How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
THE avowed purpose of the Bolsheviks in seizing power in Russia twenty years ago was the establishment of a proletarian dictatorship. It is true that Lenin's first objective was a world revolution, but when he discovered that Europe had other plans he gave his entire attention to the building of Socialism in one country. The Bolshevik slogan was "All power to the Soviets!" In these soviets the workers were to be in supreme command: the Russian Socialist Soviet Republics and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat became synonymous terms. And indeed for a short time the workers did dominate the political and economic scene. It was they who comprised the famous shop committees which had complete control of factories, mines and all other industrial enterprises, and which gave orders to engineers and executives.
But this intimate relation between the Communist dictatorship and Soviet labor did not last very long. Lenin soon discovered that in order to build the Socialist State he must have "strict unity of will," and that this could only be obtained by "subjecting the will of thousands to the will of one." [i] Thereafter the steadily increasing power of the One registers a corresponding decline in the power of the Many. Today the Soviet wage earner has no power whatever. Nevertheless, we still describe Communist Russia as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even the most searching investigators of conditions in Russia do not take the trouble to portray for us the actual status of the Soviet worker in terms other than those of wages. Victor Serge [ii] and Sir Walter Citrine [iii] in their valuable books on Russia give very little information regarding the prestige of organized labor. They corroborate the Communist assertion that every Soviet wage earner belongs to a union, but they do not describe the rôle of the labor union in the whole Soviet scheme. Thus we find that when even the most loyal friends of labor discuss Russia they focus their attention on the political machinery, the increase in production, the expansion of education, and so on, but somehow overlook the position of organized labor. And so we continue to speak of the dictatorship of the proletariat long after the Communists have destroyed the last vestige of labor representation in the factories.
Last March Stalin abolished the so-called "triangle." This was the three-cornered shop committee consisting of the factory manager, the secretary of the Communist cell and the representative of the trade union workers in the factory. Ostensibly, the last two members of the "triangle" were concerned with safeguarding the interests of the workers. Actually, their influence had been closely circumscribed. The factory manager paid little attention to their demands and accepted their opinion only when it coincided with his own. For all that, the "triangle" had become part of the Soviet industrial system and its Communist and trade union members were the only link between the workers and the management. Even this scarcely perceptible bond has now been removed: the factory manager exercises absolute power.
In the United States the abolition of anything so important as the "triangle" would be considered anti-labor legislation, and would evoke a storm of protest from the trade unions. But in Communist Russia it is represented as a "reform for the betterment of the workers," and is accepted by them without the slightest opposition. Reporting on the "reform" to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the Leningrad party leader Zhdanov explained that the "triangle" had lost its usefulness and that the result of its activities was bedlam. The removal of this "clot" in the Communist management system relieves the factory manager of needless worry and gives him the freedom to do what is necessary. On the other hand, the workers will be in a position to state their grievances "more freely," for, according to M. Zhdanov, hitherto "the managers had ignored the needs of the workers" while the other members of the "triangle" had failed to do their duty.
Apparently the national trade union leaders must have taken the reform seriously, for they proceeded to discuss the plight of the toilers in Soviet Russia "freely." They were thereupon arrested for counter-revolutionary activities. In 1920, Lenin had declared: "Our present Government is such that the proletariat, organized to the last man, must protect itself against it. And we must use the workers' organizations for the protection of the workers against their Government."[iv] But to recall Lenin's dictum in 1937 was dangerous, for it obviously refers to a dictatorship and not to "the most democratic country in the world" which has created "the most democratic constitution in the world."
The Soviet trade unions have no resemblance to our labor organizations in any real sense. They possess neither the authority nor the functions of our unions. Membership in them is compulsory. In other words, they mean more to the employer -- in this instance, the Government -- than they do to the workers. Because of their compulsory membership and because they belong to the employer, the Soviet labor unions have been compared to our own company unions. Actually the Soviet unions have even less power than our company unions. The latter operate in a democracy and may influence labor legislation. In the shop they have a certain freedom of action, with the right to discuss hours and wages. Furthermore, the existence of regular trade unions reinforces the position of the company unions by setting general standards. To retain his company union the employer must in a measure be guided by the hours, wages and working conditions which prevail in enterprises where regular union workers are employed. Our company unions may conceivably call a strike. In Soviet Russia strikes are a crime and strikers are shot down by the Communist militia, as they were in the Donetz coal basin in 1930. There are, then, no trade unions in Russia in our meaning of the term. Soviet unions are merely a form of labor exchange or government employment bureau.
Lenin knew that the Russian worker is not the abject creature which some friends of the Communist Government would have us believe. They do sometimes get out of hand, as the Tsarist secret police found when in 1904 they stimulated the formation of a labor organization which was meant to keep the laborers quiet but which actually ended in the demonstrations of "Bloody Sunday," January 22, 1905. Lenin seemed to be cognizant of this fact. At any rate he was always careful not to deprive the workers of a privilege without giving something in exchange. Thus when he abolished the shop committees, he ordered a serious drive for unionization among the workers to compensate them for their loss in authority. Unionization did not restore their lost privileges but it kept them occupied. Lenin was a keener politician than Stalin. He tried to make the decline of the workers' prestige a gradual process. When the powerful shop committees disappeared, the workers were represented in the new "triangle." Nominally they still retained the right to discuss hours and wages, whereas in fact those matters were decreed by the Commissariat of Labor. Today they are fixed by the factory manager and his decision is final.
The managers, haunted by the Government's forced-draft industrialization program, have therefore ceased to follow the terms of the labor code in regard to working hours and wages. Trud, the official Soviet trade union publication, complained on April 10, 1934, that instead of the official seven-hour day "overtime is practised on a large scale, especially in the heavy industries. Cancellation of the prescribed holiday, every sixth day, has become a common occurrence." In 1934 a special investigation by the All-Ukrainian Committee of the Machinists' Union reported: "In the factories of the Machine Trust the employees usually work from 14 to 16 hours a day . . . without being paid for overtime." [v] On March 29, 1934, Trud reported that in the mines of the Don Basin the six-hour day is being nullified: "The night shift works 9 and 10 hours." Similar conditions prevailed all over Russia. At the Tcherepetzk steel plant in the Moscow district "a group of steel operatives for three months worked an average of 15 hours a day." During the last three years, Stakhanovism, the celebrated piecework speed-up system, has completely wiped out the official code of hours and wages.
The position of the trade unions in itself is precarious. The shop committees were succeeded by the "triangles." In these the workers had only one angle though the labor delegate was at least supposed to be elected by the union members in the factory. Actually when the union representative was not acceptable to the Communist Party he was immediately replaced by one that was. Legally the Soviet workers have the right to elect the officials of their unions. This, however, like so much else in Soviet Russia, is a paper prerogative only. Again Trud corroborates this statement. On February 27, 1933, it comments on the trade union elections in Kazakstan: "The workers elected 26 chairmen of the councils of the Central Trade Unions, 120 branch leaders of the Central Trade Unions, 138 chairmen of District Trade Councils, 2,476 chairmen of local factory committees. Thereupon, six councils of the Central Trade Unions, which included two of the most important trade organizations, were dissolved by the Communist Party. Almost all the other elected members of the Central Trade Unions and the local unions were replaced by Communist Party appointees. These appointments were not ratified by the unions." On April 24, 1934, it reports conditions in the Ivanovsk district: "Last February committees were elected in 74 factories. Of those elected, three months after their election, only four chairmen still retain their positions. The others have been changed two, three, four, and even five times without consulting the workers."
To be sure, it is the Communist argument that the trade union representatives are really everywhere. They are in the Government, even in the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Actually, therein lies the mischief. Unless trade union representatives are freely elected by the workers and are responsible only to them, their presence in the Government, which in Russia is the employer, is detrimental to the interests of labor. The trade union representatives are Government appointees and owe allegiance to Stalin and not to their labor constituencies. Consequently they serve Stalin. An analogous situation in the United States would be if Mr. Lewis and Mr. Green were appointees of the National Manufacturers Association, and represented the labor unions in their capacity as members of the Association. Even then, our own workers would still have freedom of speech, press and the ballot, and so could bring their grievances before the public.
Officially, the sphere of activities of the Russian unions today comprises insurance, factory inspection, sanitation, general welfare. Towards the budget of these activities the trade union members contribute 2 percent of their wages. In 1934 Russia had 22½ million trade union workers from whom the Government collected a neat sum of money. Nevertheless working conditions grew worse. Under a democratic régime where wage earners have the freedom of the ballot and a free press, 22½ million trade union members could accomplish a great deal. But under the shadow of the OGPU, they are helpless. Factory inspection and sanitation are among the most urgent problems in Soviet Russia. By making the solution of these vexing problems the duty of the trade unions, the "Workers' and Peasants' Government" merely avoids responsibility. It deprives the trade unions of their rightful duties but thrusts upon them an obligation which in other countries belongs to the government.
This procedure serves a double purpose. In the first place, it relieves the Soviet Government of responsibility for indescribable conditions in the mines and factories. Secondly, in time of stress -- as the recent purgings demonstrate -- it enables the régime to remove "undesirable" labor representatives by accusing them of negligence and sabotage. Every so often a few labor leaders who are Communist appointees are shot or imprisoned, yet the disgraceful conditions continue. On March 23, 1934, Trud quoted a resolution adopted by the Donetz Trade Union Council: "Many trade unions of the Don Basin consider the Labor Inspection an alien body in the trade union system and do not render it any aid whatsoever, nor do they carry out the instructions of the trade union inspectors." The attitude of the factory managers towards the inspectors is even more contemptuous. "Zimin, the manager of the central group of the Don Basin mines, tore up the instructions of Inspector Samusoff and threw the latter out of his office. During a technical conference at the Rutchenko mines the chief engineer, Kuznetzov, chased Inspector Dubrovin out of the office. The manager of the Korsun group of mines threw Inspector Vodolazkin out of the office because the latter insisted upon the enforcement of the safety regulations. The trade union officials are well aware of these facts but do nothing to protect their inspectors."
In 1935 the trade union crisis reached the point of "self-criticism." In other words, the Dictatorship of the Proletariat was compelled to open the floodgates and give the workers an opportunity to pour out their grievances. Conditions as described by the workers and recorded by the Soviet press were black indeed and apparently too much even for the Government. At any rate, Stalin did precisely what Nicholas II, the Little Father of his own day, would have done. The discussions were stopped as suddenly as they were started.
In 1937 Stalin again found it necessary to relieve the pressure, and the air was once more filled with "self-criticism." At a meeting of the Central Trade Union Council in March the labor leaders deplored "the flagrant violations of the rights of the trade unions and the neglect of the needs and demands of the union members as the chief characteristic of the entire trade union system in the U. S. S. R." (Trud, March 26, 1937). They confessed that the trade unions "neglect their duty to protect the workers and enforce safety regulations." Trud (April 2, 1937) throws light on the personnel of the trade unions responsible for this neglect of duty: "In all the unions, from the central boards to the craft committees, the undemocratic appointive system is in use. General meetings are practically nonexistent. The leaders make no reports to the members. For years there have been no elections to the Central Unions."
The official Communist organ Pravda continues the indictment. Referring to the condition of the trade unions in 1935, the editor tells his readers (April 8, 1937): "A year and a half have passed, and if the situation has changed, it has changed for the worse." The upshot of this tragi-comedy was the dismissal in May of the entire secretariat of the Central Trade Union Council, branded as "enemies of the people." Four of the Council's highest officials were arrested and charged with malfeasance, Trotzkyism and sabotage. In an effort to appease discontent among the workers the Communists from time to time throw their own trade union appointees to the wolves.
The subjugation of the workers in Russia has upset a basic law of economics. Heretofore it has been axiomatic that industrialization increases the relative importance of labor. The industrial expansion of Britain and the United States was paralleled by a steady rise in the workers' power. The increased demand for workers strengthened their influence as a class. But in this respect Soviet Russia has reversed the law of supply and demand.
Under the dictatorship of the proletariat high-pressure industrialization has from the beginning of the first Five-Year Plan been paralleled by a steady decline in the power of the wage earners. The Russian workers have been deprived of every trade union privilege and are helpless against their oppressors. The Okulov Law of August 15, 1933, makes it a crime for any worker to leave his job, no matter how irksome it may be. The penalty is six months' imprisonment and confiscation of his property. On the other hand, he can be dismissed for any reason whatsoever. An unguarded phrase about conditions or lack of subservience to the OGPU representative in the factory can brand him as a deviationist and a wrecker and may lead to his dismissal.
Once he falls from grace the Soviet worker has no redress. He becomes an outcast. His fellow workers are afraid to defend him. The trade unions, having no power, are unable to help him even if they wanted to. Thus, under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat the worker has no security whatever. His food and his cramped sleeping space -- his "coffin" in popular parlance -- belong to his employer, the Government. Once dismissed, he is destitute. Under a workers' government the trade unionism of workers is discredited and abolished.
[i] Lenin, "The Soviets at Work." New York: Rand School, 1918, p. 30.
[ii] Victor Serge, "Russia Twenty Years After." New York: Hillman-Curl, 1937.
[iii] Walter Citrine, "I Search for Truth in Russia." New York: Dutton, 1937.
[iv] "Complete Works of Lenin." 2nd edition, Moscow, 1930, vol. 26, p. 67.
[v]Trud, May 11, 1934.