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September 26, 2006

Brezhnev's Soviet Union: A true, working-class paradise? A British trade unionist's dream? Christie Davies investigates

Posted by Christie Davies

George Galloway may be right about one thing, argues Christie Davies - under Brezhnev the Soviet Union may have been a paradise for workers. They had high money wages, slack work discipline and unlimited vodka. It was a British trade unionist's dream.

Sadly - argues Christie Davies - the working class, with its belief in equality, solidarity and collectivism proved to be a historically backward class unable to adapt to a flexible, modern, innovative economy that requires inequality and competition. There was a contradiction between working class relations of production and modern, knowledge based forces of production. Thus the Soviet empire collapsed.

The former Soviet Union was a truly socialist society run by and for the working class. Only liberals, kulaks, rootless cosmopolitans, petty bourgeois capitalists, deviationists and wreckers deny this. They were the ones who rejoiced and sneered when it fell. True socialists such as George Galloway said:

If you are asking did I support the Soviet Union, yes I did. Yes, I did support the Soviet Union, and I think the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.
That is why the working people of East London whose socialist consciousness remains high voted for his Respect Party.

I would not, for one moment, wish to deny the faults of the former Soviet Union - the lack of any freedom of speech or religion, the total control of economic life by the state, the utter disregard for the environment, the crushing of the cultivator, murder slavery and torture for opponents and suspected opponents and the brutal imperial suppression of subordinate peoples from the DDR to Mongolia, from Estonia to Chechnya in the Soviet colonial empire. But none of this mattered for the Russian working class. For the intellectuals, peasants and Jews life was unpleasant, often exceedingly unpleasant. But not for members of the working class, who neither in their economic lives nor in their ideas had any truck with individualism.

Life for women in the Soviet Union was hard - gross exploitation, exclusion from power, stuck with poorly paying service jobs, bad housing, driven to repeated abortions for fear of the burden of an extra child. But for the backbone of the working class, an essentially masculine class of unskilled male manual workers in heavy industry, the Soviet Union provided a life superior to anything in the capitalist world.

The Soviet paradise, the time when life was happier and jollier for the Soviet working class, lasted from 1956 to 1986. The joyful time began in 1956 with the abolition of the 1940 labour laws that denied workers the right to leave one job and seek another. In theory the workers had owned the factories but in practice the factories owned the workers; they were serfs. The same labour laws enforced strict labour discipline. A worker who was more than twenty minutes late for work was liable to be prosecuted in the criminal courts and a second conviction could mean being deported to a labour camp.

Life had been just as bad in 1928-40, the time of a Marxist-capitalism when Marx's imagined model of capitalism had been put into practice in the way the Soviet economy was organised. The Soviet economy was based on the rapid accumulation of fixed capital while the workers were paid just enough to keep the labour force in being. No consumer goods were produced, only capital goods so the ratio of fixed capital to variable capital rose. There could though be no crisis of over-production, because there was no production for the market, so the workers could be kept on subsistence wages indefinitely and the rate of exploitation maximised. The Soviet Union was a Kapital place.

The real sources of capitalism's success, namely innovation and entrepreneurship, were not employed because Marx had failed to understand them. There were no entrepreneurs, only wooden planners. There was no innovation except perhaps in armaments. The Soviet Union never contributed a single radically new invention or method of production to the world. Growth was achieved only by squeezing "surplus value" out of a starveling, suffering work force. The Party leaders lived in pig-luxury. Everyone else lived in grotesque poverty.

It all began to change in 1956 when the workers were allowed to change their jobs. Within a year, half of the entire labour force had changed their jobs. In later years a third did so every year. In a society where 90% of those of working age were at work there was a chronic labour shortage. This gave the unskilled workers even more leverage than they had in strike and trade union ridden Britain. Money wages rose as managers tried to attract workers from one plant to another. Skilled workers could not move as easily and so wage differentials fell. The wages of the unskilled rose fastest and by Brezhnev's time everyone was paid much the same, except of course for the super-paid party elite.

Khrushchev tried to encourage economic reform and differentials for the skilled and those with science and engineering qualifications but Brezhnev feared and hated reforms that might undermine the hegemony of the party of the workers and hand power to intellectuals who thought for themselves.

Under Brezhnev the standard of living of the intellectuals and the scientists was squeezed and their status undermined. It was bad for the economy but very popular with the unskilled workers who loathed the intelligentsia and their pretensions. When Brezhnev reduced intellectual freedom the workers supported him. They saw freedom of speech as merely freedom to prattle on the part of intellectuals. Every time a writer or a scientist was put on trial for anti-Soviet communication, the workers rejoiced. They felt nothing but schadenfreude as their betters were punished. How dare they criticise the workers' state.

Equally they revelled in Brezhnev's imperial conquests and advances in Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam and Afghanistan and in his crushing of the Poles and the Czechs. The Russian worker had nothing to be proud of in terms of personal achievement but he could feel proud of being a member of the Marxist race, the tramp of whose soldiers' boots was shaking the world. A distant victory over some lesser people and a parade of missiles in Moscow more than compensated for living in one squalid room. Lousy but loyal - that was the Soviet worker.

Not only were money wages rising but the production of goods for domestic consumption such as clothing and household appliances did not keep pace with the higher wages. Investment was still mainly in heavy industry and armaments. It was good news for the male workers in heavy industry since it meant that there was nothing for their women-folk to spend money on or for their children to desire. The rise in wages could all go on vodka. Between the 1920s and the 1980s vodka consumption per head rose six-fold. The workers drank six times as much in Brezhnev's day as in 1927.

Better still, labour discipline in industry collapsed. The workers neither feared Stalin-style terror nor unemployment. They did as they pleased, knowing that even if they were sacked for being drunk at work they could easily find another job. The few Soviet workers who moved to the United States in search of a high standard of living complained bitterly that in America they had to work. In the Soviet Union you merely had to turn up to work.

Vodka, idleness and the total supremacy of men over women is the very essence of a working class paradise and only in the Soviet Union was it ever fully realised. In England its attainment had been frustrated by the pervasive individualism and then between 1860 and 1925 by embourgeoisement - the growth of temperance and respectability, improvements in housing conditions and the increasing availability of goods for the home, all of which led to an emphasis on family life not male solidarity. The workers stopped getting drunk. A horrid alliance between the middle classes and the workers' own womenfolk destroyed the possibility of a truly proletarian way of life. Only in the Soviet Union was the world of Andy Capp made reality.

It proved not to be viable. Drunkenness and poor discipline at work meant that the quality of what was produced was very poor and productivity low. High levels of investment in heavy industry no longer worked, for the rate of return on capital was falling; ironically exactly as Marx had predicted. It was impossible to innovate at a time when the capitalist countries were racing ahead in computers, in bio-technology, in pharmaceuticals and in precision weaponry. In the Soviet Union there was an irresolvable contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production - there could be no burst of innovation while the working classes were in charge through their very own party. The working class is a historically backward class - that is its tragedy. Progress is only possible in a market economy run by competing entrepreneurial capitalists and it proceeds by creative destruction, by eliminating the static patterns of production to which the working classes cling. Brezhnev's working class paradise was doomed.

Gorbachev saw this and tried to initiate social and economic reforms. He tried to improve discipline at work and to reduce violence in the working class family by restricting access to vodka. It was an intensely unpopular policy and the workers built their own stills to produce samogen (rot-gut vodka) based on Cuban sugar. Vodka sales had been the main source of the state's income under Brezhnev, a way of taxing the idle workers' excessive wages. When the state lost this income, its finances were undermined. Gorbachev's attempt to create a proper labour market with perceptible unemployment was equally unpopular. Yeltsin's attempt to move quickly to a market economy failed dismally because the Russian workers could not adapt - they were trapped by the assumptions, the outlook, the mores of the working class which are opposed to and incompatible with change and commerce. The workers were expelled from their paradise and it can never be regained. Socialism is dead.

Let us, though, not forget Leonid Brezhnev, who in his time upheld socialism and made paradise possible. He had been a worker himself and had little formal education and he loved and identified with the proles. They in turn loved him. He was always automatically referred to as dear Leonid Ilich using his first name and patronymic together in that distinctive and affectionate Russian way.

The intellectuals told endless jokes about Brezhnev's intellectual limitations but the workers could identify with him because they also shared his lack of capacity for much thought:

Brezhnev visited the Soviet colonies in Central Asia.
A crowd greeted him shouting, "salaam aleikum!"
Brezhnev had been well coached. "Aleikum salaam!", he replied.
Then a wretched dissident called out "Gulag Archipelago!"
"Archipelago Gulag!", Brezhnev replied.

Brezhnev went to America. Reagan asked him how Sakharov was faring
Brezhnev replied, "Sakharov, who is he?"
On his return Andropov met Brezhnev at the airport and shook him by the hand exclaiming, "You certainly gave that Reagan a good one. How did you think of it?"
Brezhnev replied: "Reagan? Who is he?"

The phone rang in the Kremlin. Brezhnev answered it: "Dear Leonid Ilich speaking .."

Brezhnev comes to work not wearing his medals.
Someone tactfully asks "Where are your decorations, Comrade Brezhnev?" pointing at his empty coat.
Brezhnev looks down puzzled, "Aah, I've left them on my pyjamas again!".

These intellectuals' jokes are quite different from the workers' jokes, which were sincerely appreciative of all the Soviet Union had done for them:
Nixon visited Brezhnev in the Soviet Union and was taken to see one of its most famous factories. Brezhnev had forgotten to warn the factory Nixon was coming and when they arrived, they found the workers idling around, smoking and drinking vodka. Brezhnev was upset that Nixon should see such a scene and burst into tears.
Nixon comforted him saying, "Console yourself , Leonid. The ruling class in the United States don't do any work either".

A Nigerian, a Frenchman and a Russian were arguing as to which one's wife had the best arse.
"Mine", said the Nigerian, "It is the biggest one anyone has ever seen".
"Size isn't everything", retorted the Frenchman, "my wife has the shapeliest arse and it wiggles so gracefully".
"Listen", said the Russian, "when I leave for work, I always give my wife's arse a good slap and yet it is still vibrating when I come home from work …but that is because we have the shortest working day in the world!"

Brezhnev's public appearances were always greeted with enthusiasm and spontaneous applause, as is inevitably recorded in the official accounts of that time. He would join in the workers' celebrations and their drinking. Even in his old age he would caper with them, while holding onto his zimmer frame. Ah dear Leonid. Ilich! How much the workers loved him. How he is missed.

Most of all Brezhnev liked to mix on terms of equality with humble working people who had been awarded the title of Stakhanovite and elevated above their fellows. Their breasts were richly decorated with heavy medals just like Brezhnev himself. At one time Stakhanovites had been shock workers who assisted in the intensification of the exploitation of their fellow workers by working harder and forcing up the tempo of work.

Under Brezhnev, provided they were obedient to the Communist Party, they were chosen almost at random. The intellectuals sneered and made fun of these ordinary loyal workers and of their closeness to the beloved Leonid Ilich, particularly in Estonia where they have a nasty sense of humour.

Official anti-Semitism was also popular. It gave the most menial of workers someone to hate, someone to blame, someone to despise. You might be scum but you could feel superior to the Jews. Your vilest traditional prejudices were endorsed and encouraged by your rulers. The executions of Jews for economic crimes with their Jewish identity deliberately stressed in the newspapers both explained the deficiencies of your society and confirmed your virtue as a simple toiler against these commercial-minded rootless cosmopolitans who wielded neither hammer nor sickle.

Just as their grandparents had cheered Vyshinsky’s demands for the death sentence against those convicted of political plotting, so too Brezhnev's workers could enjoy the downfall of the Jewish traders who were undermining socialism and the rule of the working class. It was the triumph of working class solidarity over Jewish individualism, of working class xenophobia over cosmopolitan humanism, of plebeian bigotry over bourgeois rationality. The Soviet Union was truly a workers' state with a working-class culture.

Everyone knows the ingenious jokes that were invented by Soviet Jews in the time of Brezhnev:

A telephone rings in a communal apartment:
"Can I talk to Moishe , please?"
"There's no-one of that name here"
"Then, can I speak to Misha, please?"
"MOISHE, it's for you!"

The headmaster came into a classroom in a Moscow school and announced: "A delegation from Syria is coming to look at the school tomorrow - Finkelshtein,
Shapiro and Ivanov by your mother's surname should not attend."

A visitor to Odessa could not find a phonebook. He was told: "They had to be confiscated. They were used to list all the names of the Zionist spies and saboteurs in Odessa. Then to hide the fact they added in the names of all the other people in alphabetical order."

But the workers too had their jokes about their little triumphs in dealing with the Jewish intellectuals. They are not as sophisticated but have their own layers of meaning. The loyal working class could hold its own when it came to jokes:
A worker became a political instructor in his area. After his first day the local party leader asked him how it had gone. "Fine, but that Zhid, Khaimovich asked a provocative anti-Soviet question. He asked: 'Can you tell us please how many republics there are in the Soviet Union?'"
"What did you answer?"
"It wasn't easy but I managed to get out of it. I told the Jew bastard to go stuff himself."
The workers knew that Brezhnev had freed them from terror and authority, from the threat of a market economy and from the discipline of work. He had provided affirmative action for the proletariat, so that just as in Britain they could get places in higher education without ability or qualifications, and obtain meaningless diplomas that allowed them to rise to senior positions in the CPSU, the workers' party. By contrast the over-representation of intellectuals' children in education was steadily reduced. The Blair-style specialist schools for talented mathematicians and scientists set up under Khruschev era were abolished. But of course any kind of study is anathema to workers' children as we can see from our own inner-cities and most preferred unskilled labour and booze, Brezhnev provided them with not just one but two opiates of the people - Leninism and vodka. Alcoholism was the intermediate state between socialism and communism, a brief working class paradise between tyranny and chaos.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain about the rise of working class culture in the UK and The Mirth of Nations about Jewish and Soviet humour.


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You can read George Galloway buttering up the Egyptians in Al-Ahram Weekly online. He writes:

Millions of us told them what would happen if they seized on the events of five years ago to launch what the Pentagon now calls the "long war". Four days after the attacks in New York and Washington I spoke in a sitting of the recalled British parliament. I warned that if the US and its allies mishandled the response, they would create a thousand, ten thousand Bin Ladens. Five years on, is that not what's hapened?

He should admit that, because of the person he is known to be, his warning was counterproductive, and can only have acted as a stimulus to the Bush-Blair Coalition.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at September 27, 2006 07:11 PM
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