Studying Petrograd in 1917

Ted McTaggart

The Petrograd Workers
in the Russian Revolution: February 1917-June 1918
By David Mandel
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2018, 522 pages, $25.20 paperback.

THE LEADING ROLE of the workers of Petrograd in the victory of the Russian Revolution has been well documented. Despite this, most historians have focused primarily on the writings and actions of Lenin, Trotsky and other individual leaders, leaving the workers as an abstract idea.

The masses may be the force making history, but beyond the knowledge that a certain percentage of workers support Bolsheviks, a certain percentage Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, the internal dynamics remain obscure.

David Mandel’s The Petrograd Workers in the Russian Revolution: February 1917-June 1918 is a valuable contribution to the history of the Russian Revolution. The author teaches political science at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and is a scholar and educator studying and supporting rank-and-file labor activism in the former Soviet Union, particularly in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

An expanded, revised edition of two previously published works, this study provides a detailed analysis of the working class of Petrograd not only in their party affiliation but also by profession, neighborhood, gender and nationality. It also sheds light on the ways in which work was organized in the early months of the proletarian dictatorship, and the ways in which workers grappled with the idea of workers’ control at the point of production.

When he founded St. Petersburg as the new capital of the Russian Empire in 1703, Tsar Peter I (aka Peter the Great) made an intentional move to introduce greater European influence into Russia. The city’s architecture and layout were modeled on European metropolises, and its location on the Baltic Sea is a point of entry for cultural influences that rarely penetrate far beyond the city’s outskirts.

The Germanic name “Sankt-Peterburg” was Russified into Petrograd in 1914 in a show of patriotism as Russia entered the First World War. In 1924, after Lenin’s death (and after the capital was relocated to Moscow), the city was renamed Leningrad. Finally, in 1991, the city was rebranded with its original name.

The international influence exerted by the city’s geography and cultural history are not explored in depth by Mandel. He does, however, highlight a strong spirit of internationalism and solidarity across ethnic lines among Petrograd’s working class despite its overwhelmingly ethnic Russian makeup. “The patriotic wave that swept Russian society when the war began found little echo among Petrograd workers and even that was short-lived. Police reports make clear that no trace remained by the fall of 1915.”

Further, he notes that “One of the most famous strikes of 1912-14 upsurge of labour militancy was a 102-day stoppage at the Lessner Machine-construction Factory, sparked by the suicide of a Jewish worker who had been driven to despair by the taunts of a foreman. In 1917, people with obviously Jewish names, such as Izrailevich or Kogan, were elected by workers as delegates to soviets and other workers’ organizations.” (25)

At the outbreak of the February 1917 revolution, the workers of Petrograd were at a very advanced level of class political consciousness due in no small part to the experiences of the 1905 revolution.

Informed as much by a history of betrayals by bourgeois liberalism as by their own experiences of working class insurgency, they developed a culture of “class separateness” of workers from exploiters, which “was more than the desire for self-determination. It stemmed from a deeply held sense of the antagonistic interests that separated workers from the propertied classes. This gave rise to the desire for workers’ organizations to be kept under exclusive control of workers, free of intervention or influence from census society.” (21)

Although this ethic of “class separateness” led workers to reject any political alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie, and weakened support among conscious workers for the Mensheviks (who were more inclined than the Bolsheviks toward such alliances), it also made workers yearn for unity among working class forces.

“The ‘conscious’ workers typically referred to themselves as part of a ‘worker family’ or as ‘a single harmonious proletarian family.’ They felt there should be common goals and a common strategy, not division. Workers often expressed impatience with party divisions, sometimes ascribed to the pride of the party leaders.” (24)

Skilled Workers vs. Worker Aristocracy

Mandel points to the skilled and relatively highly paid metalworkers of Petrograd as perhaps the most class conscious, revolutionary sector of the Petrograd working class. Meanwhile, unskilled and semi-skilled workers tended to be at a very low level of political consciousness and tended to show little interest in collective action.

Unskilled workers were typically recruited from the countryside; their peasant backgrounds and low levels of literacy affected their receptivity to appeals to the class struggle. Furthermore, their poverty and exhausting conditions of life afforded them little opportunity to engage in any activity not related to their own immediate survival.

This was doubly true of women workers, the vast majority of whom were unskilled, and who were responsible for the lion’s share of domestic labor on top of their responsibilities as wage laborers.

Unlike unskilled men, women workers were unlikely to be afforded the opportunity to advance to skilled or semi-skilled positions that would offer higher wages and a moderately improved quality of life.

While earning wages far lower than men on average, women also “were subject to the arbitrary rule of unscrupulous managers and foremen who often took advantage of them economically and sexually. The ‘decent public’ looked upon women factory workers as little better than prostitutes.” (28)

The small minority of skilled women workers, meanwhile, including those in the needle trades, who typically went through a two- to three-year trade school or apprenticeship, tended to be politically engaged much like their skilled male counterparts.

While highlighting the advanced political consciousness of men in the metalworking industry and women in the needle trades, Mandel nevertheless validates the notion of the labor aristocracy, which is disputed by some Marxist thinkers. Although only a minority of the skilled working class, Mandel cites as an example of the ‘worker aristocracy’ the printers.

“As skilled workers, the printers were well assimilated into urban life and were nearly all literate. Their work required considerable intellectual skills, and their wages were on a par with those of metalworkers. It was not a privileged material situation but rather the nature of the industry and work, its structure and traditions that muted the antagonisms felt by skilled metalworkers toward census society and gave rise among printers to a sense of kinship with the intelligentsia and, through the latter, with the liberal elements of census society.” (39)

Mandel notes that “defencist” or pro-war sentiments were strong among the printers; “printers also participated in such ‘bourgeois’ organisations as liberal philanthropies and in the city duma’s efforts to alleviate the workers’ economic distress. This went counter to the skilled metalworkers’ norm of ‘class separateness.” (43)

Workers’ Control: Oversight or Self-Management?

In the months between February and October, the question of workers’ control was put before the workers of Petrograd. While socialists had long called for workers’ control of production, there was not generalized agreement on what this control would look like; rather, the forms assumed by workers’ control were forced on workers by the actions of the capitalists.

“The workers wanted to keep their factories running, to save jobs and to defend the revolution. Workers’ control in its initial conception of monitoring bore a resemblance to dual-power in the political sphere. . . But workers’ control, as originally conceived, was based upon the assumption that the capitalists would cooperate or at least tolerate control. The workers wanted to leave the administration in charge of running the basic financial and productive dimensions of the enterprises, while reserving for themselves the right to monitor this activity and to intervene in cases of abuse.

“But that was the problem: workers’ control came up against the same obstacle as dual power in the state: the party to be ‘controlled’ was not obliging. On the political level, the workers soon concluded that the bourgeoisie wanted, in fact, to reverse the revolution. And they were reaching the same conclusion in regards to the owners’ interests in keeping their factories running.” (291-2)

Before and after October, factory committees were divided between those who wanted to restrict these bodies’ activity to “passive” control, where ultimate management would be left in the hands of factory owners, and those who sought to grant factory committees “the broadest possible freedom of action vis-à-vis management . . . that is, the power to issue orders that would be binding on management.” (398)

While many union leaders and moderate Bolsheviks argued for passive control, there was strong support at the rank and file level for active control. In the chapter “The October Revolution in the Factories,” Mandel recounts the debates about the role of the factory committees in great depth. These debates were complicated by the lack of a centralized economic plan.

Supporters of passive control were motivated to a large extent by a desire to maintain a state of dual power in the factories — to keep capitalists from pulling out of their enterprises entirely and forcing widespread nationalization on a regime without the wherewithal to administer a national planned economy. Ultimately, however, this dual power was untenable.

As Yu. Larin, a strong advocate of ‘passive’ control concluded in January 1918, “… there is but one way out: either move forward or drown.” Mandel concludes that “As in the case of workers’ control itself, nationalization was not primarily undertaken as a necessary step towards socialism but as a practical measure, one imposed by circumstances, for the survival of the revolution.” (416, 418)

(David Mandel discusses these dynamics in his ATC article “The Russian Revolution: Its Necessity and Meaning.” — ed.)

St. Petersburg is not the whole of Russia by any means, and Mandel’s close study of the proletariat in one city is not the ideal choice for a reader seeking an entry level history of the Russian revolution. Its focus is intentionally narrow, as its title makes clear.

Given the importance of the workers of Petrograd in the Russian revolution, however, the value of Mandel’s work can hardly be overstated. Painstakingly researched, it illuminates the connections between debates among party leaders and the underlying tensions affecting workers’ lives. This leaves the reader with a much richer understanding of how the working class, in all its complexity, acts collectively to make history.

November-December 2020, ATC 209

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