Soviet Communes

A Socialist History Meeting held on Saturday 18th May 2019

A talk  by Dr Andy Willimott, author, Living the Revolution: Urban Communes and Soviet Socialism, 1917 – 1932

A Report of the Meeting from Duncan Bowie:

Andy gave a talk on his book: Living the Revolution: urban communes and soviet socialism 1917-1932. His interest was in history as the lived experience of ordinary people, rather than as something imposed on the populace by elites. The study was of groups of revolutionaries, mainly Bolshevik students who established communes in the early years of the revolution. These were visionary experiments in collective living, sharing space and property either in dormitories or flats. Andy stressed that Bolshevism was urban based – ‘more hammer than sickle’. He referred to the revolutionary cultural component of the communes, within the context of Alexandra Kollontai’s critique of traditional family life and journalism advocating collectivist life styles and Mayakovsky’s rejection of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in his 1912 manifesto- a Slap in the Face of Public Taste and Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to be Done ?, an inspiration for Lenin, whose main characters established a commune. The communes were emancipatory and participatory. He pointed to the work of Steve Smith and workers ejection of individual managers in factories.

The communes introduced collective cooking and eating, with meals the centre of communal socialisation and revolutionary discussion. Budgets and property were shared – even underwear was communal. Internal walls were torn down and replaced by open plan living. Communes had a red corner, with revolutionary literature and symbols. Communal living rejected convention – for example revolutionaries tended to throw coats on the floor – a ‘revolt against coat-hooks’. Leisure time was communalised with group visits to the theatre and concerts. There were different views on language-for example Trotsky saw swearing as a symbol of exploitation, while Stalin viewed expletives as evidence of working class self-assertion. Andy noted the interest of communards in the scientific management of time and production – there was enthusiasm for the concept of ‘Taylorism’ imported from the US. There was a commitment to hard work – laziness was seen as a feature of the previous aristocratic era. The notion of the egotistical ‘I’ was replaced by the collective WE. Communards kept diaries, which were then discussed collectively to develop ways of improving the commune’s efficiency. Communes established sub-committees, for example in relation to hygiene, cleaning, clothing, budget and political activity – a commune of 10 people could have 5 committees! Communes monitored their own performance in relation to national statistics on factors such as bathing and teeth cleaning. Communards also did not support exclusive relationships – mixed communes supported sexual equality and used contraception. If by accident children appeared, they were adopted by the commune. Men were required to do the ironing, though they were generally not competent. Communards also disregarded ornamentation within the communal home -for example rejecting net curtains which were seen as supporting bourgeois individualistic notions of privacy.

In response to questions, Andy gave the main sources for his research – a few biographies of and memoirs by participants; the Komsomol (Communist youth league) archive, revolutionary journals including student newspapers, records of university museums. There were questions in relation to the links between Bolshevik communes and earlier examples of communal living (including religious and utopian groups) and the impact on the kibbutz movement. Andy stressed that the communes were based on scientific socialism not romantic utopianism. There was a discussion on dissidence within communes, the role of confession, public critiques and the process of expulsion. Andy also discussed the decline of the urban communes as with the first 5-year plan, communards were dispersed across the country in work brigades and some communards became more involved within the disciplined Komsomol organisation. He pointed to the continuation of communal living in tent cities in pioneer settlements such as Magnitogorsk. He also noted that communards were critical of the New Economic Policy (NEP), seeing the introduction of apprenticeships as representing a return to capitalism. There was also a discussion of the attitude of communards to children, given the Soviet state’s need for a new generation of revolutionary workers.

Andy was thanked for a fascinating talk, which brought a sense of everyday life to a discussion of revolutionary politics.