This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


In all the recent congresses in Moscow, when miners, auto-workers, weavers, engineers and lathe-hands come up to celebrate their latest achievements in production and to receive honors for increasing a nation’s wealth, a phrase recurs which has no counterpart under capitalism, because the reality which it expresses could not exist there. Even in the Soviet Union the widening use of the phrase is recent, an instinctive expression of a new and growing reality.

“I bring you greetings from our factory collective.” “Our factory collective pledges its full support.”

The factory collective is not the plant administration. Nor is it the trade union, the shop committee or even the Party organization of the factory. All these organizations are a part of it, having their well-defined functions in its vivid life. The factory collective is the sum total of all the people in the plant in all their organized functions, the basic living cell of Soviet society.

The concept of the factory collective did not spring into being full grown. It derives steadily from the joint ownership of the means of production which has now existed for eighteen years. This is the economic reality which is steadily determining the minds of men and the forms of their social life. A worker attached to a machine must be either its slave or its owner; under capitalism he is its slave. In the Soviet Union he knows himself owner of the machine but not the sole owner. It is entrusted to him to master, to get from it all that modern technical skill can give. The product belongs to him and his fellows; through his work in the plant he connects with all society. This gives back to man the old unity of life around the process of production which was riven in twain when the tools by which men created passed into alien hands. It returns on a wider scale and at a higher level by as much as the modern machine is more powerful than the ancient tool.

An American who had worked for some years in a Soviet factory told me that two things especially impressed him: the relation of workers to administration and the cultural life around the factory. “The foreman always asks the workers’ advice in all problems; the relations are those of two friends instead of a boss. In America my factory was just a place to make a living, just another day to get through as soon as you could. Here it is your club, your center of culture, the thing that is closest in life.”

The life of the factory collective has three main aspects: production, workers’ life, and relation to the rest of the country. Each of these aspects has its own control. The director and his assistants are responsible for organizing production. The trade union is responsible for organizing the workers’ life, including factory conditions, insurance, education and social activities. The Party organization is responsible for the political training of the workers, for widening their knowledge of the country’s policies and of their plant’s function in the building of socialism.

These three together—director, trade union organizer, and Party secretary—form the “triangle,” the highest authority in the plant. Each has his clearly defined function; all three together consult on questions affecting the fundamental life of the factory. Orders of the director must be taken without question in production, and he is held responsible for everything that happens in the plant. But any director who failed to get on with the Party and trade union organization wouldn’t last long. As a Russian worker explained it: “If the factory collective doesn’t like the director you may be sure the Commissariat of Heavy Industry won’t leave him there.”1

The relation between workers and management was thus described to me by the American worker: “The whole working gang is interested in production. The program for next month is discussed with all of us. The foreman calls a meeting and tells us that the administration wants us to put out 3,000 milling tools next month. How shall we do it? We discuss in detail; each of us says what he can do. It all adds up to 4,000. So the foreman goes to the administration and raises the plan to 4,000. If we fulfill or surpass our plan, we get a premium which we divide among the workers on the basis of what each has done. To help us estimate this, the shop economist gives us each month a list of each worker’s production, spoilage, idle time, breakdown of machines. Naturally we give the most of the premium to the best workers because they helped the whole gang win. The factory honors the winning brigade not only with a premium but with a red banner which waves each month among the lathes for everyone who passes to see. The best factories get honor and premiums from the whole country because everyone knows that the more we produce the more everyone will have.”

When conflicts occur in a factory between the management and the trade union, there are various ways in which they may be resolved. Often the Party organization of the plant can settle it by discussion within this wider group to which members both of administration and trade union belong. Serious disagreements are appealed by the shop committee to its central trade union, or even to the All-Union Council of Trade Unions which has governmental powers to enforce the rights of workers. For individual cases of injustice appeal is often made direct to the courts. These struggles may be time-consuming, but men who feel convinced enough of their case to fight it through rarely fail of satisfaction. The head of the Nijni Auto Works was removed in 1932 after an investigation by the trade unions which began with a fight over living conditions started by the foreign workers. In another case that I know, an engineer who sharply criticized the plant’s manager in the factory newspaper was later fired on grounds that he thought insufficient. Failing to interest the shop committee in his case he took it to the city organization of the Party, which ordered an investigation that resulted in his reinstatement, with wages paid for all time lost. The director was reprimanded, and the reprimand printed on the front page of the factory newspaper, in order, as one worker expressed it, that “the director may know he is not God.”

More common are the conflicts in which local management and trade union unite to compel action by the central offices of the trust. The shop committee demands certain safety appliances or new construction for the health of the workers. The manager replies that his budget does not allow it. He has no objection, however, to the shop committee making the strongest possible case through the trade union to the central organization which supplies the budget. Since the manager has no personal profit to make by cutting out improvements, but advances in reputation and position rather through his ability to maintain an enthusiastic organization of productive workers, his interest lies on the side of supplying their demands.

Workers, on the other hand, do not want a boss who is soft and sentimental. They want one who can efficiently organize their work. They know that their prosperity depends directly on the success of their factory. They themselves will ask to have workers transferred who make much spoilage, or even expelled if they steal or persistently disorganize production. They consider it desertion for a worker to shift jobs without reason or without training someone to take his place. If health or family matters require a change, or if a factory cannot use his highest skill or give him a chance to develop, he applies for and gets “release.” But to shift merely because another factory, better organized, can give him higher wages and better conditions is considered cowardly.

“Somebody has to make this factory a good one. Why shouldn’t he? His going makes it that much harder for the rest of us; we have to break in a green man. Why should he run off to another place that other folks organized because he finds things difficult here?” Here is an attitude similar to that of partners in a business.

Production, however, is only part of existence. Around this center of jointly owned production is built the whole unity of the worker’s life. Through his factory collective he enters into the duties and privileges of citizenship; it is the primary organization which elects deputies to the local Soviets. Through his shop committee he receives his social insurance, his opportunities for education, his excursions, sports and vacations, and takes part in a score of voluntary social activities from government commissions to parachute clubs.

Let us take an example of the internal organization of a factory collective, the Red Proletarian Plant in Moscow. The smallest unit in the plant is the production brigade which may have thirty to fifty workers. There are one hundred and fifty brigades in the plant, under one shop committee. These brigades not only compete in production records, rewarded by red banners and premiums, but also in social activity. Homiakov’s brigade, for instance, has twenty-nine workers, Every one of them does some social work. Some check the norms of production and standards of piece-work; some watch over the social insurance; three edit the wall newspaper which criticizes the shortcomings of the plant and of the workers. One middle-aged man was inactive socially and this was a great shame to the group, which tried to locate some tasks to interest him. They finally elected him president of the Red Aid Branch; within a month he signed up a big membership and had an active circle going.

The brigade decides the list of “udarniks,” champion workers who get special privileges; but its list will be further checked by the trade union if it is too large or if there are complaints. Does a worker need a free vacation at a sanatorium? The brigade discusses it and sends a recommendation to the shop committee, which has a definite quota of places, and can fight for more. Safety devices on machinery, raising the technical knowledge of each operator, financial help to workers who are in straits, are matters which start with the brigade and are sent with their recommendation to the trade union. The union itself as a whole is actively pushing the completion of the new model dining-room, the expansion of the day nursery and clinic facilities—all these on demands which originally start in the brigades. All this work is democratically initiated, organized, carried through and checked by the rank and file members.

Not the least important aspect of factory life is the cultural activity. Educational opportunities range from simple classes in reading and writing for newly arrived peasants, which characterized the earlier years of Soviet power, to the present university courses and institutions of scientific research. “You come to your factory to study, to attend a university,” said a worker to me. “You think, ‘My factory is going to make an engineer of me.’ After work you take a hot shower and go to the library or gliding club. Artists and singers come from the theaters to sing for us during the dinner hour. Famous authors come to discuss their books with us. If you want to write or act, you join the dramatic club or literary circle. Maybe some day you may go away to enter a theater or a newspaper, but even then you will sometimes come back to your factory.”

The intimate sense of possession which a Soviet worker feels in his factory was strikingly shown to me by my step-daughter Ducia, who worked in a large electric plant near Moscow. I accompanied her on her return to the factory after she had been ill at home with grippe. As we approached the plant she grew excited; a vividness came into her gestures which had been lacking during her two weeks at home. She insisted that I notice and admire the factory laboratory where she worked, the power plant, the restaurant, the big workers’ club building; she pointed out the pathway between the shops that led to the park and stadium. I suddenly realized that Ducia had been positively homesick for her factory.

Her reason for having chosen this particular factory to work in had little to do with wages. She chose it because it had a good reputation as an educational and social center, with a strong organization of Communist youth and a first class university. This offered her the well-rounded life which she demanded from her labor. Her working day was only six hours long, but she not infrequently spent twelve hours or more in and around the factory. She would go half an hour before her work began, drop into the Red Corner to get her newspaper or to discuss with the other girls the work of the political courses; she would come home late in the evening after her skiing club, German class or musical circle, or perhaps still later from a group party at the theater.

In Ducia’s set it is the accepted view, which she does not even stop to formulate, that every human being should engage in three kinds of serious activity: productive work whereby he justifies his right to a share in the commonly produced goods of the country; voluntary social work, which holds together the whole apparatus of society; and study which improves individual capacities. Besides this serious activity there are recreations. All this many-sided life Ducia finds in her factory.

The study takes different forms from year to year. In addition to courses in physics, German and political science which she takes regularly, various campaigns urge special study upon her. It may be her Young Communist League which makes a drive to have all members study the history of the Communist movement of youth. One year it was the drive for “technical minimum,” to raise the skill of all workers in the country. Ducia’s technical minimum was fixed for her by a committee of engineers who visited her laboratory, and discussed with each employee separately the special subjects needed for his work. She studied these subjects for several months, assisted by a voluntary teacher, one of the engineers of the plant who agreed to help several girls as his form of social work. “The whole laboratory is like a university,” said Ducia, “with the six hours’ work like practice on our subjects. When girls meet on the stairs, they are always asking whether you have finished such a formula.”

Like most of her associates, Ducia also does social work; in her case it is the organization of the twelve current-events’ courses for young people in the various shops of the factory She takes much pride in keeping these running well. Not all social work is as serious as Ducia’s. One of the girls organizes a group for parachute jumping, another gets up theater parties, a third helps to plan excursions. Social work is not something that an individual does “for others”; it is the extension of his own interests, the organization in a social manner of what he himself most likes to do. It is also of value to the community and a direct preparation for participation in government. In a sense it is already taking part in government, which is increasingly built up from these voluntary social activities. A man whose financial ability is shown as dues collector for his union, may rise to full or part-time work as assistant chief of the city taxes. A woman who shows interest and efficiency in organizing the factory day nursery may later become chief of the city’s motherhood and infancy bureau.

This is in fact the normal path to political office in the Soviet Union. I recall, for instance, Gribkova, who ten years ago was a young, illiterate farm servant. Wishing to better herself, she got a job as longshoreman on the Volga, thus entering the public services where, as she put it, “the road lay open to all life.” Working downstream she reached a textile mill and took employment as unskilled worker. Here she found the natural center for education and advancement. She learned to read and write, took technical courses and to handle a machine, took political courses and became an “active one” in her factory. From this point her specialization was possible in two directions: through technical training to higher posts in industry, or through social work and political training to posts in government. Gribkova chose the latter; she became interested in the voluntary tasks of factory inspection, and was later chosen by her fellow workers as part of their quota for a two-year training course which prepared professional factory inspectors. She is now a full-time official, head of inspection for a township. Hundreds of thousands have followed a similar path; this is the typical relation between factory life and the public activities of the country.

The life of a great factory is continuous. Just as its productive life goes on for three shifts, so its social life continues nearly twenty-four hours a day. If one chances to come at six-thirty in the morning to the great Stalin Auto Works in Moscow, he may see in Day Nursery No. 41 the beginning of the day’s life. Mothers bring their children to the nursery before reporting to work. Each child receives a swift medical examination as he enters; if this indicates illness, the mother is excused from work to care for her child or to take it to the hospital. In the case of nurslings, the mother is given an hour off at the end of every three hours’ work to nurse her child. These day nurseries are considered as essential a public service as public schools of other countries. But whereas education is compulsory, day nurseries are not. The picture spread abroad of a stern Soviet government forcibly taking children from their mothers would arouse incredulous laughter in any Soviet home. The Soviet mother regards a day nursery as a facility which relieves her of the child certain hours of the day, and as a center of scientific information, whose employees can assist her in its proper care. She demands the day nursery and fights for its quality. If any factory administration fails to supply adequate funds to enlarge and improve its day nursery, the working women will see that the director is reminded.

About the time that the mothers are saying good-by to their children in the nursery, the newspaper office inside the plant begins to bustle with activity. Six thousand copies of Moscow daily papers and 8,500 copies of the four-page daily of the plant, Overtake and Surpass, must be delivered by eight or nine o’clock to subscribers in various shops. The plant newspaper is full of the daily life of the 35,000 workers. It organizes campaigns for production, for quality, for good housing, co-operative stores, clubs, schools, day nurseries; it contains complaints by workers about all these facilities; it is the organ through which these thousands of workers communicate with each other.

In the midst of the great shops of the auto works, a small green square contains both the central dining room and the central polyclinic. The latter is maintained by the Moscow Board of Health, but its connection with the factory collective is very intimate. The health record of every worker is kept on file in a smaller dispensary in the shop where a doctor, medical assistant and statistician are constantly on hand for first aid and general care of this particular group of workers. For all special services the worker goes to the central polyclinic where a medical personnel of 300 includes specialists in all diseases. One interesting feature of this polyclinic is its direct connection with the diet kitchen of the factory which immediately gives the workers without extra charge the particular diet which the doctor prescribes.

It is no sentimental glorification of manual labor which causes the grouping of Soviet institutions around the factory. It derives naturally from the unity of man as owner, creator and user, which under socialism replaces the capitalist division of men into bosses, hands, and buyers of goods. Even under capitalism men feel a deep human joy in creation and mastery, a mastery which may be widened and deepened by the machine. But capitalism poisons this joy at its source. A crane man in Seattle once told me that when he sat aloft picking up great loads with power and deftness, he felt “like one of those Greek giants or ancient gods.” Then he suddenly realized that he had no claim to that crane, but might face any morning, at the owner’s whim, the sign: “Closed down,” and he felt himself degraded from a god to a slave.

Under capitalism the association of men in production is made hateful by a clash of interests; they seek their real life elsewhere, building it from disjointed fragments. Under socialism this association is strengthened by a thousand ties of mutual interest and becomes the solid foundation on which the whole structure of political and social life is frankly and realistically built. Life becomes unified; from worker to manager, to scientist, to artist there is at no point a break. A worker studies and becomes an engineer; he is active in the factory committee on inventions, and becomes a scientist; he shows talent in the dramatic circle and becomes an actor; he devotes himself to social work and rises in the government. Any of these interests may become professional and take him out of the factory into a wider or more specialized life. But the factory remains the social home from which he launched into life, and to which he often returns, either actually or emotionally.


1.  See Chap. 6 for an example of this.

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