Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 5)

Different sort of peasants but still peasants.

Here’s a chapter that looks at the work structure of the collective farms and how peasants resisted that sort of work.

So there’s a bit more terms of anti-work to discuss here, let’s get into it!

Early on in this chapter, Fitzpatrick mentions the use of ironic language on the part of peasants as Soviets tried to shift the uses of certain words to make themselves look better. Deception and exaggeration were some of the main tools used by the USSR officials to hide the fact that peasants were in near serf-like conditions.

And on that topic there were some similarities to the serfdom that peasants once went through before the Bolsheviks and communists came to power as I mentioned in the last chapter review.

A big part of this was the fact that collective farm workers were often paid little to no money or paid the state in their labor. There were still some differences in terms of organization and the peasants did sometimes receive payment of modest kinds but as Fitzpatrick notes that collective farm work at its worst it was “close enough” (p. 128) to serfdom.

These conditions led the peasants to be demoralized and often use such familiar tactics like slow downs, working to rule and what the USSR officials called “dependent psychology” (p. 128). In other words, the peasants would feebly do their work unless the bosses explicitly instructed them to do better. Or they may not work at all if the foreman wasn’t around because they simply needed the foreman to do their work correctly.

These are all fantastic methods of anti-work resistance that have continued throughout the present day. But of course, the peasants only did this because they hated their conditions at the collective farms. When they were on their private plots (should they have any of their own) or were at home (as many women opted to do) they were working on their own projects.

Some peasants resisted in more market orientated ways.

For example they practiced illegal trading and selling of certain sorts of property the USSR claimed license to. Such acts of resistance reflected only one of the ways in which different peasants had different ideas of The Good Life.

Other ways may include peasants who wanted their own subsistence farm as they may have had before Stalinization. And to do this they might try to allocate as much land to their private plots without officials knowing. This way they can grow their own food off of their private plots and work without working for the collective farms.

These acts of resistance were not only well-noted by Soviet officials but they were also one of the biggest debates within the officials themselves. How much of the land should the peasants be able to have for themselves?

After horrendous ad hoc practice in the early 1930s the conclusion came that peasants couldn’t have private land or horses but could keep cows, pigs, chickens and a private plot. All of these things were, naturally, disposable and adjustable according to the state’s needs.

Other ideas of the good life included the more market based idea of selling off surplus in the market, trading these goods and so forth between themselves and other peasants. While still others perceived the state as having some sort of obligation to them with regards to providing them services. For example, they demanded for things like a guaranteed minimum wage, an 8 hour work day and other mandated benefits from the state.

Of course, why they thought a state that was so horribly mistreating them would care, I’m not sure.

Here are some particulars on that mistreatment

  1. Less than 10% of the collective farm household income came from the collective farm members
  2. Even by 1937 wages outside the collective farm measured up to wages within it
  3. The tax payments were increased by over 500% (from 405 million to 2,197 million)
  4. They were forced to pay “voluntary war bonds” during WW2
  5. Rapid inflation was occurring
  6. The peasants were obligated to give certain food from their “private” plots, especially meat and dairy
  7. Peasants were constantly micromanaged and supervised (which led to “dependent psychology”)

The obligations imposed from the state on the peasants were particularly brutal given that most of the meat, dairy and eggs came from the peasants own plots. The collective farms were mainly good at providing the peasants with grain and specifically cereal as a staple. As such, peasants often had to compensate by eating more potatoes.

And thanks to their roles as central planners, even when officials didn’t want to actually punish peasants they were often causing unforeseen consequences on a wide scale. For example, officials often had to incur harsh methods of supervision or punishment on peasants who had too much land which was widely complained about. Peasants were also supposed to go out on the road once or twice in a given year but were hardly ever paid for this road work.

All of these things coalesced into many conflicts between peasants and officials.

As Fitzpatrick states, “…it was against the nature of Soviet officials to use common sense…” (p. 133)

Peasants sometimes took advantage of such truths and tried to get around legal requirements.

For example, they would sometimes act as if their houses were individually separate but still act as a whole unit as they did before. This way they could get multiple state-granted benefits but still have the self-directed and collaborative advantages of working amongst themselves.

Even with these things coming into play though, stratification was quick to occur among the different work organizations. The sort of “vulgar egalitarianism” of dividing pay based on household occupancy instead of “laborday” (more on this later) didn’t last long under communist rule.

Instead a class of white, blue and working class and lumpen individuals eventually became the norm.

White-collar workers tended to be chairmen, officials of different offices, business managers and other heads of organizations. They were often credited for days they may not have even worked, thus giving them much more income than blue or working class workers. In addition they didn’t have to work in the field as many other workers had to.

Blue-collar workers were typically machinists who had a great ability to negotiate their payments due to the high demand for their services. This group had a high turnover due to the fact that much of it was constituted by young men who wanted to get into the urban industry via their skills.

Finally there were the lumpen who had no skills or currency outside of the farm. They were the peasants who would most often resist against Stalinization. Albeit, again, these forms of resistance were usually quite passive and almost never got into a full-fledged strike. When Fitzpatrick mentions one example of where the peasants threatened to go on strike she was able to track down the frightened response of concerned officials begging the peasants to reconsider.

The entire system of collective farm was organized around a “laborday” notion and a foreman. Laborday was a piecemeal system based around payment via time worked and the skill that was involved. As such, the payments based on such a system fluctuated wildly throughout the USSR and even among regions.

The foreman who attempted to get this all organized was chosen by the local board and not by the peasants themselves. And similar to serfdom the pay was sometimes non-existent and the foreman had near total authority over peasants.

Peasants once again resisted in their passive ways of slowing down work, either due to a poor yield from a harvest or because they felt demotivated by the work they were engaging with. And as sparse as alternative forms of work was, the men would try to take outside work at times and women often opted to stay home as mentioned before.

Demands for better were usually deemed “anti-soviet” on principle and injunctions from the top-down to, for example, correcting the use of “discretionary spending” on the part of chairmen’s was usually ignored.

It’s telling though that what wasn’t ignored was the way peasants resisted the types of work that they had to deal with under Stalinization. When those groups of peasants went on strike, Fitzpatrick makes it quite clear that the prevailing authorities were not pleased. Likewise were they displeased with the way peasants would often be so dependent on the brigade leaders for direction and support. But as previously noted this was often another way to resist work.

None of this is to say that such forms of peasant resistance were ubiquitous. Particularly in the example of the explicit strike or threat thereof was a very rare display by peasants and was certainly not the norm according to Fitzpatrick.

Still, it’s heartening to see that it doesn’t matter if you’re workers now or under a communist dictatorship.

There’s power in an anti-work union!


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