Prof Rempel lecture: a new urban society?

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A New Urban Society?

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


The Russian lower classes of the cities and countryside experienced profound changes in their ways of life after 1917. But it is necessary to remember that the past fifty years have not been a single uninterrupted period of growth and development. Seven or eight of the fifty years were taken up by armed hostilities which resulted in severe setback and widespread destruction, unparalleled in any other belligerent country. Another twelve or thirteen years were spent on replacing the losses.

The actual periods of growth cover the years from 1928 to 1941 and from 1950 onwards, about thirty years in all. And in these years an unusually high proportion of soviet resources, about one quarter of the national income on the average, was absorbed in the arms races that preceded and followed the Second World War. If one could calculate the advance in ideal units of truly peaceful years, one would conclude that the Soviet Union achieved its progress within twenty or, at the most, twenty-five years. This has to be kept in mind when one tries to assess the performance.

But, of course, present Soviet society is the product of the turmoil of this half- century so that in its development gain and loss, construction and destruction, have been inseparable; and the combination of productive effort, unproductive work, and waste has affected both the material life and the spiritual climate of the USSR. The first and most striking feature of the transformed scene is the massive urbanization of the USSR. Since the revolution the town population has grown by over 100 million people. Here again a corrective in the time scale is needed.

The decade after 1917 was marked by a depopulation of the cities and a slow reverse movement. The effect of the Second World War was the same, at least in European Russia. The periods of intensive urbanization were between the years 1930 and 1940 and between 1950 and 1965. About 800 big and medium- sized towns and over 2000 small urban settlements were built. In 1926 there were only 26 million town dwellers.

In 1966 their number was about 125 million. In the last fifteen years alone the urban population has increased by 50 to 60 million people, that is by as much as the entire population of the British Isles. Within the lifetime of a generation the percentage of the town dwellers in the total population has risen from 15 to 55 per cent; and it is fast climbing up to 60 per cent. In the United States--to take the previous record in this field--it took over 160 years for the urban population to increase by 100 million people; or, if the more relevant percentile comparison is made, it took a full century, from 1850 to 1950, for the proportion of the town dwellers to rise from 15 to 70 per cent.

Throughout those hundred years the phenomenal growth of the American cities and towns was stimulated and facilitated by mass immigration, influx of foreign capital and shill, and immunity from foreign invasion and wartime destruction, not to speak of the inducements of climate. Soviet urbanization, in tempo and scale, is without parallel in history. Such a change in social structure, even if it had taken place in more favorable circumstances, would have created huge and baffling problems in housing, settlement, health, and education and Soviet circumstances were as if designed to intensity and magnify beyond measure the turmoil and the shocks.

Only a small proportion of the expansion was due to natural growth or to the migration of townspeople. The mass of the new town dwellers were peasants, shifted from the villages, year after year, and directed to industrial labor. Like the old advanced nations of the West, the Soviet Onion found the main reserve of industrial manpower in the peasantry. In the early states the growth of capitalist enterprise in the West was often accompanied by the forcible expropriation of farmers--in Britain by the .'enclosures'-- and by draconian labor legislation.

Later the West relied in the main on the spontaneous work of the labor market, with its laws of supply and demand, to bring the required manpower to industry. This euphemism means that in the course of many decades, if not of centuries, rural overpopulation, and some- times famine, threw great masses of redundant hands onto the labor market. In the soviet Union the State secured the supply of labor by means of planning and direction. Its dominant economic position was the decisive factor; without it, it would hardly have been possible to carry out so gigantic a transformation within so short a time.

The transfer of the rural population began in earnest in the early 1930's, and it was closely connected with the collectivization of farming, which enabled the government's agencies to lay hands on the surplus of manpower on the farms and to move it to industry. The beginnings of the process were extremely difficult and involved the use of much force and violence. The habits of settled industrial life, regulated by the factory siren, which had in other countries been inculcated into the workers, from generation to generation, by economic necessity and legislation, were lacking in Russia.

The peasants had been accustomed to work in their fields according to the rhythm of Russia's severe nature, to toil from sunrise to sunset in the summer and to drowse on the tops of their stoves most of the winter. They had now to be forced and conditioned into an entirely new routine of work. They resisted, worked sluggishly, broke or damaged tools, and shifted restlessly from factory to factory and from mine to mine. The government imposed discipline by means of harsh labor codes, threats of deportation, and actual deportation to forced labor camps.

Lack of housing and acute shortages of consumer goods, due in large measure to deliberate acts of an anti-consumptionist policy--the government was bent on obtaining the maximum output of producer goods and munitions--aggravated the hardships and the turbulence. It was common in the cities, even quite recently, for several families to share a single room and a kitchen; and in the industrial settlements, masses of workers were herded in barracks for many years. crime was rampant.

At the same time, however, many millions of men and women received primary or even secondary education, were trained in industrial skills, and settled down to the new way of life. As time went on, social friction and conflicts engendered by the upheaval lessened. since the Second World War the feats of Soviet industry and arms have appeared to justify retrospectively even the violence, the suffering, the blood, and the tears. But it could be said, of course, that without the violence, the blood, and the tears, the great work of construction could have been done far more efficient- 1y and with healthier social, political, and moral after- effects. ;Whatever the truth of the matter, the transformation of the social structure continues; and continues without such forcible stimulation.

Year after year the urban population is expanding on the same scale as before; and the process, though planned and regulated, obeys its own rhythm. In the 1930's the government had to drag a sullen mass of peasants into the towns; in this last decade or so it has been con- fronted by a spontaneous rush of people from the country to towns; and it has had to exert itself and make rural life a 1i page 6 missing extraordinary secrecy. The social and cultural stratification of the working class is sometimes even more important than the economic one.

The prodigious growth of the working class has resulted in many social and cultural discrepancies and incongruities, reflecting the successive phases of industrialization and their overlapping. Each phase brought into being a different layer of the working class and produced significant cleavages. The bulk of the working class is strongly marked by its peasant origins. There are only very few working-class families who have been settled in town since before the revolution and have any sort of industrial tradition and memories of pre-revolutionary class struggle.

In effect, the oldest layer of workers is the one which formed itself during the reconstruction period of the 1920's. Its adaptation to he rhythm of industrial life was relatively easy--these workers came to the factory of their own accord and were not yet subjected to strict regimentation. Their children are the most settled and the most distinctly urban element of the industrial population. From their ranks came the managerial elements and the labor aristocracy of the 1930's and 1940's. Those who remained in ranks were the last Soviet workers to engage heavily, under the New Economic Policy, in trade union activities, even in strikes, and to enjoy a certain freedom of political expression. The contrast between this and the next layer is extremely sharp.

Twenty-odd million peasants were shifted to the towns during the 1930's. Their adaptation was painful and jerky. For along time they remained uprooted villagers, town dwellers against their will, desperate, anarchic, and helpless. They were broken to the habits of factory work and kept under control by ruthless drill and discipline. It was hey who gave the Soviet towns the gray, miserable, semi-barbarous look that so often astonished foreign visitors. They brought into industry the peasants, crude individualism. Official policy played on it, prodding the industrial recruits to compete with one another for bonuses, premiums, and multiple piece rates. Worker was thus turned against worker at the factory bench; and pretexts of ''socialist competition'' were used to prevent the formation and manifestation of any class solidarity.

The terror of the 1930's left an indelible imprint on the men of this category. Most of them, now in their fifties, or sixties, are probably--through no fault of their own--the most backward element among Soviet workers--uneducated, acquisitive, servile. Only in its second generation could this layer of the working class live down the initial shocks of urbanization. This all too sketchy description gives us only a general idea of the extraordinary social and cultural heterogeneity of the soviet working class'

The process of transplantation and expansion was too rapid and stormy to allow for the mutual assimilation of the diverse layers, the formation of a common outlook, and the growth of class solidarity. Yet as the working class grows more educated, homogeneous, and self-confident, its aspirations are likely to focus on demands for greater freedom of expression and workers, genuine participation in control over industry. And if this happens the workers may re-enter the political stage as an independent factor, ready to challenge the bureaucracy, and ready to resume the struggle for emancipation in which they scored so stupendous a victory in 1917, but which for so long they have not been able to follow up.

The obverse side of the expansion of the working class is the shrinkage of the peasantry. Forty years ago rural small holders made up more than three-quarters of the nation; at present the collectivized farmers constitute only one quarter. How desperately the peasants resisted this trend, what furious violence was let loose against them, how they were forced to contribute to the sinews of industrialization, and how resentfully and sluggishly they have tilled the land under the collectivist dispensation--all this is now common knowledge.

But as Herbert Butterfield has said: ''It is the tendency of contemporaries to estimate the revolution too exclusively by its atrocities, while posterity always seems to err through its inability to take these into account or vividly appreciated them.'' The Russian peasantry has had a tragic fate. Under the ancient regime the Russian countryside was periodically swept by famine, as china's countryside was and as India's still is. In the intervals between the famines, uncounted millions of peasants and peasant children died of malnutrition and disease, as they still do in so many underdeveloped countries.

The old system was hardly less cruel towards the peasantry than Stalin's government, only its cruelty appeared to be part of the natural order of things, which even the moralist's sensitive conscience is inclined to take for granted. This cannot excuse or mitigate the crimes of Stalinist policy; but it may put the problem into proper perspective. Those who argue that all would have been well if only the peasant had been left alone, the idealizers of the old rural way of life and of the peasantry individualism, are purveying an idyll which is a figment of their imagination. The old primitive small holding was, in any case, too archaic to survive into the epoch of industrialization. It has not survived either.

In England or the United States and even in France, its classical homeland, we have witnessed a dramatic shrinkage of the peasantry in recent years. In Russia the small holding was a formidable obstacle to the nation's progress; it was unable to provide food for the growing urban population; it could not even feed the children of the over- populated countryside.

The only reasonable alternative to forcible collectivization lay in some form of collectivization or cooperation based on the consent of the peasantry. Just how realistic this alternative was for the USSR no one can now say with any certainty. What is certain is that forcible collectivization has left a legacy of agricultural in- efficiency and antagonism between town and country which the Soviet onion has not yet lived down. These calamities have been aggravated by yet another blow the peasantry has suffered, a blow surpassing a11 the atrocities of the collectivization.

Most of the 20 million men that the Soviet Union lost on the battlefields of the Second World War were peasants. So huge was the gap ;in rural manpower that during the late 1940s and in the 1950s in most villages only women, children, cripples, and old men were seen working in the fields. This accounted in some measure for the stagnant condition of farming, and for much else besides; for dreadful strains on family relations, sexual life, and rural education; and for more than the normal amount of apathy and inertia in the countryside.

The peasantry's weight in the nation's social and political life has, in consequence of all these events, steeply declined. The condition of farming remains a matter of grave concern, for it affects the standard of living and the morale of the urban population. A poor harvest is still a critical event, politically; and a succession of bad harvests contributed to Kbrushchev's downfall in 1964. Nor has the peasantry been truly integrated into the new industrial structure of society.

Much of the old individualistic farming, of the pettiest and most archaic kind, is still going on behind the facade of the kolhoz. Within a stone's throw of automated computer-run concerns there are still shabby and Oriental bazaars crowded with rural traders. Yet the time when the Bolsheviks were afraid that the peasantry might be the agent of a capitalist restoration has long passed. True, there are rich kolhozes and poor one; and here and there a crafty muzhik manages to by-pass all rules and regulations and to rent land, employ hired labor surreptitiously, and make a lot of money.

However, these survivals of primitive capitalism were hardly more than a marginal phenomenon. If the pre- sent population trend--the migration from country to town-- continues, the peasantry will go on shrinking; and there will probably be a massive shift from the collectively owned to the State-owned farms. Eventually, farming may be expected to be "Americanized" and to employ only a small fraction of the nation's manpower.

Meanwhile, even though the peasantry is dwindling, the muzhik tradition still looms very large in Russian life, in custom and manners, in language; literature, and the arts. Although a majority of Russians are already living in town, most Russian novels, perhaps four out of five, still take village-life as their theme and the muzhik as their chief character. Even in his exit he casts a long melancholy shadow on the new Russia.

This is a reprint of an article by
Professor Gerhard Rempel, who was Professor of History at Western New England College, Springfield, Massachusetts. The lecture is provided here as it would seem to be no longer available online.


Related casahistoria sites on this topic:

  Background to Revolution
  1917 Revolutions
  Lenin's Russia
  Stalin's Russia 1927-39   
Stalin: Economics & Terror, 1927-41



casahistoria is recommended by:
BBC Radio 4 History Channel 4 History
BBC radio,
Channel 4 TV, UK Birmingham GRID for Learning, UK UK joint university database Argentina's national paper
SBC Education
Blue Ribbon HOT site, USA
SovLit, Harvard Univ, USA


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