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Reviewed by:
  • Republic of Labor: Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918–1930
  • William B. Husband
Republic of Labor: Russian Printers and Soviet Socialism, 1918–1930. By Diane P. Koenker ( Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2005. xii plus 343 pp.).

If the past isn't what it used to be, as wags have sometimes suggested, this is nowhere more true than in the history of the Russian working class. What was a dominant focus of Soviet historiography has reduced significantly in volume since the fall of Communism, even as Russian scholars have produced some notable recent studies. In the West, analytical categories other than class have become important vehicles for illuminating the lives of Russian workers. Scholars such as Stephen Kotkin and David L. Hoffmann, whose careers began after the Cold War, have situated the early Soviet and Stalinist experience within a pan-European process of state interventionism rooted in the Enlightenment. Focusing on culture and comprehensive understandings of civilization, they have provided novel insights into the lives of Soviet citizens of multiple strata, including but not limited to workers. In a different vein, veteran practitioners of Soviet history such as Sheila Fitzpatrick, and the historian of Europe William [End Page 795] Reddy, have found class simply inadequate as an analytical tool. Fitzpatrick has argued that the applications of class in Soviet political discourse have corrupted it as a scholarly category, a view to which the present reviewer subscribes, and she has suggested that Soviet ascriptive uses of Marxist class categories possibly inhibited class formation during the Soviet 1920s and 1930s. Diane P. Koenker forcefully disagrees. Her Republic of Labor argues that class was a historically rooted source of identity for Russian printers and, as such, must stand at the center of any understanding of the construction of a socialist working class culture in the USSR. In Koenker's view, what socialism meant to printers during the early Soviet period is indecipherable without taking into full account the language of class that dominated political discourse.

Republic of Labor is impressive by any standard. As Koenker presents matters, the Russian experiment in Communism took place in an environment shaped both by material reality and ideological aspirations. Printers, whose union initially resisted single party Communist rule, viewed themselves as a labor and moral vanguard. Their self-identification was above all male, but also skilled and conscious. Such workers therefore deeply resented their loss of status and material position in the post-revolutionary economy of scarcity that valued physical goods over the ability to produce the printed word, the more so in light of the importance of printed materials in fomenting the revolution. The changing face of trade unionism in a socialist state exacerbated the situation, and opinion divided over whether support of maintaining production or of workers' interests should take precedence. This conflict deepened as the perception of a functional blending of union with management grew, and as unemployment struck printers especially hard during the 1920s those with no jobs to lose became outspoken critics. But printers looked to the revolutionary state as a source of solutions as well as problems. The establishment of a central authority for the industry as an antidote to incompetent factory committees and dishonest officials held broad appeal among printers. And even as opportunities for direct dissent disappeared, workers found ways to express their feelings both at work and outside. Inertia, slowdowns, and other traditional mechanisms greeted unpopular directives at the point of production, while in workers' lives the promotion of Soviet culture foundered on issues that ranged from preferences for drinking and dancing above more "proletarian" pursuits, avoidance of workers' clubs as dens of youthful "hooligans," and non-attendance at factory meetings. In the end, Koenker argues, socialism for printers entailed both rational centralization and the right to control their working lives.

Although an impressive work of scholarship, this book is not for everyone. Koenker writes not for the uninitiated, but an audience already engaged with her issues. This—in combination with a propensity for statements sometimes more clever than communicative ("It is important to separate identity-based behavior from the language of identity," p. 91)—makes it unlikely that those who lack a pre-existing...


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