Stalinism and the Working Class in the 1930s

  • Donald Filtzer
Part of the Studies in Russia and East Europe book series (SREE)


In Karl Marx’s conception classes exist not as discrete sociological entities, but as a social relationship. In capitalist society the essential relationship is that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, who exist as opposite poles within a single relational entity. The capitalists, as the owners of capital, employwaged labourers who are unpropertied and have only their labour power — their capacity to work — to offer for sale. These workers create a social product which is expropriated by the bourgeoisie. The latter, after realizing it as money and transforming it back into capital, use part of this capital to reemploy the proletariat as waged labourers in the succeeding cycle of production. The workers, for their part, because the products of their labour are the property of the capitalist, have only their wages on which to subsist, and so must constantly represent themselves for hire. In this way the social relationship between them is reproduced with each renewal of the production cycle. Each side in this relationship — capital on the one hand, wage labour on the other — presupposes the existence of the other. It is only through this relationship that each class acquires its specific social form.


Skilled Worker Working Class Labour Shortage Labour Power Material Hardship 
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  1. 1.
    This is well documented by Hiroaki Kuromiya in his book Stalin’s Industrial Revolution: Politics and Workers, 1928-1932, Cambridge, 1988, in particular chapter 5. This book is remarkable for the breadth of its historical research and the meticulousness with which its author handles his material. While our works are based on similar, and often identical, sources, the conclusions we draw are almost diametrically opposed. Kuromiya sees the working class in the early 1930s as forming a principal base of support for the Stalinist regime. He is keenly aware of the hardships brought by industrialization: the calamitous fall in the standard of living, the pressure put on traditional work-practices, and the breakdown of the working class’s internal cohesion. But more important from his point of view were the mobilizing effects of shock-work and the regime’s ‘class war’ strategy, which generated widespread enthusiasm for the First Five-Year Plan and brought many workers to find in industrialization a path of upward mobility into the ‘new Soviet elite’. The deficiency of this approach, in my view, is that, because it has no underlying political economy, it sees only the phenomena of the process, but not the developing class relationships at the society’s essence. His tendency is to take shock-workers — who themselves were impelled by many different motives, from political commitment to outright careerism — as typical of the workforce as a whole, ignoring the significance of the behaviour of the overwhelming mass of the rank-and-file workers who were left on the shop floor.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    On the production communes see Lewis H. Siegelbaum, ‘Production Collectives and Communes and the ‘Imperatives’ of Soviet Industrialization, 1929–1931’, Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 1, 1986, pp. 65–84, and Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization: The Formation of Modern Soviet Production Relations 1928–1941, London, 1986, pp. 102–7. Kuromiya, Stalin*s Industrial Revolution, pp. 250–1, sees worker involvement in the communes as prompted by more utilitarian motives: skilled workers, he argues, sought to use them to protect against erosion of wage differentials, while unskilled workers clambered to join in order to boost their earnings at skilled workers’ expense.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, pp. 81–7.Google Scholar
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    Trud, 3 July 1929.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    See, for example, Trud, 11 May 1929 and 20 February and 24 February 1930; Severnyi rabochii (local newspaper, Yaroslavl’), 18 June 1929, 2 April, 3 April and 15 September 1930.Google Scholar
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    Trud, 24 February 1929; Proletarii (local newspaper, Khar’kov), 18 February 1930; Severnyi rabochii, 2 April and 11 November 1930. Fatal attacks on managerial staff and shock-workers were reported in Trud, 24 February 1929 and 25 June and 2 July 1931; and in Proletarii, 8 January 1930.Google Scholar
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    The following account of strike activity is taken from Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, pp. 81–7, which also lists references to the relevant articles in Sotsialisticheskii vestnik. This research was carried out in the early 1980s; since then the British historian, Sarah Davies, has done more detailed studies of worker attitudes and protests during the 1930s, using archival sources. Among other things, her work testifies to the accuracy of the Sotsialisticheskii vestnik reports.Google Scholar
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    Trud v SSSR, Moscow, 1936, p. 95. Worst affected was coalmining, where in 1930 the average miner changed jobs every four months. Ibid., p. 109.Google Scholar
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    Hans-Henning Schroder, ‘“Neue” Arbeiter and “neue” Burokraten. Gesellschaftlicher Wandel as konstituierendes Element von “Stalinismus” in den Jahren 1927–1934’, unpublished paper, University of Bochum, 1984, pp. 32–3. For a more general account of worker promotion into the apparatus, see Kuromiya, Stalin’s Industrial Revolution, pp. 126–7, 276–80. While sensitive to the impact which this depletion of working-class ranks had on the shortage of skilled workers, and hence on industrial efficiency, Kuromiya virtually ignores the major role it played in the working class’s political atomization.Google Scholar
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    For a detailed account of the responses to the laws of 1938 and 1940 see Filtzer, Soviet Workers and Stalinist Industrialization, pp. 232–53.Google Scholar
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    Chris Ward, Russia’s Cotton Workers and the New Economic Policy: Shop-floor Culture and State Policy 1921–1929, Cambridge, 1990, ch. 4.Google Scholar
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  36. 36.
    This interpretation of Stakhanovism has been disputed by Lewis H. Siegelbaum in his book, Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935–1941, Cambridge, 1988. Siegelbaum acknowledges the hardships which Stakhanovism imposed on rank-and-file workers, but at the same time sees much of the impetus behind the campaign coming from the regime’s desire to tame industrial management (pp. 85–99). This view has been put even more forcefully by Francesco Benvenuti in his own book on Stakhanovism: Fuoco sui sabotatori! Stachanovismo e organizazione industriale in URSS, 1934–8, Rome, 1988. An English summary of this book is available as ‘Stakhanovism and Stalinism, 1934–8’, CREES Discussion Papers, Soviet Industrialization Project Series, no. 30, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, July 1989. Benvenuti almost totally denies the need to break established work practices and impose generalized speed-up as a central motivation behind the launch of Stakhanovism. This interpretation comes at the expense of ignoring the underlying political economy of Stalinist industrialization and sees the regime’s relationship to the working class as fundamentally less antagonistic than it really was.Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Trud, 8 February, 11 February, and 24 February 1939, 27 January 1940; Industriia, 14 January, 1 February, and 16 May 1939, 4 April 1940.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Thus the coal which was sent to the iron and steel works adulterated with impurities returned to the mines in the form of defective coal-cutting equipment which, because of its faulty construction and the low-grade metal from which it was built, was of low productivity and prone to frequent breakdowns. The situation was the same with the steel-making equipment made of defective metal and the low-quality machine tools manufactured on other, low-quality machines.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Donald Filtzer, ‘The Contradictions of the Marketless Market: Self-financing in the Soviet Industrial Enterprise, 1986–1990’, Soviet Studies, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 989–1009; Donald Filtzer, Soviet Workers and the Collapse of Perestroika: The Soviet Labour Process and Gorbachev’s Reforms, 1985–1991, Cambridge, 1994.Google Scholar

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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London 1998

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  • Donald Filtzer

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