Corporate workplace burn-out culture is no match for Socialist emulation

On 29 June 2021 the Conversation website published an essay entitled “How a Soviet miner from the 1930s helped create today’s intense corporate workplace culture”, co-authored by Bogdan Costea and Peter Watt, two academics from Lancaster University. In the essay, the authors strive to draw supposed parallels between the  destructive “corporate workplace culture” of present-day capitalism and the Stakhanov movement of the 1930s. Whilst their depiction of the dehumanising character of social relations under capitalism is spot-on, the attempt to paint social relations in the USSR with the same brush is a grotesque calumny which vanishes in a puff of air when exposed to the historical record.

In a speech at the first all-union conference of the Stakhanov movement delivered on 17 November 1935, a speech to which the essayists themselves make reference, Stalin explains that the chief significance of the movement is that it expresses “a new wave of Socialist emulation”. Socialist emulation, contrary to the cut-throat competition between workers endemic in capitalism, is all about workers collaborating together in the common class interest. Socialist emulation didn’t begin with Stakhanov in the 30s; the “subbotnik” movement was celebrated by Lenin in the 20s, when workers would voluntarily come to work on their rest day, prepared to give up their precious time to speed up the building of socialism. The Stakhanov movement was inspired by the same spirit of serving the people as the “subbotnik” movement. But thanks to the efforts of their predecessors, this new wave of emulation was able to equip itself with a much higher level of productive technique. In the case of the miner Stakhanov who gave his name to the movement, the breakthrough to a higher productivity was his adoption of a powerful new coal drill. And associated with the improved material base of production arose a new readiness on the part of workers to challenge themselves and challenge older methods of work which no longer corresponded to the needs of socialist production.

Contrary to the imputations of the essayists, there is a world of difference between the socialist emulation of the Stakhanovites and the dog-eat-dog competition obtaining under capitalism. They talk about an “elite” minority of Stakhanovite workers enjoying better wages and perks, with the imputation that they are feathering their own nests. The authors here are appealing to fake “left” petty bourgeois “egalitarian” fixations to tarnish the memory of these true heroes of labour. But nobody became a Stakhanovite to get rich, and only the ignorant will find fault with socialism for paying workers according to their work.

The authors make fun of the Bolshevik claims about socialism spontaneously bringing to the fore Soviet men and women of a new type, patronisingly describing Stakhanov as a hapless “poster boy” for a fiendish Bolshevik scheme to turn the proletariat into workaholics. Petty bourgeois contempt for the working class blinds these academics to the very idea that the working class makes revolutionary history and in so doing transforms itself.

Listen to how Stalin describes the Stakhanovite workers. “Look at our comrades, the Stakhanovites, more closely. What type of people are they? They are mostly young or middle-aged working men and women, people with culture and technical knowledge, who show examples of precision and accuracy in work, who are able to appreciate the time factor in work and who have learnt to count not only the minutes, but also the seconds. The majority of them have taken the technical minimum courses and are continuing their technical education. They are free of the conservatism and stagnation of certain engineers, technicians and economic executives, they are marching boldly forward, smashing the antiquated technical standards and creating new and higher standards; they are introducing amendments into the designed capacities and economic plans drawn up by the leaders of our industry; they often supplement and correct what the engineers and technicians have to say, they often teach them and impel them forward, for they are people who have completely mastered the technique of their job and who are able to squeeze out of technique the maximum that can be squeezed out of it.”

To read this and still adhere to the notion that the Stakhanovite movement was about an irrational and fanatical denial of scientific limits, about encouraging people to burn themselves out in the blind pursuit of promotion, is perverse in the extreme.

Particularly weird is the claim that, “as an elite, Stakhanovites themselves had to be subjected to a limitation: how many top performers could really be accommodated before the very idea collapsed into normality? So quotas were engineered in a way which we might recognise today: by the forced distribution or “stack ranking” of all employees according to their performance. After all, how many high-performers can there be at any one time?”

Let Stalin answer this self-deluding bile. “Today the Stakhanovites are still few in number, but who can doubt that tomorrow there will be l0 times more of them? Is it not clear that the Stakhanovites are innovators in our industry, that the Stakhanov movement represents the future of our industry, that it contains the seed of the future rise in the cultural and technical level of the working class, that it opens to us the path by which alone can be achieved those high indices of productivity of labour which are essential for the transition from socialism to communism and for the elimination of the antithesis between mental labour and physical labour?”

The simplest answer to the academic carpers is to point out the huge difference between what was happening in the USSR and in the West in the 30s. The capitalist world was on the rack of continuing economic crisis, with mass unemployment, soup kitchens and the growth of fascism. Alone in the world, the Soviet Union continued to advance steadily in both industry and agriculture, with full employment and rising cultural horizons. As Stalin told the Seventeenth Congress of the CPSU (B) in 1934: “From the point of view of the internal situation in the U.S.S.R. the period under review presents a picture of ever increasing progress, both in the sphere of the national economy and in the sphere of culture.

“This progress has not been merely a simple quantitative accumulation of strength. This progress is remarkable in that it has introduced fundamental changes into the structure of the U.S.S.R., and has radically changed the face of the country.

“During this period, the U.S.S.R. has become radically transformed and has cast off the aspect of backwardness and mediaevalism. From an agrarian country it has become an industrial country. From a country of small individual agriculture it has become a country of collective, large-scale mechanized agriculture. From an ignorant, illiterate and uncultured country it has become — or rather it is becoming — a literate and cultured country covered by a vast network of higher, secondary and elementary schools functioning in the languages of the nationalities of the U.S.S.R.

“New industries have been created: the production of machine tools, automobiles, tractors, chemicals, motors, aircraft, harvester combines, powerful turbines and generators, high-grade steel, ferro-alloys, synthetic rubber, nitrates, artificial fibre, etc., etc. (Prolonged applause.)

“During this period thousands of new, fully up-to-date industrial plants have been built and put into operation. Giants like the Dnieprostroi, Magnitostroi, Kuznetskstroi, Chelyabstroi, Bobriki, Uralmashstroi and Krammashstroi have been built. Thousands of old plants have been reconstructed and provided with modern technical equipment. New plants have been built, and industrial centres created, in the national republics and in the border regions of the U.S.S.R.: in Byelorussia, in the Ukraine, in the North Caucasus, in Transcaucasia, in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan, in Buryat-Mongolia, in Tataria, in Bashkiria, in the Urals, in Eastern and Western Siberia, in the Far East, etc.

“More than 200,000 collective farms and 5,000 state farms have been organized, with new district centres and industrial centres serving them.

“New large towns, with large populations, have sprung up in what were almost uninhabited places. The old towns and industrial centres have grown enormously.

“The foundations have been laid for the Urals-Kuznetsk Combine, which unites the coking coal of Kuznetsk with the iron ore of the Urals. Thus, we may consider that the dream of a new metallurgical base in the East has become a reality.

“The foundations for a powerful new oil base have been laid in areas of the western and southern slopes of the Urals range — in the Urals region, Bashkiria and Kazakhstan.

“It is obvious that the huge capital investments of the state in all branches of the national economy, amounting in the period under review to over 60,000 million rubles, have not been spent in vain, and are already beginning to bear fruit.

“As a result of these achievements the national income of the U.S.S.R. has increased from 29,000 million rubles in 1929 to 50,000 million in 1933; whereas during the same period there has been an enormous decline in the national income of all the capitalist countries without exception.

“Naturally, all these achievements and all this progress were bound to lead — and actually have led — to the further consolidation of the internal situation in the U.S.S.R.

“How was it possible for these colossal changes to take place in a matter of three or four years on the territory of a vast state with a backward technique and a backward culture? Was it not a miracle? It would have been a miracle if this development had taken place on the basis of capitalism and individual small farming. But it cannot be described as a miracle if we bear in mind that this development took place on the basis of expanding socialist construction.

“Naturally, this enormous progress could take place only on the basis of the successful building of socialism; on the basis of the socially organized work of scores of millions of peoples; on the basis of the advantages which the socialist system of economy has over the capitalist and individual peasant system.”

Averting their gaze from the historical record, our essayists simply conclude: “The Soviet economy was not performing well”! There are none so blind as those that will not see.

Such “left” sounding academics as these play an important role in recycling anti-Soviet rubbish with a “left wing” badge of approval. They can feel free to be as rude as they like about “corporate workplace culture”, just so long as they remember to add a big dollop of tar to the honey.