For revolutionary socialists the most fascinating part of the book will undoubtedly be the sections dealing with the factory workers during 1917, the year of the revolution. Due to weaknesses in organisation the Bolsheviks were less strong in Moscow than in Petrograd, and this is reflected in the politics and allegiance of the workers in the factory. In particular the Social Revolutionaries [SR] are elected as delegates from the factory. Nonetheless the workers take a full part in the revolution, striking, joining protests and forcing massive demands from their management. Murphy reproduces a 16 point list of workers' demands that demonstrate both the confidence of the workers and how economic and political issues are coming to the fore for ordinary people. The first demands if for a "permanent space" for factory meetings, lectures and "cultural-educational activities". The second is for the night-shift to only do a seven hour shift, but be paid for an eight hour day. There are demands that cover health issues - baths and steam rooms, ventilation, toilets and so on, sick pay, maternity leave and pay, and holidays.
As Murphy comments:
The variety, clarity and force of demands demonstrate workers' increased confidence and organisation. The need for a regular meeting place shows that the employees' top priority was the strengthening of their own organisation 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.
As the revolution progressed there were intense political arguments with Bolshevik workers' fighting to win the support of the wider factory. We get a glimpse of the intensity of some of these debates. In late June, SR leaders spoke on "War until Victory". A Bolshevik Rosa Zemliachka, responded "Comrades! Many voices have rung out for continuing the war. Therefore whoever wants war should immediately sign up as a volunteer for the front lines." Murphy says that "after prolonged silence, the SR leaders left the tribune in defeat." Such political principals and systematic attempts to win workers in the factory led to success for the Bolsheviks, as Murphy explains:
The Bolsheviks did not just react to events: instead the party provided leadership for the movement. After sending in several talented organisers, the Bolsheviks fought for - and won - the ideological argument for revolution and Soviet power, as they did among workers throughout the empire.
But Murphy's meticulous study of the source material also demonstrates how, as the international revolution failed to materialise and Russia was isolated the rise of a Stalinist bureaucracy led to a break with the revolutionary ideals of the past. The Civil War decimated the factory both in terms of workforce and its ability to work. For most workers it became a case of "personal survival", and as the counterrevolution triumphed workers were unable to fight for their own collective interests. During the NEP era workers did manage to keep up pressure over pay and conditions, but by 1927/1928 Stalin's solid grip of power meant that workers' were once again being driven solely for the surplus value their labour could create and dissent was crushed. There are two markers for this that I'll note. Firstly the position of women was forced backward into an subordinate one and most of the gains of the revolution were destroyed.
Murphy documents this process:
By mid-NEP, however, party leaders at the factory level perceived the special emphasis on women's issues as an obstacle to the pursuit of their main priority. Pressured from above to meet production quotas, management and the party apparatus started to view the female workforce strictly in productivist terms and, therefore, as as problem.
But Murphy is careful to emphasis the way the women in the factory played an active role in the revolution movement that is "hidden from history" and celebrates that this took place "in a society devastated by seven years of war and foreign intervention".
The second marker is the repression of dissent, both within the Communist party and the systematic destruction of the norms of democracy in factory meetings. The participatory (if frequently raucous) meetings of the revolutionary era are replaced by shouting down and demonization of opponents. By the late 1920s, "personal survival... had eclipsed the politics of collective action". By the 1930s the ability to collectively organise had been destroyed. The accounts from this era - of hunger, coercion and so on are painful to read, contrasting as they do with the hope of the revolutionary epoch.
By 1932 the relationship between rulers and ruled had become firmly entrenched and there would be no return to workers' militancy. The dull drone of uninterrupted productivity drives and the seemingly endless demands for more sacrifice and austerity were not ephemeral phenomena, but now comprised the basic features of the Stalinist system. The revolutionary era, during which workers had repeatedly and confidently asserted their collective power, had now come to a decisive end.
By placing the experience of workers at the point of production at the heart of the story Kevin Murphy's book is a singular account of the highest point of workers struggle in history. It is also essential in helping understand the Stalinist counterrevolution as it felt in the factory. The archives that made is possible must hold endless more fascinating material. As I write, Putin's war machine drives Russian imperialism further into Ukraine. In the run up to that war Putin made clear that he saw the Lenin era as the origins of the Ukraine problem - this work shows how different the ideas and hopes of ordinary Russians in the Revolutionary era were far from the interests of Putin and his regime. Let's hope the spirit revives.