5 of Izvestia, “all factory workers in our district, in accordance with the Soviet’s decision, having completed eight hours’ work, left their workshops and went out into the streets carrying red banners and singing the Marseillaise. On their way, the demonstrators ‘swept up’ several smaller enterprises which were still continuing to work.” The Soviet’s decision was carried through with the same revolutionary unity in other districts. On November 1 the movement spread to almost all metal works and the larger textile factories. Workers at Schlisselburg factories telegraphed the Soviet with the query: “How many hours should we work as of today?” The campaign developed with irresistible unanimity. But the five-day November strike cut into the campaign like a wedge at its very start. The situation became more and more difficult. The reactionary element within the government was making desperate efforts to rise to its feet, not without success. The capitalists were uniting energetically for a counter-blow under Witte’s protection. The bourgeois democrats, wearied by the strikes, longed only for peace and quiet.
Until the November strike the capitalists had reacted to workers reducing the duration of the working day in different ways: some threatened immediately to close down their plants, others merely deducted the corresponding amounts from wages. At a number of plants and factories the management made concessions, agreeing to reduce the working day to nine and one-half and even to nine hours. The print-workers’ union, for example, accepted such an offer. The employers’ mood was generally uncertain. But by the end of the November strike, united capital had had time to recover its forces and adopted a completely intransigent position: there would be a universal lockout. The government, clearing the way for the employers, was the first to close the state plants. Meetings were more and more frequently dispersed by armed forces in order to demoralize the workers. The situation became increasingly acute. After the state-operated enterprises, a number of private ones were closed down. Several tens of thousands of workers were thrown into the streets. The proletariat was up against the wall. A retreat became unavoidable. But the working masses persisted in their claim, refusing even to hear of a return to work under the old conditions.
On November 6 the Soviet adopted a compromise solution by declaring that the claim was no longer universal and calling for a continuance of the struggle only in those enterprises where there was some hope of success. The solution was clearly an unsatisfactory one because it failed to provide a clear-cut slogan and so threatened to break up the movement into a series of dissociated struggles. In the meantime the situation continued to deteriorate. While the state-operated plants were re-opened, at the delegates’ insistence, for work under the old conditions, the gates of thirteen more factories and plants were closed by private employers. An additional 19,000 people were left without work. Concern with re-opening of the plants, even under the old conditions, pushed the question of the forcible introduction of the eight-hour day more and more into the background.
Drastic steps were required, and on November 12 the Soviet decided to sound the retreat. This was the most dramatic of all the meetings of the workers’ parliament. The vote was divided. Two leading metalworking plants insisted on continuing the struggle. They were supported by representatives of several textile, glassmaking, and tobacco factories. The Putilov works were definitely against. A middle-aged woman weaver from Maxwell’s factory rose to speak. She had a fine, open face; she wore a faded cotton dress although it was late autumn. Her hand trembled with excitement as she nervously fingered her collar. Her voice had a ringing, inspired, unforgettable quality. “You’ve let your wives get accustomed to sleeping in soft beds and eating sweet food,” she hurled at the Putilov delegates. “That’s why you are afraid of losing your jobs. But we aren’t afraid. We’re prepared to die, but we’ll get the eight-hour day. We’ll fight to the end. Victory or death! Long live the eight-hour day!”
To this day, thirty months later, this voice of hope, despair, and passion is still ringing in my ears, a lasting reproach, an indomitable call to action. Where are you now, heroic comrade in faded cotton? Ah, you were accustomed to sleep in a soft bed and eat sweet food ...
The ringing voice came to a halt. There was a moment of painful silence. Then a storm of passionate applause. At that moment the delegates, who had been bowed down by an oppressive sense of helplessness under the capitalist yoke, rose high above their everyday cares. They were applauding their future victory over cruelty and inhumanity.
After a debate lasting four hours, the Soviet by an overwhelming majority adopted a resolution to retreat. After pointing out that the coalition between united capital and the government had transformed the question of an eight-hour working day in Petersburg into a state problem, and that the workers of Petersburg could not therefore achieve victory in isolation from those of the country at large, the resolution stated: “For this reason, the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies considers it necessary temporarily to halt the immediate and universal introduction of the eight-hour working day by takeover methods.” To carry out the retreat in an organized fashion required a great deal of effort. Many workers preferred the course indicated by the woman weaver from Maxwell’s. “Comrade workers from other factories and plants,” the workers of a large factory who had decided to continue the struggle for a nine-and-a-half-hour working day wrote to the Soviet, “forgive us for doing this, but we have no strength left to suffer this gradual exhaustion of ourselves both physical and moral. We shall fight to the last drop of our blood. ...”
* * *
When the campaign for an eight-hour working day was opened, the capitalist press naturally screamed that the Soviet was out to ruin the country’s industry. The liberal-democratic press, which during this period went in fear and trembling of its master on the left, was silent, as though struck dumb. Only when the December defeat of the revolution had freed it from its bonds did it begin to translate all the reaction’s charges against the Soviet into its own liberal jargon. The struggle for the eight-hour day was the action the liberal democrats most strongly condemned in retrospect. But it should be borne in mind that the idea of reduction of the working day by takeover methods – that is, by de facto stoppage of work without previous agreement with the employers – was not born in October, nor within the Soviet. Attempts of this kind were made many times in the course of the strikes of 1905; and they were not always unsuccessful. Thus at the state-operated works, where political motives are stronger than economic ones, the workers obtained a nine-hour day by such action. Nevertheless the idea of introducing a normal working day by revolutionary means in Petersburg alone, after a preparation of only twenty-four hours, may appear utterly fantastic. The respectable treasurer of a respectable trade union, for instance, might find it downright lunatic. And indeed it was lunatic – from the viewpoint of normal “rational” times. But under the conditions of revolutionary “madness” it had its own “rationale.” Of course a normal working day in Petersburg alone makes no sense. But the Soviet believed that the Petersburg campaign would bring the proletariat of the entire country to its feet. Of course the eight-hour working day can only be introduced with the cooperation of state power. But state power is precisely what the proletariat was fighting for at that moment. Had it won a political victory, the introduction of the eight-hour day would have been no more than a natural consequence of the “fantastic experiment.” But it failed to win; and therein, of course, lay its gravest “fault.”
And yet we believe even now that the Soviet acted as it was entitled to do and as it should have done. In effect, it had no choice. If, guided by “realistic” considerations of expediency, it had begun calling on the masses to turn back, the masses would simply not have obeyed it. The struggle would have flared up all the same, but without leadership. Strikes would have occurred, but in an isolated manner. Under such conditions a defeat would have led to total demoralization. The Soviet took a different view of its task. Its leading elements by no means counted on immediate and full success for the campaign; but they saw the mighty, spontaneous movement as an incontrovertible fact, and they decided to transform it into a majestic demonstration, such as had never yet been seen in any socialist movement, in favor of the eight-hour working day.
The practical fruits of this campaign, namely considerable reductions of working hours in a number of enterprises, were promptly snatched back again by the employers. But the political results left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the masses. Henceforth the idea of an eight-hour working day achieved a popularity among even the most backward strata of the working class that many years of laborious propaganda could not have ensured. At the same time this claim became organically united with the fundamental slogans of political democracy. Having met with the organized resistance of capital, the working masses again returned to the basic issue of revolution, the inevitability of an uprising, the essential need for arms.
Defending the resolution to drop the campaign in the Soviet, the rapporteur of the Executive Committee summed up the campaign in the following words: “We may not have won the eight hour day for the masses, but we have certainly won the masses for the eight-hour day. Henceforth the war-cry: Eight hours and a gun! shall live in the heart of every Petersburg worker.”