Socialist competition

Socialist competition. Various measures used in the Soviet Union to increase worker productivity. They included both noneconomic incentives, or appeals to the ‘socialist consciousness’ of the workers, and material incentives or rewards. Their use led to the characterization of socialist competition as ‘the principal form of the socialist organization of labor’ (Joseph Stalin, 1929) or ‘the economic standard of socialism.’ In the beginning of the 1970s, socialist competition was recognized officially as one of the most important methods for building socialism and communism and one of the moving forces behind the growth of labor productivity. It was even given juridical status in 1977, when the new Soviet constitution declared that ‘working collectives develop socialist competition’ (Article 8).

Soviet sources describe the ‘Communist Saturdays’ instituted in 1919 as precursors of socialist competition. Vladimir Lenin, who himself took part in the exercises, ascribed great significance to these Saturdays of ‘voluntary’ work for the state, and in 1920 a special law was passed defining them. They were abandoned after a few years, however, when the New Economic Policy was adopted, and a more market-based economic system was introduced. Although the Communist Saturdays did not involve competition among workers, they were the first of the extraeconomic measures used to increase production and labor discipline.

Real socialist competition was introduced in the workplace in 1926, when the shock-worker movement began. In that movement individuals, groups of workers (the so-called brigades), or whole factories pledged to increase the quantity and quality of production and challenged others to emulate their initiative. One of the first factories to take part in the movement was the Odesa Factory of Industrial Textiles. The movement acquired a mass character after the First Five-Year Plan (1928–33) was approved, and Joseph Stalin’s plan of rapid industrialization was adopted. Shock workers and shock-worker enterprises were strongly favored: they were given better machinery and equipment and more raw materials and resources so that they could meet their announced production goals. Such favorable treatment was especially significant in the 1930s, when many goods were in short supply. The first all-Union congress of shock-worker brigades, held in Moscow in December 1929, appealed to all workers to complete the goals of the First Five-Year Plan in four years. Similar congresses of shock workers on collective farms were held in 1934 and 1935.

The next stage in the development of socialist competition was competition among workers, brigades, and enterprises with respect to increases in production goals. In 1932 the Donets Basin miner N. Izotov became the model for a campaign that stressed not only overfulfillment of plans but also the idea that workers should assist other, less productive, workers in the completion of their jobs, and that shock workers should oversee the work of others. ‘Izotov schools’ were even set up, and Izotovites trained novice workers in their techniques. Socialist competition reached its highest stage in 1935 with the emergence of the Stakhanovite movement. The purpose of that movement was to establish extremely high quotas and standards of production. The campaign was initiated by another Donbas miner, Aleksei Stakhanov, who set a record for coal mining in a single shift by overfulfilling his quota by a factor of 14.5. His accomplishments were publicized by the Soviet propaganda machine, and he was held up as an example to other workers. Within weeks hundreds of other workers and work brigades were following his lead and announcing their attainment of much higher production goals. The movement was especially popular among miners and metalworkers, although it spread to almost all branches of the economy. Many of the Stakhanovites were semiskilled workers. Ukraine’s prominent Stakhanovites included M. Demchenko, a woman in Cherkasy oblast who harvested 523 centners of sugar beets from a single hectare, and P. Kryvonis, a locomotive engineer who raised his average speed on the SlovianskLozova line. Many Stakhanovites became ‘200ers’ or ‘500ers,’ by overfulfilling their production quotas by 200 or 500 percent. Many of the Stakhanovite achievements were spurious: they were usually attained with the help of other workers, better tools and equipment, or reduced job requirements.

Socialist competition was widely used after the Second World War, mostly to rationalize production and improve the use and effectiveness of machinery and equipment. Since the late 1950s the main slogan of the movement was ‘Learn, Work, and Live in a Communist Manner.’ A major innovation was the use of model workers to fight alcoholism and low morale in the workplace, both common problems in Soviet industry.

Formally, socialist competition was defined as a voluntary expression of working-class initiative. In reality, however, it was organized from above: resolutions of Party plenums, conferences, and congresses were often filled with directives to organize and conduct worker competitions. The competitions involved most of the working population (58.1 percent in 1930 and 85 percent in 1957). In 1976 some 87 million people in the USSR and 21 million in the Ukrainian SSR took part in some form of competition. Over the years many different approaches were developed to encourage participation. On the eve of the demise of the USSR, popular programs included various prizes and awards, often financial ones made by the Party, the Communist Youth League (see Communist Youth League of Ukraine), government, or trade unions. Most of the campaigns were organized by the trade unions. Despite all of these efforts, socialist competition was only partially successful. Soviet production in both industry and agriculture continued to lag considerably behind that of the West in both volume and quality of goods. Worker productivity in the USSR was less than half that in the United States. Only a very small number of model workers or record setters benefited from the material incentives provided by socialist competition. In many cases their achievements resulted in higher quotas and goals for other workers, an outcome that often caused animosity among workers.

Besides those main forms of socialist competition there were others. Soviet sources have counted as many as 300 different campaigns. The vast majority of them, however, were short-lived and had little impact. Imposed by bureaucratic orders from above, the competitions often degenerated into mere formalities, deception, and record falsification. For that reason other ways to stimulate worker interest and initiative, such as production conferences, were tried, but those measures too were only partially successful.

Sotsialisticheskoe sorevnovanie: Voprosy teorii i praktiki organizatsii (Moscow 1978)
Siegelbaum, Lewis. Stakhanovism and the Politics of Productivity in the USSR, 1935–41 (Cambridge, Mass 1988)

Fedir Haienko

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 4 (1993).]

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