Max Shachtman


Books in Review

A Valuable Aid for
Understanding Russia

(March 1953)

From The New International, Vol. XIX No. 2, March–April 1953, pp. 99–104.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Labor in the Soviet Union
by Solomon M. Schwarz
361 pp. Praeger. New York. $6.00

Solomon Schwarz has written a precious contribution to the worthwhile literature on Stalinism. His book does not deal with “the fundamental question which has stirred controversy for years,” as he puts it in the foreword, namely:

“What is the essence, the social content of the Russian economic and social order? Is it socialism? Is it ‘state capitalism’? Is it a ‘transitional form’ from capitalism to socialism? Or is it something else?”

Quite the contrary, for the author has intentionally “refrained from even touching the question in this book.” Not because Schwarz has nothing to say on this most vital of questions. Those who have read some of his other writings have been given a stimulating glimpse of his opinions on that matter. But eschewing treatment of it here has enabled him to concentrate on the specific subject at hand. The reader suffers no loss thereby. He gets from Schwarz what is cavalierly ignored or mischievously misrepresented in nine-tenths of the literature on Russia – a statement of the facts about the position of the working class in Stalinist Russia.

In order to present the facts in the least exceptionable way, Schwarz confines his research almost exclusively to official Stalinist sources. That procedure is, by itself, deprived of merit by the worthlessness of these sources in general. They become meritorious and sufficiently revealing only if the analyst knows how and where to look for relevant material and to winnow it from the irrelevant; how to distinguish grudgingly or unwittingly disclosed facts from mendacious falsehoods and social reality from legal fiction; and how to combine selected data into significant generalizations. Schwarz has these abilities to a high degree. Although he is a Menshevik, he is not among those who, like the late Theodore Dan, opposed Lenin and Trotsky only to capitulate to Stalinism. Yet his opposition to Stalinism does not give him the blind staggers and mental acne which so many hysterical contemporaries break out into when they write or speak about Stalinism. He writes about it without any friendliness, to be sure, but with the scrupulous objectivity and respect for facts which makes him one of the few writers on the subject today who can be read with profit.

In this work, the author does not show how adequate his investigator’s qualities would prove to be in the wider field of the basic political or sociological conclusions he might draw about Stalinism as a whole. That question remains open. But in the field to which he has confined himself – “showing and analyzing the complicated actual evolution of Russian labor policy” – there are no two answers to the question. One more word should be added about the scope of the book. It is really confined to treating the question of the Russian working class for the past quarter of a century – that is, as it has evolved under Stalinism. References are necessarily made to the pre-Stalinist period, for purpose of comparison, but the limitation is pretty precise. That adds not only to the compactness of the treatment but to its clarity.

Schwarz does not hesitate to start his analysis by showing that it has been precisely under the rule of Stalinism that a new working class – indeed, a new type of working class – has come into existence in Russia. It is a most appropriate and illuminating beginning of any study of Stalinism itself. Before the revolution of 1917, and indeed throughout its historical development, the Russian working class was, so to speak, half-peasant, not only in its social psychology but even in its social origins and economic and family ties. “This close connection of urban workers with the farm led many Russian economists and sociologists for a long time simply to deny the existence of a Russian industrial working class.” This denial was absurd; but the peculiarity of the Russian working class was nonetheless undeniable. It was only toward the end of the pre-war (i.e., pre-1914) period that the rural and semi-rural character of the Russian working class began to give way to a more-or-less definite and durable urban character. Add to this the fact that as late as 1913, Russian industry employed only 2,552,000 workers throughout the whole empire (not counting handicraft and home workers), and you get a graphically clear idea of the essential difference between the Russia of those days and the advanced capitalist countries of the West. This difference could not but make a heavy mark on Russian politics in general and on the socialist movement in particular; it could not fail to affect deeply the character of the Russian socialist revolution, the original prospects for its unfoldment, and the actual evolution it underwent. To be exact, its effect proved to be decisive.

It is of surpassing interest that the size – one might add, the social quality – of the Russian working class reached an exceptionally low point in 1921–1922. The country had by then been wracked and sacked and all but completely exhausted by the exertions of the civil war, of the war against the foreign military intervention, of the revolutionary struggles themselves – over four unbroken years of this against a background of the wreckage of three years of the first World War that preceded it. What it did to the Russian working class, especially to its more experienced, more stable, more socialistic part, is never dealt with by the supercilious (and extensively ignorant) critics of Bolshevism; and is given far less attention than it deserves by critics of these critics. Schwarz points out that in 1921–1922, the size of the Russian working class employed in industry proper (again excluding handicraft and home workers) had fallen to the startling figure of 1,243,000 – less than half as large as it was in 1913 and even below the figure of 1,515,000 given in the year 1897!

For all practical purposes, this working class had, by 1921-1922, lost the socialist character it was saturated with in 1917-1918. It had even lost a good deal, perhaps the bulk, of its socialist membership – in the persons of those who had perished in the wars, or those who went to make up the socialist cement holding together the peasant Red Army, or those who went to make up the socialist (or more-or-less socialist) officialdom of the country. In fact, by that time it had even lost its classically proletarian character, being made up largely of peasants or near-peasants or chance elements of all sorts.

The rise of the Stalinist faction, the growing self-confidence of a bureaucracy impatient with the restraints represented by the principles and practises of the Bolshevik revolution – these were certainly not chance elements, however. It is anything but an accident, indeed, that what came to be known later as Stalinism had its discernible beginnings precisely in this period. The Bolsheviks triumphed with an aroused, vigorous, socialist working class; it was defeated when this working class disappeared, died out. Without diminishing in the least the value and validity of the fight begun then by the Trotskyist Opposition for a return to workers’ democracy, it should now be clear, looking backward, that its fight was doomed. It had no effective working class to appeal to – neither inside the party nor outside of it. The bureaucracy numbered no less than the industrial working class at that crucial moment (the end of the civil war period) and its victory over the Opposition, and therewith over the working class, was comparatively (we stress: comparatively) easy. Its initial victory vastly facilitated those that followed. These are some of the decisive social realities from which Stalinism sprang, and not from some alleged inner substance of Bolshevism itself.

Schwarz does not, of course, deal with this aspect of the question, remaining true to the limitations he has imposed upon himself. But he provides invaluable raw materials.

Noteworthy, too, is the material presented to show that up to 1928 – while there were still the rudiments or rather the remnants of a workers’ regime in existence – the Russian working class was growing gradually and gradually acquiring a stable character. It is true that as late as 1928, only 76.8 out of each 1,000 inhabitants were employed as wage or salary earners, compared with a figure of 80.0 in 1913 and of 76.0 in 1897. Actually, the picture was much better. If we take only workers employed in industry proper, the 1928 figure (2,822,000) was already better than the 1913 figure and almost twice as large as the figure for 1897 (1,515,000). But that was impressive only by Russian standards; by Western European or North American standards, it was still pitiable. Yet, it is precisely the year 1928 which is recorded by many of the best and most objective analysts of Russian economic developments, Schwarz included, as the one in which the Russian working class reached the highest social living standards it attained before or since. From that time onward begins the almost unbroken decay and depression of its economic and political status. That being so – and Schwarz’s data taken from official sources leaves no room for doubt – we cannot escape the significance of the coincidence of the period which this year opened up at the same time by the expulsion of the outspoken Bolsheviks from the Communist Party, the definitive triumph of the Stalinist faction, and the banning and growing persecution of all the principles, ideals, traditions and practises of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The modern Stalinist bureaucracy has to its credit the development of an industrial basis for the socialist reorganization of Russian society which Russian capitalism was never able to achieve and which the Russian socialist working class, left in the lurch by the proletariat of the West, could not hope to carry out by itself. This development has been grossly overrated, for Russia is even today far behind the advanced countries of capitalism. The development is nonetheless unmistakable. Its real achievement from the class point of view, however, is the shaping and maintaining of its own grave-digger. This it had to do, this it did for its own purposes and in the interests of its own rule, but do it it did and the achievement is not only a great one but, so far as the future of the bureaucracy itself is concerned, a decisive one. This grave-digger is the new Russian working class, which was to total, in the figures projected for the end of the third Five Year Plan (1942), some 32,000,000 wage and salary earners, with one-third or more in industry proper, and not counting at least 10,000,000 toilers in the slave camps. Even if these figures require some modification, it cannot make a serious difference. The change between 1913 and today, between 1917 and today, certainly between 1921 and today and even between 1928 and today, is, in this respect at least, of tremendous importance. What is more, the period of Stalinist rule has seen the formation of what we called the new type of working class – old and familiar to the main capitalist countries, but not to Russia. Schwarz provides all the necessary data on this score. Even of those workers now drafted from the rural areas, or who migrate to the large centers from the farms, he says:

“Once trained, however, they do not go back to the country. Their assimilation into industrial labor is final. They no longer resemble the traditional half-rustic type of Russian worker ... Today the process of developing a modern working class without rural ties is all but completed in the Soviet Union.”

For this achievement, the Russian working class has had to pay a price that is not imposed upon the working class of any modern country (one might almost say of any country on earth), that has not been known to the working class of any modern country in our generation at least. This price is still being paid, and there is no indication of a relaxation in the pressure from the regime. Here especially the material painstakingly assembled by Schwarz is invaluable. He shows how gradually but unrelentingly the bureaucracy proceeded to eliminate all the safeguards and protections and benefits enjoyed by the working class from the time of the revolution, until it was reduced to the level of slavery or, at best, a semi-slavery which is microscopically relieved by the fleeting moments of freedom created when rival bureaucrats “pirate” working forces from one another with tempting offers and assurances of protection from punishment by the state. All social legislation beneficial to the working class has either been repealed, bowdlerized by administrative amendment, or is brutally violated in practise at the instigation of the state, with its connivance or with utter indifference on its part.

The Stalinist trade unions, as they are called, differ from the late Dr. Ley’s Nazi Labor Front, only in being more cynical and more brutal toward the workers. They would not be tolerated by the workers of any civilized country; they would not be tolerated as company unions in the United States; their leaders would be lucky to escape the fury of the workers with half their hides on their backs. The Russian “unions” are nothing but organized Simon Legrees, laying the lash on to one part of the worker while the plant manager and the GPU lay it on to others. Under Hitler, Goering, Speer and Ley, life was a bitter nightmare for the workers; it is doubtful if the regime was worse, taken on the whole, than it is under Stalinism. We find this quotation in the Schwarz book:

“No one but management shall be primarily responsible for technical standardization, for wage scale, quotas, piece rates, etc. Today quite a few comrades in the plants share the idea that the union should have as much to say about wages as management. That is a fundamental error. It would imply that the union takes the place of management. It is a ‘leftist’ opportunistic distortion, undermining of one-man management, interference with the operational function of management. This must be stopped.”

These words do not come from the head of the German or American steel trust or from Wilson of General Motors, but from G.D. Veinberg, secretary in charge of wage questions (!) of the All-Union Central Trade Union Council. Would a gangster in the New York waterfront unions allow himself the luxury of talking like that? Or like this, from another speech by the same Veinberg:

“You sometimes hear whispering in union ranks, like this: ‘Does it behoove the unions to oppose concessions which industrial executives grant in wage questions? If we do that, how can we face the workers?’ This is the most shameful misconception of union tasks. It is ‘trade unionism’ pure and simple ... We must actively combat this kind of ‘defense’ of labor’s interests!”

These words are, we should underscore, not exceptional but perfectly typical. They are of the very essence of the social relations which the Stalinist state exists to maintain by force of arms. We recommend them to the attention of all trade unionists, pure and simple, or any other kind; of all “friends of the Soviet Union” except for Kremlin hirelings; to all Stalinists, workers in particular, but not their officials, who already know it and glory in it; to both official Trotskyists – the official official Trotskyists and the unofficial official Trotskyists.

We recommend to the attention of all of them the sections of Schwarz’s work which deals with the growing intensification of exploitation of the Russian working class, including some of the facts of the hiring out of serf labor from the collective farms to the industrial enterprises, with the farm management being paid for its serfs – an exploitation for which it is hard to find a match anywhere in the world, and for which the Russian worker is recompensed by one of the most wretched wage and living standards to be found in any more or less developed country. In fact, while the index of real hourly earnings for the Russian worker has remained essentially unchanged between 1936–1938 and 1950, the earnings of the workers in sixteen other countries (Italy, Hungary, Vienna-Austria, Chile, West Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland, Great Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Norway, United States, and Australia) increased in the same period, very greatly in many cases. The exception, Paris France, earnings for 1950 were nevertheless twice as high as those of the Stalinist slave.

There are literally dozens of other aspects of the position of the working class in Russia, some of great importance and others of lesser importance, but all bearing the same hallmark of the social relations typical of Stalinist society, that are to be found in this book, with some treated at length and others touched on in passing. A review could do no more than mention them. One point that must be mentioned, however, is the highly interesting contribution made by Schwarz to the “mystery” of the slave labor regime in Russia. He is the first analyst, it seems, to refer to this particular point. It deals with the difference between two sums often mentioned by Stalinist statisticians and economists when dealing with what is presumably the same “wage fund.” Schwarz discards the explanations made of the disparity to date and finds the true one in a reference work of the Central Statistical Administration of 1944 which has since been suppressed by the regime. It reads: “Wages are carried on the books not only for free workers and employees, and cooperative artisans but also for the military personnel and for other categories which are not free wage and salary earners.” Since the disparity is no trifle – more than 37 billion rubles in one year and more than 51 billion rubles in another – Schwarz seems to be entirely justified in concluding that:

“In the larger wage fund – the ‘full wage fund’ – the term is broadened to include the money earnings of the military personnel and, counting for a great deal more, the unfree workers and employees: of the millions of Soviet slaves in labor camps and elsewhere.”

What a disgusting mockery of socialism to say that the slave-owners and slave-drivers who coolly work out such budgets and maintain such conditions are “with us” in the camp fighting for world socialism! What a disgusting mockery of objectivity to say that the revulsion against this slavery and the categorical refusal to defend its beneficiaries or to join with them in the struggle against capitalism, is nothing but “sentimentality”!

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