Issue 64 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1994 Copyright © International Socialism

The wrong road on Russia

A review of S Clarke, P Fairbrother, M Burawoy and P Krotov, What About the Workers? Workers and the Transition to Capitalism in Russia, (London, 1993) £12.99


The working class of the former USSR has frequently been described as a 'sleeping giant'. It was this working class that was the dynamic force in 1917, but it was this working class that was also destroyed during the civil war as the Russian Revolution remained isolated. Such was the economic and social dislocation of war that in Petrograd, of the 400,000 factory workers who had made the revolution in 1917, only 50,000 to 60,000 were left in 1922--the lowest point of the period.

The subsequent years of New Economic Policy (NEP) in the 1920s saw a recovery in numbers but few of the workers who survived seem to have returned to their jobs of 1917 and perhaps not even to the same cities where they had been so militant. Although there were important protests against the growing degeneration of the revolution, the working class as a whole was unable to stop the emergence of a new ruling class which then tried to drive the Russian economy forward to industrialise in the most rapid way possible in order to compete with its Western rivals. This industrialisation drive produced enormous social dislocation and it led to the development of a huge new working class. One measure of this is the level of urbanisation which rose from approximately 18 percent in 1926 to 33 percent in 1939, 48 percent in 1959 and 66 percent in 1989. Throughout this period the rulers of Russia kept the lid very firmly on working class resistance and smashed any attempts at protest. This repression moderated after the death of Stalin but no real space was allowed for sustained working class organisation.

It was only when the contradictions of perestroika and Gorbachev's attempts at reform from above began to go wrong that the ruling class group faltered and new opportunities arose that promised to allow open class conflict to emerge on a mass scale. In the summer of 1989 this happened with huge miners' strikes that stretched across the coalfields of the USSR from western Siberia to the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Finally, it seemed that the contradictions of crisis and reform would allow working class militancy to grow and the possibility of an independent workers' movement that could be the basis of a genuine left wing opposition that was against both Western capitalism and the Stalinist tradition in Russia. Alas it was not to be. Although struggles continued to erupt in 1990 and 1991 the movement faltered and the USSR, after the failure of the August 1991 coup, disintegrated into a mass of mutually suspicious successor states.

As the drama of events in Russia has unfolded over the past two years little of the struggle of the working class movement has been reported in the Western press. A book, therefore, which boldly asks 'what about the workers?' and sets out to explore the role of 'workers and the transition to Capitalism in Russia' promises to demand a place on every socialist's bookshelf. Regrettably no such endorsement is possible. What About The Workers? is one of the most theoretically inept books to have been published on Russia by those on the left for some years. It is empirically frustrating in the extreme and its political conclusion is mind boggling.

What About the Workers? reports the investigations of Simon Clarke, Peter Fairbrother, Michael Burowoy and Pavel Krotov into working conditions in Russia and the workers' movement based on extensive first hand investigation. The bulk of the book consists of empirical and theoretical chapters by Clarke and Fairbrother although they suggest that their work has been assisted by Krotov, a Russian sociologist and Michael Burowoy, a leading American left wing sociologist. Burowoy and Krotov's contribution, however, is restricted to one reprinted chapter on the work process in the wood industry. This has one enormous merit. Burowoy managed to get a job working for two months in a factory as a machinist and much of the discussion reports his first hand experiences. Unfortunately this is insufficient to compensate for the theoretical weaknesses of the book. Clarke and Fairbrother spent 45 weeks doing field work in Moscow, St Petersburg, the Kuzbass, Komi, Ekaterinberg (Sverdlovsk), Chelyabinsk and Samara, but little of what they write is explicitly informed by their visit.

This is a book about a working class that has been made mute by the Soviet regime for nearly 60 years. After 1989 workers again began to find a voice and the authors appear to have been given an unparalleled opportunity to investigate and report this but in the book there is not one single quotation from a Russian worker. For Clarke and Fairbrother the Russian workers are as mute as the theorists of the old regime made them. What kind of investigation is it that does not allow the authentic voice of any worker through? It cannot be that they have found nothing of interest. For example, we learn that the authors managed to contact Vladimir Klebanov, one of the leaders of the repressed free trade unions at the turn of the 1980s.1 He apparently told them that informal organisations of workers had existed in some plants in the 1950s. But this is all we learn for we are protected by the 'tremendous condescension of the left wing sociologist'.

This is a book about the workers' movement but it provides no systematic idea of scale either in respect of protests or the organisations that are its subject. Individual statistics are quoted but there is no attempt to give us, for example, an idea of the rhythms of the strike movement. Yet some statistics have appeared and, however inadequate they are, one might have imagined that the authors would have made it a priority to get hold of them and analyse them. We might have hoped that they would have organised their material on the size and distribution of free trade unions in a more helpful way.2

This is also an incredibly narrow study. Its interests are essentially the work process. Now this is important but Russian workers have a life outside their workplace and that life also interacts with life inside the workplace. But there is little or nothing of this here either. Most obviously there is no explicit consideration of the issue of nationalism and how the fracturing of the USSR has affected the possibility of building an independent working class movement.

How could a book which asks 'what about the workers' have such a limited vision? The simple answer is that the theory which the authors use--that Soviet Russia was neither capitalist nor socialist but some kind of new society--is inadequate. This is not to say that the theory can explain every deficiency of this book, rather what it has done has been to reinforce the crassness and blind spots of the authors and in such a way as to make them oblivious to what they are doing.

Exceptionalism or confusionism?

There are essentially three possible approaches to analysing the former USSR. The first sees it as some kind of socialism, however degenerate. Since, however, most commentators now agree that the working class had no power in these societies, this view must implicitly define socialism against the working class. While this poses no difficulties for the enemies of socialism, it leaves socialists in a very uncomfortable position and their discomfort is increased by the transition. Since this is pictured as a shift from socialism to capitalism they must effectively defend the old order--whatever their doubts--and so line themselves up alongside those who represent its worst elements.

The second view argues that these societies were class societies based on state capitalism. The working class was exploited and oppressed for the benefit of a ruling class which used a political rhetoric of 'socialism' to try to disguise the true nature of the regime. Now that ruling class is trying to shift more of its power towards the market and private property to maintain its overall grip in a rapidly changing world. Politically this leads to the conclusion that workers in both state and private industry have a common class identity, opposed to the common class identity of their rulers and this identity needs to be articulated and fought for as the basis of a real alternative. It is this view that has long been associated with this journal.

The third view has been described as 'exceptionalism' in the sense that it sees the USSR as neither socialist nor capitalist but some new, exceptional form. This argument also has a long history but in its modern form it has become more popular in the last two decades as socialists have rejected any claims to find any kind of socialism in the USSR but have been unwilling to concede the argument that Soviet society was a form of capitalism. Unfortunately 'exceptionalism' has never had a coherent theoretical basis and its political conclusions have often been ambiguous. Yet it is to this idea that the authors of this book look and in the process their analysis descends from 'exceptionalism' to 'total confusionism'.

Unfair? Well, consider the following: 'The underlying argument of this book is that the Soviet Union was neither state capitalist nor socialist, but that it represented a sui generis form of class rule, whose precise nature remains to defined.3 Indeed so indifferent is the main author, Simon Clarke, to the central theoretical problems of his case that he declares that he intends to leave open the issue of whether this 'sui generis form of class rule' constitutes a 'Soviet mode of production'. More bizarrely still, having defined the issue as the existence of a new form of class rule he also declares that he wishes to leave open the issue of whether there has ever been a ruling class in the Soviet Union despite the fact that 'so many heads have been broken in debate around this question'. Instead what we are offered is a description of the old USSR and the transition in which the terminology is one of class but the analysis stresses the ambiguity of the distribution of power and control. The workers are pictured as being powerless as a class but having considerable workplace power to subvert the orders of those above them.

It does not seem to occur to either Clarke or Fairbrother that these theoretical issues are not abstract ones but crucial to any explanation of the rise and fall of the USSR, and crucial to any consistent explanation of the contradictions of the workplace. This cannot be because of ignorance of the debates, though the book makes no reference to them. In earlier issues of this journal this type of argument was subject to critiques that this author still thinks remain unanswered. But if Clarke and Fairbrother were unaware of these they surely cannot plead ignorance of a devastating critique by John Molyneux of the exceptionalist argument published in the lion's den itself--the journal Critique--the home in the United Kingdom of such theorising.4

Lest they have missed these debates and have not seen the problems as they have worked through their own arguments let us briefly summarise them.

  1. The theory fails to define the subject of investigation. Burowoy in his contribution to this book clearly has in mind a general analysis since he uses the term 'state socialism' but Clarke and Fairbrother implicitly echo Hillel Ticktin's focus on the former USSR without ever confronting the wider issue of whether this analysis is intended to apply beyond the bounds of a single country.

  2. The theory assumes that the analysis of the USSR can be abstracted from the location of that economy in the wider world economy. Clarke and Fairbrother bring the world economy in as an ad hoc factor when it suits them and ignore it when it does not. Indeed at one point Clarke boldly declares that the Soviet 'disaster was not the result of unfortunate and unforseeable blows from the outside, but of the crisis of the world capitalist system of which the Soviet Union had long been an integral part'.5 But there is no analysis of what this might mean either theoretically or historically.

  3. Exceptionalism theorists confuse the issue of whether the USSR was a class society. If they take their theory seriously they must recognise that their analysis denies the existence of a ruling class and--since class is a two sided relationship--they must also deny the existence of a working class. Some do this, explicitly talking of workers rather than a working class. But Clarke et al wish to maintain an air of radicalism and constantly evade the issue of the class nature of Soviet society while using the term working class as a rhetorical category rather than a real one.

  4. The theory offers no explanation of how the degeneration of the revolution led to this new exceptionalist form. Neither does it explain how such a bastardised structure could come into existence within the overall trajectory of historical development.

  5. The theory offers no explanation of the dynamic of development of this exceptionalist structure. The USSR appears as a society lacking a dynamic. This results in a lack of any real historical sense of development and any explanation of that development. Things change but they do not move unless they are pushed by an external force--something which only makes the lack of a theorised link to the world economy even more painful.

  6. In trying to argue that the production process in the old USSR was non-capitalist, the theory tries to identify problems peculiar to the USSR but effectively exaggerates the scale of these problems compared to other difficulties. It fails to see the extent to which problems of internal control of the labour process are common to all forms of capitalism and therefore distinguished in the old USSR more by degree than kind.

It would be possible to go on but enough points have been made to suggest that any serious development of the exceptionalist argument has a formidable agenda to answer. In so far as an account of the working class is concerned the most central issue is that raised by John Molyneux about the nature of class relationships. It is simply not possible to argue that a working class exists if a two sided class relationship does not also exist. You cannot have a working class in a non-class society and an attempt to maintain the contrary can only lead to a discussion that is both theoretically and empirically impoverished. We can see this if we turn to the crucial question of class consciousness and examine the way in which these authors treat the problem.

What about the workers?

The fundamental issue in Russia today is why the working class is not fighting. In the last few years living standards have been slashed on a scale almost unique in peacetime world economic history. At the same time the rulers of Russia are flaunting their wealth in a way that now allows Third World style contrasts to be the day to day experience of large cities in Russia. This would seem to provide at least part of the basis for the biggest mass revolt in history but there is no sign yet of this happening. The Financial Times correspondent in Russia, John Lloyd, suggested in January 1992 that the reformers were 'creating and/or have been bequeathed the classic Marxian pre-conditions for a proletarian revolution. There is a huge working class steadily becoming impoverished in order to increase the rate of profit'. He went on to suggest that it would be an incompetent and irresponsible left wing opposition which could not mobilise some support. A year later he could write that 'the striking thing is how normal everything that is happening in Russia now seems to be. The punishing drop in living standards, the drastic shrinkages in Russian power, the sudden excision from the motherland of Russians living in the former Soviet states--all this has been absorbed and contained'. And now, bereft of an explanation, he returned to the Russian soul and slave mentality: 'the famed and self-advertised virtue of the Russians--their doleful capacity to take punishment and carry on--would appear to be borne out'.6 But this does not mean that the working class can be completely written off. Russian politicians, including Boris Yeltsin, often quote Pushkin's line: 'I fear a Russian revolt without pity or limit' and the government, in the words of Viktor Gerashchenko, the head of the Central Bank, feels itself caught between 'the Scilla of fighting inflation and the Charybdis of social conflict'.7

How can we explain all of this? If we leave aside speculation on the Russian soul and character, it is not difficult to list a number of factors that go some way to explaining why the working class has not resisted more. There is obviously the debilitating effect of the catastrophic fall in living standards which has to some extent sapped the confidence to fight; there is the enormous ideological confusion which has arisen from the way that the old regime captured the language of the left and totally discredited it; there is the weakness of any independent tradition of organisation; there is the way in which the government has deliberately encouraged collusion through policies of the selected appeasement of key groups of workers, a policy that has been reflected in workplaces in the way that managers have tried to incorporate dissent; there are the enormous opportunities for corruption both of mind and pocket in the existing situation and the size of the temptation to allow oneself to be sucked in--especially given the scale of the crisis. Any adequate account will share an emphasis on these and similar factors.

But to construct an analysis it is not sufficient to make a list. The relationship between the different parts and the system must be teased out. To do this we have essentially two choices. The first is to argue that Russian society is built on a fundamental class antagonism but that factors like this are preventing the development of a class conscious movement for political change from below. To this extent, although these factors arise from within the system, and powerful though they are, they are secondary to the main contradiction and in constant tension with it. Moreover because they are secondary the possibility exists that they might be overcome and ways might be found to enable workers to organise in a way which more clearly reflects their class interests.

The second choice is to argue that Russian society is not built on a fundamental class antagonism and the quiescence and confusion of the workers therefore arises directly from the specific nature of the 'mode of production/social formation' (whatever it is) which denies workers the ability to articulate a clear class interest against those above them. This must be the position of those who see the USSR as neither capitalist nor socialist and it is the implicit position of Clarke and Fairbrother although they continually fight shy of openly drawing out this logic. Typical is their argument that in the past 'there was... a high degree of collusion by the workers in their own exploitation; and class conflict was displaced and diffused into individual, and sectional conflicts within the hierarchical structure'.8

But this will not do. If the USSR was a class society then it is possible, as state capitalist theory would argue, to say that 'class conflict was displaced'. If it was not a class society then conflict was not displaced--its diffusion 'into individual and sectional conflicts within the hierarchical structure' is an entirely natural consequence of the fact that class conflict is not the central divide of that society. This then affects the analysis of the transition. If class relationships are unclear it is no surprise that workers have found it hard to articulate a clear class antagonism and to organise on that basis. To the extent that workers come 'to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against their rulers and employers' this lacks the central material basis Marx analysed and can therefore only be a transient phenomena. Class formation--as bourgeois sociologists argue of the west--is but a fleeting moment before it is overwhelmed by other antagonisms and fractures that are at least as important and probably more so. To analyse such a situation in the language of class is therefore to profoundly misunderstand it and it is irresponsible to offer an unrealistic political agenda based on the idea of class. The result, in other words, is complete paralysis if the argument is taken seriously. The old order cannot be defended because it is correctly seen that it was not socialist. Yet the old order cannot be practically attacked--except at the level of rhetoric because there is no central antagonism around which to hang the critique and against which to direct the fire. There is no route that can link the actual struggles of workers and the objective of a genuine socialist alternative.

Yet the new order of 'capitalism' cannot also be supported either, because as socialists we are opposed to that as well. Or can it? Well in a perverse way it can be supported, for with real capitalism will come the emergence of real class antagonism and thus a clear class alternative. This is in effect the conclusion that Clarke and Fairbrother are driven to: 'Privatisation... is only the beginning of a struggle which for the first time since the 1920's can be fought out in the workers own ground, within the enterprise, the "state within the state" which is not just the place of work, but a way of life.'9 In other words we are effectively back to an argument popular in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries--socialism is all very well but first we need capitalism to build the central antagonism which will allow the workers to fight on their own ground as a class polarised against a ruling class.

This is nonsense. Russian workers in both the state and private sectors face common problems of intensified exploitation. It does not help to try to argue that somehow or other struggles in the 'private sector' are more authentic class struggles because commodity relations are clearer.

To resolve these difficulties the Russian ruling class has at some point to assert its authority in both the state and private sectors. But it remains unsure of what to do. Fearing revolt it makes concessions--promises such as those made to the miners, which when faced with growing chaos, it is incapable of meeting. This contradiction cannot last forever. One symptom of this is Zhirinovsky's attempt to fill the vacuum. But it remains possible that if the state pushes harder then it will provoke a resurgence of mass conflict. This can happen without organisation, but without organisation any gains for workers would only be short term and possibly short lived. Sadly, What about the workers? offers no way forward and if its arguments are taken seriously they can only damage the pitifully inadequate small beginnings that already exist. All this at a time when every step forward, no matter how small, is a precious one.


  1. See V Haynes, Workers Against the Gulag (London, 1979).
  2. We should also note that the bibliography not only excludes references to works the authors are criticising but also appears to have missed a number of valuable western European discussions of the recent workers' movement.
  3. S Clarke et al, What About the Workers? Workers and the Transition to Capitalism in Russia (London, 1993), p7.
  4. J Molyneux, 'The Ambiguities of Hillel Ticktin', Critique, no20-21, 1987.
  5. S Clarke et al, op cit, p42.
  6. J Lloyd, 'Year One', London Review of Books, 30 January 1992, pll; 'Moscow Diary', ibid, 7 January 1993.
  7. Quoted in the Guardian, 28 February 1994.
  8. S Clarke et al, op cit, pl9.
  9. Ibid, p241.

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