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Irving Howe

Why Stalin Needs Slaves

Forced Labor Under Bureaucratic Collectivism

(December 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 9, December 1947, pp. 264–268.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The experience of all ages and nations demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it may appear to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any ... [The slave] can have no other interest but to eat as much and to labor as little as possible. Whatever work he does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own. (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations)

The lowest possible wage which the slave earns appears to be a constant, independent of his work. [In contrast to the free worker] the slave obtains the means necessary to his subsistence in natural form, which is fixed both in kind and in quantity, [whereas the remuneration of a free worker] is not independent of his own work. (Karl Marx, manuscript quoted by Dallin and Nicolaevsky)

State property becomes the property of “the whole people” only to the degree that social privileges and differentiation disappear, and therewith the necessity of the state. In other words: state property is converted into socialist property in proportion as it ceases to be state property. And the contrary is true: the higher the Soviet state rises above the people, and the more fiercely it opposes itself as the guardian of property to the people as its squanderer, the more obviously does it testify against the socialist character of the state property ... If a ship is declared collective property, but the passengers continue to be divided into first, second and third class, it is clear that, for the third class passengers, differences in the conditions of life will have infinitely more importance than that juridical change in proprietorship. (Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed)

But the workers and Red Soldiers of the Soviet Union fight with a bitterness unmatched in this war because they are defending the socialist achievements of a workers’ revolution. Factories, mines, mills, railroads, workshops belong to those who work them. The soil belongs to those who till it. A man who will not defend such a treasure is either a coward or a traitor. (George Collins, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, in The Militant, September 12, 1942. Italics not in original.)


Slave labor is not an accidental or surface excrescence of the Stalinist regime; it is integral, inherent, irreplaceable. For the foreseeable future, Stalinism, if it wishes to maintain itself in power, will continue to utilize slave labor as an increasingly important if still auxiliary means of exploiting the Russian people. Even if it wished to, the regime could not longer dispense with slave labor – no more so than it could “democratize” itself. The physiognomy of Stalinism is basically determined; all that can change are secondary aspects.

In this respect a comparison with Nazi Germany is illuminating. The Nazis did not use slave labor to the extent that Stalinist Russia has; under the Hitler regime, labor never became as indispensable a part of Germany’s national economy as it has become for Russia under Stalin. This is due not to any superior benevolence on the part of Hitler, but is caused by the difference in the social nature of the two regimes.

Hitler’s original reason for setting up concentration camps was largely political: he sought a place to herd every oppositionist or potential oppositionist. Since the Nazis understood that the living death of the concentration camp was more terrifying than rapid physical death, they utilized the camps, with diabolical skill, as a specter of horror to whip fear into the hearts of all those outside the camps. Men who might not have feared a bullet were cowed by Buchenwald.

Since Germany remained essentially a capitalist economy, its industry under Hitler was still largely based on “free labor” (in the Marxist sense; that is, free from ownership of the means of production and thereby forced to sell labor power, but also possessing the freedom to decide whether or not to sell this labor power). For all of the Hitlerite restrictions, there was considerable bargaining between capitalist and proletarian, as well as between capitalists for workers during labor shortages. This was true even during the years of the most stringent war economy. There was not, of course, the classically pure free economy as abstracted in Capital – an abstraction that existed nowhere, as Marx knew – but Germany remained, for all the considerable intervention of the state in economic life, a social system in which the major relationship was between private capitalist in control of the means of production and private proletarian selling his labor power.

During the first years of Hitler’s rule, the camps impinged only slightly and indirectly on German economy; no one thought of them as a significant source of production. After the outbreak of the war they underwent a change in function: they began to acquire some importance in the country’s war economy. Where previously the camps had been indifferent (at best!) to the survival of inmates, their rulers were now forced to use the prisoners to help plug gaps in Germany’s labor force. That is why there was even a certain “amelioration” of conditions in a number of camps; if the Nazis were to utilize camp labor they had to keep its members alive and able to work. But even here, it should be noticed, the political rationale of Nazism continued to play a vital role, often seemingly in opposition to the economic interests of the regime. Otherwise, how explain the destruction of thousands of workable human beings (Jews, Poles, etc.) in crematoriums at a lime of an acute labor shortage?

Finally there was the large-scale importation of foreign labor into Germany, which again was dictated by immediate military needs. One cannot of course predict with certainty what would have happened in case of a Nazi victory, but it seems likely that in such an eventuality large numbers of the foreign slave laborers would have been returned to their native countries, there to be exploited by Quisling regimes for the benefit of Nazi Germany. One may surmise that the Nazis would not have wanted to keep indefinitely in Germany the politically explosive and economically competitive foreign slave workers. Their permanent residence in Germany might have seriously endangered the status of the highly skilled German working class which the Nazis wished to placate in order the more thoroughly to exploit. The Nazis, then, used slave labor for basic economic functions only when the immediate wartime shortage of labor, caused by unexpected military reverses, forced them to; and even then they used only foreign labor as an adjunct of “free” and capitalistically-regulated German labor. To have literally enslaved the advanced German working class (as distinct from totalitarian control of their lives) would have been absurd from the Nazi point of view, since it would unquestionably have resulted in a decline of productivity; and the Nazis were not addicted to that sort of absurdity.

Slave labor, then, was always peripheral to German economy, even when Hitler exerted the mast rigorous controls. In peacetime the Nazi economy could have continued to function without the use of camp labor.

This is not the case with Stalinist Russia.

Role of Stalinist Slavery

Under the Stalinist regime the use of slave labor preceded the war and had only an indirect connection with it. Though slave labor had its origin in the political repression of the Stalinist regime during the years of its consolidation, it soon acquired a new significance. The Kremlin, it is true, continued to utilize slave labor as a punishment for political dissidents, but by the early thirties slave labor had reached an extent and acquired a specific weight in Russian economy that began to make of it an integral relationship of production in the Stalinist state. Political considerations may have provoked the creation of labor camps, but now economic need kept those camps in existence and often even forced the manufacture of political pretenses to find new inmates for them.

Here, then, is still another paradox of Stalinism, a system of paradoxes. In an economy based on nationalized production, a “higher economic form” than private capitalist economy, there arises an immense and integral labor force doomed to social relationships and conditions that hark back to pre-capitalist societies. This is another ironic, tragic index of the “law of uneven development.”

What is the basic social purpose of slave labor in Russia?

In their indispensable and remarkably documented study of this subject [1], Dallin and Nicolaevsky advance a number of answers to this question, but seem to me to fail to unify them into the necessary leading proposition. But it should in fairness be said that this proposition is implicit in their book.

Slave labor in Russia is an attempt by the ruling bureaucratic class to overcome by the most reactionary and backward methods the economic backwardness of the country. As with all such attempts, it leads only to greater internal contradictions, to an aggravation of that very backwardness it is designed to obliterate. Every forced march leaves victims on the sidelines.

Here Trotsky’s basic analysis of the decline of the Russian revolution, whatever peripheral disagreements one may have with it, is indispensable. Trotsky related all the political-social developments of post-revolutionary Russia to their context: a wracked, primitive, semi-feudal country with an illiterate population which had only the most tenuous ties with modern culture. Left to its own resources, he insisted, revolutionary Russia could only disintegrate. Though in our opinion he did not accurately predict the nature of this disintegration – a bureaucratic oligarchy resting on and inseparable from nationalized economy [2] rather than, as he expected, a weakened bureaucracy sliding back to private capitalism – the essential aspects of his analysis remain valid. Even our divergence is based on his premises.

Extensive Exploitation

Slave labor, then, was the Stalinist answer to the high level of productivity of the western capitalist powers. Since Stalinist Russia – for all its propaganda about Stakhanovism and the like – could not even approach the level of productivity reached by the major capitalist countries, its only possible competitive alternative was to exploit labor “extensively” rather than “intensively.” By these crude descriptives I mean the following. The exploitation of labor in a highly efficient and technologized economy (by means of careful rationalization, high development of skill and extreme concentration of capital) may be described as “intensive” since labor is exploited to what amounts to maximum efficiency for the given social conditions. That level, with an occasional flashy exception, is clearly excluded for Stalinist Russia and would be possible for it only if it gained control of, and was able successfully to integrate into its economy, one of the major industrial areas of Western Europe. Hence the Stalinists had to resort to “extensive” exploitation of labor (e.g., slave labor) which is ultimately socially wasteful. The mass exploitation of large groups of mainly unskilled slave laborers was certainly not an efficient device, for it soon exhausted considerable sections of them and gave rise fo a tremendous mortality rate; but still it achieved some of the regime’s production objectives. It is most significant that the Stalinists seldom banished scarce and difficult-to-replace skilled workers to slave camps (unless they were genuine political oppositionists); the regime found it more expedient to exhaust as rapidly as possible the labor of peasants and other elements inessential to industrial production.

This is a general characteristic of the Stalinist regime, as of all bureaucratic attempts to impose uncorrelated industrialization on primitive economies. Its equivalent is graphically evident in the Stalinist exploitation of Balkan oil fields by wasteful processes which result in higher immediate yields but shorten the life and decrease the total yields of the wells. Interested only in its immediate consolidation of power and imperialistic expansion, Stalinism is quite ready to waste material and human resources.

As broken down into more specific categories, forced labor has the following uses for Stalinist Russia:

1) It is cheap. During 1932–33, according to Dallin, the cost of upkeep per camp laborer was slightly over 500 rubles a year. The average wage in Russia during that period was, according to official statistics, 1,496 rubles a year. Dallin comments:

“This differential, multiplied by the millions of prison workers and the years of work, is an important element of the government’s industrialization fund. General workers’ wages rose 174 per cent between 1926 and 1935 (due in part to the inflationary rise in prices); during the same period the cost of food per prisoner increased by only 90 per cent.”

This meant that the supply of consumer goods available to the bureaucratic strata of the population was in large measure based on the high rate of profit which the NKVD squeezed out of the labor camps, “profits never made in other fields of Soviet economy.” While not the dominant means of exploitation in Russia, slave labor provides that margin of fatty increment which allows for the extreme social elevation of the bureaucratic layers. The bureaucracy’s “primitive accumulation” is to a considerable extent based on slave labor; how much, it is impossible to calculate.

Blood Instead of Machinery

2) It is possible to employ slave laborers with a minimum investment of capital. In the huge projects – canal building, forestry, road building, etc. – on which slave laborers were employed, almost all of the work was done by simple, unskilled processes. Vast expenditures of cheap, docile and easily replaceable slave labor were substituted for machines and technical skill. Since there is nothing other than natural limits to prevent a continuous lengthening of the working day and since the immediate, though not ultimate, expenditures for the upkeep of slave labor remain stationary regardless of the amount of labor performed, the bureaucratic dictatorship is able to squander unskilled labor recklessly. In fact, it could be less concerned about human waste than about deterioration of machines; for while machines had to be replaced by expensive outlays of valuta both at home and abroad, Stalinist Russia had at its disposal a virtually inexhaustible supply of labor. Human blood replaced the machine.

In 1937 the NKVD actually assigned to its branches over the country quotas on the number of prisoners to be sent to labor camps. If nothing else, this fact alone would strongly lend to substantiate the analysis of Russian slave labor made here: that it is integral to Stalinist economy.

3) Slave labor eliminates, or at least lessens, the problem of labor discipline. The slave laborer is a completely depersonalized being, a unit manipulated at will. (Some of the accounts of horrors in the Russian camps rival anything that happened in Nazi Germany. If anything, from a certain point of view it is more horrible deliberately to work human beings to death than to gas or burn them. Some, may disagree about this; as Molotov would say, it is “a matter of taste.”)

By setting up slave camps, the regime was able to “solve” an industrial problem: how to deal with restless workers who shifted from factory to factory in search of better conditions. (In the camps, one could not quit or be absent or late.) But it solved an even more acute problem. All of the major slave labor projects were and are in extremely undesirable locations and are assigned extremely difficult tasks: Arctic gold mining, the Baltic canal, Siberian forestry. To entice “free” workers to these areas, the Stalinist regime would have had to pay wages higher than those it paid the most skilled workers in the cities. But since it was precisely these projects which, with the exception of lumber destined for the foreign market, were least immediately profitable and were based on the slenderest capital investments in relation to possible yield (many were military projects which would never yield any return) the government could not possibly offer such wage incentives. Its only alternative was forced labor.


The disadvantages of slave labor are well known; they are pithily expressed in the quotation from Adam Smith at the head of this article. The Stalinist economists, too, must have been aware of these disadvantages and tried to overcome them.

In ancient Rome slave-owners were aware of the problem of incentives: why should a slave work hard if he had nothing to gain from his work? The Roman slave-owners solved this problem, or tried to, by offering very real incentives to a portion of their slaves, especially the enslaved Greek intellectuals. Some were able to buy their freedom, others to gain a status which, while formally still slavery, was actually a step up the social ladder, and still others gained material advantages though their status remained the same. The mass of the slaves, however, were assigned to such primitive, unskilled tasks that it made slight difference in terms of yield whether or not the slave felt much incentive; for such tasks the whip was enough.

In Stalinist Russia the problem of incentive has been tackled “scientifically.” A devilishly skilled series of social gradations have been instituted in the slave camps (here, no doubt, the Stalinists learned from the Nazis) which offer laborers incentives in the form of slightly better food, clothing and living conditions if they exert themselves. All of these levels are wretched enough, but if a worker refuses to exert himself at all he dooms himself to a quick death, since the lowest level is below subsistence level. Yet his choice is between a quick and a considerably prolonged death, for the camp worker is caught in the vicious circle of expending more energy to get more food to expend more energy to get more food ...

Dallin quotes from Camp Order No. 9 of the Administration of Dmitrevski Camp of 1936:

A camp inmate fulfilling his production norms up to 79 per cent under the increased rations is issued 600 grams (21 ozs.) of bread daily; if he fulfills from 80 to 90 per cent, 700 grams daily; from 100 to 109 per cent, 800 grams (28 ozs.); and from 110 to 124 per cent, 800 grams plus the right of obtaining 200 grams from the stalls (canteens).

Yet for all these “incentives” (many of them deliberately calculated so that the amount of energy required to get the additional increment of food is greater than the amount of energy that can be gained) slave labor remains most wasteful. Dallin calculates, and quite convincingly, that no slave labor system in history has been so wasteful of human beings as that of Russia.

Inefficiency of Slave Labor

The reasons are not hard to discover.

“A private slaveowner who invested capital in his slaves was concerned about their well-being and existence just as he was concerned about his animals. In a state economy, which is not required to invest money in its labor force, this motive for providing minimum care for the slaves does not exist ... When manpower perishes, the slave-employing agency sustains no loss of investment.”


“the efficiency of forced labor, despite incentives and compulsion, was and is on an extremely low level. The average efficiency of a slave laborer has certainly been below 50 per cent of that of a free Russian worker, whose productivity in turn has never been high.”

The evidence adduced by Dallin for this statement cannot here be conveniently reproduced, but it is overwhelming.

If nothing else, this fact serves as an indication that Stalinist Russia, for all its squandering of human beings, will not by its own resources be able in the near future to reach a level of productivity even approaching that of the advanced capitalist countries. Each bureaucratic forced march engenders subterranean crises, economic dislocations, moral disintegration. In a totalitarian statified society it is even less possible to divorce political from economic events and both front moral and intellectual implications than it is in a capitalist country. In Russia no crisis can remain “departmentalized”: it strikes the totality of social life.

Nor is it difficult to imagine what an undercurrent of resentment and hatred the Stalinist regime has engendered among the masses. The forced-labor camps produce the most terrible moral conditions: deceit, spying, corruption – and above all the omnipresent concomitant of totalitarianism, fear. (Godfrey Blunden’s novel, Room on the Route, was a most vivid portrait of how fear is the dominant emotional current of Russian life.) What regressive social and political tendencies may result from this large-scale barbarism it is impossible to predict. One thing is clearer, however, than ever before: nothing remotely resembling socialism or democracy, nothing that has the faintest similarity to the aspirations of humanity for security and freedom can be built on this society. It must be destroyed.


Dallin’s book is divided into two sections: a full compendium of revelations about life in the labor camps and a historical account of their development. Though this article has been devoted to a discussion of the implications of the material he adduced, other and certainly more dramatic articles could be written about the terrible accounts of those who have escaped from the camps and about slave labor in Russia as a function of the history of Stalinist Russia in general. I should especially like to mention the brilliant chapter by Nicolaevsky called The Land of White Death, which details the development of gold-mining slave camps in the northern Kolyma region, “a desolate land at the very edge of the world, in the coldest wastes of the Arctic.”

This chapter reads as if it were written by Jules Verne, Edgard Allen Poe and Franz Kafka – but none of these inadequate comparisons suggest the quality of sheer horror which it produces as one reads this account of Stalinism’s bestiality. (Whoever wishes to experience the full significance of modern totalitarianism should subject himself to the experience this writer had: read The Land of the White Death directly after David Roussct’s story of Buchenwald, The Other Kingdom.)

Were a full analysis of the materials in Dallin’s book attempted here, we would have to quarrel in fundamental terms with his Menshevik bias by which he attempts, quite unsuccessfully, to suggest that the slave-labor camps of Stalin are the logical and unavoidable outcome of Lenin’s regime. To show that brutality and inhumanity and repression still existed under the Bolsheviks is not at all to prove that they are the seeds of Stalinism; it is merely to indicate the conditions under which the young workers’ state had to function. Bolshevism tried to overcome the heritage of backwardness and authoritarianism by heroic if unfulfilled measures; Stalinism consolidated and raised to unprecedented heights these aspects of Russian autocracy. But since our purpose here is not to dispute Dallin’s political views but to discuss his materials, we can drop this question for a more appropriate occasion.

Men Into Beasts

The human implications of slave labor have necessarily been slurred over in this attempt to grasp their sociological implications. Yet we must not forget that we are dealing here with the fate of millions of human beings; men with hopes and aspirations and dreams, even as you and I; men who have been degraded to the level of sub-beasts. If the abstraction of theory seems to lead away from the human, it is always in order the more adequately to lead back to the human. I should therefore like to end by quoting from one of the accounts of escaped Polish prisoners who had been dragooned by the thousands to fill Stalin’s slave camps:

Half-naked, barefoot, and nearly dead, we reached a place in the deserted, terrible, frozen “tundra” where a post bore the sign of “Lagpunkt No. 228.” With almost superhuman effort we dug zemlyankas, i.e., pits filled with mud and barely covered with branches and earth. Our nourishment was rye flour (raw) kneaded with water. In the night men crowded in the zemlyanka sleep on branches thrown over the mud, warming themselves by contact with one another’s bodies. Moans, curses, cries, threats resound during the night ... At 4 a.m. the naryadchik (chief) sounds reveille by hitting the blade of a saw with the haft of some instrument. There is no need of dressing, since no one ever undresses. Breakfast consists of the second half of the flour portion received during the evening before ... The work is construction of a road running parallel to the near-by railroad. Snow has to be removed with spades; the deeply imbedded brakes of the tundra and other plants have to be uprooted and the soil leveled off. The quota is 20 square meters per worker. With limbs stiffened by the frightful cold, one has to keep moving and working in order to avoid freezing ...

Sometimes the following scene could be observed near the kitchen: numerous prisoners would be squatting expectantly outside the door. Suddenly the cook would appear and throw out the slop and remnants. Everybody would rush, push, fight and rummage in the garbage for some putrid food ... In an instant, not a trace of food would be left. And the men, who were no longer men, would return to their former position and wait, with their eyes fixed on the kitchen door ...

The working conditions were almost always deadly for us. We were forced to work in temperatures of 40 degrees Fahrenheit... We had to cut trees in the forests even when the snow was waist deep... In the summer, while mowing in this marshland, men had to stand knee-deep in water or mud for 10 or 12 hours ... Scurvy was widespread, wounds opened, and abscesses suppurated. Gangrene was frequent, often necessitating amputation of fingers, hands and feet ...

The climate alone was enough to kill the southerners. For a year or a year and a half a “hero” prisoner would do Stakhanovite work and accomplish 120 or 150 per cent of his quota. Then one night he would die in his sleep, without a moan, of a heart attack, and in the morning his companions would find beside them a “healthy corpse” – healthy, because he had died suddenly without having been ill.

In the 17th camp the rate of mortality was very high ... There were many cases of suicide. In September of 1940 in the barrack where I lived a Viennese Jew, Frischhof, hanged himself from his cot. The Germans had held him in Dachau for 11 months; he had endured that imprisonment but could not stand this one ...

The readers of The New International must be especially interested in the fate of the most steadfast political opponents of the Stalinist regime. Here is a section of a report:

I shall relate an authentic story which I heard in prison, and which throws light on the fate of the Trotskyists. Several dozen of the most important among them were deported to Vorkuta. While they were still together, they decided to eternalize their memory by a last manifestation of their inflexible will, and thus remain victorious, even if sent to hard labor.

They presented a list of demands, claiming the right (1) to be isolated from common criminals; (2) to be employed only for work corresponding to their professions, i.e., intellectual work; (3) never to be separated from one another.

They implemented these demands by a threat of a hunger strike until victory or death. The NKVD of course turned down their demands. The Trotskyists then started a hunger strike which lasted for 120 days without interruption. During the time the camp authorities forcibly administered artificial nourishment. In spite of this, many died. When all efforts to break their spirit proved ineffective, the Trotskyists were separated with the help of a pack of fierce dogs unleashed in their barracks.

The sick men were carried out by the soldiers. They were sent in various directions and, after a while, nobody mentioned them. It is pretty certain they were shot, since no one of them has ever been seen since.

This is the regime which George Collins, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, declared in a statement never repudiated by his party to be one in which “factories, mines, mills, railroads, workshops belong to those who work them”; the regime which the Socialist Workers Party and the other “official” caricatures of Trotskyists declare to be a “degenerated workers’ state,” and which they call upon the workers of the world to defend!


1. Forced Labor In Soviet Russia, by David Dallin and Boris Nicolaevsky, Yule University Press. $3.75. Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are from this book.

2. To avoid misinterpretation, when one says that the Stalinist bureaucracy is inseparable and cannot exist apart from nationalized economy, that is not the name as saying that nationalized economy cannot exist apart from Stalinism.

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