Arthur Ransome
Russia in 1919

Commissariat Of Labour

February 28th.


This morning I went round to the Commissariat of Labour, to see Schmidt, the Commissar. Schmidt is a clean-shaven, intelligent young man, whose attention to business methods is reflected in his Commissariat, which, unlike that of Foreign Affairs, is extremely clean and very well organized. I told him I was particularly interested to hear what he could say in answer to the accusations made both by the Mensheviks and by the Extremists on the Left that control by the workers has become a dead letter, and that a time will come when the trades unions will move against the state organizations.

Schmidt answered: "Those accusations and suggestions are all very well for agitational purposes, but the first to laugh at them would be the trades unions themselves. This Commissariat, for example, which is the actual labour centre, is controlled directly by the unions. As Commissar of Labour, I was elected directly by the General Council of the Trades Unions. Of the College of nine members which controls the whole work of the Commissariat, five are elected directly by the General Council of the Trades Unions and four appointed by the Council of People's Commissaries, thus giving the Unions a decisive majority in all questions concerning labour. All nine are confirmed by the Council of People's Commissaries, representing the state as a whole, and the Commissar is confirmed by the All-Russian Executive Committee."

Of course control by the workers, as it was first introduced, led speedily to many absurdities and, much to the dissatisfaction of the extremer elements, has been considerably modified. It was realized that the workers in any particular factory might by considering only their own interests harm the community as a whole, and so, in the long run, themselves. The manner of its modification is an interesting example of the way in which, without the influence of tanks, aeroplanes or bayonets, the cruder ideas of communism are being modified by life. It was reasoned that since the factory was the property, not of the particular workmen who work in it, but of the community as a whole, the community as a whole should have a considerable voice in its management. And the effect of that reasoning has been to ensure that the technical specialist and the expert works manager are no longer at the caprice of a hastily called gathering of the workmen who may, without understanding them, happen to disapprove of some of their dispositions. Thus the economical, administrative council of a nationalized factory consists of representatives of the workmen and clerical staff, representatives of the higher technical and commercial staffs, the directors of the factory (who are appointed by the Central Direction of National Factories), representatives of the local council of trades unions, the Council of Public Economy, the local soviet, and the industrial union of the particular industry carried on in the factory, together with, a representative of the workers' co-operative society and a representative of the peasants' soviet of the district in which the factory is situated. In this council not more than half of the members may be representatives of the workmen and clerical staff of the factory. This council considers the internal order of the factory, complaints of any kind, and the material and moral conditions of work and so on. On questions of a technical character it has no right to do more than give advice.

The night before I saw Schmidt, little Finberg had come to my room for a game of chess in a very perturbed state of mind, having just come from a meeting of the union to which he belonged (the union of clerks, shop assistants and civil servants) where there had been a majority against the Bolsheviks after some fierce criticism over this particular question. Finberg had said that the ground basis of the discontent had been the lack of food, but that the outspoken criticism had taken the form, first, of protests against the offer of concessions in Chicherin's Note of February 4th, on the ground that concessions meant concessions to foreign capitalism and the formation in Russia of capitalist centres which would eventually spread; and second, that the Communists themselves, by their modifications of Workers' Control, were introducing State Capitalism instead of Socialism.

I mentioned this union to Schmidt, and asked him to explain its hostility. He laughed, and said: "Firstly, that union is not an industrial union at all, but includes precisely the people whose interests are not identical with those of the workmen. Secondly, it includes all the old civil servants who, as you remember, left the ministries at the November Revolution, in many cases taking the money with them. They came back in the end, but though no longer ready to work openly against the revolution as a whole, they retain much of their old dislike of us, and, as you see, the things they were objecting to last night were precisely the things which do not concern them in particular. Any other stick would be as good to them. They know well that if they were to go on strike now they would be a nuisance to us, no more. If you wish to know the attitude of the Trades Unions, you should look at the Trades Union Congress which wholly supported us, and gave a very different picture of affairs. They know well that in all questions of labour, the trades unions have the decisive voice. I told you that the unions send a majority of the members of the College which controls the work of this Commissariat. I should have added that the three most important departments-the department for safeguarding labour, the department for distributing labour, and that for regulating wages-are entirely controlled by the Unions."

"How do politics affect the Commissariat?"

"Not at all. Politics do not count with us, just because we are directly controlled by the Unions, and not, by any political party. Mensheviks, Maximalists and others have worked and are working in the Commissariat. Of course if a man were opposed to the revolution as a whole we should not have him here, because he would be working against us instead of helping."

I asked whether he thought the trade unions would ever disappear in the Soviet organizations. He thought not. On the contrary, they had grown steadily throughout the revolution. He told me that one great change had been made in them. Trade unions have been merged together into industrial unions, to prevent conflict between individual sections of one industry. Thus boilermakers and smiths do not have separate unions, but are united in the metal-workers' union. This unification has its effect on reforms and changes. An increase in wages, for example, is simultaneous all over Russia. The price of living varies very considerably in different parts of the country, there being as great differences between the climates of different parts as there are between the countries of Europe. Consequently a uniform absolute increase would be grossly unfair to some and grossly favourable to others. The increase is therefore proportional to the cost of living. Moscow is taken as a norm of 100, and when a new minimum wage is established for Moscow other districts increase their minimum wage proportionately. A table for this has been worked out, whereby in comparison with 100 for Moscow, Petrograd is set down as 120, Voronezh or Kursk as 70, and so on.

We spoke of the new programme of the Communists, rough drafts of which were being printed in the newspapers for discussion, and he showed me his own suggestions in so far as the programme concerned labour. He wished the programme to include, among other aims, the further mechanization of production, particularly the mechanization of all unpleasant and dirty processes, improved sanitary inspection, shortening of the working day in employments harmful to health, forbidding women with child to do any but very light work, and none at all for eight weeks before giving birth and for eight weeks afterwards, forbidding overtime, and so on. "We have already gone far beyond our old programme, and our new one steps far ahead of us. Russia is the first country in the world where all workers have a fortnight's holiday in the year, and workers in dangerous or unhealthy occupations have a month's."

I said, "Yes, but don't you find that there is a very long way between the passing of a law and its realization?"

Schmidt laughed and replied: "In some things certainly, yes. For example, we are against all overtime, but, in the present state of Russia we should be sacrificing to a theory the good of the revolution as a whole if we did not allow and encourage overtime in transport repairs. Similarly, until things are further developed than they are now, we should be criminal slaves to theory if we did not, in some cases, allow lads under sixteen years old to be in the factories when we have not yet been able to provide the necessary schools where we would wish them to be. But the programme is there, and as fast as it can be realized we are realizing it."


Chapter 23: Education