Arthur Ransome
The Crisis in Russia


The general principle of industrial conscription recognized by the Russian Constitution, section ii, chapter v, paragraph 18, which reads: "The Russian Socialist Federate Soviet Republic recognizes that work is an obligation on every citizen of the Republic," and proclaims, "He who does not work shall not eat." It is, however, one thing to proclaim such a principle and quite another to put it into action.

On December 17, 1919, the moment it became clear that there was a real possibility that the civil war was drawing to an end, Trotsky allowed the Pravda to print a memorandum of his, consisting of "theses" or reasoned notes about industrial conscription and the militia system. He points out that a Socialist State demands a general plan for the utilization of all the resources of a country, including its human energy. At the same time, "in the present economic chaos in which are mingled the broken fragments of the past and the beginnings of the future," a sudden jump to a complete centralized economy of the country as a whole is impossible. Local initiative, local effort must not be sacrificed for the sake of a plan. At the same time industrial conscription is necessary for complete socialization. It cannot be regardless of individuality like military conscription. He suggests a subdivision of the State into territorial productive districts which should coincide with the territorial districts of the militia system which shall replace the regular army. Registration of labor necessary. Necessary also to coordinate military and industrial registration. At demobilization the cadres of regiments, divisions, etc., should form the fundamental cadres of the militia. Instruction to this end should be included in the courses for workers and peasants who are training to become officers in every district. Transition to the militia system must be carefully and gradually accomplished so as not for a moment to leave the Republic defenseless. While not losing sight of these ultimate aims, it is necessary to decide on immediate needs and to ascertain exactly what amount of labor is necessary for their limited realization. He suggests the registration of skilled labor in the army. He suggests that a Commission under general direction of the Council of Public Economy should work out a preliminary plan and then hand it over to the War Department, so that means should be worked out for using the military apparatus for this new industrial purpose.

Trotsky's twenty-four theses or notes must have been written in odd moments, now here now there, on the way from one front to another. They do not form a connected whole. Contradictions jostle each other, and it is quite clear that Trotsky himself had no very definite plan in his head. But his notes annoyed and stimulated so many other people that they did perhaps precisely the work they were intended to do. Pravada printed them with a note from the editor inviting discussion. The Ekonomitcheskaya Jizn printed letter after letter from workmen, officials and others, attacking, approving and bringing new suggestions. Larin, Semashko, Pyatakov, Bucharin all took a hand in the discussion. Larin saw in the proposals the beginning of the end of the revolution, being convinced that authority would pass from the democracy of the workers into the hands of the specialists. Rykov fell upon them with sturdy blows on behalf of the Trades Unions. All, however, agreed on the one point-that something of the sort was neccesary. On December 27th a Commission for studying the question of industrial conscription was formed under the presidency of Trotsky. This Commission included the People's Commissars, or Ministers, of Labor, Ways of Communication, Supply, Agriculture, War, and the Presidents of the Central Council of the Trades Unions and of the Supreme Council of Public Economy. They compiled a list of the principal questions before them, and invited anybody interested to bring them suggestions and material for discussion.

But the discussion was not limited to the newspapers or to this Commission. The question was discussed in Soviets and Conferences of every kind all over the country. Thus, on January 1st an All-Russian Conference of local "departments for the registration and distribution of labor," after prolonged argument, contributed their views. They pointed out

(1) the need of bringing to work numbers of persons who instead of doing the skilled labor for which they were qualified were engaged in petty profiteering, etc.;

(2) that there evaporation of skilled labor into unproductive speculation could at least be checked by the introduction of labor books, which would give some sort of registration of each citizen's work;

(3) that workmen can be brought back from the villages only for enterprises which are supplied with provisions or are situated in districts where there is plenty. ("The opinion that, in the absence of these preliminary conditions, it will be possible to draw workmen from the villages by measures of compulsion or mobilization is profoundly mistaken.")

(4) that there should be a census of labor and that the Trades Unions should be invited to protect the interests of the conscripted.

Finally, this Conference approved the idea of using the already existing military organization for carrying out a labor census of the Red Army, and for the turning over to labor of parts of the army during demobilization, but opposed the idea of giving the military organization the work of labor registration and industrial conscription in general.

On January 22, 1920, the Central Committee of the Communist Party, after prolonged discussion of Trotsky's rough memorandum, finally adopted and published a new edition of the "theses," expanded, altered, almost unrecognizable, a reasoned body of theory entirely different from the bundle of arrows loosed at a venture by Trotsky. They definitely accepted the principle of industrial conscription, pointing out the immediate reasons for it in the fact that Russia cannot look for much help from without and must somehow or other help herself.

Long before the All-Russian Congress of the Communist Party approved the theses of the Committee, one form of industrial conscription was already being tested at work. Very early in January, when the discussion on the subject was at its height, the Soviet of the Third Army addressed itself to the Council of Defense of the Republic with an invitation to make use of this army (which at least for the moment had finished its military task) and to experiment with it as a labor army. The Council of Defense agreed. Representatives of the Commissariats of Supply, Agriculture, Ways and Communications, Labor and the Supreme Council of Public Economy were sent to assist the Army Soviet. The army was proudly re-named "The First Revolutionary Army of Labor," and began to issue communiques from the Labor front," precisely like the communiques of an army in the field. I translate as a curiosity the first communique issued by a Labor Army's Soviet:

"Wood prepared in the districts of Ishim, Karatulskaya, Omutinskaya, Zavodoutovskaya, Yalutorovska, Iushaly, Kamuishlovo, Turinsk, Altynai, Oshtchenkovo, Shadrinsk, 10,180 cubic sazhins. Working days, 52,651. Taken to the railway stations, 5,334 cubic sazhins. Working days on transport, 22,840. One hundred carpenters detailed for the Kizelovsk mines. One hundred carpenters detailed for the bridge at Ufa. One engineer specialist detailed to the Government Council of Public Economy for repairing the mills of Chelyabinsk Government. One instructor accountant detailed for auditing the accounts of the economic organizations of Kamuishlov. Repair of locomotives procceding in the works at Ekaterinburg. January 20, 1920, midnight."

The Labor Army's Soviet received a report on the state of the district covered by the army with regard to supply and needed work. By the end of January it had already carried out a labor census of the army, and found that it included over 50,000 laborers, of whom a considerable number were skilled. It decided on a general plan of work in reestablishing industry in the Urals, which suffered severely during the Kolchak regime and the ebb and flow of the civil war, and was considering a suggestion of one of its members that if the scheme worked well the army should be increased to 300,000 men by way of mobilization.

On January 23rd the Council of Defense of the Republic, encouraged to proceed further, decided to make use of the Reserve Army for the improvement of railway transport on the Moscow-Kazan railway, one of the chief arteries between eastern food districts and Moscow. The main object is to be the reestablishment of through traffic between Moscow and Ekaterinburg and the repair of the Kazan-Ekaterinburg line, which particularly suffered during the war. An attempt was to be made to rebuild the bridge over the Kama River before the ice melts. The Commander of the Reserve Army was appointed Commissar of the eastern part of the Moscow-Kazan railway, retaining his position as Commander of the Army. With a view of coordination between the Army Soviet and the railway authorities, a member of the Soviet was also appointed Commissar of the railway. On January 25th it was announced that a similar experiment was being made in the Ukraine. A month before the ice broke the first train actually crossed the Kama River by the rebuilt bridge.

By April of this year the organization of industrial conscription had gone far beyond the original labor armies. A decree of February 5th had created a Chief Labor Committee, consisting of five members, Serebryakov and Danilov, from the Commissariat of War; Vasiliev, from the Commissariat of the Interior; Anikst, from the Commissariat of Labor; Dzerzhinsky, from the Commissariat of Internal Affairs. Dzerzhinsky was President, and his appointment was possibly made in the hope that the reputation he had won as President of the Extraordinary Committee for Fighting Counter-Revolution would frighten people into taking this Committee seriously. Throughout the country in each government or province similar committees, called "Troikas," were created, each of three members, one from the Commissariat of War, one from the Department of Labor, one from the Department of Management, in each case from the local Commissariats and Departments attached to the local Soviet. Representatives of the Central Statistical Office and its local organs had a right to be present at the meeting of these committees of three, or "Troikas," but had not the right to vote. An organization or a factory requiring labor, was to apply to the Labor Department of the local Soviet. This Department was supposed to do its best to satisfy demands upon it by voluntary methods first. If these proved insufficient they were to apply to the local "Troika," or Labor Conscription Committee. If this found that its resources also were insufficient, it was to refer back the request to the Labor Department of the Soviet, which was then to apply to its corresponding Department in the Government Soviet, which again, first voluntarily and then through the Government Committee of Labor Conscription, was to try to satisfy the demands. I fancy the object of this arrangement was to prevent local "Troikas" from referring to Government "Troikas," and so directly to Dzerzhinsky's Central Committee. If they had been able to do this there would obviously have been danger lest a new network of independent and powerful organizations should be formed. Experience with the overgrown and insuppressible Committees for Fighting Counter-Revolution had taught people how serious such a development might be.

Such was the main outline of the scheme for conscripting labor. A similar scheme was prepared for superintending and safeguarding labor when conscripted. In every factory of over 1,000 workmen, clerks, etc., there was formed a Commission (to distinguish it from the Committee) of Industrial Conscription. Smaller factories shared such Commissions or were joined for the purpose to larger factories near by. These Commissions were to be under the direct control of a Factory Committee, thereby preventing squabbles between conscripted and non-conscripted labor. They were to be elected for six months, but their members could be withdrawn and replaced by the Factory Committee with the approval of the local "Troika." These Commissions, like the "Troikas," consisted of three members: (1) from the management of the factory, (2) from the Factory Committee, (3) from the Executive Committee of the workers. (It was suggested in the directions that one of these should be from the group which "has been organizing 'Saturdayings,' that is to say that he or she should be a Communist.)The payment of conscripted workers was to be by production, with prizes for specially good work. Specially bad work was also foreseen in the detailed scheme of possible punishments. Offenders were to be brought before the "People's Court" (equivalent to the ordinary Civil Court), or, in the case of repeated or very bad offenses, were to be brought before the far more dreaded Revolutionary Tribunals. Six categories of possible offenses were placed upon the new code:

(1)Avoiding registration, absenteeism, or desertion.
(2)The preparation of false documents or the use of such.
(3)Officials giving false information to facilitate these crimes.
(4)Purposeful damage of instruments or material.
(5)Uneconomical or careless work.
(6)(Probably the most serious of all) Instigation to any of these actions.

The "Troikas" have the right to deal administratively with the less important crimes by deprival of freedom for not more than two weeks. No one can be brought to trial except by the Committee for Industrial Conscription on the initiative of the responsible director of work, and with the approval either of the local labor inspection authorities or with that of the local Executive Committee.

No one with the slightest knowledge of Russia will suppose for a moment that this elaborate mechanism sprang suddenly into existence when the decree was signed. On the contrary, all stages of industrial conscription exist simultaneously even today, and it would be possible by going from one part of Russia to another to collect a series of specimens of industrial conscription at every stage of evolution, just as one can collect all stages of man from a baboon to a company director or a Communist. Some of the more primitive kinds of conscription were not among the least successful. For example, at the time(in the spring of the year)when the Russians still hoped that the Poles would be content with the huge area of non-Polish territory they had already seized, the army on the western front was without any elaborate system of decrees being turned into a labor army. The work done was at first ordinary country work, mainly woodcutting. They tried to collaborate with the local "Troikas," sending help when these Committees asked for it. This, however, proved unsatisfactory, so, disregarding the "Troikas," they organized things for themselves in the whole area immediately behind the front. They divided up the forests into definite districts, and they worked these with soldiers and with deserters. Gradually their work developed, and they built themselves narrow-gauge railways for the transport of the wood. Then they needed wagons and locomotives, and of course immediately found themselves at loggerheads with the railway authorities. Finally, they struck a bargain with the railwaymen, and were allowed to take broken-down wagons which the railway people were not in a position to mend. Using such skilled labor as they had, they mended such wagons as were given them, and later made a practice of going to the railway yards and in inspecting "sick" wagons for themselves, taking out any that they thought had a chance even of temporary convalescence. Incidentally they caused great scandal by finding in the Smolensk sidings among the locomotives and wagons supposed to be sick six good locomotives and seventy perfectly healthy wagons. Then they began to improve the feeding of their army by sending the wood they had cut, in the trains they had mended, to people who wanted wood and could give them provisions. One such train went to Turkestan and back from the army near Smolensk. Their work continually increased, and since they had to remember that they were an army and not merely a sort of nomadic factory, they began themselves to mobilize, exclusively for purposes of work, sections of the civil population. I asked Unshlicht, who had much to do with this organization, if the peasants came willingly. He said, "Not very," but added that they did not mind when they found that they got well fed and were given packets of salt as prizes for good work. "The peasants," he said, "do not grumble against the Government when it shows the sort of common sense that they themselves can understand. We found that when we said definitely how many carts and men a village must provide, and used them without delay for a definite purpose, they were perfectly satisfied and considered it right and proper. In every case, however, when they saw people being mobilized and sent thither without obvious purpose or result, they became hostile at once." I asked Unshlicht how it was that their army still contained skilled workmen when one of the objects of industrial conscription was to get the skilled workmen back into the factories. He said: "We have an accurate census of the army, and when we get asked for skilled workmen for such and such a factory, they go there knowing that they still belong to the army."

That, of course, is the army point of view, and indicates one of the main squabbles which industrial conscription has produced. Trotsky would like the various armies to turn into units of a territorial militia, and at the same time to be an important part of the labor organization of each district. His opponents do not regard the labor armies as a permanent manifestation, and many have gone so far as to say that the productivity of labor in one of these armies is lower than among ordinary workmen. Both sides produce figures on this point, and Trotsky goes so far as to say that if his opponents are right, then not only are labor armies damned, but also the whole principle of industrial conscription. "If compulsory labor-independently of social condition-is unproductive, that is a condemnation not of the labor armies, but of industrial conscription in general, and with it of the whole Soviet system, the further development of which is unthinkable except on a basis of universal industrial conscription."

But, of course, the question of the permanence of the labor armies is not so important as the question of getting the skilled workers back to the factories. The comparative success or failure of soldiers or mobilized peasants in cutting wood is quite irrelevant to this recovery of the vanished workmen. And that recovery will take time, and will be entirely useless unless it is possible to feed these workers when they have been collected. There have already been several attempts, not wholly successful, to collect the straying workers of particular industries. Thus, after the freeing of the oil-wells from the Whites, there was a general mobilization of naphtha workers. Many of these had bolted on or after the arrival of Krasnov or Denikin and gone far into Central Russia, settling where they could. So months passed before the Red Army definitely pushed the area of civil war beyond the oil-wells, that many of these refugees had taken new root and were unwilling to return. I believe, that in spite of the mobilization, the oil-wells are still short of men. In the coal districts also, which have passed through similar experiences, the proportion of skilled to unskilled labor is very much smaller than it was before the war. There have also been two mobilizations of railway workers, and these, I think, may be partly responsible for the undoubted improvement noticeable during the year, although this is partly at least due to other things beside conscription. In the first place Trotsky carried with him into the Commissariat of Transport the same ferocious energy that he has shown in the Commissariat of War, together with the prestige that he had gained there. Further, he was well able in the councils of the Republic to defend the needs of his particular Commissariat against those of all others. He was, for example able to persuade the Communist Party to treat the transport crisis precisely as they had treated each crisis on the front-that is to say, to mobilize great numbers of professed Communists to meet it, giving them in this case the especial task of getting engines mended and, somehow or other, of keeping trains on the move.

But neither the bridges mended and the wood cut by the labor armies, nor the improvement in transport, are any final proof of the success of industrial conscription. Industrial conscription in the proper sense of the words is impossible until a Government knows what it has to conscript. A beginning was made early this year by the introduction of labor books, showing what work people were doing and where, and serving as a kind of industrial passports. But in April this year these had not yet become general in Moscow although the less unwieldy population of Petrograd was already supplied with them. It will be long even if it is possible at all, before any considerable proportion of the people not living in these two cities are registered in this way. A more useful step was taken at the end of August, in a general census throughout Russia. There has been no Russian census since 1897. There was to have been another about the time the war began. It was postponed for obvious reasons. If the Communists carry through the census with even moderate success (they will of course have to meet every kind of evasion), they will at least get some of the information without which industrial conscription on a national scale must be little more than a farce. The census should show them where the skilled workers are. Industrial conscription should enable them to collect them and put them at their own skilled work. Then if, besides transplanting them, they are able to feed them, it will be possible to judge of the success or failure of a scheme which in most countries would bring a Government toppling to the ground.

"In most countries"; yes, but then the economic crisis has gone further in Russia than in most countries. There is talk of introducing industrial conscription (one year's service) in Germany, where things have not gone nearly so far. And perhaps industrial conscription, like Communism itself, becomes a thing of desperate hope only in a country actually face to face with ruin. I remember saying to Trotsky, when talking of possible opposition, that I, as an Englishman, with the tendencies to practical anarchism belonging to my race, should certainly object most strongly if I were mobilized and set to work in a particular factory, and might even want to work in some other factory just for the sake of not doing what I was forced to do. Trotsky replied: "You would now. But you would not if you had been through a revolution, and seen your country in such a state that only the united, concentrated effort of everybody could possibly reestablish it. That is the position here. Everybody knows the position and that there is no other way."