Soviet Work Attitudes and Politics, 1953-91: A Preliminary Historical Sociology

By Pereira, N. G. O. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 1999 | Go to article overview

Soviet Work Attitudes and Politics, 1953-91: A Preliminary Historical Sociology


Pereira, N. G. O., The Australian Journal of Politics and History


The main question investigated here is the extent to which Russian workers' changing attitudes toward their labour contributed to the systemic political crisis of the Soviet regime during the latter part of the 1980s. The related issue of the workers' understanding of what has been called the "social contract" between themselves and government is also explored. The goal is to assess the relationship between their political allegiance and historical Soviet practices that guaranteed rudimentary welfare and job security, irrespective of work performance.

The question to be addressed here concerns the extent to which Soviet workers' attitudes toward their own labour may have contributed to the systemic crisis of the Soviet regime under M. S. Gorbachev and, ultimately, to its final collapse at the end of 1991. Before attempting such a survey, however, it is useful to draw on some historical sociology as background.

In the years following World War II, starting under N. S. Khrushchev (1953-64) and especially evident during the early part of the subsequent Brezhnev administration (1964-82), many basic needs of Soviet workers were being satisfied -- through significant improvement in the overall standard of living.(1) The best Western estimates are that the annual average rate of growth in real wages was about 2.4 per cent during the 1960s and early 1970s. This trend, however, did not continue, much less accelerate as promised by Soviet officials. Instead, the economy stagnated and went into reverse, culminating in the series of dilemmas that faced Gorbachev upon his ascension in 1985.(2)

The history of peasant values regarding labour performance is relevant to the question of workers' attitudes because the distinction between rural and urban mindsets was less clear-cut in the Soviet Union than in other European countries. With the exception of Moscow and to a lesser degree Leningrad, Soviet cities retained the atmosphere of large villages. Peasants not only brought cultural baggage and values from their villages, but also held onto them and passed them on.(3) Even in today's Moscow, superstitions and folk medicine mix freely with Western technology, consumer products, and glittering fashions.

Conventional wisdom on the nature of Russian peasant culture has stressed its radical streak of negative social egalitarianism -- the desire to keep one's neighbour from prospering was more important than personal success.(4) In Igor Kon's words, this has produced a "dictatorship of envy ... [that] blocked the individual's efforts to do better and rise above the average".(5) Virtually any form of social differentiation has always elicited grave misgivings in the Russian peasant mind.(6) This trait -- which has been described as masochistic(7) -- gives new meaning to Marx's theory of the immiseration of the proletariat. In any case, Russian peasants always regarded work as something imposed from above and outside -- the chief source of their pain and suffering -- and viewed any means as justified for escaping or alleviating the burden.(8)

The Soviet system implicitly recognised and condoned such peasant attitudes by guaranteeing rudimentary welfare and job security irrespective of work performance in return for total political loyalty as well as acceptance of very modest living conditions.(9) Thus Western Sovietologists have posited an implicit social contract that worked so long as both sides abided by its terms and continued to do their part.(10) If that meant the sacrifice of quality, efficiency, accountability, and eventually any personal satisfaction with work, no one objected very loudly.(11) Few, however, anticipated just how bad things would get both for the overall economy and for the narrower interests of the workers themselves. In the long term it seems fair to conclude that nothing was "more destructive of working-class professionalism than [this] leveling of wages and the narrowing of differentials, regardless of skill and output".

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