The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine 1897-1918 – Introduction

Marko Bojcun

Editor’s note: We are publishing below from the Historical Materialism blog – the Introduction to the new book in the Historical Materialism series – The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine 1897-1918 by Marko Bojcun:

Bojcun explores the social-democratic workers’ movement in the Ukrainian provinces of the Russian Empire, focused on the Ukrainian, Jewish and Russian parties. Providing a wealth of information for the first time in English, he traces the development of the labour movement from its beginnings through the tumultuous first year of the revolution, examining the relationship of the social and national aspects of the revolution. This new book is essential reading for an understanding of the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921, which was to be pivotal to the fate of the Russian Revolution and the wider revolutionary wave in Europe at the time.  

Christopher Ford

To read the Table of Contents or purchase the hardcover library edition, click here: The Workers’ Movement and the National Question in Ukraine – 1897-1918 | Brill


The Great Revolution is a historical fact of exceptional importance for the Ukrainian people. Above all, the people discovered their identity in it … every peasant and worker knows now that he or she is a Ukrainian… The national identity of the urban workers has grown enormously. In 1917 they came forward as Russians and today more than half identify themselves as Ukrainians. This is an important conquest of the revolution and of our difficult struggle.1

The exiled Socialist Revolutionary leader Mykyta Shapoval2 drew this conclusion during one of his speeches to Ukrainian workers living in Canada in 1927. Although Ukrainians had failed to secure their independence in the recent upheaval, Shapoval remained optimistic about the future. Tsarism had been swept away. Among workers as well as peasants there was a new sense of national awareness which the Soviet government could not ignore. Like many other socialists and communists living in Ukraine and abroad, Shapoval believed in 1927 that the Revolution had not yet run its full course.

Such optimism was dispelled soon afterwards by Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture, the 1932-33 Famine and the purges. Yet Shapoval’s claim about the adoption of a Ukrainian national identity by the lower classes became all the more credible in the following decades. Before the Revolution, the price that peasants paid for their social mobilisation, their transition from agricultural to industrial occupations, was assimilation into the Russian and Polish culture of the towns and cities. Not all were assimilated nor did they submit to it without resistance. But, before 1917, they were fighting a losing battle. After the Revolution, however, the peasantry came into the cities and the working class more and more on their own terms. In 1897, 44 percent of the working class identified themselves as Ukrainians, by 1926, 55 percent, 1939 66 percent and 1959 69 percent. By 1970, three-quarters of the working class in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic identified themselves as Ukrainians.3

Rapid industrialisation in the twentieth century drew the rural population to urban centres at an unprecedented rate and profoundly changed the ethno-linguistic composition of urban society. Yet the adoption of a national identity by members of the working class was a result not only of the peasant sources of the class, but also of conscious political choice. The assertion of Ukrainian national identity arose from the historic clash between classes of a stateless people mobilised by industrialisation and classes with the levers of industrialisation and state power already in their hands. A decisive turning point in this process was when the choice of national identity began to be made by the majority of peasants and workers in Ukraine was 1917.

The scope of the work

This is a study of the formation of the working class in Ukraine and its relationship to the national question. It examines the working class as a force in the labour process and in politics from 1897 to 1918. It endeavours to explain how the formation of the working class was shaped by the national question, what interests workers had in its resolution and the kinds of solutions they pursued through their mass organisations and political parties.

The study focuses on eight provinces (gubernia) of the Russian Empire in which Ukrainians were a majority at the turn of the century.4 It excludes from consideration the territories of Western Ukraine under Austro-Hungarian rule until the end of 1918 and after that under Poland until 1939. It maps out a broad view of the historical process: the succession of state powers on Ukrainian territories, the emergence of the capitalist mode of production and the formation of the working class as a labour force and as a political force. It examines the debates about the national question among internationally prominent Marxists of the era and analyses the positions taken by the Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish social democratic parties active in the Ukrainian provinces. These themes provide a context for examining in detail the first “long year” of the Revolution from February 1917 to April 1918.

A theory of the national question

Throughout the study, I use the terms “national question”, “national movement”, “nation” and “nation state”. They refer respectively to the genesis, politicisation, mobilisation and unification of nations. Used in such a way, they are merely signposts, heuristic indicators of historical stages of national development. A viable theory of national development, however, should explain how and why the national question arises in the first place.

I have adopted and extended Karl Marx’s use of the concept of the division of labour in order to explain the origins of the national question. Marx observed in the development of capitalism an increasing separation and specialisation of human labour: agricultural and industrial, menial and intellectual, and male and female labour. These separations in social labour were not peculiar to capitalism, but were the product of a much longer evolution of human society. However, as the capitalist mode of production emerged, it incorporated the city-country, menial-intellectual and gender divisions of earlier modes of production and accentuated them in an even sharper way.

For Marx, the division of labour was the infrastructure of class society, while private property was but a juridical expression and defence of the division of labour peculiar to capitalism.5 The European social-democratic movement which inherited his ideas had a tendency to reduce Marx’s concept of class society to its juridical expression, as the relationship between the owners of labour and the owners of the means of production. This notion of ownership served as a general indicator or the “last word” on class under capitalism, but it was not of much use for understanding class struggles other than economic ones. Nor could it provide insight into the contradictions within the working class itself, divided as it was by occupational privileges based on location, education and gender.

How does all this apply to the national question? The division of labour did not stop evolving with the advent of capitalism. Since the end of the nineteenth century, capitalism as a global economic system has built an international division of labour. It is now characterised by the imposition of specific economic tasks by the economically powerful metropoles upon the ever more distant peripheral societies it draws onto the world market.6 Regions of the world and their inhabitants have taken different paths of social and economic evolution depending on the time they were linked to the world market, the resources most readily exploitable in them and the relative strength of the state power already in control of their territories.

For different historical reasons, the boundaries of states in peripheral societies seldom conform to the boundaries of compact ethno-linguistic groups. As a rule, they encompass several of them. Such groups within single states are drawn into the process of industrialisation and urbanisation at varying rates. These rates depend on the readily exploitable natural resources and human labour in their vicinity, the influence of these groups’ leaders in the central state institutions, the groups’ knowledge of the language of modern industry and government, their possession of industrial skills and work habits and their willingness to assimilate into a new urban-industrial culture. Because the resources available for industrialisation are limited, they are applied only in selected parts of the country. Invariably industrialisation will benefit the ethno-linguistic group or groups that control the state power. Even if new industries are not located on their own group’s traditional territory, they are in control of the state mechanisms for centralising and redistributing a major portion of the surplus product produced over the whole territory of the state.

Thus, the division of labour that has emerged on a global scale between the industrialised and industrialising regions is reproduced once again within the confines of the latter, the industrialising region. Here, the division of labour incorporates the potential attributes of a national identity (language, culture, attachment to territory, etc) that affect an ethno-linguistic group’s capacity for social mobility through the class structure of the industrialising region – that is, the capacity to secure urban, intellectual and “male” designated occupations in the modernising economy. Thus, it is the crystallisation of a division of labour between established and incipient nations within an existing state, a process that holds back the social mobility of the incipient nation and redistributes the surplus product of the whole society inequitably in favour of the established nation, which politicises these well-known attributes of national identity (language, culture, attachment to territory) and provokes national movements among the incipient nations.7

One can, therefore, argue that labour in contemporary world society is divided not only along gender, menial-intellectual and city-country lines, but also along national lines. If one accepts such a view of the division of labour, it follows that national movements, that is movements which contest this division, are one of the expressions of class struggle. For class struggle is, in the first instance, nothing more than a struggle over the division of labour and the distribution of wealth stemming from that labour.

I have proposed above in a most general way a concept of the historical development of a division of labour between state-established and incipient nations at three distinct levels: in the globalising capitalist economy, in the industrialising region of the peripheral state and within the working class itself. In the chapters below, I have applied this concept to the case of Ukraine and examined how the workers movement and its social-democratic parties dealt with the national question from their inception in the late nineteenth century up to and including the first year of the Revolution.

The historical debate

The historical literature on the Revolution and Civil War presents three distinct assessments of the efforts of the mass organisations and political parties of the working class in relation to the national question and the movement for independence. The first of these originated in the Ukrainian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party (USDWP), one of the parties vanquished in the Revolution. Volodymyr Vynnychenko, a prominent USDWP leader has argued that

in its great majority, our proletariat was denationalised and Russified by force of historical circumstances. Because of this we did not have a broad proletarian base… to support us… to demand resoluteness from us… We rested on the peasantry, not on the poor strata but for the most part on the well-to-do peasants who were more politically mature and conscious.

           Instead of going to our proletariat even though it had not awakened nationally, instead of awakening it and drawing social resoluteness and confidence from it… approaching it with a social programme and giving it national leadership, we turned away from it. We became scared of it and even of the peasants who went after the proletariat. That was our main mistake and shortcoming.8

Vynnychenko attributed the failure of the national independence movement to attract working-class support mainly to the USDWP’s own limitations. On the other hand, Isaak Mazepa, another USDWP leader, stressed more the subjective and organisational immaturity of the Ukrainian speaking proletariat:

… the Ukrainian nation began to awaken and muster its forces only a few decades before the outbreak of the revolution. It is not surprising that the trade union and political organisation of the Ukrainian proletariat began considerably later than among the Russians and that the Ukrainian intelligentsia approached its proletarian masses very late in the day…. The Ukrainian proletariat proved young and disorganised. The revolution came too soon for it.9

The leaders of the vanquished Social Democrats and others, such as the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR), continued in exile to debate their defeat in the Civil War at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Their thinking about 1917 evolved from regarding it as a social revolution, as they had called it in 1917, to remembering it also, and even more so, as a national liberation struggle. They attributed the defeat of their state building efforts to an immature Ukrainian proletariat, which denied them an adequate social base in the cities, and to a Russian proletariat hostile towards any kind of Ukrainian state.

The second interpretation of working-class practice on the national question, which became dominant among Soviet Ukrainian historians, originated in a debate among the victors of the Civil War at the end of the 1920s. After the Civil War, the Bolsheviks embarked upon a programme of “indigenisation” or “Ukrainisation”, in order to broaden the social base of their regime from its narrow, mainly Russian and Jewish urban base.  The ranks of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine (CP(B)U) were swelled by large numbers of Ukrainians for the first time, among them former members of the USDWP and UPSR, their rivals in the Civil War. This second interpretation was advanced by the Stalinist faction that fought “nationalist deviations” appearing in CP(B)U as a result of the Ukrainian influx. It guided party thinking and historical scholarship thereafter, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was made up of several interlocking propositions: that the working class was the leading force in the Revolution; that its Russian section led the other nations in the working class; that the Communist Party led the working class as a whole; and that the national question was of insignificant concern in the order of problems faced by the working class. This set of propositions provided a clear framework in which Soviet scholars from the 1930s onwards explained how the working class came to power in the Revolution and Civil War, established a multinational state of its own and resolved the national question in the process.10

One of its most serious consequences was the committal of all other parties of the working class to historical oblivion. The Mensheviks, USDWP and Bund were seldom mentioned. When they were, it was to the tune of accompanying epithets as to their “opportunist,” “bourgeois nationalist” or “counterrevolutionary” activities. Another consequence was the studious denial of the peasantry, the class that had a greater social weight than the working class and that deeply affected the fortunes of all urban based state building projects.

The so-called state school of the history of the Revolution and Civil War provides a third interpretation of the role of the working class with regard to the national question. Ukrainian historians after 1991 were freed from the restrictions of Stalinist historiography to approach the revolutionary period 1917-21 from a wide variety of perspectives, to focus on the full spectrum of its participants. However, almost without exception, they adopted the term and concept of the “Ukrainian revolution” and the explanatory framework of national liberation struggle or movement. They rejected the concept and the study of the social revolution of this period and considered the parties and movements that addressed it as such as carriers of a foreign ideology. So, too, they downplayed, if not denied, the links of the Ukrainian revolution to the Russian, and of the turbulent growth of the national movement to the democratic gains made by the February 1917 overthrow of Tsarism.11

This school, which has dominated the field of enquiry into this period since 1991, identifies with the conclusions reached by moderate and conservative participants in the Revolution and Civil War, with individuals like Dmytro Doroshenko12 and organisations like the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Federalists (UPSF). In addition to its basic proposition that a national liberal struggle, rather than a social revolution, lay at the heart of the upheavals of 1917-21, this school also contends that the behaviour and choices of elite forces, rather than of the masses of workers and peasants, determined the outcome of this struggle. It concludes that Ukrainian elites of the time made the wrong choices by favouring radical social policies and downplaying the task of independent nation state building; and, ultimately, that the Ukrainian masses succumbed to the demagogy of foreign, Bolshevik forces and so abandoned their leaders and the struggle for their own nation state.

The state school’s propositions provoke several important questions that this study seeks to answer. Were indeed the social revolution and the national liberation struggle counterposed as mutually exclusive alternatives in the reasoning and the actions of participants in the Revolution and Civil War? If not, then just how did they understand the relationship between them in a broader, unifying historical process? Finally, can we speak of a social class as a subject, a maker of history? In other words, did the working class demonstrate any capacity for independent reasoning and action, or should we accept the proposition of the primacy of elites in the revolutionary process of those times? In the following chapters, I consider these three interpretations of a turbulent period of Ukraine’s history as I attempt to disclose the relationship of the working class to the national question of that time on the basis of my own study of the original source.

  • 1.Mykyta Shapoval, Velyka Revoliutsiia i Ukrains’ka Vyzvolna Prohrama (Prague: Vilna Spilka i Ukrainskyi Robitnychyi Instytut, 1927), 251.
  • 2.Mykyta Shapoval (1882-1931) – poet, literary critic, agronomist and political activist; founding member of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (UPSR) and an organiser of the November 1918 uprising against Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky’s regime. Exiled in Czechoslovakia after the Civil War, he helped establish several organisations, including the Ukrainian Workers’ Institute in Prague. Shapoval also co-edited the journal Nova Ukraina with the Ukrainian Social-Democratic leader Volodymyr Vynnychenko.
  • 3.Bohdan Krawchenko, Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth Century Ukraine. (Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1985), 206.
  • 4.They are the Right Bank provinces (of the Dnipro River) of Kyiv, Podillia and Volyn’; the Left Bank provinces of Chernihiv, Poltava and Kharkiv; and the southern provinces of Katerynoslav, Kherson and Tavria. In this study the Right and Left Bank provinces are also referred to as the northern tier provinces. At the eastern edge of the tier, Kharkiv shared characteristics of economic development both with the other five, largely agrarian, northern provinces and the industrialising south. Strictly speaking, the industrialising provinces were in the southeastern part of Ukraine but are referred to simply as the southern provinces or “the south.”
  • 5.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Parts I and III, edited and with an introduction by R. Pascal (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 8-16, 21-27, 43-44.
  • 6.Marx studied the beginning of this process. In Capital, vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977), 425 he writes: “A new and international division of labour, a division suited to the requirements of the chief centres of modern industry springs up, and converts one part of the globe into a chiefly agricultural field of production for supplying the other part which remains a chiefly industrial field.”
  • 7.Michael Hechter, Internal Colonialism. The Celtic Fringe in British National Development (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1975) 33-39.
  • 8.Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Vidrodzhennia Natsii, 3 vols. (Kyiv-Vienna: Dzvin, 1920), 2:97.
  • 9.Isaak Mazepa, Bol’shevyzm i Okupatsiia Ukrainy. Sotsiial’no-ekonomichni prychyny nedozrilosty syl ukrains’koi revoliutsii (Lviv-Kyiv: Znattia to Syla, 1922), 17-18.
  • 10.P. Hrytsenko, Robitnychi Fortetsi Sotsialistychnoi Revoliutsii (Kyiv: Naukova Dumka, 1965); P. P. Hudzenko, Sotsialistychna Natsionalizatsiia Promyslovosti v Ukrains’kii RSR (Kyiv: Naukova Dumka, 1965); I. O. Hurzhii, Zarodzhennia Robitnychoho Klasu Ukrainy (kinets XVIII – persha polovyna XIX st.) (Kyiv: Derzhavne Vydavnytstvo Politychnoi Literatury URSR, 1958); Yu. Y. Kirianov, Rabochie Iuga Rossii 1914 – fevral 1917 g. (Moscow : Izdatelstvo Nauka, 1971); F. Ie. Los, gen. ed, I. O. Hurzhii, I. T. Shcherbyna, O. I. Luhova, eds. Istoriia Robitnychoho Klasu URSR , 2 vols. (Kyiv : Naukova Dumka, 1967); O. O. Nesterenko, Rozvytok Promyslovosti na Ukraini. Chastyna II (Kyiv: Vydavnytstvo Akademii Nauk URSR, 1962); Ye. M. Skliarenko, Robitnychyi Klas Ukrainy v Roky Hromadians’koi Viiny (Kyiv: Naukova Dumka, 1966); and Narys Istorii Profspilkovoho Rukhu na Ukraini 1917-20 (Kyiv: Naukova Dumka, 1974).
  • 11.A comprehensive review of Ukrainian historical writing about this period is provided by Valeriii Soldatenko, “Novi pidkhody v osmyslenniu istorychnoho dosvidu i urokiv revoliutsiinoi doby 1917-20 rr. v Ukraini”, Naukovi pratsi istorychnoho fakul’tetu Zaporiz’koho Derzhavnoho Universytetu,No. 24, 2008; 93-203.
  • 12.Doroshenko, Dmytro. Moi Spomyny pro Nedavnie Mynule, 1914-20. (Munich: Ukrainske Vydavnytstvo, 1969); Istoriia Ukrainy. 2nd ed. (Augsburg: P. Pohasyi, 1947).
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