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International Socialism, November 1977


Mike Haynes

The Soviet Working Class Today


From International Socialism (1st series), No.103, November 1977, pp.14-18.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Soviet regime was brought into being by the action of the Russian working class. Isolated from the advanced economies of the West by the failure of the revolution in Europe, the regime evolved into a bureaucratic monolith hoisted above the Russian people. In the following article, Mike Haynes describes the condition of the working class in the USSR

Sixty years after the October revolution, and fifty years after the Stalinist counter-revolution, the condition of the Russian working class remains unknown to many Western socialists. Part of the reason for this is that, since 1928, the Soviet government has deliberately restricted access to basic information in an effort to keep its propaganda image untarnished. But it is possible to get hold of information, and the real reason for this massive blind-spot is that any serious examination of the subject involves a study of the basic relations of production in the Soviet Union. If one believes that Russia is some kind of ‘socialist’ state, or ‘workers’ state, or ‘transitional’ society, then it follows that the position of the working class must be fundamentally different from its position in capitalism. If, on the other hand, investigation shows that the basic relations of production in Russia re the same as elsewhere, then it follows that Russia must be a variant of capitalism – namely, state capitalism.

This article will attempt to sketch in the real position of the working class in the Soviet Union and examine both the nature of that society and the possibilities for change.

The exploitation and repression which characterised the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s has been well described by Cliff in his State Capitalism in Russia, but that method of crude compulsion soon became incompatible with continued economic development. As a consequence, since the death of Stalin, there have been significant changes in the position of the Soviet working class. In order to increase productivity and to improve the political base of the regime there has been an increase in the standard of living and a marked decline in the level of repression. But it does not automatically follow that the nature of the society has altered. That is determined by the basic relations of production, and it is to them that we must turn first.

The legal position of the worker, in relationship to the enterprise, is defined by a Labour Code. The first point that needs to be made about this is that, as with all Soviet laws, it can, if necessary, be violated at will be the State. For example, the Code has fairly stringent limitations on dismissal. However should a factory administrator want to dismiss a worker in violation of these limitations, he can have recourse to a series of separate and more detailed Commentaries and if other avenues of protest at the illegality, of the dismissal are closed off to the worker, then, he can be dismissed in flagrant breech of both the Code and its Commentaries. [1]

The latest version of the Labour Code was instituted in 1971. In fact, it is still in essence the Labour Code of Stalin’s day. The most important changes have been in terms of hours, holidays etc. and a lesser emphasis on harsh penalties for infringements of ‘labour discipline’. The Code sets out that managers and workers have a common interest, but, this turns out to centre on fulfilling the production norms set by the State. The order of priority is clearly set out in Article 1:

‘Soviet labour legislation regulates the labour relations of all workers and employees; promoting the growth of labour productivity and the efficiency of social production, and on this basis raising the living standards and cultural level of the working people; promoting the strengthening of labour discipline, and gradually making work for the benefit of society into a prime vital need of every able-bodied person.

‘The labour legislation establishes a high standard of working conditions and thoroughgoing protection of the labour rights of workers and employees.’ [2]

Production is obviously paramount and protection of the worker an afterthought.

There is no possibility for workers to make production decisions and norms themselves nor even to question them. At the height of the Stalinist period this subordination of the worker was put bluntly in the regulation ‘Orders of the director of the factory are unconditionally binding on all personnel’. In the new Code it is decorated with a number of provisions for workers to check management performance in attaining output norms through a variety of ‘trade union’, factory and production committees. These changes hardly constitute a democratisation of industry. Their aim is to tie the worker more closely to the central goal of increasing production and to check managerial abuses which benefit the manager and not the state. In this sense they are no different (and often less extensive) from Western measures encouraging the worker to participate in his more efficient exploitation.

The significance of this subordination of the worker can be illustrated from the situation as regards health and safety at work. Here, as in the West, the worker is sacrificed to the goal of increased output. The situation is made worse, however, by the fact that the workers have no independent trades unions to try and protect them. The consequence is that although industrial disease and accident rates are secret, it is clear from other evidence that the situation is worse than in Britain. The conflict between output and safety is only rarely resolved in favour of the latter. Indeed, if safety rules were followed then the plan would undoubtedly not be fulfilled. [3] Not only is safety neglected but often safety funds are used for other purposes; safety devices, when fitted, function imperfectly and are rarely checked. If the rate of injury gets embarrassingly high then managements resort to fiddling reports. ‘Trades Unions’, following the goal of production, have little incentive to challenge management and abuses are widely tolerated by all the so-called ‘protective organs’. ‘State agencies’, one leading Soviet expert commentated, ‘rarely impose penalties on officials for violating the rights of citizens.’ [4] The situation was well summed up in a case when a student was electrocuted by an inadequately protected high tension cable. The court took as its cue the idea that ‘the dead cannot be brought back to life, so why make the living pay?’ [5]

With regard to the individual enterprise, then, the Soviet worker is in the same position as the worker in private capitalism: she or he has no control over the running of the factory, no control over the conditions of work, no control over manning, etc. Indeed, lacking independent trade union representation, the Soviet Worker is more a victim of the manger than the worker in a bourgeois democracy.

It could be argued that this factor is of secondary importance, as what is. decisive to capitalism is not the relations between factory manager and individual groups of workers but the relation between the working class as a whole and the capitalist class. As the state in the Soviet Union is the owner of the overwhelming proportion of industry and by far the largest employer of labour, then if the working class controls the state it cannot be argued that there is an exploiting class in the Soviet Union. The extent to which it can be shown that the working class controls the state is therefore decisive.

The relationshop of the worker to the state has also changed little since Stalin’s day, except that repression is now less overt. In terms of elections, these are now held regularly, but their sham nature – both in terms of the absence of choice and the irrelevance of the bodies to which elections are held – has not changed.

‘In theory the Supreme Soviet is the chief legislative authority in the political system, but in practice it merely “passes” the laws presented to it ... at present the Supreme Soviet is the least important of the central institutions.’

Nor is the Party Congress any more significant, ‘apart from one occasion ... (1961) ..., the Congress has not in any sense influenced decision making. It has listened to reports on past achievements and accepted the tasks for the future’. Nor have the trades, unions’, with all significant appointments subject to Party approval, been many more responsive to the working class or significant in policy making, ‘there is no reason to suggest that the improvement, both material and otherwise, in the workers situation ... (in the 1960’s) ... is the result of union pressure’. [6] ‘Soviet politics’ remains closed to the working class. It is more interesting to look at the way in which the state attempts to destroy any manifestation of independent working class activity.

It goes without saying that there is no right to strike in the Soviet Union. Strikes do, of course, occur but the leaders, if discovered, are arrested or simply ‘disappear’. Nor is there any right to organise workers independently – this is ensured by the Criminal Code which provides the basis for day to day practice. [7] All factory meetings must have ‘trades union’ (i.e. state) approval. In society at large, ‘the smallest organisation, even a club of dog lovers or cactus growers, is supervised by an appropriate body of the CPSU.’ [8] There is no right to communicate with other workers on any scale. Printing is subject to state control Permission is required to open a printing establishment. To sell/acquire printing and duplicating machinery, to sell/acquire typewriters. New typewriters are licensed and a record of their typeface kept. (Samizdat – the unofficial ‘self-published’ dissident writing, is produced either on unlicensed, old typewriters or in hand-written copies.) All publications going through the state publishing monopoly are subject to censorship and official approval. [9] There is censorship of international mail and selective censorship of the internal mail. [10]

Control is further increased by the ‘tyranny of documents’. All workers must carry an ‘internal passport’, giving details of their background, including their employment history. The passport also includes a residence permit which restricts movement to limited areas of the country. Any change of residence requires immediate re-registration, any prolonged absence, de-registration and re-registration in the new area. The possibilities of control are numerous. Workers are prevented from moving to major cities in search of work. National groups are dispersed through selective use of residence limitations. Workers are refused passports to prevent them moving from areas where conditions are bad. [11] Secondly, every worker has an official ‘work book’, kept by and management during his employment. This gives his detailed work record, including disciplinary offences. [12]

There is also widespread use of the ‘character reference’ for workers changing jobs or being promoted. Needless to say the most important sections are the recommendations of superiors and the ‘social comment’ or security evaluation. Workers also have institutional passbooks which act as a guide to privileges outside the works. Thus the red book of Communist Party officials and government employees rates better than the blue book of non party and government workers. Finally, any special or unusual activity also requires a special pass. All of this enables a fairly comprehensive blacklist to be maintained of those who attempt to dissent. It also enables the state to use ‘administrative measures’ i.e. sackings, demotion, victimisation of relatives etc. as a method of punishment. [13]

The system of control and atomisation is consolidated by the so-called ‘First Department’ in all major Soviet institutions and factories. These are officially the equivalent of personnel departments but they also incorporate what were formerly known as the ‘Special Departments’, run by the KGB. The First Departments contain detailed personnel files on the activity of workers and employees have a dual responsibility to the management and the KGB.

For the majority of workers this system of control is sufficient to intimidate them away from any political activity and it thus creates effective isolation. When this breaks down and discontent breaks out, the more punitive aspects of it then come into force. What it expresses is the continued total subordination to the State of the working class.

In the face of this evidence, it is impossible to argue that the working class in any way controls the means of production, either at the level of the enterprise or at the level of the state. In the most basic essentials, the position of the worker is the same as under private capitalism. The worker is forced to exchange labour power for wages in order to live. Secondly, in exchanging labour power the worker is exploited in that the full value of the product is appropriated by the capitalist, in this case the state, for consumption and investment.

There are, however, important differences between the position of workers in private and state capitalism. In private capitalism, the size of the aggregate wage fund – the overall level of consumption of the working class – is set indirectly by the competition of groups of workers and capitalists in the market. In state capitalism, the necessary level of investment of capital is determined by competition on the world market and, in theory, the size of the wage fund is then determined directly by the state. In practice, this tendency will be modified by economic factors – the need to encourage workers into unpopular areas like Siberia for example – and for political reasons – the need to secure some popular base for the regime.

As a consequence of the state’s power to set the wage fund and the level of personal consumption at an aggregate level, the already low real wages of workers were forced down by between 30 and 45 per cent in the industrialisation drive of the early 1930’s. By 1950 they were still not significantly higher than in 1928. This low level, not only had a bad effect on the quality of the labour force, but also led to a collapse of the incentive structure of industry. Wages were low, consumer goods not produced, therefore why respond to calls for more productivity? An increase in the standard of living thus became necessary even without the lessons of revolt in Eastern Europe. Since 1950 real wages have therefore been significantly increased and personal consumption has doubled.

In spite of this, however, living standards are still only half those in Britain and some 30-40 per cent of the level in a country like West Germany. The Soviet worker is only about as well off as a Spanish worker – and that after 50 years of industrialisation! The average family, with a working father and motherearns one and a half times the father’s income 8commentenough on women’s equality!) or about 220 roubles per month. At the same time a well-balanced diet would cost 50-60 roubles per person per month. Thus even if a half to two thirds of income is spent on food, few worker have an adequate diet – a fact evidenced by the number of ‘fat Russians’ full of bread and potatoes. [14]

These figures are, of course, averages and many are worse off. The minimum wage is half the industrial average, while, at the other end of the scale, as the class structure has solidified, incomedistribution has come to approximate that in the West. To get an idea of top incomes the average industrial wage must be multiplied by a factor of at least 10. [15]

The situation is also complicated by other factors. The emphasis on accumulation and the general inefficiency of the economy results in widespread consumer goods shortages. Thus meat, for example, can only be had in major cities, like Moscow and Leningrad, all the year round. Indeed, such have been the inefficiencies of agriculture that in 1976 an official ‘meatless day’ had to be introduced. One result of this kind of problem is that shopping involves extensive and timewasting queuing. Another is that while the working class feels the full impact of these problems, more privileged groups are cushioned in two ways. Firstly there is an extensive black market which functions with tacit state approval. Prices usually allow only the occasional purchase by workers. [16] Secondly, the normal distribution network is quality of goods than those open to the working class. Access depends upon power and position and thus money is only a partial guide to real inequalities a rouble will buy more in a closed store than an open one. On top of all of this there is the perennial problem of quality – the fact that Soviet made goods are generally less advanced than Western goods, badly made, difficult to get repaired and with a relatively short lifespan.

The overall effect, then, of the production relations in the Soviet Union on the consumption of workers is identical to that under private capitalism: consumption is subordinated to the demands of accumulation.

The same subordination of consumption to accumulation applies to the area of communal consumption, although under state capitalism this area is more extensive than in private capitalism. The state is forced to take control of all areas of the reproduction of labour in order to provide a suitable labour force for continued exploitation and therefore must make provision for housing, education, health, etc.

It is often thought that these are much better than in the West. In fact, although no two societies are alike in what they provide, Soviet provision is far from impressive compared to advanced western countries. Again the same basic forces have been at work. The drive to industrialise meant an attempt to push up the productivity of labour and thus services like education and health received emphasis, but the holding down of consumption meant that something like housing was ignored.

Housing, although heavily subsidised and cheap, continues to be a major problem area in spite of massive improvements. In 1920 the sanitary housing norm was set at 9 sq. metres per person, but today most of the urban population still lives in accommodation below it. Urban living space is generally half the Western European level and as many as 30 per cent of urban families still share communal apartments! Average occupancy is 1½-2 persons per room, i.e. extreme overcrowding in Britain. In fact conditions are not much different from those experienced by the British working class on the eve of the First World War, or, to put it another way, the limited space of a modern, three-bedroomed council house would house three to four families in the Soviet Union.

Behind the propaganda, drunkenness and discontent

Education is also far less impressive than its propaganda image. Rapid industrialisation demanded a literate, educated and disciplined workforce and so in 1931 a highly traditional educational system was created which in the next years of rapid social change also served as a vehicle for rapid social mobility. Today traditionalism is still there with a vengeance – the school system is rigid, competitive, streamed and highly selective. Not for nothing did Tory education spokesman Rhodes Boyson recently praise it as an example Labour Party educationalists should take note of. Beyond this the education system now increasingly reinforces the stabilising class structure. Workers children stand a far less chance of getting into higher education and so on. Indeed, the education system is not even universal – over a third of all schoolchildren do not complete their secondary education. As a result of this and the social bias built into the system it is now probably more difficult for the children of manual workers to obtain higher education than in advanced western countries.

Finally, in this necessarily selective survey of consumption, the health system reveals much the same pattern as education. Industrialisation also demanded health provision and the death rate has now fallen to a low level. [17] But the limitations put on expenditure by accumulation and the class nature of the health system means a very uneven distribution of provision. The working class is naturally at the bottom, dealt with by the least qualified doctors, in generally antiquated and overcrowded hospitals where drugs are scarce. Moreover, while the services of doctors and hospitals are free, drugs have to be paid for with obvious results for working class families.

So far we have assumed that the worker actually works – a natural enough assumption in a state where the constitution guarantees ‘the right to work’. In fact the right to work has never been guaranteed and significant unemployment does exist. The October Revolution had the immediate impact of creating more unemployment as arms factories were closed down, then, during the 1920’s urban unemployment was usually in excess of 10 per cent. It was only during the 1930’s that mass unemployment was eliminated. This does not mean, however, that there is security of employment today. Estimates put the unemployment rate at between one and two percent of the labour force – comparable to countries like Sweden and West Germany. [18] This is mainly made up of workers changing jobs (frictional unemployment) and workers displaced by technological change or unemployed because of structural imbalances in the economy (structural unemployment). What does not exist to any great extent is cyclical unemployment. This is because the arms economy and the competitive growth race has created a labour shortage just as it did in the west from 1939 to the late 1960’s. Relatively full employment is thus a product of Stalin’s counter-revolution and not a legacy of the Revolution. Nor is it true that workers cannot be dismissed. During the mid 1960’s some 3-4 per cent of the industrial labour force was dismissed annually (and probably about as many as a third of them illegally!). [19] Since then intensified pressure of competition with the west has led to measures being taken to make it easier for managers to make workers redundant.

Paradoxically, what also exists in a country where labour is short is massive under-employment i.e. workers unable to work a full working year because of the lack of jobs. This results from the chaos caused by the attempt to plan the economy without workers control. The result is that pockets of under-utilised labour resources abound.

Nevertheless it is true that it is harder to sack workers in the Soviet Union than in Britain, although the Soviet Union is far from unique – both Spain and Japan have similar restrictions. This, however, does have two important results. Economically, it means that millions of workers are kept technically employed when in fact they add nothing to the social product and thereby further reduce the potential standard of living. Politically, the years of full employment, combined with the regime’s propaganda, means that the working class expects to be employed. Thus experiments with redundancy have met with widespread, if subdued, resentment and this has been one of the factors in their slow spread. Because the regime refuses to admit the existence of unemployment there is no provision for benefit and workers therefore experience great hardship. Moreover, to the extent that the Soviet economy is further integrated into the world market, pressure for increased redundancy is likely to increase and with it, resentment.

Thus, in a state capitalist society, although the reserve army of labour ceases to exist in the sense that, because the capitalist labour force is the total labour force, there can be no workers not maintained by capital. It persists, however, in that there are large numbers of workers without work or with inadequate work.

Demonstrate – By invitation only

The material situation, then, is far from impressive, especially when one considers the transformation that the Soviet Union has undergone in the last fifty years. Indeed, few aspects of Soviet society would be tolerated even by conservative workers in the west. As a consequence there is a tendency on the left to see a massively discontented working class, held back only by repression. The situation is, in reality, more complicated.

Soviet workers are alienated. When sociologists began to investigate the situation of factory workers in the 1960’s, they found much the same situation as in the west. It is also true general propaganda has little effect – the political sections of newspapers remain unread, ‘mass demonstrations’ in Red Square are by invitation only ... and so on. Moreover, the relations of production are more transparent than in the west. It is clear to workers where power lies. For example, when workers in Kiev were dissatisfied with their housing conditions in 1969 they took their demands straight to the Council of Ministers. [20] But all this only illustrates potential, there are a number of offsetting factors.

There is of course the obvious dampening effect of repression. But, beyond this, the regime has also tried to get support for itself. Firstly, the standard of living has been increased. In the 1950’s and 60’s this had some real success. But, as we have seen, the improvement was limited and cannot be continued. Secondly, nationalism has been used for support. Soviet policy is intensely nationalistic and is presented to the population in those terms. The success of nationalism in western Europe should not lead us to neglect this source of support. Nationalism is also used to divide the working class and it frequently boils over into racism and anti-semitism. The Soviet Union is made up of a number of distinct nations but it is dominated by ‘Russians’ from the central area of the country. Although, as a national group, these make up only 53 per cent of the total population they dominate the hierarchy in all of the constituent republics and local national cultures and languages are continually held back. As a result national groups such as the Ukrainians, Georgians, Latvians etc. experience constant discrimination. Most is heard in the West about the Jews who are considered by the State to be a separate national grouping. In their case discrimination does become virulent anti-semitism but their problem is only part of this wider problem. Racism is also developed against outside threats – blacks, because of their small numbers are less significant although foreign students have been threatened and attacked, but the main racial threat is portrayed as the slit-eyed, yellow hoards from the east. The disputes with China have had an obvious value here.

These points could be developed further but the important thing is that they illustrate that there is no simple and unrestricted drive towards class consciousness. Indeed, Roy Medvedev argues that within the Party hierarchy there are quasi-fascist groups looking for support and this is certainly true of emigré circles. It would be foolish to suggest that these constant a major threat but it shows that the Soviet working class must be won to class consciousness just as much as any western working class.

If is here that repression and the lack of basic democratic rights have such a damaging effect. The lack of a tradition of class consciousness makes it difficult to develop and sustain one. The repression keeps the working class divided, isolated and atomised – unable in normal circumstances to develop links even at the local level. The dissident movement, for example, was never able to break out of its intellectual ghetto and link up with the working class. [21] In turn, this fed back into the movement where the working class was seen as an ‘inert mass’, on the sidelines, and often as much the enemy as those in power.

In such a situation two things tend to happen. Firstly members of .the working class become not only passive but pessimistic and withdraw into themselves – the high incidence of alcoholism is partly explained in these terms. Secondly, while strikes, go-slows etc. do occur, the most developed forms of discontent tend to be concentrated in sudden violent outbursts. Typical of these were the ‘riots’ in Novocherkassk in 1962 and the Ukraine in 1972. Both were repressed with massive violence and hundreds lost their lives. Although information is scarce a number of points do stand out about these events. Firstly they occurred away from the centres of power. This had two results, firstly, the repressive apparatus was less effective and, secondly, there was a possible link (particularly in the Ukraine) to national struggles against Great Russian domination. Thirdly, although the immediate impetus to revolt varied, both sets of riots quickly developed into political demonstrations in which the KGB and Party offices and officials were attacked and destroyed under such slogans as ‘All power to the Soviets’. Such slogans were to an extent formalistic and unthought-out but the very fact that they were taken up is indicative of an embryonic class consciousness. Fourthly the riots seem to have quickly thrown forward capable working class leaders (who were severely punished afterwards). Finally they were met with savage repression indicating the sensitivity and nervousness of the current leadership. Thus we see tremendous potential but a potential that remains unrealised so long as discontent remains localised and isolated. [22]

There is little doubt that today discontent is increasing amongst the working class – this is clear both from reports of actual working class activity and from the visible nervousness of the leadership, particularly after the events in Poland. However, it is difficult to see any evidence of an immediate split in the bureaucracy which would paralyse the repressive apparatus and allow working class opposition to flourish as occurred in Eastern European crises. Unless this occurs the prescription would seem to be more of the same kind of discontent at a more tense level. The extent to which such a split does occur will depend not only on the developing internal crisis but also on the development of the world crisis and in particular the response of revolutionaries in the west for as Trotsky noted many years ago

‘... the impetus to the Soviet workers revolutionary upsurge will probably be given by events outside the country’.

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1. See, for example, Zhores Medvedev’s account of his dismissal in his, The Medvedev Papers, 1971.

2. The Code is reprinted in M. Matthews, Soviet Government, 1974. Workers are actually subject to local ‘collective agreements’ embodying the substance of this general code.

3. Trud, 1 April 1976.

4. Quoted by E.C. Brown, Fundamental Soviet Labour Legislation, Industrial and Labour Relations Review, 1973, vol.26, pt.2.

5. Trud, May 18 1975.

6. M. McAuley, Politics and the Soviet Union, 1977, pp.203-4; 208; 246, my emphasis.

7. A new constitution is due to be approved in October 1977 but there is nothing to suggest it will be any more relevant than the current one. The Criminal Code will remain unchanged.

8. R. Medvedev, On Socialist Democracy, 1975, p.xviii.

9. R. Conquest, The Soviet Police System, 1968, chap.4.

10. This has been conclusively established by Zhores Medvedev, op. cit.

11. The passport, formerly restricted to urban dwellers, is now being extended to the whole population. It has to be presented before a worker can be hired.

12. When the use of the ‘labour book’ was extended in 1938 Izvestia commented ‘... thus, we shall be able to distinguish immediately the man who goes about from one factory to another disorganising production, from the honest worker’.

13. The only area where this system tends to be less efficient is in Siberia where an acute labour shortage makes managers less choosy.

14. On consumption the best study is still P. Hanson, The Consumer in the Soviet Economy, 1965, but much useful information can be got from two recent journalistic accounts (R. Kaiser, Russia, 1976 and H. Smith, The Russians, 1976) on this and many other matters.

15. See, for example P. Wiles, The Distribution of Income: East and West, 1974.

16. Inflation does exist in the Soviet Union but it is partially suppressed by the government in state stores – on the black market it has full reign.

17. Detailed breakdowns of the mortality rate are considered to be state secrets so the actual situation may well be worse than the available figures for the crude death rate suggest.

18. See R. Hutchings, The Ending of Unemployment in the USSR, Soviet Studies, July 1967: P. Wiles, A Note on Soviet Unemployment by US Definitions, Soviet Studies, April 1972; C. Mesa-Lago, Unemployment in Socialist Countries, Ph.D., Cornell, 1968.

19. Mesa-Lago, op. cit., pp.86-7.

20. See the account in A. Martin, Ukraine: Unrest and Repression, 1973.

21. The current head of the KGB Andropov was Soviet ambassador to Hungary in 1956 and is therefore well aware of the dangers of allowing intellectuals to link their struggles with workers struggles.

22. For these events and other outbreaks of discontent see A. Martin, op. cit.; A. Boiter, When the Kettle Boils Over, Problems of Communism, 1964, vol.XIII, no.1; M. Holubenko, The Soviet Working Class: Discontent and Oppression, Critique, 1975, no.4.

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