Liberation of Labor

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Liberation of Labor


(Osvobozhdenie truda), the first Russian Marxist organization, which existed from September 1883 to August 1903. The Liberation of Labor group was founded in Geneva by G. V. Plekhanov and a number of those who shared his views, including V.I. Zasulich, P. B. Akselrod, L. G. Deich, and V.N. Ignatov. In 1884, Deich was arrested and left the group, and in 1885, Ignatov died. S. M. Ingerman was accepted into the group in 1888 and was an active member until he emigrated to America in 1891.

Until 1883 the members of the Liberation of Labor had been revolutionary Narodniks (Populists; members of the Black Partition). The emergence of a Russian workers’ movement and the failures of the Narodnik movement made the creation of a new theory of revolution imperative. While they were émigrés, Plekhanov and his comrades-in-arms familiarized themselves with the experiences of the Western European working class and studied the theory of scientific socialism. This led them to a fundamental reconsideration of their own revolutionary practice.

Among the basic goals and tasks proclaimed by the Liberation of Labor in its announcement of the publication of The Library of Contemporary Socialism on Sept. 25, 1883, was the translation into Russian of the most important works of Marx and Engels and their followers, in order to spread the ideas of scientific socialism. The group’s major tasks also included criticism of the Narodniks and an effort to treat Russia’s social problems from the standpoint of Marxist theory.

In 1882, Plekhanov had already translated the Communist Manifesto into Russian. Subsequently, the Liberation of Labor group translated and published a number of works by Marx and Engels, including Wage-Labor and Capital (1883), Development of Scientific Socialism (1884), Speech on the Freedom of Trade (1885), The Poverty of Philosophy (1886), Ludwig Feuerbach (1892), The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1894), andEngels on Russia (1894). In the 1880’s and early 1890’s these works were studied in Russia’s first social democratic organizations, and they played a major role in attracting revolutionary youth to Marxism.

Plekhanov’s works, which applied Marxist ideas to Russia, were very important. In the works Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883) and Our Differences (1885), Plekhanov gave an extended critique of the theory and tactics of the Narodniks, substantiated the conclusion that Russia was on the road to capitalism, showed why the proletariat rather than the peasantry would be the progressive, decisive force in the coming revolution, and proposed the task of creating a socialist workers’ party in Russia.

Also of great significance for the establishment of the Russian Social Democratic Party were two draft programs of the Liberation of Labor group, which were written by Plekhanov. The first of these (1883) contained certain concessions to the Narodniks. The second—The Draft Program of the Russian Social Democrats—was written by Plekhanov after its content was discussed in social democratic circles. Its theoretical section contained the basic elements of the program of a Marxist party, and its practical section consisted of demands for general democratic reforms, measures in the interests of the workers, and measures in the interests of the peasants. Lenin made a detailed analysis of the demand for measures that would benefit the workers (“The Draft Program of Our Party,” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 4, pp. 211–39). The draft program of the Liberation of Labor was the only published program of the Russian social democratic movement until the Leninist Iskra drew up the program for the RSDLP.

In 1895 a new work by Plekhanov was issued— On the Question of the Development of the Monistic View of History. In it Plekhanov offered a critique of the “subjective sociology” of the Narodniks and showed the groundlessness of the Narodniks’ views on questions involving the role of ideas, the individual, and the popular masses in history.

All the members of the Liberation of Labor helped to spread Marxist ideas. In addition to the serial publication The Library of Contemporary Socialism, the group published the series The Workers’ Library. (Among the works published in the latter series were S. Dikshtein’s “Who Lives on What,” with a preface by Plekhanov, 1885; P. Akselrod’s “The Workers’ Movement and Social Democracy,” 1884; P. A. Alekseev’s speech in court, with a preface by Plekhanov, 1889; and V. Zasulich’s “Varíen Before the Court of the Correctional Police,” 1890.) In 1888 the Liberation of Labor published the collection The Social Democrat and between 1890 and 1892 the literary political review The Social Democrat (four books), which propagandized Marxist revolutionary ideas, criticized the Narodniks, and elucidated the activity of Russian and international Social Democrats.

In addition to theoretical and practical activity, the Liberation of Labor made a great effort abroad to unite Russian Social Democrats. In the autumn of 1888 the group founded the Russian Social Democratic Union, and at the end of 1894 the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad was created, with the Liberation of Labor group as the editorial staff for its publications. Despite tremendous obstacles, the Liberation of Labor established ties with social democratic organizations in Russia in a number of cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Kharkov, Vil’nius, Riga, Minsk, Odessa, and Nizhny Novgorod. In Switzerland in May 1895, Lenin met with Plekhanov, and they agreed to the joint publication in Geneva in 1896 of the collection The Worker. The St. Petersburg League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class, which was founded by Lenin in 1895, established close ties with the Liberation of Labor and elected Plekhanov as its representative to the International Socialist Congress in London in 1896. The ties between the League and the Liberation of Labor became weaker after the arrest of Lenin and his closest comrades, when the Economists took over the direction of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class. In November 1898 the Liberation of Labor group ceased to edit the publications of the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad, which had fallen under the domination of opportunists. In May 1900 the Liberation of Labor broke completely with the Union of Russian Social Democrats Abroad and founded an independent publishing house, The Social Democrat.

The Liberation of Labor maintained contact with Social Democratic parties and organizations in Germany, France, England, Poland, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Austria, and Hungary. It had ties with prominent figures in the Western European socialist movement, including E. Aveling, Eleonora Marx, D. Blagoev, A. Labriola, A. Bebel, W. Liebknecht, C. Zetkin, and K. Kautsky. The Liberation of Labor group’s representatives participated in international socialist workers’ congresses (Paris, 1889; Zürich, 1893; and London, 1896). Engels highly valued the activity of the Liberation of Labor: “I am proud,” he wrote in 1885 to V. I. Zasulich, “that among the Russian youth there is a party that has sincerely and unreservedly accepted the great economic and historical theories of Marx and has decisively broken with all the anarchistic and somewhat Slavophile traditions of its predecessors. And, had he lived a little longer, Marx himself would have been proud of this. This is progress that will have tremendous significance for the development of the revolutionary movement in Russia (K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 36, p. 260).

At the turn of the 20th century Plekhanov, the ideologist of the group, waged an active struggle against revisionism, primarily Bernstein’s ideas. The Liberation of Labor played a significant role in the struggle against the ideas of the Economists. The protest of 17 Social Democrats against the “credo” of the Economists, which was compiled by Lenin in exile, was printed in the special collection Vademecum. The most important period in the activity of the Liberation of Labor (1901–03) coincided with its membership in the League of Russian Revolutionary Social Democrats Abroad, when the group united with the Leninist Iskra. At first, this was a period of fruitful collaboration between Lenin and Plekhanov. Later (1901–03), ideological differences between them appeared, reaching their greatest intensity after the Second Congress of the RSDLP and resulting in the split of the Russian Social Democrats into Bolsheviks and Men-sheviks.

Lenin pointed out the shortcomings of the Liberation of Labor, which he considered to be primarily its lack of ties with the workers’ movement and the failure of its members to make a concrete analysis of the characteristics of the development of capitalism in Russia and to recognize the special tasks of Russian Social Democrats in the struggle to create a new type of party that would be different from the parties of the Second International. The members of the Liberation of Labor did not understand that the age of imperialism and proletarian revolutions had arrived, and they lacked a clear view on the interrelationships between the proletariat and peasantry on the one hand and the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie on the other. The group failed to take into account the role of the proletariat as the leader of a bourgeois-democratic revolution.

According to Lenin, the historical significance of the Liberation of Labor was that it provided the ideological and theoretical basis for the Russian social democratic movement and took the first step toward a workers’ movement. Lenin considered the chief service of the Liberation of Labor and of Plekhanov in particular to be the struggle against the Narod-niks, Economists, international revisionism, and anarchism, the emphasis on the importance of revolutionary theory in the liberation movement, and the revelation of the essence of scientific socialism to the Russian revolutionaries. He pointed out the continuity of views held by the active members of the St. Petersburg League of Struggle and the Liberation of Labor on many questions of principal importance. Lenin called the Liberation of Labor group the representative of the revolutionary Marxist tendency in the Russian social democratic movement and identified the beginning of the history of Marxism in Russia with the founding of the group.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 1, pp. 193–98; vol. 4, pp. 215–17, 254–59, 273; vol. 25, p. 95; vol. 26, p. 343.
Plekhanov, G. V. “Predislovie k pervomu tomu pervogo izdaniia sobr. soch.” Soch., 3rd ed., vol. 1. Moscow [no date].
Plekhanov, G. V. “O sotsial’noi demokratii v Rossii.” Soch., 3rd ed., vol. 9. Moscow [no date].
Plekhanov, G. V. “K tridtsatiletiiu gruppy ’Osvobozhdenie truda.’ ” Soch., 3rd ed., vol. 24. Moscow-Leningrad, 1927.
Plekhanov, G. V. “Pervye shagi sotsial-demokraticheskogo dvizheniia v Rossii.” Ibid.
Istoriia KPSS,vol. 1. Moscow, 1964. Chapter 2.
K. Marks, F. Engels i revoliutsionnaia Rossii. Moscow, 1967. [Collection.]
Polevoi, Iu. Z. Zarozhdenie marksizma v Rossii 1883–1894 gg. Moscow, 1959.
Zhuikov, G. Gruppa “Osvobozhdenie truda.” Moscow, 1962.
“Gruppa Osvobozhdenie truda.’ ” Istoriia SSSR: Ukazatet literatury za 1917–1952 gg., vol. 2. Moscow, 1958. Pages 149–51.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.