Martin Glaberman 1967

The United States and the Russian Revolution

Source: Speak Out, (June 1967).
Transcribed: by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall.

In 1917 the largest and most modern factory in the world was the Putilov works in St. Petersburg. The social organization to correspond to that, however, was not in Russia at all. It was at the plant of the Ford Motor Company in Highland Park, Michigan. The Russian workers overthrew Czarism, and then the capitalist government of Kerensky, in order to take possession of the Putilov works and all the rest of Russian industry. But the social order which they were revolting against, and which they were to face again in another form, had reached its highest development at Ford.

Ford had introduced the assembly line to raise labor productivity to new heights. But the assembly line raised more than productivity. It raised the alienation and fragmentation of workers to new heights. And so Ford introduced a new social organization to correspond to the technological organization of the assembly line. This was the Ford Service Department which organized a totalitarian control over the lives of Ford workers, at work and at home, which was to become notorious for its viciousness, for its corruption and for its pervasiveness. Combined with the ultimate in alienation and control was the Five Dollar Day. This was evidence, right at the start of a new stage of capitalist production that the intensification of exploitation was no longer to be synonymous with low wages.

What the Ford system was, was the embryonic form, limited to one company and one community, of fascism or totalitarianism. When the Ford system of production became the universal one in all industrial nations, the attempt to impose the Ford social system also became universal. It was successful in Italy. It was successful in Germany. And it was the system which Stalin turned to destroy the conquests of 1917 and to industrialize Russia at the expense of the Russian workers. Harry Bennett’s Service Department on the grand scale – the GPU, organizer of purges, organizer of assassinations, organizer of slave labor camps.

In one sense, the fact that the peak of capitalist social organization had been reached in the United States and not in Russia was a sign of the weakness of the Russian working class. Although the Putilov works was the largest in the world and contained under its roof the largest concentration of workers ever assembled until that time, Russian industry as a whole was small and weak. And the Russian working class was small and weak. Not, of course, in relation to Czarism, but in relation to the needs of a modern industrial civilization.

The American working class, despite the greater intensity of its exploitation in 1917 and in the years that followed, proved powerful enough to prevent the imposition of the Ford social system, that is, fascism, on the nation as a whole. The attempts to impose totalitarian order and regimentation on the nation, especially after the explosions of the depression days, were continuous. Fascist organizations were formed and reached considerable strength in some instances. And the interest in promoting an imposed social peace on the nation through totalitarian instruments reached into the New Deal cabinet of Franklin Roosevelt. But the outbursts, the strikes, the sitdowns, the political organization proved stronger than the counter-revolution and what emerged was Welfare State Capitalism instead of Totalitarian State Capitalism.

Now, after 50 years, we have come full circle and Russian and American workers once again share a fundamentally similar situation. In the Soviet Union it took the organization of labor itself, the Communist Party, to impose the brutal discipline required by the needs of capital. The organization of labor transformed into its opposite, the instrument of capitalist discipline in production. In the United States too, although in more moderate form, the old social order proved inadequate to control and regiment the working class and one of the consequences of Welfare State Capitalism is that that task is more and more assumed by the organizations of labor, the unions. (In England the process is even more visible in the Labour Party.) Here, too, the organization of labor is transformed into its opposite, the instrument of capitalist discipline in production. And old Henry Ford knew what he was doing, his pattern is imitated to this day. He knew that he had to combine the carrot with the stick, the Five Dollar Day with the Service Department. So the union contracts of today combine the high wages and fringe benefits with the increase of discipline and intensification of the speed-up.

In 1917 it was still possible for different parts of the world to travel different roads. Today that is no longer true. What Russian workers will find it necessary to do, or what American workers will find it necessary to do, will also be done by their fellow workers on the other side of the world.