Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Revolution and Counter-revolution (2006)

Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution - Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory
Written By: Terry Ward
Date: May 2006
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 27: Summer 2006 

Let us begin by congratulating Kevin Murphy on winning the Deutscher Memorial Prize for this magnificent volume. The work draws upon the extensive archives relating to the largest metalworks in Moscow, which became the Hammer and Sickle Factory after the Soviet revolution. Murphy explains the book is chronological up to the New Economic Policy when the treatment is thematic, the reason being that NEP. was the golden period for documentary evidence, and the time when Stalinism clashed head on with the ideals of 1917.

The Bolsheviks only had a handful of members in the factory at the start of 1917, because of the activities of the Okhrana, and the long-standing support for the Social Revolutionaries, who were regarded as militant with a long record of leading strikes by the Metal Workers Union. What changed the situation was the Bolshevik campaign against continuing the war effort in the summer of 1917. However, during the Civil War the factory was almost at a standstill with production never hitting more than 5% of the 1914 figure.

After demobilisation in 1921 Bolshevik membership rose to 40, with less than half of them on the factory floor. During the NEP period, production increased gradually to pre-war levels. The Metal Workers Union, via the factory-based Rates Conflict Commission, was able to protect the pay and conditions of the workforce, in a way it had before 1914. The policies of NEP became institutionalised; and as a factory representative in 1926 declared ‘The Trust administration drive around in automobiles while cutting costs is done on the backs of the workers’

The intensification of the Labour process, and the increased exploitation of the Soviet worker, became integral to the Stalinist industrialisation strategy, and undermined union action in defence of workers rights. Murphy argues that 1928 was the decisive year in determining relations between the Stalinist state and the working class. The campaign against the Kulaks saw massive food shortages, and in 1928 saw the last strikes in the Hammer and Sickle Factory.

An alternative reading would be that it was not in 1928, but during the years of the First Five Year Plan, that the fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet state took place. For during this time the factory workforce increased from 5000 to 15000, while the percentage of unskilled workers rose to 79%. The dilution of the labour force in terms of skill and experience, along with an annual turnover of labour of 94%, made effective trade union organisation almost impossible. Murphy explains that socialist competition and shock work campaigns were the twin pillars of the state’s drive to raise productivity, lower costs and tighten labour discipline. The carrots were few, but the penalties for failure to co-operate were frightening.

The real surprise for me in this book is there appears little evidence for a golden age of the revolutionary party. For example, there is no reference to the selling of a Bolshevik newspaper in the factory, either before or after the Soviet revolution. Party membership grew from 40 in 1921 to 690 in 1926, but some members neither attended meetings, nor paid dues.

‘Many members had only a very superficial grasp of the problems facing the party’, says Murphy. ‘The conversion of the factory party organisation into an institution that would impose economic concessions, and discipline the non-party workforce confused and demoralised many members.’

The survival of religious beliefs was very common even among party members. Alcoholism and hooliganism were also problems in the party. Murphy cites Lenin’s sister being heckled by a drunk at a factory meeting in 1927. Once again, he quotes a factory worker in 1927 saying ‘I will not join the party because communists are embezzlers and thieves’.

The most impressive area of the Party’s activities was it’s women’s section, which made important progress in women’s emancipation. Needless to say Stalin did not favour this programme, and it was ended in 1930.

It is fascinating to read of the questions asked by workers at factory meetings. There was amazement that British workers did not reject their union leaders who did not back the General Strike in Britain, but concern that anarchists in Russia were being jailed, while there was a campaign to support Sacco and Vanzetti in the U.S.A. .

Murphy provides ample evidence that workers in this factory were not terrorised by the early Soviet state, nor impressed with Stalin’s agenda and propaganda, as many Western historians seem to believe. However the Socialist Revolutionaries have a strong case for being seen as the stoutest defenders of workers rights in this factory. Perhaps Rosa Luxemberg’s warnings of the dangers of the Bolsheviks, acting alone, have best stood the test of time. Read it and debate the contents of this seminal book.

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