Labour theory of value?

Issue: 128

Estelle Cooch

Donald Filtzer, Wendy Z. Goldman, Gijs Kessler and Simon Pirani (eds), A Dream Deferred: New Studies in Russian and Soviet Labour History (Peter Lang, 2008), £52.70

The great American poet, Langston Hughes asked “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun, or fester like a sore and then run?” This book, which takes its title from Hughes’ poem, aims to address those deferred and conflicting dreams that plagued the world’s first socialist revolution in Russia in 1917.

The collection of 16 essays was brought together following the Labour History of Russia and the Soviet Union: Work in Progress conference in Amsterdam in March 2005 with the aim of “discovering the scholars working in Russian/ Soviet labour studies” and according to the editors of the book, charting new directions for study entirely.

The first aim has undoubtedly been met. The 16 essays present differing and at times contentious views about Soviet labour history with a bias towards the first half of the twentieth century (only two of the essays discuss anything after Stalin’s death in 1953). Whether or not the essays chart new directions for the future however is less clear. In several cases new archival evidence has prompted entire reinterpretations of previously assumed analyses. Wendy Goldman’s essay “Terror in the Factories” considers the implications of the Kirov murder in 1934 and is outstanding. Diane Koenker’s essay considering “Soviet Work Leisure Travel in the 1930s” offers an analysis of an often overlooked element of Soviet life and Donald Filtzer’s essay on the 1947 food crisis sensitively deals with the devastating effects of capitalist economics and food distribution, lessons that remain just as relevant today. Several of the essays are less successful. An essay by Simon Pirani entitled “Mass Mobilisation versus Participatory Democracy: Moscow Workers and the Bolshevik Expropriation of Political Power” reiterates the sometimes bizarre conclusions of liberal historians and fails to further discussion of a post-revolutionary society.

The book is split into three parts : Workers and Workers’ Politics, Workers and Work: Coercion and Incentives and Family, Food and Work, Strategies for Survival. One essay by Sarah Badcock in the first part of the book discusses the attitudes of workers in Sormovo, a town near the major Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod. Following the October Revolution Badcock notes that “the Bolsheviks were the most numerous party in the Sormovo soviet after the September elections”. Despite this seemingly quite important recognition, thereafter there is hardly a mention of Bolshevik activists or indeed the debates in Sormovo that allowed for Bolshevik gains in the elections. Instead, just pages later, there is a vague allusion to “the self-confidence, consciousness and wealth of the Sormovo workers’ organisation” not being mirrored elsewhere, with no mention of the roles of any Bolshevik party members. For Badcock little progress could be made after the October Revolution without the consent of the Socialist Revolutionaries and Mensheviks, whom she deems to be the “moderate socialists”. Consequently when workers were not active with the SR’s or Mensheviks political allegiances get dismissed as “amorpheous and ill defined”.

This sits neatly with Simon Pirani’s conclusions that as early as 1923 working class political activity was being “severely restricted” by a social contract between employers and workers that ceded decision-making power in exchange for consistent improvements in living standards. Pirani highlights the campaign to confiscate church valuables and the trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries in June 1922 as two key turning points in replacing participatory democracy with coerced mass mobilization. By 1921, according to Pirani, the plenums of the Moscow Soviet had transformed from a participatory body into a “lifeless course of lectures”. Pirani’s denunciation of the confiscation of church valuables as “an offensive underpinned by state repression” presents the campaign led by the GPU secret police as little more than unorganised violence led by armed thugs. The complex reasons behind the campaign, that five million died during the famine that precipitated it and the fact that no object necessary for worship was ever removed are not deemed relevant by Pirani. He simply concludes on behalf of historians everywhere that the campaign was “agreed by historians to have contributed little to the relief effort”. The reality was much more complex. One source tells us, “The amount of surplus wealth taken from the church was enormous, and yet so much remains that its loss is hardly noticeable to the visitor”.1

Many of Pirani’s conclusions are addressed by Kevin Murphy’s impressive article on strikes during the Early-Soviet Period of 1922-32. Murphy expands on his work in the much-praised book Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory. He presents a picture of a post civil war society with much to play for. Unlike Pirani who seems to imply the ascendancy of Stalin to leadership was assured by the early 1920s, Murphy highlights the differing features of the early and late 1920s. Between 1922 and 1928 only six GPU reports mention the arrest of strikers and only five reports mention other strikes in which force was used or threatened. The Rates Conflict Commission (RKK) which acted as an arbitration committee forming collective agreements handled cases involving over thirteen thousand workers. Contrary to the assumptions of many historians, in 65 percent of cases the commission sided with workers. Similarly when it came to outright repression, Murphy found in only 9.4 percent of cases did arrest or threat of being fired prevent strike action.

The interesting insights that Murphy provides are mirrored in articles by Wendy Goldman, Diane Koenker and Donald Filtzer. Goldman’s article on the Kirov murder deconstructs the popular notion that the murder was purely the “portal to the Great Terror” and notes how local party committees carried on “business as usual” until at least the autumn of 1936. Goldman’s findings strengthen the view that the terror was launched and directed from above, in contrast to the view propagated by traditional Cold War historians that placed working class organisations at the centre of the terror. Goldman presents evidence that even throughout the 1930s during the the Moscow show trials some workers questioned, “Why must we forget the merits of Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev in the civil war?” Another worker told a party organiser, “Trotsky was a brilliant, prominent person who made great contributions which the party is hiding and not discussing.” Of the 9.1 percent of party member expelled from local groups between July and December 1935, a marginal 2.8 percent were expelled for Trotskyist-Zinovievite opposition. Goldman excellently represents the conversations and debates that went on within the Russian working class in the midst of the purges. She highlights those workers who stood up and said in reference to Trotsky, “Perhaps they wanted to make a second revolution. Lenin said that everyone will be free, but in reality there is not freedom.” Time and time again those who locally propped up Stalinist policies questioned whether or not their hardworking comrades should be punished for voting for Trotskyist resolutions the decade before. Elements of Goldman’s analysis are arguable, but as a whole the essay is riveting. There are other essays within the book that provide evidence for new debates and ask new questions entirely. Koenker’s essay on leisure trips as an incentive in the Soviet Union highlights the differences between the gains outlined in the 1922 Labour Code (that allowed workers paid vacations long before the rest of Europe followed suit) and the superficial incentives during Stalin’s rule and after.

A Dream Deferred is an ambitious book that throughout asks and answers exciting and new questions about Russian labour history. The suppression of such studies that followed the degeneration of the revolution under Stalin makes such research even more necessary. There is much to question in the book, much to debate, but just as much to praise. It is fitting to consider the end of Langston Hughes’ poem: “Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” It remains a sad fact that the distortion of the legacy of the Russian revolution continues to sag like a heavy load on socialist activists, but equally its legacy still has the power to explode by motivating and inspiring activists today. It is that legacy that we continue to fight for.

1Hecker, JF, Religion and Communism, 1933, London