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September 2002 • Vol 2, No. 8 •

From the Arsenal of Marxism

The Structure of the Soviet System

By John Reed

Part 2

back to Part 1

Factory Shop Committees

When The March Revolution broke, the owners and administrators of many industrial plants either left or were driven out by the workers. In the government factories, where labor had long been at the mercy of irresponsible bureaucrats appointed by the Tsar, this was particularly the case. Without superintendents, foremen, and in many cases engineers and bookkeepers, the workers found themselves faced with the alternative of keeping the works going or of starving. A committee was elected, one delegate from each “shop” or department; this committee attempted to run the factory. Of course, at first this plan seemed hopeless. The functions of the different departments could be coordinated in this way, but the lack of technical training on the part of the workers produced some grotesque results.

Finally there was a committee meeting at one of the factories, where a workman rose and said: “Comrades, why do we worry? The question of technical experts is not a difficult one. Remember the boss wasn’t a technical expert; the boss didn’t know engineering or chemistry or bookkeeping. All he did was to own. When he wanted technical help, he hired men to do it for him. Well, now we are the boss. Let’s hire engineers, bookkeepers, and so forth—to work for us!”

In the government factories the problem was comparatively simple, since the Revolution automatically removed the “boss,” and never really substituted another. But when the Factory Shop Committees spread to the privately-owned works, they were viciously fought by factory owners, most of whom were making contracts with the unions.

In the private factories, too, the shop committees were the product of necessity. After the first three months of the Revolution, during which the middle class and the proletarian organizations worked together in utopian harmony, the industrial capitalists began to be afraid of the growing power and ambition of the workers’ organizations—just as the country landowners feared the Land Committee, and the officers the soldiers’ committees and Soviets. Along about the first part of June began the more or less conscious campaign of the entire bourgeoisie to halt the Revolution, and break down the democratic organizations. Beginning with the Factory Shop Committees, the industrial owners planned to make a clean sweep of everything, including the Soviets. The army was disorganized, supplies and munitions and food diverted from it, and actual positions betrayed to the Germans—like Riga; in the country the peasants were persuaded to hoard their grain, and provoked to disorders, which gave the excuse to the Cossacks to “restore peace”; and in industry, more important than all, the machinery and operation of the factories themselves were sabotaged, transportation was still further wrecked, and the coal mines, metal mines and sources of raw materials damaged as much as possible. Every effort was made to shut down the factories and starve the workers back into submission to the old industrial regime.

Thus the workers were forced to resist. The Factory Shop Committee sprang up and took charge. At first, of course, Russian workers made ludicrous mistakes, as all the world has been told again and again. They demanded impossible wages—they attempted to run complicated scientific manufacturing processes without proper experience; in some cases, even, they asked the boss to return at his own terms. But such cases are the great minority. In the majority of plants the workers were resourceful enough to be able to conduct the industry without bosses.

The owners attempted to falsify the books, to conceal orders; the Factory Shop Committee was forced to find out ways to control the books. The owners tried to strip the works—so the committee had to rule that nothing should go in or out of the plant without permission. When the factory was going to close down for lack of fuel, raw material, or orders, the Factory Shop Committee had to send men half way across Russia to the mines, or down into the Caucasus for oil, to Crimea for cotton; and agents had to be sent out by the workers to sell the product. In the breakdown of the railroads, Committee agents had to make agreements with the Railwaymen’s Union for transportation of freight. To guard against strike-breakers, the committee had to take over the function of hiring and discharging workers. Thus the Factory Shop Committee was the creation of Russian anarchy, forced by necessity to learn how to manage industry, so that when the time came the Russian workers could take over actual control with little friction.

As an instance of how the masses worked together; there is the matter of two hundred thousand poods of coal, which was taken from the bunkers of the Baltic battle fleet in December, and turned over by the sailors’ committees to keep the factories of Petrograd running during the coal famine. Obukhov Works was a steel plant manufacturing supplies for the Navy. The chairman of the Obukhov committee was a Russian-American, Petrovsky by name, well known here as an anarchist. One day the foreman of the torpedo department told Petrovsky that the department would have to close down owing to the impossibility of procuring certain small tubes used in the manufacture of torpedoes. The tubes were manufactured by a factory across the river, whose product was contracted for three months ahead. The closing down of the torpedo department meant that four hundred men would be out of work.

“I’ll get the tubes,” said Petrovsky.

He went direct to the tube factory, where, instead of calling upon the manager, he sought the chairman of the local Factory Shop Committee. “Comrade,” he said, “if we don’t get tubes in two days, our torpedo department will have to close down, and four hundred of the boys will be out of a job.” The chairman called for his factory’s books, and discovered that some thousands of the tubes were contracted for by three private plants in the vicinity. He and Petrovsky thereupon visited these three plants, and called on the Factory Shop Committee chairmen. At two of the factories it was discovered that the tubes were not immediately needed; and next day the tubes were delivered to the Obukhov Works, and the torpedo department didn’t shut down.

In Novgorod was a textile mill. At the outbreak of the revolution the owner said to himself. “Here’s trouble coming. We won’t be able to make any profits while this revolution is on. Let’s shut down the works until the thing blows over.” So he shut down the works, and he and the office force, the chemists, engineers and manager, took the train for Petrograd. The next morning the workers opened the mill.

Now these workers were perhaps a little more ignorant than most workers. They knew nothing of the technical processes of manufacture, of bookkeeping or management, or selling.

They elected a Factory Shop Committee, and finding a certain amount of fuel and raw materials in stock, set to work to manufacturing cotton cloth. Not knowing what was done with cotton cloth when manufactured, they first helped themselves to enough for their families. Next, some of the looms being out of order, they sent a delegate to a nearby machine-shop saying that they would give cotton cloth in exchange for mechanical assistance. This done, they made a deal with the local city Cooperative, to supply cloth in exchange for food. They even extended the principle of barter so far as to exchange bolts of cloth for fuel with the coal miners of Kharkov, and with the Railway-men’s Union for transportation.

But finally they glutted the local market with cotton cloth, and then they ran up against a demand which cloth could not satisfy—rent. This was in the days of the Provisional Government when there were still landlords. Rent had to be satisfied with money. So they loaded a train with cloth and sent it, in charge of a committeeman, to Moscow. The committeeman left his train at the station, and went down the street. He came to a tailor shop and asked if the tailor needed cloth.

“How much?” asked the tailor.

“A train-load,” answered the committeeman.

“What does it cost?

“I don’t know. What do you usually pay for cloth?”

The tailor got his cloth for a song, and the committeeman, who had never seen so much money at one time, went back to Novgorod highly elated. But the factory committee had been figuring on the rent question, and they had calculated on the basis of average production for just how much they must sell their surplus cloth to provide enough money to pay the rent of all the workers!

So it was that all over Russia the workers were getting the necessary education in the fundamentals of industrial production, and even distribution, so that when the November Revolution came they could take their places in the machinery of workers’ control.

It was in June 1917 that the first meeting of delegates from the shop committees was held. At this time the committees had hardly spread outside of Petrograd. It was a remarkable gathering, composed of delegates of the actual rank and file, most of them Bolsheviks, many of them Anarchists-Syndicalists; and its character was that of protest against the tactics of the trade-unions. In the political world the Bolsheviks were reiterating that no socialist had any right to participate in a coalition government with the bourgeoisie. The meeting of shop committee delegates put itself on record as taking the same attitude toward industry. In other words, the employing class and the workers have no interests in common; no class-conscious worker can be a member of an arbitration or conciliation board except to acquaint the employers with the demands of the workers. No contracts between employers and the workers. Industrial production must be absolutely controlled by the workers.

At first the unions fought bitterly against the Factory Shop Committees. But the shop committees, who were in a position to clutch the command of industry at its heart, easily extended and consolidated their power. Many workmen could not see the necessity of joining a union; but all of them saw the necessity of participating in the elections of the shop committee, which controlled their immediate jobs. On the other hand, the shop committees recognized the value of the unions; no new worker was employed unless he could show a union card; it was the shop committees, which applied locally the regulations of the different unions. At the present time the unions and the Factory Shop Committees work in perfect harmony, each in its place.

Workers’ Control

Private ownership of industry in Russia is not yet abolished. In many factories the owner still holds title, and is allowed a certain limited profit on his investment, on condition that he works for the success and increase of scope of the enterprise; but control is taken away from him. Those industries whose owners attempt to lock out their workers, or who, by fraud or force, try to hinder the operations of the plant, are immediately confiscated by the workers. Conditions, hours and wages in all industries, private or government-owned, are uniform.

The reason for this survival of semi-capitalism, in a proletarian state, lies in the backwardness of Russia’s economic life, the surrounding highly-organized capitalist states, and the necessity for industrial production in Russia immediately, to combat the pressure of foreign industry.

The agency by which the state controls industry, both labor and production, is called the Council of Workers’ Control. This central body, sitting in the capital, is composed of delegates elected from local Councils of Workers’ Control, which are made up of members of Factory Shop Committees, Professional Union officials, and technical engineers and experts. A central executive committee manages the affairs of each locality, composed of common workmen, but the majority is composed of workmen from other districts, so that its rulings shall be unprejudiced by sectional interests. The local councils recommend to the All-Russian Council the confiscation of plants, report on the needs in fuel, raw materials, transportation and labor in their districts, and assist the workmen in learning to manage the various industries. The All-Russian Council has power to confiscate plants and to equalize the economic resources of the different localities.

Attached to the Council of Workers’ Control is the so-called Chamber of Insurance. Workers are insured against lack of work, sickness, old age and death. All premiums are paid by the employer—whether private person or the State. The compensation paid to the worker is always the full amount of his wages. Under the Soviet Government the wage system is retained as a necessary accommodation to the capitalist world, the machinery to abolish it being already in place, and the whole system being under the control of the workers themselves. Lenin has clear-sightedly stated that he considers the retention of capitalist forms a step backward, a temporary defeat for the Revolution, but which must be endured until the workers are self-organized and self-disciplined enough to compete with capitalist industry.

Supreme Council of Public Economy

The tendency of the Russian Soviet Republic, as Lenin has himself pointed out, is away from political Government of any kind, and toward true industrial democracy. Lenin has even gone so far as to foresee the eventual disappearance of the Soviets in favor of an economic, purely administrative, body.

The prototype of this future economic “parliament” already exists in Russia. It is called the Supreme Council of Public Economy, and is made up of delegates from the Main Land Committee, and from the Council of Workers’ Control. This Council has the power to regulate the economic life of the country, to control the flow of production and direct it, to administer in a large way the natural resources belonging to the Government, to control export and import; and to it alone belongs the right to start new industries, or to undertake new projects of railroad and highway building, the opening of new mines, the building of new factories, or the development of water-power.

The acting committee of the Council is composed of fifteen men, each one in charge of one of the fifteen branches of the country’s economic life, such as railroads, agriculture, etc. These men are chosen as follows: The different professional organizations—such as Institute of Mining Engineers, etc., nominate their best-qualified men; and these candidates are voted upon by the delegates of the land committees and the Workers’ Control organizations. The fifteen committeemen sit in fifteen offices, surrounded by technical commissions applying to their various fields. In the same building are also representatives of the Soviets, representatives of the Commissariat of Labor, the Commissariat of Commerce and Industry, the Commissariat of Finance; representatives of the factory shop committees, the peasant Soviets, Cooperatives, etcetera.

Projects are brought in. For example, let us imagine the project of a railroad between Moscow and Novgorod (there is one already, but let us imagine it). The plan is laid before the committeemen in charge of railroads. If he rejects it the project goes to an appeal board. If he accepts, he calls in his technical commissions and tells them to work out the engineering problems. Other commissions, together with representatives of the workers’ organizations from the steel factories, and with the unions, work out the cost. Then the delegates of the local workers’ and peasants’ organizations are brought in. Do they want the railroad? Do they need it? What amount of travel will there be? What amount of traffic in fuel and raw materials and manufactured products of industry? In farm-supplies and crop-transportation?

In other words, nothing is done in the way of economic development that is not needed by the people, and those things most needed by the people are done first. Since December, although Russia is racked to pieces, although she is at war with every country on earth, still vast projects are planned and work is begun upon them—like the linking of three hundred mines in the Urals with a net of railroads, and the harnessing of the six great rivers of northern Russia to furnish light, heat and industrial power.

Cooperative Russia

If it had not been for democratic organizations, which existed already before the revolution, there is little doubt that the Russian revolution would have been starved to its knees long before this time. The ordinary commercial machinery of distribution had been completely smashed. Only the consumers’ cooperative societies managed to feed the people, and their system has since been adopted by the municipalities, and even by the government.

Before the revolution there were more than twelve million members of the cooperative societies of Russia. It is a very natural way for Russians to combine, because of its resemblance to the primitive cooperation of Russian village life for centuries. In the Putilov factory, where more than 40,000 workers are employed, the cooperative society fed, housed and even clothed more than 100,000 people—sending all the way to England for clothing.

It is this quality in the Russians that is forgotten by people who think that Russia can have no government, because there is no central force; and whose mental picture of Russia is a servile committee in Moscow, bossed by Lenin and Trotsky, and maintained by Red Guard mercenaries.

Quite the contrary is true. The organizations which I have described are reproduced in almost every community in Russia. And if any considerable part of Russia were seriously opposed to the Soviet government, the Soviets could not last an hour.

Critics of the Soviet Government are just now crowing over Lenin’s April article in Pravda, translated and published here as a pamphlet, “The Soviets at Work.” In it the great proletarian statesman tells the Russian workers that they must stop talking, stop striking, stop stealing, maintain rigid discipline and increase production. He praises the Taylor system of scientific management. He points out the inexperience and lack of education of the Russian masses, and analyzes the prevalent anarchy in industry and in agriculture. The proletariat, victorious over the bourgeoisie, must now turn its attention to the problem of “managing Russia,” without which the Revolution, must fail.

What is this, cry the critics—Socialists among them—but the application of outworn tyranny over the masses by a new set of masters? And see! Lenin himself admits that the Russians are incapable of running the dream-state they have set up....

Not so. The Socialist state is not to be a return to primeval simplicity, but instead a system of society more efficient than the capitalist state. In Russia particularly the immediate task of the workers is to be able to compete with the pressure of foreign capital, as well as to supply Russia with necessities. What is true of Russia, moreover, is true of the workers of all countries. Only in no other country have the workers clear-sighted leaders like Lenin; in no other country are the workers so united and so conscious. And in Russia there are groups of industries, like the Ural mines, like the factories of Vladivostok, where Workers’ Control has actually improved upon capitalist management. And do not forget that industry belongs to the workers—is run for the profit of the workers.

In June, 1918, Lenin told an American that the Russian people were not yet revolutionary. “If the masses do not become revolutionary in three months’ time,” he said, “the Revolution will fail.”

We know now what he meant. “Revolutionary” does not mean merely a rebellious mood; what must be destroyed must be destroyed, but the new world must be built with anxious and laborious effort.

Across half the world we watch great Russia shake herself and take hold. In our ears sounds “the regular march of the iron battalions of the proletariat.”

1 At the time of the Russian Revolution there were many revolutionary parties.

2 The word “Duma” was the name of the Russian parliament prior to the November 1917 Revolution.

3 Until the revolution the old Russian Julian calendar was different from that used in the West (the Gregorian calendar). This resulted in a discrepancy of 12 days in the 19th century and 13 days in the 20th century. The Bolsheviks modernized the calendar, along with much else. Thus, what was known then as the February Revolution according to the Julian calendar, actually took place in March 1917. And the famous October Revolution the Bolsheviks made on October 25 (Julian) of that year, occurred according to the current Gregorian calendar on November 7.

The word tsar in Reed’s text has also been translated from the Russian Cyrillic alphabet as tzar and czar. The word, by the way is derived from ancient Rome’s ruler, Julius Caesar.

4 Also translated as Brest-Litovsk.

5 “Mensheviki” is most often translated “Mensheviks.” Bolsheviks and Mensheviks referred to Majority and Minority factions in the Russian section of the Second International. In 1919, the Bolshevik Party changed its name to the Communist Party when they founded the Third (or Communist) International.





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