The Labour Armies

On the Labour Army

Talk with a Representative of the Soviet Press

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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The percentage of workers and the productivity of labour

The idea of a labour army was put forward, as you will remember, by the 3rd Army, which was left for some weeks in an indefinite situation. Because, in this period, our position on the Caucasian front was still uncertain, we could not liquidate the apparatus of the 3rd Army and try to set the entire army to labour tasks. It was already being reported in the newspapers that, if this were done, the 3rd Army could directly assign for work not more than 23 per cent of its personnel. That figure could not but appear extremely small. One must, however, take note that the 3rd Army consisted of a huge administrative apparatus with hardly any army units,. these having long since been taken from it and transferred to other fronts. It was a skeleton without any flesh on it. This explains why the army could supply only a small number of workers. Note must also be taken of the condition of the army as regards health: a very large number of typhus victims, and of sick men generally, with a corresponding number of medical personnel. Generally speaking, the lower the level of an army unit, the fewer auxiliary organs and annexes of all kinds it has, the larger is the percentage of workers it can provide. While a regiment can supply 80 per cent and upwards, a brigade can supply between 60 and 70 per cent, and a division, probably, about 50 per cent. Given appropriate organisational changes, on the basis of the experience we have already had, this percentage can be increased.

If we take for comparison the Chelyabinsk mines, in the state in which we found them in mid-February, we see that, out of 3,500 workers, only about 2,000 actually showed up for work. If to this you add the women and the adult members of families living in the same place and providing services for the workers, it turns out that, in actual fact, considerably fewer than 50 per cent of the adult consumers were working.

As soon as our position on the Caucasian front became quite good and the need to transfer the 3rd Army there disappeared, we proceeded, soon after arriving in the Urals, to liquidate the army’s apparatus and to make use of its component elements for labour purposes. This provided several thousand skilled workers, who were despatched in groups and teams to various factories. In this way, repair columns were formed, that is, mobile repair workshops for the transport system.

As for direct use of the Labour Army’s forces as a whole, what we have here is one cavalry division and one infantry division. The cavalry carried out mainly food-collecting tasks. Its work immediately produced big results. Despite the unfavourable moment, the collection and despatch of grain was greatly increased – in some uyezds and provinces, it was multiplied several times.

An immense role was played by the artillery, which concerned itself with the organising of transport, underpinning this with its own transport forces and resources. In every village the gunners began by working for the peasants: mending farm implements, shoeing horses, repairing sledges and carts, and so on. Along with this work they developed extensive educational activity, holding meetings, showing films, presenting plays, and so on. This procedure very greatly mitigated the burdens imposed on the peasantry by cartage service. Also, through their behaviour, our cavalrymen, a large percentage of whom are Communist workers from the Urals, at once established friendly relations with the peasants.

The infantry units were employed principally on logging work. Some comrades have concluded, on the basis of the labour reports, that the productivity of the Red Army man’s labour is low, and some idle-minded statisticians and philosophers have argued, in this connection, that ‘compulsory’ labour in general has a low level of productivity. This is nothing but a liberal smear. If compulsory labour is unproductive (regardless of social conditions), this condemns not just the Labour Army but universal labour service as such, and along with it the entire Soviet order, the further development of which is concivable only on the basis of universal labour service.

The contrast between free labour and compulsory labour belongs to the epoch of transition from serfowning economy to bourgeois economy. Transferring this concept to the epoch of transition from bourgeois economy to Communist economy is a sign of petty-bourgeois obtuseness. The intensity and purposefulness of work is determined to a very great extent by the personal interest of the workers themselves. For the worker, what is of decisive importance is not the legal form in which he ‘partakes’ of the fruits of his labour, but what share thereof he actually receives.

Since the Soviet state organises work in the interests of the workers themselves, compulsion is in no way opposed to the personal interests of the worker but, on the contrary, entirely coincides therewith – on condition, of course, that labourpower is used intelligently and economically. This colossal task, the introduction and implementation of labour service, is still all in the future. We are, so far, in this connection, passing through a period of amateurism and rather clumsy experimenting. But all the facts testify that, in this fundamental matter, we shall emerge on to the high road, through increasingly precise organisation of labour service and increasingly accurate implementation of it, and, what is most important, through perfecting, simplifying and defining the relevant economic apparatuses.

At the present time, those Red Army units which are being used as general labour-power are in any case superior to the labour units which have been formed directly through labour mobilisation (for clearing snow, for example). The army units enjoy all the advantages of more accurate organisation, precision, order and strict discipline.

If, nevertheless, productivity of labour in the sphere of timber procurement appears from the labour reports of the first period to be extremely low, there are many reasons why this is so. One is the distance between the place where a unit is stationed and the site where the logging is to be done. Some regiments have been travelling ten to fifteen versts a day, which has cut down their working time to three or four hours. This does not show up in the labour reports. A considerable number of the Red Army men are from the steppes, and for them the forest is an alien element: they have never felled timber, or sawn it, or chopped it up. They are only starting to acquire the necessary know-how. The tools needed have not always been available in the necessary quantity. Instruction has also not always been adequate. In the initial period the local economic organs were, for quite understandable reasons, unable to utilise the army units. All this has no direct bearing on the use of army units for labour purposes, but it has told heavily on the productivity of labour.

The main task of the Labour Army Council consisted in eliminating all these deficiencies by drawing experienced practical leaders into the work, checking on arrangements in the localities, comparing the arrangements in different logging sectors, and so on. Along with this, the actual recording of labour productivity was made more scientific, so that, in future, account will be taken of the distance the Red Army men have to march to their work-sites, and other important factors affecting the productivity of labour.

A fundamental condition for increasing the productivity of the labour of the Red Army men, as of the labour of all workers generally in the Soviet economy, is the arousing of a spirit of emulation. Until this factor has been brought into play, all our wheels will turn only ‘somehow or other’. Organising emulation is the most important task in economic construction – without this subjective driving-force neither coal, nor oil, nor peat, nor the raising of the blockade will help. Emulation between one factory and another, between the different workshops of a factory, between different groups of workers in a workshop, between individual workers: emulation between provincial economic councils, trade unions, railway lines, labour regiments, between the different labour companies in a regiment, between individual Red Army men in a company – this is the most necessary condition for serious economic successes. Emulation must be stimulated and maintained by both spiritual and material factors. By every means available we must foster a sense of labour-honour, both corporate (the factory, the workshop) and individual. So long as the Soviet Republic’s resources in consumer goods are extremely limited, it is necessary that an energetic, honest and conscientious worker be fed and clothed better than a careless, lazy and self-seeking one. This applies also to the men in the Labour Army. Those units which distinguish themselves by their work must receive field rations, middling units must receive rear rations, and, finally, units that show an unacceptable attitude to their labour duties must be punished by suffering a cut in their rations and allowances in kind. Such goods as tobacco, tea and so on must be issued as bonuses. This system is now being introduced into the procedures of the units of the First Labour Army. The results will not take long to show themselves.

In the work of the Labour Army Council a whole number of other problems have arisen in practice which, though linked directly or indirectly with the Labour Army, possess significance that goes far beyond that. I will speak about these problems in our next talk.

March 23, 1920
Pravda, No.63

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Last updated on: 26.12.2006