The Finnish Communist Revolution (1918) PART 3: FAILURE OF REFORMISM

2550 -1809 8106 . N26809,137519

In the years immediately prior to the revolution, the Finnish socialists were heavily reformist. The party had always wanted to act legally and win concessions from the capitalist class. Eventually all attempts at reformism would end up in failure and in late 1917-early 1918 the party would find itself pushed to a revolutionary situation against its will by the objective conditions, the masses and the actions of the capitalist class. But before that in the period of 1916 to 1917 the social-democrats exhausted every avenue of legal reformism before ever seriously considering revolutionary action: parliamentarism, trade-unionism, demanding of concessions. Each attempt ended in failure, in the end making a violent class conflict unavoidable.

 

THE 1916 ELECTION VICTORY: Attempt at parliamentary reformism

The first grand moment for reformism was the historic election victory of 1916 where the socialists emerged as the largest party and held a parliamentary majority.

“…in the elections of 1916 the social-democratic party of Finland won (as the first workers’ party in the world) an absolute majority of parliamentary seats (103 seats out of 200). This was an enormous victory and persuaded the social-democrats to believe that under normal political conditions, when the parliament would function, laws favorable to the workers could be implemented peacefully.

Indeed, Finland unexpectedly gained such favorable conditions without any struggle from its part. In Petrograd [Russia], workers and soldiers overthrow czarism. In Finland, state of war ended and bourgeois democratic liberties were returned… Finns received the opportunity to create their own government, the senate. Governor-general Seyn and chairman of the senate Borovitinov were imprisoned and taken to Petrograd (where they were released). Stakhovich, a liberal more favorable to Finland, was appointed governor-general. It is doubtful that Finland could have expected conditions any more favorable under the Russian bourgeois republic.

Immediately after the overthrow of czardom, Finnish workers began creating first in the capital and then also in rural areas their own representative bodies, workers’ “representative assemblies” modeled after the Russian soviets… Representative assemblies (called soviets in some localities) functioned alongside local governing bodies (which had previously not been open to lower classes) and took part in administration. ”

(Holodkovski, The Finnish Workers’ Revolution 1918, pp.8-9)
“The party’s membership began to increase once again in 1916. One reason was the success that social-democrats got in the parliament elections… Among the important questions in the victorious elections of 1916, were the worsening food situation, and attitude towards the increasingly russified Finnish senate [the socialists wanted to give power from the senate to the Parliament, while the bourgeoisie supported the senate]. However the most important theme of the elections was the tenant-farmer question. Every party had their tenant-farmer program but the social-democrats put special emphasis on this question.”
(Suodenjoki & Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: Luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Vasemmistolainen työväenliike Pirkanmaalla osa 1), pp.181-182)

Due to obstructionism from the capitalist class and from Tsarist Russia, the social-democrats were forced into a coalition government, hindering their work:

“The social-democratic party, which had won the majority now possessed the unquestionable right to form a government. However the matter was made more difficult by the fact that the social-democratic party would have had to collaborate with bourgeois parties, which in socialist circles would have been considered betrayal of working class interests. For this reason the social-democrats announced on 23. of march their refusal to form a government, and to leave it up to bourgeois parties. Bourgeois parties were also afraid to take responsibility to form a senate. At that point the governor-general’s assistant Korff announced that unless a new senate is formed, the old Russian senate “loyal to the czar” would remain in power. This would have been intolerable. The social-democrats had to change their position on forming the senate… In their opinion, it was acceptable to form a government with representatives from the social-democratic party and the [petty-bourgeois] agrarian league, i.e. representatives from the workers’ and peasants’ parties. Again disagreements arose. The agrarian league demanded that representatives of bourgeois parties also be invited to join in the government. In this way, the social-democrats failed to avoid a coalition government.” (Holodkovski, p.9)

“Soon it became even more evident that social-democrats would not achieve much through parliamentary methods, despite their strong position in the highest government organs of Finland (half the senate seats and majority in the parliament). Bourgeois senators could rely on the chairman of the senate, the governor-general if the need arose, and his vote could at any moment grant them majority. Later [revolutionary leader and founder of the Finnish communist party] Kuusinen compared the coalition senate to a stubborn bull which was being pulled forward by its horns by the social-democrats and back by its tail by the bourgeoisie, the bull never moving at all. Additionally the Russian provisional government intervened in Finnish affairs and Finland could not resist its actions… Objective conditions did not allow social-democratic senators the opportunity to improve the position of the workers. The role of the social-democratic senators was limited to collaborating with the bourgeoisie, attempting to minimize the dissatisfaction of the population and in reality to strengthen the type of government which did not fulfill the interests of the population… The senate was stripped of its reputation before it could even do anything. But even when it did act, it didn’t win respect in the eyes of the workers but instead began receiving their scorn.”(Holodkovski, p.10)

“The social-democrats’ participation in the highest executive organ only put them in a bad light in the eyes of the workers, because the workers didn’t benefit from it.

The activity of social-democrats in the parliament proved much the same. Social-democrats only had little over half the seats. But passing changes to important laws (e.g. the constitution or reforms to taxation laws) required a two thirds majority.

The senate and parliament were the typical arena of the social-democrats’ legal activity. Legal activism is possible also in non-revolutionary situations, and therefore it was not characteristic to that time period. What was characteristic to the situation, was the ever larger non-parliamentary action by the working population. The large size of the popular movement is explained by the increased dissatisfaction of the workers, removel of the threat of repression by the authorities and the inspiring effect of the revolutionary activities of the Russian soldiers and sailors. Non-parliamentary methods corresponded to the needs of the active struggle by the people.” (Holodkovski, p.11)

The social-democrat government came to an end when the Russian Provisional Government dismantled the Finnish parliament after the social-democrats together with the agrarian league passed the Power Act, a bill for Finnish independence, making the Finnish parliament independent from Russia. The capitalists worked together with Russia to destroy the social-democrat government and to prevent this bill from being implemented. (See episode 1 of this series about the independence struggle of Finland.)

Thus due to obstructionism the social-democrats’ parliamentary hopes were frustrated. Nothing was achieved but they lost credibility in the eyes of their supporters. At the same time the capitalists were motivated to unite and campaign harder in order to combat the social-democrats in the parliament. The social-democrats no longer could inspire the same level of confidence in their voters as before. They also had a confused policy of opposing the illegal dismantling of the Finnish government by Russia, but still not boycotting the elections to create a new government. This did not help them gain support. The people thought: “what was the point of voting for them, if they would achieve nothing and the parliament would be dismantled again?”

“Social-democrats suffered a defeat in the elections of october 1-2 [1917], which surprised them. Although, the amount of social-democrat votes increased, it was 444,608 when it had been 376,030 in previous elections. [source: J. Paasivirta, Suomen itsenäisyyskysymys 1917 [Finnish independence question 1917], II, pp. 41-44]
The increase in votes of other parties was larger, e.g. the agrarian league grew by 71,6%.
[source: H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina, [civil war as documents] pp. 186-188]
The development of events in the summer and fall of 1917 lead to parliamentarism being seen more and more as a dissappointment by the workers. The social-democrats joining in the government (senate), any more then their parliamentary majority, did not bring significant improvements to the workers. “The people’s paper” made the following summary about the 10 year history of the single chamber parliament:

“Now ten years later we have returned to our starting point and can see that we are just as far from our goals as we were ten years ago… The task of the single chamber, most democratic parliament in the world, has been in these ten years, to sink into sand the foaming stream of progress and change, which then was unleashed by revolution.”
[source:
H. Soikkanen, p.153]

The paper explained that the workers had gone through a hard schooling. They began to understand that the strength of the working class was not in the amount of votes, but in the power and fighting capacity of their fighting class organizations. The paper emphasized that it was possible to mention achievements during this period of ten years, but all of them had been achived through non-parliamentary means. [source: H. Soikkanen, p.154]

These things were written about 2 months before the dismantling of the [Finnish] parliament [by the Russian provisional government to stifle Finnish independence]. The dismantling of the parliament destroyed the last parliamentary illusions and demonstrated the complete unreliability of bourgeois promises.” (Holodkovski, p.38)

 

“WE DEMAND”: Still hoping for peaceful reforms

Reformism suffered a severe blow after the social-democrats inability to pass any reforms during the time when they had parliamentary majority. The capitalist parties together with Russia destroyed the social-democrat majority and defeated them in elections. The social-democrats could no longer hope to pass laws and instead chose to rely on the support of the masses and directly demand concessions from the bourgeoisie:

“On December 1. when the new parliament was in session, the social-democratic leadership published their programmatic declaration “We demand”, which presented the basic demands of the workers. To combat the food shortages it urged to confiscate all food stores, to put production and trade of goods under strict control and distribute goods equally and with reasonable prices. The declaration demanded that the unemployed be given work at adequate wages. New municipal elections had to be carried out according to the newly passed law. [These would be the first municipal elections where workers had equal votes with capitalists. In the previous system, people with more property were entitled to more votes.] Officialdom is to be purged of reactionaries and made democratic. The white guard must be dismantled. The 8-hour working day must immediately be implemented. Tenant farmers and farm workers are to be made rightful owners of their homes and land… An insurence system for the elderly must be created and the tax system reformed. In questions dealing with the sovereign rights of Finland it was urged that the Power Act, accepted by the parliament on 18th of February be published and insisted on guaranteeing the internal autonomy of Finland until the question of Finnish independence has been solved in full. It was also demanded that a constitutional assembly be created and given unlimited authority in solving the country’s affairs and to accept a new constitution. Elections to the constitutional assembly were to be carried out equally among all citizens 20 years or older and decisions must be passed in the assembly with a simple majority. [source: И. И. Сюкияйнен Революционные события 1917-1918, [revolutionary events 1917-1918] pp. 286-289] (cf. Suodenjoki & Peltola, pp. 245-246)

These were the demands of Finnish social-democrats at that time. They didn’t attack the base of the capitalist system, but demanded a substantial limiting of the selfish interests of the ruling classes as well as the weakening of these classes in the government alongside a strengthening of the workers.

The bourgeois majority in the parliament refused these demands as entirely unacceptable. A week after the “We demand” declaration, it was already clear where revolutionary and non-revolutionary methods lead under similar conditions: Lenin’s tactics lead to the world historic victory of socialist revolution in Russia, but the tactics of Finnish social-democrats lead to the bourgeoisie ignoring all the demands of the Finnish working class and the electoral achievements of the social-democrats ended up being worth nothing.” (Holodkovski, pp. 41-42)

The “We Demand” document was naturally limited to simple reforms, but even those could not be achieved. The capitalist class was simply not willing to make compromises. Concessions could not be gained by begging but only by forcing the capitalists to give them!

 

THE DECEMBER 1917 GENERAL STRIKE: Workers take matters into their own hands

After attempts to pass reforms through the parliament had failed, and capitalists had refused to give them, the masses were ready to take them by force, to make life tolerable for the Finnish people. A minority of the social-democrat leaders suggested beginning a working class revolution, but majority still wanted to only pressure the capitalists to force them into concessions.

“Because the bourgeois majority in the parliament paid no heed to the workers’ demands, they began a general strike on the night of December 14. [The leading social-democratic body] The revolutionary central committee presented the strikers’ demands in a declaration titled “Working people to battle for bread and rights! Stop the presses!” (Hyvönen, p.53)

“On December 12. part of the Revolutionary Central Committee and representatives of the trade-unions held a joint meeting… Kuusinen proposed that if the parliament doesn’t satisfy the workers’ demands about the rationing of food, helping the unemployed, extending the municipal voting rights to workers etc. then the workers must take power into their own hands. Some others shared this opinion… Gylling, Pietikäinen, Visa, Väisänen and Saarikivi – opposed beginning a revolution. In their opinion the workers would not be able to keep power for long. Many thought it unlikely that the workers could handle massive nationwide problems. Majority opposed taking power. The decision to pressure the bourgeoisie and attempt to win the reforms of the “We demand”-proclamation, was passed with 18 votes against 8. To help these reforms pass even partially the social-democrats divided them into 6 separate propositions and the demands which offended the bourgeoisie the most – the demand for calling a constitutional assembly and dismantling the white guard – were dropped entirely.” (Holodkovski, pp.50-51) (Cf. E. Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti, p. 17)

This demonstrates that the leadership in late 1917 was divided into revolutionaries and reformists. The reformists constituted a solid majority of 18 against 8. The social-democrat party did everything it could, to appease the workers and begged the capitalists to grant reforms which were denied, nearly every single time. And when ever a reform was granted, it was not due to the action of the social-democrats but because the workers took matters into their own hands.

“The 4th Congress of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation met on December 12. [1917]. It pointed out that the conditions of the workers were so hopeless and unbearable, that unless the congress is ready to make radical decisions, the workers will take matters into their own hands. The food question was top most in importance… Many… deputees saw revolution as the only thing that could save the workers from starvation. Deputee Hakkinen said that unless the working class rises up to fight they will all starve to death… Deputee Pyttynen said that in Ostrobothnia the workers were eagerly waiting for the decisions of the congress and were willing to die in order to put them into effect… The deputee from Tampere said that workers of the city have decided to either win or die. Deputee Lampinen said that in many localities the workers have already began to take action, because it is better to die in battle then to do nothing and die of hunger. Some delegates said that they had been told by the workers, that unless the congress accepted radical decisions the delegates would not be welcomed back. The workers were not worried about the shortage of weapons. The delegate from Tornio said the Russian soldiers had promised they would have weapons. The delegate from Oulu also said the soldiers sided with the revolution.
[source: H. Soikkainen, pp.353-356]

The attitude of the workers was generally so firm, that there could never be a better time for revolution. However the attitude of the popular masses inspired uneasiness among some working class leaders. These leaders did not aim to overthrow the capitalists but to only pressure them and force them to accept the most important demands, in order to dissolve the revolutionary energy that had built up.

The congress of trade-union organizations published a declaration on December 13. which stated that nothing had been done in order to satisfy the demands which the trade-union delegation had made to the senate on October 20. The trade-union congress demanded that the parliament order the senate already that same day, to implement the Power Act [of Finnish sovereignty], the 8-hour working day and give parliament the right to control all of government. If this was not done, the workers would begin a general strike, the responsibility of which would fall to the bourgeoisie.”
(Holodkovski, pp.51-52)

“The general strike put forward the same demands that had been presented in the “We demand”-programme, demanded solving of the food crisis and unemployment, implementation of the power act [which guaranteed Finnish independence from capitalist Russia], fair municipal elections as well as the 8-hour working day, freeing the tenant farmers from the landlords, extending electoral rights to all citizens age 20 or older, taxing the rich and calling a constitutional assembly. The social-democratic deputies presented these demands in the parliament on behalf of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation on December 13th. The demands were read aloud by deputy Vuoristo who further appealed to the [capitalist] deputies with these words: “After the great masses have seen these demands, —it is no longer in our power to control or lead the situation—history and the minutes of the meeting will demonstrate that from our side we have attempted a peaceful solution. You have every single time refused—I wonder if you still refuse—these modest demands, which you yourselves have claimed to support, and yet have not implemented. Will you plunge our nation into catastrophe because you refuse such modest demands?” (Hyvönen, pp.60-61)

“Social-democrat Vuoristo read the declaration in parliament and emphasized it was supported by 170,000 trade-union workers, as well as all the politically organized workers, i.e. 250,000 citizens.” [source: minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.98-99] (Holodkovski, p.52, )

“The general strike of 1905 had involved also the bourgeois officials and no bourgeois party had dared to oppose it. The 1917 general strike on the other hand was of a different character. It began from the atmosphere created by the October Revolution, as a revolutionary struggle of the working class and poor rural population against the bourgeoisie. In 1905 the workers had already fought against their own national bourgeoisie when it had allied with the Russian Czar to minimize the democratic parliamentary reform. But in the general strike of 1917 the workers targeted primarily the bourgeoisie of their own country and fundamentally it was nothing else then a struggle for power. The strike spread accross the country and gained right away the character of a sharp class conflict. At this stage the bourgeoisie didn’t yet feel themselves strong enough to enter into open conflict with the workers. The bourgeoisie did have a fairly extensive network of white guard organizations and it had received more then 7000 rifles from Germany along with other weapons. But the initiative was with the workers, and the strike could paralyze the entire country’s transportation, even administration. In the largest working class population centers power was in the hands of worker militias, workers’ “delegate assemblies” [soviets] or councils of working class organizations. Tens of thousands of workers and peasants joined the militias which began to declare themselves red guards. In many localities workers occupied police stations and regional government buildings, and confiscated food and weapons hidden away by the bourgeoisie. The development of the strike in this way lead to a sharpening of class antagonisms.” (Hyvönen, pp.61-62)

Revolutionary leader Yrjö Sirola described the situation in this way:

“The strike spread quickly all over the country and acquired a revolutionary character. The working class was no longer satisfied in asking for the reforms presented in the “We demand”-programme and the disarming of white guard organizations, but began demanding conquest of power. In reality, in large parts of the country (especially in cities and rural working class centers) power was already uncontestedly in the hands of revolutionary working class organizations.” (Sirola, Suomen luokkasota)
The workers take control of cities all over the country.

“…the Revolutionary central committee received messages through the telegraph and telephone from all parts of the country, demonstrating that the tide of revolution was rising ever higher and that everywhere, the workers were masters of the situation and full of fighting spirit. In Kajaani the strike committee informed that the town administration was under its control and everything was peaceful. The revolutionary committee of Tornion informed that power was in the hands of the workers and steps are being taken to solve the food crisis. In Mikkeli workers occupied the police building as well as telegraph and telephone station and forced the governor to obey the people’s demands. The mood of the workers was fierce. The workers’ revolutionary committee in Vaasa informed that the workers have occupied the regional government, sealed the rooms and posted guards, and that everything was peaceful. The workers’ soviet of Oulu telegraphed that the workers have occupied the police station, railway station, telegraph and telephone stations and regional government. Factories, shops and schools have been closed, without conflicts. Messages came from Heinola informing about the eager fighting will of the workers. Information coming from Joensuu and Jyväskylä stated that power was in the hands of the workers. Telegraphs came from Turku, Pori, Riihimäki and Ruotsinpyhtää stating that worker militias are keeping revolutionary order, confiscating weapons from the bourgeoisie and arresting the most active counter-revolutionaries. Worker organizations of Lappeenranta were carrying out inspections to discover the bourgeoisies’ hidden food stores and had already confiscated 16 tons of grain. The working people of Oulunkylä confiscated food and alcoholic beweriges from the bourgeoisie (under the law, the production and sale of alcohol was prohibited, so the bourgeoisie was breaking the law).

Here and there, worker militias had to face the white guards but gained the upper hand. The white guard of Tammisaari managed to drive the workers away from the telephone station for a while but soon the red guards took it over again. In Jyväskylä, Sortavala and Oitti the bourgeois broke the phone lines but almost everywhere the workers managed to repair them.” (Holodkovski, pp. 64-65)

“The strike spread to encompass the whole country. The industries of every city and every countryside municipality stopped work. A total of 832 enterprises participated in the strike, partial strikes were held in 112 enterprises. 10 enterprises stayed out of the strike. None of the newspapers could appear, except “The information bulletin of the workers’ revolutionary central committee” and local revolutionary committee and strike committee bulletins.

The workers saw the general strike as the beginning of a proletarian revolution and not simply a stoppage of work. All over the country they created red guard chapters. Russian troops partially helped to solve the weapon question of the red guards and worker militias. In Helsinki the workers acquired 3000 rifles from the arsenal of Vyborg shipyard (which were returned after the strike) [source: A. Taimi, Sivuja Eletystä, pp. 228-229, 231]. In Tampere the workers had 300 rifles, in Kotka 600, in Vyborg 300 etc. [source: Lehen, p.86] Workers occupied all the most important locations in the cities, took control of the media and transportation, conducted house searches in the houses of the bourgeoisie, confiscated any weapons they found and arrested the most hated counter-revolutionaries. The white guards did not dare to resist the worker’s highly unified and organized actions, apart from a few exceptions. The bourgeois authority was crippled. The bourgeois police academy… was shut down. From all municipalities, messages came announcing that power was in the hands of the workers. The working class had the opportunity to fully conquer state power, and besides, possibly without any serious resistance or bloodshed, as the events had caught the bourgeoisie off guard and it was unprepared for civil war. A revolutionary situation had arisen in the country.” (Holodkovski, pp.54-55)

The December 1917 general-strike would have been the perfect opportunity for a revolution. The capitalists were caught off-guard, they were not armed or prepared sufficiently to oppose the workers, who easily took control with very little resistance. But a revolution was not what the majority of social-democrat leaders were hoping for. They were frightened by the turn of events. The masses had simply organized without the reformist leaders and taken more bold action then their supposed leaders had wanted. The social-democratic party was now forced to consider whether to support an outright workers’ revolution or to oppose it.

 

FACTIONS INSIDE THE PARTY: Reformists, Centrists, Revolutionaries and Counter-revolutionaries.

White propaganda written in the 30s also admits that instead of advocating for revolution “The social-democrats didn’t have the courage to order a rebellion, but instead warned against individual actions and told the workers to keep united.”
(Erkki Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti, p. 15)

“At the same time as the working class was ready for revolution and rising for battle, [source: “Финляндия революция”, стр. 26.] the majority in the Revolutionary Central Committee considered revolution to be dangerous in that situation. Why did an attitude of compromise triumph in the working class leaders, while a few months later [in january 1918] a revolutionary attitude gained the upper hand despite the situation no longer being favorable? [source: Lehen, p.107]

In December 1917 the social-democratic party functioned under the prevailing understanding of class struggle. The theoretical level of the party was low, it interpreted principles of revolution and class struggle in a backward way.* According to [revolutionary leader] Yrjö Sirola, a left-wing faction, centrist faction and a right-wing faction all lived harmoniously in the party and the centrists were the leading group, with their left-kautskyite theories.** Sirola considered himself to have belonged to this group…” (Holodkovski, p. 55)

*[source: “40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125. (“40 years of the workers’ revolution in Finland.” “New and Newest History”, 1958, No 2, p. 125.)]
**[source: Предисловие Ю. Сирола к тезисам ЦК КПФ. “Пролетарская революция”, 1928, No 8 (78), стр. 168. (Y.Sirola’s preface to the theses of the Central Committee of the Finnish Communist Party. “The Proletarian Revolution”, 1928, No 8 (78), p. 168.)]

“Sirola explained that this left-wing consisted of instinctively revolutionary workers without conscious Bolshevik leadership. The left-wing faction became stronger and more active after the October Revolution. [source: “40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125. (“40 years of the workers’ revolution in Finland.” “New and Newest History”, 1958, No 2, p. 125.)]

The working class leaders of that time had no familiarity with Lenin’s theoretical works, partially due to the fact that they didn’t speak Russian, but more because they were not very interested in the Bolshevik’s struggle against opportunism or issues of the international working class movement. Here is an illustrative example. In June of 1917 at the 9th congress of the Finnish social-democratic party Bolshevik representatives Alexandra Kollontai and Jukka Rahja [a Finnish bolshevik] encouraged Finnish social-democrats to join the Zimmerwald current [which opposed the imperialist world war one]. Valpas replied that the party majority was not on the Zimmerwald side.

“The extreme right-wing of the majority is more right-wing then the famous Branting, it is almost petit-bourgeois and in the party executive committee that has been the leading tendency” and in questions of class struggle it is of the same opinion as Branting and Scheidemann [social-chauvinists and reformists] [source: Soikkanen, I, p. 94].

Kuusinen who spoke later, said: “It is true that Zimmerwalds, Scheidemanns, Thomases etc. are very vague concepts to us. If Rahja is going to question us about international politics, starting with the question of which groups are now Zimmerwaldian, then we are going to make a great many mistakes.” Rahja interjected: “You have been together with the bourgeoisie and for that reason can’t even recognize social-democrats.”

Kuusinen replied: “Yes, it is partially because of that, but also because we are so far away from those international politics… but I think its not so dangerous if we here make a decision somewhat with our ‘eyes closed’ to follow the decision of our Russian comrades and join with the Zimmerwald… We trust you. Valpas says that it would be incorrect since we are more bourgeois then the Zimmerwaldians. That is true. From what I personally know about the Zimmerwaldians I do think that they take a more extreme stance then us here in Finland.”[source: Soikkanen, I, pp. 96-97] (Holodkovski, pp.56-57)
“Before the October revolution in Russia and in the early weeks of the revolution, the stance of Finnish social-democrats was that a socialist revolution could only succeed in large western industrial countries. Three days after the Bolshevik revolution, Kuusinen said in a speech to the parliament that the question of proletarian revolution would not be solved in Finland but

“it would be settled in Europe. It also won’t be settled in Russia but in Russia, Germany, England, all of them together and possibly nearly at the same time. Unless a proletarian revolution comes from there, it won’t happen in Finland either…”
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57)

From the above statement it follows logically that the Finnish socialists didn’t feel the need to urgently prepare for a socialist revolution, until it happened in the Western countries. Because otherwise the Finnish revolution would suffer defeat, and therefore the working classes had to be prevented from taking this premature and ill-advised step. There was the danger that the revolutionary working class would turn its back on the leaders [as it later did] and would start to follow the firm supporters of revolution without delay. For this reason the more radical of the leaders had to keep up appearances and act thus, to not cause disappointment amont revolutionary workers and to not let them out of their influence, even if they didn’t truly support revolution. They had to pretend to be much more left-wing then they really were, and emphasize that they supported uncompromising class struggle and won’t collaborate with the bourgeosie. That way they kept their authority among the left-wing working class. The siltasaari [center-left] faction founded its policy on this basis. In the party congress in 1917 Kuusinen described the policy of the times in the following way:

“Personally, I would now take quite a revisionist stance. In normal circumstances I would try to support class struggle. But it probably won’t hurt to take a [public] stand that is more radical then the actual practice. That is how this party has always been. We have always given an image of ourselves to the outside, which is slightly more radical then we really are. We have had class struggle as such a dogma right from the beginning, that if someone were to speak against it, they would have been condemned by the party.”
(Minutes of the 9. congress of the Finnish social-democratic party)

To have understood the falsity of the deeply rooted dogmas of Western social-democracy would have required serious reconsideration and becoming accustomed with Lenin’s works. Those who trusted in [German revisionist leader] Kautsky’s authority had only realized the falseness of some of Kautsky’s claims after looking into that theoretical work that some Bolsheviks had given to developing the theory and practice of Marxism. Lenin’s recommendations for Finnish social-democrats to take power, and his short letter of December 11. could not contain full argumentation and therefore didn’t have a significant enough impact on the Finns.” (Holodkovski, p. 57-58)

The factions in the social-democratic party altered over time. Initially there was a struggle between the counter-revolutionary revisionist right-wing faction and the left-wing “siltasaari” faction. However in 1917 a further split emerged:

1) the firm revolutionaries, armed masses, elements of trade-unions etc. formed a revolutionary left-wing tendency but as Sirola said, without Bolshevik leadership.

2) the “siltasaari” group which consisted of many social-democrat party leaders became a center-faction. They represented a left-menshevik, left-kautskyite tendency which supported revolution in theory but not in reality, believed Finland as a small peasant country wasn’t ready for revolution.

3) the counter-revolutionaries, open revisionists and reformists formed the right-wing. The leaders of this group such as Väinö Tanner would consistently oppose working class revolution throughout the civil war, would eventually denounce socialism and form the basis of modern Finnish social-democracy.

The social-democrat leaders saw the december general-strike would lead to a working class revolution which they saw as premature and inadvisable. Therefore they began aiming to end the strike and still wanted pushthe capitalists to grant concessions and appease the workers to prevent a revolution.

“The Revolutionary Central Committee [i.e social-democrat leadership] was being pressured from the right and the left. The majority of the social-democratic parliamentary group was nervous about the revolutionary character of the December general strike, and after receiving information that the strike had in some locations lead to bloodshed, it called its members away from Revolutionary Central Committee leaving only three members who it authorized to act in favor of ending the strike.
[source: “Explanation of the minutes of the 10. (extraordinary) congress of the Finnish social-democratic party held in Helsinki 25-27. December 1917”, by Anton Huotari as secretary, p.10]
The view of the workers’ militias was the opposite. On the evening of 15. December their representatives arrived at the meeting demanding firmer actions: disarming the white guards and taking power. If the meeting refused to do this, the workers would do it themselves. The Revolutionary Central Committee promised to give its answer by 8 o’clock the next morning. The meeting did not have time to discuss the matter because many of its members had to be in session of the parliament.

In the parliament the social-democrats tried for the last time to persuade the bourgeosie to realize that it was essential to grant at least some of the workers’ demands… In his speech to the parliament Kuusinen said:

“I am of the view that there could be unrest tomorrow, unless we who seek to calm down the workers, can finally demonstrate some real results from this parliament… We at least see it as beneficial if we could peacefully get over this critical period.”
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57)

“Valpas said in his speech that “The revolutionary movement has until now only taken the form of a strike movement” [source: Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I pp.56-57] and let it be understood that the situation could change as early as tomorrow, unless the parliament give the workers real results. The leadership of the strike did not consider itself capable of controlling the forces who demanded firm action…

After finally realizing the seriousness of the situation the bourgeosie agreed to some concessions. Alkio [from the petit-bourgeois Agrarian league] made the proposition that

“…the parliament would at least temporarily begin wielding that authority which had previously belonged to the Czar and grand duke.” [i.e. the Power Act would partially be implemented at least temporarily, making Finland a sovereign republic]
(Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917, I p. 220)

The social-democrats proposed that the parliament be made permanently and not temporarily the highest authority. The secretariat of the parliament proposed in the name of the bourgeos parliamentary group that the highest authority be given to the senate. Alkio’s proposal was accepted with 127 votes in favor, 68 against. Afterwards the parliament accepted the 8-hour working day and the municipal election reform.” (Holodkovski, p. 58-59)

The white guard propaganda book Svinhufvud and the independence senate also admits these facts. The author quotes from the same speech by Kuusinen on page 23.
“After the parliament session on night of December 16. the Revolutionary Central Committee continued its meeting, where the proposition of the workers’ militias “to take power” was discussed. The previous night the council of worker organizations had also joined in with this proposition. Finally at 5 o’clock in the morning it was decided with 14 votes against 11 to take power in the hands of the workers… Sirola was tasked with drafting the call to revolution. But soon some who had sided with revolution changed their minds and the whole vote was dropped.” (Holodkovski, p. 60)

White guard propaganda also confirms this saying:

“After a heated discussion the meeting decided with 14 votes against 11 to begin a revolution the next day… The fateful hour for our fatherland had not struck yet however. Before dawn some members of the central committee who had supported revolution changed their mind and the decision was dropped.” (Räikkönen, p. 24)

“On the morning of 16. December there appeared a declaration of the Revolutionary Central Committee which had been written before the call to revolution had been cancelled. It descibed the 8-hour working day and municipal reform by the parliament as entirely insufficient.” (Holodkovski, p. 60)

The declaration read:

“That is all! And even that, after many twists and turns. But it cannot satisfy the workers. It cannot. It will not be allowed. Not even a word has been spoken about solving the food crisis, not to even mention actions being taken. No action has been taken to combat unemployment. The lords of the parliament naturally don’t want to free the tenant-farmers. They oppose democratization of the state machine. They firmly close their pocket books from effective taxation. They do not wish to remove obstacles from voting rights, they abhore calling a constitutional assembly. They don’t plan to give up their butcher [white] guards. But they must be forced. Power has so far been wielded only by the bourgeoisie. It must now be taken into the hands of the workers. The strike must be continued, the bourgeois state machine must be taken under working class supervision, railroads etc. transportation and communication must be taken under the control of the workers, the bourgeoisie must be disarmed, its sabotage activity and armed resistance must be crushed, the worker guards must enforce revolutionary order, in the regions power belongs to local soviets and committees. The highest ruling body is the workers’ Revolutionary Central Committee. May everyone know their task. May everyone fulfill their duty. This way the revolutionary workers fight for their rights, to win bread.” (H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina p. 245)

“The declaration which emphasized that the demands which lead to the general strike were not even close to being satisfied, and therefore it was necessary to take even firmer actions, proved to be in stark contrast with the Revolutionary Central Committee’s actual policy. The majority of the central committee actually took the opinion that it was best to be satisfied with the concessions they had won, and to end the strike…

Later Sirola said about those days that setting up a proletarian dictatorship corresponded to such a degree with the hopes and wishes of the workers that if one of the leaders had had the courage to step up as the head of a workers’ government, the workers would have supported them, followed them and the revolution would have been carried out.” (Holodkovski, p. 61)

 

“RED SENATE”: The Final Reformist Utopia

The social-democrats had been lead to believe that a compromise with the capitalists could be reached. If the general-strike was ended and society returned to normal conditions, the capitalists would allow the social-democrats control of the senate. The social-democrats were not stupid enough to fully trust this proposition but still agreed to go along, as the other alternative would have been revolution.

“The leaders of the strike began negotiations with a few bourgeois representatives of the parliament about the creation of a socialist government “the legal way”, i.e. by a parliamentary decision. The bourgeois representatives implied that such a government could be formed if the strike was ended. The parliament couldn’t be pressured any further because its chairman had dissolved it for the duration of the strike. The social-democrats had opposed dissolving the parliament without success. Therefore, in order to create a social-democratic government through the parliament, the strike had to be ended. But were there any guarantees that the bourgeoisie would not betray its promise? It would have been childish to believe the promises of the bourgeoisie. The leaders of the strike understood this but still supported ending the strike. In their opinion the continuation of the strike and its escalation to a revolution could have disastrous consequences which had to be prevented. The policy of forming a socialist government through a parliamentary road was accepted, and it instantly reduced the revolutionary sentiment. Was there any need to use violence, if a red government could be created with the agreement of parliament? In light of these facts it is easy to understand the actions of the majority of Finnish working class leaders in December 1917.”
(Holodkovski, p.62)

“The Revolutionary Central Committee discussed the question of a red government and the strike on December 17. The minutes of the meeting speak of disunity… votes were divided evenly. Six members… supported social-democrat participation in government (…minutes don’t specify what this meant)… six members supported ending the strike without any further demands. No decision was reached.

A decision was accepted in the next meeting of the Revolutionary Central Committee which began at 2am December 18. and had a crucial significance. The participants of the meeting were told that the council of workers’ organizations of Helsinki unanimously support forming a workers’ government. The railway workers agree. On the other hand the majority of the social-democratic parliamentary group supports forming a red government through legal, i.e. parliamentary means… three proposals were presented: 1. forming a red government through parliamentary means, 2. forming a red government through non-parliamentary means and 3. to end the general strike without any further demands. Forming a red government through parliamentary means received 8 votes in favor… 8 members also opposed it. The vote of the chairman decided the question in favor of accepting the proposal. In the final vote the decision was accepted with 7 votes in favor, 5 against and 2 abstaining that the strike will be ended and the social-democratic parliamentary group is tasked with forming a red government through the parliament…” (Holodkovski, pp.62-63)
White guard propaganda also admits this saying:
“In the final vote it was decided at last with 7 votes in favor and 5 against – with 2 abstaining from voting –, that the strike will be ended and “the parliamentary group will be given the task to form a red government through the parliament”. By promising the frenzied masses a “red senate” it was possible to calm things down.” (Räikkönen, p. 27)

Meanwhile the proletarian and rural masses waited for developments.

“The local committees and soviets awaited at their telephones around the clock for revolutionary orders from the central leadership. They anxiously waited for instructions.

In such a situation, news began to spread that the Revolutionary Central Committee had decided to end the strike. To the workers this seemed at first to be unbelievable and monstrous. They didn’t believe it. In some places the telegraph which called for ending the strike, was seen as a provocation. [source: L. Letonmäki, Den finska socialdemokratin och revolutionen, p.7]

In Tampere the workers thought the members of their committee who announced the ending of the strike, were traitors who had been bribed by the bourgeoisie. When the members of the committee tried to defend themselves in a mass meeting, they were prevented from speaking with shouts of “down!”, “out!”, “traitors!”” (Holodkovski, p.65)

“Even after the news turned out to be true, hundreds of workers refused at first to obey the order to end the strike. From all corners of the country came confused and angry questions about why the strike should end… In Kotka, Lahti and Loviisa the workers rose up almost unanimously to oppose ending the strike. Those supporting the order of the Revolutionary Central Committee were pulled down from podiums. The workers of Kotka and Kymenlaakso voiced the slogan “Power to the workers”, “We must declare a proletarian dictatorship” and promised to mobilize and thousand men.[source: Punakaarti rintamalla. Luokkasodan muistoja, p.106]

The workers of Karjaa declared in their meeting that they don’t accept ending the strike because the results achived are insufficient, and said the measures outlined in the “We demand” proclamation absolutely had to be fulfilled. The workers of Karkkila unanimously accepted the following statement: “We don’t accept the decision of the Revolutionary Central Commitee. We must uncompromisingly hold on to the demands we put forward at the beginning of the strike; for that reason such a government must be created that will implement the Power Act, bring the tenant-farmer question to an acceptable conclusion etc. Also the regional and municipal governments must be taken in the workers’ hands. Forces must remain mobilized until working conditions and the food situation have been organized according to the new regime.”
[source: “Suurlakkotiedonantoja” [“general strike information bulletins”] n:o 1, 19.XI.1917.]

Similar decision was made by the workers of Lohja. News arrived in Helsinki that the decision to end the strike had caused unrest among the workers and meetings were held in several places. Those who supported ending the strike were accused of being traitors.” [source: И. И. Сюкияйнен, p. 129] (Holodkovski, p.66)

The masses had been ready for revolution. All they lacked as Sirola and Kuusinen later said, was Bolshevik leadership, which did not exist in Finland at the time.

The Revolutionary Central Committee published a declaration on 18. December titled “Class struggle without the general strike” which stated that:
“The bourgeosie’s black powergrab [attempt to build military dictatorship] has been defeated… power will be given to the hands of the parliament, and laws about municical democracy and 8-hour working day have been passed… Part of the parliament bourgeoisie have made emergency promises. They’ve promised improvements to the food policy. They have also promised to recognize and implement the ‘power act’ as a basis for democracy… They have also promised their support for freeing the tenant-farmers and other important demands… Their promises are not worth much however, unless the workers standby as a firm observing guardian, ready to attack if betrayal of the promises is discovered…” (H. Soikkanen, pp. 248-250)
The capitalists’ attempt to build a dictatorship will be discussed in a later episode.

“The [social-democrat] declaration [to end the strike] clearly demonstrates that they set as goals of the working class movement only those types of reforms and demands which did not directly attack the foundations of the capitalist system.” (Holodkovski, p. 67)

“The workers’ executive committee of Helsinki declared on 19. of December that: “Because a red senate has been formed and the general organized workers’ meetings… have today decided to end the strike, the workers’ executive committee of Helsinki informs that the strike is considered to be over by 2 p.m.” …words about the formation of a red senate do not reflect any reality: the senate was only being planned. However, for a few days this illusion was seen as a realistic possibility. The newspaper “The Worker” published advice from the workers to the red senate. The planned members of the red senate… held a meeting to plan the government’s program… The senate question ended exactly as Sirola had thought. It was childish to imagine in that situation that the bourgeois majority would have handed over the reigns of power to the social-democrats… the proposal for a red senate received only 80 votes. A 100 votes supported the bourgeois senate, Svinhufvud as its leader.” (Holodkovski, pp. 70-71)
A white guard author writes:
“On December 19. the workers’ executive committee finally declared the strike to be over, because a red senate had been formed. However this did not happen…” (Räikkönen, p. 27)

In this way all the attempts at peaceful reform failed. The capitalists did not grant any meaningful concessions or share power with the workers. The conditions still remained absolutely miserable in the country: long working days despite some industries officially accepting 8-hour working days on paper, and this obviously did not extend to farm workers, rural house servants or tenant-farmers, there was still no land reform, no ruling single chamber parliament, wages were too low to compete with inflation and black market prices of necessities and according to government estimates one quarter of the population was threatened by famine. See episode 2 of this series about the conditions of the people before the revolution.

The absolute failure of reformism to change the miserable conditions kept pushing the masses towards real revolutionary struggle. At the same time, now frightened by the unrest of the december general-strike and the strength of the masses, the capitalists began to rapidly arm themselves, to build a dictatorship and to prepare to crush the workers if they attempted to rise up and improve their lives.

SOURCES:

Holodkovski, Suomen Työväenvallankumous 1918

Suodenjoki & Peltola, Köyhä Suomen kansa katkoo kahleitansa: Luokka, liike ja yhteiskunta 1880-1918 (Vasemmistolainen työväenliike Pirkanmaalla osa 1)

J. Paasivirta, Suomen itsenäisyyskysymys 1917

H. Soikkanen, kansalaissota dokumentteina
И. И. Сюкияйнен Революционные события 1917-1918

Me vaadimme https://mltheory.files.wordpress.com/2019/05/me-vaadimme-julistus.pdf
E. Räikkönen, Svinhufvud ja itsenäisyyssenaatti

Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-1918

Minutes of the 2. Finnish diet 1917

Sirola, Suomen luokkasota

A. Taimi, Sivuja Eletystä

“Финляндия революция”

Tuure Lehen, Punaisten ja Valkoisten Sota

“40 лет рабочей революции в Финляндии.” “Новая и новейшая история”, 1958, No 2, стр. 125.

Предисловие Ю. Сирола к тезисам ЦК КПФ. “Пролетарская революция”, 1928, No 8 (78), стр. 168.
Minutes of the 9. congress of the Finnish social-democratic party

Explanation of the minutes of the 10. (extraordinary) congress of the Finnish social-democratic party held in Helsinki 25-27. December 1917

L. Letonmäki, Den finska socialdemokratin och revolutionen

“Suurlakkotiedonantoja”

Punakaarti rintamalla: Luokkasodan muistoja, ed. J. Lehtosaari

 

Advertisements

The Finnish Communist Revolution (1918) PART 2: The Eve of Revolution

taisto_huuskonen.jpg

“That flammable substance, which in January 1918 burst into full flame of armed conflict between the basic classes of Finnish society – workers and capitalists, had been accumulating for decades in the depths of this system. With the rise of capitalistic production, here too the struggle between labour and capital, between worker and capitalist, became the basic contradiction of the whole society. Unjust relations of landownership and the utterly vulnerable status of the vast masses of landless rural people, had created a situation where the capitalists had plenty of very cheap labour at their disposal. Finnish capitalists took full advantage of the situation and wasted no time in setting up a system just as ruthless and unequal as that of the older capitalist countries. The situation was even more favorable for the capitalist class because the workers were at this time timid, scared and did not attempt any kind of organized resistance. Instead they suffered the oppression and injusticy quietly, and this way the bitterness and anger slowly built up among them.” (Tuure Lehen, Punaisten ja Valkoisten Sota p. 9)

 
Different social classes before the outbreak of the revolution:

The Industrial Workers:

“In the old system workers had needed to submit to the ‘legal guardianship’ of their employer, which often meant police levels of surveillance and control by the capitalist. This was officially abolished in 1868 but employers still for a long time considered it justified to continue their old ways. The strict work discipline regulations allowed the employers in many ways to blackmail their workers, punish them for the slightest disobedience, or carelessness, impose heavy fines and thus push down the already meager wages. The employers were especially worried about worker’s organizing, unless they were joining organizations and associations created and controlled by the employers themselves. It was common for capitalists to threaten to fire all workers who joined unions or worker organizations. This happened for example in Pinjaiset, Fiskars and Högfors factories. In November 1903 in Varkaus nearly 200 workers were evicted from their homes for joining the workers’ association. Often buying or subscribing to working class newspapers was enough of a reason to be fired and evicted.” (Lehen, pp. 9-10)

“Despite rapid industrial development having begun in the 1860s it was as late as the 1890s when the country saw the breakout of the first big strike movements. Out of these the strikes of construction workers in Helsinki in 1896 and the baker strike of 1899 have to be mentioned. In both cases the Finnish capitalists shamelessly colluded with the Russian authorities to break the strike: by sending in strike breakers from Russia. In these initial strikes, alongside the struggle for higher wages, the demands centered around shortening the working day which was either unbearable long, or not limited at all in its length, as well as demands for the most basic work safety regulations. During this struggle based on the most vitally necessary demands, the class consciousness of the workers began to awaken. This caused worry among the capitalists, who saw the mass mobilization of the workers as a sign that the workers were turning to revolutionary socialism…

A sign of this worry was the capitalists’ attempt to push the workers towards wrightism, a reformist tendency lead by the bourgeoisie, which told the workers to remain calm and “not demand too much”. Eventually the workers got tired of wrightism, as the experience of their every day lives quickly taught them that improvements in their lives, were never gained by begging and surrendering, but only by forcing the capitalists into granting the workers’ demands.

For this reason the workers turned their backs on wrightism and began more boldly to support the Socialists who expressed the will to directly tackle social inequality, and put forward concrete demands instead of pious wishes. Strenghtening of these sentiments led in 1899 to the creation of the Finnish Workers’ Party… which declared a “split from the bourgeoisie”. (Lehen, pp. 10-11)

“The founding of an independent workers’ party had a crucial significance to the working class and it proved to be a powerful catalyst in favor of developing mass mobilization. An increasing determination and steadfastness was becoming evident in the workers’ struggle.

The struggle took fairly intense forms in 1904 in Voikkaa where the conduct of a foreman sparked the anger of the workers and caused a strike. The employers called in the Finnish-Russian authorities who sent a gang of police to crush the strike. The police arrested the labour leaders and evicted from company apartments the workers who had been fired for participating in the strike.

In 1905 and 1906 there were several strikes that lasted for several weeks, even months. The metal workers’ strike, which consisted of 3000 workers lasted for 19 weeks. The construction workers were able through their disciplined struggle to win a 9-hour working day.

The strike that proved most significant was the logger strike of the Kemi-company in North, which began on logging sites in Kuolajärvi and Sodankylä and spread to Kemi, and which lasted consecutively almost the entire year 1906. The great single-minded determination and discipline of the workers was demonstrated by the fact that out of the 3000 strikers, during the entire year only couple dozen became strike breakers. The most immediate cause of the strike was that the Kemi-company had taken for itself a monopoly on selling food to the workers, had forced the workers to only purchase food from the company store at very high prices, or risk being fired. The food also proved to be dangerously rotten and unfit for human consumption but the employers had arrogantly ignored the workers’ complaints. The workers demanded that the company must sell them only clean and edible foodstuffs. Along with this the workers demanded a shortening of the work day to 10 hours per day, an increase in wages, and the abolition of the blacklist system.
Not agreeing to the workers’ demands the Kemi-company together with the authorities took action to stop the “rebellion”. It closed down the food shops trying to starve the workers into submission. As the company owned all the food stores, the workers had no other option to avoid starvation then to break open the doors of the food shops and organize food distribution to the starving, which was done according to proper payment and under strict observation. The employers asked for help from the authorities… a gang of 35 lead by police liutenant Bruno Jalander was sent to “pacify” the workers of the North. Tens of workers were arrested, around twenty involved in opening the food shops were sentenced for robbery and blasphemy[sic] to varying prison sentences.”
(Lehen, pp. 11-12)

 
The Workers’ Party

“The success that the workers’ party gained already in its first parliament elections showed clearly that the party had not only gained the uninamous support of the industrial workers, but it had also won a large amount of votes from among the rural population. A contributing factor was that the workers themselves had close contacts to the countryside and the rural poor. Members of the working class were generally speaking young people, only recently left from the countryside to the cities. The poor position of the rural population also naturally brought it close to the working class movement to seek support from it.” (Lehen, p.15)

“The experiences gained in these labour struggles explain at least in part the often pointed out fact that the Finnish working class movement was already early on very interested in struggle for state power, while trade union organizing lagged behind the political struggle for many years. The independent Finnish workers’ party founded in 1899 had to for several years also perform the duties of a central trade union organization, especially during large strikes because the Finnish Trade Union Federation was founded only in 1907.

The active involvement of the state authorities, the police, court system and state church into the disputes between workers and capitalists always on the side of the capitalists, gave rise to anger by the workers towards the reactionary state authority. The close connection of the Finnish representatives of that state apparatus to the Russian tsarist ruling class, whose repressive actions always first and foremost targeted the workers and their organizations, makes it easy to understand why workers had such an exemplary role to play in the indipendence struggle…” (Lehen, p 13)

“The rapid rise of the independent Finnish political workers’ movement culminated in the December 1905 general strike, a mass action of unprecendented size for equal municipal suffrage and to destroy the old feudal system that had resisted all social progress.” (Lehen, pp. 13-14)

 

The Tenant Farmers

“The most important social grouping were the tenant farmers, who cultivated the land they rented from the nobles, large landowners and capitalist corporations. In the relations between tenant farmers and landowners the essential question was that of terms of rent. In individual cases, such as when tenants would rent land from relatives, the terms could be quite tolerable… The general picture however was something different: a relationship of extreme exploitation and oppression where the position of the tenant was similar to that of a medieval serf. The rent payment in the form of a work-tax i.e. working on the landowner’s land weighed heavily on the tenants. The payment was not merely a reasonable or justifiable compensation for the use of land, but ruthless exploitation…” (Lehen, p.16)

The landlords would often cheat the peasants in rent terms. Most of the time there were no actual written contracts but rent was decided simply in verbal agreement. And of course most of the peasantry were illiterate.
“Another important grievance in the life of the tenants was the uncertainty of their situation. The terms of the rent were usually decided in oral agreement between the two parties. In the cases where written contracts were made, they were always vague and up for interpretation, and it didn’t benefit the tenant to appeal to the legal authorities since it was obvious that “law and justice” were on the side of the aristocrats, corporations and landowners. The violent and ruthless mass eviction of the tenant farmers of the Laukko manor house by the armed force of the “legal authorities” in May 1907 is an illustrative example of how the society of that time saw it as the noble lord’s sacred right, to treat his subjects how ever inhumanly as he saw fit.” (Lehen, p.16)

“The broken down doors and hearths of the cottages of the manors’ tenants, served as a metaphor for the dead end that the oppressed classes found themselves in: they had to do something to improve their lives, yet their attempts were met with even worse suffering.”
(Y. Kallinen, Hälinää ja hiljaisuutta, p. 26)

A common practice by the landlords was to let a tenant family move to an area where the land was of poor quality (this could be e.g. a bog, a swamp or forest) then let the peasant family improve the land (drain the swamp, chop down the trees etc.) so they could turn it into a farm. Then after the rent contract ran out, the landlord would evict the peasant and thus acquire the newly created good quality farm land for themselves. The peasant family would then be forced to move to another bad piece of land and repeat the process.

“For the tenant farmers the threat of eviction was always there, and it was an effective method of blackmail. It was used especially when the landowner wished to acquire a piece of land which the tenant had through their productive labour turned from a wasteland to fertile farmland.” (Lehen, p.17)

“…I met several tenant farmers who had been evicted, often even multiple times and each time had had to once again clear a new farming plot into a thicket or a bog on the property of the same landowner… I met an old man who had sat years in jail for resisting the crown’s police when they came to evict him for the third time… It was clear that people in this position were eager to hear and accept the socialist teachings, as it gave them an explanation about their own societal position and a path to follow towards liberation”
(M. Ampuja, Pajasta parlamenttiin, Turku 1947, p.73)

“… the pitiless violence the landowners had to use against their tenants was a sign of the rising class consciousness of the tenant farmers, who due to circumstance could only see the socialist movement as the strongest defender of their rights.” (Lehen, p.17)

“In those days, the tenant farmers of Finland had begun to follow the example of the industrial proletarians and had started mass organizing for their rights. In various parts of the country there were mass meetings, also strikes, the demands of which were mainly protections against evictions and against the arbitrary and absolute power of the landowners. The Workers’ Party gave its immediate support to the demands of the tenant farmers and other rural poor. It also helped them to organize their struggle. The Party leadership played an importan part in helping to organize the first nationwide congress of tenant farmers’ deputees in Tampere in 1906. The fact that 50.000-60.000 tenants out of a total of hundred thousand had representatives in this meeting was a clear sign of the desire of the farmers to fight side by side with the workers.” (Lehen, p.18)

 
Servants and Farm Workers: The Rural Proletariat

“The societal situation of [the house servants and farmhands] was even more oppressed and precarious then that of the tenant farmers.” (Lehen, p.18)

“Servants, who lived in spare rooms of houses [of their employer] or in cottages under severe surveillance… were not allowed to leave the house without the permission of their master, or to talk to outsiders. As the status of tenant farmers has often been compared to that of serfs or semi-slaves, that of the servants could rightly be compared to full blown slavery… An 1865 servant law which was only taken off the law books in 1920… gave the master of the servant the right to the most petty kind of spying, ruthless exploitation, inhuman treatment and even physical violence. The servant was not allowed to own a locked chest or a bag, all their belongings had to be visible for inspection by their master. The length of the working day was unlimited. Unlike the old slave owners, the master was not allowed to kill their servant, but he was allowed to hit them. According to the 3. article of the servant law, the master was allowed to physically punish female servants under 13 and male servants under 18 if they didn’t adequately fulfill the tasks their master thought “reasonable”, which according to Miina Sillanpää [a servant] meant 24 hour working days. In the case of the servants, the slavery was not lifelong, but instead was decided in year long contracts on the so-called “hiring markets.” However that year would in most cases turn out to be unbearably hard.” (Lehen, p.20)

“…Often the servant, when deciding upon the terms of the contract, is given entirely false information about the type and amount of the work. The servant is often promised more pay then he ends up getting. And as the contracts are usually made without any wittnesses, how is the servant to prove that he was promised more? The wage is entirely vague and arbitrary, and the servant lives with his master so he has to devote all of his time to working. Speaking about overtime pay is entirely out of the question. The servant can’t say he is working overtime, even if he works 24 hours per day, since the length of his work day is not limited in any way.”  (Minutes of the 6th congress of Finnish servants)


“Servants depended on their master for food. Even in the best cases nutrition was very basic… It was very common that even in those cases where the servants were allowed to eat in the same table as the master’s family, they sat in that part of the table prepared for the house staff and ate worse food.” (Lehen, p.21)

“Living conditions of the servants were below any reasonable standards” (Lehen, p.22)

“The condition of the rural servants is pathetic. The biggest outrage being the living conditions of the house staffs. This is most evident in Southern Ostrobothnia… part of the population lives in the most unhealthy conditions. It seems incredibly that even in winter people are forced to live in rooms which don’t protect from the cold, and contain no heating, not to even speak about the lack of all basic comforts. Therefore it is not uncommon that after a night of wind and snowfall the servent wakes up to find snow on his bed. However these living quarters are not all uplighting to the human soul during the summer either. Typically they have no windows, only a trap-door. Often they are built next to the manure storage, on top of store rooms were all sorts of gargage is held, and where dust and bad smelling air seeps through the loose floor boards… Living in these poor conditions brought an inevitable co-inhabitant – pneumonia, that horror of the poor, which rages among the servant class” (Minutes of the 5th congress of Finnish servants)


The Working Class Movement Before the Revolution

“…[I]n the summer of 1917 Finland was met with another hardship, unprecendented unemployment… the unemployed constituted the most restless element of the population: after losing their livelyhoods they began demanding work and aid. The workers understood that no improvement could be gained without an active struggle. Success depended on unity and organization… the Social-Democratic Party had 70,000 members in 1916, but in the third quarter of 1917 it exceeded 100,000 members. The membership of the finnish trade union federation increased four times over from 41,800 to 160,695. The tenant farmers’ union had 2000 members in May 1917 but at the end of the year membership had risen to 9000 and by February 1918 it was 12,000. The farm laborers who previously had been very badly organized… began to create their own unions and in mid August of 1917 there were already 70 of these organizations. The finnish farm laborers’ union was founded at the end of August in a meeting in Tampere.”
(Holodkovski, pp.18-19)

“…on 26. of March [1917] a strike broke out in Helsinki demanding an 8-hour working day. The same demand was presented as their primary goal by the strikes in April. The 8-hour work day was first implemented in the senate printing press, state railways and fortification construction works. Metal workers won the 8-hour working day on the 18. of April through a one day strike of 30,000 workers accross the country. The strikers’ demands were supported in Helsinki by Russian soldiers, sailors and workers who joined the Finnish workers. The demonstrators surrounded the building where the representatives of the workers were negotiating with the capitalists… The farm laborers continued to fight for the 8-hour working day and the struggle against the landowners’ resistance was often fierce… the farm laborer strikes broke out typically without agreement with the trade union federation… Most often the strikes occurred during the busiest farming seasons – during sowing and harvesting. Tensions tan the highest precisely during farm laborer’s strikes… the workers stopped working and prevented the landowners from bringing their relatives to work on the field… There were times when the large landowners refused to make any kinds of concessions. The owners of the large Westermarck farm declared before the beginning of the farm laborers’ strike, that they will sell or butcher every single one of their 700 cows. In the vicinity of Pori, one landowner left the grain unharvested and appointed White Guard soldiers to guard the field so nobody could harvest it. The workers of the nearby village turned to the Russian soldiers for help. The soldiers fired a few shots with a cannon towards the direction of the farm and the opponent was forced to surrender. Though the information is incomplete, we know that in 1917 there were at least 78 farm laborer strikes on 1949 farms, and they included 16 167 persons. Eleven of the strikes also included tenant farmers, though they were bound by their rent contracts, according to which they could be punished for participating in a strike. Altogether there was a total of 478 strikes in 1917, involving 150 000 workers… Other extraparliamentary activity by the workers also increased. Some declarations or actions by the workers, without the approval of the Social-Democratic Party, demonstrated a spontaneous shift towards revolutionary tactics, already before the Bolsheviks had taken power in Russia…” (Holodkovski, pp.23-24)

“The primary targets of these extraparliamentary actions, were the local government organs, which were in the hands of the rich… Getting working class representation in the municipal organs was not a matter of principle for the workers, it had a purely practical meaning, especially in those hard times. Destitution forced the workers to hasten the solving of this question. Typically the workers presented a demand to the municipal council that the council needed to also include working class representatives. Then they surrounded the building and refused to let the council leave until the demand was satisfied.” (Holodkovski, p.24)

“Municipal elections still used the ancient system, according to which the poor had no right to vote, but the rich depending on their wealth and property could have several votes.” (Holodkovski, p.16)

“The social-democratic municipal organization of Rauma demanded on the 5. of May that half of the seats in the munical council had to be given to the workers. In support of this demand a general strike broke out in the city on the 7. of May. It lasted for 15 days and ended in the victory of the workers. In Turku, a general strike broke out in 29. of May, demonstrators surrounding the city council building and demanding 25 seats for the workers. The newspaper The Worker wrote that if the shock troops the bourgeoisie had assembled tried to rescue the council then the Russian soldiers on the side of the demonstrators would open fire. Later it was told in the communist press that the shock troopers had been captured by the demonstrators… Members of the council were released on June 1. The demand of the workers was fulfilled. Similar incidents took place in Pori as well as other towns and villages.

The parliament also became a target for mass action. On 14. of July when the parliament was discussing the 8-hour working day as well as the municipal election reform, a crowd of several thousands surrounded the parliament… A committee of the demonstrators presented a statement to the parliament in support of accepting the reforms. The parliament was forced to agree… The bourgeois deputees in the parliament were afraid that unless the reforms were signed, there would be serious confrontations because the population was at a boiling point… However the reforms were never implemented because the Russian Provisional Government disbanded the Finnish parliament.” (Holodkovski, pp. 25-26)

 

The Peasantry’s Demand For Land Reform

“Out of all households with one or more hectares of land, 41.4% were renting, and most of them were tenant farmers… Most tenants had only a small piece of land… out of 96 167 tenant farms… only 1.4% had more then 25 hectares. At the same time 60 000 tenants farmed plots smaller then half a hectare. Poor tenant farmers paid their rent to the landowner in money and work done on the landowner’s land… Because the tenant also had to take care of his own farm, his work day during the summer was an average of 15-17 hours… Only 7% of tenants got enough income from their own farm and the rest [93%] had to seek additional income from employment… The status of a tenant farmer was extremely precarious: the tenant had no security about their future, since at the end of their rent contract, they might be evicted and find themselves and their family, homeless with no income…” (Holodkovski, p.13)
The ruling class refused to grant any meaningful land reform, as that would have gone against the interests of the landowners. They saw the situation was disastrous and peasant revolt inevitable, but in order to not go against the landowners the government opted for a compromise and tried to post-pone the land reform issue as far into the future as possible.

“When in 1908 the time approached when the tenant contracts would run out, the question of new contracts was not raised, instead the parliament signed a bill which prolonged the old contracts… The Czar approved this bill on the 12. of March 1909. The question was not solved in the five years prior to the first world war. In 1916 62 000 contracts were running out despite being extended in 1909. Huge masses of tenants were under the threat of eviction. To avoid massive internal destabilization that Germany could have benefited from in the war, the Czar issued a decree that the contracts would remain effective for the time being. Thousands of tenants escaped imminent eviction but only for a time. [A conservative politician] emphasized in a speech a few weeks before the Czar’s overthrow that the peasantry is rising up against the landlords, that this desperate group of people is dangerous and if the fire now kindling among them bursts into full flame the results will be terrifying.” (Holodkovski, p.13-14)

“Immediately after the fall of Czardom… the social-democrats suggested that in the Provisional Government’s manifesto be included that poor tenants won’t be evicted and are given control of the land they farm. This way the tenants could have been appeased. But the Russian Provisional Government pointed out the negative attitude towards land-reform, of the Finnish bourgeois parties and therefore declined the social-democrat’s proposal.” (Holodkovski, p.14)

“The short sighted and selfish policy of the bourgeoisie had prevented the tenant farmer question being solved by any legal means. Now the tenants had joined with the farm workers in strikes, and became like them targets of retaliatory actions… The finnish working class movement fought on the side of the rural poor, landless, tenant farmers and farm workers and guided these forces to action. The demands of these groups had been stated countless times and the bourgeoisie had not solved the issue. These problems absolutely had to be dealt with. From this foundation, the working class movement developed its demand for the liberation of the tenant farmers and raised them up to join the struggle.” (Hyvönen, pp.89-90)
The bourgeoisie could have solved the tenant question at any time, but when ever anyone tried to fix this crying social crisis, the capitalists prevented it. This way, they made peasant rebellion absolutely inevitable. They made the lives of the tenant farmers, poor peasants and farm workers so unbearable that they were bound to rise up in rebellion.

“The social-democratic parliamentary group proposed on 27. of March a bill for the liberation of the tenant farmers and farm workers…Some social-democratic speakers emphasized the extreme urgency … of this bill because in many localities tenant strikes were already breaking out, and unless the matter was solved the tenants would be pushed to the path of revolution… The bill was defeated with 98 bourgeois votes against 95 socialists.” (Holodkovski, p.136)

“Tenant farmers held rallies all throughout the country and declared that unless they were liberated by the parliament, they would liberate themselves. The tenants’ meetings accepted proposals to cease paying any more rent. For instance on 16. of march 1917 in Sankajärvi the tenants decided to not pay rent unless the bill was passed by the parliament. The tenant farmers of Lapusala demanded on the 3. of December that the social-democratic parliamentary group must take urgent action to liberate the tenants from the centuries old yoke… The final decision of the meeting proclaimed that unless the parliament freed them they would take revolutionary action, general strike and stop of all rent payments. Tenant farmers and farm workers of Kodisjoki demanded on january 6. of 1918 that they must be liberated and all land nationalized. They proposed that each peasant could thus rent on fair terms from the state…” (Holodkovski, pp.136-137)

Count Von Der Goltz, German General who later invaded Finland to crush the socialist revolution, said:

“The ground was fertile for revolution, and not just in the industrial centers but also in the countryside where the peasants were mainly tenants and not owners. As in ancient Rome the rent system caused great dissatisfaction in the countryside and caused even the hard-working and loyal… finnish peasants to be possessed by the … teachings of Russian communism… to become Bolsheviks.” (Graf von der Goltz, Als politischer General im Osten (Finnland und Baltikum) 1918 und 1919)
The reasons that led to the revolution can be summed up as follows: decades and centuries old forms of oppression, horrible working conditions, working days as long as 10-17 hours or even sometimes 24 hours, merciless exploitation and since there were no effective legal ways of making change and solving these problems, the masses were inevitably pushed towards revolution. The municipal elections were entirely undemocratic and in the parliament the capitalist politicians prevented any reforms from being passed. However, there was one even more immediate factor contributing to the revolutionary sentiments: starvation.

The Food Crisis

“At the end of 1917 it can be said that hunger had arrived in Finland… sugar rationing had already been implemented in December 1916 and at the beginning of 1917 rationing was introduced in larger population centers for butter, milk and meat” (Koskinen, p.16)

“Because no strong measures were taken to prevent black market speculation, prices increased to the degree that workers could no longer afford them…” (Holodkovski, p.134)

“…[F]ood was distributed with ration cards, but the food rationing system couldn’t work adequately unless the large food stores of rich persons and capitalist corporations were confiscated. However the government did not heed the demands of the workers as it would have contradicted the interests of propertied classes…” (Holodkovski, p.133)

“The economic situation of the working class had become intolerable. Since the earliest years of the world war, wages had fallen behind the ever increasing prices of foodstuffs… The people could not be given even reduced food rations and the workers and employees could not afford the black market prices. In autumn unemployment also began to increase threateningly. The working class suffered from widespread hunger. The rural poor also fell victim to it.” (Hyvönen, p.87)

“How widespread the hunger was can be seen for example in the notices posted in newspapers by the government food distribution body. A notice for December 1917 states the following:

“As is well known, in all cities, including their suburbs and rural regions whose populations are largely industrial workers or farming is not developed, have already since september been on the brink of famine. There have been two or three week periods when it hasn’t been possible to distribute grain. Thus the continuing and spread of famine threaten the entire country… 800,000 Finnish citizens already suffer from shortage of grain…”

A notice published on the 17. of January 1918 states:
“The number of regions, not only in towns but also in the countryside, suffering from shortage of bread only increases and in some areas it has gotten so bad that, according to the information given by food distribution committees, hunger has caused weakness and deaths.”” (Hyvönen, p.88)
“The food distribution board published in December 1917 that 800.000 Finnish citizens (one quarter of the population!) suffered from a shortage of bread, despite the fact that bread was already being made with flour that had flax, potato skins, lichen or tree bark etc. mixed in with the grain… sometimes people would lose consciousness due to malnutrition… six hungry students of a girl school had fainted during the morning prayer. The food board stated on January 17. 1918 that hunger had caused deaths in towns as well as rural areas. The food board received desperate letters and telegrams from various municipalities begging for help…

From Veteli: Bread grain for one week only, after that even the rye seeds have been eaten…
From Lapland: At the end of the week our stores will be empty, we request urgent action.
From Haukiputaa: People relying on rations have been without food for a week, will die soon unless we get flour.
From Raivola: We ask that you send us any type of food grain so we can distribute something to consumers.
From Pyhäjärvi: We request most humbly, that we could get even a small amount of food grain

The position of the food board became intolerable and on 24. of January its chairman… and [several] members resigned…” (Holodkovski, pp.134-135)

“The lack of food forced the working class to take determined action. On 19. of January the Red Guard of Vyborg began house searches of the bourgeois for food and weapons. The discoveries were bigger then expected. While the working class suffered from hunger, even died from hunger it turned out that the bourgeoisie had large flour, sugar, rice and meat stores as well as basements full of alcoholic drinks, despite the fact that liquor was illegal in Finland. Some bourgeois didn’t even know what ration cards were. The committees created by the workers acted in a revolutionary manner: they confiscated the excess food they found and distributed it to the starving.” (Holodkovski, p.135)

“[T]he so-called butter riots… began when the government temporarily stopped the distribution of butter rations. In Turku on 9. of August a crowd inspected food storages and after finding both butter and cheese (which was already starting to go bad) began to distribute the food in return for ration cards. The next day a mass meeting in Turku demanded that the parliament has to confiscate all food storages, ban the exporting of food (food was being exported to be sold in Petrograd where prices were even higher)… The population demanded that all food storages be taken under the control of the municipal government organs. Also in Helsinki the butter storages were inspected by demonstrators and the distribution of butter according to price controls was begun.”(Holodkovski, p.26)

“At night on the 14. of August the municipal employees of Helsinki began a general strike. They demanded the safeguarding of people, especially children and the elderly from hunger and starvation. The senate did not take any action. On 21. of October a delegation of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation issued a statement regarding the food question. It demanded making a careful inventory of all food stores, confiscation of illegal food storages, the handing over to the control of the state and municipal authorities of the most essential food items, giving full authority to the food distribution bodies in distribution and regulation of price controls, the handing of unused farm land to the state and municipalities and increasing of wages due to increased food prices… the declaration didn’t lead to any action [by the government].” (Holodkovski, p.39)

“The 4th Congress of the Finnish Trade-Union Federation met on December 12 [1917]. It pointed out that the conditions of the workers were so hopeless and unbearable, that unless the congress is ready to make radical decisions, the workers will take matters into their own hands. The food question was top most in importance… Many… deputees saw revolution as the only thing that could save the workers from starvation. Deputee Hakkinen said that unless the working class rises up to fight they will all starve to death… Deputee Pyttynen said that in Ostrobothnia the workers were eagerly waiting for the decisions of the congress and were willing to die in order to put them into effect… The deputee from Tampere said that workers of the city have decided to either win or die. Deputee Lampinen said that in many localities the workers have already began to take action, because it is better to die in battle then to do nothing and die of hunger…” (Holodkovski, p.51)

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Tuure Lehen, Punaisten ja Valkoisten Sota
Esa Koskinen, Veljiksi kaikki ihmiset tulkaa: Lohja 1917-18
Viktor Holodkovski, Suomen työväen vallankumous 1918
Graf von der Goltz, As political general in the east (Finland and the Baltics) 1918-1919
Y. Kallinen, Hälinää ja Hiljaisuutta
M. Ampuja, Pajasta Parlamenttiin
Antti Hyvönen, Suurten tapahtumien vuodet 1917-18
Antti Hyvönen, Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue 1918-24
Antti Hyvönen, Suomen vanhan työväenpuolueen historia
Otto Kuusinen, “The Finnish Revolution: A Self-Criticism”

(*1910 figures which were not much different from 1917. Holodkovski, p.13)

Finnish sources have been translated to English by MLT