Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Workers in a Workers' Paradise
Diane Koenker's book, Republic of Labor: Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918- 1930, reveals a number of flaws in my own approach to Russian history. For somewhere along the way, I fell in love with the history of the Proletarian Revolution but neglected to spend much time getting to know the history of the Soviet working people. The irony is as lamentable as it is comic. I'm reminded of my first and only trip to Russia, in which I strolled the streets of St. Petersburg for nine days but failed failed to say anything in the Russian language or to make any contact with any living Russians. I suppose this is generally the logic of tourism: we generally try to go on trips in which our leisure or sense of adventure isn't complicated by the threat of substantive dialogue with living people. On vacation, we interact with service staff, fellow tourists, and perhaps a local guide or two who hastily conducts us a tour of the place as it existed in a previous century. We make contact with foreigners, but these foreigners are generally ghosts--spectral architects of vanished civilizations. Thus, like a tourist, I read about the Russian Revolution, but often avoid its realities. In truth, I've befriended historical tour guides such as Lenin and Trotsky, but failed to engage the Revolution's ordinary denizens, not even excepting laborers. Diane Koenker's book, and many others like it, is a partial remedy to an elitist approach to the great socialist experiment. By tracking the progress of one large group of workers, Russian printers, Koenker helps to give the period between 1918 and 1930 both color and character.
Examining printers' efforts to shape their own destiny in an unfamiliar socialist economic landscape has a number of benefits. In the first place, we realize that socialism as a lived experiment wasn't entirely a "top down" process. Rather, ordinary men and women responded to the challenges of bureaucratic or statist centralism in a variety of ways, and not all of them were related to accommodation or capitulation. In some ways, the case of the Russian printers helps to illustrate the fluidity of the Soviet system in the decade following the October Revolution. Soviet workers and labor leaders and were asking a number of fundamental economic questions about the new economic order. These are but a few of these questions. What role would trade unions play in a socialist society? How should the Communist Party interact with trade unions? How would the central or local governments relate to trade unions? How should a local trade committee interact with the union? Was it okay for a trade union to strike against a proletarian state, and, if not, what was the proper manner of managing conflict with the government under socialism? Was it okay for two unions to represent one group of workers? What level of democracy was appropriate within a factory? Who should manage the productive work of a factory? Should workers collectively decide on production methods or was it appropriate for an individual manager to make all decisions in the interest of economic efficiency? How should workers be motivated in the regime? Should wages be paid based on basic need, skill level, productivity level, or some combination thereof? Were women entitled to play a leadership role in the new unions? Did female workers require anything different from their male counterparts? Should managers make more than shop floor workers? How should local unions relate to a national alliance of workers in a single trade? How should national trade unions relate to one another? What was the purpose of socialist production? Were workers primarily trying to raise their own standard of living or were they attempting to raise the standard of living of their trade or, indeed, of the nation as a whole? And what working conditions were appropriate in an embattled but never-the-less proletarian nation?
We know of course that many of the debates of the 1920s were decided in favor of bureaucratic centralism. The Soviet Union ultimately rejected Menshevik and Anarchist economic philosophies of trade union autonomy and worker democracy. In a time of economic crisis and civil war, Soviet leaders sided with Communists who argued that the first duty of all trade unions was to rally behind the nation's collective vision of economic productivity. Anything less than total commitment to the state's economic plan, was sacrificing the collective good of the Soviet people for the narrow, selfish interests of narrow-minded or even treacherous groups of workers. Even so, it's interesting to note that this vision of the new socialist economy wasn't entirely preordained. The printers were one relatively large interest group in Soviet society who actively resisted this future, and did so with some degree of success notwithstanding increasingly levels of coercion at various levels of society, for over a decade.
Posted by Fur Coat