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International Socialist Review, Fall 1958


Milton Alvin

Early Soviet Labor Policy


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.4, Fall 1958, p.157-158.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Labour Policy in the USSR 1917-1928
by Margaret Dewar
Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, England. 1956. 286 pp. $6.

A great deal of valuable information has been gathered together by Margaret Dewar to form the first detailed study of government labor policy in the early years of the Soviet Union. In addition to tracing the evolution of Soviet labor policy, the author has included the text of the Labor Program of the Russian Social Democratic Workers party, adopted in 1903, and the decrees, ordinances and instructions concerning labor from the time of the October 1917 Revolution to 1928.

Students of Soviet problems will find the book a valuable supplement to the political history of the first years. But this political history, available in many of the writings of Leon Trotsky, must be known to gain a full appreciation of Soviet labor policy.

The period covered in the book falls into two parts. The first, in the early days of the Soviet state, is featured by the Civil War and the enormous difficulties that faced the new regime as it sought for the first time in history to reorganize society along socialist lines. The second period, that of the New Economic Policy (NEP), takes us through the post-Civil War days, the retreat to dependence upon a market economy, the bureaucratization of the regime, the crisis created by the prolongation of the NEP and the preparations for the first Five Year Plan.

Some of the difficulties that confronted the young workers state in its first years can be understood from its official labor policy as described by Mrs. Dewar. Although the new regime, headed by Lenin and Trotsky, decreed the eight-hour day within twenty-four hours after taking power, workers control of production about two weeks later, health insurance, unemployment compensation and many other benefits along these lines, the eruption of civil war compelled them to retreat from some of these positions.

With most of the country in the hands of the counter-revolutionaries and their imperialist sponsors, the new regime faced its great hour of peril; the disorganized economy hardly sufficed to keep the Red Army in the field. Productivity of labor fell, in many cases to a mere ten per cent of the pre-World War I figure.

The rigorous system of War Communism, with its militarization of labor, gave hope that with the conclusion of hostilities the disciplined military forces could be transferred en bloc to the field of production. But the poverty of the country, the disorganization of transport, the growing contradiction between the urban centers and the mass of petty producers on the land compelled a further retreat.

Re-establishment of a market economy, even though the main industrial enterprises remained in the hands of the state, enabled the peasantry, especially its better-off section (kulaks), to enrich itself as well as to gain an increased influence both in the Communist party and in social life in general.

In its conflict with the Trotskyist Left Opposition, the ruling Stalin-Bukharin faction leaned heavily upon these new powerful sections of the population (Nepmen) while it elaborated the “theory” of building “socialism in one country” and achievement of socialism at a “tortoise pace.” The Trotskyist, on the other hand, proposed a five-year plan to build the country’s economy. This was rejected as “super-industrialization” while the country drifted dangerously close to falling into the hands of outright restorationists of capitalism, who were encouraged not only by their newly found power but by the defeats of revolutions in China and Western Europe as well.

When the crisis could no longer be ignored, Stalin unloaded Bukharin and his “tortoise” theory, turned sharply to the left by borrowing from the program of the Left Opposition, inaugurated the first Five Year Plan and organized the liquidation of the kulaks. The fulfillment of these measures by the panic-stricken bureaucracy falls outside the scope of Mrs. Dewar’s study.

The author takes note of the great industrial progress made since 1928 but comes to the conclusion that “per capita production and consumption in the USSR remain well below that of the advanced capitalist countries.” This was admitted by Khrushchev in his report to the famous Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist party.

Mrs. Dewar points out that “the Soviet worker lacks all means of pressing his claims,” which is quite true insofar as it concerns recognition of democratic rights in the Soviet bloc. But events, beginning with the East German workers uprising in 1953, the strikes of prisoners in Soviet concentration camps, the Poznan uprising, and the Hungarian revolution, indicate that the workers are strongly inclined to correct matters in this respect.

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