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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The Paris Commune and Workers’ Self-Management

Long Live the Commune!

The Association of Women for the Defence of Paris was one of the most revolutionary groups during the Paris Commune (1871). In the following submission to the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange, the Association sets forth a revolutionary program similar to that of the anarchists. Capitalism was to be replaced by the free association of the producers by means of a worldwide strike of labour against capital.

Women workers

The Association of Women have considered the following:

There is only one way of reorganizing labour so that the producer is guaranteed the product of his own work, and that is by setting up free producer associations which will share out the profits from the various industries.

The establishment of these associations would put an end to the exploitation and enslavement of Labour by Capital, and would at last guarantee the workers the management of their own affairs. It would simultaneously facilitate urgently needed reforms, in both production and productive relationships, to include the following points:

(a) variety of work in each trade—a continually repetitive manual movement damages both mind and body.

(b) a reduction in working hours—physical exhaustion inevitably destroys man’s spiritual qualities.

(c) an end to all competition between male and female workers—their interests are identical and their solidarity is essential to the success of the final world-wide strike of labour against capital.

The Association therefore wants:

Equal pay for equal hours of work

A local and international federation of the various trade sections in order to ease the movement and exchange of goods by centralizing the international interests of the producers.

The general development of these producer associations requires:

Informing and organizing the working masses… The consequence of this will be that every association member will be expected to belong to the International Working Men’s Association.

State assistance in advancing the necessary credit for setting up these associations: loans repayable in yearly instalments at a rate of 5 per cent.

The reorganization of female labour is an extremely urgent matter, when one considers that in the society of the past it was the most exploited form of all.

Faced by the present events, with poverty increasing at an alarming rate, and seeing the unwarranted stoppage in all work, it is to be feared that the women of Paris, who have become momentarily revolutionary in spirit, may as a result of the state of continual privation, relapse into the more or less reactionary and passive position which the social order of the past marked out for them. That would be a disastrous step backwards which would endanger the revolutionary and international interests of the working class, thereby endangering the Commune.

For these reasons the Central Committee of the Association of Women requests the Commune’s Commission on Labour and Exchange to entrust it with the reorganization and allocation of work for the women of Paris, in the first instance providing the Association with production of military supplies. This work will naturally not be sufficient for the majority of working women, so in addition the Central Committee requests the commission to place at the disposal of the federated producer associations the sums of money necessary for the working of the factories and workshops abandoned by the bourgeois and comprising those crafts mainly practised by women…

For the Executive Commission

The Secretary-General

E. DIMITRIEFF

Communal Kitchen

The Paris Commune and the First International

Prussian troops marching through Paris

By March 1871, German troops occupied France and what remained of the national government was dominated by rightwing, bourgeois and monarchist factions led by Adolphe Thiers, a notorious reactionary who had done battle with Proudhon during the 1848 French Revolution. On March 18, 1871, Thiers sent troops into Paris to seize artillery to prevent it from falling into the hands of the people. The attempt was quickly rebuffed, with the result that Thiers was forced to withdraw national government forces from Paris. This marked the beginning of the Paris Commune. The Central Committee of the National Guard, which was more of a popular militia than a government organization, quickly called for the election of a municipal government, the Commune of Paris. Many of the militants in the Paris sections of the International ran for office, issuing the following wall poster in support of their slate of working class candidates. But as the poster makes clear, the Paris Internationalists wanted the Commune to be an organ of popular self-management, not a conventional assembly of elected representatives.

19th century workshop

Notions of worker self-management had originated among working class French mutual aid societies and cooperatives in the 1830s and ’40s. Proudhon had helped articulate these concepts and tried to put them into practice during the French Revolution of 1848. Central to these conceptions of worker self-management is the concept of “worker democracy.” In contrast to parliamentary or representative democracy, worker democracy was direct, with the workers themselves making policy decisions in their own general assemblies. When necessary, in order to coordinate action and to work for common goals, delegates from each functional group would meet with delegates from the other groups, carrying with them “imperative mandates” stipulating the policies and actions that the base group had endorsed. These delegates were also subject to immediate recall if they failed to carry out the mandates that had been given to them. Proudhon and other advocates of worker democracy considered this form of direct, functionally based democracy to be the antithesis of representative government and incompatible with state power. As can be seen below, the majority of the Paris Internationalists were also anti-authoritarians, regarding the “principle of authority” as being profoundly incapable of dealing with social crises or bringing about the emancipation of the working class.

For Workers’ Self-Management & Direct Democracy

When the poster speaks of a “freely discussed social contract” providing the basis of a classless, egalitarian society, the reference is not to the “hypothetical” social contract of Rousseau and the Jacobins, which was meant to provide a justification for political authority, but the revolutionary social contract long advocated by Proudhon. As Proudhon put it in The Principle of Federation (1863), the revolutionary social contract “is more than a fiction; it is a positive and effective compact, which has actually been proposed, discussed, voted upon, and adopted, and which can properly be amended at the contracting parties’ will. Between the federal contract and that of Rousseau and 1793 [the Jacobin conception of the social contract] there is all the difference between a reality and a hypothesis” (Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, Volume One, Selection 18).

The Commune or Death

Workers:

A long series of setbacks and a catastrophe that could bring about the complete ruin of our country: this is the situation that France has been placed in by the governments which have dominated it.

Recent events [March 18, 1871] have demonstrated the strength of the people of Paris. We are convinced that a fraternal understanding will soon demonstrate their wisdom as well.

The principle of authority from hereon in is incapable of re-establishing order in the streets and getting factory work up and going again and this incapacity constitutes its negation.

The selfishness of vested interests has led to a state of general ruin and to social conflict. Liberty, equality and solidarity are needed if we are to achieve an order based on new foundations with the reorganization of labour being its first prerequisite.

Workers:

The independence of the Commune will mean a freely discussed social contract that will bring class conflict to an end and secure social equality.

We have demanded the emancipation of the working class and the elected Commune will ensure this, for it must provide all citizens with the means to defend their rights, to control effectively the actions of the representatives entrusted with the care of their interests, and to determine the gradual application of social reforms.

The autonomy of each Commune removes any trace of coercion from these demands and establishes the republic in its highest form.

Workers:

We have fought and have learned to suffer for our egalitarian principles. We cannot withdraw as long as we can help to lay the cornerstone of the new social structure.

What have we asked for?

The organization of credit, of exchange, and of production co-operatives in order to guarantee the worker the full value of his labour;

Free, lay, and complete education;

The rights to assemble, to organize and to a free press as well as the rights of the individual;

Municipal administration of police, armed forces, sanitation, statistics, etc.

We have been dupes of those who governed: allowing ourselves to be taken in while they slided, as required, from cajoling to suppressing the various factions whose mutual antagonism guaranteed their power.

Today the people of Paris are far-sighted. They reject this role of a child being directed by a preceptor, and in the municipal election [of March 26, 1871], resulting itself from the action of the people, they will remember that the principle that governs groups and associations is the same as that which should govern society. Therefore, just as they would reject any administration or president imposed by some power from without, they will reject any mayor or prefect imposed by a government that is foreign to their aspirations.

They will affirm their right—higher than the vote of an assembly—to remain masters in their own city and to constitute their municipal representation as they see fit, without seeking to impose it upon others.

We are convinced that on Sunday, March 26th, the people of Paris will consider it a matter of honour to vote for the Commune.

The Federated Council (Paris) of the International and the Federation of Trade Unions, March 23, 1871

Paris Commune: Appeal to the Workers