Real wages in the USSR in the 1930s

Donald Filtzer (1986) Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. The formation of modern Soviet production relations, 1928-1941. (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, Inc.) tells us:

Living standards fell sharply, so that by 1940 the real wage of the average urban worker was just over half the 1928 figure.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 7

Western estimates of the fall in the standard of living vary slightly, but all show a catastrophic decline between 1928 and 1932. Solomon Schwarz and Naum Jasny calculate real wages in 1932 at about 50 per cent of their 1928 level. Eugene Zaleski puts the figure lower, at 43 per cent. Yet such quantitative estimates fail to convey the real extent of the destitution. In theory collectivization was supposed to have provided for a substantial rise in real wages, not simply through an improvement in the supply of goods, but through the rationalization of their distribution through the state and co-operative supply system, which by eliminating the private trader and middleperson would in principle provide goods more cheaply‚Ķ By 1930 candid references to the fall in real wages were no longer permitted and the official line was one of unbounded prosperity.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 91

Barber, John, ‘The Composition of the Soviet Working Class, 1928-1941’, unpublished discussion paper, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, 1978.

Barber, John, ‘The Standard of Living of Soviet Industrial Workers, 1928-1941’, unpublished discussion paper, Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Birmingham, December 1980.

Schwarz, Solomon, Labor in the Soviet Union, New York, 1952.

Jasny, Naum, The Soviet 1956 Statistical Handbook: A Commentary, East Lansing, Michigan, 1957.

Zaleski, Eugene, Stalinist Planning for Economic Growth, 1933-1952, London, 1980.

Beginning in 1934 the supply situation began rapidly to improve, although real wages never came near to recovering their levels of 1928 and living standards began once more to decline under the pressure of the military build-up at the end of the decade. In December 1934 bread, flour, and groats were derationed, and rationing was abolished in toto in September 1935.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 94

By 1937 real wages had recovered to about 60 per cent of their level in 1928. For the urban population per capita purchases of goods and services were only 6 per cent lower than in 1928, since families now had more members working and fewer dependents to support. In December 1934 the regime decreed a partial decontrol of rationing, and abolished rationing altogether in September 1935. For the mass of the population the situation nevertheless remained difficult, as accounts in Socialist Herald describe.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 125

With the economic slowdown came a renewed fall in the standard of living. After modest rises in 1938 and 1939, real wages fell by about 18 per cent between 1939 and 1940 – no small drop when we consider that despite the improvements since 1933, real wages in 1937-9 were still only about 60 per cent of what they were in 1928. Although 1940 was not as desperate as the bleak famine years of 1932 and 1933, there was clearly a downward pressure on workers’ consumption.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 127

Forced industrialization and collectivization had brought with them a drastic fall in real wages and the overall standard of living.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 208

Taking the workforce as a whole the unplanned-for growth of money wages could in no way compensate for the fall in real wages caused by inflation and scarcity. But for each individual worker the ability to obtain this or that supplement to her or his basic wage became all important, especially when the overall disorganization of production led to massive and random stoppages that could severely eat into earnings. Here the actions of managers or foremen to deflate output quotas, award payments for fictitious work, or otherwise manipulate the conditions of payment in workers’ favour acted as a counteracting tendency to the general trend of speed-up and declining living standards. The result was partly to nullify the impact of official policy. More durably, however, managerial concessions over wages and norms became part of the basic fabric of worker-manager relations characteristic of the Soviet system.

Filtzer, Soviet workers and Stalinist industrialization. 1986: 209

Filtzer also comments (p.290) on Chapman’s estimates (below).

Chapman gives two different measures of the fall in real wages between 1928 and 1937. One weights the cost-of-living index by the price structure of goods and services prevalent in 1928, the other weights the index by the price structure in 1937. The figures in the text are those calculated by using 1937 weights. Using the 1928-weighted index shows a fall in real wages of only 14 per cent and a rise in urban per capita purchases of nearly a third. The large disparity here arises from the fact that between 1928 and 1937 the prices of foodstuffs and basic consumer items, which made up the overwhelming share of the average household budget, had risen far faster than average prices on the general range of available goods and services. The 1937 weights reflect the disproportionate strain that the higher prices of essentials placed on real wages. Chapman (pp.34-43) considers the 1937 weights more accurate essentially for methodological reasons: price data for 1937 were more comprehensive and the consumer market had stabilized relative to the fluid situation of 1928, with its chronic shortages and multiple prices.

Real Wages in the Soviet Union, 1928-1952, by Janet Chapman – The Review of Economics and Statistics , May, 1954, Vol. 36, No. 2 (May, 1954), pp. 134-156 – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1924665. There are more recent calculations by Robert C Allen which aim to paint a rosier picture, but not convincingly.

A pdf of Filtzer’s book is attached here: https://revolutionbetrayed582896380.files.wordpress.com/2020/10/donald-filtzer-soviet-workers-and-stalinist-industrialization-the-formation-of-modern-soviet-production-relations-1928-1941.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s