V. I.   Lenin

Factory Courts

Written: Written at the end of 1899
Published: First published in 1924 in the magazine Proletarskaya Revolyutsiya, No. 8-9. Published according to a manuscript copied by an unknown hand.
Source: Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1964, Moscow, Volume 4, pages 297-309.
Transcription\Markup: R. Cymbala and D. Walters
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Factory courts is the name given to courts consisting of elected representatives of workers and employers (factory owners in the case of industry) that examine cases and disputes arising in connection with the terms of hire, with the fixing of rates of pay for ordinary work and overtime, with the discharge of workers in violation of rules, with payments for damage to material, with unfair imposition of fines, etc., etc. Courts of this kind exist in the majority of the West-European countries, but not in Russia, and we propose to examine what advantages they bring the workers and why the institution of factory courts is desirable in addition to the ordinary courts, where cases are heard by a sole judge appointed by the government or elected by the propertied classes, with no elected representatives of the employers and the workers.

The first advantage of the factory court is that it is much more accessible to the workers. To present a petition to an ordinary court, one has to submit it in writing (which often requires the employment of a solicitor); stamp duty has to be paid; there are long waiting periods; the plaintiff has to appear in court, which takes him and the witnesses away from their work; then comes a further period of waiting until the case goes to a higher court to be retried after an appeal by dissatisfied litigants. Is it any wonder that workers do not willingly resort to the ordinary courts? Factory courts, on the contrary, consist of employers and workers elected as judges. It is not at all difficult for a worker to make a verbal complaint to one of his fellow workers whom he has himself elected. Sessions of factory courts are usually   held on holidays or, in general, at times when the workers are free and do not have to interrupt their work. Cases are handled much more expeditiously by factory courts.

The second advantage that the workers gain from factory courts is that the judges have a far better understanding of factory affairs and, furthermore, are not outside officials but local people who have a knowledge of the workers’ living conditions and local industrial conditions; half of them are workers, who will always be just to a worker and will not regard him as a drunkard, an insolent and ignorant fellow (as he is regarded by the majority of official judges, who come from the bourgeois class, the class of property owners, and who almost always retain their connections with bourgeois society, with the factory owners, directors, and engineers, but are separated from the workers as by a Chinese Wall). Official judges are mostly concerned that matters should go smoothly on paper; as long as things look all right on paper, the government official does not worry about anything else—he is merely concerned with receiving his salary and pleasing those in higher authority. This accounts for the disgusting amount of red tape, protracted litigation, and pettifoggery—something has been incorrectly recorded, something did not get properly entered in the court record, and the case is lost, however just it may have been. When the judges are elected from among the employers and from among the workers, they have no need to pile up red tape, because they are not working for a salary and are not dependent on parasitic government officials. They are not concerned with getting a still better post, but with settling disputes that prevent the factory owners from continuing production uninterruptedly and workers from continuing their work in peace and with less fear of chicaneries and unjust vexations on the part of the employers. Furthermore, one has to know factory life well and from personal experience in order to be able to settle disputes between employers and workers. The official judge glances at the worker’s pay-book, reads the rules, and refuses to listen to anything else—you have broken the rules, he says, so you bear the responsibility, and the rest does not concern me. But judges elected from among the employers and from among the workers do not merely look at papers but at what happens in real life. It sometimes happens that a rule remains unchanged on paper, while in practice things proceed differently. Very often the official judge, even if he wants to, even if he examines cases with the greatest attention, cannot understand the point at issue, because he does not know the customs, he does not know the methods of fixing rates, he does not know the methods by which a master often cheats the worker without infringing the rules and the rates (as by transferring the worker to another job, by giving him different material, etc.). Elected judges who themselves work or who manage factory affairs have an immediate understanding of such issues, they can easily understand what exactly the worker wants, they are not concerned merely with observing the rules but with ensuring that the worker cannot be cheated by the bypassing of the rules, with ensuring that there can be no pretexts for deception and arbitrariness. There was a recent report in the newspapers that hat-makers had almost been convicted of theft, on a complaint from the employers, for making use of the waste trimmings from hats. Fortunately honest barristers were found who gathered information to prove that this was the custom in the industry and that the workers, far from being thieves, had not violated a single regulation. The ordinary, simple worker who earns very small wages can hardly ever get to a good barrister, and for this reason, as every worker knows, official judges often pass cruel, senselessly cruel, sentences in cases affecting workers. Absolute justice is never to be expected from official judges: we have said above that these judges belong to the bourgeois class and are prejudiced in advance to give credence to whatever the factory owner says and to disbelieve the words of the worker. The judge consults the law: a master and servant contract (one man hires himself out for wages to do something for another or to serve him). As far as he is concerned, it is all the same whether an engineer, a doctor, a factory director, or an unskilled labourer hires himself out to the factory owner; the judge thinks (by the dictates of his bureaucratic soul and his bourgeois stupidity) that the unskilled labourer should know his rights and be able, as well as a director, engineer, or doctor, to make stipulations in his contract for everything needed.   But the judges in a factory court (half of the panel) are elected from among the workers, who know very well that a new worker, or a young worker, often feels in the factory or in the office as though he were in a dark forest and has not even the ghost of an idea that he is concluding a “free contract” and that he can “foresee” terms in that contract that are to his advantage. Let us take the following instance: a worker wants to register a complaint against unjust rejection of work or against fines. It is useless for him even to think of complaining to a judge or to a factory inspector, both of whom are government officials. An official will keep insisting on one thing: the law gives the factory owner the right to fine workers and to reject bad work, so that it is for the factory owner to decide whether the work is bad and whether blame rests with the worker.That is why workers so rarely seek recourse to the courts: they put up with abuses, put up with them until finally they strike when their cup of patience runs over. With judges elected from their midst, the workers would find it incomparably easier to secure equity and protection in such cases and in regard to all petty factory disputes and insults. The wealthy official judge does not regard such petty matters as worthy of his attention (like having hot water for tea, or an extra cleaning of a machine, or similar items); but to the worker these things are by no means petty. Only the workers themselves can judge what a huge amount of gross ill-treatment, of insults, and of humiliation can be caused by what at first sight appear trifling, innocuous, inoffensive rules and regulations in the factory.

The third advantage workers stand to gain from factory courts is that in and through them workers learn to know the laws. As a rule the workers (in their mass) do not know and cannot get to know the laws, although government officials and official judges often punish them for not knowing the laws. When an official confronts a worker with the law and the worker pleads ignorance of its very existence, the official (or the judge) either laughs at him or rebukes him with the statement: “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” as basic Russian legislation puts it. Any official and judge, therefore, assumes that every worker knows the laws. But this assumption is a bourgeois lie, a lie invented by propertied people and by capitalists against the propertyless, the same sort of lie as the assumption that a worker concludes a “free contract” with the master. In actual fact, the worker who starts in at the factory at a tender age, when he has learned no more than to read and write (and very, very many have not even been able to learn to read and write!), has never had time to learn anything about laws, has had nobody to learn from, and, no doubt, has had no reason to learn—because if bourgeois officials apply the laws without asking him, the laws will not be of much benefit to the worker! The bourgeois classes that accuse the workers of ignorance of the laws have done absolutely nothing to help them acquire the knowledge, so that it is not so much the workers themselves who are to blame for their ignorance of the law as their exploiters (=those who plunder them), who own all the property, live by the labour of others and want to he the only ones to take advantage of education and knowledge. There is no school and there are no hooks that will give the workers a knowledge of the laws, because only very few workers can read books—very, very few among the millions of working people oppressed by capital. For the same reason there are very few who attend school, and even those who have had some schooling can, in most cases, only read, write, and count; this is too little for the understanding of a branch of knowledge as complicated and difficult as are the Russian laws. The workers will gain a knowledge of the laws only when they have to apply them themselves and hear and see justice done according to those laws. Workers could learn to know the laws better if, for instance, they were appointed to juries (with the factory owners required to pay them their regular wages for the days spent in court); but bourgeois society is so constructed that only people from the propertied classes may serve as jurymen (and also peasants who have been schooled in “social service,” i. e., in the lower ranks of the police); the propertyless, the proletarians, must submit to a court that is not theirs, while they themselves have no right to judge! When factory courts are set up, the workers elect their own comrades as judges and the elections take place at regular intervals; in this way those elected from among the workers acquaint themselves with the laws by applying them in practice,   that is, they not only read the laws as they are written in a book (for that does not by any means ensure a knowledge of the laws), but see for themselves in practice what particular laws are applicable to what cases and what their effect on the workers is. It is much easier for other workers, apart from the elected judges, to acquaint themselves with the laws through factory courts, because it is easy for a worker to speak to a judge elected from among his mates and obtain from him any necessary information Workers will visit a factory court more often than a court conducted by civil servants, because it is more accessible; they will listen to cases in which their relatives and friends are participating and in this way acquaint themselves with the laws. For a working man to understand in whose interests the laws are drawn up and in whose interests those who apply them act, it is important that he should become acquainted with the laws in practice and not merely from books. Once the worker is acquainted with the laws he will see quite clearly that the interests are those of the propertied class, the men of property, the capitalists, the bourgeoisie and that the working class will never win a sound and radical improvement n its conditions, so long as it does not win the right to elect its representatives to participate in the formulation of laws and in supervision over their fulfilment.

Furthermore (fourthly), a good aspect of factory courts is that they teach the workers to take an independent part in public, state affairs (because the court is a state institution and the activity of the court is a part of state activity), they teach the workers to elect the most intelligent and honest of their comrades, those who firmly support the workers’ cause, to post where their activities can be seen by the whole working class, where workers’ representatives can declare the needs and demands of all the workers. It is to the interest of the capitalist class, of the entire bourgeoisie, to keep the workers ignorant and isolated, to remove as quickly as possible those among them who are more intelligent and who make use of their intellect and knowledge, not to become traitors to their class and to fawn on the foremen, masters, and police, but to help other workers acquire greater knowledge and to learn to stand up jointly for the working-class cause. But in order that such advanced representatives,   of whom that cause has great need, should come to be known by all workers and win their trust, it is important that all should witness their activities, that all should know whether they are capable of expressing and upholding the real needs and desires of the workers. If the workers could elect such people as judges, the best of them would be known to all, they would gain wider trust, and the proletarian cause would win by it greatly. If we look at our landowners, industrialists, and merchants, we see that they are not content with the fact that each of them is able to go to a governor or to a minister and present his requests; they also make sure of having their representatives in the courts (the courts with representatives from the social-estates) and that these participate directly in the administration (e.g., Marshals of the Nobility,[2] school inspectors, etc., are elected by the nobility; members of factory affairs boards,[3] of stock-exchange and fair committees are elected by the merchants, etc.). The working class in Russia is without any rights at all; workers are regarded as draught animals that have to toil for others and hold their tongues, that never dare to state their needs and desires. If the workers were to elect their comrades to factory courts constantly, they would have at least some possibility of participating in public affairs and of stating, not only the opinions of individual workers—of Pyotr, Sidor, or Ivan—but also of stating the opinions and demands of all the workers. In that case the workers would not be so mistrustful of the courts as they are of those conducted by government officials; they would see their comrades there, those who would intercede for them.

Further (fifthly), the factory courts are of benefit to the workers because they would give greater publicity to factory affairs and to all incidents in factory life. We see today that the factory owners and the government are doing every thing in their power to conceal what is happening in the factory world from the general public; it is forbidden to publish anything about strikes, the reports of factory inspectors on the condition of the workers are no longer being printed, an effort is being made to have all abuses passed in silence and get matters settled as quickly as possible “in camera,” by government officials, and all workers’   meetings are prohibited. It is not surprising that the mass of the workers frequently has very little knowledge of what is going on in other factories or even in other departments of the same factory. Factory courts, to which workers could frequently appeal, which would be held in public, i.e., in the presence of a working—class public, in non-working hours, would benefit the workers by helping to make known all abuses and would thus facilitate their struggle against various factory outrages and accustom them to think, not only of the regime at their own factory, but of the regime at all factories, of the conditions of all workers.[1]

Finally, there is one other benefit accruing from factory courts that must be mentioned: they get factory owners, directors, and foremen into the habit of treating workers decently, of treating them as equal citizens and not as slaves. Every worker knows that factory owners and foremen all too often permit themselves to treat workers in a disgracefully insulting manner, to rail at them, etc. It is difficult for a worker to complain against this attitude; it can be rebuffed only when the workers are sufficiently developed and are able to give support to their comrade. The factory owners and foremen say that our workers are very ignorant and coarse, for which reason they have to be treated roughly. There are still many survivals, actually, of serfdom among our workers, there is little education and much uncouthness—this cannot be denied. But who is mostly to blame for this? It is precisely the factory owners, foremen, and government officials who are to blame, they, whose attitude to the workers is that of feudal lords towards serfs,   they, who do not want to consider the worker as an equal. If workers make a request or ask a question civilly, they are everywhere met with rudeness, with oaths and threats. Is it not obvious that when factory owners blame the workers for their rudeness under these circumstances they are placing the blame on the wrong shoulders? Factory courts would speedily wean our exploiters of their insulting manner: there would be worker judges in the court side by side with the factory owners, and they would discuss cases and vote together. The factory-owner judges would have to regard the worker judges as their equals and not as their hired servants. The contestants and witnesses in court would come from the factory owners and the workers, and the former would get their training in addressing workers civilly. This is very important to the workers, in view of the fact that at present discussions of this sort are extremely rare: the factory owner refuses to recognise delegates elected by the workers, so that the latter have only one way open to them—to strike, a difficult and often a very burdensome way. Further, if there were also workers among the judges, workers would be able to appeal freely to the court against rough treatment. Worker judges would always be on their side, and if a factory owner or a master were summoned to court for insulting behaviour, he would lose all desire to display his arrogance and insolence.

Factory courts consisting of representatives of masters and workers in equal numbers, therefore, would have great significance for the workers and would bring them many benefits. They would be more accessible to the workers than the ordinary courts, there would be less pettifoggery and red tape, the judges would have a better knowledge of the factory conditions, and would judge more fairly; they would acquaint the workers with the laws, they would teach the workers to elect their representatives and to participate in state affairs, they would give greater publicity to factory life and to the working-class movement, and they would accustom the factory owners to treat the workers decently, to have polite dealings with them as equals with equals. It is no matter for wonder, therefore, that the workers in all European countries demand the establishment of factory courts, that they demand that these courts should be   set up, not only for factory workers (which the Germans and the French already have), but also for workers engaged in home-work for capitalists (for handicraftsmen), as well as for agricultural labourers. No officials appointed by the government (no judges and no factory inspectors) can ever replace institutions in which the workers themselves participate: after what has been said above, this requires no further explanation. Every worker, furthermore, knows from his own experience what he has to expect from government officials; if he is told that government officials can he concerned with the workers’ welfare equally with people elected from among the workers themselves, he knows it to be a lie and a deception. Deception of this sort is of great advantage to the government that wants the workers to remain the ignorant, rightless, and inarticulate slaves of the capitalists, and for this reason one often hears these lying assertions from government officials or from writers who defend the interests of the factory owners and the government.

The need for factory courts and the benefits they could bring the workers are so obvious that they were long ago recognised even by Russian government officials. True, it was so long ago that many have forgotten it! It was at the time when our peasants were liberated from serf dependence (in 1861, over 38 years ago). About that time the Russian Government decided also to replace the laws governing artisans and factory workers with new ones; it was all too obvious then that the old laws for workers could not remain when the peasants had been liberated, since many of the workers had been serfs when the old laws were drawn up. And so the government appointed a commission of several officials to study the factory laws of France and Germany (and of other countries) and to draft a bill to change the Russian laws for artisans and factory workers. The commission included some very important people. Nevertheless, they got down to the task and printed five tomes in which they outlined foreign laws and proposed a new law for Russia. This new law, proposed by the commission, was to institute factory courts with the judges elected from among the factory owners and the workers in equal numbers. The draft was print ed in 1865, that is, thirty-four years ago. But what, the   worker will ask, happened to this draft law? Why did not the government, which had itself instructed the officials to draft a law on the necessary changes, introduce factory courts in Russia?.

Our government dealt with the commission’s draft in the same manner in which it deals with any draft laws that are in any way of benefit to the people and to the workers. The officials were rewarded for their labours for the good of the tsar and the fatherland; they were given decorations to hang from ribbons round their necks and accorded higher ranks and more lucrative posts. And the draft law they had prepared was quietly “pigeon-holed,” as they say in offices. And so this draft law is still stacked away in its pigeon-hole. The government has even stopped thinking of according the workers the right to elect comrades from their midst to factory courts.

It cannot, however, be said that the government has not once thought about the workers since that time. True, it has not thought of them of its own free will, but only when forced to do so by menacing workers’ unrest and strikes; nevertheless, it has thought of them. It has published laws prohibiting child labour in factories, prohibiting night-work for women in certain industries, reducing the working day, and appointing factory inspectors. Despite all the pettifoggery employed in drafting them, despite the numerous loopholes left open for the factory owners to violate and get round them, these laws have still been of some benefit. Why, then, does the government prefer introducing new laws and new officials—factory inspectors—instead of introducing factory courts, provided for by a law that has been fully elaborated? The reason for this is very obvious and the workers must fully understand it, for this example will make clear the entire policy of the Russian Government with respect to the working class.

The government has appointed new officials instead of factory courts, because factory courts would raise the level of the workers’ class-consciousness; make them more conscious of their rights, of their human and civic dignity; teach them to think independently about state affairs and about the interests of the entire working class; teach them to elect their more developed comrades to represent them,   and in this way undermine, if only in part, the undivided authority assumed by government officials. This is what the government fears more than anything else. It is even prepared to dispense a few hand-outs to the workers (only mites, of course, and only with one hand that does the giving ceremonially in full view of the public, so that it may pose as a benefactor, while taking them away slyly and gradually with the other hand! The workers now know this trick, having had a sample of it in the factory law of June 2, 18971)—it is prepared to dole out crumbs as long as the autocratic power of the bureaucracy is left untouched and there is no awakening of the workers’ class-consciousness, no development of their independence. The government can easily avoid this terrible danger by appointing new officials, since officials are the humble servants of the government. It is no trouble to forbid officials (factory inspectors, for instance) to publish their reports, it is no trouble to forbid them to talk to the workers regarding their rights and regarding the abuses of the masters, it is no trouble to turn them into factory police sergeants and to order them to report to the police all dissatisfaction and unrest on the part of the workers.

Therefore, so long as the present political system remains in Russia—i.e., denial of rights to the people, lawless actions on the part of government officials and the police, who are not answerable to the people—the workers cannot expect the introduction of factory courts which can be of benefit to them. The government understands full well that factory courts would very speedily cause the workers to go over to more radical demands. Having elected their representatives to the factory courts, the workers would soon realise the insufficiency of this step, because the factory owners and landlords who exploit them send their representatives to very many state institutions at a much higher level; the workers would certainly demand a general all-people’s representation. Having once secured court publicity for factory affairs and the workers’ needs, they would soon see that this is not enough, because in our day real publicity can be obtained only through newspapers and popular meetings, so that the workers would demand freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.   This is why the government has buried the draft law to introduce factory courts in Russia!

On the other hand, let us assume for a moment that the government were deliberately, with deception of the workers in mind, to introduce factory courts today and to retain the present political system intact. Would this be of any benefit to the workers? It would bring them no benefits at all: the workers would not even elect to these courts the most class-conscious and most loyal of their comrades, those who are most devoted to the cause of the working class, knowing that in Russia for every straightforward and honest word a man may be seized simply by order of the police and thrown into prison or transported to Siberia without trial!

It follows, therefore, that the demand for factory courts with judges elected from among the workers is only one small part of a wider and more radical demand: the demand for political rights for the people, i.e., the right to participate in the administration of the state and the right to make known the needs of the people openly, not only in the press, but also at popular meetings.


[1] It must, of course, be remembered that factory courts can be only one of the ways and means of publicity, and not even the chief means. The life in factories, the conditions of the workers and their struggle can be brought to public knowledge in a real and comprehensive manner only by a free working-class press and by free meetings of the people to discuss all state affairs. Similarly, workers’ representation at factory courts is only one of the means of representation and is far from being the chief means. The real representation of the workers’ needs and interests is possible only through a national representative assembly (a parliament) that would promulgate laws and supervise their execution. Below we shall deal with the question as to whether factory courts are possible under the conditions now obtaining in Russia. —Lenin

[2] Marshal of the Nobility—in tsarist Russia, the elected representative of the nobility of a gubernia or uyezd. The Marshal of the Nobility was in charge of all the affairs o the nobility; he occupied an influential position in the administration and took the chair at meetings of the Zemstvo.

[3] Factory affairs boards—bodies supervising factory affairs in tsarist Russia. As a rule, the boards consisted of the provincial governor, the public prosecutor, the chief of the police administration, the factory inspector, and two factory owners.

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