Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Isaac Deutscher 1950

Chapter VII: Road to Serfdom?

In this survey of their development the Soviet trade unions are seen as an organic part of the social fabric of the Soviet Union. Only in the context of the broad changes that have transformed Soviet society in the three decades of revolution can the role and functions of the trade unions be understood.

But it is only proper to ask what, if any, moral of international significance can be drawn from this survey. One conclusion frequently drawn is that in a planned economy there is little or no scope for normal trade-union activity, especially for the defence of the workers’ interests against the employer-state. Most admirers of the Soviet Union as well as its opponents seem to agree on this. In addition, the opponents of planned economy and socialism will see in the story of the Soviet trade unions a confirmation of their view that public ownership and economic planning drive the nations that have opted for these forms of social organisation, or upon whom these forms have been imposed, along the ‘road to serfdom’.

At first sight, the story of the Soviet trade unions appears to justify such a conclusion. The Soviet trade unions have often been used by the employer-state as an instrument of coercion against the working classes. As the organisation designed to forge the workers’ solidarity in their struggle for better living conditions, they have suffered complete atrophy. As bodies entrusted with the management of social insurance, and as welfare institutions they have certainly performed and are still performing very useful services; but these, whatever the official Soviet theory may be, they have performed as subsidiaries of the state administration, not as autonomous social bodies or working-class organisations in the accepted sense.

Yet, on closer analysis, the story of the Soviet trade unions does not really prove the case of the critics of planned economy. For what emerges from this survey is that the peculiar role which the Soviet unions have come to play has been conditioned not by the needs of planned economy as such but by the application of planning to an extremely low level of economic and cultural development, the level at which Russia stood until recently.

The essential condition in which planning can yield the fruits expected from it by its socialist adherents is that it should be applied to an economy of plenty and not to one of scarcity. All socialist advocates of planning, including the Bolsheviks, once used to argue that planned socialist economy could effectively begin only from roughly that level of industrial and cultural development which the older capitalist nations had already attained. At that level, it was argued, planning is both necessary and possible. It is necessary — in order to protect society from the wastefulness and moral degradation that result from recurring slumps, mass unemployment, social tension, mass neuroses, and military conflicts. It is possible, because the high output of material goods, and the accumulation of industrial-administrative skill and experience and, last but not least, of civilised habits of life enable society to advance in a civilised manner towards economic equality and rational social organisation. When the experiment in planned economy was begun, Russia was, and up to a point still is, far below the level at which such results could be expected.

The function of the Russian planned economy was primarily to carry out an industrial revolution such as the older capitalist countries had gone through long ago. This industrial revolution which elsewhere, either under the laissez-faire system or under bourgeois protectionism, extended over the lifetime of several generations, was in Russia compressed within little more than one decade, the last before the Second World War. Within that decade were also compressed all the horrors that attended earlier industrial revolutions. In a nation whose large-scale industry produced only three to four million tons of steel and only 30 million pairs of shoes for a population of 150 million (to take only two striking indices of Russian poverty towards the end of the 1920s) no real movement towards equality, promised by the revolution, could take place. In a nation which had accumulated less industrial and administrative skill and experience than had any medium-sized European country, in a nation, furthermore, burdened with the oppressive traditions of inefficient autocracy at its top and of illiteracy and a barbarous way of life below, the arrears in economic and cultural development were so enormous, and the lack of civic responsibility in rulers and ruled alike was so baffling that the techniques of economic planning could be developed only in the crudest and most ruthless forms. This basically determined the place of the trade unions in Soviet labour policy.

It is a tribute to planned economy that, in spite of the handicaps under which it has been tried out in Russia, it has enabled that country to become a great industrial power within so short a time. But it would be erroneous to deduce from this that the peculiarly Russian features of labour policy, the features that have in fact more than a flavour of revived serfdom about them, are inherent in planned economy or more specifically in socialist planning. There is no reason to assume that in any society which already has at its disposal a more or less modern apparatus for industrial production and substantial reserves of trained manpower planned economy would reproduce the worst aspects of the Russian experiment. The amount of ruthless coercion that has gone into the making of the Russian industrial revolution is explained mainly by the rulers’ determination to overcome at any cost the prodigious difficulties involved in the mobilisation, training and education of many millions of raw, undisciplined peasants. In a more highly-developed economy with a disciplined and civilised industrial working class such methods would be not only superfluous — they would also be positively incompatible with an orderly planned economy. It is therefore reasonable to think that the planners would not feel themselves tempted to resort to them.

Such experience of planning as wartime Britain has had hardly supports the gloomy ‘road-to-serfdom’ prophecies. Surely, the amount of direction of labour introduced in wartime Britain did not seem to the working classes to be as oppressive as the uncertainty and misery of the booms and slumps of the preceding era. True enough, the worker was limited in his choice of a job or of the place of his work. This, however, was hardly more than an inconvenience greatly offset by the advantages of full and stable employment. It was, in part at least, as a result of this experience that, in the general election of 1945, the British working classes opted for what they believed to be a policy shielding them from new slumps and unemployment. Yet in wartime Britain planning was also tried amid scarcity, although even that scarcity would still have looked like dazzling abundance to most Russians. Even in the Third Reich it was not planning that led to cruelty and atrocities but the Nazi ideology of the master race. Incidentally, we now know that, contrary to Nazi boasts, Germany in the Second World War was among those belligerent nations that were least advanced in planning.

Within a planned economy developing on a relatively high industrial and cultural basis considerable scope should be left for trade-union activity. In Russia no bargaining was really possible between management and workers because of the extreme scarcity of all material resources. In a country producing, say, only one pair of shoes per year for every third citizen the worker could not effectively bargain over whether his wages should enable him to buy only one or two pairs of shoes per year. The trade unions could not adopt a ‘consumptionist’ attitude in any circumstances, although they need not perhaps have gone to extremes of anti-consumptionism. But in any economy possessing its safety margins in material wealth a degree of bargaining between management and workers would not only be compatible with planning but also essential to its effectiveness. Here the worker may try to improve his standard of living without necessarily thereby upsetting the balance of the plans or seriously hampering capital investment. Here the planners should be in a position to plan the distribution of the national income with a flexibility of which the Russians could not even dream. The freedom of bargaining may, of course, have to be restricted occasionally; but this need not be the rule. The question how often the need to restrict such freedom would arise depends on how wide or narrow are the safety margins of any national economy at any time. On the other hand, it must be expected that in the East, especially in a Communist China, which even today is more backward than was pre-revolutionary Russia, the main features of the Russian system will be reproduced, if rapid industrialisation is attempted.

Nor is this merely a matter of the industrial resources with which a country embarks upon planned economy. Social custom and habit and the peculiarities of native civilisations play their part. The traditional outlook of any nation permeates the fabric of any new social organisation that nation may adopt and lends to it its own colour. Soviet Russia, with its public ownership and planned economy, has absorbed all the still fresh traditions of tsarist autocracy and serfdom. It was not planned economy that drove Russia on to the road of serfdom — the fact that Russia had hardly ever left that road for any length of time vitiated her planned economy. In countries with a deep-rooted tradition of liberty, their social and cultural climate should help them to evolve methods of planning so efficient and humane that by comparison the Russian experiment would appear what historically it is — the first barbarously clumsy and costly, and yet profoundly significant attempt of a nation to master the ‘blind forces’ of its economy.