Crisis & Control of Soviet Labor, Part II

Susan Weissman

IN THE FIFTH year of Gorbachev’s perestroika, the lack of any economic progress is now publicly decried and the critics say it can no longer be blamed on the “era of stagnation.”(1) Economic reform is still a slogan. The leadership appears to be floundering without dear direction.

This is not simply an intellectual paralysis. There are more social scientists per capita in the Soviet Union than in any other country in the world, and judging by the press, they seem to know where they are going, but not how to get there. Articles in the newspapers call for measures to introduce the market, but progress is stymied. There is no blueprint that tells the leadership how to get to the market without meeting the working class head on.

This apparent paralysis is itself a reflection of the crisis of Soviet society, an economic crisis, a crisis that is generalized and grips all spheres of life. The fact is that perestroika has changed nothing in the Soviet economy despite all the talk and slogans.

The popular perception is that the economic situation has deteriorated in the last three years: a public opinion poll published in Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1988 reported that 72% of respondents felt there has been a sharp increase in prices. Long queues are a fact of life in the USSR. Sugar is to be rationed in Moscow and basic foodstuffs are already rationed outside the major centers. Thanks to glasnost there is more information about the economic situation,(2) but no real concrete changes.

The new enterprise law is a dead letter and self-financing is a sham since compulsory state procurement exists. The new cooperatives and joint ventures run into a myriad of obstacles because the economy is still governed by the command and requisitioning system. Most enterprises have to deliver95% to 100% of production to state bodies. Ministries include all the familiar control figures.

There is no price reform, although there is price increase. This increase takes the form of inexpensive goods disappearing from the shelves, leaving only much more expensive goods to buy. Neither is there a reform of wages and salaries.

Life is getting harder, not the reverse, and cosmetic democratization simply underscores the transparency of the reform measures. It is difficult to talk about real democratization at the enterprise level, when the commanding heights of the economy have not been democratized and enterprise-ministry relations have remained the same.

Public opinion polls attest to the growing perception at perestroika still belongs to the future. The biggest achievement of this period of glasnost has been to convince workers, if they needed convincing, that the status quo can no longer be maintained. In one poll 81% answered yes to the need for reform, while in another television survey only 2% thought that there had been any successes in restructuring the economy. Hence the significance of Boris Yeltsin’s showing at the polls on ,March 26, 1989, and the vote of no confidence in the Pat) -appointed bureaucrats.

There is overwhelming support for change and a growing impatience with the snail’s pace of change. After Gorbachev said in a speech that we must change ourselves, another survey asked the question, “Does perestroika have to begin with oneself?” The answer of 20.6% was “No, it doesn’t have to begin with oneself,” and 603% said, “No, it must begin with the leaders.”(3) The working class realizes that the status quo must be changed, but they are cynical about the reform, which they see as one more manifestation of the constant campaign, “work harder.”

While being urged to work harder, the wages of many workers have been cut because of quality-control standards (bonuses are determined by the quantity and not the quality of production), and this has provoked resentment and in many cases strikes. The workers In Kamaz took to throwing out the quality-control inspectors once their take-home packets were adversely affected by the inspectors’ actions.

Workers have been required to work longer hours with little or no increase in pay, but even an increase in pay doesn’t entice workers when there is little to buy with the extra money. In fact strikes seem to be a more effective way of increasing the supply-of goods, albeit temporarily. A rash of strikes over the summer prompted the July 16 issue of Pravda to say, “The strike -fever is becoming too high a price for us to pay for perestroika.” What other option is there?

Glasnost has aroused expectations of change and has granted the opportunity to complain more. But the economic situation has not improved and in many cases has deteriorated, the food supply remains a problem, and with greater labor discipline, there is more to corn-plain about.

Gorbachev facts formidable problems: the apparatus the Party conservatives around Ligachev and Gosplan are convinced that change must be introduced cautiously. So far going slowly means nothing has changed and leads only to more shrill calls for radical market reform. As the historian-archivist Yuri Afanasiev recently said, “The point is that we have to rethink the whole concept of socialism, of egalitarianism, and what it means.” The attack on egalitarianism is a frontal attack on the living standards of the working class.

Labor Crisis

The Soviet press abounds with critical articles about the present economic system. Much of the blame is assigned to the workers, who “have to change the way they work.” We read that the existing system encourages parasitical dependency. Workers are even called a privileged group; they are lazy; they have to be shaken out of their listlessness. Forty percent of the workforce—the unskilled—have been subsidized, they are a drag on the economy, and the prescription is always the same: radical market reform.

The reformers call for “rational prices” (price increases), a serious bankruptcy law, and unemployment.(4) While in the Soviet Union, I didn’t find anyone, even on the “left,” who didn’t think some unemployment was necessary. There is no shortage of enthusiasts for monetarism, and Margaret Thatcher was just voted “Woman of the Year” by 200,000 Soviets in a recent Moscow public opinion poll.(5)

While there seems to be resignation to the inevitability of unemployment, the responses to my queries about price increases drew a quick negative. Artyom Artyomov, a member of a new painting cooperative explained:

“Gorbachev has told us that we must remove subsidies and allow the market to determine prices. He said our food is cheaper than in the rest of Europe. We tried our own calculations to compare but couldn’t compare prices because our ruble is non-convertible. So we compared in the only way that is meaningful to us: bow many hours we have to work for a kilo of bread or a pair of shoes compared to a worker in Prance, Germany, England or the United States. We found that our prices are already the most expensive, and now Gorbachev wants to remove subsidies. How will we eat?”(6)

Austerity cutbacks, the International Monetary Fund solution, are on the agenda. Those who propose such solutions seem to wear rose-colored glasses and remain convinced that the “downside” of the market—mass unemployment and misery—can somehow be avoided or at least not mentioned. Party conferences call for both democratization and a firm hand in implementing economic reform—with no irony intended. Market reform, as the argument goes, is the only guarantee of democracy, economic pluralism the guarantee of political pluralism. But a firm dictatorial hand is necessary to create the basis for eventual democratization.

Such contradictions characterize the reform: in order to decentralize, Gorbachev centralizes power just as illiberal means are proposed in the pursuit of economic liberalism. In any case, pluralism in the Soviet sense is more about the divisions within the elite on how to proceed: whether to attack the working class through the market, or to make further concessions and institute a system of administrative command.

The main problem today in the Soviet Union has not changed: how to control the working class. The old methods of direct control were accomplished first thigh tern* and then through atomization maintained by the ubiquitous secret police. In the end this led to a particular relationship between the workers and the regime in which inefficiency and waste seemed to be the trade-off for a docile workforce. This was predicated however, on an abundant supply of labor that could be recruited in order to expand production.

The working class today is more educated, rooted, and in short supply. There are no visible new reserves, such as women and peasants, to draw from. The point has been reached in which the only way forward is to change the relationship between the workers and the elite. Doing this, however, increases the possibility of further instability and crisis, so a stalemate exists.

The way forward for what is called the radical reformers is in fact the time-worn solution of divide and rule. Sociologists, such as the well-known Tafiana Zaslavskaya(7) are busy finding divisions in the working class to work on. For example:

1) The division between male and female labor: Men in the Soviet Union earn on average 33% more than women. This is not based on law but is simply a fact. Women are found in the occupations that are more poorly paid than men: medicine, teaching, light industry. In fact the experiments in reform are taking place in light industry where the majority of workers are women. Evidently the regime finds it easier to control women than to control men, at least in terms of economic experiments.

Before Gorbachev came to power there were discussions about sending women back into the home. These discussions have resumed and are reflected in the media. Even the liberal Moscow News(8) has had articles exalting women’s role in the home as the mother of the nation’s children, as a nurturer who should be able to fulfill her “natural role.” The most back-breaking unskilled jobs in the Soviet Union are performed by women, and this is being denounced in the press. There have also been articles on how women workers have emasculated or feminized men! Sending women back into the home is a rather obvious way to deal with unemployment. However, this is not likely to go very far, since the average family cannot make it on one wage.

2) The division between privileged and non-privileged regions: It is no secret that Moscow and Leningrad are privileged centers, but it would be catastrophic for the regime to take away these privileges. The existence of privileged centers also maintains a division among the working class. This is bringing headaches to Moscow, however, in the form of the resurgent national struggle.

3) The division between skilled and unskilled labor. The regime is trying to use this division in order to ally the intelligentsia and skilled labor, rewarded by higher pay, with the regime. This is what the leveling campaign (against egalitarianism) is about. The campaign is being presented as between those workers who work hard and have “a social conscience” and the rest who simply collect their pay while not working or working badly.

Although the intelligentsia widely support this tack, the working class does not, and the regime has had great difficulty in moving in this direction. In an article in the February 1988 Ekonomichiskaya Gazeta the deputy chairman of the State Commission on Labor discussed the failure thus far in overcoming “egalitarianism in the payment of labor.”

What this shows is that the regime is unwilling to introduce the measures it needs for its own program because it means it will have to confront the working class. This is a qualitative difference from the past—even in the 1960s—when workers were openly repressed and strikers were punished with execution. The shortage of labor, the increased weight of the working class and the need for a skilled workforce that has a stake in the system all militate against the use of repression. Hence, the regime is in a bind and is seeking short-term solutions.

One such solution would be to resolve the problem of agriculture. Food is a crucial question in the Soviet Union, and any improvement in the food supply could raise the Standard of living. Agriculture is the one area in the Soviet economy where privatization can succeed, at least in the short term.

Some success is likely in small-group, labor-intensive agriculture such as vegetable gardening. Wheat production would be more difficult to privatize because the real problem in agriculture is industry the farms need machinery that doesn’t break down constantly, pesticides, fertilizers, proper irrigation and drainage, storage, transport and roads to deliver their products—all of which are dependent on industry working.

In order to have better agriculture (food), industry must be efficient, and efficiency can be achieved only through incentives or a higher standard of living—so it is a vicious circle. The situation cannot change until industry is changed, and since they cannot change industry without taking on the working class, agriculture in the long term cannot be changed.

So to return to the question, can the policy of market reform succeed? Certainly not without provoking serious social unrest. The regime has withheld introducing price increases, a cornerstone of their market reforms for they are afraid of provoking a situation similar to that in Novocherkassk in 1962, when strikes, factory occupations and riots spread rapidly in response to price increases on meat and dairy products These actions were put down by the army, leaving hundreds dead. Is there an alternative?

The working class sees none. They know they don’t have socialism, and the regime now openly says it. There is no obvious alternative on the horizon. That does not mean the working class is politically confused, but simply that they cannot see where to go. The working class is not socialist or Marxist, and rejects the status quo: it appears they don’t want another awful regime, and they have to be convinced that an alternative can come about.

The Soviet working class is strong in relation to its recent past, it is an industrialized and socialized working class working in huge factories that are relatively concentrated in certain areas of the Soviet Union. It would be a difficult working class to contain.

The problem Gorbachev faces is what forms to use to control this formidable obstacle: either the form of control under capitalism—unemployment–or some other form. Historically the form used in the Soviet Union has been direct force, and later the KGB. The problem for the regime is that it can no longer use direct force in the same way. It is economically inefficient. The regime can no longer afford unproductive measures, so we see the increasing power of the working class.


Do the liberal intelligentsia and the new left offer an alternative for the working class? They are caught up in the debate on market reform and democratization. We didn’t meet anyone in the Soviet Union who was opposed to the introduction of the market. The difference between the liberal elite and the new left is that the latter seem to believe that the market can be introduced without attacking the living standards of the working class. Many of the so-called liberals are openly monetarist, calling for unemployment and making workers “fight for the right to work.”(9)

The real question for leftists is not over whether or not there is a role for market elements in the economy—this is a secondary issue. The question evades the fundamental issue, which is social and political: in whose interests is the society organized and how can the transformation of social relations be achieved? Can a thoroughgoing and authentic democratization of Soviet society be accomplished from above?

The current reform documents do not address the question of accountability or democratization of economic management at all levels, beginning at the center So long as the ministries remain the same and central authorities are not subject to democratic control, the reform is at best partial and cosmetic Democratization is not merely an external condition to facilitate the carrying out of economic reform, democracy is the essence of ieform.(10)

But real democracy can only result from below, from the working class taking superficial democratic reform measures and translating them into genuine democratic control. This is precisely what scares the reformers.

In the meantime what we do see is a very important growth and revitalization of public opinion. This has been demonstrated in the spectacular growth of informal organizations in the past two years, the keen participation in the election process, the seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge about the Soviet past and the present, reflected in soaring magazine subscriptions, spontaneous meetings and rallies, and constant discussions. Ludmila Alexeyeva has estimated that some 3 million people now participate in more than 30,000 informal groups, with 300,000 discussing directly political questions.

There are informal organizations corresponding to a variety of interests, including right-wing chauvinist and neofascist groups such as Pamyat (Memory) and Otyechestvo (Fatherland). The question of nationalism, acting as a focus for social tension, has mobilized millions of people in the republics. An increasingly popular economic slogan has been raised in the Baltic republics which finds an echo elsewhere: economic sovereignty. In the present economic situation this appears to be a possible alternative.

The informal groups are in constant flux, regrouping and reforming. Workers’ groups are forming and discussing self-management and the formation of independent trade unions. While the formation and growth of workers’ groups is a significant development, the informal organizations are still principally made up of discontented intellectuals, teachers, students and engineers. We found no organizations that stand on the working class alone.

The New Soviet Left

The Soviet dissidents of the early 1970s were effectively dispersed by repression and emigration. The end of the 70s and early ’80s saw the birth of a new socialist opposition, around the journals “Left Turn,” “Alternatives” and “Searches.” The new leftists were young intellectuals acquainted with the Western new left tradition, who wished to marry market reforms and the plan. Reading pm-market economists such as Vladimir Brus and Alec Nove, they hoped the market would loosen up society to allow political organization, and to act as an indicator of consumer needs and a check on the quality of goods.

Repressed and broken up in the last years of Brezhnev, heed by Andropov, this current has reemerged today and is behind the birth of the Federation of Socialist Clubs (August 1987), which split in the summer of 1988, giving rise to the constellation of groups we spent the most time with in Moscow called the Narodny or People’s Front (NF). Its most visible member is Boris Kagarlitsky, known in the West mainly through New Left Review and as the recent recipient of the Deutscher prize for his book The Thinking Reed.

The Narodny Front in Moscow is made up of some thirty-four organizations ranging from the chauvinist, anti-semitic “All-Russian Democratic Union” led by Stanislav Dergunov to the democratic Thatcherites of the “Democratic Union”(11) in the so-called center to ecologists, anarchists and the left in the “Club of Socialist Initiatives,” whose leading activists are Boris Kagarlitsky and Mikhail Maliutin. The slogans of the Narodny Front are “democracy, socialism, ecology.”

The new left has reproduced much of the political spectrum we are familiar with in the West. There are Bakuninists who are also sympathetic to Trotsky in the group Obshchina or Commune, Gramscianos, those intrigued with the Frankfurt School, Latin-Americanists in the Che Guevara Club, ecologists and ecofeminists, social democrats in Democratic Perestroika; we even met young historians who called themselves Left SR’s.(12)

On March 10-11, 1989, we attended the pre-founding Congress of the People’s Front. They successfully fielded a candidate, the historian Sergei Stankevich, in the recent elections, and have grown enormously in size and influence.(13) Many of their members are also CPSU members (Stankevich, for example) who belong to the “renewal” faction within the Party.

The NF supported Yeltsin in the current election process. In an interview with Kagarlitsky, I questioned the Front’s support for Yeltsin, who represents a more rapid and thorough application of market reform, which is based on an attack on the living standards of the working class. Kagarlitsky agreed but countered that Yeltsin has the support of the working class, was ousted for being a “radical,” and moreover, he is rhetorically aggressive on the themes of social justice and privilege, which resonate deeply in the Soviet working class. Kagarlitsky likened the support for Yeltsin, who is a functionary albeit a radical one, to the way leftists in the United States support progressive Democrats. Yeltsin as the Soviet Jesse Jackson?

The Narodny Front is contradictory: it endorses socialist pluralism, self-management of production and the democratization of planning, the abolition of censorship, no attacks on the working class. It is in favor of a mixed economy, using the market along with democratic planning. To ease the pain of bankruptcy and factory closures, it favors the organization of retraining schemes and resettlement compensation as well as unemployment insurance.

The Front is anti-dogmatic but has inherited many of the bureaucratic habits of its society(14) and seems too taken with the opium of the market and social-democratic solutions. It is a product of its own history and society and has much to share with Western leftists, as well as a debt to pay: Kagarlitsky said that he and his comrades feel a particular burden and duty to the international left—they are part of a history and tradition that produced Stalinism, distorted Marxism and discredited the socialist idea. Thus they felt it incumbent upon them now to cleanse the concept of socialism of its Stalinist stains and rescue socialism for the international struggle.

The situation I have described is one of stalemate resulting from the inability of the regime to impose austerity on the working class, and of a declining economy in need of reform. What develops in the course of the attempts at implementation of the reforms is the big question. We do know that without reform there will be further decline. If the reforms are implemented we can expect to see a polarization of Soviet society and big struggles.

Either way, the future depends on the actions of the working class. Perhaps the prophecy of a repressed revolutionary who perished in Stalin’s gulag will come to pass. In June 1930 he wrote Victor Serge: “We shall serve as manure to fertilize the earth in which after us new human harvests of the revolution will spring up.”


  1. Some of the background information and insights for this section came from  round table in which Hillel Ticktin, Bohdan Krawchenko, Michael Cox and I participated at the annual Slavic Association conference in Hawaii in November 1988.
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  2. For example, the national debt is now admitted and calculated to be around 570 billion rubles. See Moscow New 18 (May 7-14,1989): 10.
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  3. L. Kostin, “Otchuzhdenie, Sotsiologicheskiye Issledovania 2 (1988).
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  4. For example, V. Seliunin said that 25% or one-fourth of the workforce in industry could be eliminated, and Nikolai Shmelyov wrote “at least 20-25% of the workforce employed in industry today is superfluous to the production process even according to our technical terms.” Nikolai Shmelyov, “Ekonomika I zdravyi smysl,” (Economics and Common Sense), Znamia (July 1988): 179-184. The issue contains a discussion on perestroika proposals by economists V. Seliunin, N. Shmelyov, Gabriel Popov and Otto Latsis.
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  5. Moscow News 15 (1989): 6.
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  6. From an interview I conducted in Moscow, March 8, 1989.
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  7. Academician Zaslavskaya, president of the Soviet Sociological Association, told Ye. Manucharova in an interview which appeared in Izvestia April 21,1967,3, that the old “deliberately oversimplified formula–‘two classes and one stratum’… does not correspond to the real structure of our society. Instead, Zaslavskaya says that her deep conviction is that Soviet society is made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of groups and strata whose statuses in society and the national economy differ substantially.” She further says that “each group has its own interests” and that the “conflict of groups with differing interests” is necessary for the realization of restructuring.
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  8. See the special articles on women in the March 1988 issues around International Women’s Day.
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  9. Zaslavskaya.
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  10. Bohdan Krawchenko, Roundtable discussion on perestroika. Slavic Association Annual Conference, Nov. 1988.
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  11. Within Democratic Union itself there is a range from pluralist monetarists to social democrats.
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  12. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries participated in the October revolution and supported the Bolsheviks until the Peace of Bret-Litovsk.
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  13. For example, in Cheriomuzhinski district, where Stankevich ran, the NF increased its size ten-fold.
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  14. For example, they spent 75% of the first day of their 2-day pre-founding Congress to elect the Presidium for the Congress.
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November-December 1989, ATC 23

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