David Mandel (author); Montreal: Black Rose, 1991
THE turbulence taking place in the Commonwealth of Independent States raises many questions. What will happen to the more than 20,000 nuclear weapons that still exist? What type of nationalism will develop in these countries? What type of societies will emerge from the ruins of the USSR?
Perestroika and the Soviet People brings together seven essays by Soviet labor historian David Mandel. Covering January 1989 to June 1991, these essays analyze the attempted reforms in Soviet factories, the condition of women workers, the coalminers' strike of July 1989, the strike wave of March-April 1991, the changing nature of Soviet trade unions, and the political opinions of the working class. The essays cover mostly events in the Russian heartland of the Soviet Union.
The articles show how the working class organized itself independently of the old Communist Party bureaucracies and put serious economic and political pressure on Gorbachev. It portrays its strikes as partially successful in that they obtained certain concessions from Gorbachev, who was forced to keep to the "liberal" path, but they did not seem to result in any solid or secure political or trade union organization.
I found three issues intriguing. First, the working conditions in Soviet industry, particularly for women, bring to mind 19th century sweatshops. Mandel quotes an official statistic that 4.8 million women work in conditions which violate the legal norms of work safety. Night work, forced overtime, and the "double-shift" of housework all add up to a dreary picture pointing to the p0tential of a strong feminist movement.
Second, what is the attitude of Russians toward private property and the market? Will 75 years of Marxist ideology vanish as millions of Russians rush to the shrine of Madison Avenue and Fortune Magazine? Mandel quotes a sociologist of the All-Union Centre for the Study of Public Opinion claiming that Western notions of private ownership-particularly of large industries-have only the support of 25-30% of the population. What does this mean? Will Yeltsin's adoption of the Lee Iacocca road to nirvana meet with public opposition?
Third is the nasty shape of the economy. As one Soviet journalist put it, "the economy is dominated by a lumpen-bourgeois ethic: the desire to increase one's own property at the expense of state property, which is no one's property. This has yielded a unique, historically unprecedented monster-a completely 'mafia'ized economy."
In post-Soviet society, will we see a return to a reactionary-nationalist 1930s East European style regime? Will the traditional industrial proletariat and the ideas of socialism have any influence at all? Mandel does not offer any definitive answers to these questions but his book gives a glimpse of Soviet life and social movements, of which we have seen too little in the mainstream media. U
Alan Silverman is a political scientist and teacher in Toronto.