четверг, 27 января 2011 г.

A PASSIVE WORKING CLASS?

SOURCE. Marlen Insarov, O prichinakh passivnosti proletariata [On the Reasons for the Passivity of the Proletariat], pp. 198-286 in Na smenu marksizmu i anarkhizmu [Beyond Marxism and Anarchism] (Gruppa proletarskikh revolyutsionerov-kollektivistov [Group of Proletarian Revolutionary Collectivists], 2004)

The author, an activist in a left communist (1) organization, surveys the condition of the industrial working class in contemporary Russia and Ukraine and discusses why the general level of its class consciousness, solidarity, and militancy is (from his point of view) so low.

The real wages of Russian workers fell sharply in the 1990s. The drop was comparable to that which occurred in the first phase of Stalinist industrialization (1928-33). In order to survive, most working class families were forced to supplement wages with earnings from work on the side (in the cities) or produce grown on garden plots (in rural and semi-rural areas).

At the same time, the pace of work was accelerated and working conditions in general deteriorated. Work became more dangerous as the industrial injury rate rose. There were relatively few accidents in the early and mid-1990s when factories were more or less at a standstill, but they became much more frequent when production revived after 1998. Thus before perestroika each ton of coal extracted cost the life of one miner; now each ton costs the life of two miners. The victims of labor accidents outnumber casualties of the war in Chechnya by several times: «under capitalism work is more fatal than war.»

Insarov attributes the high accident rate to extremely worn-out equipment and greatly reduced expenditures on labor protection. The stress and tiredness caused by speedup must also account for many accidents. So must alcoholism, which is of course a means of coping with stress. (2)

The author surveys workers’ struggles over the past few years. In various places, workers have engaged in spontaneous actions of protest against nonpayment of wages. Old people too have protested against nonpayment of pensions. In May and June 1998, striking miners in the Kuzbas blocked the trans-Siberian railroad (the «rails war»). In Vyborg and Yasnogorsk, workers held sit-in occupations in attempts to block takeovers of their enterprises.

In addition, there have been many wildcat strikes at the workshop level that received no publicity and often remained unknown even to workers at other workshops in the same factory. The author also describes practices of clandestine resistance. In one factory workshop, for instance, workers on the night shift take turns sleeping on the cloakroom floor while their mates double up for them, minding two machines at once. Although this violates safety regulations, it reduces the harmful health effects of night work.

Nevertheless, the author considers that on the whole Russian workers have remained passive in the face of the massive attacks on their living standards and working conditions in the post-Soviet period. He suggests a range of factors that contribute to this passivity, such as alcoholism and the struggle for individual and family survival. He also points to some pertinent changes in the size and composition of the industrial working class:

* shrinking — In 1990 industrial workers comprised 30 percent of the workforce, in 1998 only 22 percent.

* aging — It is above all the young who have fled the factories, while those who remain belong mainly to the older generation and are resigned to the status quo. Many rebellious youngsters who might have become worker activists have gone into organized crime instead.

* de-skilling — The proportions of highly skilled craftsmen have fallen to very low levels (e.g. 4 percent in Tula province). Most of those remaining are in their fifties or sixties, approaching retirement age, and very few young people are being trained to replace them. Skilled craftsmen have a sense of pride and self-confidence and have always played a central role in the socialist movement.

* de-concentration — The number of giant enterprises employing 5,000 or more fell by two thirds between 1991 and 1995, while the number employing 500 or fewer rose by 20 percent. The dispersion of the working class among a larger number of smaller enterprises makes it harder to organize.

The contemporary Russian working class is highly divided in terms of position and status. In 2000 wages of workers in light industry were only 40 percent of average industrial wages, while wages in the fuel industry were 240 percent of the average — six times higher! (3) Differentiation by branch of industry results in differentiation by region. Workers in big cities, especially the capitals (Moscow and St. Petersburg), live much better than those in «godforsaken villages,» and workers in oil regions (e.g. Tyumen) live much better than those in depressed engineering and textiles centers (e.g. Tula, Ivanovo).

«But even in the big cities there is a sharp division between workers in different categories.» For Moscow, the author distinguishes four such status categories:

* At the top are native Muscovites, who rarely engage in heavy manual labor.

* Next come workers from the satellite towns of Moscow Province, who commute to and from work in Moscow up to four hours a day or even longer.

* Next come migrant workers from other parts of Russia.

* At the bottom are migrant workers from Ukraine, Moldova, Tajikistan, and other post-Soviet states. (4)

However, Insarov locates the underlying causes of workers’ passivity in the cultural realm. He makes a cogent critique of the Marxist thesis that there is a tendency for working class consciousness to mature as capitalism expands and develops. On the contrary: it is the new working class of nascent and peripheral capitalism that is most receptive to anti-capitalist ideas. Still under the influence of ancient traditions of rural collectivism (in Russia the village mir), the first generation of workers perceives capitalism as strange and unnatural. They can see its beginning, so they can imagine its end. This, for example, is the cultural situation that enabled the anarcho-syndicalist workers of early 20th-century Spain to «carry a new world in their hearts.» In contrast, the hereditary working class of mature capitalism knows no other world and so finds it very difficult to imagine a different social order. (5)

This process of forgetting may be impeded to the extent that the memory of older times is passed down from generation to generation, thereby maintaining continuity in working class culture. But periods of severe repression may break this continuity. The ruling regime in the USSR succeeded in imposing just such a cultural rapture, destroying the tradition of workers’ struggle that reached its culmination in 1917 and survived for a few years thereafter. The Russian working class lost its historical memory. That is why workers today fail to understand and respond to socialist propaganda.

The author is quite pessimistic about the prospects of restoring or making up for the loss, although he believes that it is the duty of revolutionaries to try to do so. Education (of the right kind) may help, as may the survival of local community traditions. Both, in his view, were factors in Yasnogorsk.

Come to think of it, this analysis can be applied (mutatis mutandis) to the American working class as well. How many American workers know who the Wobblies were? You don’t know either? That too only goes to prove my point. (6)

NOTES

(1) «Left communism» is a purist tendency in the communist movement that had a substantial following in the period 1918-23 in Germany and Italy as well as Russia. It was condemned by Lenin as an «infantile disease.» Unlike the mainstream communist parties, for example, left communists make no concessions to nationalism. («We are patriots of our class.»)

(2) The author points out that other means of relaxation such as sports facilities and sanatoriums that were available to the whole population in the Soviet period are now accessible only to the wealthy.

(3) The gap existed in the Soviet period too, but was much less marked. In 1990 light industry wages were 80 percent of the average and fuel industry wages 140 percent — less than twice as high.

(4) 5–7 million citizens of Ukraine have gone abroad in search of work, out of a total population of less than 50 million. Migrant workers from Tajikistan number nearly a million, which is a similar proportion of a much smaller population. For more on Tajik migrant workers in Russia, see RAS No. 20 item 8.

(5) I should explain in this connection that Insarov makes no fundamental distinction between private capitalism and the «state capitalism» of the USSR. In both cases the workers are «wage slaves.»

(6) The «Wobblies» were the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a large and militant syndicalist organization that was active mainly in the western states in the early twentieth century. The IWW never recovered from the repression meted out to all Americans who took a stand against World War I. It still exists, though on a smaller scale, and maintains a multilingual website. According to legend, the name «Wobbly» originates in the unsuccessful attempt of a Chinese immigrant worker to pronounce the name of the organization. Asked who he was, he replied: «I wobbly wobbly.»

Link: https://revsoc.org/archives/2206

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