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  • Worker Resistance under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor
  • Barbara Alpern Engel
Worker Resistance under Stalin: Class and Revolution on the Shop Floor. By Jeffrey J. Rossman (Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2005. ix plus 314 pp.).

In the period 1928-32, the height of Stalin's "revolution from above," the Ivano- vo industrial region became the epicenter of worker resistance to the forced-pace industrialization drive. In this exhaustively researched and well-written study of that resistance, Jeffrey Rossman takes issue with the arguments, propounded by recent historians, that "class consciousness" had become unnecessary in Soviet Russia and ideological resistance impossible outside the all-pervasive ideological paradigms established by the regime itself. Marshaling rich and compelling evidence of widespread, collective, and sometimes fierce resistance by workers to the violation of what he calls the "contractual understanding" between themselves [End Page 468] and the communist party, Rossman contends that in the period he studies, class regained valence and gave meaning to resistance, as workers contested the regime's interpretation of October and sought to re-appropriate this seminal event for their own ends. This worker resistance, Rossman argues, challenged the most fundamental assertions of the communist leadership to rule on workers' behalf.

The First Five Year plan hit the textile workers of Ivanovo particularly hard, as a result of the state's decision to squeeze surplus from the textile industry in order to fund "socialist construction" in heavy industry. What followed was ever-more pitiless intensification of labor, shrinking wage packets, shortages of raw materials and the breakdown of aging machinery, at the very time that the assault on the peasantry brought shortfalls of bread, the staple of working class life and symbol of worker well-being, and cut-backs in rations raised the genuine threat of starvation. Drawing on sources from a wide range of archives, Rossman documents the mounting outrage over these violations of the implicit contract between workers and the state, outrage that was expressed even by current and former worker members of the Communist party. Anger was stoked by older workers, veterans whose activism stretched back to October, and who interpreted the revolution as promising an end to workers' suffering. Outrage boiled over into action. Manifested in vociferous protests against state policy and "anti-Bolshevik agitation", work stoppages and threats to strike, worker resistance was initially held in check by fear of lay-offs during a time of unemployment, and by cleavages in the workforce based on craft, social status ("peasants" vs. "workers"), and gender, which undermined the solidarity necessary to resist effectively. The breaking point came in April 1932, when, unemployment having ended and their protests having fallen on deaf ears, workers were pushed past the breaking point by falling wages and the relentless pace of production, and by hunger, which hit women workers, the majority of the workforce, especially hard, responsible as most women were for provisioning their families. Overcoming their differences, workers erupted in strikes in the town of Teikovo and in a mass uprising in the town of Vichuga. These protests succeeded in extracting some concessions from the regime. Workers' living standards became a higher priority for the party and collective farm markets were legalized, while the regime abandoned the "fantastic planning" that had wreaked the hardship that prompted revolt. The days of worker solidarity and ability to resist effectively were shortlived, however. Soon enough, experienced workers retired, the labor force re-fragmented, life improved, and, not least, the security forces gained experience at suppressing dissent before it could become widespread.

This is a very important book, which deserves to be read not only by students of Soviet history, but also by those who study the working class. Rossman's exhaustive research leaves no doubt that workers vociferously protested those elements of the "revolution from above" that undermined their shop floor traditions and physical well-being, and that in so doing many deployed the language of class and sought to reappropriate the meanings of October. Yet it seems to me that in pursuit of his thesis concerning the saliency to resistance of identities forged at the point of production, and workers' independent understanding of the...


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pp. 468-470
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