Boris Yelensky: Factory Committees in the Russian Revolution

Boris Yelensky’s In the Social Storm – Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, is a neglected text even in anarchist circles. Yelensky was living in exile in Chicago when news of the February Revolution in Russia reached him. He returned to Russia in July 1917, going back to the Kuban region on the Black Sea, where he began organizing factory workers throughout the area, with the centre of his activities being in the port city of Novorossiysk. In this except from his Memoirs, Yelensky describes how a relatively small group of anarchists was able to organize factory committees in Novorossiysk and surrounding areas in the weeks leading up to the October Revolution. While Council Communists and other far left Marxists like to claim the idea of factory committees as their own, while portraying anarcho-syndicalists as advocates of bureaucratic trade union organization, the fact remains that anarchists were at the forefront of the factory committee movements in Russia, and a couple of years later, in Italy. At the 1918 All-Russian Conference of Anarcho-Syndicalists in Moscow, the delegates confirmed their commitment to factory committees as organs of worker self-management. I included the Conference’s Resolution on Factory Committees in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas.

Petrograd Factory Workers

Anarchists and Factory Committees in Kuban

In Novorossiysk, which, though situated rather far from the center, had a dynamic revolutionary cadre, a movement liberated from the control of the Kerensky government became apparent even before October.  To be sure, the Soviet and similar organizations were officially conducted by the Kerensky regime, but in practice everything was in readiness for the expected revolt in the crucial center of Russia so that when it did occur, everything could be changed over to the new foundations of social co-operation without bloodshed.

Novorossiysk was prepared for any development and in this preparation our group played a substantial role.  I can affirm with confidence that we even played the leading role. There were larger organizations in the city – Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries – but our small, close-knit anarchist unit had a greater impact on the working class. Furthermore, the more enlightened members of the Bolsheviks and Left Social-Revolutionaries manifested a strong sympathy for the activities of our group.  Thus, the constructive work of our Unit attracted sympathetic interest and help not only from the masses of workers but also among our so-called political adversaries.

When I returned from Kharkov with my two comrades, I submitted a report on my trip, pointing out that I saw no possibility of procuring more colleagues to help in our work and proposing that, if we were determined to achieve constructive results, we must do so with the forces now available to us.

Once again there emerged the question of finances, this time brought up by Comrade George, who had come with me from Kharkov.  This, in turn, brought up the question of expropriation of course, but this time it didnʼt take us long to convince our new co-worker that our group had no intention of undertaking such steps, for we were striving to build a new life founded on social justice and did not feel we could build on this sort of foundation.  This led to a series of meetings that lasted far into the night and continued for a solid week.  In the course of these meetings, and springing from our discussions, there began to crystallize a picture of what our principal task should be.

We then decided that our first undertaking should be to agitate among the workers, urging them to confiscate all industry.  Furthermore, they should organize in every factory and plant “internal committees,” functioning very much as shop committees do among the more democratic unions in the U.S.  But where a shop committee in the U.S. deals with simple economic activities, our internal committees were to fulfill quite a different function, for they were to enable the workers on the job to conduct industrial operations without the bosses.

We designated a special committee of three comrades to prepare a draft of a statute. Comrade Katya Garbova was considered a very competent worker and well equipped for such a task and Comrade Vanya Budnik and myself joined her.  The following day, the committee met and Comrade Garbova presented an outline of the by-laws.  After a brief discussion and a few corrections, we adopted the draft. It is now more than a half-century since that time and I do not have copies of that project and must therefore reproduce its contents from memory.

The title of our project in Russian was Ustav Komitetov Vnutrenovo Rasporyadka (Statutes for Interior Shop Committees) and its principal features or clauses were as follows:

(l) In every factory and shop, each faction would select a delegate, and these delegates would constitute an “Internal Affairs Committee,” which would take over all functions related to the management of production and distribution and would, in addition, exercise administrative duties.  Every element represented would conduct its own internal affairs and the General Committee possessed only the authority to coordinate all proposals stemming from the workers in the various departments.

(2) The committee was to elect a president and a secretary, who would be relieved of their regular jobs and take over the administrative functions.

(3) An “Economic Soviet” was to be organized, composed of two delegates from each factory or shop.  This Soviet would have no executive powers, its task being limited to the coordination of work at the various points and the extension of assistance where it might be needed.

The Economic Soviet was also assigned the mission of collaborating with the Cooperative Movement, so that the latter might take over the finished products and exchange them for the raw materials required by the shops and the factories, as well as for the consumer goods needed by the workers and their families. In addition, this Soviet, with the aid of the Cooperatives, was directed to procure essential commodities for the population of the city.

(4) All organizations were to be built from the bottom upward.  Each and every citizen was considered to be morally responsible in his job as well as in his private life.  Thus, the new social order would be constructed on the basis of collective responsibility.  No individual had a right to expect that anyone else would provide for him or work for him.  This meant that every individual was to be the architect of his own life, and all persons acting in unison would fashion the new community, which would endeavor to expand the great social revolution.

(5) Taking into account the fact that there was no possibility in the immediate future of abolishing money as a medium of exchange, it was recommended that every worker, regardless of the nature of their employment, would receive 300 rubles a month in wages, plus 25% additional for every person whom he supported.  In other words, equal compensation was to be introduced for all, from the unskilled worker to the head engineer; equal pay without distinction.

There were numerous other technical proposals pertaining to the “Internal Affairs Committees,” but those cited above were the principal ones.  The draft of the project was discussed for several days at meetings of our group.  When it was finally adopted, we decided to call meetings of the various shops and plants, and to prepare the working masses for the new social order that seemed to permeate the atmosphere already.  A keen sense of anticipation was prevalent all around us.

Our small group had proceeded this far in the flush of earnest enthusiasm for our great dream; now we were faced with the reality of implementing our ideas concretely.  Three of the members of our group had taken part in trade union activity previously and had some experience with strikes and organizing.  None of the rest of the group had any experience along these lines, so it became the task of the three of us with the experience to educate the rest of the group, by lectures and talks, until they had at least a rudimentary knowledge of the functions and workings of trade unions.  They were willing learners and riding high on a wave of enthusiasm.  They accepted immediately the most important premise we were operating with: that we, as anarchists, were not going out to help the people by building towers for them or by promising them a better social order.  We were going forth to try to help them build a new society themselves.  They, a collective of determined individuals, had to create for themselves a new society based on equality, freedom and social justice.

We decided to start our organizational chore with a large meeting in one of the cement factories.  Since we were on good terms with the workers there the meeting was easily arranged in a few days.  As it turned out, not only the workers of the factory and their families came, but they had also invited everyone from the administration and since such a large meeting couldnʼt be kept secret in the city, many activists from the various political sects and parties also attended.  Many of them were simply curious to see what the small Anarchist group would accomplish.  And, of course, there was an element of excitement too, a quality of the unknown, since no one knew what the representatives of the central government would do or what their reaction would be to this attempt to destroy the principle of private property and to start building a new society.

The factory did not have a hall large enough to hold the crowd but it was ideally situated in a valley between two mountains, so the meeting was held in a field near the factory.

One of the active workers from the factory opened the meeting with a short talk, explaining the reason for the gathering, and then introduced our comrade Katya Garbova.  She was an excellent speaker and proceeded to paint a graphic picture of the situation all over Russia, especially the dichotomy between the empty promises of the various political parties about freedom after the revolution and the reality – true in all of Russia, but particularly in St. Petersburg – which saw the political parties locked in a great struggle against each other, none interested in the welfare of the people, each interested only in seizing power for their own ends. In the meantime the Kerensky government was attempting to continue a war that was ruining the country.

She reminded them that they, the Russian people, had won the great social revolution and that now it was time for them to start to build a new and a free society.  “It is for this reason and this reason only that we come to you today, to remind you that it is time that the workers started to think and actively to build that free society.  If you do not take over the industries and become the masters of your own lives, the political parties will take over in your name and you will remain industrial slaves. It is up to you and only you can decide what to do.  We did not come here to advise you what to do.  Our only aim is to help you if you wish to attempt to start building a newer, freer form of society.  We believe that, in order to do so, we must make for ourselves a completely new environment, in which a human being can live and function in freedom; only with such an approach will we be able to start reconstructing the art of living again.”

She told them that we had a prospectus for their consideration and introduced me – I had prepared myself to present our suggestions.  There was a moment of intense silence when Katya completed her impassioned plea and then an explosion of thousands of voices as the people gave Katya a standing ovation.  Even some of the administration were on their feet cheering.

The following is the essence of my own speech:

“Since the brave and hungry women of Petrograd started to roll the great wheel of the revolution, many human lives have been lost and many false impressions have been promulgated.  The worldʼs current impression is that anarchists are only fit to throw bombs and are not fit for any constructive works.  This misconception dates from the attempts of Karl Marx to spiritually destroy the great thinker and fighter for human rights, Mikhail Bakunin.  These ideas are still pressed by the state socialists and others who wish to keep the human race in a fit state for exploitation.

“I would like to make one more point before I present our prospectus. The situation all over Russia, with political parties warring with each other as to who will take power and control the lives of the people is not new to us.  We have seen the same situation all over the world, in many lands.  What is happening in Russia has happened before, particularly as regards the Social Revolutionary Party, which has always told the Russian peasantry that the land belongs to them and who have promised the people their dream will come true after the revolution.  The revolution has come and now they say that the peasantry must wait until a law is passed.  Havenʼt we waited long enough already?

“The Social Democrats have always preached that the proletarians are the master class and some of them have even said that the factories and shops belong to the workers – again all empty promises.

“Our small anarchist group comes to you with a proposition.  We think that enough has been destroyed by the revolution.  We feel that the time has come for constructive work in our everyday lives to build a new and free society.  We have been accused of being utopians and dreamers and I am glad to be considered so.  What our accusers do not tell you is that we dreamers are ready at any time to try to start building that dream into a reality – that is what we came to you tonight to speak about.”

I then read the prospectus for the takeover by the workers of the factories and shops all over the Novorossiysk region, and continued:

“I must tell you that the lines I have read to you will remain dead lines if we do not make this prospectus a milestone in our miserable lives.  Change will only come if every one of us decides that he or she wants this change and is willing to work for it.

“There is one other important point and that is that we do not expect or depend on any political party or any other human being to do anything for us. The first step toward a new society is for each and every one of us to understand that we, the people, must do the work ourselves.  Only we, working together, can bring about this utopian dream of a free society.

Your factory is the first to be presented with this idea.  In the coming weeks we will cover everyone in the other factories and shops and we hope that by the end of the month we will have an opinion by the workers on our prospectus.  We would like to suggest that you call a meeting of everyone connected with your work and take up the matter of our prospectus. We would suggest that you try to do this without any outside influence, inviting only those involved with the factory.  If you accept in principle our prospectus, we would suggest that the meeting elect two delegates to a conference to be called for the purpose of organizing an economic soviet, which would coordinate the work of the factoriesʼ Internal Shop Committees.”

The enthusiasm was so great that everyone wanted to express his or her thoughts and it was after midnight when the meeting finally came to an end. The reactions were almost all positive and we were sure, when we left the meeting that we were on the right track.

The news of our plans went through the city by word of mouth like a tidal wave and by the next evening our small headquarters was packed with workers from the other shops and factories, all of them demanding that we come and speak to their meetings. The demand was so great and our resources so limited that we finally had to determine where to go next by lottery. It took nearly two weeks to complete the meetings and at every one of them the workers accepted our proposals and elected two delegates to the conference.

Boris Yelensky

The Red and Black Flag of Anarcho-Syndicalism

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Boris Yelensky: Returning to Russia (1917)

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Boris Yelensky (1889-1974) was a Russian anarchist from Kuban, an area in southern Russia just north of the Black Sea. In the 1890s, he moved with his family to Novorosisk, a port city on the Black Sea. At 16 years old, he participated in the Novorosisk Soviet during the 1905 Russian Revolution. With the defeat of that revolution, Yelensky was forced into exile, eventually making his way to the United States in 1907. He returned to Russia for about ten months in 1910, but was again forced to flee. Back in the United States, he became the secretary of the Anarchist Red Cross, an organization that provided relief and support for anarchist political prisoners, predominantly in Russia. He was in Chicago when news of the February Revolution arrived. In the following excerpt form his memoir,  In the Social Storm: Memoirs of the Russian Revolution, Yelensky describes the excitement this news generated among the Russian exiles in the US, and their return to Russia to participate in the Revolution. Even then, the Bolsheviks were trying to impose their control over the revolutionary struggle. Yelensky returned to Novorosisk in July 1917, where he became involved with a local anarcho-syndicalist group that worked toward the establishment of factory committees throughout the region.

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Returning to Russia

It is impossible to forget that winter night in March, 1917, when we came out of the Chicago Opera House and heard the newsboys shouting loudly: “Revolution in Russia! Tsar Nicholas abdicates!” Each one of us bought a paper and we rushed into a restaurant where we read every word twice and then looked for the news between the lines. We saw that the Romanoff dynasty had come to an end, yet our minds were still full of suspicion, and we couldn’t get used to the idea that our long fight to liberate Russia from the Tsar and his corrupt government had at last been successful.

We were skeptical and thought that it might be merely an attempt to depose the Tsar which would have no lasting effect. But the next day brought more and fuller news and our doubts began to vanish. The Russian colonies all over the United States began to celebrate and high-spirited political meetings were held by every political group. In the joy of the moment every radical seemed to feel it was his duty to attend the functions of other parties and groups and it was in every way a time of brotherly feeling.

As soon as the first news of the Russian Revolution reached them the vast majority of the political refugees then living in the United States thought immediately of returning to Russia to help build a new society and to help defend the new freedoms which had been won with so much suffering. At first these desires seemed far from fulfillment, partly because the great majority had no financial means and also because of the massive disruption of transportation facilities incurred by the first World War. However, the dream of returning came true when Kerensky came into power and the Provisional Government decided that it would pay all the expenses for political refugees and their families who wished to return to Russia.

The first small group, which included Leon Trotsky, left immediately. It was detained for a while in Halifax, Canada, but was set free and allowed to go on as a result of representations by Kerensky’s government.

Soon afterwards a special committee of representatives of all the Russian political groupings was formed in New York, and this committee, working in co-operation with the Russian consul, became the clearinghouse for those who were entitled to a free passage home. A similar committee was later formed in Chicago to represent the political refugees in the mid-Western states; in a few weeks it approved several hundred applications, and soon the first group was ready to leave Chicago, accompanied by a contingent from Detroit.

Since the Atlantic was a dangerous place to cross at this time it was decided that all the political refugees would leave from the Pacific coast and go through Siberia to whatever point in Russia they wished to reach.

The departure of the first group from Chicago was a sight never to be forgotten. It seemed as though the whole Russian and Jewish radical colony had come to the station to see their friends go home. Later, during April, May and June, 1917, contingents from the Eastern States were constantly passing through Chicago and each arrival became the excuse for another celebration.

The first months of the Russian Revolution brought a feeling of brotherhood between the various political groups, but this spirit didn’t last long. The well-known Bolshevik, Bukharin, came to Chicago to give a few lectures on the revolution, predicting that a “proletarian” revolution would soon take place in Russia. After his lectures, the small Bolshevik group in Chicago began to act as if they would soon take over affairs, and their representatives on the Political Refugee Committee began to claim that they were the only real representatives of the Russian people and that, for this reason, they alone had the right to decide who could go back to Russia.

Their declarations resulted in a bitter fight, which lasted through one meeting of the committee until past midnight. When the rest of the members saw that it was impossible to reach an understanding with the Marxists they decided to go to another hall to terminate the business on the agenda. Accordingly, at 3 a.m., all the members of the Committee, except the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, went to the Russian I.W.W. hall on Roosevelt Road. The first question discussed there was the election of a special committee that would go next day to the Russian Consul and explain to him what had happened. About 5 a.m., a certain Mr. Berg, later to become more famous under the name of [Mikhail] Borodin, came to us and proposed that we should not be hasty but should find a way to work with the Bolsheviks. His proposal wasn’t accepted and we told him that we’d let the Russian Consul decide the matter.

Later in the morning, when our committee arrived at the Consul’s office, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks were already there. Our Chairman and Secretary explained what had happened the previous night. The Consul was shrewd enough to understand what the Bolsheviks were driving at, and he said that he would acknowledge no one committee and would deal only with our present Chairman and Secretary, giving passports and money solely on their recommendations. So, in the end, the Bolsheviks had to come to our Committee and to accept the common decisions.

When the last group of returning refugees left Chicago in June, 1917, the activities of the Anarchist Red Cross which we had worked on for so long, seemed to have reached an end; neither those who left for Russia nor those who remained in the United States dreamed that in a few years they would have to organize another Anarchist Red Cross to help the new political prisoners in Russia. We could not foresee that the brutalities of the Tsar’s government would seem like child’s play in comparison with those that the new despots of Russia would initiate. The whole thinking world imagined that Russia was on the way to becoming one of the most democratic countries in the world.

Boris Yelensky (1967)

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