Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution - Peter Rachleff

Putilov Factory - Petrograd
Putilov Factory - Petrograd

Peter Rachleff traces the development of the Factory Committees from early 1917 until the beginnings of the Bolsheviks' suppression of these organisations shortly after October.

Submitted by libcom on October 21, 2005

Soviets and Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution

Peter Rachleff

The developmental possibilities of the Russian Revolution of 1917-1921 were determined not by the conceptions of contending political organisations, but by the aims and capacities of the social groups involved. While the entire population in revolt shared the political goal of the abolition of czarist despotism, the different social classes and groups within it had distinctly different economic wants. The tiny bourgeoisie was naturally interested in conditions making possible the expansion of Russian capital. The peasants, the overwhelming majority, forced to work the fields of the large landowners and to pay exorbitant rents for tiny plots of land, desired the expropriation of the large estates and the establishment of a system of small, privately owned farms. On the other hand, the workers, small in number and concentrated in the urban areas of European Russia, were confronted by low wages, economic insecurity, and terrible working conditions, problems which called for some form of socialisation of industry and an ambiguous "workers' control" of production.

These goals were mutually incompatible. Aside from the obvious conflict between workers and bourgeoisie, a capitalistically organised agricultural sector could not coexist with a smaller socialised industrial sector. Because of the low level of agricultural productivity, not only would small scale market agriculture provide an insufficient base for the development of industry, but violent fluctuations from year to year would preclude economic planning.

The political goals shared by the great social classes could be realised. But not only were their economic goals incompatible, none of them could serve as the organisational principle for the whole society. A society regulated by the desires and needs of the workers was ruled out by their minority position, while a capitalist market economy was made impossible by the weakness of the bourgeoisie and their dependence on the state, the disorganisation, poverty, and illiteracy of the peasantry,--and, finally, the political strength achieved by the Bolshevik Party after 1917.

"Politics" and "economics" are not separate phenomena, but different aspects of social power relations. The question of the political form to emerge from the revolutionary process was to be decided by the achievement of social and therefore economic power by one of the contending groups on the scene. As it turned out, this was accomplished by neither bourgeoisie, peasantry, nor proletariat, but by the fraction of the intelligentsia which made up the membership of the Communist Party. The feat of the Bolsheviks was to define a new social structure by the subordination of economics to the political sphere controlled by them, accomplished through their seizure of power as a ruling class over capitalists, peasants, and workers alike. Before they succeeded in this, by riding the waves of popular rebellion and organisation, the Russian workers were able to evolve forms of struggle and social reconstruction which transcend in importance the limitations of the place and time in which they arose. The following article briefly traces the history of the two kinds of institutions--the soviets and the factory committees--which remain of greatest interest to revolutionaries today.

Capitalist development in Russia before the First World War had assumed a form quite similar to what exists in many underdeveloped countries today. Almost all industry was under the control of foreign capital and was located in a few urban areas. Although the working class was extremely small in relation to the total population (Trotsky's estimate of 10 percent is the highest of all accounts), industry--and therefore, the working class--was very concentrated. Most factories were large and constructed along then-modern lines. The working class had grown rapidly in the three decades prior to the war, and a sense of class had been developing by leaps and bounds since the turn of the century.

Throughout the late 19th century Russian industrial workers often spent only part of the year in the urban areas, earning their livings in factories. They also spent part of the year in their old villages, working the land, and their primary ties remained with their agricultural activities and village life. However, the rapid development of industry soon provided year-round employment to ever greater numbers of workers. They and their families moved to the urban areas, breaking their old rural and village ties. Between 1885 and 1897, the urban population grew by 33.8 percent, and Moscow, for example, grew by 123 percent.[1] These people began to think of themselves primarily as workers, not as peasants who worked part of the year in the factories. Their problems were no longer those of indebtedness, to landlords, or connected to agriculture, but became those of wages, working conditions, and the prices of the necessities of life. The lack of a craft tradition contributed to this growing new sense of belonging to a working class, as the divisions among the workers were few, and most faced similar problems. Concentrated together in huge factories, living together in rapidly growing urban areas, workers discovered that they shared a very specific set of problems quite unlike those of their previous rural existence. In this way, a new sense of class grew along with Russian industry.

The events of 1905 both were made possible by this developing sense of class and spurred it on. Over 100,000 factory workers in St. Petersburg had gone on strike in January of that year. A few days later, workers and their families, protesting both factory conditions and their lack of political representation, presented a petition to the czar, asking him to alleviate their problems and grant them a Constituent Assembly. The demonstration in front of his palace was fired upon by the czar's soldiers. Mass strikes spread throughout the industrial cities of the country, involving more than a million people over a period of two months, reaching at least 122 towns and localities. [2] Strikes, demonstrations and public meetings continued sporadically throughout the spring and summer months despite severe repression. Workers elected committees throughout the urban areas to organise the strikes.[3]

In mid-September, typesetters and printers in Moscow launched an industry-wide strike. Over fifty shops were shut down. Other industries in that city began to close in sympathy with the typesetters. At the beginning of October, typesetters in St. Petersburg went out on a three-day strike to show their solidarity with their Moscow fellow workers. At the end of the first week of October, the railway workers throughout European Russia decided to strike, and called for a national general strike, demanding the eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, and a Constituent Assembly. The strike began to spread throughout the urban areas, succeeding in closing down all productive activities by the 12th, save those necessary for the success of the strike, such as print shops, trains carrying workers' delegates, etc. The government responded with concessions and repression.

Beginning October 10th, factories in St. Petersburg began sending delegates to meetings of what was to become the Soviet. At first, not more than thirty or forty delegates attended. On October 13th, they sent out a call for a political general strike, i.e., for a Constituent Assembly and political rights, and asked all the factories to send delegates. Workers immediately understood the principles of such representation on the basis of workplaces. There were the experiences of sending factory representatives to the Shidlovski Commission (which was studying factory conditions) and the strike committees of the past nine months upon which to draw. Anweiler writes:

When the strike wave spread from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and when, on October 11th, the first factories stopped work the workers themselves felt the need to meet together in order to decide in common what path to follow. It was for this purpose that delegates were elected in several factories--the Putilov and Obukhov works, among others--of these delegates, more than one had been a member of the strike committee or a former representative to the Shidlovski Commission.[4]

More and more factories elected delegates. Within three days, there were 226 delegates representing 96 factories and workshops (the principle was usually one delegate for every 100 workers in a factory). It was decided to admit representatives of the socialist parties (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, and Social-Revolutionaries). On October 17th, this group decided on the name "Soviet of Workers' Deputies" and elected a provisional executive committee of 22 members (two for each of the seven areas of the city, two for each of the four most important unions) and decided to publish its own newspaper, "News from the Soviet of Workers' Deputies." The Soviet, at first performing no other task than organising and leading the strike, changed itself over the course of several days into an organ of the general and political representation of workers, in the centre of the revolutionary movement of the working class in the capital. It quickly became a "workers' parliament," which it attempted to remain even after the strike ended at the end of October. According to Anweiler, "this change was neither deliberated or consciously expressed. After having at its peak engendered the Soviet, the revolutionary movement surged on, with greater impetuosity than ever, and the organ that it had created accompanied it on its path."[5] The Soviet had been formed out of necessity--that of organising and maintaining the general strike. No one needed to convince the workers that such organisation was crucial.

Similar organisations appeared amidst strikes in all the urban areas of European Russia (and in some larger villages as well), Between 40 and 50 came into existence in October. Although most only functioned for a short period their importance should not be underestimated. This was the first experience of direct democracy for most of those involved. The Soviets were created from below, by the workers, peasants, and soldiers, and reflected their desires--which were expressed in non-sectarian resolutions. No political party dominated the Soviets, and many workers were opposed to allowing representation for political parties. At any rate, most of the Soviets were created by workers to solve their immediate problems--winning the strike, the eight-hour day, and political rights. They concerned themselves with the daily problems confronting the workers.

The czar combined concessions (the granting of a parliament, the Duma) with selective repression and broke the strike and then destroyed the remaining Soviets. However, despite apparent failure, the revolution of 1905 paved the way for the events of 1917. Soviets had been formed on a factory basis and performed the functions of workers' parliaments, trade unions, and strike committees, and had provided the workers with a sense of self-government. These experiences would be relied upon in the face of the severe problems of early 1917, when workers found themselves in a situation of deep social crisis.

The problems facing the Russian population at the outset of 1917 were severe indeed. The effects of Russia's participation in the First World War began to become unbearable. Her dependence on Western Europe for raw materials crippled her. Inflation, usury, and shortages of food supplies reached crisis proportions. Production plummeted. The size of the draft led to a shortage of skilled labour in industry and a shortage of agricultural workers. Fuel became ever harder to obtain, both for personal use (heating) and for industrial production. There was no apparent hope for the masses of the Russian people, especially the industrial working-class. Voline writes from his personal experience:

In January 1917, the situation had become untenable. The economic chaos, the poverty of workers, and the social disorganisation of Russia were so acute that the inhabitants of several large cities--notably Petrograd--began to lack not only fuel, clothing, meat, butter, and sugar, but even bread. February saw worse conditions, not only was the urban population doomed to famine, but the supplying of the army became entirely defective. And, at the same time, a complete military debacle was reached.[6]

Dissension appeared in the army and the navy as the war wore on. Peasants in the army began to rebel against the despotism of the officers and camaraderie developed among the draftees in the face of the ever-worsening military situation. Discussions between workers and peasants spread within the military. The beginning of 1917 saw the armed forces seething with revolt. On February 23rd, a strike began among women textile workers in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg). Demonstrations, which were virtually bread riots, spread throughout the city. The troops who had crushed similar demonstrations in 1905 refused to put down the uprising, and many joined in. By the end of the month, after three days of spontaneous demonstrations and a general strike, Petrograd was in the hands of its working class. Victor Serge, a participant in the events, writes:

The revolution sprang up in the street, descended from the factories with thousands of striking workers, to cries of "Bread! Bread!" The authorities saw it coming, powerless; it was not in their power to overcome the crisis. The fraternisation of the troops with workers' demonstrations in the streets of Petrograd consummated the fall of the aristocracy. The suddenness of the events surprised the revolutionary organisations . . .[7]

Even Trotsky goes so far as to admit that the revolutionary organisations acted in February as obstacles to the working-class:

Thus, the fact is that the February Revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat--the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers' wives.[8]

The revolution spread throughout Russia. Peasants seized land; discipline in the army collapsed; sailors seized their ships in the Kronstadt Harbour on the Baltic Coast and took over that city; the Soviet form of organisation reappeared, first in industrial areas, then among soldiers, sailors, and peasants.

A Provisional Government came to power when the czar abdicated. Made up of members of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, this group at first sought the institution of a constitutional monarchy. They were soon to give up on this notion, but, regardless of their proclamations, laws, debates, etc., they failed to come up with solutions to the problems experienced by the bulk of the populations, both workers and peasants. The Soviets, which had sprung up across the country, were viewed as the legitimate government by workers, peasants, and soldiers, who came to them with their problems.

However, a close look at the formation and organisation of the Soviets indicates that they were not mass organs that offered workers and peasants the means to exercise power over their daily activities. The most famous of all the Soviets--and a good example of their organizational structure and functioning--was the Petrograd Soviet. This organisation was formed from the top down by a group of liberal and radical intellectuals who got together on February 27th and constituted themselves the "Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet."[9] They then called for elections to the Soviet itself. On February 28th, in response to a proclamation from this "Executive Committee," elections were held in the factories. By one o'clock in the afternoon, over 120 delegates assembled for the plenary meeting. However, this meeting--and most future ones--was chaotic: credentials could not be verified and little was accomplished. All essential decisions were made within the "strict intimacy" of the Executive Committee.[10] Some of these decisions, such as the one of March 2nd stating that the Soviet would not co-operate with the Provisional Government, were submitted to the Soviet as a whole for ratification. Most decisions, however, were not.

Sukhanov, a journalist and a member of this Executive Committee, describes the functioning of this Soviet:

To this day, I, a member of the Executive Committee of the Soviet, am completely ignorant of what the Soviet was doing in the course of the day. It never interested me, either then or later, because it was self-evident that all the practical pivotal work had fallen on the shoulders of the Executive Committee. As for the Soviet at that moment, in the given situation, with its quantitative and qualitative composition, it was clearly incapable of any work even as a Parliament, and performed merely moral functions.

The Executive Committee had to accomplish by itself all the current work as well as bring into being a scheme of government. In the first place, to pass this programme through the Soviet was plainly a formality; secondly, this formality was not difficult and no one cared about it....

"And what's going on in the Soviet?" I remember asking someone who had come in from beyond the curtain. He waved his hand hopelessly: "A mass meeting! Anyone who wants to gets up and says whatever he likes!"[11]

The most interesting feature of this Soviet was the personal communication between delegates of both workers and soldiers in one body. The presence of so many soldiers' delegates gave the Executive Committee more actual power than the Provisional Government because it enjoyed the support of the local troops.

Over 3,000 delegates were members of the Soviet by the end of March: two-thirds of them were soldiers. The delegates were elected on the basis of one representative for 1,000 workers, and one for every factory with less than 1,000, and one delegate for every military unit. In mid-April, on the suggestion of the Executive Committee, the Soviet voted in favour of reorganisation, as its size had become unwieldy. The new body had some 600 members, half soldiers and half workers. This reorganisation was undertaken by a special committee, appointed by the Executive Committee, who pared the Soviet by excluding "occasional delegates" and those from groups which had been reduced in size. However, the power still remained in the hands of the Executive Committee. This had been the case from the start, and it continued to be the case throughout the spring and summer of 1917.[12]

The Executive Committee expanded its role. It created various committees to deal with different problems--publishing newspapers, overseeing various services, etc. As the number of these committees increased, the base of the Soviet lost more and more of its power. Meetings became less frequent and soon the Soviet itself became nothing but an open forum, where workers and soldiers could come together, air their views, meet others like themselves, and keep their constituencies informed about what was going on. It did offer people who had never had the chance to speak out to do so. But it did not represent the power of the working class. If anything, it represented its powerlessness.

This Soviet seems quite characteristic of the Soviets throughout Russia--both in the urban areas and in the countryside. Often, workers or peasants came into conflict with their Soviet. Neither this organ nor the Provisional Government can be considered as instruments of working-class power. However, the workers were able to create such an instrument--the factory committee.

Whereas the Soviets were primarily concerned with political issues, e.g., the structure of the government, the continuation of the war, the factory committees dealt solely with the problems of continuing production within their factories. Many sprang up in the face of lock-outs or attempted sabotage by the factory owners. It was through these committees that workers hoped to solve their initial problems--how to get production going again, how to provide for themselves and their families in the midst of economic chaos. Many workers were faced with the choice of taking over production themselves or starving. Other workers who were relatively assured of employment were influenced both by the burst of activity which characterised the revolution and the worsening economic situation. If they were to remain secure, they had to have a greater say in the management of their factories. They realised that they needed organisations on the shop level to protect their interests and improve their situations.

The trade unions could be of no help in these matters. Until the turn of the century, trade unions were illegal. The tradition of guilds, which had been an important precursor of trade-unionism in Western Europe, was lacking, due to the fact that industry was still rather young in Russia. Only the most politically-minded workers could be expected to be interested in trade-unionism under the repressive conditions and such workers were usually more apt to join the already existing radical political organisations. In 1905 the existing trade unions played an insignificant role in the upheaval. Many of them were crushed in the repression of the next few years. A select few were allowed to continue to function, but only under police supervision. By the time of the February 1917 uprising, several trade unions existed as national organisations, but few had any influence within the factories. Most of the trade union leaders were Mensheviks, who rejected the notion that workers should have any say about the internal affairs of a factory. During the first few months of 1917, trade unions membership increased from a few scores of thousands to 1.5 million. Most of this increased membership was purely formal, i.e., it became a matter of principle for radical workers to belong to trade unions. The real activity was represented by the incredible proliferation of factory committees, organs consisting of and controlled by the workers within each factory. It was through these committees that most of the workers sought to solve their problems.

These committees were seen to provide the organisational structure through which workers could confront--and hopefully solve--their first problem: the taking over of production within their factory. Only through organs such as the factory committees, directly controlled by all the workers assembled within a factory, could the workers develop the organisation, solidarity, and shared knowledge necessary to manage production. (As the Soviets were concerned primarily with "political" issues and because their meetings were usually chaotic, they offered little assistance for solving the pressing problems of the workers.) Such committees appeared in every industrial centre throughout European Russia. The membership of a committee always consisted solely of workers who still worked in the factory. Most important decisions would be made by a general assembly of all the workers in the factory. The workers sought to maintain their own power within the factory in order to solve their pressing problems. No one else could do it for them. The committees were utilised by the workers in the early months of the revolution to present series of demands, and in some instances to begin to act to realise those demands. Paul Avrich describes the functioning of some factory committees in the first months of the uprising:

From the outset, the workers' committees did not limit their demands to higher wages and shorter hours, though these were at the top of every list, what they wanted in addition to material benefits, was a voice in management. On March 4th, for example, the workers of the Skorokhod Shoe Factory in Petrograd did, to be sure, call upon their superiors to grant them an eight-hour day and a wage increase, including double pay for overtime work; but they also demanded official recognition of their factory committee and its right to control the hiring and firing of labour. In the Petrograd Radiotelegraph Factory, a workers' committee was organised expressly to "work out rules and norms for the internal life of the factory," while other factory committees were elected chiefly to control the activities of the directors, engineers, and foremen. Overnight, incipient forms of "workers' control" over production and distribution appeared in the large enterprises of Petrograd, particularly the state-owned metallurgical plants, devoted almost exclusively to the war effort and employing perhaps a quarter of the workers in the capital.[13]

As the economic situation became yet more severe following the February Revolution (inflation continued, production was only beginning to pick up, and then but sporadically), workers turned from making demands concerning wages, working conditions, and the principles of "workers' control," to actually taking over and operating an ever greater number of factories. Workers had to act if they were to find a way out of the deepening crisis. The immediate problem which confronted workers was experienced on the factory level--how to begin again (under their own direction) the production of their factories. Once this initial problem was confronted, and the workers, through their factory committees, began to solve it--by, in many cases, actually starting up production under their own management--a new and yet more difficult problem appeared.

No factory could be self-sufficient. Production required raw materials and continued production necessitated a structure of distribution. Many committees began to compete with the committees from other factories, both for the procurement of raw materials and the disposal of their products. Such a solution to the severe problems proved unsatisfactory. Not all the factories could acquire the needed raw materials. Competition drove the prices of raw materials up. More and more factories which had only recently recommenced production found themselves threatened with being forced to close down due to their inability to get needed materials and new machinery. The necessity of federation became apparent. That is, workers realised--some more quickly than others--that they had to develop a means of co-operation and co-ordination with workers in other factories and regions: those that supplied them with raw materials, those that produced the same products, and those that needed their products. The "ownership" of a given factory by its own workers could not solve the pressing economic problems. Only a large-scale co-ordinated effort by the workers in many factories could do so. The isolation of workers within their own factories had to be transcended, and the workers turned to their factory committees to devise methods of industry-wide and regional co-ordination.

At the same time, the Provisional Government sought to impose its own ideas about the management of production. It sought to undermine the activities of the factory committees, limiting them to overseeing health and safety conditions within the plants. All co-ordination should be under the supervision of the Provisional Government and its agencies. This provided another impetus for the factory committees to join together. Alone, they could be stripped of their power by the government. United, they could present a force that could not be destroyed--unless the government would be willing to stop all production, a rather unlikely action. The first meeting of a group of factory committees appears to have taken place in mid-April in Petrograd. The major resolution of this conference was a strong re-affirmation of the workers' right to control the internal life of the factory, matters "such as length of the working day, wages, hiring and firing workers and employees, leaves of absence, etc.''[14] However, there appears to have been no progress made as far as communications between factory committees for the purpose of organising production on a city-wide level.

The Provisional Government also acted in April. On the 23rd of that month statutes were enacted which recognised the rights of the factory committees to represent the workers in bargaining with management and to oversee health conditions inside the factory. The principal goal of these statutes was "to restrain the importance and the role of factory committees and to limit their power.''[15] But the Provisional Government had no power to enforce these statutes. Workers throughout Russia quickly recognised what it was that the Provisional Government sought to do, and they responded forcefully. According to Pankratova--a Bolshevik historian of the factory committee movement--every major factory and every large urban area was the scene of spontaneous activity in response to these statutes. Workers rejected the government's new regulations and took steps to strengthen their own power within their factories. New attempts at communication and co-ordination between factories appeared. All this was not in response alone to the government's actions, but also because the economic situation continued to deteriorate.[16]

On May 29th, there was a conference of factory committees in Kharkov, which resulted in a strong affirmation of the principles of workers' self-management, but failed to resolve the serious problems of the co-ordination of supply, production, and distribution. The next day, a conference of all the factory committees in Petrograd and its surrounding areas convened in the capital city. Some 400 representatives of the committees attended. A statement was adopted in the course of the conference which explained the progression of events up to that time--and indicated how these events were understood by the workers who were involved in them.

From the beginning of the Revolution the administrative staffs of the factories have relinquished their posts. The workmen have practically become the masters. To keep the factories going, the workers' committees have had to take the management into their own hands. In the first days of the Revolution, in February and March, the workmen left the factories and went into the streets. The factories stopped work. About a fortnight later, the mass of workmen returned to their work. They found that many factories had been deserted. The managers, engineers, generals, mechanics, foremen had reason to believe that the workmen would wreak their vengeance on them, and they had disappeared. The workmen had to begin work with no administrative staff to guide them. They had to elect committees which gradually re-established a normal system of work. The committees had to find the necessary raw materials, and altogether to take upon themselves all kinds of unexpected and unaccustomed duties.[17]

The final resolution of the conference described the factory committees as "fighting organisations, elected on the basis of the widest democracy and with a collective leadership," whose objectives were "the creation of new conditions of work . . . the organisation of thorough control by labour over production and distribution." Moreover, this resolution also commented on "political" questions, demanding that there be a "proletarian majority in all institutions having executive power.''[18]

The conference sought to go beyond a mere affirmation of the principles of workers' self-management to try to formulate tentative plans for greater co-ordination of production. Representatives at the conference turned to the trade unions for assistance. As we saw earlier in this essay, the trade unions, although weak and inconsequential as far as the course of events up to now, did have an existing pan-Russian (i.e., national) structure, which was based on relations between industries and regions. It was hoped at this conference that this structure could be made use of to co-ordinate the then rather disparate activities of the committees. Although qualms were expressed about turning to any other organisation for assistance in co-ordination (be it political parties, trade unions, or anyone but the factory committees themselves), the severity of the economic crisis impressed upon the representatives the need for speedy action, and the adoption of an already existing structure appeared easier than the creation of a totally new one.

Beginning about this time (i.e., early June), the influence of the Bolshevik Party within the factory committees began to grow. They were a fairly small group of professional revolutionaries who argued, under Lenin's leadership, that a "socialist revolution" was possible in Russia. Until Lenin returned from exile in April, they had been fairly isolated from the events taking place. Lenin, however, quickly changed the orientation of the party. In the first months of the revolution, the Bolsheviks wavered on the question of workers' control of production, the division of land among the peasants, support for the Provisional Government, and the continuation of the war--all questions considered crucial by workers and peasants. Lenin, not without difficulty, brought the party around to clear positions on all these issues, and, in doing so, brought their program into line with the already articulated demands of the working class (e.g., control of production by the factory committees, political power to be exercised by the Soviets, the end of participation in the World War) and the peasantry (e.g., the end of the war and the division of land among those who work it). No other political party placed itself openly in favour of the actions and demands of the Russian masses. Thus, in the face of attempts on the part of the Provisional Government to undermine their accomplishments and their attempts at expanding their power, many workers saw the Bolshevik Party as a welcome ally. According to most accounts, the Bolsheviks were a strong influence at this conference, favouring the uniting of the factory committees (to present a counter-power to the Menshevik-dominated Soviets).

Within several weeks, it became apparent that the factory committees could not rely on the trade unions for purposes of co-ordination. At the end of June, there was a trade union conference in Petrograd. Here it became clear that the unions desired to subordinate the existing factory committees to their control. Their conception of "co-ordination" was that the national organs should make all the fundamental decisions concerning production and distribution, and the factory committees (which would become institutionalised within the unions) would implement these decisions. In other words, "co-ordination" through the trade unions would mean control by the trade unions.

By the end of June, a process of polarisation appeared to be under way in Russia. The dividing lines were not sharply drawn, nor were they necessarily perceived by the participants. The most important line was that which separated the factory committees from all the other existing institutions--the Soviets, the trade unions, the political parties, and the Provisional Government--who were all trying in different ways to control the committees. There were also obvious differences within the latter group seeking to establish its hegemony over the others. (Only the Bolsheviks among the parties appeared to side with the committees.) The workers involved in the factory committees did not see the Soviets as enemies, but were disenchanted with their vacillations concerning the extension of control over all production by the committees and their unwillingness to openly confront the Provisional Government on the question of political power.

In early July, mass discontent with the Provisional Government and its policies (the continuation of the war, its attempts to undermine the factory committees) and with what the Soviets were doing (or, more exactly, not doing) surfaced in the form of violent mass demonstrations and peasant land seizures. On July 3rd, a group of soldiers and armed workers burst into the Petrograd Soviet (while a much larger group demonstrated outside) and assailed its members for compromising with the bourgeoisie and hesitating to take over power from the Provisional Government. They demanded that all power be taken by the Soviet, that all land be nationalised, that various bourgeois ministers be removed, and that participation in the war should end.[19] The entire month of July saw mass demonstrations and strikes throughout the urban areas of the country. The Provisional Government sought to blame the Bolsheviks for these disturbances. In fact, the Bolsheviks had tried to halt some of these demonstrations, arguing against them in their journals and demanding that party members not take part. As a result, they became viewed with suspicion by groups of workers, and some workers who belonged to the party tore up their party cards in disgust.

In early August, a general strike took place in Moscow, presenting mostly "political" demands--an end to the war, and that the Soviets should replace the Provisional Government. The Moscow Soviet was opposed to the strike, its leadership as yet unwilling to put itself forth as an alternative to the Provisional Government. Moreover, in the face of severe economic problems, the Soviet was becoming more and more concerned with the continuation of production. This strike was organised by the factory committees in the city, who quickly transformed themselves into strike committees, "informing and educating the workers, collecting money, giving out subsidies," and raising the demand for control of production by the producers themselves, exercised through the factory committees.[20] Polarisation between the workers and the existing Soviet sharpened.

On August 7th-12th, the second conference of factory committees of Petrograd and surrounding areas took place. This conference

. . . made a definite attempt to construct an efficiently working centre of united factory committees by resolving that 1/4 of one per cent of the wages of the workers represented by factory committees was to be put aside for the support of a Central Soviet of Factory Committees. This was to give the Central Soviet a means for support, independent of the state and the trade unions.[21]

There was a consensus that the trade unions could not be used for organising and co-ordinating production. The Bolsheviks, who made up a majority of the delegates at this conference, clearly saw this Central Soviet as a body with a very different function than mere co-ordination. It should, in their view, have considerable power to make decisions concerning production and distribution, decisions which would be binding on the factory committees.[22] Many of the other delegates saw that such a body could undermine the already existing (and expanding) control of the process of production by the producers themselves, taking important decisions out of their hands. There was thus considerable ambivalence about creating this Central Soviet, which would solve the problem of co-ordination only by weakening the power of the producers themselves and their factory committees. The final resolution, which stated that "all decrees of the factory committees were ultimately dependent on the sanctions of the Central Council, and the Council could abolish any decree of the factory committees,"[23] represented a real defeat for those who opposed control of the committees by any body constituted above them. At about the same time--early August--there was an all-city conference of factory committees in Moscow. Here, too, there was an attempt made to devise a structure of co-ordination, but again in the form of a "centralisation" under the control of a regional council.

While these attempts at co-ordination were being made, the factory committees continued to try to solve their initial problems--the taking over of productive apparatus and its operation by the producers themselves. The necessity of doing so was becoming ever greater as the prices of necessities (e.g., food, clothing, and shoes) rose two to three times faster than wages, and more and more factory owners attempted to shut down production.[24] The Provisional Government was alarmed by the activities of the factory committees and launched an all-out legal attack on them. The extent to which the Government felt it necessary to destroy the committees gives us an indication of how much these committees must have been doing. On August 22nd, Skobelev, the Minister of Labour, issued a circular letter which stated that:

The right of hiring and firing of all other employees belongs to the owners of these plants . . . Coercive measures on the part of workers for the purpose of dismissal or employment of certain persons are regarded as actions to be criminally punished.[25]

Another circular letter of August 28th forbid the holding of factory committee meetings during working hours. However, as the government lacked the power to enforce these new laws, they were generally disregarded by the workers. The factory committees offered the workers the best means of maintaining production and controlling it for their own benefit. Thus, the workers were unwilling to yield to the unenforceable decrees of the Provisional Government. Into the fall of 1917 this struggle continued, a struggle which could only end with the destruction of one protagonist or the other. Pankratova takes note of the logic of this struggle:

The passage from passive to active control had been dictated by the logic of preservation. Intervention of workers' committees in hiring and firing was the first stage toward the direct intervention of the workers in the production process . . . Later, the passage toward higher forms of technical and financial control became inevitable. This placed the proletariat before a new problem: taking power, establishing new production relations.[26]

However, the workers and their factory committees failed to see the importance of their fighting for social power. Their efforts remained within the sphere of "the economy." "Political power" was a problem for the Soviets. The workers hoped that the Soviets would soon wrest "political power" away from the Provisional Government and allow the factory committees and their expanding regional organisations to manage industrial production. By October, such councils of factory committees existed in many parts of Russia: Northwest: Petrograd, Pskov, Nevel; Central Industrial Region: Moscow, Ivanovo-Vosnesensk; Volga Provinces: Saratob, Kazan, Tsaritsyn; Ukraine: (Southern Mining District): Karkhov, Kiev, Odessa, Iuzovka; Southwest and Caucasus: Rostov, Nakhichevan-on-the-Dan, Ekaterinodar; Urals and Siberia: Irkutsk.[27] Conferences of local factory committees in Petrograd and Moscow in late September and early October reaffirmed the necessity of proceeding with their role in production--managing the entire productive process--and in developing ever better methods of co-ordination.

A short time later, the first "All-Russian Conference of Factory Committees" was convened. ("All-Russian" is a bit misleading because the committees only existed in the industrialised urban areas.) Members of the Bolshevik Party made up 62 percent of the delegates and were the dominant force. By now, the Party was in firm control of the recently created Central Council of factory committees and used it for its own purposes. According to one account

. . the work of the Council proved to be very limited. The Bolsheviks, who entered the Central Council in a considerable number and who, as a matter of fact, controlled it, apparently deliberately obstructed the work of the Central Council as a centre of economic struggle on the part of the workers. They used the Council chiefly for political purposes in order to strengthen the campaign to win the unions.[28]

The Bolsheviks at this conference succeeded in passing a resolution creating a national organisational structure for the committees. However, this structure explicitly limited the factory committees to activity within the sphere of production and suggested a method of struggle which embodied a rigid division of activities--the factory committees, under the supervision of their organisation, would continue their activities at the point of production; the Soviets (now under Bolshevik control--many members of the Soviets saw the Bolsheviks as supporting the demands of the workers and the peasants and many other members, particularly soldiers, who had supported the more liberal parties, had left the cities to return to their villages; thus, they achieved majority) would contest the political power of the Provisional Government; and the Bolsheviks would bring together the activities of these bodies, as well as the disparate struggles of the working class and the peasantry. The non-Bolshevik delegates--and the workers they represented--did not reject this new plan. Few realised the necessity of uniting the "economic" and the "political" aspects of the class struggle.

The Bolsheviks, now on the verge of seizing "state power," began laying the foundations for the consolidation of their control over the working class. No longer did they encourage increased activity by the factory committees. Most workers and their committees accepted this about-face, believing that the new strategy was only temporary and that once the Bolsheviks had captured "political" power they would be given free reign in the economic sphere.

Shortly thereafter, the Bolsheviks successfully seized state power, replacing the Provisional Government with their tightly-controlled Soviets. The effect on the workers was tremendous. They believed that this new revolution gave them the green light to expand their activities, to expropriate the remaining capitalists and to establish strong structures of co-ordination. E. H. Carr describes what happened immediately after the seizure of power:

The spontaneous inclination of the workers to organise factory committees and to intervene in the management of the factories was inevitably encouraged by a revolution which led the workers to believe that the productive machinery of the country belonged to them and could be operated by them at their own discretion and to their own advantage. What had begun to happen before the October revolution now happened more frequently and more openly; and for the moment, nothing would have dammed the tide of revolt.[29]

Out of this burst of activity came the first attempt of the factory committees to create a national organisation of their own, independent of all parties and institutions. Such an organisation posed an implicit threat to the new Bolshevik State, although those involved still saw their organisation as relating only to the "economy." The Bolsheviks, seeking to strengthen their position, realised that they had to destroy the factory committees. They now had available to them the means to do so--something which the Provisional Government had lacked. By controlling the Soviets, the Bolsheviks controlled the troops. Their domination of the regional and national councils of factory committees gave them the power to isolate and destroy any factory committee through denying them raw materials, for example. The trade unions, now an appendage to the Bolshevik State, were used to suppress the power of the factory committees. Isaac Deutscher describes how the Bolsheviks used the trade unions to emasculate the committees within months after the revolution.

The Bolsheviks now called upon the trade unions to render a special service to the nascent Soviet State and to discipline the factory committees. The unions came out against the attempt of the factory committees to form a national organisation of their own. They prevented the convocation of a planned all-Russian Congress of factory committees and demanded total subordination on the part of the committees. The committees, however, were too strong to surrender altogether. Towards the end of 1917 a compromise was reached, under which the factory committees accepted a new status: They were to form the primary organisations upon which the trade unions based themselves; but, by the same token, of course, they were incorporated in the unions. Gradually they gave up the ambition to act, either locally or nationally, in opposition to the trade unions or independently of them. The unions now became the main channels through which the Government was assuming control over industry.[30]

Groups of workers fought back in various factories and localities (the Kronstadt revolt was the most famous of these battles), but they were labelled "counter-revolutionaries" and crushed by the Bolshevik-controlled forces of order. Soon, even the trade unions were to be destroyed, as the Bolsheviks moved to eliminate any possible opposition to their power. Space prohibits my going into detail about how the Bolsheviks consolidated their position, but numerous accounts exist and most are fairly readily available.[31]

Looking back over the course of events, several features stand out. The revolution was determined--if only passively--by the vast peasant population. The factory committees represented only a small portion of the population and could never have successfully managed all of Russian production. The inability of the workers to break out of the blinders that led them to see their role in the narrow terms of the "economy" was to be expected. However, it confined their activities and allowed their accomplishments to be destroyed by the wielders of "political" power. On the other hand, the Russian events clearly show that, under certain circumstances, working people are capable of creating their own organisations of struggle, organisations which can function as the means by which the producers can directly control the process of production within their factories. But "workers' control" over the production process in individual workplaces is insufficient. The next stage, the co-ordination of these organisations, i.e., the attempt of the working class to manage all the production of society, is much more difficult. Various other groups will invariably put themselves forward to do this for the working class, and if they are accepted they will try to control the activities of the workers. Such organisations are potential new ruling classes and must be opposed as such. As Karl Marx wrote as the first premise of the Rules of the First International Workingmen's Association: "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves."


[1] Trotsky, 1905, pp. 38-14.

[2] Ibid., p. 81.

[3] Oskar Anweiler, Les Soviets en Russie, 1905-1921, pp. 43-47. He writes: The genesis of these councils during the revolution of 1905 irrefutably shows that these organs had for their original object the defence of the workers' interests on the basis of the factory. It is because the workers sought to unite their fragmented struggles and to give them a direction, not because they saw the conquest of power by political actions, that the first councils appeared." (p. 47)

[4] Ibid., p. 54-55. He notes that of the first forty delegates, only fifteen had been neither delegates to the Shidlovski Commission or members of the strike committees.

[5] Ibid., P. 57.

[6] Nineteen-Seventeen, p. 39.

[7] L'An Un de la Revolution Russe, pp. 55-56.

[8] The Russian Revolution, p. 98.

[9] Anweiler, op. cit., p. 128, reports that not one of these men was a factory delegate.

[10] Ibid., p. 129.

[11] Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution 1917, pp. 186-187, also quoted in Roger Rethybridge (ed.), Witnesses to the Russian Revolution, pp. 123-124. Sukhanov's recollections are corroborated by Anweiler, op. cit., and "The Political Ideology of the Petrograd Soviet in the Spring of 1917," in Richard Pipes (ed.), Revolutionary Russia; Chamberlin, The Russian Revolution, p. 109; Browder and Kerensky (eds.), The Russian Provisional Government, Volume I, p. 71; and Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume I, pp. 216-217.

[12] Anweiler, Les Soviets en Russie, pp. 131-137, cf. also Chamberlin, op. cit., p. 84; Irakli Tseretelli (a member of the Executive Committee), "Reminiscences of the February Revolution," The Russian Review, Vol. 14, Nos. 2, 3, and 4; George Katkov, Russia 1917: The February Revolution, p. 360.

[13] Paul Avrich, The Russian Anarchists, p. 140-141.

[14] Resolution quoted in Robert V. Daniels, The Conscience of the Revolution, p. 82, cf. also, Anna Pankratova, "Les Comites d' Usines en Russie a l'Epoque de la Revolution," originally written in Russian in 1923 and reprinted in French in Autogestion, #4, December 1967, pp. 8-l0.

[15] Pankratova, ibid., p. 12, cf. also Frederick Kaplan, Bolshevik Ideology and the Ethics of Soviet Labour, p. 48.

[16] Competition between factory committees and workers stealing everything that they could carry contributed, in many regions, to the economic chaos.

[17] Resolution adopted during May 30th-June 5th Conference of Factory Committees in Petrograd, quoted in S.O. Zagorsky, State Control of Russian Industry During the War, p. 174.

[18] Fragments of resolution quoted in Maurice Brinton, The Bolsheviks and Workers' Control, p. 5.

[19] Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Vol. II, p. 19.

[20] Pankratova, op. cit., p. 30.

[21] Kaplan op. cit., p. 66.

[22] According to Kaplan, the Bolsheviks were interested in the creation of this Central Soviet for reasons other than the smoother functioning of production. He writes: 'The Bolsheviks seem to have wanted to strengthen the Central Council so that they could manipulate a workers' organization capable of taking a place alongside the trade unions and in opposition to other non-labor organizations," Ibid., p. 67.

[23] Ibid., p. 75.

[24] Many workers understood the alternatives and the tasks confronting them. Pankratova cites a resolution adopted at a conference of textile industry factory committees in late summer. The delegates there saw that their choices were "to submit to the reduction of production or to risk being fired by intervening actively in production and taking over control and the normalization of work in the firm." They resolved: "It is neither by the bureaucratic path, i.e., by the creation of a predominantly capitalist institution, nor by the protection of capitalist profits and their power over production that we can save ourselves from catastrophe. The path to escape rests solely in the establishment of real workers' control." Op. Cit., p. 40.

[25] Quoted in Browder and Kerensky, op. cit., Vol. 11, p. 722.

[26] Pankratova, op. cit., p. 48.

[27] Kaplan, op. cit,, p, 81.

[28] Browder and Kerensky, op. cit., p, 726.

[29] E.H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, Vol. II p. 69. Cf. also Paul Avrich, "The Bolshevik Revolution and Workers' Control in Russian Industry," in Slavic Review, March, 1963.

[30] Deutscher, Soviet Trade Unions, p. 17.

[31] The best are: Brinton, op. cit.; Avrich, article op. cit.: Daniels, op. cit.; Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy; James Bunyan, The Origin of Forced Labour in the Soviet Union, 1917-21; Alexandra Kollentai, The Workers Opposition; Marya Gordon, Workers Before and After Lenin; and many others.



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Submitted by ultraviolet on November 26, 2011

Great article. Explains complicated things very clearly in plain language which was easy for me to follow despite my attention deficit issues.

Lately I've been reading articles about the Russian revolution, and this one has brought much clarity to so many foggy areas. I had heard that the factory committees were organs of popular power but the soviets were not, despite their reputation for being so, but I'd never seen a proper explanation why until this article. I'd also heard that the unions were shell organizations with high membership but low activity, but didn't understand why, and this article explains that, too. It explains why despite this the factory committees turned to the unions for help in coordinating. It gives an overview at the attempts by the factory committees to coordinate production and how this was sabotaged by the unions and then the Bolsheviks. It explains and clarifies many other things. And if you are a newbie to reading about the Russian revolution you will be able to follow this article because it gives basic info on what caused the revolution of 1905 and the revolutions of Feb and Oct 1917.