Stalin’s Peasants, by Sheila Fitzpatrick (Chapter 2, Part 2 of 2)

Ha! Get it?

When you’re learning about the USSR in school it’s a lot different from when you’re reading about it in a book. I know that seems fairly obvious but sometimes it just hits you that schools skimp out on the smaller details…and sometimes for good reason.

There was actually time when I questioned to one extent or another whether Stalin really was as bad as my younger years in school made him out to be. I mean, I never doubted he was an authoritarian leader who irreparably harmed many and did tremendous damage to his own country and people. But there were certain things I wasn’t totally certain on.

One of my big questions was: Did Stalin know it was as bad as it actually was?

After all, there are legitimate knowledge problems going on in a centralized organization like the USSR and that legitimately could’ve impeded Stalin’s access to pertinent information. Information, for example, about how the peasants were actually doing as opposed to how he thought they were doing.

And to some extent, Fitzpatrick backs up the claim to some extent. In point of fact, the process of Soviet officials often involved a lot of coercion (implied, threatened or acted on) if officials told the higher ups what they didn’t want to hear. This level of information disruption seems likely to have caused some amount of misinformation to get into the hands of Stalin over the course of time.

But the bottom line is this: It doesn’t matter.

Stalin, as a leader of the USSR had a responsibility to protect the people and preserve their good fortunes. Instead of doing this he increased dekulakization and did not consider it an “excess” despite its side-effects which he did consider excesses. And when push came to shove peasants were not allowed to exit the collectively run state farms despite Stalin’s official “disagreements” with the way that collectivization had been imposed on the peasants. When the peasants took this as their cue to get out of the collective farms they were often met with fierce reprisal from collectivizers.

Not only this but peasants also had also dug their own grave in some situations by slaughtering their own livestock. This had been a popular way to protest the collectivization effort but now it would make it harder for peasants to resist collectivization and returning to being independent farmers more difficult as well.

Some peasants would even tell Soviet officials in a sort of dark-humored despair that they wouldn’t need their livestock anymore given that the state would now take care of them. After all it would give them tractors, right?

In addition, the mir (the association of peasants that helped conflicts between the Soviet powers and the local communist administrations) had collapsed and the amount of land that could be re-allocated wasn’t clear. And when the livestock wasn’t slaughtered by the peasants themselves they were often taken and gone forever by soviet officials.

As usual, this produced a struggle between state power and peasant resistance.

Again, resistance, even in face of a famine, persisted in being peaceful and passive for the most part. But they typically remained high levels of passive resistance. One of the earliest examples Fitzgerald gives us is refusing to sow for the collective farms. Peasants often did this even if it meant they would go hungry and continued to resign to “production apathy” and “production nihilism” as a leader of the Serbian parry organization called it (p. 71)

(Side-note: I’m definitely saving the terms “production apathy” and “production nihilism” for future essays)

.Women peasants in particular could tend to protest without receiving much repression, particularly elderly women. Benevolent sexism has its benefits and the women (and their husbands to be sure) took full advantage of this. Some being as daring as breaking up collectivization meetings all on their own. Others were shields for male peasants because they knew that the Soviet officials or collectivizers would not harm them or were far less likely to.

Attacks on individual collectivizers was frequent. Male peasants tended to act alone but women, when they did attack, typically attacked in groups. From what Fitzgerald is describing (p. 66) it doesn’t seem like it was most often straight up murder but more of an intimidation tactic against collectivizers.

In addition legal appeals, petitions and even letters to Stalin himself were also tried as passive signs of resistance to the efforts of collectivization. With many peasants writing in to compare collectivization to a “second serfdom” (p. 68). Later in the chapter Fitzgerald notes that, at least under the tsar, there was a weak facade of giving aid to the peasants.

The situation became so bad that many peasants hoped for war in some capacity. One peasant wrote that he hoped for “the massacre of communists when Soviet power falls” due to the inevitable war in their mind. Unfortunately for the peasants, it only seemed so inevitable because Soviet newspapers kept up a steady stream of fear-mongering about outside and inside forces undermining Soviet power, leading to war.

The peasants also hoped for some sort of rescue. Or that particularly hard statements from the Pope on the repression of religion in the USSR meant that he would save them. There were even rumors among the peasants of American workers coming in and saving them. Suffice it to say, none of these things happened.

When the famine of 1932-33 happened, peasants were quick to blame the Soviet state. And while they were certainly not wrong to do so Fitzpatrick is quick to outline that the process was a mess for both peasants and officials in terms of procedure. Peasants would try to give as little as possible to Soviet officials and Soviet officials would try as hard as they could to extract as much grain from the peasants as possible.

As I wrote on Facebook, this is a classic boss-worker relationship in a capitalist firm:

Peasants saw compulsory grain procurement as damage and tried to find ways to route around it as best as possible. This included slow-downs, protests, write-ins, letters of complaints and in some minority cases even violence (though this was not the norm).

Thus, peasants tried to give as little as possible.

Meanwhile Soviet Power saw compulsory grain procurement as a way to increase the legibility of the peasantry and improve their “backwardness” (here’s the classism I’ve commented on earlier from Soviet officials). And any peasants who resisted or refused would be repressed. Sometimes through violence, other times through intimidation or shows of force, etc.

Thus, Soviet power tried to *take* as much as possible.

Besides the issues of knowledge problems, economic calculation and legibility there’s also this basic and foundational hierarchical relation that reminds me very much of how a boss and a worker in a given capitalist firm tends to work.

So, pending terms, I think Stalin was a pretty good capitalist.

In addition to this very problematic dynamic there were issues of constant negotiation, renegotiation and haggling between officials. How much could the peasants really afford to give away? Are they telling the truth about how hard it is to procure grain? It was hard to tell because peasants would frequently underestimate crops and exaggerate local difficulties (p. 70).

But at the same time officials knew this and knowing in this case certainly wasn’t half the battle, it wasn’t even close.

And to make matters worse the “inexorable logic” of using difficult local conditions and whatever other excuses officials could find were then in turn used by the officials themselves. As much as possible they would communicate these same difficulties to the people who were higher up on the chain than they were while brushing it off from those below them. So as I mentioned earlier, there were legitimate disruptions to the upward flow of information due to the policies and processes put in place and the incentive structures therein.

The five-year plan only aided in the officials making unrealistic goals or incentivizing them to do so, Fitzpatrick points out.

And while 1930 of collectivization was “surprisingly successful” (p. 72) it fell from 33% procurement to 27% the following year. And eventually it became a situation where the 10-15% advance giving of grain was the only thing that collective farm members got from the state. This only deepened and worsened the relations between the state and peasants.

In response peasants began “stealing” grain procurements back from the state and to themselves. They would also “steal” collective farm property such as tools for better sowing abilities. Or, I suppose, better abilities to defend themselves from collectivizes. Sometimes this was done out of hunger and other times it was simply done out of anger and done for the sake of protest. I put “steal” in quotation marks because as an anarchist I don’t consider the USSr’s property claims in these situations to have any legitimacy.

Stalin, naturally, didn’t take kindly to this.

On August 7th, 1932, Stalin proclaimed the state’s grain “sacred and untouchable” (p. 73) and individuals who were found to be stealing were sentenced to death. And not only that but after their death, their possessions would be taken from them and given back to the state, presumably. But remarkably (or perhaps not, given how little peasants had to lose by now) they continued to steal grain from the Soviet state.

The Soviet state made a final push against the peasants, proclaiming that if the peasants will now sow and will only steal instead then the state will just have to take the reserves of grain as well. Peasants that refuse to sow will have nothing to sow with. This and many many other factors eventually led to a famine situation that, somehow Soviet officials ignored.

Not only did Soviet officials ignore the famine but they also claimed they had eliminated begging from the streets. Anyone left who begged was claimed to be acting in the name of “kulak propaganda” (paraphrasing) and was considered to either be a kulak sympathizer or some sort of anti-Soviet. Stalin claimed this in addition to the stealing and slow-downs summarized “a quiet war against Soviet power” (p. 75).

And while Stalin was obviously engaging in more fear-mongering he wasn’t totally wrong either. It was certainly true that many peasants at this point hated the Soviet state and most likely distrusted or disliked Stalin as well. It would be hard to fathom many reasons why peasants would feel this way for most of us.

For the peasants, Stalin not sending aid in the time of famine was the final straw, many felt the state had broken their social contract with them.

This likely had something to do with the fact that, for those who could remember, at least the tsars made some sort of pretense to give aid to the peasants, however small. As I mentioned before, the Soviets not doing this more or less sealed their fate within the real of peasant public opinion.

Repression to these actions, public opinions and various other things happened swiftly and severely, as one might expect from Stalin at this point. By May of 1933 800,000 people had been confined in prisons before Stalin started passing out secret instructions to other leads to put the brakes on repression.

One of the biggest ways that prisons came into play was the further metamorphosis (or decay) of the word “kulak” which, at this point, had devolved into “political dissident”. Collective farms were forced to internally purge “kulaks” who were causing trouble for the local communist cadre. Many members did not want to do this but as usual, Stalin got his way.

Eventually, with the secret instructions passed deportations, arrests and imprisonments abated (though never totally ended) and Stalin called for releases of many lesser offenders and the moving of many “kulaks” to other areas so that over-crowding in their prisons could be better managed.

With the realization that Stalin’s regime in essence had many state-capitalist firm like relations with the peasant, the parallels between being anti-work seem even more obvious to me. Of course, it’s by no means a neat comparison. But given the parallels of control, legibility and social censure under the Soviet state, it seems likely to be that slow-downs, verbal protests and so forth as “high-leveled passive resistance” have retained their importance in anti-work struggles.

Whether it’s for fighting against an entire regime, or an asshole boss.

Scale matters of course. I don’t mean to compare Stalin to your average middle-management worker of today. But to note that the sort of dynamic Stalin had over the peasants isn’t a matter of foundational values but rather size, scope and power.

I guess what I’m saying is, there’s a little bit of Stalin in every boss.

And a lot of every boss in Stalin.

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In the next couple days I’ll be back to talk about some more anti-work things in the news.

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