The Study of a Russian Factory

Against the Current, No. 130, September/October 2007

David Mandel

Revolution and Counterrevolution:
Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory
Kevin Murphy
Oxford and NY: Berghahn Books, 2005 hardback.
Haymarket Books, 2007, $20 paperback reprint.

THIS BOOK IS a study of the Moscow Hammer and Sickle metallurgical factory between 1905 to 1932, based largely on four factory-specific archives that became available to Western historians after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its main focus, covering two-thirds of the book, is the post-revolutionary, post-civil war period.

The central question the author poses is: “Why did the most unruly proletariat of the twentieth century come to tolerate the ascendancy of a political and economic system that, by every conceivable measure, proved antagonistic to working class interests?”(1) He convincingly challenges what he calls the “cold-war mythology” that Soviet workers were beaten into submission by repression in the 1920s under the NEP (New Economic Policy) regime, or, alternatively, that they enthusiastically embraced Stalin’s “Great Turn” of the late 1920s.

Despite the author’s somewhat exaggerated claim that access to new archival materials, and his book in particular, have permitted a radically new understanding of the post-revolutionary period, in my view the book’s main contribution, in fact, is the support it lends to the traditional leftwing interpretation of the period. This interpretation is associated with Trotsky and the Left Opposition and historians like Isaac Deutscher, E.H. Carr, R. Davies, Moshe Lewin, and Stephen Cohen, some of whom the author cites to provide a broader context for what was occuring in the plant.

In this respect, the “view from below” in the Hammer and Sickle (Guzhon, before the Revolution) factory confirms a number of key things about the post-civil war period:

1) The popular nature and socialist commitment of the early post-civil war Soviet regime, which, although a one-party dictatorship, rejected coercion as a means of social transformation.

2) The qualitative transformation of this regime during the 1920s, especially rapid towards the end of the decade, that restored key Tsarist practices and values without, however, restoring capitalism or overtly abandoning the socialist project. (Trotsky’s use of the term “Thermidor” still seems most appropriate, although Murphy subscribes to the “Cliffite” state-capitalism thesis.)

3) A working class that reacted to the rise of the bureaucracy and the “Great Turn” of the late 1920s with hostility but was unable to resist them, never having recovered the independent strength it had exhausted in defending the Revolution during the civil war and in the accompanying economic crisis.

In this review, I can only offer a brief summary of how this was reflected in the experience of the Hammer and Sickle factory, without, however, transmitting the rich texture of some of the book’s material, which undoubtedly constitutes its major interest.

Party and Union Organization

First, in the immediate post-civil war period, roughly until 1925, we find in the plant a Communist party organization consisting of highly committed workers, an organization that repeatedly lent its support to worker demands, even backing a strike in 1924, and did not hesitate to recommend workers hostile to the party as candidates to the city and district soviets.

We also find a union that wielded real power in the plant, enforced a very progressive labor code, and tolerated, if it did not lead, strikes, itself preferring arbitration. This union promoted rank-and-file activism; it was not dominated by party members; its leaders were subject to shopfloor control; collective agreements were discussed at well-attended general plant meetings.

In addition, both party and union displayed real concern for women’s issues and grievances, promoted their professional advancement and active participation in the organizations. The party was also tolerant of religious belief and practice among the plant’s workers, and even to some extent in its own ranks. This was based on the view that cultural change required time and changed material conditions, and could not be imposed by force.

Second, all this began to change from the mid 1920s. The “Lenin Levy” (mass recruitment following Lenin’s death) opened party ranks to careerists and the politically uneducated, a policy aimed at facilitating bureaucratic domination of the party. As party ranks swelled, conscious socialist commitment among its members weakened and corruption spread.

Internal democracy was progressively stifled with the imposition of top-down discipline. At the same time, the party abandoned its support for workers’ grievances and demands. (Such support was condemned as “tailism.”) This  reflected the regime’s increasingly exclusive emphasis on production at the expense of current consumption and other human needs, and further demoralized those party members who still retained their socialist commitment. The first mass arrests of party oppositionists occurred in 1928.

Change was somewhat more gradual in the union, but took the same direction. Although party members already dominated the union at the plant and shop levels by 1926, there still was a strong, though declining, tendency to defend workers’ interests, including the egalitarian wage policy favored by workers.

This tendency was not completely broken until the first five-year plan was launched in 1929 and Stalin ordered unions to “face production.” The workers’ situation declined dramatically in the late 1920s. Brief, partial strikes and other forms of collective pressure continued into early 1928, the first year a strike leader was fired.

With the regime’s exclusive emphasis on production, party and union committees also abandoned their interest in women’s issues. Pressure to work on religious holidays intensified too. In fact, all aspects of culture were increasingly subordinated to the party-state control, and workers were subjected to a quite vicious campaign against indiscipline and forms of social deviance.

Growing Discontent

Third, as the foregoing indicates, the workers were not beaten into submission in the immediate post-civil war period, when the political and managerial regimes were quite liberal and workers were not afraid to speak out against official policy and engage in collective action.

During this period, workers not only tolerated the regime, but there seems to have been significant degree of positive, if critical, adherence to it, despite the dire poverty. (Real money wages returned to close to pre-war levels only in 1926, though the “social wage” was undoubtedly much higher than under the old regime.)

The book shows deep discontent among workers, including party members, with the mounting assault against them — and soon also against the peasants — in the second half of the 1920s, as well as with the privileges and despotic power of the political élite.

At a factory meeting in July 1926 at which the Soviet leader M. Kalinin spoke, a worker passed up the following question in a note: “Comrade Kalinin, please tell us, is the view from above one of complete bureaucratism and not constructing socialism? We are seeing from below, at our place, complete bureaucratism but there is nothing we can do because they are all very closely tied to each other. So we will either have to start over again building socialism or erect barricades.” (88)

But even before repression became a serious threat at the end of the 1920s, this discontent only rarely took active, collective forms. And even when resistance was collective, it was limited and brief. The predominant reaction by far was individualistic and manifested itself in absenteeism and turnover (especially high among new peasant arrivals during the first-five year plan), alcohol abuse, theft and brawling, and a general retreat into private life, as attendance at meetings and interest in the union and in politics declined.

Even though the Opposition (i.e. opponents of Stalin in the party — ed.) took up their interests against the regime, the overwhelming majority of the plant’s workers did not bother to come to the meeting that discussed its expulsion.

The workers’ reaction to the “Great Turn” of the late 1920s was likewise anything but enthusiastic, as some historians have claimed. It could hardly have been otherwise, given the dramatic decline in real wages and the deterioration of work conditions, speedup and incessant overtime, and complete subordination of the union to management.

On the other hand, the turn did open channels of rapid social mobility into the expanding bureaucracy for a significant minority of workers, who no doubt rallied to the regime, which was able to count upon a hard core of loyalists in the plant and on the shop floor to enforce its policies.

The change in the party’s internal regime and in its policies also aroused much discontent in its own ranks and did not come easily. As late as 1927, the party reported “cases of tailism and members falling subject to the mood of nonparty workers.”(89)

The desire among members to leave the party had to be stemmed by refusing their resignations. The book offers evidence of significant sympathy for the Opposition in the party and Komsomol (youth) organizations of the plant, and even more widespread opposition to the expulsion of the Opposition from the party. Nevertheless, party meetings in 1927 repeatedly condemned the Opposition with very few dissenting voices — only two party members of the over 400 that attended the expulsion meeting voted against it.

The plant’s trade union leaders and activists, and even some of its party leaders, supported the trade union opposition that formed behind by Mikhail Tomsky in 1928 in opposition to Stalin’s policy of transforming the unions into management tools concerned exclusively with maximizing output. But this opposition was unwilling or unable to rally rank-and-file support.

Death of the Revolution

This brings us to the author’s central question: “Why did the most unruly proletariat of the twentieth century come to tolerate the ascendancy of a political and economic system that, by evry conceivable measure, proved antagonistic to working-class interests?”

He cites several factors, including rising unemployment in the mid-1920s, the loss of the party and union support that workers had enjoyed in the early 1920s, the intensified repression, and the regime’s control of the food supply in conditions of severe shortage during the first five-year plan. He also cites subjective factors such as the loss of collective confidence, political apathy, the preference for individual over collective solutions — factors which, however, are more descriptive than explanatory.

In the end, the book does not provide a completely satisfactory answer to the author’s question. And one wonders why, coming out of the Marxist tradition, he did not consider more seriously the impact of the Revolution and the ravages of civil war on the working class, a factor that Trotsky and many others considered absolutely central in the rise of the bureaucracy.

He does cite Lenin from 1922 to the effect the working class “has ceased to exist as a proletariat” (73) but does not make much of that. This is undoubtedly, at least in part, a consequence of the book’s subject matter — a single factory. The available material for the plant does not apparently provide much detail about what happened to its work force during the first years after the revolution. (The civil war period is covered in only a few pages.)

All we are told is that most workers left the plant for the countryside; others took part in military and other mobilizations; the small group that remained in the barely functioning plant was demoralized by material privation. We learn nothing about who returned to the plant after the civil war.

But this is the crux of the issue. As reported by Trotsky and other writers, the most committed and capable workers perished in the civil war or were rercuited into the new administrative and military apparatuses. These had been the leaders and organizers of the worker masses before the October Revolution. Their role had been particularly important in a largely unskilled and semi-skilled metallurgical plant like Guzhon, whose workforce had strong ties to the countryside.

Moreover, those Bolshevik activists who did return after the civil war came back to what, at least for them, was a new situation: The factory and the state were now theirs, no longer those of the class enemy. Despite their sympathy for the workers’ interests, this undoubtedly limited their capacity to organize and lead resistance. And the non-party workers themselves could develop only informal, alternative leaders, since all other parties had been banned in 1921, along with factions within the Communist Party.

Another factor that needs to be considered is the demoralizing effect on Communists and non-party workers alike of the dimming hope for the revolution in the West that had been counted upon to help the Soviet Russia overcome her profound contradictions.

Guzhon in the Movement

All this is indirectly related to what is perhaps the book’s major shortcoming: the failure adequately to situate the plant and its workers in the Russian workers’ movement. We are never told why this factory was chosen for study, except that it was the largest metal plant in Moscow (itself not a major centre of metalworking) and so, apparently for that reason, “strategic.”

In fact, the material presented on the pre-revolutionary period and on 1917 shows that the plant was very far from the forefront of the workers’ movement even in Moscow, itself well behind St. Petersburg/Petrograd (later Leningrad) and other industrial centers of the empire.

Indeed, Guzhon’s workers were much less active and politicized than those of the three other large metal plants in the same city district. The main reason, not mentioned in the book, is the differing social composition of their work forces.

The latter were engineering (machine-building) plants, which generally meant that their workers were more skilled, literate and urbanized than those of Guzhon, a steel foundry that produced relative simple goods such as rolled metal, wire, nails, bolts, wheels and gears.

The social composition of Guzhon’s work force, especially the workers’ links to the peasantry, also helps to explain why the Socialist Revolutionaries, a populist peasant-oriented party, and not the Social Democrats, held sway there before and during 1917, a fact that the book does not satisfactorily explain.

To be fair, the author skilfully complements his factory study with references to more general analyses of the period. But that is not enough to situate the chosen plant in the overall labor scene.

We learn, for example, that despite intensified repression, the Opposition was able to win victories against the party leadership in some Moscow factories;(2) two engineering plants are named. Was it really mere chance that the Opposition was stronger there?

One can only wonder how different the strength and quality of worker and rank-and-file party resistance were to the rise of Stalinism in a city like Leningrad, in a major engineering center with many very large factories2, or in the Ivanovo-Kineshma textile region, which had long been a Bolshevik stronghold before 1917 and during the first five-year plan saw mass strike activity.

Working-Class Weakness

Be that as it may, it is clear that the Soviet working class as a whole failed to mount effective resistance to the rise of Stalinism and that the factors at work at Hammer and Sickle undoubtedly played, to varying degrees, a similar role elsewhere.

Whatever the mistakes of the Left Opposition, what happened was the most likely outcome given the weakness of the working class, the potential social base of the Opposition. In that respect, the author’s claim that “emerging Stalinism managed to weather the storm has tended to obscure what is now discernible: a narrow gap between widespread working-class resentment and open revolt” (113) is surprising, all the more so as it is based on the experience of the Hammer and Sickle factory.

The material presented does indicate widespread resentment, but there is nothing to suggest the potential, let alone imminence, of open revolt. The author’s comparison of 1928 with 1915, when a temporarily suspended pre-war strike movement resumed, continuously growing in intensity and politicization until the February Revolution, seems far-fetched indeed.

The very fact that wartime workers could develop a powerful strike movement in conditions of extremely harsh, indeed totalitarian, repression — much stronger than in 1928 — shows how different the two situations, and the working class in particular, were.

It is possible that this could have changed in time, especially in the conditions of growing labor shortage brought on by the industrialisation drive. Even in the absence of independent organizations, this gave workers some individual leverage and allowed them to resist discipline.

The book gives some idea of the intense resentment for the despotism and privileges of the bureaucratic élite, as well as the quite strikingly weak work and party discipline during the first five-year plan. It also shows that workers tried to resist, albeit in unorganized ways and individually, the intensification of their exploitation through “shock work,” the continuous work week, night work, incessant overtime, “socialist competition” — and that despite the growing repression, some people still did not fear to speak out.

In view of this, it seems plausible that one of the “rational” motives behind the mass terror unleashed in 1936 was to compensate for the lack of an industrial reserve army to discipline the workers, and to eliminate the potential for collective resistance that existed. It also aimed at eliminating another resource the workers could draw upon — what was left of the legacy of the revolution.


  1. From the cover blurb, but repeated on pages 82 and 224.
    back to text
  2. It was P. Zalutskii, a self-taught Leningrad metalworker who had become a top party functionary in the city, who first publicly voiced the danger of a Thermidor in 1925. Until 1926, the party organization in Lenignrad had been controlled by Zinoviev, a member of the United Opposition.
    back to text

from ATC 130 (September/October 2007)