Wheelbarrow Socialism

Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990

Don Fitz

IN JUNE 1917, midway between the two great Russian Revolutions, the Sampsionevskaya textile mill owner refused workers’ request for the same wage increase that neighboring workers had received. The mill workers revived a Russian tradition of direct action as they threw the owner in a wheelbarrow. He humbly asked them not to put the customary sack over his head and the women showed unusual mercy by tying it to his feet. Ignoring warnings from male apprentices to halt their spontaneous outburst, they wheeled and shouted through Petrograd’s Vyborg district.

For several decades, many of us received our basic knowledge of that revolution from books such as Trotsky’s The Russian Revolution, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or Isaac Deutscher’s historical biographies. Valuable though this literature is, it leaves a gnawing feeling that its emphasis on the leaders of the revolution tells us very little about what was happening on the shop floor.

Recently, an entire new social history has addressed the relationships between day-to-day lives of workers and the unfolding of the revolution.(1) In my opinion, the best attempt to integrate people’s work experience with socialist transformation can be found in S.A. Smith’s Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 191718 (1985).(2)

An understanding of the contradictions at the point of production challenges traditional views of the revolution, which focus on leaders, parties and party factionalism. While the `new social history” of worklife in revolutionary Russia confirms that loss of power by the proletariat was well under way years before a “Stalinist counterrevolution,” it does much more.

This new literature confirms that a basic division within the working class set the stage for authoritarianism before Lenin and Trotsky came to power. Without denying either the crimes of Stalinism or the manipulativeness of Bolshevism, it suggests that the collapse of the revolution began with the failure of the working class to develop collective self-control of worklife.

Soviets and Unions

Many social factors such as the concentration of workers in huge factories and their atrocious living conditions shaped the course of the revolution. Particularly important was the continuous stream of new workers from the countryside to the cities. Probably less than half became accustomed to capitalism’s work routine.

Some new workers prided themselves in showing up every day, being on time, performing as expected, refraining from drinking, and working a full day. Authors refer to them as “urban,” “skilled” or “cadre workers.” Most typically they were literate, skilled and male.

Another group, “peasant workers,” were newer to industry. They were concentrated in textile mills and smaller shops or represented the unskilled laborers at large factories:

“Rural born and bred, these recent migrants carried a host of peasant values….The time-discipline and labor-discipline that industrial labor demanded were alien and oppressive concepts and traits that many found difficult to assimilate. On the farm, regular breaks to rest, smoke a cigarette, or talk were accepted modes of behavior. In the factories, they incurred the wrath of foremen and sometimes other workers. New workers resented the demands, routine and orders that defined industrial work. They also resisted attempts to increase worker productivity…. Their ignorance of the production process and lack of interest in their work … intensified their alienation.”(3)

It was the skilled workers who were more likely to be active in all three of the organizations that sprang up in the revolution: the soviets, which began by coordinating district- or city-wide strike actions; trade unions, which focused on defending wages and working conditions; and factory committees, which often took the offensive in organizing production.

Of all the unique features of the Russian working class, there was none more central than the soviets. Originating in Petrograd during the 1905 revolution in an interparty strike coordinating committee, the soviet became a model for other cities.(4) The Petrograd soviet sent its organizers to recruit those still at work They, in turn, would elect their own delegates, thereby expanding the soviet further.

In 1917, after the czar’s overthrow, Mensheviks released from prison met with “leaders of the Trade Union and Cooperative movements.”(5) This soviet immediately went beyond simple strike-coordinating tasks: it created a food commission, occupied “the State Bank, the Treasury, the Mint and the Printing Office” and seized the Postal and Telegraph bureaus and railroad stations.(6) Yet, the Menshevik leadership was hamstrung by its dogma that the revolution could only be “bourgeois.”

In April, Lenin shocked the revolutionary leadership with his proposed slogan of “All power to the Soviets!” He won over the Bolsheviks, and, by October, a majority of Russian workers were ready to defend soviet authority. The October Revolution turned soviet power into state power.

The hallmark of soviet government was that the same local soviet that governed provincial affairs selected representatives (“deputies”) to the All-Russian Soviet. A thorough integration of political and economic functions paralleled the complete fusion of local and national economic planning. This laid the groundwork for either direct democratic control or extremely efficient despotism.

Writers such as Peter Rachleff have suggested that “a close look at the formation and organization of the Soviets indicates that they were not mass organizations that offered workers and peasants the means to exercise power over their daily activities.”(?) From their beginnings, the plenary sessions of the soviets were open for anyone to speak about anything. They soon became too unwieldy for making meaningful decisions. Consequently, the practical work gravitated to the executive committee, which was dominated by party intellectuals and full-time officers rather than rank-and-file workers.

Unions were far more top-down than the soviets. Autocratic czarism had never allowed trade unions to flourish. This was both a curse and a blessing. A curse because it prevented Russian workers from defending their most basic human rights at the point of production. A blessing because it meant that Russia never developed that stratum of professional union bureaucrats who strangled a revolution (Italy) or helped set up the execution of socialists (Germany).

Despite their conservatism, Russian trade unions were more progressive than those in other countries: first, they were far more likely to organize all workers in an industry rather than along craft lines; and, second, they were usually devoted to winning the greatest pay hike for the lowest-paid workers. While Mensheviks continued to predominate in the union structures, by October 1917, the Bolsheviks were in a majority in the soviets and factory committees.(8)

The Forgotten Workers’ Organization

Factory committees originated in the countryside, “where villagers were accustomed to elect a headman to represent them.” This led to the working-class tradition “of electing stewards (starosky) to represent workers before management” During the 1905 revolution, workers elected factory commissions that took charge of “all matters affecting the internal life of the factory, drawing up collective wage agreements and overseeing the hiring and firing of workers.”(9)

In 1917, the first factory committees appeared in March and April. They were a democratic movement exerting some control over hiring and firing. By May and June “most factory committees began to monitor raw materials and check that their factories were being run efficiently.”(10)

A renewed political and economic crisis in July found employers attempting to curb the committees. But many factory committees monitored production, finances and support of raw materials. A good number of employers fled during the fall of 1917, leaving some committees running all phases of production. Though they did not originate from any ideological goal to control production, they found it necessary to extend their control in order to preserve their gains.

This process put factory committees into intense conflict with the trade unions and Mensheviks, who insisted that production decisions must rest with employers. As hostility increased, several factors contributed to the popularity of factory committees:

1. The committees represented everyone who worked in a factory, while unions represented only dues-paying members;

2. Factory committees included all workers in an enterprise, which might have several unions;

3. Due to their officers’ being at the workplace, factory committees were able to respond to grievances much more rapidly;

4. Factory committees insisted on meeting at the factory during working hours, while union meetings were usually more inaccessible;

5. Unions were often created by a small number of professional organizers who did not work at the enterprise but only signed up members;

6. Union executive boards were typically not elected directly by the members while factory committee boards were;

7. Since they were run by workers elected at the point of production, factory committees were much more effective at inspiring labor discipline; and,

8. Factory committees were far more involved in the daily lives of their members. They participated in distribution (especially food) and set up “cultural enlightenment commissions,” sponsoring poetry readings, orchestra performances and literacy campaigns.(11)

It would be easy to counterpose “bureaucratized” unions and “partyized/intellectualized” soviets to democratic, worker-controlled factory committees. Though this would be more true than not, it avoids the serious division between skilled, “cadre” workers and “peasant” workers that permeated all working-class organizations.

Typically, factory committees were created by skilled workers who wanted to extend the job control they had tasted. With better pay and more time off, these cadre workers had more experience in organizing strikes and political parties. Not only had they more often challenged the boss but they also had knowledge of how factories operated, and this enabled them to coordinate production.

The skilled workers saw “peasant” workers as vacillating between the extremes of apathy and volatile militancy. Russian peasants had a reputation for rebelling against all authority and many skilled workers found newcomers to the shop unwilling to submit to authority. “Time and again, one reads of workers defying their factory committee or union by striking without permission.”(12)

But many of the “peasant” workers viewed the factory committee as another attempt at domination. As the movement for workers’ management gained momentum, skilled workers espoused campaigns against drinking at work as if it were their moral duty. Some factory committees took to searching employees to fight against stealing and to firing recalcitrants. When a fall in production led to layoffs and factory committees targeted the less skilled, hostility was particularly intense.(13)

Nevertheless, the factory committees were much more under control of the shop floor than either the unions or soviets. Despite the conflicts between skilled and “peasant” workers, the most typical committees probably endured in an uneasy alliance with “cadre” workers guiding their development.

October Factory Committee Demise

October 1917 exacerbated the critical problems for the factory-committee movement It soon became clear that social domination on the shop floor was a non-issue for most Bolsheviks and the failure of the committees to develop their own theory and self-confidence to reorganize society rendered them no match Leninist arrogance. Although Lenin obsessed so much on seizing state power that he wrote little about the factory committees, he did attend to them in his famous draft of a “Decree on Workers’ Control” written shortly after the October Revolution. It contains Lenin’s infamous point five:

“The decisions of the elected representatives of the workers and office employees are binding upon the owners of enterprises and maybe annulled only by trade unions and their congresses.”(14)

This provision cleverly approved of workers’ seizing control as long as they allowed trade-union bureaucrats to undo anything they thought went too far. The Bolsheviks soon created an “All-Russian Council of Workers’ Control,” which would sit atop an enterprise-district-city-national appeal pyramid. Its more than forty members included only five representatives from factory committees, with the others being top-down appointees.

Suddenly, in December 1917, the All-Russian Council was “absorbed” into the newly created Vesenka, the economic council appointed by the Sovnarkom (cabinet of the Soviet).(15) This reshuffling meant that all decisions concerning shop-floor organization would be made by political appointees rather than by representatives elected by the workers themselves.

Thus, the groundwork for undermining workers’ self-management was laid by the end of 1917, less than eight weeks after the Bolshevik seizure of power and six months prior to the beginning of the civil war. Though these – maneuvers probably passed by the overwhelming majority of workers who were caught up in the euphoria of revolution, many factory committees saw what was happening and bitterly opposed it.

As 1917 drew to a close, the Petrograd Central Council of Factory Committees published a set of Instructions for Workers Control that provided detailed suggestions for gaining full worker participation “in the organisation of production on rational lines” and coordinating the “whole economic life of the country on social lines.”(16)

In their desire to swallow up the committees, the unions accused them of selfish, “parochial” interests. Despite the committees’ attempts to coordinate production on an industry-wide and nationwide scale, the label of “parochialism” stuck.

But production quickly collapsed in the face of war and revolution. Stock and worn-out equipment was not replaced. And since most factories supplied materials for other factories, economic disruption spiraled as it spread from industry to industry. By June 1918 the unions’ battle to “absorb” the factory committees was won with the final conference of Petrograd committees agreeing to become the union’s basic cells.

The peace at Brest-Litovsk in early 1918 resulted in Russia ceding vast land areas and resources. The Petrograd factories, which had met two-thirds of Russia’s war needs, either shut down or dismissed 90 percent of their workforce. “In the first six months of 1918, over a million people left Petrograd.”(17)

For those who remained in the capital, the definition of “workers’ control” changed to upholding labor discipline. This transformation did not seem unnatural because shop-floor activism had combined two goals: (1) collectively managing worklife in order to (2) increase production.

By early 1918, more and more Bolsheviks were implying that the first goal actually impeded the all-important second goal. This became most obvious in the writings of Lenin, who had always oriented toward worker “initiative” (suggestion-box socialism) rather than true self-management His early 1918 pamphlet, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government, called for one-man management of factories, Taylorism, piece-rates and production cards for workers.(18)

From Civil War to 10th Party Congress

The Civil War got under way in June 1918 with the Bolsheviks embroiled in struggles over restructuring production. In opposition to top-down Leninist policies, “Left Communists” offered several practical alternatives, such as Osinsky’s suggestion that the management boards of each enterprise be composed of one-third technocrats (and other appointees) and two-thirds workers, but with worker representatives evenly divided between those who were elected by the particular enterprise and those from other workplaces.

Reasoning that modem industry absolutely required shop-floor dictatorship, Lenin ridiculed all who differed with him as unconcerned with economic collapse. Yet even as he wrote his denunciations, the economy of the Urals was surviving through the harsh winter of 1918 by using self-management methods similar to those suggested by Osinsky.(19)

The controversy raged throughout the civil war. In 1919, delegates at the All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions complained that members were frequently unable to elect their representatives to higher economic bodies.(20)

By the middle of 1919, codes of compulsory labor service included “workers’ comradely courts of discipline,” which could impose punishment varying from reprimands to labor jails. Offenses included crimes such as unpunctuality, failure to obey orders, absence from Saturday overtime, abandonment of work and “propaganda for a shortening of the work day.” It was about this time that the Cheka (secret police) obtained the power to sentence political prisoners to forced-labor camps.(21)

Unions disagreeing with Bolshevik policy were likely to find themselves under attack. The first example was the railwaymen’s union. Vikzhel, “the largest and most closely organized of the Russian trade unions, was unique in including clerical and technical as well as manual workers … it played the role of a mammoth factory committee exercising ‘workers’ control.’”(22) Immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Vikzhel forced the Bolsheviks to include three Left Social Revolutionaries in the Sovnarkom.

The Bolsheviks retaliated by forming a rival railwaymen’s group, Vikzhedor, which was immediately recognized by the Sovnarkom majority. In order to co-opt the self-management-oriented railwaymen, the government “entrusted the administration of every railway line to a soviet elected by the railwaymen of that line, and control over all Russian railways to an all-Russian congress of railwaymen’s deputies.”

Far from becoming a model for other industries, this extreme step toward self-management was designed to lull railwaymen into compliance. In March 1918, the Sovnarkom granted the Commissar for Communication “dictatorial” powers over the rails.(23) Throughout 1919 the railwaymen harbored resentment over the way they had been tricked: the result was rail inefficiency.

At that point, Lenin asked Trotsky to take over the railways. Within a few months, Trotsky ousted the remnants of the railwaymen’s union and replaced it with Tsektran (Central Transport Commission), “through which he brought the whole field of transport under his control.”(24)

Probably the most heated debate of the civil war occurred in January 1920, when Lenin and Trotsky jointly urged the All-Russian Central Council of Trade Unions to accept the “militarization of labor.” They were sharply rebuked by a vote of sixty to two.(25)

Lenin had the sense to drop the issue. But, rather than concluding dictatorial methods might have been unnecessary if the railwaymen’s self-management was not deliberately destroyed two years earlier, Trotsky decided that bureaucratic autocracy should be a model for all Russian industry. He threatened a “shake up” that would “dismiss the elected leaders of the unions and … replace them by nominees.”

What put Trotsky on the far right wing of the Bolshevik Party was his justification—not based on temporary expediency to win the war—for militarizing labor. His rationalization suggested that forced labor was the foundation of socialism: “We know that all labor is socially compulsory labor. Man must work in order not to die. He does not want to work. But the social organization compels and whips him in that direction.”(26)

As early as 1921 Lenin and Trotsky agreed on the urgency of ridding the party of the Workers’ Opposition. This grouping proposed that unions decide economic matters and the soviets decide political matters. The debate over the relationship of trade unions to the party and the state formed the core controversy of the Party Congress of 1921. This was the infamous Tenth Congress that crushed the Workers’ Opposition, banned factions and outlawed rival parties.

The discussion on trade unions actually served to sidetrack delegates from debating the New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin introduced during the eleventh hour of the Congress. A democratic society would have debated this decision—to change the entire direction of economic organization by allowing limited capitalist restoration, including private ownership of industry and expansion of unemployment—at every level for months prior to the Congress. But the hastiness of the decision demonstrated the primacy of the bureaucracy’s need to suppress economic discussion on the direction of the country.

By 1921 the Leninist productivity drive allowed managers to bring workers before the Comradely Courts of Labor Discipline but strictly prohibited workers from “disciplining” their bosses. Smirnov (a leader of the Workers’ Opposition) reflected the hostility toward a double standard at the Ninth Party Congress when he asked why the principle of one-man management, if it was indeed so good, would not also apply to the Council of People’s Commissars.(27)

It was not hardship that Russian workers resented nearly so much as the sharp separation between those who gave orders and those who took them. By its rules, bans and maneuvers the Tenth Party Congress recognized what was unambiguous at the point of production: the vanguard party had transformed itself into a new ruling class.

Why the Loss of Control?

The reason that many of us continue to put seventy-year-old slices of the Russian Revolution under the historic microscope is our belief that understanding why these workers lost control offers vital clues concerning how others can maintain mass power in future struggles. There are three major explanations given for the loss of workplace control in the USSR: (1) direct control by millions of producers is inevitably chaotic and therefore incompatible with economic planning (2) taking advantage of civil war, bureaucratic forces consolidated a “Stalinist counterrevolution;” and, (3) by building up a centralized state, the Bolsheviks undermined workers’ power.

The first explanation, that direct control by producers must fail, emphasizes the total collapse during these years. By 1920, industrial productivity was a mere 12 percent of what it had been in 1912.(28) Today, conventional wisdom based on union and Bolshevik writings of the time accepts the charge that the decline was caused by factory committees with “parochial” attitudes. For example, E.H. Carr warns us:

“The fatal and inevitable tendency of factory committees was to take decisions in light of the interests of the workers in a particular factory or in a particular region. The essence of socialism was to establish an economy planned and carefully coordinated by a central authority in the common interests of all.”(29)

But the economy continued to plunge after the factory committees were dismantled. Though the absorption of the factory committees into the unions was virtually complete by the middle of 1918, the nadir of production was not reached until 1920.

Let’s examine the most frequently listed productivity problems: (1) deserting to the village after earning enough rubles; (2) not showing up for work, (3) being too drunk to work, (4) stealing and/or breaking equipment; (5) not putting enough effort into work- (6) being too cold to work- and, (7) being too hungry to work Authoritarian discipline probably could reduce the first four of these, though at the risk of increasing the fifth.

The problem is that top-down discipline cannot affect cold, which was probably more important than any of the first five. And despite Leon Trotsky’s verbiage, you cannot whip hunger out of the working class. Yet hunger affected labor productivity more than all other factors combined.(30)

Red Petrograd offers another line of argument: from the very earliest days of their existence, factory committees were absorbed in a never-ending battle to increase production. The immediate stimulus for the formation of most committees was employers’ sabotaging war production. Factory committees frequently attempted to increase production through moral appeals, searches, piece-rates and firings. Factory committees were not reluctant to work with bourgeois technicians. Far from “causing chaos” in production, the factory committees were a response and a remedy to the economic collapse.(31)

The Great Dictator

Leon Trotsky’s fascinating endeavor to divert attention from his own role in the destruction of the movement for self-management can be found in The New Course (1923) and The Revolution Betrayed (1936). His portrait of reality has been repeated countless times. One of the more readable versions, Chris Harman’s How the Revolution Was Lost, claims that by 1921:

“The very personnel in the factories were not those who had constituted the core of the revolutionary movement of 1917. The most militant workers had quite naturally fought most at the front and suffered most casualties. Those that survived were needed not only in the factories, but as cadres in the army, or as commissars to keep the administrators operating the State machine.”(32)

Authoritarianism in production was supposedly a necessary evil to win the civil war, and, as the working class became decimated and exhausted, Stalin became the willing head of the bureaucracy’s drive to have an internal counterrevolution, or “Thermidor,” which unseated working-class power.

The mythology of the non-authoritarian Bolsheviks often begins with the fiction that Lenin advocated workers’ power in 1917. Susan Weissman writes that, just prior to the Civil War, “Lenin advocated not blanket nationalization of the means of production, but instead workers’ control over them.”(33) A reader could easily conclude that Lenin supported direct management of production by workers—something which is simply false. As Alec Nove emphasizes, “The Russian word kontrol’ means not a takeover, but inspection and checking.”(34)

Lenin advocated kontrol’ soon after October as a way to redirect and slow down a massive movement toward self-management. He felt that the struggle for socialism took place at the national-political level rather than on the shop floor. Leninists thought that the capitalist organization of labor should be extended by a revolutionary party in state power. This is why Lenin could seriously define socialism as state capitalism made to benefit everyone. He represented those Bolsheviks who had no intention of changing power relationships on the shop floor.

Dan LaBotz’s article, “Class War Stalin’s Counterrevolution,” illustrates another side of this mythology. Among the evils supposedly initiated by Stalin, LaBotz includes inequality in wages, piece-rates, shuffling workers between jobs, programs against labor undiscipline, integration of trade unions into labor discipline programs and one-man management of factories.(35)

I wish we could put to final rest the false notion that Joseph Stalin was the first Bolshevik to introduce authoritarianism into Soviet worklife. The accompanying table lists several types of social domination at the point of production that occurred between the February 1917 Revolution and the 1923 formation of Trotsky’s Left Opposition.(36) Virtually all of the economic crimes of “Stalinism appear in the accompanying table.

Table: Issues of Social Domination in Russian Worklife, 1917-1923*

Problem Proposed Who, What or Where?
Inequality at the Point of Production
 1 Use of highly paid experts March 1917 Munitions plant run by factory committee
 2* differential wages May 1917 Franco-Prussian Works stewards
 3* Piece Rates August 1917 Leatherworkers’ contract
 4* Taylorism/scientific management April 1918 Lenin (Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government)
 5 Bonus incentives Summer 1918
 6* Militarization of labor December 1919 Lenin initially backs Trotsky
Democratic Representation
 7* Smashing of unions March 1918 Dictorial pwoers to Commissar of Communications
 8 Appoint workers’ representatives March 1918 Vesenkha has centers appoint commissars
 9* One-man management April 1918 Lenin (Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government)
10 Breaking up union meetings Spring 1918 Public protests against Bolshevik actions
11 Workers a minority of management boards May 1918 First All-Russian Congress of Regional Economic Councils
12 Lower bodies unable to elect higher ones January 1919 Complaint to Second All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions
Punitive Actions
13 Workbooks note productivity April 1918 All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions
14* Welfare to control dissent Spring 1918 Bolsheviks use food rationing against opponents
15 Political prisoners to labor camos April 1919 Forced labor for Cheka targets
16 Workplace violation courts Summer 1919 Workers’ Comradely Courts of Discipline
17 Search as leaving factory September 1919 Voronin, Lyutsch, & Cheshire Cloth Print Factory
Social Labor
18 Guaranteed productivity July 1917 Shlyapnikov to metalworkers
19 Withdrawing right to strike January 1918 Right not approved, All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions
20 Abolish guaranteed wage Summer 1918
21 48-hour work week Summer 1918
22 Subotnilks/Voskresniks May 1919 Unpaid Saturday/Sunday labor/Moscow-Kazan Railway
23 Shockwork 1919/1920 Teams assigned to transport work
24* Unemployment May 1920 10th Party Congress–New Economic Policy
25 Time League Jun 1923 Use time “as though it were money” to creat objective cerebral hygiene

*Smith’s Red Petrograd documents Problems No. 1(61), 2(89), 3(131-2), 5(250), 11(241), 13(249), 17(91), 18(125), and 20 and 21(250). Brinton’s Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control documeni Problems No.6 (56), 8 (35) and 12 (51). Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. 2 documents Problems No. 7 (395), 15 (212), 16 (213-214), 22 (210), 23 (218), and 24(289-320). Siriannj’s Workers’ Control and Soviet Democracy documents Problems No. 7 (127), 8 (127), 10 (128), 19 (127) and 23 (222). Luke’s ideology and Soviet industrialization documents Problem No.25 (219).

By the time of Stalin’s rise to power, the Russian Revolution had experienced five great struggles over workplace democracy:

Between February and October 1917—conflict between the factory committees and bourgeois power found the Bolsheviks, anarchists and many non-party workers against the Mensheviks arid bourgeois parties.

From the October Revolution to February 1919—there was antagonism between the factory committees and union/state power with the anarchists and left Bolsheviks aligned against right Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.

April 1918 through most of the civil war—found the Left Communists struggling against the center and right Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky.

1921—the Workers’ Opposition led by Kollontai and Shlyapnikov was battling the Bolshevik center and right.

1923—By 1923, with Lenin out of the picture, Trotsky’s Left Opposition plagiarized many of the ideas of its predecessors.(37)

Trotsky’s flip-flops help explain that something besides exhaustion alienated militants from him in 1923.

Worker support for the party line in the struggle with the Left Opposition, in many cases, was probably less an endorsement of party policies than it was a rejection of Trotsky, the opposition’s leader. Party agitators and spokesmen who addressed workers undoubtedly reminded them that it was Trotsky who advocated the total militarization of labor and the trade unions in 1920-1921.(38)

The Bolshevik Demons

The many examples of early Bolshevik economic authoritarianism were not episodic departures from an otherwise egalitarian attitude toward worklife. They accurately reflect the center and right Bolshevik approach of the time. Lenin and Trotsky didn’t merely attack workers’ management. They stomped it until it was quite dead and then they buried it.

But this does not mean that Lenin planned to destroy self-management. A common accusation is that the Bolsheviks used factory committees to disrupt the economy prior to their seizing power and then began opposing them as they implemented a scheme to centralize production.(39) The difficulty with such a theory is that The Bolshevik party had no position on the question of workers’ control prior to 1917.(40)

A more sophisticated view would be that the Bolsheviks undermined growing movements toward self-management by constantly steering them in the direction of a state-run economy controlled by a political party.(41) While this is largely true, the weakness of this view is that it sidesteps the serious divisions and weaknesses within the working class that allowed the Bolsheviks to succeed. It is not enough to say, “The Bolsheviks dominated the working class;” we must ask why this class allowed itself to be dominated rather than organizing itself as the ruling class.

Incoming to grips with this issue, we need to return to the wheelbarrow. Look again at the table on “Social domination in Soviet worklife” Notice the dates that precede the October Revolution. The factory committees, unions and soviets were all populated largely by experienced “cadre” workers who found themselves in a role of imposing discipline upon those whose “spontaneity” they distrusted.

Rampant starvation during the severe winter of 1917-18 created an unambiguous need for discipline In October 1917, “food in 1,200 wagons at the Nikolaev railway depot had to be thrown away after it went rotten while waiting to be unloaded. The following month the Putilov Works Committee asked its 12,000 laid-off employees (receiving two-thirds pay) to unload sixty unexpected wagons of coal. Two workers showed up.(42)

Workers with the greatest experience in self-management were frequently the ones with the least enthusiasm for abolishing capitalism. A good example is the printers—”the oldest and best-organized union in Petrograd—who remained a bastion of Menshevism” long after other unions had been won over to the Bolsheviks. In particular, the typesetters would organize work among themselves and appoint a steward to supervise discipline, hours and wages.”

The railwaymen’s union, Vikzhel had the highest level of workers’ self-management in all of Russia, but was quickly smashed by Bolshevik state power because of their opposition to the October Revolution.(43)

Nevertheless, the problem with placing too much blame on the Bolsheviks is that their program of centralization reflected the popular mood as much as it molded it Those anarchists whose anti-statism led them to oppose creating a Central Council of Factory Committees were clearly out of step with the overwhelming majority of workers who realized the need to establish discipline at the point of production and coordination between producing units.(44)

Though the Leninist indifference to self-management was certainly a powerful drawback, the working class failed to look to itself to create a new society. Instead, the revolution typically found workers’ demanding that others act in their behalf.

The number of factories actively seized was far smaller than of those where the workforce asked the soviets to nationalize them.(45) The struggle with the unions has abundant examples of factory committees’ resisting being -absorbed into the unions but an absence of any systematic effort by the factory committees to demand that the unions be subordinated to their will. Four years later, the Workers’ Opposition would repeat the practice of deferring to those who would soon turn upon it.(46)

The Bolshevik failure to encourage self-management could not have been cured by anarchists who did not understand the need for collective discipline. If the Bolsheviks had been magically removed from the scene, the revolution would not have been more democratic—it would have been dead.

A Revolution That Needs To Happen

No modem revolution has a choice between the presence or absence of work discipline—the basic social decision for any reorganization of industrial labor is whether people will develop collective self-control or suffer discipline from an elite. This new social history of the Russian Revolution teaches two important lessons. First, our understanding of this struggle must incorporate the upheaval in Russian worklife as it was expressed through the factory committees.

And second, the failure of this revolution cannot be pushed off on the straw men of Bolshevism” or “Stailnism” because the true weaknesses were the inability of the working class to overcome authoritarianism and its lack of collective self-confidence.

If we reject simplistic views that the revolution’s failure can be blamed on “Stalinism” or “Bolshevism” and acknowledge that it must be traced to problems within the working class, does this lead us right back to the liberal view that masses of people are fundamentally incapable of directly governing themselves? The fatal flaw of such reasoning is that it ignores the potential for the working class to transform itself during the process of revolution. Acknowledging authoritarian weaknesses is only the first step in the real battle—developing ways to overcome it in political struggle, in workilfe and in social reorganization.

Unfortunately, socialist thought usually avoids this crucial question. Marx and Lenin (before 1917) wrote as if human conflict were caused by class society, implying that, once capitalism was abolished, no such thing as labor discipline would be necessary. There would be no problem with people not showing up for work on time, not wanting to stay at a particular job, not meeting production deadlines or not going along with decisions such as shutting down a particular unit of production.

The typical Marxist-Leninist answer to questions about conflicts over production under socialism is that there are “no blueprints for future society and problems will have to be worked out when the revolution finds them.’ In short, the belief that socialist society will not have serious conflict over the organization of worklife leads to the absence of theory in dealing with it Lenin’s solution was a logical consequence: since work relations are no big deal, just let the party impose discipline on whatever little problems pop up.

For Marx and Lenin to have overlooked these problems is bad enough. For us to continue being theoretically agnostic on human conflict in worklife is begging for a reproduction of bureaucratic class relationships, no matter how many times we may denounce “Stalinism” or Bolshevism” and call for free speech in the Soviet Union.

A theory of collective self-empowerment would ask if work groups should select—that is, hire/fire—their own members. It would provide guidelines for rotating decision-making positions within work groups and all higher economic levels. And it would show some understanding of inevitable conflicts between work groups and broader economic bodies concerning decisions on what to produce, how to produce it, how long production should take, how many people are necessary to do it, and how to determine if a particular enterprise should be abolished.

A victorious socialist revolution will be one where workers transform themselves into a self-managing class that totally reorganizes society. Dealing with these issues is one of the most urgent tasks of the left if it is to become capable of integrating the need to abolish capitalism with any flash flood of worklife sell-empowerment that may loom on the horizon.


  1. This new set of writings includes: Diane Koenker, Moscew Workers and the 1917Revolulion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); Carmen Sirianni, Workers’ Control and Socialist Democracy: The Soviet Experience (London: Verso, 1982); Timothy Luke, Ideology and Soviet Industrialization (Westport, CT. Greenwood Press, 1985) [Since my page numbers are from a copy of Luke’s manuscript, they will not correspond to those of the published edition of his book]; William Chase, Workers, Society and the Soviet State: Labor and Life in Moscow. 1918-1929 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); and the collection of essays in Donald Kaiser, editor, The Workers’ Revolution in Russia, 1917: The View from Below (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
    back to text
  2. S.A. Smith, Red Petrograd: Revolution in the Factories, 1917-18 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
    back to text
  3. Chase 117-8. Though the author is describing the labor force of 1921-29, accounts of other Russian cities of few years earlier are virtually the same.
    back to text
  4. Leon Trotsky, 1905 (New York. Vintage Books, 1971) 104.
    back to text
  5. Trotsky, The Russian Revolution (New York Doubleday Anchor Books, 1959) 153.
    back to text
  6. Russian Revolution, 154, 158.
    back to text
  7. Peter Rachleff, “Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution,” Root & Brunch, The Rise of the Workers’ Movements (Greenwich, CT: Fawett, 1975).
    back to text
  8. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the U.S.S.R. (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1970) 49-50.
    back to text
  9. With the outbreak of the February 1917 Revolution, workers revived these elective institutions, creating stewards’ committees for each workshop and/or factory committees of the whole enterprise. By spring 1917 stewards’ committees generally called themselves factory committees. More than any other revolutionary institution, the factory committees were permeated with direct democracy. This Is reflected in the fact that it was not the factory committee per se which was the sovereign organ in the factory, but the general meeting of all workers.” The factory committee was elected by secret ballot for one year, could be recalled at anytime and had to report to the general meeting at least monthly. Smith 57-59, 204.
    back to text
  10. Smith 149.
    back to text
  11. The authority that the factory committees were beginning to win is suggested by a description of the “wife of a worker at Sestroretesk arms works [who] turned to the works committees when her husband threw her out.” Discussions of various combinations of these eight contrasts are available in Koenker 148-9,163; Sirianni 46,130; and Smith 113,203.
    back to text
  12. Koenker 3l7-8.
    back to text
  13. Discussions of divisions within the factory committees are available in Chase 41-3, 86, 113-17; Koenker 179, 317-318; Sirianni 30-3, 110-30; Smith 91-4, 190-9.
    back to text
  14. Vladimir Lenin, “Draft Regulations on Workers’ Control,” Selected Works, Vol. 2 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970) 481.
    back to text
  15. Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers Control, 1917 to 1921: The State and Counter-Revolution (London: Solidarity, 1970). Brinton explains how the Vesenka came to lay the foundations for a new bureaucratic ruling class by overseeing a three-way fusion “of trade union officials, Party stalwarts, and experts nominated by the ‘workers’ state,” 23.
    back to text
  16. Smith 212.
    back to text
  17. Smith 242-245.
    back to text
  18. As recently as May 1917, Lenin had pronounced that three-fourths of factory management boards should be composed of workers. But, a year later, as the civil war was beginning, he became outraged at similar proposals from others. Upon Lenin’s insistence, the First Congress of Regional Councils called for two-thirds of management boards’ being appointees and only one-third being workers representatives. Brinton 35,51; Sirianni 25.
    back to text
  19. An excellent account of Lenin’s debate with the Left Communists and of the economy in the Urals is available in Sirianni 115-50. Z). Brinton 35, 51.
    back to text
  20. E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution: 1917-1923, Vol. 2 (London: Penguin Books, 1966) 211-214.
    back to text
  21. Carr 392.
    back to text
  22. Carr 394-395.
    back to text
  23. Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Armed-Trotsky: 1879-1921 (New York Vintage Books, 1965)501-502.
    back to text
  24. Brinton 49.
    back to text
  25. Carr 217.
    back to text
  26. Carr 193.
    back to text
  27. Carr 309.
    back to text
  28. Carr 78.
    back to text
  29. Sirianni 108, 221.
    back to text
  30. Smith 57-61, 72, 88-93,242, 247.
    back to text
  31. Chris Harman, How the Revolution Was Lost, London: Socialist Worker pamphlet, 6.
    back to text
  32. Susan Weissman, “Victor Serge’s World and Ours,” Against the Current 12/13 (Jan.-April 1988): 43.
    back to text
  33. Nave 4l.
    back to text
  34. Dan LaBotz, “Class War: Stalin’s Counterrevolution,” Changes, Vol. 7, No. 7-8 (July/ August, 1985): 17-21.
    back to text
  35. There could be many other areas I have not listed and I would welcome a fuller exposition of economic authoritarianism. If the table is wrong in the listing of the first date that an area was discussed or occurred, my error is in being unaware of an event that occurred earlier than I have indicated and is not in the direction of the first appearance being later.
    back to text
  36. One of the many tragedies of the Russian Revolution was the lack of understanding concerning workers’ management of production. One grouping after another suddenly realized the centrality of this issue, but found themselves isolated from those who had recently carried out the same struggle. There is no evidence of any strong connection between the Left Communists and the factory-committee movement. Shlyapnikov, a leader of the Workers’ Opposition, had frequently criticized the committees and was not involved with the Left Communists. This lack of continuity critically undermined the Left Opposition in 1923.
    back to text
  37. Chase 234.
    back to text
  38. Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists (New York W. W. Norton, 1978) and Brinton.
    back to text
  39. Letter from Tom Wetzel to Don Fits, August 4, 1987.
    back to text
  40. Smith 86, 247.
    back to text
  41. Smith 33, 115, 234.
    back to text
  42. Sirianni 51.
    back to text
  43. A characteristic incident of the time was at the Dukat tobacco plant where workers attempted to resolve the conflict over a group of sailors’ demanding cigarettes by appealing to the soviets to resolve the dispute. Koenker 11, 353.
    back to text
  44. Alexandra Kollontai’s famous pamphlet presenting their program ends with the fatal prophecy, “Ilyich [Lenin] will be with us yet.” Alix Holt, editor, Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (New York W. W. Norton, 1977) 200.
    back to text

January-February 1990, ATC 24

Leave a comment

ATC welcomes online comments on stories that are posted on its website. Comments are intended to be a forum for open and respectful discussion.
Comments may be denied publication for the use of threatening, discriminatory, libelous or harassing language, ad hominem attacks, off-topic comments, or disclosure of information that is confidential by law or regulation.
Anonymous comments are not permitted. Your email address will not be published.
Required fields are marked *