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John G. Wright

New Soviet Decrees Reflect
Acute Crisis in Production

(February 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 5, 4 February 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On December 29, Stalin officially promulgated the latest of his “labor decrees,” to accompany a previous decision to “increase the productivity of labor by 25%” while cutting wages 14% and more.

The publication of this decree – which completely invalidates the labor laws of the Soviet Union introduced under Lenin in December 1922 at the beginning of the New Economic Policy – was preceded by a ritualistic campaign in the press of only two weeks duration. To believe Stalin (and the Daily Worker) it was the workers of Russia themselves who insisted on the passage of laws which are almost without parallel in reactionary labor legislation. Only the system of “fink books” is comparable to the “system of labor booklets” introduced by Stalin as a New Year’s boon, 22 years after the October Revolution.

As for the other provisions in the decree, they violate not only all previous labor legislation but “the great Stalinist Constitution” itself. And all this was headlined in the Daily Worker as follows: “SOVIET ACTS TO INCREASE SOCIALIST PRODUCTIVITY HAMPERED BY THOSE WHO ABUSE SOCIAL SECURITY.”

“Democratic” Procedure

The decree was issued without even a consultation of the Supreme Council which is scheduled to convene shortly. It sufficed for the passage of this law for Stalin to sign it in the name of the “Communist Party of Russia,” Molotov signed it for the “Council of People’s Commissars” (the majority of whom have been purged as “wreckers” in the past year), while Shvernik invested it with the “authority” of the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions. And if any further proof of the legality of this decree was required, the Russian worker could turn to the pages of the latest issue of Sovetskaya Yustizia (the official organ of Vyshinsky’s Department of Justice) wherein it is proved that all former “theories of labor and labor laws in the U.S.S.R. have been permeated with capitalist counter-revolutionary spirit.” Why consult the Supreme Council on such a detail?

Article 119 of the Constitution guarantees, among other things, rest and leisure to Soviet citizens. We quote this “guarantee”: “The right to rest and leisure is ensured by ... the institution of annual vacations with pay for workers and other employees and the provision of sanatoria, rest homes and clubs serving the needs of the toilers.” But Article 119 has been improved by Stalin. Henceforth social security will be provided on the following basis: “100 per cent” only if the worker has remained “in one and the same factory or institution” for more than six years; 80 per cent if his “labor booklet” shows a record of three to six years’ stay in one and the same place; 60 per cent for two to three years and 50 per cent for anything below that. The Daily Worker heads this paragraph of the decree with the caption High Benefits.

Tying Workers Down

These “benefits” are indeed so high as to be inaccessible to the vast majority of Russian workers, who have been constantly migrating from factory to factory in the hope of improving their lot. In point of fact the foregoing measure, along with others, is intended in part to cope with the tremendous labor turn-over in Russia, to tie the workers down, somewhat in the manner in which the serfs were tied to the land.

Why these drastic decrees? The official explanation is very, very simple. “The overwhelming majority of workers and office employees,” declares Stalin’s preamble, “work honestly and sincerely ...” But there is a handful of “disorganizers” (it used to be “wreckers” – remember?) and it is these “individual ignorant, backward or unscrupulous people who ... cause industry, transport and the whole national economy great damage.” Stalin and his gang do not bother to explain either to the Russian workers or to the world just how these “individual” shirkers and slackers can cause “billions of damage” annually; nor just why millions of workers have to suffer for the sins of a few.

Workers Blamed Now

A short time ago the disorganization of industry was laid at the door of “wreckers” and “saboteurs,” especially of the “Trotskyite-Zinovievite-Bukharinite” variety. Monstrous trials were staged, and great successes were promised after the process of rooting out the “enemies of the people” had been completed. No such successes were forthcoming. And now the blame for the chaos in industry is being placed on the “disorganizers of discipline,” the “shirkers and slackers,” in other words, on the entire Russian working class. Has the bureaucracy, then, completely lost its senses? No, it is reacting to a grave emergency in its customary manner.

In the columns of the Socialist Appeal we have time and again explained the underlying economic roots for the oppressive measures, purges and frame-ups of the bureaucracy; we forecast that far from solving his internal difficulties in this way, Stalin was only laying the foundation for new pitfalls. The explanation for the latest and most drastic measures of Stalin to maintain his shaky regime is to be found in the pages of the Soviet press itself.

Economic Crisis

In the middle of December Soviet economic life took an abrupt plunge. Production in all spheres suddenly dropped 50 per cent and more. The only figures made public are those for the key industries, and we can only cite these. Falsified as they are, the picture they present is unmistakable. In the table below we reproduce the “plan” figures (in thousands of tons) for December together with the output during the period of “agitation” for the new labor laws:




Dec. 14


Dec. 15


Dec. 17


Dec. 19













Rolled products












Car loadings which had reached the daily total of 100,000 in the summer dropped from 85,000 on Dec. 13 to 50,000 on Dec. 18. The same trend is shown in all the industries for which figures are available. When this catastrophic and unprecedented drop was first made public, the official explanation was: “snowstorms.” After adding “snowdrifts” to the “storms,” they then proceeded to print even lower figures without any official alibis. Since then, all pretences have been dropped. It has been publicly admitted that the “plan” for 1938 had collapsed. The “plan” figures for January have been slashed. Production today, it is claimed, is back where it was in the early days in December, which is below the production of three years ago, i.e., in 1936!

It will be some time before we learn the whole truth about the actual occurrences in Russia in the latter part of December, and for that matter, at the present time. But it is no guess-work on our part to assert that there is no other explanation for the sudden drop in production, and the subsequent emergency legislation than this, that the Russian workers either stayed away from the plants or struck on the job by the millions. Certainly, there was also the customary phenomenon of breakdown of machinery and of production, inadequate supplies, etc. But the scope of the “breakdown” and the “steady” improvement since the low point in the middle of December can be explained only by “labor shortage.”

The fact that Pravda has been compelled to thunder against “lax executives,” the fact that it went so far as openly to admit that “certain directors are afraid to fire shirkers for fear of creating for themselves difficulties with labor supply” (Jan. 15); the additional fact that the administration has been compelled to “soften” its original regulations and permit re-employment of workers fired from a plant within six months, etc. – all these and other facts support the view that the Russian workers have entered into the phase of an open straggle against the Stalin regime, that the latter is defending itself in the only way it knows.

Last updated: 28 November 2015