It wasn’t co-living, it was something much better

3 February, 2021 · History

Articles promoting co-living are popping up in the press. They specifically target young workers (no students allowed, as pointed out by TeleMadrid) and sell a way of life based on an idea of community offering the promise of overcoming isolation and atomization. In reality: shared apartments with minimal individual spaces at prices which not long ago would have been charged for a family house; housing precariousness beyond the mini-house level based on a false collectivist bond and commodified interpersonal relationships. These are certainly similar to the oppressive and miserable stalinist komunalkas which are also now coming back, but light years away from the collective and communal housing movements of the workers’ movement up to and during the Russian Revolution.

The first discourses on co-living that made it into the mass media told us of nursing homes born as seniors’ cooperatives which held out against the pandemic massacre. We reminded then that, despite the value of the proposal, we could not expect nursing homes to stop being what they are: instruments for placing capital in which profitability takes precedence over everything else, as we have seen. What is more, we pointed out that the first experiences of collectivist urbanism were self-organized by workers during the peak years of the Second International and we saw how that context of mass organization of workers had shaped the experience. More interesting to us were the questions that militant workers asked themselves at that time than their achievements.But the truth is that those realizations went further than the supposed innovative models that are currently presented to us.

But with the new meaning of co-living as a shared apartment it no longer even fits the comparison with the old worker cooperative housing system based on collectivized services designed to minimize and automate household chores.

However, there is a working class and militant tradition that, more than once, shared a flat… but with forms, rules and modes diametrically opposed to what is being sold to us now.

Communalism in Russia prior to 1917

Second house built in the Krinitza collectivity-artel, Krasnodar, on the Black Sea

Since the publication of Chernishevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, communalism had spread as a way of life of the radical Russian opposition to tsarism. Both among the left SR and Menshevik cadres and among anarchists and Bolsheviks.

We cannot understand this without the detailed references in Chernishevsky’s novel to Robert Owen’s communitarian and cooperative experiences. Indeed, the novel’s push for communist morality translated into a broad movement, first of residential communes of students; then of rural populist artels that would end up partly in Tolstoianism and partly in cooperativism, though some became private enterprises; finally, from the 1890s, groups of workers formed urban artels, a movement that would proliferate during the revolution and which at the end of the 1920s -before being banned by Stalin- would take the form of production collectives. In both the artels and the Residential Communes, members shared all income in a common fund that met everyone’s needs. The difference is that in the artels and production communities members not only lived together but worked together — either as a work cooperative or as a crew — while in the residential communes members worked in outside occupations and then contributed their wages and income to the common fund.

Chernishevsky’s influence during the 1860s and beyond was strong. It is known that nihilists looked to the pages of What Is To Be Done? for clues on how to organize artels and residential communes. Some of the most important radicals of the 1870s came out of a communal environment. When arrested, revolutionaries often took the communal idea to prison. The men and women of the Kara Penal Colony shared all property, read to each other, and lived according to a strictly written constitution.

Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution
Martov and Lenin at a meeting of the “Emancipation” group in 1897.

In 1890 a young Lenin, waiting for authorization to take his exams, met Preobrazhensky when the latter was organizing artels in Alakaievka; years later, the original core of Iskra consisting of Lenin himself, Martov and Zasulich lived as a Residential Commune in Petrograd. And when they moved to London, Lenin’s place – who decided to live with his family because he could not stand the disorder which always accompanied Zasulich – was taken by Trotsky. The politicized young Russians of the 1880s and 1890s would adopt a certain way of life that would make militant dedication natural in their milieux.

Chernishevsky’s What Is To Be Done had served to bring to a generation a glimmer of communist morality; the youth of the time had transformed their way of life in accordance with it by spreading a first communalist movement, and in so doing, had created the basis for the arrival of the ideas and texts of the international workers’ movement and the appearance of the first Russian Marxist groups, even before the existence of a modern and massive proletariat in the country.

However, the militants represented in that only a part, the most visible part perhaps, but in reality only a part of a common communal culture in the Russian proletariat.

Worker Semen Kanatchikov eloquently describes such a commune of fifteen workers in one large room, their beds framing a table. At mealtime they ate from a common bowl (as in the village hut) and ritually fought for the meat at the bottom. Not dozens, but hundreds of thousands of workers lived this way in the generation before the Revolution.

Revolutionary dreams, Richard Stites

Communalism during the Russian Revolution

The development and triumph of the revolution could only further fuel a spontaneous movement that fed on accumulated experience as much as on deeper tendencies in the class nature.

It is very striking that although the proliferation of workers’ communes starts from before the February revolution, it will not be interpreted either by the Bolsheviks or by its own protagonists as a proper movement until 1921, the year of the NEP (New Economic Policy). There is then a burgeoning of what Nadezhda Krupskaya would then call young workers’ communes.

The NEP was a standstill, forced by the stagnation of the socialist revolution in Europe, of the dynamic of permanent revolution of the revolution in Russia. It froze the social revolution, which had already broken out occasionally and spontaneously under war communism, into what Lenin defined as state capitalism under conditions of proletarian dictatorship.

The very contradiction present in the formula evidences that the NEP was a desperate attempt to rebuild a productive fabric ravaged by civil war and famine, whose breakdown had practically disbanded the organized proletariat that had carried out the revolution while emptying the soviets of the life of October. Communalism would then become the refuge and the way of expressing in the new framework the still living tendencies towards social revolution.

At a time when stalinism was already crushing industrial communalism in 1931, doctors at the Institute of Sanitary Culture published a study of youth communes in Soviet cities. Of the three typologies that stand out, the post-May ’68 British historians, who are those who have dealt the most with the subject, emphasize that of the communities where the members work in different factories and there is no direct link of the community with any factory in particular. They are the least numerous and the closest to the pre-revolutionary communal tradition, where resistance to poverty, community values and the desire to affirm a new communist morality coexist. For the same reason, they are the least interesting to the study’s authors, even if they were part of the normality of the NEP.

Never in history has a society or a revolution produced such massive communalism. Hundreds of urban communes, thousands of rural ones and tens of thousands of working communes sprouted in the vastness of Russian land in the form of phalansteries, apartments carved out of open space, stores and barracks planted next to large steel factories and power plants. Communalism was the main site of revolutionary utopia, the point where many other currents converged, where the flag of equality waved most visibly and honestly. […]

An imaginative workers’ group – no doubt inspired by the principles of the artel – consisted of five workers holding four jobs while one of them rotated in housework. A Leningrad commune of workers from three famous factories (Skorokhod, Red Triangle, and Red Putilov) established its commune in a closed synagogue.

Workers’ urban residential communes were by no means limited to the two capitals (incomplete data record sixty of them in 1930), although material on them elsewhere is less abundant. In distant Nizhny Tagil in the Urals, two young Komsomols founded in 1930 a commune with ten families in a two-story house formerly owned by a merchant. Each member was obliged to take part in the public activity of the town or workplace.

Revolutionary dreams, Richard Stites

Soviet doctors however highlighted at the time the production communes in which members worked together in a single factory and pooled wages, redistributing them as appropriate in equal shares, according to the workers’ cooperative tradition or according to needs, according to the same communal-communist logic since the time of Cabet. They add that the number of these communes in which workers live by sharing buildings or floors of them that they arrange according to their needs is greater than that of communes in which workers have kept their own housing.

In 1921 there were 865 in Moscow and 242 in Kharkov. According to an architectural historian, they had communal kitchens, dining rooms, kindergartens, nurseries, red corners, reading rooms and laundries. A Petrograd commune in 1919 had 230 members, and a workers’ commune at the Kiev Arsenal Works, 80, although these were atypically large. Under war communism, even those who did not live in communes could benefit from public (and often free) food in a network of cafeterias opened by the state.

The dining room, laundry, kitchen, and children’s room provided the communal framework. Each family had its own room but was not allowed to bring food into it. All women worked, but a nanny and a cook were hired for domestic work. Guests were allowed to stay for free. The communards pooled their wages, met at mealtimes and in the evenings to discuss. This commune suffered the blows of the massive reallocation of workers in 1932 and did not survive. It was one of many that disappeared in the frenzy of the five-year plan.

Revolutionary dreams, Richard Stites

Another important expression of communalist tendencies during the retreat of the revolution was the appearance of production collectives, similar in everything to the model from which the Degania kibbutz emerged. Their argument pitted NEP tendencies against the demand for socialist wages. Both Stites and Andy Willimot in Living the Revolution (2018), cite numerous statements by their members claiming that their goal is to implement the communist form of labor.

By sharing wages equally, we get closer to our comrades. Our goal… is a common life based on communist principles

The Proletarian Titan by Mayakovsky

The collectives built up a vast network of collaboration and associated work that reportedly came to group 134,030 crews and communes. They considered themselves shock workers, but were concentrated in metal and textiles, the heart of Russian industry at the time.

These collectives will voice, during the second half of the 1920s, the social and political resistance to the NEP of an important part of the militant Russian proletariat. In an environment of increasing repression of tendencies and silencing of strikes, the collectives will maintain their soviet legitimacy thanks to their impressive productivity records, and will not give up skill-enhancing and consciousness-raising activities of the workers until stalinism directly confronted them. When it does so it will have to confront them ideologically as well, shamelessly assaulting them on the supposedly harmful character of their egalitarianism. With the first massive repression and deportation of tens of thousands of members of the Left Opposition beginning in 1929, the attack on the collectives also begins. By 1931-32 there will be practically none left.

What can we learn from these collective experiences

Commune, by Mayakovsky

These were certainly the very opposite of what is being sold to us now. To begin with, they were not the result of an organizer, an entrepreneurial landlord willing to make a profit from the last square inch. Far from accounting every consumption and every need, what moved them was a practical will to decommodify human relations.

The hundreds of thousands of workers involved in this gigantic class experience aimed to advance decommodification in the only sphere in which they could do so at the time. But what is really interesting is that they understood that the way to do so began with becoming a conscious collective worker. Sharing income and consumption was only a part, sometimes a catalyst, sometimes a consequence, of the whole they were fighting for: to emancipate labor – and with it life – from capitalist relations as a class. All were first steps, all were attempts, but the fundamental thing deserves to be remembered: permanent tension towards decommodification, collective discussion and learning, reinventing work and guiding one’s own work collectively by the criterion of contributing to the needs of the class as a whole at that time…

Much more than a lifestyle. And just the opposite of the precarization and commodification of using the fridge and the dishwasher.

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