Published: Azure Cities, International Publishers 1929;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan for marxists.org in 2000.
THIS took place in Leningrad, last year, at the very height of the campaign to increase the productivity of labour. The textile union was living through troublesome days. The problem was to shift the female workers of the textile cotton factories from two to three looms. And in order to understand the complexity of this problem, all the delicacies inherent in it, it was only necessary to pass some time in the headquarters of the Leningrad army of textile workers, in the Gubsoyuz, where at each conference you could see men and women whose names had become legends, men and women who had once performed miracles of underground work in Ivanov-Voznesensk, Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Orekhovo-Zuyev, and other textile districts. The honorary chairman of the union was Comrade Tiushin, a patriarch with the head of a Lev Tolstoy, with a shamefaced, childlike smile,–a large, soft man,–in high felt boots–an old workman whose past resembled a fairy-tale. At these conferences you could meet old textile workers, warriors of two revolutions, who had passed through prisons, convoys, and exile. Their biographies in the archives of the union would fill you with childlike awe. The keeper of the archives himself, Comrade Perazich, with a face made transparent by years of imprisonment, with a noble grey head bent day in, day out, from morning to night, over the historical documents of the union, could add to these dry records, in his quiet voice, and with his blue eyes shining, stories that grew into your memory. These legendary people had once called a strike and inflamed the workmen because of the very same thing: the shift from two looms to three. But at that time the task was imposed on labour by capital. And now these same leaders were forced to conduct meetings in the textile factories and urge the workmen to accept what years ago they had themselves called "mean exploitation, prison labour, and a new noose around the neck of the toiler." It is not to be wondered at that the situation was so hard to meet and that in many it inspired serious fears.
But what did it really mean–the shift to three looms? In textile factories the experienced weaver tends two looms, which stand before and behind her so that on turning she can move from one to the other. The loom is started by a foreman and is dusted by a special woman attendant. The weaver works between starting and cleaning. Her work consists in watching that the thread is not torn in the web, that the woof is worked correctly, and that a fresh spool is put into the cradle on time. In American factories technic is so far advanced that one weaver tends, if I am not mistaken, seven looms. But the norm in our factories was two looms, and they were always worked by experienced weavers. A new weaver, until she gained her experience, worked on one loom.
Manufacturers had long considered the shift to three looms. This was supposed to bring in tremendous profit, cutting one-third from the cost of labour. As the raise promised the weavers was infinitesimal, the direct profit was almost equal to the cost of labour saved. But when the manufacturers introduced this innovation, it created a storm, incensed the weavers, and was widely exploited by the underground workers for the purposes of agitation.
Then came the Revolution, threw out the manufacturers, gave the factories to the workers, and now Soviet economy demanded exactly the same thing that the manufacturers had wanted. The hands of the administration were bound,–there was not enough money to operate the factories which were tied up, the administration had to use everything at its disposal to increase production and save every penny possible. It asked the Union–Help the country! Win the fight for three looms! The union had to face the Leningrad proletariat, the most powerful army of weavers in the world.
A delegates' meeting was called in one of the factories,–the one named after Nogin. The chairman of the Union, the chairman of the Administration, the representatives of the district committee and many others,–in a word, society and power,–came to that meeting. It was a winter evening, and the gloomy city was dressed in whitish coats of snow. The Shlüsselburg district loomed like a ghost beside the white and slumbering Neva. An automobile rolled along like a ball, and it seemed as if it were gathering itself for a leap into the darkness, the unknown,–nothingness. On either side moved the historic factory buildings with their colourful necklace of lights–the factories where revolts burst out in the worst days of the reaction, where people heard the careful words and saw the bald head of Ilyich long before they shook the world. And at last, the old, low-built, window-eyed walls of the Pal factory, which had become the Nogin factory. The automobile stopped. Silently the passengers got out.
It was an evening of frost and angry wind. But the chilled arrivals had only stepped into the meeting hall when they became instantly warm, and even broke into a sweat.
Women workers filled the hall. So many had come that there was no place to sit,–they stood, breathing on each other's necks. The air was unbearably foul. It was as hot as in a bath. The platform towards which we made our way was bare of chairs. Willy-nilly we had to stand. But before we could stand in our places we had to make our way to them, and that was rather hard.
The women looked angry. Their faces were red, their eyes gleamed. We were met by a hail of such abuse that my unaccustomed soul turned rabbit. Against my will I looked from the corner of my eye at the member of the District Committee. He walked as if nothing had happened, listening to what went on to either side of him as if he were sucking the abuse into himself as a barometer sucks in the pressure of the atmosphere. The fleshy chairman of the Administration fared worse than the others. He and his rich raccoon coat were subjected to a pitiless hail-storm of curses.
We were met by an embarrassed young man with a face that was covered by what seemed to be the last ounce of sweat in his system–the Red Director of the factory. Somehow he managed to drag us to the green table, and got a few chairs,–each had to serve for two, and the conference began, or rather, the cries in the hall decreased a trifle in volume.
It was as clear as two and two is four that the workers were enraged, that they did not want to work on three looms, that they would not be moved by eloquent reasons, and that in the end they would vote solidly against the proposition. it may be asked what words, what reasons, what compromises, what yieldings could have moved this excited, suspicious, and completely united crowd which was defending its own interests.
The meeting began with partisan bickerings. At last the long and disorderly report of the Red Director on the theme "it is necessary to increase production" was finished. The Red Director had been born in the union house of the factory, he had grown to manhood before the eyes of the workers, he was a hereditary factory worker, he was their own man. He was listened to with sneers, often interrupted, there were sarcastic remarks. He had hardly finished, with a movement of the hand that meant: "anyway, you'll never persuade them, they've got the bit in their teeth," when the chairman of the Administration, the most unpopular person in the hall at that moment, rose to his feet. He stood immovably, waiting for the cries to cease, and then began to speak, quietly and without the least bit of bombast.
You think he offered them promises, compromises, palliatives, a raise, in a word all that one side offers to the other in the hope of victory? Just the opposite. He said:
"Girls, you say it is hard for you, we press too much, we rip the hide from you? You are perfectly right. What do you think–whom else can we press except you? Who'll carry us over the top, if you don't? Do you imagine that the capitalists will run your business for you? That the merchants and the foreigners will save your business for you? Who turned Yudenich away from Leningrad? You. Who hungered and suffered cold in the factories? You. Who started those factories working? You. And if you don't work until it hurts, we will not be able to continue your business, to open new factories, to give work to the unemployed, to fill the markets with goods, to satisfy the peasant. Without your help we can't do a damned thing. It can't be helped. It's up to you to make a last effort."
The last sentence sounded gay, and carried trust in it. It seemed as if all of us had turned into children who complained that they could not learn their lesson. "Well then, instead of one page you learn two, and I'll see how you make out." I don't know what they call this method in pedagogy. It was often used by Napoleon, and Napoleon was adored. For what? For the faith that men can accomplish miracles. Man loves the highest expression of his own strength.
The meeting hall became very quiet.
In the silence were suddenly heard the dry, dragging footsteps of weak old feet. A thin, ancient woman, wrinkled, with tightly stretched lips, with no eyebrows, her head covered with a clean white shawl, a heroine of toil, a weaver with forty years of labour in Pal's factory behind her, approached the green table.
The old woman took the ends of her shawl in both hands, lifted them higher, and tied them under her chin. She coughed. And then she said in a businesslike voice:
"Well, girls, we'll try. You can tend three looms. Although I'm old, I can tend three looms. It isn't hard,–only give us clean thread, and it isn't hard."
Something suddenly seemed to have taken hold of the delegates–laughter, applause, cries: "Good for the old woman!" The stream of hundreds of wills had been turned, shaken, thrown into a new riverbed by an unseen hand. Yes, it was possible to do the work, and easy if they wanted to. And the delegates had begun to want–had begun to will, as every one who understands that the work is his own, wills. A second–and the fate of the shift to three looms was settled.