By June, the Bolsheviks held majorities in most major union boards and, together with the Menshevik Internationalists, dominated the Petrograd Central Trade Union Council board. However, one must not oversimplify the meaning of the rise of Bolshevik influence in the unions in June. The Bolshevik cadre in the unions held very narrow majorities and worked very closely with Menshevik-Internationalists to craft compromise resolutions and strategy within the Petrograd Central Trade Union Council, which had a conservatizing effect.
Furthermore, most of the day-to-day work of the unions was in fact directed around immediate workplace issues, so the conflicting positions on larger social questions between Menshevik and Bolshevik were often sidelined. Within the Bolsheviks themselves, debate lingered over the course of the revolution, and the worker-cadre within the union movement tended to be less critical of the moderates and their course than their comrades in the factory committees.
The gargantuan inflation that gripped Russia during the war drove the ongoing battles over wage rates. By one estimate, the cost of living in Petrograd by October had risen by Diane P. Koenker and William G. Rosenberg calculate that between March and late October there were 1, strikes, involving more than 2. However, as the spring wore on, partial and local strikes were losing their effectiveness. Wage gains were eaten up by inflation as soon as contracts were settled, and bosses were more likely to resist than in the earlier stage of the revolution.
Union activists had been studying the wage issue since the fall of the tsar, and by summer the need for stronger redress was obvious. Only through industry-wide, or legislative change, could starvation conditions be addressed adequately. This trajectory was urged on by two factors. First, frustration that things were not changing fast enough, or were even getting worse after February, gripped the class.
All of the positive achievements listed were the results of factory committees. These questionaires expressed the anger of the slow pace of change paired with a recognition that only self-activity had brought measurable results. Secondly, new layers of workers—largely unskilled and previously unorganized—moved into struggle. Most of the leadership of unions and committees arose from the skilled workers, who were on par with their European counterparts in terms of literacy and education. The gap between the wages of the skilled and the unskilled was large: skilled workers making sometimes double what the unskilled earned.
The three key demands put forth were: an end to piece-rates, sizeable raises, and a closing of the gap between skilled and unskilled workers.
It is a noteable testimony to the state of class consciousness that the more organized, more experienced cadre workers who formed the backbone of the unions put the closing of the wage gap at the center of the struggle. In effect they were arguing for greater improvements for the less organized sections than they asked for themselves.
Meanwhile, the unskilled at Putilov initiated their own organizing, including an abortive strike in early June. They reached out to other unskilled workers, creating new networks of the unskilled across the metal working sector. Tension simmered between the unskilled workers, desparate for more immediate change, and the leadership of the union who were seeking a larger scale solution.
The board of the largest and most pivotal union, the metal workers union, issued the following statement expressing their frustration at the lack coordination dogging the movement in early June:. Instead of organization, we, unfortunately now see chaos. Today one factory acts, tomorrow another and the day after that the first factory strikes again—in order to catch up with the second.
The raising of demands is often done without any prior preparation, sometimes by-passing the elected factory committee. The demands themselves are distinguished by lack of consistencey and uniformity. Works committees representing seventy-three factories, union delegates, and representatives from the socialist parties met and agreed to a general strike if the union negotiations failed. In the midst of the negotiations, Petrograd exploded in armed demonstrations. The Soviet had attempted to mobilize the Second Machine Gun Regiment to the front to join the doomed military offensive launched in June, but was openly disobeyed.
Bolsheviks in the garrison supported their disobedience, and the gunners heightened the crisis by marching factory to factory, calling out workers to strike and demonstrate. While targeting the Provisional Government, the July Days—as this revolt came to be known—expressed the ambivalence workers had toward the moderate socialists who still dominated the Soviet Executive Committee and many local soviets. We trust the Soviet, but not those whom the Soviet trusts.
The MWU contract was settled in mid-July. When the SFWO refused to accept the full wage increases for the unskilled workers, the union delegates quickly moved to prepare a strike. Cautious that a renewed struggle only weeks after the July Days would bring down the full weight of government repression, union leaders, including Bolsheviks, accepted a controversial compromise. These workers vented their bitter disappointment at the union leaders, but the greater part of their anger was directed at the government for failing to intervene on their side.
For the previously apolitical layer of workers the compromise had the unintended consequence of driving home the impossibility of deeper change under the Provisional Government. The interests of the capitalists are dearer to it than the interests of the working class. As the summer drew to a close, the inevitable conclusion hundreds of thousands of workers were drawing was that without establishing a new political system, even the most basic economic demands could not be met. The optimism of March had given way to a hardened resolve to make good on the promises of the February Revolution by the only apparent means available: overthrowing the Provisional Government and placing all power in the hands of the soviets.
The material gains of the wage struggle—substantial as they were—are overshadowed by their political implications. Strikes were a politicizing experience for those who took part in them: they saw with their own eyes how employers were going on investment strike, engaging in lockouts, refusing to accept new contracts or to repair plants; how the government was colluding with the employers, curbing the factory committees and sending troops to quell disorder. The strikes were important therefore, in making hundreds and thousands of workers aware of political matters and in making the policies of the Bolshevik party attractive to them.
The Provisional Government understood its grasp on power was slipping. In this precarious situation, the capitalist politicians sought to reestablish control by undermining the movement at its foundations. Managers had been attempting to undermine the factory committees without directly confronting them: refusing to pay workers for time in committee meetings, and threatening members with firing or the draft. In August the government took more open action. The Menshevik Labor Minister M. The second, published on August 28, decreed that factory committee meetings could not be held during work hours or on work premises, without the express permission of the bosses.
At the same time, the bosses and Provisional Government attempted to disarm Red Guards, although neither had the means to effectively challenge armed workers. The Skobelev circulars were to be a dead letter, washed away in a new demonstration of working-class strength. The President of the Soviet Central Executive Committee, Alexander Kerensky, provoked a massive outpouring of worker activity by attempting to allow a military occupation of Petrograd.
Kerensky had negotiated the occupation with Lavr Kornilov, stalwart reactionary supreme commander of the Russian Army. But upon the commencement of the plan, it became evident that Kerensky himself would be pushed aside by Kornilov. Making a degree turn, Kerensky called for defense of the government against the approaching military.
Unfortunately for him, the only forces able to disperse the coming occupation were the mutinous army and armed workers, under the leadership of the factory committees, the unions, the Red Guards, and the Bolsheviks. The anti-Kornilov mobilization drew out hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers. The leadership role of the factory committees, Red Guards, and Bolsheviks is well documented; but unlike the July Days, which largely passed the unions by, the latter played a much more active role. Understanding the necessity of clearing away the obstacle of the Provisional Government to allow the Soviet to assume power, workers joined the one party that put this at the center of its strategy: the Bolsheviks.
By September 1st, local soviets demanded a transfer of power to the Soviet. In the same period city-wide soviets in Petrograd, Moscow, Ivanovo- Voznesensk, Kronstadt, and Krasnoyarsk passed resolutions in support of the Bolshevik Party, delivering embarrassing defeats to Mensheviks attempting to block them. Tensions between the factory committees and the unions were rife within the movement throughout At times their competing efforts to resolve the same issue in the same workplace caused clashes.
In the abstract it may have made sense for the unions and factory committees to fuse to avoid redundancies and squabbling. The incorporation of the committees into the unions as subordinate bodies would have brought the better organized, more radical workers in the factory committee movement under the wing of the moderates, and by extension, the Provisional Government. As the Bolshevik Party grew numerically, it recruited unaffiliated activists as well as the cadre of rival parties, introducing more diverse perspectives.
In addition, even its long-term cadre, rooted in workplaces and neighborhoods, took differing positions on strategic questions depending on their locations.
One such debate in the summer of was over the role of the factory committees in the revolutionary process, especially regulation. As shown above, this mirrored the debate within the larger movement—although both sides within the Bolsheviks accepted the necessity of revolution. The radical position within the Bolshevik Party, articulated by Pavel Amosov, identified ruling-class treachery as the key source of chaos in the economy.
To stabilize the economy, the factory committees therefore needed to expand their centralization and coordination to overcome bourgeois resistance.
The routing of the Kornilov Coup was in part because the committees had stretched themselves, investing further into the Red Guards and asserting themselves beyond the factory gates. Better committee coordination alone, they argued, could not solve the problems facing the economy. The radicals also argued that the factory committee was the key vehicle for the coming revolution. Needless to say, many of the moderates were themselves union members or union leaders, or were delegates in a soviet. These positions correlated with projections of when full centralization could happen—the radical Bolsheviks argued that factory committees could overcome ruling-class resistance even before the transfer of power to the Soviet.
The moderates within the Bolsheviks ultimately won the argument that Soviet regulation must be established to overcome the crisis in the economy. The bourgeoisie could not be economically dethroned while still holding political power. The Soviet was seen as compromised and unable to enact a socialist agenda.
Lenin himself briefly—during the crackdown following the July Days—entertained the idea that the soviets had become so conservative that the factory committees were a more suitable vehicle to organize the seizure of power. This debate over economic regulation dovetails with another critical question arising in October over the nature of the insurrection and who would rule in its aftermath. The unique position of the workers as direct producers makes it the critical actor in rebuilding an economy based on human need; however the process of making a revolution in Russia relied on the fusion of different exploited classes and the Soviet was where that fusion existed.
In this way, the working class was able to leverage its power, despite its small size, relative to the peasantry.
Workers’ organizations in the Russian Revolution
The closing of summer and onset of fall saw a significant growth and consolidation of revolutionary sentiment. The repulsion of Kornilov left the Soviet exposed and the Provisional Government deflated. With a last gasp, the Provisional Government organized a Democratic Conference in September as an attempt to revitalize a coalition government in the eyes of the public. Their effort collapsed leaving the Provisional Government dead in the water. The Provisional Government moved to crush this new body of revolutionary soldiers and workers. The All-Russian Soviet solidified the overthrow of the government by voting to transfer all power to the soviets: after months of working class calls to take power, the revolution had triumphed.
Eyewitness and anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge described the immediate aftermath of the revolution:. This rational form of progress toward socialism was not at all to the taste of the employers, who were still confident in their own strength and convinced that it was impossible for the proletariat to keep its power. The innumerable conflicts that had gone on before October now multiplied, and indeed became more serious as the combativity of the contestants was everywhere greater.
The spike in employer resistance became the impetus for a more thorough seizure of control in the workplace.
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The initial draft for a Decree of Workers Control, written by the All-Russian Council of Factory Committees, only dealt with creating a state-sponsored apparatus to regulate the economy, and did not speak to the issue of worker control. Lenin himself criticized the document, and insisted on the inclusion of the right of workers to control production, have access to all financial records and accounts, and oversee the committee system from the bottom up.
In fact, the reverse is true. Vital creativity of the masses—that is the fundamental factor in the new society. Socialism is not created by orders from on high. Its spirit is alien to state-bureaucratic automatism. Socialism is vital and creative, it is the creation of the popular masses themselves.
In the months immediately following the insurrection, Bolshevik policy optimistically oriented on self-activity. There were debates about the degree of incursions into the control bosses exercised, but the pressures of the moment soon eclipsed these debates.
The economy the soviet system inherited was wrecked and further declined in the heat of bourgeois resistance and armed counterrevolution. The articulated policy of the new state was bottom-up regulation of industry under the auspices of the newly formed Supreme Council of the National Economy, combined with nationalization of first the banks, and eventually other industries.
Understanding the weak industrial base and isolated position of the working class in a sea of over million peasants, the Bolsheviks aimed for economic stability as much as possible, by allowing a continued mixed economy of state ownership, state regulation, and private ownership. But in the conditions of sabotage and lockout the ex-rulers unleashed, factory committees seized workplaces, seeking greater and greater intervention on the part of the state. Nationalization accelerated and the balance shifted more toward the apparatus and away from local control.
During the same period factory committees and unions underwent a radical change in their relationship. While pre-revolution there had been some chafing over what role each would play, 57 by summer it had become clear that the unions acted primarily to protect wages amd conditions, while the factory committees oversaw production.
Their relationship to their membership was different—factory committees were the most grassroots organs. But they were limited by their focus on a single workplace, no matter how large. Unions, though not as directly in touch with the rank and file, spanned whole industries. Moderate Bolsheviks, along with allies from other socialist parties, argued that the factory committees should be subordinated to the unions, and act as their basic cells. Before October, the factory committees were hostile to this proposal, but over time the two organizations drew nearer, and many leaders softened to the idea.
With the transfer of power to the Soviet, the Bolsheviks reassessed the role of the unions. Since the state was now the most powerful body protecting the working conditions and wages of the working class, the unions were now needed to raise economic regulation from the level of the individual shop to entire industries.
The First All-Russian Congress of Trade Unions, where this relationship was formally adopted in January , included the presence of Menshevik delegates who supported the Bolshevik resolution for unity. In reality, the fusion of the factory committees and unions would not prove to be effective. The unions did not facilitate the inclusion of the vast networks of factory committees into their own apparatus, and the factory committees were far more skilled at the kind of intervention the unions were seeking to undertake. In practice, the factory committees continued to dominate life in the factories, and exercised a great deal of independence.
As civil war consumed Russian society, pressures mounted to consolidate power as quickly as possible. Alongside the rise of international solidarity and attempted revolutions that the Russian example inspired, the Bolsheviks faced military intervention from Germany as well as more than a dozen Allied Powers. This never materialized, despite several short-lived uprisings in Bavaria, Italy, Finland, Poland, and Hungary in the following three years and others within the next ten. The Bolshevik understanding of the Russian Revolution was that it could initiate, but not complete, an international transformation from capitalism to socialism.
Before , the idea of stand-alone socialism in Russia was unknown among Russian Marxists. While the Bolsheviks had the audacity to initiate the process, they lacked the material basis to complete it. The economy, already in shambles, went into utter free fall during the civil war. As the material basis of capitalist production collapsed, so did the class itself. Food production declined dramatically, producing widespread famine.
The working class, reduced to 43 percent of its former size, produced an industrial output of 18 percent of its prewar amount. With this disintegration of the class that made the revolution came a increasing centralization from above to win the civil war as democratic control atrophied from below.
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The trade unions too, became less accountable to their members, since they were now accountable to the government, and soon turned primarily into economic apparatuses of the state. This may all suggest that bureaucratization was inscribed in the revolutionary process in , but if so, it was inscribed as a possibility only. Democratic and bureaucratic elements existed in a determinate relationship in all popular organizations—a relationship which was basically determined by the goals of the organizations and the degree to which those goals were facilitated by political and economic circumstances.
These circumstances were to change dramatically in the autumn of , and it was this change which shifted the balance between forces of democracy and bureaucracy in favor of the latter. There is no more brilliant example of the capacity of workers to politically conceive and organize a different kind of world than the Russian Revolution. Similarly the industrial unions that drew members with the most basic understanding of organization into titanic battles against Russian capital and the state provided the ground for the mass shift in revolutionary consciousness among all layers of the working class.
It was through the lived experience and hard trials of struggle that workers internalized the political ideas of the Bolshevik Party. In turn, the initiative of the working class pushed the Party to absorb, distill, and debate the ever-changing conditions within the workplaces.
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The infrastructure for struggle that was built through the committees and the unions had the potential, along with the system of soviets, to present an existential challenge to Russian capitalism. But their victory was in no way inevitable. The inspiring efforts of the working class could have been dispersed, disorganized, or crushed in if not for the presence of the Bolsheviks. Trying to read backwards from the bureaucratic nightmare of Stalinism into the efforts of the Bolsheviks in means a willful denial of the well-chronicled, productive, and democratizing impact of Bolshevik activists.
Given the profound diversity of organizations workers utilized in , as well as the other centers of radicalism the soldiers and sailors most obviously , and the variant moods and experiences they encompassed, it is surprising the Bolsheviks held together at all. Instead of fracturing, the Party provided a grounding center for all of these threads to wind together. Understanding this in no way demands of the modern socialist an uncritical acceptance of every action or policy of the Bolsheviks.
It is difficult to comprehend how this flowering of democracy quickly transformed into the horrors that were unleashed during the civil war: famine, state terror, and grain requisitioning. The erosion of workplace democracy and even the suppression of strikes were unforeseen developments forced on the new Soviet administration by conditions of desperation and the failure of revolution to spread. It is hard to understand, but it is not impossible to see how this contradiction unfolded, against every intention of the party that led a revolution introducing the widest democracy the world has known.
Its legacy has been buried for decades under the filth of Stalinism. This rich history is our inheritance, to be studied, but more importantly to be used in our own future struggles. Skip to main content. Social Movements. Issue : Features Share. Roots of the rebellion Russia at the opening of World War I was a society in the midst of a massive transformation. A resolution from the general assembly of the Nobel Machine-Construction Factory on April 4 illustrates this well: 1 that the liberation of the working class is the affair of the workers themselves, 2 that the way of the proletariat to its final goal—socialism—lies not on the path of compromises, agreements and reforms, but only through merciless struggle—revolution.
Politics of the factory committee movement The first phase of the Revolution came to a close in April as class tensions reasserted themselves. The unions In February of only a handful of unions existed in Russia. Their resolution on union work declared: The working class is entering a terrain with vast social horizons, which culminate in world socialist revolution.
The wage struggle The gargantuan inflation that gripped Russia during the war drove the ongoing battles over wage rates. The board of the largest and most pivotal union, the metal workers union, issued the following statement expressing their frustration at the lack coordination dogging the movement in early June: Instead of organization, we, unfortunately now see chaos. Shkliarevsky writes: Strikes were a politicizing experience for those who took part in them: they saw with their own eyes how employers were going on investment strike, engaging in lockouts, refusing to accept new contracts or to repair plants; how the government was colluding with the employers, curbing the factory committees and sending troops to quell disorder.
Eyewitness and anarchist-turned-Bolshevik Victor Serge described the immediate aftermath of the revolution: This rational form of progress toward socialism was not at all to the taste of the employers, who were still confident in their own strength and convinced that it was impossible for the proletariat to keep its power. Quoted in S. The Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia inherited the political legacy of peasant radicalism embodied in the Narodnik movement of the late nineteenth century.
The party was made up of a combination of urban and rural petit bourgeois leadership and a mass membership of industrial and rural laborers. The peasant tradition of radical anti-authoritarian acts, including terrorism, persisted and would blossom again in dramatic form against the Bolsheviks after October , and the party shared the Menshevik belief that the next stage of Russian society must be capitalist. This small grouping based in Petrograd had formed around a nucleus of former Bolsheviks and stood politically between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. It was most notable for the leadership of Leon Trotsky, but other formidable Marxists were members: Adolf Joffe, Anatoly Luncharsky, Moisei Uritsky, David Riazanov, and one of the greatest worker-orators of the revolution: V.
This is in part because the soviets are already given the place of pride in the history of the Revolution of and are well documented. The soviets also grew to encompass almost every disgruntled segment of society, whereas the unions and factory committees were centered on the workplace and largely on workplace issues although they took an expansive view of what that meant.
Further, in some smaller localities, factory committees and soviets were one and the same body for much, if not all, of the Revolution. The other significant missing piece is the Red Guards. The Guards constituted armed units from the major factories and provided security against counter-revolutionary threats. While they expressed the same impulse to self-organization and direct democracy as shop-floor groups, and their presence could at times allow the shop-floor movement to advance, they were not one of the means that workers engaged with economic issues of control and production.
Smith, Red Petrograd, 9— Figures are taken from V. They were the internal iron fist for the Soviets. They were the force that kept the Soviets in power by making sure that they had no opposition. This was done by instilling fear into the public and bullets into the opposition.
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The objective of the Cheka was to protect the state from internal threats. They were tasked with finding and stopping anyone who opposed the state. This especially included counter revolutionary groups or activists, as well spies. The Cheka were up front with who they targeted and what the penalties were; commonly being execution or prison camp. The Chekas were also know for targeting Jews during their crackdowns in order to fill up their concentration camps. One might draw a comparison between the Cheka and the German SS.
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