Tag Archives: working class

Gorbachev and Soviet workers – the relevance to Putinism

Somewhere a meme worker is putting in a shift for the sake of us all

openDemocracy asked me to write a little piece on Gorbachev. So many ‘takes’ about Gorbachev are made through a distorted Western lens, so I tried to domesticate the reflections a little. Obviously, there’s a hard word limit and I’d have liked to say more about his contradictory implementation of economic reform at enterprise-level which was probably inimical to the aims of Perestroika – things like meaningful work-place democracy.

What’s less understood is that reformers around Gorbachev were not just ‘marketeers’, they understood that productivity rises could only occur at the smallest unit of production the ‘nizovoe zveno’, or brigade team of workers/factory unit. This, as Maxim Lebsky points out in his book, was at the root of the failure of previous reforms – insufficient resources to stimulate productivity. The new experiments in ‘cost accounting’ from 1985 were supposed to focus on freeing up more resources for factory-units, or sub-units, to put into capital investment and differentiated labour rewards. According to some, the tragedy of enterprise reforms from 1987 lay in their belatedness: effectively they’d been sitting ‘on the shelf’ since 1965 for all to see. Thus, more critical voices of Gorbachev see nothing really new in his ‘new thinking’, at least in the economic sphere. Furthermore, the laws on Cooperatives (from 1988) undermined efforts within industry, because the latter even when freed to reward workers more for productivity, could not compete with the higher wages available in the newly created private small enterprises (the ‘Coops’). Massive inflationary pressures (still mainly expressed in terms of goods’ shortages) were released.

As I have written about previously in this blog, the most interesting part of Maxim Lebsky’s book on the Soviet working class is his chapter on the ill-fated political role of STKs under perestroika – Labour Collective Councils. These included workers , administration and management. In reality, the STKs turned out to be mainly one more Soviet-style instrument of management diktat. As one eye witness wrote: ‘In place of industrial democracy, we got industrial populism’ with factory directors’ interests controlling STKs. During the period, republican STKs were on the side of preserving the Soviet Union, while Russian STKs assisted its destruction. This was not so much because of ‘all-Union’ class consciousness, but more to do with the enterprise-identity of workers. Something many scholars have discussed, including me. The nascent workers movement, structurally powerful in the late Perestroika period, could have been an ally to Gorbachev’s efforts to save the Union. His blindness to the potential political power of STKs to defend the Union, despite their flaws, led to the working-class falling prey to easy manipulation by nationalist-populist entrepreneurs, the chief of whom was Yeltsin.

Lebsky starts his chapter on STKs with this quote from a speech by Gorbachev:

“We want workers to understand themselves as real masters of their enterprises, to elect their managers, from the foreman of a workshop to the enterprise director; for them all to be united in a council which solves the questions of planning, defines the future direction of development, which participates in the division of profit; so that they may solve social issues. This is the direction we want to move the process of democracy in, to deepen it and expand it”.

The deepest irony of Perestroika then is this idea to use worker self-government as a tool of destruction of the planned economy in the name of the market. The second irony is the effective manipulation of collectivist ideas by nascent national elites in the interests of capitalist restoration (these are Lebsky’s main arguments).

Why does any of this history matter now? There’s probably little Gorbachev could have done after 1987 to correct the unintended negative political consequences of Perestroika’s industrial democratizing policy. And in any case, his heart was in the right (Leninist) place – a renewed socialist project could only have succeeded through work-place democratization. Probably in the Opendemocracy piece, I’m a little too hard on him.

Well, while not going through system meltdown, Russia is undergoing ‘restructuring’ because of sanctions and the war. Inflationary pressures erode wages, enterprises that ‘make stuff’ lose workers to other sectors and to the war itself. More importantly, as the economic effects mount, workers will more acutely feel the complete discrediting of the political project of Putinism (corporatist ‘never-never’*), just as they deserted Gorbachev in his time.

The industrial geography of Russia has not changed much – meaning there is much to be gained from local political entrepreneurs siding with disgruntled worker collectives, just like Yeltsin did to destroy Union solidarity. Now, unlike Gorbachev, Putin has significant resources to throw at this. However, like in my piece on Gorbachev, it’s worth emphasizing the power of ideas (and biases) in motivating elites. Like in the UK at the moment, the power of groupthink to allow such elites to ignore the obvious and immediate problems of their countries can be overwhelming.

There’s no indication that Putin’s anti-worker instincts would soften sufficiently quickly in the face of a series of cascade strikes to prevent significant social unrest. His instinct would be to pick off individually each enterprise using ‘manual control’ and even personal intervention. This would be too little, too late. His next instinct would be mass coercion. I’m optimistic that this would be a total failure given the size and location of big industries like metallurgy and coal. Stephen Crowley is the real expert here. Worth checking out his recent Ridl post.

*Russian corporatism: “buckle down workers, shut the f-up and wear this St George Ribbon. You’ll get your rewards later”.

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.