Shock Workers

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Launching of the first Five-Year Plan in 1929 spawned new demands on Soviet worker productivity. A socialist system that offered few incentives to hard work, and was hostile to the sorts of wage differentiation that capitalist bosses used to spur workers, needed new ways to inspire efficient labor. Two campaigns attempted to address the issue in 1929. Shock workers (udarniki), a term originating during the civil war to designate workers performing especially arduous or urgent tasks, reemerged and was applied to all workers and employees who fulfilled obligations over and above their planned quotas. Official statistics indicate that by the end of 1929, 29 percent of all workers in industry were participating; a year later, the proportion was 65 percent. As the number of shock workers increased, the value of the title became debased. Many competitions occurred mainly on paper or were used by enterprise authorities to get around legal prohibitions against mandatory overtime. The party repeatedly denounced “false shock work” (lzheudarnichestvo), but it became endemic to Soviet work practice. Moreover, the brief period of extra physical exertion (known as “storming”) associated with shock work ill suited complex production processes.

From 1929 onwards, shock work was linked invariably with socialist competitions. The thrust of socialist competition was the adoption by workers of targets over and above what was prescribed in their work plans and the issuing of challenges to others in the form of socialist competition agreements. Socialist competition assumed huge proportions after the appearance in Pravda on January 29, 1929 of Lenin’s previously unpublished article, “How to Organize Competition.” Written in December 1917, the article emphasized “the fight against the old habit of regarding the measure of labor … from the point of view of the man in subjection.” In charging party activists with the responsibility to develop the “independent initiative of workers” and avoiding “stereotyped forms and uniformity imposed from above,” the article gave Leninist legitimacy to the ongoing anti-bureaucratic campaign and the purge of trade unionists associated with Mikhail Tomskii. A resolution of the party’s Central Committee in May 1929 placed responsibility for organizing competition with the trade unions. Management was supposed to facilitate and party organs supervise the process. Workers enrolling in brigades that participated in socialist competition and achieved satisfactory results received the title of shock workers. They were lauded on public honor boards, in newspapers and at meetings, and received privileged treatment in dining facilities and the allocation of scarce goods, accommodation, and vacation vouchers.

The rise of the Stakhanovite movement in 1935 reduced the prestige of the shock worker title, and it all but disappeared in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only to resurface again under the guise of shock workers of Communist labor. From about ten million in 1966, the number of such workers increased to 17.9 million in 1971 and 24 million (or 26 percent of all wage and salary workers) by 1975. To the extent that shock work became a regular feature of Soviet industrial and agricultural life in the post-Stalin era, it did so as a function of the responsibility placed on lower-level trade union, Komsomol, and party officials to exercise leadership and record progress along bureaucratically pre-determined lines. Workers seeking to extract favors from these organizations and/or demonstrate their suitability for promotion into their ranks went along with the game.

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