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John G. Wright

The Crisis in the Soviet Union

(January 1941)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 1941, pp. 17–24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


... Article 5: Workers and employees who arbitrarily leave state, cooperative and public enterprises and/or institutions are remitted to court and by sentence of People’s Judges incarcerated in prisons for a term of 2 to 4 months.

For stopping or skipping work without serious reason workers and employees of state, cooperative and public enterprises and/or institutions are remitted to court and sentenced by People’s Judges to terms up to six months of penal labor at place of employment, and up to 25 per cent of their wages withheld. Ukase dated June 26, 1940, first published June 27, 1940.

The 1940 Ukases of the Kremlin mirror the irreconcilable conflict between the fetters of Stalin’s totalitarian regime and the needs of Soviet economic life and development From the beginning, this conflict assumed its sharpest forms in the attempts of the bureaucracy to lace into its totalitarian strait-jacket the working class, the greatest productive force in society. The June 26, 1940, laws represent the concentrated and most extreme expression to date of Stalin’s previous labor laws. To understand what is now taking place in the Soviet Union it is therefore necessary, first of all, to understand the root causes which underline these measures against the working class.

Stalin’s Labor Legislation: 1927–1940

Stalin abolished the 35-hour week and instituted the 48-hour week on June 26, 1940. One legal fiction has been replaced by another. But underlying both is a thirteen year campaign to lengthen the working day and cut wages – the Kremlin’s one and only method of raising the productivity of labor which, despite the colossal development of Soviet industry, has remained at the lowest levels in the world.

The seven-hour day, five-day week was introduced by Stalin as a political measure in 1927, the year when the struggle against the Left Opposition (Trotskyists) reached its climax. By means of this legislation Stalin sought to lull the workers, and to demonstrate to them that their interests were as dear to him as to the Opposition. But to the mass of the workers, it remained a seven-hour day in name only. Every factory director always had and still has at his disposal a quota of several hundred thousand man-hours “overtime” and these additional hours were and are apportioned among the workers, thus lengthening the working-day everywhere beyond the “legal” limit. In the period of the first Five Year Plan the methods of “shock-brigadeism” were applied as a supplementary means of rendering labor more productive. The wages of Soviet workers, in this period of currency inflation and acute famine of necessities, were reduced to miserable rations.

With the abolition of the card system, the stabilization and unification of prices, Soviet industry switched over to piecework wages (1935). The chase after the rouble now acquired a very real meaning, and the bureaucracy immediately utilized it as a “spontaneous” means of increasing the pressure on the working class. The system of shock-brigadeism,” which achieved Just the opposite of what had been intended, was replaced by Stakhanovism (August 1935).

STAKHANOVISM: In a brilliant analysis of this administrative measure at its very inception, Leon Sedov point ed out that the Stakhanov movement was in itself reducible to an intensification of labor, and to the lengthening of the working day. To set and break records, the Stakhanovists had to utilize their “non-working” time to put their benches and tools in order, sort their raw material; the brigadiers had to instruct their brigades, etc. The trend toward a longer working day was immediately apparent even from the scanty data then published in the Soviet press. Thus, on the Donetz Railway the machinists began working 250–290 hours a month, a working day of 10–11½ hours. In many plants the day off was cancelled, increasing the working hours. In other enterprises the directors themselves issued orders lengthening the hours. Cases of a working day of 10 hours, 14 hours and even 16 hours were not uncommon. “We have adduced these isolated facts” wrote Sedov in December 1935, “because there cannot be talk of any kind of free statistical data concerning the working-day in Soviet Russia. But these examples,” he concluded, “indicate that the 7–8-hour working day is being dealt blows from all sides, while the Stakhanov movement carries with it the threat of liquidating it altogether.” The subsequent legislation of the Kremlin completely corroborated this prediction.

Precisely because the Stakhanov movement, under Stalin’s regime, reduced itself to speed-up, longer hours, higher norms, lower piece-work rates, etc., it met with a stubborn resistance on the part of the workers. Accounts of the Stakhanov campaign in the official press presented at times the picture of a small civil war. Trud, the organ of the trade unions, wrote at this period: “The class struggle makes itself felt at every step.” In this “class” struggle, Trotsky pointed out, the workers are on one side, the trade unions on the other.

The intensity of this struggle was from the outset reflected in the purges of the trade unions, a section of the apparatus closest to the masses and most directly affected by their pressure.

In an article entitled: Trade Unions Re-Organized to Cope with Important New Tasks, P. Moskatov, Secretary of the All-Union Central Council of the Trade Unions wrote in 1937, when Stakhanovism was already in decline:

“Soviet trade unions are in the process of thorough reorganization ... Enemies of socialism and of the working-class – the Mensheviks, the Trotskyite and Bukharinite traitors – did their utmost to isolate the trade unions from the Party. In the new conditions brought about by the gigantic growth of Socialism,” continued Moskatov, “the leading trade union bodies were not up to the mark. They had become isolated from the masses and could not, therefore, lead their matured political activity, nor further a wide development of the Stakhanov movement.” (Moscow News, Nov. 7, 1937)

On the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution, according to the same Moskatov:

“Ninety per cent of the members of the Central Committees of the Unions are newly elected. Fifty-five per cent of the chairmen of Central Committees and eighty-five per cent of the secretaries are also serving their first terms. The most capable men and women loyal to the party, are being promoted to the leadership in the Central Committees.” (Idem)

But Stakhanovism could not get any further even with these revamped trade unions; it had to be “supplemented” by ferocious administrative measures, which came in December 1938, and with them, necessarily, another trade union purge.

A year later Pravda greeted ecstatically the 1939 model of trade unions which at long last included:

“The flower of the working class and of the intelligentsia of the USSR, scores and hundreds of notable people of our fatherland; the chosen of the people – Deputies of the Supreme Council of the USSR of Federated and of Autonomous Republics; people worthy of highest awards – the orders and medals of the USSR; the trade union ‘active’ which has matured in recent years, educated by the party of Lenin-Stalin.” (Pravda, Oct. 31, 1939)

In a brief nine months this same “flower of the working class and intelligentsia” was to be decimated (July 1940) as darmoyedniki (scoundrels who eat bread which they haven’t earned) and bezdelniki (scoundrels who idle away their time).

THE DECEMBER 1938 LAWS: By the end of the Second Five Year Plan none of the burning problems of Soviet economy had been solved. In fact, they had become more aggravated. Stakhanovism was as complete a failure as its predecessor, “shock-brigadeism.” But the myth of its wonder-work had to be maintained, because Stalin was personally compromised.

On December 28, 1938, Stalin invalidated the Soviet labor code introduced under Lenin in December 1922. The Soviet system of social security was likewise, in effect, liquidated. By administrative decree, the productivity of labor was increased “25 per cent,” i.e., a speed-up of 25 per cent. The direct wage cuts were fixed at 14 per cent. A system of labor (fink) books was introduced to shackle the workers to the factories. Workers were to be fired on the fourth time they came late to work.

The workers themselves insisted on a rigid application of this particular clause, inasmuch as after four violations they were left free to seek employment elsewhere, easily obtainable in view of the acute shortage of labor and the urgent need of directors to fulfill their plan quotas. The 1938 measure, as usual, came into complete opposition with its own aims. Production was still further disrupted by observance of the laws. Sharper administrative reprisals were the answer.

On January 8, 1939, came another wage cut. Wage cuts aggravated the situation. Nevertheless in 1940, in the space of six months, two additional direct wage cuts preceded the passage of the June 26 laws, which themselves contained an indirect wage cut. The labor turnover sky-rocketed.

The “Fluidity” of Labor and the Crises in Economy

In the period of the First Five Year Plan the labor turnover assumed monstrous proportions: from official estimates it can be set at 30-50 per cent. The vast influx of millions of peasants enabled Soviet industry to survive in those years. The turnover of labor in the period of the Second Five Year Plan, just prior to the passage of the December 1938 legislation rose to the almost incredible figure of 50–62 per cent. No industry can withstand such a condition. It cuts down the levels of productivity already achieved, aggravates the already acute labor shortage, disorganizes production itself, and constitutes one of the major causes for the periodic breakdowns of the plans.

The catastrophic conditions in industry in 1940 – the second year of the Third Five Year Plan – reproduce, recapitulate and deepen under war-time conditions all the contradictions of the preceding stages. The current crisis creeps out in every issue of the press. Thus, Pravda in boasting of the successes of the latest legislation, claims the fulfillment of the plan for coal production for the first ten days in October, and in the same breath adds, “Something that hasn’t happened in a long time.” (Pravda, Oct. 24)

P. Lomako, People’s Commissar of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy, makes the same claim for his commissariat, and then exclaims: “This is an unprecedented situation for non-ferrous metallurgy.” (Pravda, Oct. 26)

Similar quotations can be cited at will from one branch of industry to another, through the length and breadth of the land. It is no longer “a secret” that the Third Five Year Plan has been gravely disrupted.

In the period of the First Five Year Plan the bureaucracy fixed the blame for economic difficulties, failures, and the crisis on: Mensheviks, SR’s, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois specialists who played the role of “saboteurs,” “wreckers,” “agents of imperialism,” and “restorationists of capitalism” in the first infamous Moscow frame-ups. The accompanying and comparatively mild purge disrupted the economic life still further. It was only a rehearsal.

The entire generation that made the October Revolution was placed in the defendants’ dock and murdered in the dungeons of the GPU as “enemies of the people,” “wreckers,” etc., in the second and major edition of the Moscow Trials. In the period of the Second Five Year Plan the accompanying purge, in which tens of thousands were shot and hundreds of thousands jailed plunged Soviet industry into the chaotic condition from which it has still to emerge.

Since December, 1938, Stalin has pinned the blame on the entire Soviet working class, allegedly composed of “dis-organizers of production,” “violators of discipline,” “laggards,” and “floaters.” A third edition of the Moscow Trials is now in preparation.

Bureaucratic Roots of Labor “Fluidity”: Working Conditions

Under the present regime the conditions in Soviet factories have been almost beyond the power of language to describe. Here, for example, is a 1940 picture painted by Pravda of a large textile combine near Moscow:

The factory ceilings and walls are black with accumulated lint, dirt and soot. Floors are covered with mud and filth. Remnants of stale, and, in all probability, indigestible food decorate the window sills. Delicate machine-parts litter the floor. The looms themselves “create the impression that they haven’t been cleaned in a long time.” In the summer the rains pour in through the skylights. “So much water leaked into some textile guilds that work had to be suspended. In order to obtain passage from one loom to the next, planks had to be laid over the water.” “It is difficult to imagine,” wonders Pravda, “how the director of the plant made the inspection tour of the guild in those days.” Pravda, as usual, is not concerned with the question of how the workers “made their rounds.” To be sure, these particular skylights were fixed but “all the defects are still to be eliminated.” Pravda objects that in places “which still lack ventilation” the moisture – inside! – collects on the skylights, drops below, drops on the floor, on the cloth. Spots result. The premises must indeed be damp for so much moisture to condense. If there isn’t enough air for moisture to evaporate, then very little must have been left for the workers to breathe – after the skylights had been repaired, i.e., hermetically sealed. The smug parasites in Pravda who entitle this article Filth and Defective Goods are concerned with more important things than air for the workers, for instance, the condition of floors: “Near the looms,” they rage, “there is filth. Shuttles and pieces of cloth sometimes drop on the floor.” Not a word about the workers on whom the moisture also drops, and who at all times must wade through filth. When this highly “inefficient” condition was called to the attention of the director, he replied: “Of course, we don’t boast of maintaining our place in ideal cleanliness, but the condition is quite normal and tolerable (?)” (Pravda, October 27, 1940, the query is in the original). If such “normal” and “tolerable” conditions prevail in and around Moscow, that is, in the center, what must be the conditions in the provinces?

N. Siluyanov, Deputy People’s Commissar of Non-Ferrous Metallurgy reports:

“In the factory (the Karsakpaisky Copper Plant) the number of accidents to machinery has increased. The loss of labor time because of accidents and stoppages of aggregates results in disrupting the production plans. In the Balkhash plant there are likewise a great many stoppages and many accidents. In the eight months of the current year 211 accidents were recorded there. This is considerably more than last year. It has been calculated that because of the idleness of mechanisms alone, there has been a loss of 2,000 tons of copper. Why do accidents occur? 38 per cent of the accidents occurred because of gross violations of elementary rules of the technical exploitation of aggregates and mechanisms.” (Pravda, Oct, 9, 1940)

The Deputy People’s Commissar refrains from calculating the number of workers maimed and killed in these accidents.

The conditions in the Stalingrad tractor plant, one of the largest and most important plants in the country, are sketched as follows:

“The factory operates sporadically. In the (past) nine months, the stoppages amounted to 640,000 man-hours, including 306,000 man-hours completely ‘unutilized’; and in this same period overtime ‘ran to’ 472,000 roubles ... There were great stoppages also on the assembly lines, which led to the unfulfillment of the norms. In August, 33 per cent of the workers did not fulfill their norm.” (Pravda, Oct. 27, 1940)

The columns of Pravda are checkered with similar reports.

From one day to the next, the workers dare not come late – that is a criminal offense – and they must get up earlier, for it is no excuse that the trains are not running on schedule, or the trolleys and buses are overcrowded or unavailable; they must gulp down their food during a lunch “hour” of twenty minutes if they are fortunate enough to get served in the factory dining rooms – and then they must spend hours standing idle because of the inefficient administrators, and, to top it all, work additional hours “overtime.”

“Thirty-three per cent did not fulfill their norm”! – and this despite the enormous overtime, which is carefully translated into roubles to hide the actual lengthening of the working day in this particular plant. But this means that, overtime and all, one-third of the workers failed to earn their minimum meager wage! All of which leaves its impress on the most backward, the most beaten, the most subservient.

Kalinin, the President of the Soviet Union, rounds out the picture.

“Comrades,” he said, addressing the Moscow Party membership, “picture to yourselves, a good engineer. He has studied much; he is an educated man, he is considered a valuable worker. And when you walk into his factory, the Devil himself would break his leg. (Laughter)” (Pravda, October 30, 1940)

A Soviet worker might well ask these gentlemen: If “you” and the Devil himself can expect to break your legs while making a tour of Soviet plants, how do you expect me to raise my productivity, or for that matter, to produce at all under these same conditions? The Soviet worker knows the answer in advance. The audience, embracing not only engineers but directors, heads of trusts, members of the People’s Commissariats, laughs listening to Kalinin; but the response to workers would not be so facetious.

“Any hundred Soviet workers,” wrote Trotsky, “transferred into the conditions, let us say of American industry, after a few months, and even weeks, would probably not fall behind the American workers of a corresponding category. The difficulty lies in the general organisation of labor. The Soviet administrative personnel is, as a general rule, far less equal to the new productive tasks than the workers... The creation of the necessary elementary conditions for this (i.e., the systematic raising of the now very low productivity of labor) demands a raising of the level of administration itself from the shop foreman to the leaders of the Kremlin.”

To raise the level of administration it is necessary to infringe upon the privileges and arbitrary rule of the incumbent self-perpetuating “administrators.” They will cede nothing, not even in the interests of defense. They must first be removed. For this a political revolution is necessary. Mean-While they remain and with them remains the basic obstacle in the path of any further improvement or progress.

Horrible as the conditions are in the factories themselves, the living conditions are, if that is conceivable, still worse. The overwhelming majority of the workers huddle in common dwellings, which in equipment and upkeep are worse than barracks. In 1936 the Soviet press provided the following illustrations:

“Two families live in one room. The roof leaks. When it rains they carry the water out of the room by pail-fuls.”

“The privies are in a disgusting condition.”

“The workers sleep on the floor, since bedbugs eat them up in beds. The chairs are broken; there are no mugs to drink water from, etc.”

In the years which have since elapsed, the “dwellings” and privies have become more dilapidated and more congested. To illustrate 1940 conditions a single passage from Kalinin’s speech will suffice.

“There must be less bedbugs,” thundered Kalinin, “in the apartments in Moscow, etcetera. Bedbugs – why that’s intolerable! That’s a shame! And meanwhile there are people who occupy themselves with the question: What will man be like under Communism? What qualities will distinguish him? (Laughter)” (loc. cit.)

“In Moscow, etcetera”! If apartments in Moscow are as Kalinin crudely but graphically puts it Klopovniki (bedbug nurseries), it is not difficult, although nauseating, to imagine what the conditions are in the “etcetera,” i.e., elsewhere under Stalin’s “transition to communism.”

In the supply of daily necessities, the law which operates from plan to plan in Soviet economy is: the closer to the mass consumer the worse the quality. Kalinin has the floor again:

“It is necessary to say openly that we are very dissatisfied with the quality of many of our products. And the characteristic thing is that each of us swears whenever an object of poor quality gets into his hands. We ourselves, however, never wonder about the kind of products other people get from us.”

And why do “we” never wonder?

In Kalinin’s opinion the reason is purely psychological, and to be explained by a mental quirk of “leaders of production.” “How did many of them reason as a rule?” asks Kalinin, deftly changing the pronoun from “we” to “they.”

“They reasoned,” he continues, “this way. Is it worth while stirring up scandals, sharpening relations with social organizations, quarrelling with comrades etcetera? An object, even if defective, will pass among the masses. And it did pass. Such an attitude to defective goods has sunk its roots deeply into our production.” (loc. cit.)

No wonder Pravda decided to print this speech of October 2 only on October 30. In spite of four weeks’ careful editing, the content speaks for itself.

To obtain a minimum of necessities, Soviet workers, even the skilled, have to expend many extra hours. It is not so much a question of standing in line before the shops, as it is a question of raising “their own” cows, pigs, chickens, tending vegetable patches, etc. They will have to intensify this labor too.

Under the added pressure of war-time conditions, the shortage of foodstuffs is growing more and more acute. In October, the price of bread was increased 15 per cent in Moscow and Leningrad.

The authorities are engaged in winter time in a campaign to foster and extend “auxiliary economies” to every enterprise by next Spring.

“Old auxiliary economies, which have long remained outside the field of vision of leaders of enterprises are being reestablished,” boasts Pravda. “New ones are being organized ... Up to now, the workers in Volodarsky Plant,” continues Pravda, citing a model, “grew only potatoes. They are now preparing to plant in the Spring onions, beets, cabbages and other garden staples as well; they will raise early vegetables.” (Pravda, October 14, 1940.)

Pravda also advises, as a relaxation in leisure hours, the establishment and care by workers of dairies, pig and chicken farms, stocking fish in suitable ponds, and so forth and so on. Apparently, only the rabbits, so hotly advocated during the-famine in the first Five Year Plan, are missing.

“What a terrible robbery of human power... and what a burden of medieval digging in manure and in the earth they lay upon the workers, and yet more upon his wife and children” (Trotsky).

The June 26, 1940, Laws

By the time the Kremlin convinced itself that Stakhanovism and the December 1938 legislation were two more exploded triumphs, World War No.2 had broken out. In addition to cutting deeply into foreign trade and the supply of indispensable materials and machinery from abroad, the war made it necessary, especially after the Finnish experience, to divert more plants to production of munitions and armaments. Many machines installed previously had become outworn and outdated, an equal if not greater number were damaged during the reckless drive for records, let alone the damage from inexperienced and careless handling. The problems of labor productivity, and defense, always inseparable, were posed more imperiously than ever before. Stalin’s answer was to convert the Soviet enterprises and institutions into virtual prisons.

Petronius relates how in Nero’s time the upstart slaveholders, former freedmen drunk with power, used to hang a. tablet over the gates of their establishments with this inscription:

What servant goes forth without his master’s command be shall receive an hundred stripes.

The Kremlin Nero has inscribed over every factory, plant, mine and office – the June 26 ukase.

The ukase not only lengthens the working day, and cuts wages, but makes it a criminal offense for anyone to quit his job. The penalty for “self-willed departure” is the GPU dungeon. Skipping a day’s work, or tardiness, is punishable by penal-labor terms to be served at the place of employment, plus a fine up to 25 per cent of the wages.

The previous vast migration of labor had provided a safety valve for the regime, although the Kremlin was of course unaware of it. Only unemployment drains and demoralizes human beings more than does the incessant, futile search for a slight improvement of one’s lot. Unquestionably, thousands upon thousands of Russian workers, especially among the older generation and those with families, became human rags – their moral fiber torn to tatters in this chase after their daily bread and a less infested place to sleep.

Now, however, the mass of the Russian workers are being held by force in the factories. They have already served six months of their life-term imprisonment. Their sentence carries with it ever greater speed-up, worse and worse conditions, lower wages, longer hours. Within these new prison walls, they will for the first time in years really get to know one another. Their children driven from the schools by another ukase abolishing free schooling, drafted into a conscript labor force, have been enslaved together with them. At every step, at every moment whether awake or asleep, the wasteful, arrogant, ruthless vampire-bureaucracy unveils itself before the masses as their oppressor-jailer. The most advanced capitalist countries have as yet to devise a jail from which men have not planned escape and – succeeded.

The intimate connection between the 1940 purge of the trade unions, the June 26 legislation, and the resistance of the workers, was confirmed by Pravda itself four months later:

“It is still impermissible to say that our trade union organizations have done everything in their power to successfully enforce the June 26 ukase. It is not only a question of the fact that in the first weeks of the enforcement of the ukase certain trade union organizations did not cooperate in exposing the laggards and their patrons, but sometimes themselves patronized the laggards ... But the question is this, that certain trade union organizations up to now still carry on very superficial educational work ... The entire mass trade union work has been reduced in many instances to conducting flying meetings, and readings of the ukase.” (Pravda, Oct. 9, 1940. My emphasis)

The officially acknowledged figure for the 1940 trade union purge was 128,000 trade union officials out of a reported total of 203,821. Why not abolish the trade unions altogether, as a public nuisance? Stalin no doubt wishes he could.

If in the period of Stakhanovism the organ of the trade unions spoke of the “class” struggle, then today the titular head of the Soviet government, the President of the USSR, comments as follows on the June 26 laws:

“...The class struggle at the present time is taking place in a different direction. The struggle for the highest productivity of labor – this at the given moment is one of the main directions of the class struggle.” (Kalinin’s speech On Communist Upbringing, Pravda, October 30)

The Official Balance Sheet

In January 1936 when the dizziest claims of success were being made and when Stakhanovism was envisaged as a panacea, Molotov cautiously acknowledged: “Our average level of productivity... is still considerably below that of America and Europe.” Molotov abstained from specifying the extent of the discrepancy. Official figures since published clearly establish that Soviet labor productivity remains below one-fourth, and in many cases one-tenth of the corresponding labor productivity in advanced capitalist countries.

Despite the expansion of mechanization – the capital outlay for the Third Five Year Plan is greater than the combined totals for both of the previous plans – this discrepancy has become more pronounced since 1936. Kalinin, who has long refrained from speaking publicly on important issues, blurted out: “Have we greatly raised the productivity of labor in our country? I wouldn’t say that we have achieved too great results in this connection.” (Pravda, Oct. 30, 1940)

Kalinin is merely echoing his superiors. On his lips this admission of bankruptcy is all the more damning.

It is not hard to understand why the Stakhanov movement and the December 1938 laws met with resistance on the part of the workers. With conditions in factories and living conditions remaining unaltered, all the Kremlin’s measures meant only a further degradation of the masses. Instead of diminishing, the labor turnover increased. It expressed the most elementary and immediate form of mass resistance. Stalin has cut off this safety-valve, and thereby has entered into the stage of an open struggle with the working class. No other road of resistance now remains. The bureaucracy stands face to face with its mortal enemy.

The Soviet Working Class

PECULIARITIES OF HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT: From its very inception under Czarism the Russian working class developed at a very explosive tempo, reflecting the rapid growth of Russian industry. The revolutionary movement in Czarist Russia had its roots precisely in this tempo of Russia’s economic development prior to 1917.

ACCELERATION OF THE PROCESS: With the overthrow of Czarism, and especially with the inception of planned production, the formation of the working class proceeded at tempos unequalled in any other country. The vast scope of the industrialization of the Soviet Union is expressed in the growth of its urban population. In the twelve years which elapsed between the last two censuses, the Soviet urban population advanced from 26.3 million (December, 1926) to 55.9 million (January, 1939), an increase of 29.6 million, i.e., more than doubled.

COMPARISON WITH GROWTH IN THE UNITED STATES: The most rapid expansion of the urban population in the United States took place in the first quarter of our century, when the urban population grew from 30.3 million in 1900 to 54.3 million in 1920, an increase of 24 million in twenty years, considerably below the figure for the Soviet Union, although the growth in America took two decades, i.e. almost twice as long.

The comparative tempos of Soviet and U.S. growth are juxtaposed in the table below:

(Computed from official Soviet data)


Total Number
of Years


Average Annual

Pre-Plan period
(Dec. ’26–Jan. ’29)


  1.3 million

0.65 million

First 6-Year Plan
(Jan. ’29–Jan. ’33)


12.7 million

3.18 million

Second 6-Year Plan
(Jan. ’33–Jan. ’39)


15.6 million

2.6   million



29.6 million

2.5   million


(from figures in the Statistical Abstracts of the United States)

Decade 1900–1910


11.8 million

1.2   million

Decade 1910–1920


12.2 million

1.22 million

Years 1920–1925


8.5 million

1.7   million



32.5 million

1.3   million

The urban population in the Soviet Union which recorded only a slight increase, 1.3 million in two years (1927 and 1928) makes an astounding leap of 12.7 million in the next four years of the actual unfolding of the First Five Year Plan, and in the six following years registers an even greater growth of 15.6 million. The Soviet development is represented by a steep, almost vertically rising curve. In the United States on the other hand, despite the fact that the movement from farms to cities was swelled by tens of millions of immigrants from Europe, the far more gradual development is represented by an almost horizontal line. The two tempos cut at right angles to each other. The difference between the ratios of growth is not quantitative but qualitative. It reflects the abyss between the respective foundations of the two social systems.

THE NUMBER OF PEASANTS INVOLVED: The growth of the urban population in the Soviet Union occurred primarily through the movement of peasants to the cities. History knows of no comparable migration from rural areas into modern industrial centers. The statistics relating to this movement are one of the secrets of the regime. Nevertheless it is possible to arrive at an approximate estimate: Not less than twenty million participated in this mass migration, the actual number probably being in excess of that estimate.

Indicative as this growth is of the profoundly accelerated transformation in the country’s economic and social structure, there remains an additional and more significant indicator: The growth of the Soviet working class – the sole significant section of world labor that has expanded in the era of capitalist decay – considerably surpasses in tempo the volcanic growth of the urban population. The importance of that cannot be exaggerated. The table below supplies the available data:



At the beginning
of 1st 6-year Plan

At the beginning
of 2nd 5-year Plan

At the beginning
of 3rd 5-year Plan

Soviet Urban Population (in millions)




Total number of workers and employees (in millions)



     29.5 [1]

Increase in Urban Population (in millions)




Increase in number of Workers and Employees (in millions)

not given



WHAT THESE FIGURES MEAN: The tempo of development disclosed by these figures is almost incredible, especially in the eyes of the apologists of capitalism. In the last decade eleven out of every twenty inhabitants of urban communities have been employed in industrial enterprises or state institutions, that is, the overwhelming majority of able-bodied adults. This condition, which has prevailed since the inception of planned production, must become more accentuated in the period immediately ahead, because of the institution of child labor that has now been begun by abolishing free education. It is without precedent in the history of modern industry and modern cities. Thus the numerical growth of the working class is overshadowed by its far more dominant economic and social weight in the country. The term Soviet working class is today synonymous with the term Soviet City.

CONDITIONS IN THE PERIOD OF THE FIRST FIVE YEAR PLAN (1929-1933): From 1929 to 1933, the urban population grew by 12.7 million while the working class expanded by 10.1 million. The two figures are so close as to be almost identical. It means that approximately sixteen out of every twenty new urban inhabitants were absorbed by industry in the period of the First Five Year Plan. Therefore, both the growth of the urban population and the growth of the working class took place almost exclusively at the expense of the villages. The peasants were uprooted from the soil and flocked into the cities. Peasant adults and youth composed the bulk of 10.1 million absorbed in industry in 1929–1933. At the beginning of the Second Five Year Plan these new recruits constituted almost half the proletarian army of 22.3 million in the Soviet Union. Because of the unprecedented tempo of its formation the Soviet working class was thus less homogeneous than any other in modern times. The lack of homogeneity of the basic class, the flooding of its ranks with semi-proletarians and peasants, whose outlook is poles apart from that of workers, plus the lack of revolutionary experience among the younger generation of workers, plus the officially fostered illusions of miracles shortly to be achieved – all this, against the background of international defeats of the working class, provided the most potent lever for the stabilization of the Stalin regime.

THE CONNECTION BETWEEN STALIN’S POLICIES IN 1929–1933 AND THE EXPANDING INDUSTRY’S NEED OF LABOR: A more harmonious development of Soviet industry, adjusted to the conditions in the country, and especially concerned with raising the material well-being of the masses, would have absorbed ever greater numbers from the country through the automatic growth of manufacture, the development of transportation facilities, the improvement in living and working conditions, shorter hours of labor, better educational facilities, the lure of companionship and amusements, and the general superiorities and conveniences of modern industrial centers as against the rural communities. Such a development, however, was precluded because of the false, ruinous policies and regime of the Kremlin. Industry was expanded at a reckless and adventuristic tempo, in part to make up for the “tortoise tempos” of the preceding opportunist economic policies. The shortage of labor immediately manifested itself and became so acute that Stalin – he then made speeches – had personally to call attention to it. In the light of the recent Draconic legislation, it is by no means far-fetched to conclude that Stalin deliberately intensified his policy of “forced collectivization” – which cost Soviet economy so dearly and which took a toll of millions of peasant lives – precisely in order to drive the peasants into the cities.

CONDITIONS IN THE PERIOD OF THE SECOND FIVE YEAR PLAN: In 1933–1939, the working class increased by 7.2 million while the urban population leaped by 15.6 million. Undoubtedly the greater part of this increase in the early years of the Second Five Year Plan still reflected the flow of the peasants into the cities because of forced collectivization. Only nine out of every twenty new urban inhabitants were absorbed in industry in this period. Under Soviet conditions, this drop implied on the one hand the monstrous swelling of bureaucratic ranks – the fleshpots in the center are the Mecca of every functionary in the provinces – and, on the other, the reduced influx of peasants into urban centers where only degradation awaits them. The vast migration of labor acted to spread to the far-flung corners of the Union the news of intolerable conditions in industry. The peasants in increasing numbers preferred to remain on land, not because conditions there had vastly improved, as is the official claim, but because conditions in cities had worsened to such an extent that in recent years a movement has taken place in the opposite direction, i.e., from the cities to the country, especially during spring and summer months when laborers in the collective farms are at a premium.

“It is well-known that in the spring and summer months the Don Basin (Soviet coal producing center) and other basins usually sharply reduced their output because of the seasonal ebb of the labor force.” (Pravda, October 29, 1940.)

Stalin chose the month of June to promulgate his 1940 laws precisely to prevent a section of workers from drifting back to the villages.

The new recruits to the working class in this period (1933-1939) numbered approximately 7.2 million, as against a total working class of 29.5 million, whereas in the preceding period (1929-1933) the new forces comprised 10.1 million out of a total working class of 22.3 million. Most of these 7.2 million newly added workers were peasants and peasant youth. However, the proportion of raw elements had dropped to less than one-fourth as against almost one-half the total labor force at the inception of planned production.

The Soviet Working Class Today

The working class still remains very heterogeneous. But the core of the proletarians and semi-proletarians today far outweighs the more backward strata not only socially but numerically. A profound change has taken place in the course of the last ten years.

The bulk of the 10.1 million peasants who went into industry during the First Five Year Plan have now behind them not less than six, and in many instances, as much as ten years of proletarianization. These vast bodies of men, women and children who were driven from the most backward rural areas into the environment of modern industry – and Stalinism; who then together with others swarmed across the land in search of less intolerable working and living conditions, have passed through a great and terrible experience. They know and hate the regime.

There is another equally striking and important fact about the Soviet working class. It is the youngest proletariat in history not only in point of formation, but that of age itself. Trotsky pointed out that in 1936 there were seven million workers under twenty-three – 3,140,000 in industry; 700,000 in railroads, 700,000 in the building trades. “In the new giant factories,” he added, “about half the workers are young.” The oldest among them are today under twenty-seven.

The trend toward absorbing more and more youth in industry was further accentuated in the next four years. And now, by ukase of October 2, 1940, Stalin ‘has drafted children and adolescents from 14–17 years into industry. The fact that a significant section of the proletariat consists of the youth can tip the scales decisively in determining the fate of the Russian proletariat, and the Soviet Union.

The Kremlin stands in mortal fear of the youth. In April 1936 the Komsomol (Russian YCL) was liquidated as a political body, and the youth forbidden to participate in any manner whatever in political life. Stalin feared lest the Komsomol turn into a rival political party.

Commenting on the political expropriation of the youth, Trotsky wrote:

“In 1894 the Russian autocracy through the lips of the young Czar Nicholas II answered the Zemstvos which were timidly dreaming of participating in political life with the famous words: ‘Meaningless fancies!’ In 1936 the Soviet bureaucracy answered the as yet vague claims of the younger generation with the still ruder cry: ‘Stop your chatter!’ Those words, too, will become historical. The regime of Stalin may pay no less dear for them than the regime headed by Nicholas II.”

In October 1940 the proletarian and peasant youth was expropriated culturally and socially by being driven from Soviet schools and universities to form a labor reserve. The coming months may well bring with them a verification of Trotsky’s prognosis.

All political and social processes in the Soviet Union take place today in the conditions and atmosphere of the second imperialist world holocaust War speeds up all processes in the extreme. War is the supreme test of a regime. In wartime the masses become most sensitive. Days arrive in history, as Marx said, which concentrate in themselves ten, even twenty years. This applies not only to the masses struggling toward consciousness under capitalism but also to the Soviet workers under Stalin. The tiniest flicker of mass upsurge anywhere on the periphery must react with ten-fold force in the white-hot Soviet atmosphere. Stalin is as aware and afraid of this as are Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, et al.

In each new ukase, which surpasses the ferocity of the one before, the Kremlin really voices its alarm. Fear creeps into official pronouncements. In a long article intended as an Aid to Propagandists and Agitators Pravda warns that unless the ukases are fulfilled “the entire cause of completing the building of classless society and the transition to the highest phase of communism may be threatened.” (Pravda, Oct. 14 – My emphasis)

Kalinin expressed the same alarm much more bluntly and crudely:

“One of two things: either we are building Communism or we are only talking about Communism, while we ourselves move toward Communism slowly and, if it is permissible to say so, waddle along, stretching and yawning. But bear in mind that it is very risky to move towards Communism in this way. It is possible to protract too long the transition to Communism in this way. (Pravda, Oct. 30 – My emphasis)

Stalin is obviously introducing an amendment to his theory of “socialism in one country” and its “irrevocable” triumph.

The Russo-Japanese war led to the revolution of 1905. The participation of Czarism in the first world war terminated in October 1917. Stalin fears that this continuity in the origin and development of the Russian revolution may repeat itself in the second world war, for the outbreak of which he bears, no small responsibility.

The “Passivity” of the Masses

The Russian working class amply demonstrated the dynamic powers lodged in it not only under Czarism and in 1917 but in the years that followed. Although composing a small proportion of the population, with its own ranks diluted by 30–40 per cent, by peasant influxes during the war, the Russian working class proved capable of overthrowing the bourgeoisie when the correct program and a capable, loyal leadership were offered them. It is not known just how many proletarian fighters fell on the battlefields of the Civil War; but unquestionably the flower of the class died defending the new fortress of the world proletariat It was this decimated working class that carried the Soviet Union through the terrible years of reconstruction, when the newly born Workers’ Republic literally tottered on the brink of an abyss, when the country’s economic structure was disrupted to an extent unmatched in modern times by the years of imperialist war, civil war, Allied intervention and blockade. Despite Stalin, and against the Stalinist regime, the Soviet working class, carried through on their shoulders the entire burden, first of the NEP, and then of the Plans, attaining incontestable and. staggering successes, the credit for which the Kremlin oligarchy has usurped just as it usurped the conquests of October.. All this was achieved in the most reacti9onary epoch in modern history.

If the Soviet working class remained “passive,” i.e., failed in this period to overthrow Stalinism, it was not owing to the extreme heterogeneity of the class or the inhuman efforts that had to be expended in attaining these world-historic conquests, but only because they received no help from the outside. The leaders of the Second and Third Internationals, strangled one revolutionary movement after another throughout the world, and finally, with the aid of the anarchists, drowned the Spanish revolution in blood – and ushered in the war. Each defeat struck at and was felt most heavily by the Soviet working class.

Misleaders and turncoats always unload their own responsibility, betrayals, and crimes on the “passivity” or “immaturity” of the masses. But in every single case the masses, have given all they could give. Above all, this is true of the Russian masses. For the list of the achievements of the Soviet proletariat is not exhausted by the facts recited above. Another important, if not the most important, conquest must be included: The political struggle, as heroic as any in history and conducted under repressions unprecedented in the labor movement, of its proletarian vanguard; the struggle waged by the Left Opposition from 1923-1929, and then continued in exile; the struggle which led to the founding of the Fourth International, and still goes on today.

The tremendous role played in history by defeated revolutionary movements invariably escapes the notice of Philistines. They see only “victories” and this, long after they have been achieved. The role and importance of the defeated Paris Commune was understood and appraised by Marx and Engels. Lenin and Trotsky understood the significance of the Moscow uprising of the proletariat in 1905. All the Plekhanovs were only able to lament it as a “mistake,” something that should and could have been avoided. Yet the victory of 1917 was made possible only because the lessons of the 1905 defeat were learned, assimilated and applied by the vanguard of the Russian proletariat. Any liberal, any professor, any scribbler can repeat it today as “concrete” truth. Beyond the vision of all professors and their disciples, however, is the vital importance of the “defeated” struggle of the Left Opposition and the struggles of its heir, the Fourth International.

To be sure, the fruition of the “defeated” struggle could not have been realized in a period of reaction and defeats, when every developing movement was crushed in blood by the opponents of Marxism, by pseudo-Marxists and their allies. Nonetheless the “defeat” of the Russian Opposition will have its realization, just as the defeat of 1905 was consummated by the victory of 1917.

In the arsenal of world labor, and of the Soviet workers in particular, the great tradition, the vital lessons and program of this struggle, conducted in its initial stages by the isolated Soviet vanguard under Trotsky’s leadership, constitutes the most powerful force on the road of mankind’s emancipation.

In the period of the first two Five Year Plans, the Soviet workers posted signs in factories: “Hands off Our Wages!” and hung portraits of Leon Trotsky above them. They are now beginning to seek a more eloquent language in which to address the masters in the Kremlin. Stalin’s GPU murdered Trotsky. But Trotsky’s program will cut its way through to the Soviet masses because it is the only key with which the gates of their prison can be unlocked.


1. The last available figure is that issued in 1938, which sets the total for 1937 at 27.8 million. To arrive at an estimate for 1939 I have added to this figure the average annual increase in the labor force in the last few years, namely 1.7 million. Such an estimate in view of the retarded growth of the labor force (this aspect will be dealt with presently) is not very far from the actual one.

Last updated: 4 October 2015