Tony Cliff

Russia: A Marxist analysis

Chapter I:
Socio-economic relations in Stalinist Russia
(Part 1)


Let us begin the study of the nature of the Stalinist regime by describing some of the salient features of the economic and social relations prevailing in Russia. A factual survey will serve as a basis for later analysis and generalisation.


The control of production [1]

Immediately after the revolution, it was decided that the management of every plant would be in the hands of the trade unions. Thus the programme of the Communist Party of Russia, adopted at the Eighth Party Congress (18-23 March 1919), declared:

The organised apparatus of social production must primarily depend on the trade unions ... They must be transformed into huge production units, enrolling the majority of the workers, and in due time all the workers, in the respective branches of production.

Inasmuch as the trade unions are already (as specified in the laws of the Soviet Republic and as realized in practice) participants in all the local and central organs administering industry, they must proceed to the practical concentration in their own hands of the work of administration in the whole economic life of the country, making this their unified economic aim. By thus protecting the indissoluble union between the central State authority, the national economy, and the broad masses of the workers, the trade unions must in the fullest possible measure induce the workers to participate directly in the work of economic administration. The participation of the trade unions in the conduct of economic life, and the involvement by them of the broad masses of the people in this work, would appear at the same time to be our chief aid in the campaign against the bureaucratisation of the economic apparatus of Soviet Power. This will facilitate the establishment of an effective popular control over the results of production.

The Party cells participated in the running of industry together with the workers’ plant committees. Together with these, and under their control, worked the technical manager: the combination of these three formed the Troika.

With the strengthening of the bureaucracy in the party and the trade unions, the Troika became more and more a mere label, it progressively rose above the mass of workers. Nevertheless, it remained amenable to workers’ pressure and retained some elements of workers’ control until the advent of the Five-Year Plan. A. Baykov, who is no supporter of workers’ control, but praises Stalin’s activities, says:

De facto, during that period [before the Five-Year Plan] the director was largely dependent on the work’ trade union organ, the “Zavkom” (the factory trade union committee) and on the party cell, the organ of the Communist Party at the enterprise. Representatives of these organisations considered it their duty to supervise the director’s activities and usually interfered with his decisions. [2]

With the big drive towards industrialisation, the Troika could no longer be tolerates, because its very existence would have prevented the complete subordination of the workers to the needs of capital accumulation. Hence, in February 1928, the Supreme Economic Council issued a document entitled Fundamental Regulations Regarding the Rights and Duties of the Administrative, Technical and Maintenance Staffs of Industrial Enterprises, which aimed at putting an end to the Troika and at establishing complete and unfettered control by the manager. [3] In September 1929, the Party Central Committee resolved that the workers’ committees “may not intervene directly in the running of the plant or endeavour in any way to replace plant administration; they shall by all means help to secure one-man management, increase production, plant development, and, thereby, improvement of the material conditions of the working class”. [4] The manager was placed in full and sole charge of the plant. All his economic orders were now to be “unconditionally binding on his subordinate administrative staff and on all workers”. [5] L.M. Kaganovich, the well-known trouble-shooter in the economic field, stated: “The foreman is the authoritative leader of the shop, the factory director is the authoritative leader of the factory, and each has all the rights, duties, and responsibilities that accompany these positions.” [6] His brother, M.M. Kaganovich, a senior official of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry, stated: “It is necessary to proceed from the basic assumption that the director is the supreme chief in the factory. All the employees in the factory must be completely subordinated to him.” [7]

One textbook on Soviet economic law, published in 1935, even went as far as to state: “One-man management [is] the most important principle of the organisation of socialist economy.” [8]

The Troika was officially buried in 1937 when, at a Plenum of the Central Committee, Zhdanov, then Stalin’s second-in-command, said: “the Troika is something quite impermissible ... The Troika is a sort of administrative board, but our economic administration is constructed along totally different lines.” [9]

The new system of management was very clearly defined in an official manual: “Each plant has a leader – the plant manager – endowed with the full power of decision, hence fully responsible for everything.” [10] Further, “one-man control implies strict demarcation between the administration on the one hand and Party and trade-union organisations on the other. This strict demarcation must be applied on all levels of industrial management. Current operations in fulfilment of the Plan are the task of the administration. The chief of a workshop, the manager of the plant, the head of the Glavk, a board of industry or branch of industry, has full powers, each within his field, and the Party and trade-union organisations may not interfere with their orders.” [11]

In light of these quotations, how preposterous are the words of the Dean of Canterbury: “The democracy of the workshop is the bulwark of Soviet liberty.” [12]

During the first few years after the revolution, both in law and in fact, only the trade unions were entitled to fix wage rates. During the NEP period they were fixed by negotiation between the unions and the management. Now, with the introduction of the Five-Year Plan, they were determined more and more by the economic administrative organs, such as the Commissariats and the Glavki, and the individual factory manager. This subject is dealt with in detail in a later section of the chapter, but a few typical quotations are given here in order to illustrate the views of the Soviet leaders on the right of the manager to fix wages. In June 1933, Weinberg, one of the principal union leaders, declared:

The proper determination of wages and the regulation of labour demand that the industrial heads and the technical directors be charged with immediate responsibility in this matter. This is also dictated by the necessity of establishing a single authority and ensuring economy in the management of enterprises ... They [the workers] must not defend themselves against their government. That is absolutely wrong. That is Left opportunistic perversion, the annihilation of individual authority and interference in the administrative departments. It is imperative that it be abolished. [13]

The following year, Ordzhonikidze, then Commissar of Heavy Industry, speaking at a conference of managers of heavy industry, said:

as directors, administrative heads and foremen, you must personally occupy yourselves with wages in all their concrete detail and not leave to anyone this most important matter. Wages are the most powerful weapon in your hands. [14]

Some time later, Andreev, a member of the Political Bureau, declared:

The wage scale must be left entirely in the hands of the heads of industry. They must establish the norm. [15]

And the anomalous situation was created that the “Piece Rates and Conflicts Commission”, while retaining its name was specifically excluded from intervening in the establishment of wage-rates and work-norm! [16]



The workers are not allowed to organise in defence of their interests

Under Lenin and Trotsky the workers had the right to defend themselves even from their own state. Thus, for instance, Lenin said: “Our present state is a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformation ... Our state is such that the completely organised proletariat must protect itself against it and we must utilise these workers’ organisations for protecting the workers from their own state, in order that the workers may protect our state ...” [17]

It was taken for granted that strikes were not to be suppressed by the state. At the Eleventh Party Congress only one party leader, V.P. Miliutin, proposed “not to permit strikes in state enterprises”. [18] All the others stated that it was the duty of party members to participate in them even if they did not agree with the majority who were in favour of striking. And indeed the first few years following the revolution witnessed a large number of strikes. Thus in 1922, 192,000 workers went on strike in state-owned enterprises; in 1923 the number was 165,000; in 1924, 43,000; in 1925, 34,000; in 1926, 32,900; in 1927, 20,100; in the first half of 1928, 8,900. In 1922 the number of workers involved in labour conflicts was three and a half million, and in 1923, 1,592,800. [19]

Today the trade unions, if they can be called trade unions, do nothing in defence of the workers’ interests. Their disregard is clearly illustrated in the fact that seventeen years elapsed (1932-49) between the Ninth and Tenth Congresses of the Trade Union Congress, years which witnessed far-reaching changes in workers’ conditions – such as the abolition of the seven-hour day, the introduction of Stakhanovism and of many draconic laws. Then the Congress finally did meet, it did not represent the workers at all, as its social composition shows: 41.5 per cent of the delegates were full-time trade union officials, 9.4 per cent were technicians, and only 23.5 per cent were workers. [20] (At the previous Congress, in 1932, 84.9 per cent of the delegates were workers.)

In addition, the “unions” have no say at all in the determination of wages. In 1934, collective agreements ceased to be drawn up. [21] In 1940, Shvernik, chairman of the Central Council of Trade Unions, gave the following explanation for the abrogation of collective agreements:

When the Plan becomes the decisive element of economic development, questions of wages cannot be decided independently of it. Thus the collective agreement as a form of regulating wages has outlived its usefulness. [A] [22]

In February 1947, so-called collective agreements were again drawn up, but the Stalinist leaders made it quite clear that these new agreements had no relation whatever to what is accepted elsewhere as collective agreements, as wages were not covered by them. As Shvernik wrote in the trade union monthly: “Any change in wages ... may be brought about only by government decision.” [23] And an official commentator on the labour law wrote accordingly: “It is taken for granted that present-day collective agreements must have a different content to those agreements which were made when wage rates and some other labour conditions were not established by government decree.” [24]

Textbooks on labour law published between 1938 and 1944 do not even mention the subject. However, in a textbook published somewhat later (in 1946) it is stated that:

Life itself has shown that the restoration of the practice of collective bargaining is not expedient. The collective agreement as a particular form of legal regulation of labour relations of wage-workers and salaried employees has outlived itself. Detailed regulations of all aspects of these relations by normative acts of the state do not leave a place for any contractual agreement concerning this or that labour condition. [25]

Thus a text-book on labour legislation, published in 1947, reproduced the Labour Code without including Article 58, which reads: “The amount of an employee’s payment for his work shall be determined by collective agreements and individual employment contracts.” [26] Instead we are told: “The amount of wages and salaries is at present fixed by the decisions of the government (or on the basis of its directives) ... In the determination of the amount of wages and salaries the agreement of the parties plays a subordinate role. It should not be contrary to law, and is allowed only within limits strictly provided for by law, for example, where the precise amount is fixed in instances in which the approved list of wages defines the rates as ‘from’ – ‘to’; or fixing the payment for part-time employment of a person having another job, and the like.” [27]

Likewise, A. Stephanov, Director of the Wages Division in the Central Council of Trade Unions, wrote: “Wage tables are wages are fixed by the government.” [28]

It is obvious that collective agreements which exclude any bargaining on wages – and that, after all, must necessarily be the workers’ main interest in any much agreement – and that are arrived at by means of a procedure that allows the government the decisive voice as regards all its main points, are nothing but a bureaucratic formality and a sham.



The atomisation of the working class

Although the vast industrial plants of modern capitalism undoubtedly act as a powerful objective factor in the integration of the workers as a class, the employers have at their disposal a number of effective methods of disrupting this unity. One of the most important of these of the fostering of competition between workers by means of piece-work systems. The same threat of hunger which can impel workers to unite against their employers, may also be made to lead to a fight for survival between one worker and another.

For instance, piece-work systems were used on a large scale in Nazi Germany for the same purpose. Franz Neumann wrote:

The class wage of the Socialist trade unions has been replaced by the “performance wage” (Leistungslohn) defined in Section 29 of the [Nazi] Charter of Labour. “It has been the iron principle of the National Socialist leadership,” said Hitler at the Party Congress of Honour, “not to permit any rise in the hourly wage rates but to raise income solely by an increase in performance.” The rule of the wage policy is a marked preference for piece work and bonuses, even for juvenile workers. Such a policy is completely demoralising, for it appeals to the most egotistic instincts and sharply increases industrial accidents. [29]

Neumann goes on to explain why the Nazis went to such lengths in applying the piece-work system:

The preponderance of the performance wage brings the problem of wage differentials into the forefront of social policy. It is essential that this problem be understood not as an economic question but as the crucial political problem of mass control ... Wage differentiation is the very essence of National Socialist wage policy ... the wage policy is consciously aimed at mass manipulation. [30]

The Stalinists use piece-work methods for the same purpose. After the introduction of the Five-Year Plans, the proportion of industrial workers paid on piece-rates rose very steeply: by 1930 it stood at 29 per cent of the total number of workers; by 1931 it had risen to 65 per cent of the total; by 1932 to 68 per cent. [31] By 1934 nearly three-quarters of all industrial workers were taking part in so-called “socialist competition”. [32]

In 1944 the following percentages of workers and employees in various industries participated: petroleum industry, 82 per cent; aviation, 81 per cent; armaments, 85 percent; machine-tool construction, 81 per cent; munitions, 81 per cent; automobile industry, 86 per cent; electrical-machine building, 83 per cent; rubber, 83 per cent; cotton industry, 91 per cent; the shoe industry, 87 per cent. [33] In 1949 more than 90 per cent of the workers participated in “socialist competition”. [34]

To make the competition even sharper, instead of simple piece-work in which payment is in direct proportion to output, as is the practice in other countries, progressive piece-work has been introduced in Russia. A couple of examples will illustrate how this operates.

A manual on the oil industry cites the following scale of payment [35]:

Percentage of
of norm

Percentage of
increment over
basic piece rate











71 and above


Thus a worker producing 50 per cent above the norm is paid 110 per cent above the norm; if his output was 70 per cent above the norm, his payment is 189 per cent above the norm; if it was 100 per cent above the norm his payment is 300 per cent above the norm, and so on.

The rise is even steeper in some other industries. Thus, for instance, in the plants of the Ministry of Machine-Tool Construction, the following progressive rates exist [36]:

Percentage of
of norm

Percentage of
increment over
basic piece rate







40 and above


Thus a worker producing 50 per cent above the norm is paid 200 per cent above the norm!

The progressive piece-rate system is doubly reactionary under Russian conditions. Since the amount of consumers’ goods available is predetermined by the Plan, and since workers who surpass the norm are able to buy a much larger share than is warranted by their output, it follows that workers who do not achieve the norm get even less than the share their output really warrants.

The progressive piece-rate system enables the state to depress the workers’ standard of living by continually raising the basic production norms. In fact, the launching of the Stakhanovite campaign at the end of 1935 was followed by changes in the norms of output in every industry. The new norms were not determined by the output of the average worker, but by “averaging the production of Stakhanovites with the average of other workers”. [37]

At the beginning of 1936 the norms of work in most major industries were raised as follows: coal by 22-27.5 per cent, iron and steel by 13-20 per cent, machine-building by 30-40 per cent, non-ferrous metallurgy by 30-35 per cent, oil industry by 27-29 per cent, chemicals by 34 per cent [38], textiles by 35-50 per cent and building by 54-80 per cent. [39]

There were further considerable rises during 1937 and 1938. As a result of these rises 60 per cent of the workers in the metal industry were unable to achieve the norm. [40] Later, on 16 April 1941, Shvernik stated that 22-32 per cent of the workers in all industries did not fulfil the norms. [41]

One preposterous result of the drive for the atomisation of the working class, and at the same time an inevitable effect of bureaucratic mismanagement, is the huge number of norms established. Thus, for instance, in 1939 the Commissariat of General Machine and Vehicle Construction alone had 2,026,000 work norms! [42]

Originally there was an institute responsible for checking these norms so as to ensure that they were compatible with maintaining workers’ health at a reasonable standard. Its abolition in 1936 [43] was a clear indication of the government’s determination to impose the full rigours of “free” competition between workers. And, of course, the Stakhanovites were a powerful instrument in the process. “The British worker, from his own peculiar point of view, as one who seeks to checkmate efforts to hasten the pace, would probably call them [the Stakhanovites] blacklegs,” [44] wrote Maynard. That the Russian workers are of the same opinion is shown by the numerous cases of “sabotage” or even murder of Stakhanovites by workers. [45]

Sometimes Stalinist writers are careless enough to draw a parallel between Stakhanovism and the most refined method of capitalist exploitation – Taylorism. Thus, for instance, in an manual approved by the Ministry for Higher Education, designed for higher educational institutions of the petroleum industry, this remark is made: “The views and methods of Taylor in the field of increased utilisation of implements of labour are unconditionally progressive.” [46] (One should compare this with Lenin’s characterisation of Taylorism as “the enslavement of man by the machine”. [47])



The denial of any legal freedom to the worker

Until the first Five-Year Plan, workers were free to change their places of work at their own discretion. Their right to work where they pleased was, in fact, guaranteed by the Labour Code of 1922: “The transfer of a hired person from one enterprise to another or his shipment from one locality to another, even when the enterprise of institution moves, can take place only with the consent of the worker or employee concerned.” [48] Workers could also migrate, unhindered, from one part of the country to another. Even as late at 1930, it was stated in the Small Soviet Encyclopaedia that, “the custom of internal passports, instituted by the autocracy as an instrument of police oppression of the toiling masses, was suppressed by the October Revolution.” [49]

Nevertheless, by 1931 no worker was allowed to leave Leningrad without special permission. From 27 December 1932, this system was applied to all parts of Russia, and an internal passport system, much more oppressive than the Tsar’s, was introduced to prevent anyone changing his place of residence without permission. [50]

As early as 15 December 1930, all industrial enterprises were forbidden to employ people who had left their former place of work without permission [51], and Article 37 of the 1922 Labour Code, to which reference is made above, was abolished on 1 July 1932. [52]

Labour Books were introduced for industrial and transport workers on 11 February 1931, and on 20 December 1938, for all other workers. [53] These books must be shown to the director of the enterprise when a job is first taken on. Directors are instructed to specify in the book the reasons for dismissing the worker. No worker can obtain a new job unless he shows his Labour Book. The vicious way in which this works in practice was clearly illustrated by Victor Serge, when he wrote that: “The passport is visaed at the place of work. With each change of employ, the reason for the change is entered into the passport. I have known of workers discharged for not having come on the day of rest to contribute a ‘voluntary’ (and, naturally, gratuitous) day of work, in whose passports is written: ‘Discharged for sabotage of the production plan’.” [54]

Under a law of 15 November 1932, any worker who is absent from work for one day without good reason is liable to be dismissed, and, much more serious under Russian conditions, is liable to be evicted from his home, if it is tied to his place of employment [55], which is usually the case for industrial workers, miners, and so on.

On 4 December 1932, the Council of People’s Commissars and the Central Committee of the Party issued another decree aimed at absenteeism. This time, food supplies and other necessities were put under the control of the factory directors. [56]

A decree of 28 December 1938 [57], was aimed against those either arriving late at work, leaving before the scheduled time, unduly prolonging the lunch period or idling while at work. Offenders were liable to be transferred to work of a lower grade, and, if they committed three offences during one month or four in two months, to be dismissed. The official interpretation of the decree was that penalties milder than dismissal should be imposed only when the worker was less than twenty minutes late, or was idling for less than twenty minutes. If he were later than this on any one occasion, then he should be immediately dismissed. Besides losing his living accommodation, if attached to his place of employment, a dismissed worker suffers in other ways. For instance, not only pensions for disability, old-age and dependents, but also rates of sickness benefit depend upon the length of employment at one enterprise. To ensure the fulfilment of this new decree, it was stipulated that directors of enterprises and factory shops who did not impose these penalties would be liable to dismissal and penal prosecution. Nevertheless, after less than two years, it became obvious that, because of the shortage of labour, the threat of dismissal was not bringing about the desired results, and the punishments were revised. [58] As from 26 June 1940, instead of dismissal, any worker absent even for a single day without a reason satisfactory to the authorities was now liable to compulsory labour without confinement for up to six months at his usual place of work and to a reduction in wages of up to 25 per cent. Under this revised law, no worker may leave his job unless he is either physically unfit to work, or is accepted into an educational institution or is given special permission by a higher authority.

After the issue of this decree, unjustified attempts on the part of workers to get doctors’ certificates excusing them from work were punished very severely. Thus, for instance, Izvestia of 27 August 1940 reported: “The case of T.V. Timonin, born in 1915. On 23 August [the defendant] appeared at a clinic where he demanded that he be issued a doctor’s certificate excusing him from work. Becoming chagrined because the thermometer indicated only normal temperature, he indulged in debauchery and used unprintable language. He was sentenced on 23 August to three years in gaol and was not permitted to live in nine specified cities of the Soviet Union after the completion of the sentence.”

A few months after the promulgation of this law, some women wrote to the press suggesting that domestic servants should be made subject to this law. [59] It is an amazing commentary on the developments within USSR that, although disagreeing with the suggestion, Izvestia, the newspaper concerned, showed no astonishment that it should be made in a period of alleged “transition from socialism to communism”!

From the law against labour truancy it is merely a step to such a declaration as was made in the journal of the Department of Propaganda and Agitation of the Moscow Party Committee: “No one who does not use all 480 minutes for productive work is observing labour discipline.” [60] One may be sure that outside Russia not one worker in the world observes this necessary “socialist” standard!

On 19 October 1940 a decree was issued which allowed the administration of industry to carry out the “compulsory transfer of plant engineers, technicians, foremen, employees and skilled workers from one enterprise or institute to another”. [61]

A further savage curtailment of working class freedom was introduced by a decree of 26 December 1941. This decree imposed penalties ranging from five to eight years in prison for workers who left military industries without permission (the offenders to be tried by military tribunal). [62] Yet another, issued on 15 April 1943, placed railway workers under complete military discipline. They could be kept under arrest quite legally by order of their superiors for up to twenty days without trial and without an opportunity of appeal to the courts. [63] Similar regulations were applied to maritime and inland waterways workers [64], post, telegraph and radio employees, electric power employees and others. Offences such as leaving a job without permission were henceforth punished very harshly. [65] It is clear that these war regulations have continued in force after the war.

Very soon after the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy, in the late twenties, strikes were prohibited and strikers rendered liable to the death sentence. Since the abolition of capital punishment, the penalty has been twenty years’ penal sentence. It is true, of course, that strikes were not referred to by name, so that the following Article, decreed on 6 June 1927, is the only item in the Collection of Laws which could be interpreted by the courts as dealing with strikes: “Counter-revolutionary sabotage, i.e., knowingly omitting to discharge a given duty, or discharging it with deliberate carelessness, with the specific object of weakening the authority of the government or the government machine, entails deprivation of liberty for a period of not less than one year and confiscation of property in whole or in part, provided that where there are aggravating circumstances of a particularly serious nature, the penalty shall be increased to the supreme measure of social defence – death by shooting, with confiscation of property.” [66]

The significance of Stalinist labour legislation has been well summed up in these words: “in comparison with the legislation of the New Economic Policy period, when private enterprise was tolerated, the legal status of labour has changed for the worse. All the channels through which labour can plead its case in the capitalist world – legislation, courts, administrative agencies and trade unions – are in the Soviet Union the agency of the principal employer of industrial labour – the government. Another feature of the present Soviet labour law is the numerous penal provisions. The labour law is to a large extent criminal law.” [67]



Female labour

The conditions of the workers as a whole are certainly grim; those of women workers are simply appalling.

The Labour Code of 1922 prohibited the employment of women (and young persons) “in particularly heavy and unhealthy production, and in work underground”. [68] An order issued by the Commissariat of Labour and the Supreme Economic Council on 14 November 1923, prohibited the employment of women for work consisting entirely of carrying or moving loads exceeding 10 Russian pounds (4.1 kilograms). The carrying of loads up to 40 pounds (16.4 kilograms) was allowed only if it was directly connected with the woman’s normal work, and if it did not occupy more than one-third of her working day. [69] Today not one of these safeguards remains. For instance, women work in mines, often on the heaviest work in the pit, and the Soviet authorities describe this as a great achievement. The same applies to the carrying of heavy loads in the building industry, work as stevedores, railroad builders, and so on.

In 1932, the Scientific Council of the Commissariat of Labour asked four institutes charged with research into occupational disease in various coal-mining districts to investigate the effects of underground employment on women. The institute in the Caucasus coal district carried out a clinical investigation of 592 female coal workers, of whom 148 were employed in surface work and 444 underground, and arrived at the conclusion that underground work is no more harmful to expectant mothers than is surface work. Furthermore, “it was the unanimous consent of all institutes charged with this research that a considerable increase in female employment in coal mining, including various operations underground, is possible without any harm to the female body.” [70] Women in mines are doing all kinds of jobs, including loading and hewing, as is testified by the Russian press. One organ wrote: “For the first time in the Donetz Basin, a team of women loaders had been organised. Now 10 women of the Babicheva’s Brigade daily load fourteen to fifteen tons of coal each. This team has already its own hewing machine operator, Pauline Tantsyura.” [71]

Another official writer had this to say in 1937: “The most interesting point is that Soviet women have gained and continue to gain in those branches of industry which are closed to women in capitalist society, and which in capitalist countries are regarded as a man’s job from which women are ‘by nature’ excluded. Women thus play a very negligible role in capitalist mining industry. The proportion of women to the total numbers employed in the mining industries is, for France (1931), 2.7 per cent; for Italy (1931), 1.8 per cent; for Germany (1932), 1.0 per cent; USA (1930), 0.6 per cent; and in Great Britain, 0.6 per cent. In the USSR women represent 27.9 per cent of the total number of people working in the mining industry. The building trade offers a similar picture. In the countries mentioned above, the percentages for this trade range from 0.5 per cent (Italy) to 2.9 per cent (Germany). In the USSR women constitute 19.7 per cent. In the metal industries the percentages range from 3.0 per cent (USA) to 5.4 per cent (Great Britain). In the metal industries of the USSR, 24.6 per cent of all workers are women.” [72] The Stalinist author omitted to mention that there are two other countries besides the USSR where many women are employed in the mines – India and Japan [73], both notorious for the terrible conditions of the workers.

The following eye-witness account of the harsh conditions under which female labour is employed in building railways was given by Charlotte Haldane, who at the time was very well disposed to Stalin’s regime:

In Archangel it was necessary to lay down a light railway track for about five miles along the docks ... I watched this being done, entirely by women. The track, complete with points, was laid in forty-eight hours. They went at it day and night, by daylight and electric light. It was snowing and freezing nearly all the time, but this made no difference to their labours. All the cargo checkers were women, too. They worked in shifts, twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off. During their working period they had occasional brief rests of an hour or two, when they retired to a wooden hut on the quay, ate their cabbage soup and black bread, drank their imitation tea, had an uneasy doze in their clothes, and returned to work. [74]

Hindus, another of Stalin’s well-wishers, wrote:

One of the remarkable aspects of Russian life is the presence of women as day labourers. They work with pick and shovel, they carry heavy loads of lumber, they cart wheelbarrows. At the time that Moscow was building the subways women worked underground side by side with men. A common sight in any city is that of women laying bricks, putting in rafters, performing the other heavy tasks in construction. On night shifts they are as conspicuous on such jobs as on day shifts. [75]

Side by side with reports like these, how ironical sounds Stakhanov’s statement: “For the Soviet people work has become a pleasure.” [76]



Forced labour

In Russia forced labour exists in a number of forms and in varying degrees. For instance, contracts are made between kolkhoz chairmen and industrial plants, mines or transport undertakings, by which the kolkhoz undertakes to supply a certain number of workers. Such types of forced labour will, however, not be dealt with in this section. We shall deal only with forced labour in its extreme form, in the slave camps where labour power is not bought and sold as a commodity, because the labourer himself has no legal freedom.

Until the first Five-Year Plan, prison labour was on far too small a scale to have any real significance in the Russian economy. In 1928 there were only 30,000 prisoners in camps, and the authorities were opposed to compelling them to work. In 1927, the official in charge of prison administration wrote that: “The exploitation of prison labour, the system of squeezing ‘golden sweat’ from them, the organisation of production in places of confinement, which while profitable from a commercial point of view is fundamentally lacking in corrective significance – these are entirely inadmissible in Soviet places of confinement.” [77] At that time the value of the total production of all prisoners equalled only a small percentage of the cost of their upkeep.

With the inauguration of the Five-Year Plan, however, the situation changed radically. “Kiseliov-Gromov, himself a former GPU official in the northern labour camps, states that in 1928 only 30,000 men were detained in the camps ... The total number of prisoners in the entire network of camps in 1930 he gives as 662,257.” [78] On the evidence available, Dallin concludes that by 1931 there were nearly two million people in labour camps, by 1933-35 about five million, and by 1942, from eight to fifteen million. [79] The one-time leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party, Anton Ciliga, who was held in Russian concentration camps for many years, estimates that the number of prisoners at the height of the purges of the thirties reached about ten million. [80]

The extent of slave labour in USSR may be gauged not only from the reports published in the Russian press of heavy punishments for the most elementary crimes, such as theft of bread [B], but indirectly, from the statistics of voters. Everyone of eighteen years of age and over has the right to vote, except the inmates of forces labour camps. According to the census of 1939, 58.4 per cent of the population were aged eighteen and over at that time. By 1946, this percentage had almost certainly risen. For one thing, there was a smaller proportion of children in the new areas added to the USSR, such as Lithuania and Latvia, than in her 1939 territory, and, for another, the war not only caused a greater increase in the death rate of children than of adults, but also caused a sharp decline in the birth rate. But even assuming that the proportion of people aged eighteen and over was nearly the same in 1946 as in 1939, out of a population of 193 million there must still have been 112.7 million people in that age group. Yet only 101.7 million had the right to vote in the elections. According to this method of calculation, at least eleven million must have been in slave labour camps.

There are other pointers to the mass character of the forced labour camps. For instance, during the second world war the German Volga Republic was dissolved for alleged lack of loyalty to the regime, and its population was banished, in all probability to labour camps. In the areas of the USSR formerly occupied by the Germans a number of republics were dissolved. These dissolutions were not even mentioned in the press. And it was only when Pravda, on 17 October 1945, gave a list of the constituencies for the coming general elections that it was discovered that a number of republics had disappeared, since when one cannot know. They were the autonomous Crimean Tartar Republic, the Kalmuk Republic, and the Checheno-Ingush Republic, as well as the autonomous Karachev region. [81] The Kabardinian-Balkar autonomous Republic became the Kabardinian Republic after the expulsion of the Balkars. [82] The population of these regions was most than two million. No official information is available as to their whereabouts. Again, in all probability, they have been sent to labour camps.

But the clearest indication of the extent of slave labour in Russia from a Soviet official source is to be found in the State Plan of the Development of the National Economy of USSR for 1941. [83] According to this source the value of the gross output of all enterprises managed by the NKVD was planned to be, in 1941, 1,969 million roubles at 1926/27 prices. [84] What an advance since 1925, when the total output of all convict labour was 3.8 million roubles [85] – an increase of more than 500 times! If the output per prison worker was the same in 1941 as in 1925, there would have been as many as fifteen million slave labourers. Probably the productivity of labour in the camps was considerably higher in 1941 than in 1925, and probably the estimate of the output of NKVD enterprises in “fixed 1926/27 prices” was somewhat inflated. But even after making the necessary corrections, it is clear that slave camps hold millions of people.

The impossibility of computing exactly how many slaves there are in the camps is due to the complete absence of official statistics. Until the beginning of the thirties a considerable bulk of statistics was published relative to trials, prisons and prisoners, but since then, publication of such figures has ceased entirely. It is symptomatic, that a book called Court Statistics, by A.A. Gertsenzon (Moscow 1948), gives actual figures for the United States, Britain, Germany, Canada, India, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Greece, Holland, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, and Norway, but for the USSR gives only years I, II, etc. – without mentioning which they are – and about regions I, II, etc. – without mentioning which they are. It merely notes that in these regions there is a population of 4.7 million. Since that figure is a very small percentage of the total population of the USSR, neither absolute figures nor even general trends can be adduced therefrom.

It is highly significant that the published results of the 1939 census do not include the distribution of population according to districts. This information, which normal census tables always include, would have made it possible to estimate the number of people in slave camps with considerable accuracy, because there are certain districts that are definitely known to have almost no free population.

A clear proof of the presence of children, mothers, pregnant women, old men and women, in Russia’s labour camps was given by the amnesty decree of 27 March 1953. This released from prison and labour camps “women with children under ten years of age, men over 55 and women over 50, and also convicted persons suffering from grave, incurable illness”. [86]

Slave labour is generally very unproductive. The Russian government resorts to it on such an enormous scale simply because it is relatively so very much poorer in capital than in man-power compared with the advanced countries of Western Europe and the United States. At the same time, paradoxically, it serves to overcome bottlenecks caused by labour scarcity in certain regions and industries. At all periods of history, when labour has been scarce, the state has imposed legal restrictions on the freedom of the workers, as in Western Europe in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, and again in the seventeenth century. The slaves in Stalin’s camps are a crude version of the “army of unemployed” of traditional capitalism, that is, they serve to keep the rest of the workers ‘in their places’. In addition to this, it must be remembered that in the USSR there are many highly distasteful tasks to be accomplished (in the far north, for instance), which free or even semi-free workers could be induced to undertake only by the offer of very powerful incentives. In spite of its extremely low productivity, slave labour is, in such cases, the cheapest, if not the only, possible method. This is exemplified by the following extract from Izvestia. Describing operations on a new railway line built in Siberia by forced labour, it points out that: “Up to the present it was thought that the building season does not go beyond a hundred days in a year. The winter is very cold, 50° below zero. But the builders have proved, that even under such conditions, it is possible to work the whole year through without interruption.” [87]

One could not end the present section better than by quoting Vyshinsky’s words: “Work enthusiasm, socialist consciousness and the lofty feeling of duty towards the state, the fatherland and the Soviet people, decide questions of work discipline among us – not penalties or threat of criminal punishment as in capitalist countries.” [88]




A. It is interesting to note that books published for foreign consumption, such as Lozovsky’s Handbook on the Soviet Trade Unions, Moscow, 1937, pp.56-57 continue to describe collective agreements as if they still existed.

B. See below in this chapter, The subordination of man to property



1. For a very good description of the changes in the management of the Russian economy see G. Bienstock, S.M. Schwartz and A. Yugow, Management in Russian Industry and Agriculture, Oxford University Press 1944

2. A. Baykov, The Development of the Soviet Economic System, London 1946. p.115.

3. ibid., p.116.

4. All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in Resolutions and Decisions of the Congresses, Conferences and Plenums of the Central Committee (hereafter referred to as AUCP in Resol., (Russian) Moscow 1941, 6th ed. Vol.II, p.811.

5. ibid., p.812.

6. Socialism Victorious, London 1934, p.137.

7. Za Industrializatsiu (Organ of the Commissariat of Heavy Industry), Moscow, 16 April 1934

8. L. Gintzburg and E. Pashukanis, Course of Soviet Economic Law (Russian), Moscow 1935, Vol.1, p.8.

9. Pravda, 11 March 1937.

10. E.L. Granovski and B.L. Markus (eds.) The Economics of Socialist Industry (Russian), Moscow 1940, p.579.

11. ibid., p.563.

12. H. Johnson, Dean of Canterbury, The Socialist Sixth of the World, London 1944, 19th imp. p.280.

13. Trud (trade union daily), Moscow, 8 July 1933. Quoted by M. Gordon, Workers Before and After Lenin, New York 1941, pp.104-105.

14. G.K. Ordzhonikidze, Selection of Articles and Speeches, 1911-1937 (Russian), Moscow 1939, p.359.

15. Pravda, 29 December 1935.

16. Decision of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, 2 January 1933, Labour Legislation in the USSR (Russian), Moscow-Leningrad 1933, p.32.0

17. V.I. Lenin, Works (Russian), 4th ed. Vol.XX, pp.6-7 (hereafter the 4th ed. is always quoted unless otherwise stated).

18. Eleventh Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Stenographic Report. Held in Moscow, March-April 1922 (Russian), Moscow 1936, p.275.

19. Wage Labour in Russia (Russian), Moscow 1924, p.160; and Trade Unions in USSR 1926-1928 (Russian), Moscow 1928, p.358.

20. Trud, 23 April 1949.

21. G.N. Aleksandrov (ed.) Soviet Labour Law (Russian), Moscow 1949, p.166.

22. Professionalnye Soiuzy (monthly organ of the trade unions), Moscow 1940, Nos.4-5.

23. ibid. 1947, No.2.

24. I.T. Goliakov (ed.) Legislation Regarding Labour (Russian), Moscow 1947, p.15.

25. G.N. Aleksandrov and D.M. Genkin (eds.), Soviet Labour Law (Russian), Moscow 1946, p.106. See also G.N. Aleksandrov and G.K. Moskalenko (eds.) Soviet Labour Law (Russian), Moscow 1947, pp.100-101.

26. Labour Code of RSFSR (Russian), Moscow 1937, Article 58, p.28.

27. Goliakov, op. cit., p.15.

28. Trud, 13 April 1952.

29. F. Neumann, Behemoth, London 1942, pp.352-353.

30. ibid. p.353. My emphasis.

31. Baykov, op. cit. p.222.

32. G. Sorokin, Socialist Planning of the National Economy of USSR (Russian), Moscow 1946, p.95.

33. The Large Soviet Encyclopaedia, Vol.USSR (Russian), Moscow 1948, Column 1751.

34. Trud, 20 April 1949.

35. A.I. Beskin, Organisation and Planning of Production in the Oil Extraction Industry (Russian), Moscow-Leningrad 1947, p.134.

36. Bolshevik (Organ of the Central Committee of the Party), Moscow 1952, No.5.

37. Za Industrializatsiu, Moscow, March 1936.

38. A.A. Arutinian and B.L. Markus (eds.), Development of Soviet Economy (Russian), Moscow 1940, p.492.

39. A. Yugow, Russia’s Economic Front for War and Peace, London 1942, p.193.

40. ibid. p.194.

41. Trud, 17 April 1941.

42. Mashinostroenie (Organ of the Commissariat of Machine Construction), Moscow, 11 May 1939.

43. Izvestia, 2 April 1936.

44. J. Maynard, The Russian Peasant: And Other Studies, London 1942, p.340.

45. For the earliest reported cases of the murder and sabotage of Stakhanovites after the introduction of Stakhanovism, see Izvestia, 23 August 1935, 27 September 1935, 2 and 5 October 1935; Pravda, 2, 21 and 22 November 1935; Trud 1 November 1935. Many more could be quoted.

46. Beskin, op. cit., p.31.

47. V.I. Lenin, Works (Russian), op. cit., Vol.XXI, p.135.

48. Labour Code 1922 (Russian), Moscow 1922, Article 37.

49. Quoted by V. Serge, Russia Twenty Years After, New York 1937, p.66.

50. A Collection of Laws and Ordinances of the Workers-Peasant Government of the USSR (hereafter referred to as Coll. Laws USSR), (Russian) Moscow 1932, No. 84, Article 516.

51. Izvestia, 17 December 1930.

52. Labour Code of RSFSR (Russian), Moscow 1937, Article 37, p.20.

53. Za Industrializatsiu, 12 February 1931; A Collection of Decisions and Ordinances of the Government of USSR (hereafter referred to as Coll. Decisions USSR) (Russian), Moscow 1938, No.58, Article 329.

54. Serge, op. cit. p.68.

55. A Collection of Laws and Ordinances of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government of RSFSR (hereafter referred to as Coll. Laws RSFSR), (Russian) Moscow 1932, No. 85, Article 371.

56. Decisions of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and the Council of People’s Commissars of USSR, concerning Most Important Problems of Socialist Construction (Russian), Leningrad 1933, pp.127-130.

57. Coll. Decisions USSR, 1939, No.1, Article 1.

58. Supreme Soviet USSR Gazette (Russian), Moscow 1940, No.20.

59. Izvestia, 30 December 1940.

60. Bloknot Agitatora (Organ of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Moscow Committee of the Party), Moscow 1952, No.4, pp.41-42.

61. Supreme Soviet USSR Gazette (Russian), Moscow 1940, No.42.

62. Aleksandrov and Genkin, op. cit., p.278.

63. ibid., pp.273-274.

64. ibid., p.275.

65. See G.N. Aleksandrov, Soviet Labour Law, 1949.

66. Coll. Laws RSFSR, 1927. No.49, Article 330; and Criminal Code of RSFSR (Russian), Moscow 1937, Article 58, Item 14. My emphasis.

67. V. Gsovski, Soviet Civil Law, Ann Arbor 1948, Vol.I, p.805.

68. Labour Code 1922 (Russian), Moscow 1922, Article 129, p.18.

69. Women Workers and their Protection in Russian Industry, International Labour Review, October 1929.

70. G.N. Serebrennikov, Zhenskii Trud v. SSSR, Moscow 1934, p.204. Quoted by J. Grunfeld in Women’s Work in Russia’s Planned Economy, Social Research, February 1942. Serebrennikov was careful, of course, not to include such information in his book, The Position of Women in the USSR, London 1937, written specifically for non-Russian readers.

71. Russian News Bulletin, 30 July 1941.

72. S. Wolfsson, Socialism and the Family, in Pod Znamenem Marksizma (Theoretical Organ of the Party), Moscow 1936, quoted by R. Schlesinger, The Family in the USSR, London 1949, p.287.

73. International Labour Conference, Eighteenth Session, Employment of Women on Underground Work in Mines of all Kinds, Geneva 1934, Report VI.

74. C. Haldane, Russian Newsreel, London 1942, p.151.

75. M. Hindus, Russia Fights On, London 1942, p.135.

76. Pravda, 1 January 1939.

77. D.J. Dallin and B.I. Nicolayesky, Forced Labour is Soviet Russia, London 1948, p.153.

78. ibid., p.52.

79. ibid., pp.54-62.

80. A. Ciliga, The Russian Enigma, London 1940, p.249.

81. Y. Gluckstein, Stalin’s Satellites in Europe, London 1952, pp.309-310.

82. W. Kolarz, Russia and her Colonies, London 1952, p.185.

83. Supplements to the Order of the Council of People’s Commissars of USSR and the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Russian), No.127, 17 January 1941. No date or place of publication given. Photographic copy by the Universal Press for the American Council of Learned Socialists, New York 1950.

84. ibid., p.10.

85. Dallin and Nicolayevsky, op. cit., p.165.

86. Pravda, 28 March 1953.

87. Izvestia, 20 December 1937.

88. A.Ya. Vyshinsky (ed.) The Laws of the Soviet State (Russian), Moscow 1938, pp.514-515.


Last updated on 29.8.2002