How the Soviets Work

Chapter I: A Factory with a Past

Cotton cloth, to the unpractised eye, looks much the same, whether it be woven in Lancashire or Shanghai. Wherever it may be, the same astonishing machines must grasp the elusive down that nature designed to carry the seeds scudding before a tropical wind. They coerce it; they transform it into long threads or colored webs; and everywhere they seem the impenetrable devices of a conjurer. One only knows that, through a century and a half; six tireless generations have added complexity to complexity. One watches with something akin to awe the deft fingers of the slight women's forms which stand at ease among the whirring magic and command it. Our guide confessed in a deprecating tone that the machines were antiquated. I was no wiser for his frankness. Through room after room we paced, and save that the notices on the walls were in Russian we might have been in Bolton. Only when we stepped outside into the deep snow and felt the shrewd wind that blew its dry powder in our faces, was I forced to realize that we were in Moscow. From a distant weaving shed in the vast confusion of buildings, familiar in their busy ugliness, the workers were tramping to the dining room. The women with their shawls over their heads seemed no stranger than the machines they tended; the men, in-deed, wore leather jackets or sheepskin coats, but under their fur caps, I guessed, the same pattern of cares and hopes, of resentments and ambitions must be weaving itself in Moscow as in Bolton. Their feet fell softly; one missed the clatter of the clogs, but here as in Lancashire the same pervasive hum of the same tyrannous machines dominated the scene and subdued the exotic glitter of the snow. Industry is everywhere a leveler.

As we crossed the courtyard, my eye fell upon an inscription cut in grey marble inserted in the factory wall. I wondered idly what it was. In Lancashire such a memorial might have recorded the good deeds of a benevolent employer, or the laying of a foundation stone by His Worship the Mayor. We went up to it, and for the first time this factory talked Russian with an authentic accent. Here in this courtyard, I read, on such and such a date in the last days of 1905, the eighteen men whose names followed, all workers in the Prohorovka Mill, were shot in cold blood by the Czar's soldiery. I tried to create a picture of the scene from my dim memories of that first abortive struggle of the Russian masses for freedom. The defeat of Russia's armies in the Far East by the Japanese whom she had affected to despise, and the pitiable ruin of her helpless fleet had shaken the nerve of her rulers and shattered the imperial idols of the crowd. Even from the nobility came the bold demand for civil liberty and the calling of a Parliament. And then the workers dealt their blow. Petersburg was paralysed by a general strike; the trains ceased to run, telegraphs were silent, and, daring the autocracy in the open, the delegates from its idle factories were meeting to frame their demands in the first Soviet. The Czar wavered, bent, turned for advice to the liberal Count Witte, and gave his promise to summon an elected Duma. But Moscow cherished an even bolder hope. Its strikers raised their barricades and dared to dream, not merely of a political, but of a social revolution. They struck their blow twelve years before the hour of destiny. This factory, then, had a history. In its courtyard snow was not always white.

The dreary walls seemed less commonplace because these names were writ in marble. The machinery hummed with a difference, and Lancashire seemed far away. I enquired whether any of the older men who had lived through those days were still employed in the factory. I was soon seated in a room in its workers' club-house talking to a hale old man who poured out his recollections volubly and yet with precision. His wife sat beside him, listening for the most part with admiration and assent, but adding from time to time some detail from the stores of her memory.

Like most of the Russian textile workers old Ivan was a peasant by origin. He still had his plot of land, and his heart was in the village. But the poverty of the land had driven him to the factory, and his recollections of it went back to 1897. In those days a skilled worker might earn 13 roubles (roughly $6.50) a month, but his own wages were never above 10 roubles (85). A girl could earn only 15 kopecks (12 cents) by a day's work. The moral atmosphere was unbearable. Nearly all the girls were seduced by the overseers and foremen. The factory was crowded with children under twelve years of age, whose competition hampered the struggles of the adults. On these wages the workers lived literally on dry black bread. The factory boiled with discontent, and the first strike took place in 1903, for higher wages. Strikes followed at frequent intervals, two or three in every year, and always something was won. By 1903 they had more than doubled their wages, which now varied from 23 to 3S roubles a month. In that year, too, began the struggle for something more than wages, and among the fruits of their strike they won a creche for thirty babies, a bath, a lying-in hospital, a library, and a school. In 1897 they were working a twelve-hour day; in 1903 they won the nine-hour day. But the management was always ready to take advantage of the ignorance and illiteracy of the workers. The men ventured on one occasion to call in the government inspector to examine their complaint that the piece workers were systematically cheated by the false measurement of the cloth they had woven. He came, to be sure, but he lunched at the owner's house and then, after generous refreshment, measured the wrong piece of cloth and declared the complaint unfounded. So, up and down, the wrestlers struggled, and when the workers seemed to gain ground, the owners would call up their reserves. After this series of strikes, six of the leaders were arrested and sent to Siberia. Ivan owed his own liberty at this time to the kindness of one of the directors, a liberal in politics, who hid him for three days in his own house until the hunt was over. But such mercies were rare. To suppress the spirit of discontent, the owners called on the government for military aid, and three hundred Cossacks, armed with their cruel nagaikas (whips), were quartered in the factory. They drove the strikers into the factory by lashing them with their whips. It was possible to drive the workers to the machines, but it was not possible to force them to work. To the Cossacks and their whips the men retorted with a stay-in-strike. In the end the owners were forced to offer reparation for the losses which the piece-workers had suffered by the system of false measures. Everyone received three months' pay by way of compensation, and only then was work resumed.

A picture of life in this factory began to shape itself in my mind as Ivan talked. In this primitive world the owners gave way to an elemental greed which resorted to tricks that the West has long ago forgotten. The men snatched their gains without gratitude. And always hanging over their daily lives was the open threat of force. Siberia engulfed their most gallant comrades, and the Cossacks stood on guard at the factory gate. The English machines, I realized, did not bring Lancashire with them.

To force, while men keep their simplicity and their manhood, the answer will always be force. I asked Ivan what organization they possessed during this series of strikes. They had a Trade Union, though to use a west-ern word may be to awaken false associations. It lived "underground." Its offices had to shift their addresses each night. Its leaders were men who never slept twice in the same bed. Some of them were "intellectuals" who combined education with agitation, and little groups of factory hands would gather cautiously to hear a lecture by candle-light behind carefully closed shutters. But in spite of all their precautions the active members were constantly arrested. Once a man was known as a Socialist, he could not long hope to go free. The leaders were, most of them, Bolsheviki (members, that is to say, of the majority section of the Social Democratic Party), but at this time the majority and the minority (Mensheviki) worked together. "The aim of all," Ivan declared, "was to overthrow Czardom." That seems, perhaps, an odd purpose for a Trade Union to follow, but more anomalous still were the Cossacks and the factory yard. It had, in the winter of 1905, some two thousand members among the eight thousand workers, men, women, and children in this mill. "But few of us, Ivan went on, without a suspicion that he was saying any-thing unusual, "had revolvers, and those we had were wretched weapons which we could not trust for any target beyond thirty yards. These were distributed by the Party about two months before the December rising. Our tactics were to use them to get rifles. The workers' quarter of Moscow was patrolled by troops who went about in platoons of five or six men. Twenty or thirty workmen would lie in ambush and surround one of these groups of soldiers or gendarmes. The soldiers, at least, seemed by no means unwilling to give up their weapons if they could yield to superior force. In this way we got three thousand rifles, which we stored in the basement of a saw mill owned by a Social Revolutionary, but we were very short of cartridges. Explosives we got from the chemical laboratory of the factory. We took glycerine from the chemists' shops, for we were strong enough to be masters in our own quarter of the town. With the aid of the students we had learned how to make bombs."

Everything was ready when the General Strike was proclaimed on December 7. Ivan was one of the seven delegates which this factory sent to the strikers' Soviet. It had the honor of housing their headquarters' staff, which consisted of twelve workers and six "intellectuals." On the second day the strikers marched in pro-cession through the streets. "On the third day (December 9) the troops attacked us and we erected our barricades. The fighting went on for ten days. On the 18th as many as 800 shells fell on our headquarters, and behind the barrage of the guns, the Cossacks managed to surround us. We did our best, when we saw that our case was hopeless, to hide our guns, but we had soon to think of our own safety."

Ivan fled on the 19th to the shelter of his village, but his wife filled in the gap in his story. "The workers," she said, "had traitors in their ranks, and many, to save their own skins, were ready to point out those who had taken part in the fighting. These were shot on the spot. There were raids and searches in every house, and if a young man wore a student's cap, that was enough to ensure his death. These victims were gathered in the fields beyond the factory and mowed down by the hundred with machine guns. The noisiest machinery in the factory was started to drown the sound of the shooting, but we heard it all the same. The snow was lying deep, and soon the blood was running hot below it, down the gutters of the street. The fire brigade was even called to sop it up with cotton waste."

Ivan lay hidden in his village till February, but he was arrested at last, and, after a year in prison, was tried and sent to Siberia. There, in a remote aboriginal village, he hibernated, as it were, until, after the fall of Czardom in March, 1917, the prisoners came blinking from their dungeons to the light, and the exiles, some from their Swiss mountains and some from Siberian snows, re-turned for the decisive struggle.

The curtain fell, as Ivan told his story, with the bloody ending of the General Strike of 1905. I shall not attempt to fill in the history of the factory during the years that followed. The destiny of Russia had been written already by this formative experience. From it dated the really hopeless rift among the Russian Socialists. Some of them condemned as folly the resort to arms that had failed, while others determined, in better circumstances and with better preparation, to repeat it till victory was won.

Czardom, on its part, was fated to provide these propitious circumstances. It destroyed the promise of the Duma and constitutional liberty. It goaded the sullen workers to cold anger, as "Stolypin's necktie" and the drum-head courts-martial removed their leaders, only to raise a hundred avengers for each prisoner who fell. And then, for a second time, it risked the test of war; for a second time, by defeats and retreats, by its mad finance and its inability to organize the supply of bread for the people and munitions for the front, it revealed its incurable incapacity. The women of the factory learned what it meant to stand all night in the queues that waited outside the bakers' shops. In the dim light of dawn they watched the sledges of the profiteers dashing home from balls and revels. And then, after a scanty meal of black bread, sleepless and still hungry, they would take their stand among the whirring machines, to earn the paper roubles that lost every day something of their value. Once more the factory was in the van of the revolt. Once more it sent its delegates to a Soviet. Through the months that divided March from November, it armed again and struck repeatedly, less for wages than for bread and peace and land. Its young men took their victorious stand in the fighting that won the Kremlin for the Revolution, and, year after year, it had the honor of returning Lenin at the head of the list of its delegates to the Soviet which governed Moscow through all the vicissitudes of civil war and reconstruction.

Next: Chapter 2: Democracy in the Factory