Review: Revolution and counterrevolution: Class struggle in a Moscow metal factory and worker resistance under Stalin: Class and revolution on the shop floor

A review of two books on the topic of working class responses to Stalinism in the USSR.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on August 27, 2012

Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory, International Studies in Social History Series (New York: Berghahn Books, 2005).

Jeffrey J. Rossman, Worker Resistance under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor (Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, 2005).

Jeffrey Rossman’s Worker Resistance under Stalin and Kevin Murphy’s Revolution and Counterrevolution both deal with workers in the Soviet Union between the October Revolution and end of the First Five Year Plan in 1932. Albeit the two monographs investigate two very different groups of workers, as Rossman focuses on the textile mills and workers of the Ivanovo Industrial Region (IIR) from 1928 to 1932 and Murphy on the metal workers of what was, before the revolution, the Guzhon or Moscow Metalworks, and after the revolution the Hammer and Sickle Factory. Both types of workers loom large in the mythology of revolution and Marxism. The textile workers of Ivanovo were among the most active in the unrest of 1917 despite Marxist preconceptions that the textile industry was made up of significant numbers of ‘backward’ elements like women and workers with close ties to the countryside, while metalworkers were considered the most politically conscious workers. Rossman and Murphy investigate the reaction of these key groups of workers to the pressures of Stalinist industrialization but they reach very different conclusions. Murphy regards the metalworkers as pacified by 1932 while Rossman’s textile workers resist in that crucial year.

Murphy’s arguments rest on an assumption: “If Soviet workers generally exhibited a sense of ‘terror’ in their relations with the state in early Soviet society, or later volunteered their support for Stalinism, one would reasonably expect that evidence of such sentiments could be found in the largest metal factory in the capital”( 5). The problem is that the assumption itself may be a shaky one. Metalworkers have long been the darling of Marxists, considered the ‘most conscious’ workers in a Marxist sense, the most ‘developed,’ the most ‘proletarian’. They had a longer developed union consciousness than most other workers in Russia and were the focus of revolutionary activity of all varieties. If these workers were the most sophisticated in terms of a socialist or a union consciousness, perhaps they would be most likely to think that they had the power to resist in the 1920s and thus not feel terror and to believe that they could oppose Stalinism and had the tools to see it as distinctly non-socialist and not to support it. One might expect metalworkers to have an even more developed language of resistance than the one Rossman discovers and articulates.

Revolution and Counterrevolution identifies and attempts to answer the key question that plagues virtually anyone who has considered the revolutionary era in Russia and the subsequent rise to power of Joseph Stalin: “Why did the most unruly proletariat of the century come to tolerate the ascendancy of a political and economic system that, by every conceivable measure, proved antagonistic to working- class interests” (2). Murphy wrestles constantly with the question but the reader is still left feeling that while the question is key, there is more to the answer. Murphy tends to see this pacification as more or less complete by the end of the First Five Year Plan in 1932, a claim Rossman’s monograph seriously challenges. The two works caution us, at the very least, to be extremely wary in talking about the ‘working class’ as a whole.

In Revolution and Counterrevolution, Kevin Murphy lays out his theoretical and methodological position before his book even begins. In his acknowledgements, he states that he has no doubts that “the Marxists got it right” and acknowledges his intellectual debt to Leon Trotsky and convinced Trotsky follower, British historian Tony Cliff (x). Murphy has taken advantage of the opening up of the central Moscow archives to write what he describes as the first “empirically grounded reconstruction of working-class life in the revolutionary era” (1).

Murphy’s answer may perhaps be more complete if he did not dismiss out of hand more recent historical studies. He waves aside recent work by Stephen Kotkin, David Hoffman, and Matthew Payne as studies by postmodern historians who are caught up in the linguistic turn. He writes, “While postmodernism cloaks itself in the veneer of sophistication, it offers no new tools for historians” (3). The author could have used a page out of the postmodernists’ book and been more self-conscious about the language of his own sources. Too often he accepts this language at face value when in fact the documents are highly charged and problematic records by authors who have an immense stake in the history they are creating. Moreover, Murphy’s own language is problematic at times. He writes, “The most conspicuous result of the changed perspective on women’s work in late NEP was that female workers stopped going to monthly meetings and housewives with more time attended instead” (134). What was a ‘housewife’ who attended shop meetings in the Soviet 1920s? Murphy suggests that the Communist Party let women down but he needs to wrestle more with the systemic poor treatment of women in the factories and society at large which extended far beyond the party organs.

Murphy’s treatment of hooliganism is another good example of an area in which a more self-conscious approach to the topic may have been useful. If one takes the sources as face value, there was a significant rise in hooliganism in the 1920s. But was the rise real or was the rise a false perception shaped by a hooligan scare? Was the campaign against hooliganism itself the cause of a perceived rise in the crime because the campaign prompted an increased reporting of ‘hooliganism’ and an increasingly elastic definition that meant more charges were made under that label? Was the campaign against hooliganism, and worker reactions, used as part of a divide and conquer strategy? Was it part of the excuse to discipline and punish workers who did not conform to labour discipline and part of a broader attack on popular culture? Or perhaps worker support for harsh measures against hooligans can help explain willingness to accept, at least at first, some of the harsh elements of Stalinism (145-146)?

Revolution and Counterrevolution provides a good sense of labour activity from 1905 through to the 1920s. The early periodization is fairly standard with labour activity and strikes showing an increasing radicalization and organization following the Lena Goldfields massacre of 1912 through to 1917. But Murphy’s conceptions of the period are taken from works by Lenin, Trotsky, and Leopold Haimson, with all of the biases of these writers, especially with regard to supposed peasant ‘backwardness’. The revolutionary year, 1917 was a “decisive confrontation between contending classes” (43). Here again Murphy’s portrait of the Kadets is drawn from Trotsky, (54) perhaps not the most objective source on his liberal-bourgeois rivals. Rossman, by contrast, focuses on a group of workers, many of whom were recently from the countryside and his portrait is a convincing argument against traditional concepts of peasant, or textile worker ‘backwardness’.

Murphy does consult an impressive array of archival sources and he indicates clearly in his notes the kind of material that he is dealing with in each case. These additional notations are extremely useful for the reader. He should be commended in particular for the number of memoirs he consulted in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). However, it is vital for the reader to know when the memoirs themselves were written. For example, one memoirist describes as “astounding” the “persistent pressure of the Bolsheviks” in 1917 (55-56). If this memoir was written in 1917 then we have an excellent testimony of perception, but if written later, the statement could reflect a memory seriously affected by the course of events.

At times the reader gets the impression that Murphy is preaching to the converted. It would have been useful for him to lay out for the general reader, or for the student reader, his definitions of concepts such as class conflict, ruling class, class war and how he conceives them operating in Russia in 1917. Can we continue to talk about class conflict after the civil-war era nationalization of the factories? Perhaps we can, but Murphy owes it to his reader to develop the notion further and explain his conceptualizations. There are tensions in Murphy’s work about how to characterize the working class that he is dealing with in early Soviet Russia. Can they ‘melt’ back into their villages? If they can, are they peasant or proletarian? Does it matter to Murphy’s argument? More interaction with a developed literature on this subject from scholars such as Robert Johnson, Joseph Bradley, and David Hoffman, would have enriched Revolution and Counterrevolution.

Murphy does provide the reader with a good sense of worker ‘mood’ on the shop floor, particularly in chapter three and he contributes significantly to the increasingly nuanced reading of the NEP years and its periodization. He shows for example that is the mid-twenties the unions and the Worker and Peasant Commission (RKK) could still defend worker interests to some extent. His findings support E.H. Carr and R.W. Davies arguments in Foundations of a Planned Economy on the role of unions and their relations with workers; an “uneasy compromise” between red managers and unions help in part to explain the taming of the working class (82-115). Still, his argument depends on the behaviour of workers he dubs the Stalinist or state “loyalists,” (114, 179, 186-187, 202, 207), but the reader is left wondering who exactly these loyalists were and how exactly they were created. What is also missing from the book is a richer sense of material culture and daily life. Despite his access to memoirs, the reader gets to know no individual workers. What was the shop floor like or the home? The final chapter on the 1930s does provide a better answer to these questions than earlier chapters.

At times the text is excessively footnote happy, something the editor perhaps should have addressed and there are some editorial errors. Overall though, the book provides a good overview of worker unrest and its rise and fall from 1905 to the 1930s and a worthwhile read for those interested in Murphy’s position in the historiography.

The period 1928-1932, marks the years of Stalin’s industrial push by means of a centralized, national, economic plan known as the First Five Year Plan. Rossman’s Worker Resistance under Stalin, succinctly captures what is at stake for the Ivanovo region during these desperate and tumultuous years. For example, he clearly lays out for the reader the required formula for the factories of the region to fulfill the plan: the labour force would have to increase by 13 percent, costs would have to be reduced by 31 percent, labour productivity would have to double, and annual output would have to increase by 86 percent. He then goes on to explain exactly what these demands meant in terms of: the uncalculated repercussions of decreasing the density of thread; increasing workloads; decreasing wages; and the introduction of three eight-hour shifts which meant the constant running of machines, twenty-four hours per day.

Rossman’s argument is built on E.P. Thompson’s concept of the moral economy: people rebel when they are pushed beyond there ability to subsist which implies that the terms of their understanding of a contract between the rulers and the ruled are broken. The idea works well for the author’s case study and for the particular cases of unrest he recounts in detail. In addition, he adds, the Russian textile workers’ conception of the moral economy was “infused with a certain understanding of Soviet values” and with their sense of the October Revolution as being a promise to workers to end “their hunger, humiliation, penury, and exploitation” (8).

The introduction to Worker Resistance Under Stalin contains a good explication of the author’s approach and methodology. He stakes out his place in the historiography taking issue in particular with Jochen Hellbeck and those scholars he places in the “resistance against resistance club” (250 n. 41). The author is not alone, however, in the arguments that he is making, and the book would be enriched with references to scholars who make similar claims both in the Soviet context and beyond.

Rossman acknowledges what is specific to the textile industry and to Ivanovo. The Ivanovo Industrial region was the ‘epicentre’ of labour unrest during the First Five Year Plan because, he argues, the textile industry paid the highest price in the industrialization drive; textile workers had low wages and low rations. The mills had the highest number of women in their workforce and gender is key to explaining worker unrest in the region. Women felt even more intensely the pressures of rationing and work intensification because they had far more domestic responsibilities than men. Women were less likely to be literate and to be party members and women “enjoyed more license than men to engage in acts of protest without enduring dismissal or arrest”. As strike leaders, however, women had less authority than men, a factor that may have influenced the outcome of the unrest (206 and 233).

Worker Resistance Under Stalin provides excellent portrayals of particular workers, and its author is to be commended for his portraits of leaders of worker resistance Kapiton Klepikov and Vasilii Liulin. Rossman deftly shows how Klepikov articulated his understanding of the social contract and its betrayal and argues that the “silencing” of Klepikov’s voice “was a pivotal moment in the party’s struggle to enforce its exclusive right to define the meaning—and determine the outcome—of the Revolution” (63). But Klepikov and Liulin did have different understandings of the October Revolution and the contract between workers and the Party. Perhaps these differences also help to explain the difficulties of sustaining resistance to Stalinism, an idea not fully explored by Rossman.

By a close focus on a particular region, Rossman is able to uncover and to convey to his reader the processes at work in worker protest and its repression in the Ivanovo region. The reader gets a keen sense of the role of denunciations, pressure on individuals to change sides or recant, and the role played by the security forces or OGPU. The author shows that the centre learned lessons from worker protest like that led by Vasilii Liulin in 1928. The Liulin affair brought home to the centre the need for trustworthy information from the region and the fact that the OGPU was likely the best organization for the job. Moreover, Rossman shows how a narrowing circle at the top was privy to information on worker unrest reflecting the ruling circle’s increasing distrust even at the highest levels of the state and party structure (111).

Rossman traces the ebb and flow of worker unrest between 1928 and 1932. A large number of layoffs in 1929 and the fear of layoffs, he argues, kept strike activity down, although other forms of resistance remained. The final two chapters of Worker Resistance Under Stalin detail the two most violent strikes in the Ivanovo region that took place in 1932 which broke out after the March cut in workers’ rations.

Rossman provides a detailed portrait of the textile workers who are the focus of his study and has a comprehensive sense of the factors affecting identity and unity such as age, gender, literacy, ties to the land, the type of job held, party membership, and family ties. He emphasizes the importance of work traditions and culture as well as family to create a nuanced portrait of a complex group of workers. The book would be even richer if Rossman could have provided more insight into those workers who opposed unrest and those local officials who took measures to end it. What was the impact on officials of having to be the ones to implement the First Five Year Plan on the local level? Some workers remained loyal to the Party and the state; who were they? One can glean a portrait of these workers and local officials from the book but more on them explicitly would be beneficial.

Overall the book is an important contribution to labour studies and to studies of the period of Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Rossman’s focus on Ivanovo allows the reader to draw closer to the reactions on the shop floor to Stalin’s industrial revolution and seriously challenges any notion that textile workers, at least, took these changes lying down.

These two books add much to the literature on workers in Soviet Russia after the October Revolution. Together the two works illustrate the challenges of regarding the working class as a single entity and the value of close regional or micro-study to further develop and nuance general historical understanding of the Soviet Union.

Tracy McDonald
McMaster University

Originally appeared in Left History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Historical Inquiry and Debate Vol 12, No 1 (2007)