Tag Archives: paternalism

Why Didn’t the Working Class Defend the Soviet Project? A Commentary on Maksim Lebskiy

I was really excited to hear about this new Russian language book called The Working Class in the USSR: Life in conditions of industrial paternalism, by Maksim Lebskii. It’s right up my street as you can imagine, and it’s such a rarity for this topic to get a serious treatment in Russia/n because of the class bias in scholarship, as I wrote at length here.

I hope the book gets translated into English soon, but in the meantime I made a summary of some of its points and how they intersect with my scholarly interests. There will be a lot of egregious plugging of my work in this post! There is also a Russian language summary here of Lebskii’s book (he spells it Lebskiy in translit). Here is a collection of his writing on other topics.

This is a book about the role and identity of the working class in Russia since the Russian Revolution with a focus on the post-1965 period. It’s mainly based on archival documents as well as Soviet and Russian newspaper sources. Ten chapters take us on a detailed tour of the social functions of the Soviet enterprise up to 1965 and the Kosygin reforms after that. Key topics are the problem of how to stimulate economic productivity, the intensification of paternalism, the growth of the expectation of a mass consumption society only partly fulfilled by enterprise resources, the conflicts between ministries, the collapse of the USSR, workers in post-Soviet Russian.

Lebskii’s own intervention is this: rather than a history of the Soviet working-class as a whole, he proposes an institutional and structural focus on the period 1965-95 where the tendencies of mature socialism were intensified: industrial paternalism, with its contradictory role in the subsequent history of the USSR. The main question posed by the book then becomes: Why did the massive Soviet working class at the beginning of the 1990s not defend the principles of Soviet society? Lebskii argues that the working-class had gained enough to want to defend paternalism, but not enough to be prepared to defend a state and polity it did not identify with socialism or collectivism once a series of political entrepreneurs came along to offer alternatives. The working class emerges as both radical and conservative: attempting to cling to decaying paternalism, and alternating between extremes of potent activism and passivity.

Soviet collectivism was no fiction, it had a palpable reality in the weak economic stratification within the enterprise and the genuine power of an ideology of social flattening and the shared goal of the ‘plan’. This is a topic my own work echoes in part when I interviewed and observed workers in an industrial setting in the 2000s and 2010s (obligatory link to my book here – it’s near the top of the linked page). For Lebskii, class was more an economic than a political reality in terms of how it ‘created’ working-class persons. Lebskii uses the work of E. P. Thompson, but in my view rather superficially, to argue for a ‘social community’ approach where class comes into being as a result of social conflict and interactions. For me there’s not enough granularity to make this claim based on the evidence available to Lebskii. I actually agree with his argument though, based on my own ethnographic evidence where I use the term ‘metaoccupational community’, even to describe a deindustrializing set of towns and factories in the Russian rustbelt today.

What was new to me, as a non-historian, was Lebskii’s observation that as early as the 1920s factories begin the shift towards paternalism by providing social support and housing. Lebskii then narrates the massive forced labour migrations under Stalin and the retention of peasant characteristics by the new working class, as well as the attempts to more firmly attach workers to enterprises via the provision of privileges – in particular accelerated access to housing.  By overfulfilling the plan, factory bosses could significantly reward workers with material benefits as well as giving the enterprise autonomy via discretion on use of retained funds. This is a novel finding, argues Lebskii, when considering the existing picture of Stalinist production command. By the time of Khrushchev, this dynamic’s growth is visible in the disparity between housing built by enterprises for their workers and the lag in municipal housing. This factor also strongly ties workers to their enterprises, ensuring the retention of skilled and technical workers. By 1949 in fact the pattern is set – the expansion of ‘social-ministerial/departmental facilities’ (‘departments’ understood in the sense of Soviet industrial silos), dominating the urban and industrial development of the USSR and largely out of the control of the government itself. Lebskii provides new archival evidence of the massive social spending by factories on housing and other facilities.

Kosygin under Khrushchev attempts to reinvigorate industry and growth by decentralising planning and break the centralized ministries’ bureaucratic power. This is a primary reason for the removal of Khrushchev in 1964. Lebskii puts this into a longer-term context of an increasing concern with efficiency, profits, and incentivization. Again, Lebskii makes use of new archival sources to underline the earlier turn towards reform than previously appreciated. His conclusion here is that the reforms, intended to halt the hoarding of resources by enterprises by effectively taxing them on ‘profit’, in reality led to a blurring of the unified institution of state property by treating the enterprise as a unit of accounting in this way.

To improve the USSR’s woeful industrial productivity the late 60s saw successful experiments in applied material incentives, a rejection of Taylorism, and a reduction in workforce – not expanded elsewhere because unemployment would have been politically unfeasible. Again, as is fitting for the theme of the book (paternalism), the point here is the growth in discretionary sources of material reward – a money fund, a social-cultural fund, and a productivity development fund. During periods of reform (65-70 and 87-90), enterprises get a large amount of funds to disburse with discretion, and even in other periods the percentage of surplus available is not less than 40%. This meant a substantial growth in the power of the factory administration over time. By 1969, 7% of wages were from discretionary bonuses in contrast to 2.5% in 1950. Overall though, productivity did not rise, as this system encouraged factories to focus on high-price industrial goods which allowed overfulfillment of the plan according to imputed output value, rather than overall output and at the expense of the consumption goods sector.

Lebskii also describes the explosion in spending by enterprises on social-cultural facilities under late socialism. For example, the Kirov factory in 1985 had at its disposal children’s summer camps capable of housing thousands of children. Similarly, the role of the enterprise in housing is dealt with in detail with many examples. Lebskii also deals with a corollary of paternalism – workers are individualised as they engaged in individual bargaining with the enterprise for resources – something my informants recall in a bitter-sweet way in my research – one of my main interlocutors describes how the factory boss could veto personal relationships and dealt out the best housing to high productivity workers even in the late 1980s.

Again, because of my relative ignorance of Russian labour history, Lebskii’s description of widespread strike action even in the 1930s was news to me. Under high Stalinism, workers were still able to ‘vote with their feet’ because of the shortages in labour. Active protest was unnecessary because of the structural power workers wielded – again a point my work on labour protest deals with in the present. After Stalin, infighting for resources between ministries intensified. Economic-costs accounting was only ever half-hearted due to the weakness of the centre. Attempts to make enterprises self-financing and self-managing had deleterious effects on the overall state budget.  Eventually the producers win out over the centre, resulting in the inflation of the late 1980s and the breakdown of the entire system.

Lebskii then focusses on the attempts from 1987 to transform the Plan into state orders and allow the enterprise leeway to dispose of its hoarded materials and capital. Similarly, the experiments with pseudo-workplace democracy are described. Lebskii highlights the continuing sense of a ‘labour collective’ over other forms of identity (such as national separatism), and workers’ attachment to the enterprise during crisis. The nascent workers movement is manipulated by political entrepreneurs, chief of whom was Yeltsin.

As the post-Soviet period begins, genuine unions form to oppose the defacto privatisation and seizure of state property by the nomenklatura. There are attempts to re-collectivise the means of production. The first stage of privatisation between 1992-4 is described in detail from a workers’ perspective. What looks like a promising ‘popular’ privatisation where the entire collective received 51% control (the other options being the state selling 40% of shares, or worker buy-outs) is used by the management to gain control in the face of a general hegemonic perspective on the inevitability of capitalist transition and republican populism. This underlines once more the legacy effect of paternalistic relations of ‘trust’ towards management,  a state of affairs that continues into the 1990s as Russian workers confront social breakdown and unemployment.

In a precursor to his conclusion, Lebskii rehearses a relatively familiar argument that the Soviet leadership mistakenly believed they could build a socialist society from a low material and cultural base. The leadership lacked the theoretical understanding that the USSR was a transitionary state between capitalism and socialism but lacked the material base to achieve this. Even in the 1950s, mechanised labour was less than 50% and labour hoarding one result. The late USSR also suffered from the same slowdown of growth as the capitalist states after 1960. Despite the enormous social achievements of the period, the contradiction that doomed the USSR was the leadership attempt to make a consumer society without the tools to do so.

What’s novel here is Lebskii’s recognition of working-class agency: the USSR saw a growing working class accept a developmental-modernisation compact with an oppressive state, but not at any cost. The factory become the main organising space of the worker’s life. This had the effect of the worker seeing himself not as part of a working class but as a participant in a small corporation. This is where Lebskii and me part ways, as I see this as too historically-determinist, relying on a false continuity stretching back to ‘corporative’ ideas about Russian peasant life that are out of date. It’s hard to argue with Lebskii when he says the rise in paternalism had such strong legacy effects that its infrastructure had an ameliorating effect in transition – allowing millions to survive the catastrophe of the 1990s – this is essentially the thesis of the first part of my book. What’s missing for me is a conversation with the emerging scholarship on Soviet socialism like that in Keti Chukhrov’s work. Chukhrov liberates Soviet subjecthood from the limiting interpretations of it as alienation, atomization and libidinal desire based on lack. Lebskii’s is a condensed history of worker-enterprise relations, but it clears some ground for further thinking about roads not taken and the enormous political potential of Russia’s working class both past and present.

Homo (post) Soveticus Part III: Vernacular knowledge and responding to three accusations against the Russian majority

local organising against a landfill in Kaluga Region. August 2021

I wrote about class projection of civilisational incompetence and Levada’s sociological framing of homo (post) soveticus in the previous posts. I then discussed how useful Aronoff and Kubik’s interventions were on these points – particularly their idea of ‘vernacular knowledge’. As I said before, I owe Sam Greene a big debt here, because it was his article that really started my interest in this topic.

As I indicated in the previous posts (one and two), the ideas of homo post-soveticus remain strong as a projection onto others, particularly in a classed sense. But by uncovering the lifeworld practices that contribute to the accusation of being a kind of present-day sovok we can better understand that those accusers often resemble quite strongly those accused. Like Aronoff and Kubik, we can unpack the ‘real’ complexity of these purported behaviours as I encounter them in the field.

Accusation 1: Laziness/expectation of paternalism.

Laziness is a frequent accusation directed towards others from among the more well-to-do in my research. It is often linked to the idea that the poor want ‘something for nothing’, and harbour unrealistic expectations of paternalistic policies from the state. Close observation easily dispenses with the former slander. Low-income Russians are not lazy. What is true is that long/inhuman shift patterns in low-paid work make it often impossible to do much else other than ‘recharge’ (this need for dead time is a very old finding in sociology – we could call it part of the ‘texture of hardship’).

Unemployment (and underemployment) is rarely a ‘choice’, but where it is, it is one based on ‘vernacular’ knowledge that a full-time minimum wage job is worse than informal work in terms of ensuring social reproduction. A common complaint is the Norman Tebbit type: ‘I have to commute to Kaluga/Moscow (insert sacrifice of breadwinner), why can’t they get on their bikes and look for work??’ I wrote about this in my book and the conclusion I came to still stands: there is a perfectly valid set of rational calculations of risk and reward going on. These reasonings are more important than a ‘backward’ maladaptation to localized poverty. (“они как-то отстали от времени”)

The whole concept of what we mean by paternalism is problematic. However, it is true to say that the ‘winners’ in today’s Russia tend towards expressions of what Olga Shevchenko calls: “aggressive emphasis on personal autonomy and self-sufficiency, the “cult of the winner” at all costs, a moral legitimation of inequality, and an aggressive pursuit of self-interest” (59: 2015). Consequently they react very negatively to complaints by ‘losers’ (pensioners, low-paid) about the lack of ‘social guarantees’. These tend to be about (lack of) free higher education, availability of kindergarten places, wages, conditions, lack of adequate local labour markets (decent, dignified jobs), high property prices, corruption, and injustice and inequality more generally – particularly growing inequality since 2014. I often here things along the line of “Crimea is ours, but it belongs more to ‘I’m-alright-Jack’ than to me”. Is this unhealthy paternalistic thinking?

Accusation 2: Dissimulation/craftiness/unreliability/avarice (Levada’s chelovek lukavyi)

As we saw in previous posts, a secondary, but important accusation is moral disfunction: ‘You have to watch them. Russians don’t know how to work. They will cheat you. They complain about being poor but then come drunk and late for work. They want money for nothing. They’ll cheat their employer for a tank of diesel fuel but complain about not being trusted/paid enough.” Many of these alleged pathologies are observations about repeated or patterned real behaviours encountered by employers/those using services. However, of course they are the minority. Indeed, a small minority. Some of these we can interpret in terms of Scott’s “metis”– a ‘weapon of the weak’ (Sharafutdinova also makes this point): cunning or practical skills and acquired intelligence in responding to a constantly changing natural and human environment. Or, compare the similar De Certeau’s “ripping-off” [la perruque]: steal what you can opportunistically from any situated involvement with a system. Certainly, the latter does have something in common with the personal use of ‘company time’ and resources in the later Soviet period, but as a ‘tactic’ it’s hardly amenable to extension to an overarching disposition.

If we are going to resort to thinking in terms of work-relations/practices from the Soviet period as inflecting today’s, then equally we should acknowledge avral (intense, time-limited efforts of work), unpaid overtime (with a ‘contractual’ emphasis on completing work regardless of time involved), and, indeed, ‘doing things for free’, because of a quite developed sense of social and network altruism (cf. Sharafutdinova’s critique of H-S which also makes this point by reference to the work of N. Kozlova – for an explanation see here).

And despite the problematic assertation that Russia is a low-trust (to strangers) society, one can frequently observe social imperatives of ‘duty’ having some effect in the real world (towards the old, toward neighbours). As for avarice, I tend to interpret this accusation in the context of an increasingly unequal society where the visibility of that inequality is ever growing. Thus, it does happen that a person engaged for some service or physical task may later interpret that they have ‘undercharged’ for a service. But equally, given how many services – physical or otherwise – exist in the grey economy, quibbling over money is just as likely a product of the highly informalised way transactions and economic activity pan out.

Accusation 3: Political passivity/tendency to value authoritarianism

This is a tougher nut to crack. Certainly there’s some evidence that the better educated ‘liberal’ metropolitans were more in evidence at the watershed protests in 2011-12, and then again in 2019, and 2021. However, at best this is really just an artefact of how we frame protest and opposition in Russia as social scientists. Regina Smyth, Andrei Semenov and I are editing a book on Russian activism that, in the spirit of Sam Greene’s interventions, traces the seeds, roots and shoots of political citizenship that frequently escape notice in Russia. To draw on my own immediate field materials, political conformism in its various guises is, ironically, not strongly correlated with class/material privilege. I wrote in this blog some years ago about how the ‘provincial’ precariat were practicing tactical ‘smart’ voting long before Naval’ny mainstreamed it.

If we turn to the idea of transmission of authoritarian values via elite messaging/indoctrination and so on, then I have uncomfortable news for you. Values that one might describe as vernacularly fascistic, whether directly supportive of the status quo or some future ‘strong man’, are, if anything more articulated, if not more widespread among my educated and ‘civilized’ (as they like to remind me) research participants. I don’t think I need to say much more about this. British readers will be reminded of the response of many ‘left-liberal’ people to the extremely mild social-democratic agenda presented to the electorate in 2019 in the UK…

Perhaps it’s to do with the fact that the Russian middle-classes (and of course metropolitan pensioners, some of whom have some material insulation from the worst privations) watch so much state television, regardless of what they may tell you about their subscription to Dozhd…

The ‘Krym nash’ [Crimea is ours!] half-life effect I find a good indicator. There are plenty of materially comfortable people for whom the annexation of Crimea is personally meaningful – one telling me recently that without the annexation he did not feel complete as a Russian person. For them, Crimea has a long half-life and even now is not decaying. By contrast, while lower income people indeed rejoiced at the foreign policy victory and took pride in the annexation, nowadays they are very ambivalent, if not hostile to the Crimea project because they, rightly or wrongly, link it to falling incomes. These people will spoil their ballot in September if compelled to vote. That too is a politically meaningful action, no less important (and no less risky) than coming out in a cold January in support of Naval’ny is for a Muscovite. I align here with Karine Clement’s argument that instead of taking at face value arguments about Russians’ ‘authoritarian personality’, a closer inspection of critical talk reflects nuanced sociological interpretations of disempowerment of the majority, and a relatively accurate assessment of actually-existing social stratification, as well as the pluralistic sources of power in Russia (security services, presidential administration, personal friends of Putin, Putin himself, technocratic figures such as Moscow Mayor and PM). A key point Clement and I agree on is the underlying demand: ‘we want a more socially interventionist state’. Again, I would strongly resist interpreting this as authoritarian.

I’ll do a final post tomorrow on this topic.