In February 1917 we have seen that, at the level of state power, the Russian workers overthrew the Tsarist regime only to then accept a government of the bourgeoisie’s parties. The workers ceded state power to the bourgeoisie while maintaining their soviets, their councils, to oversee and pressure the government. Asimilar process took place in the factories and mines. The dual power that exist ed at state level was mirrored in the workplaces.
The Petrograd workers returned to work after the February Revolution, determined to destroy the old tyrannical regime in the factories. They insisted on imposing the eight-hour working day on the employers by leaving work once the eight hours were done. They demanded, and often secured, full pay for the work they had done of toppling the old regime. But most importantly they had accounts to settle with those who had bullied, exploited and humiliated them in the old days.
Large sections of Russian industry had been state run by government appointees. As the power of their chief patrons was broken so many of the directors and managers simply fled. Some workers, for example those at the Okhta explosives plant, returned to find themselves without a factory administration at all. Elsewhere the workers kicked out those with a record of brutality who dared to return.
Averitable workers’ festival of “carting out” hated bosses in wheel-barrows accompanied the return to work. The director of Putilov and his aide were dumped in a canal. At the Cartridge plant workers expelled 80% of the technical staff. In the Thornton textile mill the women workers chased out thirty factory police who had dared to show their faces once again. Mass meetings of the workforce discussed and decided on lists of undesirables. At the first power station, for example, workers voted to bar all the directors from the premises as “. . . Henchmen of the old regime and recognising their harmfulness from the economic point of view and their uselessness from the technical.”
In all the major industrial centres the workers elected factory committees to represent them in the new order. These factory committees should not be confused with shop stewards committees on the British model. They were elected by the entire workforce at general meetings. Where shop stewards did come into existence they only represented sections of shops within the workforce. In certain plants, factory committees existed alongside shop stewards committees with sharply differing tasks.
In many state run plants the factory committees initially had to take responsibility for running the factory. As at the state level the workers found themselves with power in their hands. In the factories just as at the state level they handed power back to bourgeois managers and directors. The parallels do not end there. While the factory committees in general reorganised the employers’ and managements’ technical and economic responsibilities, they reserved for themselves the right to oversee and observe these functions. This mirrored the soviets’ insistence they were overseeing the Provisional Government’s work.
Crucially the factory committees demanded and effected “control over internal order”. In plants throughout Russia the committees raised very similar demands that they should control the length of the working day, the level of the minimum wage, the times of rest and all hiring and firing. In a very fundamental way they challenged the right of the employers and their representatives to manage their factories and mines.
Workers’ control at this stage meant asserting factory committee authority over these matters of “internal order”. And it meant working class vigilance over the workings of management. It was a highly unstable and contradictory situation that the bosses had no alternative but to accept, albeit reluctantly, after the February upheaval.
In general the workers held back from taking actual responsibility for the administration of their plants. At the Patronnyi Works they did not constitute themselves as an alternative management. The factory committee purged the entire administration and then retained for itself an “observing” function. This method was codified at a conference of state sector worker representatives on 15 April which resolved that:
“Not desiring to take upon ourselves the responsibility for the technical and administrative organisation of production in the given conditions until the full socialisation of the economy, the representatives of the general factory committee enter the administration with a consultative voice.”
Asituation within which workers’ representatives daily transgressed rights that managements traditionally hold sacred could never have become permanent. As at the state level, so in the factory, one class or the other would have to prevail eventually. For the most advanced sections of the proletariat workers’ control was only a transitional phase on the road to socialism. As the Putilov workers declared of their workers’ control regime:
“The workers are preparing themselves for the time when private ownership of the factories and mills will be abolished and the means of production, along with the buildings erected by the workers’ hands, will be transferred to the working class. Therefore, in doing this small matter one must continually keep in mind the great and principal aim towards which the people are aspiring.”
For the employers this situation was viewed as a mere passing phase, a necessary but temporary concession, until they could establish their traditional prerogatives and unfettered role.
Danger of class collaboration
During April and May there was mounting evidence, of both a dramatic deterioration in the performance of Russian capitalism, and of the fact that the capitalist class looked to mounting economic chaos to break the strength of the working class. Often, for initially patriotic motives, workers were becoming increasingly suspicious that the employers and state managers were deliberately obstructing war production. With supplies running out, factory committees frequently took upon themselves the job of procurement, through workers’ delegations, to the coal, iron and timber producing areas. To this extent the factory committees were in danger of becoming an accomplice to a more effective capitalist management. Yet at the very same time they were proving that only the organisations of the working class could effectively avert an economic catastrophe.
Once again, however, the instability of dual power was demonstrated. Either the factory committees would become class collaborationist participation bodies or they would have to go beyond their “observing” role towards the socialist revolution.
As shortages mounted and management threatened closures so the concept of workers’ control did go beyond “overseeing” the bosses. Having seen what the bosses were doing it had to mean struggle against their plans for shut down. In Petrograd, the capital city and main centre of the revolutionary proletariat, this took an especially sharp form as the bosses prepared to “unload” production by moving their factories out of the city and thus disperse the vanguard of the Russian working class. Dual power had to be resolved one way or another.
Agood example of this reality was the Langezipn machine factory in Petrograd. At the end of April there were severe shortages and rumours of closure were rife. The factory committee posted guards at the factory entrance in order to prevent the administration leaving. As expected management announced plans to keep the plant going!
Asimilar pattern of further encroachment on management’s rights was being established throughout the major plants during May. As management gained in confidence it increasingly used the authority workers had ceded to it to shut down or run down the plants. The employers and managers were prepared to disorganise production in pursuit of their class goals. The struggle for control over production took on a sharper form.
Of the workers’ parties only the Bolshevik Party was prepared to take up and lead the fight for workers’ control. It did so because the party saw that fight as part of the struggle for proletarian revolution. The Mensheviks were strongly opposed to any such struggle against capitalism. As their paper Rabochaya Cazeta put it:
“Our revolution is a political one. We destroy the bastions of political authority, but the bases of capitalism remain in place. Abattle on two fronts – against the Tsar and against capital – is beyond the forces of the proletariat.”
In the face of mounting sabotage the struggle for workers’ control played a central role in the Bolsheviks’ programme for the transition to a socialist revolution. In his “Resolution on Economic Disorganisation” of late May Lenin argued:
“The only way to avert disaster is to establish effective workers’ control over the production and distribution of goods. For the purpose of such control it is necessary, first of all, that the workers should have a majority of not less than three quarters of all the votes in all the decisive institutions and that the owners who have not withdrawn from their business and the engineering staffs should be enlisted without fail.”
That control was to be exercised by the factory committees, the unions and the soviets. It was to be made possible by opening the books of the companies to workers’ inspection and it was to be extended to financial and banking operations. It was, however, not possible for workers to exercise effective control simply at the level of individual enterprises. For the system of control to “be developed into the full regulation of the production and distribution of goods by the workers” it had to embrace control over the economy exercised at a state level through a state responsible directly to the workers’ own organisations.
Lenin returned to this theme and placed it at the centre of his programme in “The impending catastrophe and how to combat it” produced in September. Again he argued:
“There is no way of effectively combating financial collapse except that of revolutionary rupture with the interests of capital and that of the organisation of really democratic control, i.e. control from ‘below’, control by the workers and the poor peasants over the capitalists.” (Lenin’s emphasis)
Given the clarity of the Bolsheviks’ call for workers’ control at plant and state level it was not surprising that their growing strength in the workers’ movement was first evident in the factory committees. The first conference of Petrograd factory committees, meeting in late May, endorsed the Bolshevik programme. So too did all subsequent factory committee conferences.
The factory committees maintained their own central council of committee delegates. As such they brought together the best organised plants in city-wide co-ordination. They were more immediately responsible for the day-to-day concerns of workers than were the soviets. They were responsible directly to general meetings. It was not surprising, therefore, that the mounting Bolshevik tide amongst the workers should be initially reflected in the committees rather than in the Soviet leadership. However, the strength of the committees, as proletarian organisations, meant they were not able to play the role of mobilisers of all the exploited and oppressed. By their nature, unlike the soviets, their co-ordination excluded the soldiers and beyond them, the mass of the peasantry. On 3 and 4 July the Soviet leadership did not lift a finger when troops loyal to the Provisional Government fired on workers and sailors opposing that government in Petrograd. In the aftermath Lenin temporarily dropped the slogan “All power to the Soviets” and urged his fellow Bolshevik, Ordzhonikidze:
“We must swing over the centre of gravity to the factory and shop committees. The factory and shop committees must become the organs of insurrection.”
Lenin argued that the soviets as then constituted and under the leadership of the right, had become organs of class collaboration and the accomplices of the regime and its savage repression. They were no longer organising the masses for struggle. In that context the call for all power to the soviets was wrong because military repression made a peaceful transfer of power to the soviets impossible. It was also wrong because, in Lenin’s words, “The revolution has in fact been completely betrayed by the SRs and Mensheviks.” For Lenin it followed that “The slogan calling for the transfer of state power to the soviets would now sound quixotic or mocking.”
However, the Bolsheviks were to raise the call “All power to the Soviets” again in September. But by then, with Bolshevik strength growing inside the soviets, it was raised as a call for insurrection. While Lenin may have turned his attention most sharply to the factory committees after July, he was also at pains to explain that this did not mean that the building of real soviets had ceased to be central to the Bolshevik programme. As Lenin put it in his article arguing for dropping the “All power to the Soviets” slogan:
“Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle with the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the soviets. It is not a question of soviets in general but combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present soviets.”
While factory committees kept proletarian democracy alive and maintained working class morale and combativity, they could not play the historical role of soviets as organisers of the mass of exploited and oppressed and as embryos of the proletarian state itself.
The employers stepped up their offensive amidst mounting economic chaos in the autumn. Their hopes for a military coup had been crushed when the Kornilov uprising was put down by the workers. Now they set out to stop factory committees meeting in work time, to stop their control of hiring and firing and also to ship plant out of Petrograd.
Under Bolshevik leadership the committees replied with determined resistance. Most committees had their own armed militia to defend the plant and the workers against counter-revolution. AMoscow worker, Postavshchik, described what happened when the Bolsheviks won leadership in his plant:
“On 1 June as soon as the new factory committee was elected with a Bolshevik majority . . . a detachment of eighty men was formed which, in the absence of weapons drilled with sticks, under the leadership of an old soldier, Comrade Levakov.”
At the time of Kornilov’s attempted coup it was the Central Council of Factory Committees that played a key role in distributing arms to the various plant militias. When the employers launched their autumn offensive they were taking on committees that were armed with guns and ammunition as well as with Bolshevik leadership.
The sharpening polarisation in the plants could not be resolved except at the level of state power. As more factory committees resisted management plans so more employers pulled out. Production became increasingly disorganised while the committees became the de facto power in the plants. Their power extended beyond the struggle to maintain production. Certain factory committees ran their own farms, canteens and shops and maintained procurement squads. As well as drilling young workers in the military arts the committees often maintained their own cultural commissions. The Putilov Committee, for example, took the latter task very seriously urging their fellow workers:
‘“Comrades do not let slip the opportunity of gaining scientific knowledge. Do not waste a single hour fruitlessly. Every hour is dear to us. We need not only to catch up with the classes with whom we are fighting, but to overtake them.”
Resolution of the crisis
The seizure of power in October resolved the crisis of dual power to the advantage of the working class. With the passing of undivided state power into the hands of the soviets, the state could now at last play its part as an executive organ of workers’ control of production and distribution. The factory committees could take their place as overseers of production with the full backing of state power. In turn that state power legalised the control of workers’ committees elected by all employees at general meetings. It gave them the right to inspect all books, documents and stocks. Their decisions were now to be binding on those owners who remained.
The struggle for workers’ control in the plants was an indispensable component of the Russian workers’ onslaught against “management’s right to manage”. They learnt to control industry and inspect accounts for themselves. And from that control and inspection came an immeasurably strengthened will and ability to resist the plans of the bosses. Such a situation could only have been transitory. Either the bosses could have rolled back the gains of the workers and reasserted their old authority, or the workers would have to break the power of the bosses in its entirety. Under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party the Russian workers ensured that the old regime of the bosses in the factories, as well as in the state, was smashed.