Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory in 1917

Two excerpts from Revolution and Counter-Revolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory.

The following are two excerpts from Revolution and Counter-Revolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (pages 50-52 and 58-62), the most thorough investigation to date on working-class life during the revolutionary era, reviving the memory of the incredible gains for liberty and equality that the 1917 revolution brought about.

The Workers’ Movement versus Guzhon

In sharp contrast to Guzhon management’s warnings of mob action, employees’ demands exude a clear sense of purpose. Economic issues were sent to arbitration, but on 19 June the factory committee submitted demands on other issues:

  1. Create a permanent space for the workers’ committee and for general factory meetings, lectures, and other cultural-educational activities.
  2. Recognize the night shift for seven-hour working day, but pay them for the normal eight-hour day.
  3. Regularize salary payments in the following form: no later than the twentieth of the month, give advances for the current month, and no later than the eighth of the next month with complete accounting for added cost-of-living bonuses.
  4. Bring in air ventilation for all enclosed places where there is production work.
  5. Baths and steam rooms for both sexes.
  6. Sufficient temperature in all shops and washstands during the winter.
  7. In all shops there should be a cafeteria or an enclosed warm place.
  8. Make toilets as close as possible to the shops.
  9. In all shops make a closet for workers’ clothes.
  10. In the sheet metal shop and construction area, bring in hot water because now it is too far away and inaccessible because of the continuous nature of work.
  11. Sick pay, whether job-related or not, must be paid in full from the first day of sickness and based on the average worker’s wage.
  12. For women giving birth, they are to be released for two weeks before and four weeks after birth but are to be paid in full based on the average salary.
  13. Medicine prescribed by private doctors should be distributed from our local clinic, and if the clinic does not have it, the factory should buy it from another pharmacist.
  14. At times of stoppages because of insufficient material, pay must be issued at half the minimum wage.
  15. After the birth of a child, issue twenty-five rubles; after the death of a child, give twenty-five rubles; for death of adults give seventy-five rubles.
  16. Every worker who has been in the factory at least one year must be given a two-week vacation; every worker over two years or more gets a month vacation with minimum pay.1

The variety, clarity, and force of demands demonstrate workers’ increased confidence and organization. The need for a regular meeting place shows that the employees’ top priority was the strengthening of their own organization, and the special demands raised in the interest of women illustrate workers’ willingness to be more inclusive. While revolutionary egalitarianism was an important factor in this process, a practical consideration also drove such demands: the prerevolutionary demographic trend toward a more diverse workforce continued, and by May 1917, the concerns of 439 women simply could not be ignored.2

Guzhon insisted on maintaining pay stratification, arguing that raising the wages of unskilled workers undermined the very foundations of productivity. The workers’ committee demanded a minimum daily pay of 5.50 rubles for unskilled female workers and 7.20 rubles for men. Guzhon argued that, “the level of pay must directly and inseparably correspond to the productivity of the worker.” Higher minimum pay was bad because “per diem rates lower productivity … shop wages should be set at a level that would be conducive for workers to switch to piece-rates to realize higher productivity on that basis.” Guzhon posited that “it is generally acknowledged that the guaranteed minimum of daily pay should be at least one and one-half times less than what a worker of a particular category and specialists would earn at a perpiece job.” Guzhon went on to assert that the fixing of minimum workers’ pay had been an “anti-state and anti-democratic act because it creates a privileged class of people that is guaranteed its means of existence at the expense of other classes of the population.” 3

Workers, however, were more concerned with economic equality than with the logistics of running a profitable enterprise. Guzhon complained that “having learned that the Factory Commission satisfied almost all their demands,” workers raised productivity for “three or four days,” but production later declined to 50 or 60 percent of the normal rate. The factory committee told management that the decrease in productivity was “completely understandable” and that the best way to increase productivity would be to raise rates so that workers could earn at least one and one half times the minimum. Guzhon included a detailed expense report that claimed such demands would lead to the factory operating at a loss of six or seven hundred thousand rubles a month.4

The additional demands pushed Guzhon over the brink. On 20 June he informed the Factory Commission that he intended to close the factory, and castigated the Commission on the wage dispute and the workers’ dismissal of managers under the threat of violence. That the issue remained unresolved “undermines the very basis for healthy discipline, without which operating an enterprise is completely inconceivable.” He accused the Commission of conducting “systematic propaganda against private industry.” The Commission, he concluded, had brought “complete disorganization” to the work of the factory, and under such circumstances, he charged, it was “necessary to close the factory.”5 Two days later the board of directors issued a factory announcement that stated, “The factory has been brought to a state of complete disorganization” and appealed to the government to help resolve the financial crisis. If the government did not take immediate measures, warned management, “On 1 July the factory will close.”6

Guzhon workers did not accept the impending closure without a fight, however. On 28 June, the factory committee reported to the Moscow Soviet that three of their members had confronted management about its attempt to shut down the factory. The director had ordered electricity cut off, but the factory committee found sufficient raw materials and fuel and ordered work to continue. Workers’ representatives from the factory then asked the Soviet to intervene to make sure the electrical supply would not be cut off.7

In the end, Guzhon’s attempt to close the Moscow Metalworks backfired. The secretary of the factory committee described the special session of defense of the Provisional Government in Petrograd that decided the fate of the factory. “We explained that Guzhon had made a large war profit, that there was a continuous expansion of the factory workforce, and at the same time an extreme drop in workers’ pay.”8 The Minister of Trade, A.V. Stepanov, told Russkoe slovo that the Provisional Government had sequestered the factory “because it is of exceptionally important significance for the metal industry in the Moscow area.”9 The minutes from the meeting show that although several speakers argued against any concessions to the workers, the decisive issue was that 100 percent of the factory production went to defense orders.10 Thus, the Provisional Government came to the aid of Moscow Metalworks employees not out of sympathy for their militant demands, but because of the factory’s importance to the government’s war aspirations.

Why did the class conflict in the Metalworks race ahead of conflicts at factories in Moscow and even Petrograd? The speed of events suggests that workers’ anger exceeded the level of workers’ militancy in other factories. Significantly, Guzhon persisted in upholding a more intransigent strategy than other owners, who had opted for a conciliatory approach in an attempt to diffuse labor discontent. Yet by midsummer the crisis in Russian industry led other industrialists to reverse tack and adopt a hard-line stance similar to Guzhon’s. While the confrontation in the Moscow Metalworks may have temporarily outpaced events in other factories by several weeks, the escalating class confrontation throughout Russia had become irreconcilable and more political

The Ascendency of Bolshevism

Kornilov’s attempted coup d’état in late August gave concrete form to the threats from the right, but also strengthened the resolve of the left. Kornilov ordered a march on Petrograd to destroy the Soviet and install himself as dictator.11 The Petrograd Soviet sent agitators to fraternize with the advancing forces, and the attempted military coup dissolved without any fighting. The threat from the right, however, encouraged the formation of forty thousand Red Guards to defend the revolution.12 Moreover, the conspiracy further eroded confidence in the Provisional Government as Kerensky’s machinations with Kornilov became public along with the complicity of some members of the Kadet party.13

The attempted bourgeois coup “profoundly stirred the surface and depths of Russia,” wrote Sukhanov. In the days afterwards “Bolshevism began blossoming luxuriantly and put forth deep roots throughout the country.”14 In factories and working-class districts throughout Moscow the Bolsheviks put forward resolutions to arm workers and soldiers, to disarm counterrevolutionary military units, to arrest Tsarist generals and liberal leaders, to close the State Duma, to expel foreign governments who gave aid to the counterrevolution, and to create a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry that would proclaim a democratic republic and immediately give land to the peasants. Almost ninety thousand workers participated in mass meetings that endorsed one or more of these demands.15 The Moscow Metalworks was one of many factories in which a general meeting passed a resolution for arming workers against the “Kornilov-Kadet conspiracy.”16 According to the Bolshevik secretary, the formation of the Red Guards met with strong resistance from both Mensheviks and the SRs, who sent leading members like Spiridonova to speak at the factory. “These were extraordinarily difficult moments whenever we found out that the SRs were going to have strong orators speak;” once again the Bolshevik Moscow Committee “sent strong comrades.”17

By early September, democratically elected soviets throughout Russia swung to the Bolsheviks. On 31 August the Bolsheviks won a majority in the Petrograd Soviet. By 1 September, 126 soviets had requested the Soviet Central Executive Committee to take power. Over the next week soviets in Moscow (5 September), Kiev, Kazan, Baku, and Saratov passed Bolshevik resolutions.18 As in the 1905 Revolution, the Bolsheviks adopted an “opendoor” recruitment strategy, believing that workers’ experience in the school of revolution more than compensated for any lack of theoretical knowledge.19 Tens of thousands of the most radical workers joined the Bolsheviks, many of whom, when asked about their understanding of the Bolshevik program on their application, simply stated, “Our program is struggle with the bourgeoisie.”20 By comparison, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, with justification, continued to accuse the Mensheviks of advocating a program of “compromise” with the bourgeoisie.21

Economic discontent and a revival of labor militancy contributed to a rising tide of strikes that involved over a million-and-a-half workers in the late summer and early fall.22 In the Moscow Metalworks, however, the 12 August political strike was the only significant work stoppage, as workers seemed content to let arbitration bodies resolve grievances—invariably in their favor. At the end of May, management fired several cafeteria workers, who nevertheless continued to show up for work. In June, an arbitrator delayed a ruling on the grievance for three weeks, by which time management had been removed.23 In July, an arbitrator mandated a wage increase for all workers and ruled that women should receive the same pay as men for equivalent work instead of 15 percent less. Taking into account the decrease in hours since March, the arbitrator also reminded workers of their agreement to reach 85 percent production.24 Another dispute erupted in August in the sheet metal shop over wage categories, and a union representative was posted in the factory through September to resolve the issue.25 In early October, metalworkers’ union records show that the Bolshevik Mal’kov and the SR Arapov represented five hundred workers’ request for higher wage categories and the union conflict commission determined that the grievance was justified.26 On 12 October, an arbitration judge ruled that union factory guards were entitled to the average wage of an unskilled worker.27 Thus, strikes were avoided only because workers managed to brandish the strength of the metalworkers’ union to compel arbitrators to concede to their economic demands.

The Bolshevik-dominated metalworkers’ union was a focus of party members’ activities in the late summer. By the middle of September the factory had three thousand dues-paying metalworkers’ union members.28 One memoir claimed, “Under Mal’kov’s leadership, the metalworkers’ union drew in about a thousand people.”29 The workforce’s solidarity with other workers, as indicated by contributions to strike funds, shows a pattern consistent with the radicalization of Russian labor generally in 1917. On 22 July, the factory committee voted for workers to contribute a day’s pay to the metalworkers’ union strike fund.30 The decision to contribute 18,237, the largest Moscow contribution of the year, to the fund was made a day before the citywide delegates resolved to deduct oneday’s pay.31 A few weeks later, the factory committee voted to contribute another day’s wage per worker to striking Moscow leather workers.32 Thus, workers, whose own financial position was deteriorating rapidly, gave material form to the theoretical abstraction of proletarian unity.

Despite their mutual animosity on larger political questions, the early nationalization of the factory encouraged Bolsheviks and SRs to cooperate in the day-to-day operations. On 14 October, workers left the factory at ten in the morning for a procession in honor of Illarion Astakhov. They marched to the bridge where he had been killed, and then to the cemetery, where they listened to speakers from the Bolshevik, SR, and Unity parties.33 Both the SR and Bolshevik leaders claimed that in August and September the two organizations repeatedly concurred on issues concerning the control of production and procuring of raw materials.34

Workers in the Moscow Metalworks supported the October Revolution, as did workers throughout Moscow. Factory committee minutes show several September and October collections for Red Guard units to defend the revolution.35 Significantly, a partial list of Red Guards shows that forty-five nonparty volunteers outnumbered the nine Bolsheviks and two SRs.36 The Bolshevik and district Soviet leader, Zemliachka, requested three to four hundred Red Guards from the factory, but because of the shortage of guns only one hundred and fifty workers volunteered.37 At a 25 October general meeting, according to the most believable account, Tumanov requested, “Those who want to take up arms, step to the left, those who do not, to the right.” “Right away,” one observer recalled, “three-quarters stepped to the left and only one-quarter to the right.”38

The factory SRs apparently divided between the left, right, and a group in the center that wavered. The Left SR factory leader Arapov enjoyed enormous authority and probably swayed many rank-and file SRs.39 The SRs expelled another factory leader, Kuznetsov, because he had helped organize the Red Guards, against the directives of the party.40 As the more conservative SRs lost support to the Bolsheviks, general political discussions became increasingly hostile. One worker wrote that some SRs referred to the Bolshevik-dominated workers’ councils as “the Soviet of Workers’ and Dogs’ Deputies” but that “every speaker against the workers’ soviet was met with shouts of indignation, irritation and sharp criticism from groups of workers.”41 Other memoirs recalled boisterous meetings throughout October in which the SR factory director Weitsman had openly referred to the Bolsheviks as “swine,” and other SRs denounced the Bolsheviks as “dictatorial sons of bitches.”42 The SR factory committee president, Lebedev, later claimed that he had sided with Revolution, but according to Tumanov, Lebedev had repeatedly talked on the phone with the factory director Weitsman and the Red Guards became suspicious. They wanted to arrest Lebedev but this was problematic because “he was the elected president of the factory committee,” so he was merely disarmed. Tumanov wrote that he replaced Lebedev as committee president on 28 October, after the Moscow battle had begun.43

The Bolshevik-dominated Petrograd Soviet’s Military Revolutionary Committee launched an attack upon the Provisional Government in the days before the Second Congress of Soviets. Provocative actions by the government and the right helped legitimatize the preemptive assault. Throughout October, the Kadet newspaper Rech’ repeatedly warned against letting the Bolsheviks “choose the moment for a declaration of civil war.”44 Kerensky had already used force against the soviets on 19 October, ordering Cossacks to raid the Kaluga Soviet and arrest its leaders.45 On 24 October, the Provisional Government ordered the arrest of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee, but the following day the Committee arrested the ministers of the Provisional Government.46 The soviet seizure of power had the support of the overwhelming majority of workers and soldiers. Throughout factories in Russia during September and October, the Bolsheviks argued for transferring power to the soviets.47 They won this argument: 507 of 670 at the Congress of Soviets arrived in Petrograd committed to supporting “all power to the soviets.”48 As a leading contemporary opponent of Soviet power, the Menshevik Martov, reluctantly admitted that “before us after all is a victorious uprising of the proletariat—almost the entire proletariat supports Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising.”49

Fierce fighting lasted for almost a week in Moscow.50 Lack of arms meant that the majority of Moscow Metalworks workers remained passive supporters of the insurrection. During the battle, the factory cafeteria was packed as the bakery continued to feed workers from the factory and district.51 One factory Red Guard who fought in the battle recounted frenzied, uninterrupted activity in which he did not return home for eight days.52 For Red Guards protecting the factory, however, the weakness of the counterrevolutionary units meant that October was, in military terms, almost a nonevent. By the time guards had mustered the forces to wage an assault on the nearby cadet institute, the enemy officers had already fled.53

One of the more remarkable changes in workers’ attitudes during 1917 was the fraternization between Russian and German-speaking workers. Two years after many Moscow Metalworks employees had participated in vicious attacks against the German-speaking citizens of Moscow, Austrian prisoners of war at the factory regularly attended general meetings and played a part in the workers’ revolution. An international agreement on 1 October freed all prisoners of war, but management delayed releasing the factory’s 260 prison laborers.54 Arapov wrote that factory activists organized a “unity concert” of six hundred workers, and that fifteen to twenty Austrians actively participated in the workers’ movement.55 Another memoir claims that all eight Austrians in the sheet metal shop fought on the barricades and stormed the Kremlin, and that at least one died in the fighting.56

Two characteristics differentiated the 1917 Russian Revolution from other workers’ rebellions of the twentieth century. First, in no society was the level of class hatred more pronounced than in Russia. The late summer crisis was not merely a consequence of a string of incompetent decisions on the part of the Provisional Government. Rather, the escalation of class conflict was the culmination of years of confrontation, war profiteering, brutal repression, and workers’ rebellion that could only have ended in the forceful rule by one class over the other.57 The second distinguishing feature of 1917 was that at the movement’s decisive juncture, one political party with significant influence in the working class put forward an uncompromising stance against capitalism and for a workers’ government. Socialists were the dominant political force in the factories for the previous dozen years and through their accumulated influence managed to set the parameters of the debate. While workers were sympathetic to socialism generally, it was only in the politically charged atmosphere of the late summer that they started to distinguish between different party programs. The Bolsheviks’ advocacy of soviet government provided a sensible solution to the reality of unprecedented class war.

In the Moscow Metalworks the ascendancy of the extreme left did not conform to the depiction of an infallible party leading the masses later popularized by Stalinism. Workers learned for themselves through the course of class conflict, in the process gaining a visceral sense of their own collective power. Yet revolutionary politics contributed in tangible ways to this process. Decimated by Okhrana arrests in the prerevolutionary period, the small factory-based Bolshevik group was inept and outnumbered by the SRs. Moreover, the SRs promoted a strategy of direct action, egalitarianism, and worker unity in the early months of the revolution that was hardly distinguishable from the Leninists. Bolshevik policy only became decisive when the more fundamental political issue of state power came to the fore during the late summer. The organizational weakness of the Leninists in the factory was overcome by what Alexander Rabinowitch describes as “the relative flexibility of the party.”58 The Bolsheviks did not just react to events: instead the party provided leadership for the movement. After sending in several talented organizers, the Bolsheviks fought for—and won—the ideological argument for revolution and Soviet power, as they did among workers throughout the empire.

With thanks to Haymarket.

  1. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 210, ll. 254-255 and RGAMO, f. 186, op. 1, d. 104, ll. 74-75. The 19 June demand list continued with specific department issues. 

  2. RGAMO, f. 186, op. 3, d. 3, l. 17. 

  3. RGAMO, f. 2122, op. 1, d. 248, ll. 23-24. Guzhon letter to Chairman Moscow Factory Conference, 20 June 1917. 

    1. RGAMO, f. 2122, op. 1, d. 248, ll. 23-27. Guzhon letter to Chairman Moscow Factory Conference, 20 June 1917.

  4. RGAMO, f. 2122, op. 1, d. 248, ll. 23-27. Guzhon letter to Chairman Moscow Factory Conference, 20 June 1917. 

  5. RGAMO 2122, op. 1, d. 248, l. 176. Factory announcement, 22 June 1917. Revolution and Collective Action 75 

  6. RGAMO, f. 186, op. 1, d. 104, l. 64-65. Workers’ committee letter to executive committee Moscow Soviet, 28 June 1917. 

  7. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 271, l. 46. V.N. Arapov memoir. 

  8. . Russkoe slovo, 30 June 1917. 

  9. Kornakovskii, Zavod ‘Serp i Molot’ 1883-1932, 84. 

  10. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, 94-150. 

  11. Figes, A People’s Tragedy, 452-455. 

  12. Koenker, Moscow Workers, 135. 

  13. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution, 522-523. 

  14. Koenker, Moscow Workers, 250-251. 

  15. Sotsial-Demokrat, 7 September 1917. 

  16. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 275, ll. 58-9. S.S. Leshkovets memoir. 

  17. Tony Cliff, Lenin: All Power to the Soviets, 313-314. 

  18. Lenin, Collected Works, 11: 359. 

  19. Tim McDaniel, Autocracy, Capitalism and Revolution in Russia (Berkeley, 1988), 390. 

  20. Lenin, Collected Works, 25: 234-241. 

  21. Koenker and Rosenberg, Strikes and Revolution in Russia, 268-275. 

  22. RGIAgM, f. 498, op. 1, d. 633, ll. 6-7. Management letter 30 May, Arbitrator ruling, 6 June 1917. 

  23. RGIAgM, f. 1076, op. 1, d. 19, l. 97-99. Arbitrator report, 11 July 1917. 

  24. RGAMO, f. 186, op. 1, d. 137, l. 16; d. 100, l. 46. Metalworkers’ reports, 1917. 

  25. RGAMO, f. 186, op. 1, d. 100 ll. 45-52. Demands dated 6 October 1917. 

  26. RGIAgM, f. 176, op. 2, d. 7, l. 1. Metalworkers’ conflict commission letter, 12 October 1917. 

  27. TsMAM, f. 2562, op. 1, d. 5, ll. 6. Rogozhsko-Simonovskii Soviet, 15 September 1917. 

  28. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 273, l. 37. P.N. Klimanov memoir. 

  29. RGIAgM, f. 498, op. 1, d. 305, ll. 1, 2. Factory committee meeting, 22 July 1917. 

  30. RGAMO, f. 186, op. 1, d. 96, l. 67; d. 133, ll. 7-13. Metalworkers’ report, n.d.; Metalworkers’ report on contributions, January 1918. 

  31. RGIAgM, f. 498, op. 1, d. 305, ll. 1, 2. Factory committee meeting, n.d. August 1917. 

  32. Sotsial-Demokrat, 15 October 1917. 

  33. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 276, l. 67. E.D. Tumanov memoir. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 271, l. 33; V.N. Arapov memoir. 

  34. RGIAgM, f. 498, op. 1, d. 305, ll. 2-3. Factory committee meetings, September through November. 

  35. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 209, l. 216. Red Guard data in documents on the revolution, n.d. 

  36. M. Akun and V. Petrov, 1917 g. v. Mosvke (Moscow, 1934), 146; GARF, f. 7952, op. 2, d. 276, l. 71; E. D. Tumanov memoir 

  37. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 276, l. 17. I.F. Toptov memoir. 

  38. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 271, ll. 46-52. Memoir of V.N. Arapov. 125.  

  39. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 263, l. 52. Kochergin recollection. 

  40. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 275, l. 101. M.G. Ob”edkov memoir. 127.  

  41. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 274, l. 23; d. 276, l. 188. A.F. Kuznetsov, E.D. Tumanov memoirs. 

  42. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 374, l. 95; 276, ll. 75. V.I. Lebedev and E.D Tumanov memoirs. 

  43. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 3: 90. 

  44. Koenker, Moscow Workers, 330. 

  45. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, 3: 240-275. 

  46. Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Rossi v sentiabre 1917 goda (Moscow, 1961); Revoliutsionnoe dvizhenie v Rossi nakune oktiabr’skogo vooruzhennogo vostaniia (1-24 oktiabria 1917 goda) (Moscow, 1962). 

  47. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, 291-292. 

  48. Israel Geltzer, Martov: A Political Biography of a Russian Social Democrat (London, 1967), 172. 

  49. Estimates of the number of Red Guards range from six thousand (Koenker, Moscow Workers, 338) to thirty thousand. Rex Wade, Red Guards Workers’ Militias in the Russian Revolution (Stanford, 1984), 296. 

  50. GARF, f. 7952, op. 2, d. 276, l. 71. E.D. Tumanov memoir. 

  51. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 276, l. 19. I.F. Toptov memoir. 

  52. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 276, ll. 73. E.D. Tumanov memoir. 

  53. RGEA f. 9597, op. 1, d. 18, ll. 32-3. Guzhon factory history. 

  54. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 271, ll. 47-8. Arapov memoir. 

  55. GARF, f. 7952, op. 3, d. 276, l. 19. I.F. Toptov memoir. 

  56. Liberal historians continue to confuse this elementary point about 1917. For example, Mark Steinberg, in Voices of Revolution (New Haven, 2001), 56-57, glowingly depicts the liberals as the “obvious choice for power” who supposedly “believed in a society based on law and proper democratic procedure.” Steinberg largely ignores the liberals’ war profiteering, their repeated efforts to thwart popular elections, their anti-Semitism, as well as their repeated efforts to crush the revolution. 

  57. Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, xxi.