Soviet Workers’ Clubs, Circa 1924

Posted: February 5, 2019 in Uncategorized

“The only solution for culture that I can conceive of under these [industrial] conditions is to shift its center of gravity away from leisure and place it squarely in the middle of work.”

–C. G., “The Plight of Culture”

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“The Shaping of Soviet Workers’ Leisure: Workers’ Clubs and Palaces of Culture in the 1930s”
Lewis H. Siegelbaum
International Labor and Working-Class History
No. 56, Gendered Labor (Fall, 1999), pp. 78-92

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Comments
  1. Parker Law says:

    The second picture with the theater on the bottom level, a library area on the middle level and a volleyball court on the top reminded me a lot of what businesses are trying to emulate today. CEO’s want their businesses to be places that their employees want to spend time at, so they make sure their buildings include more than just office space. Google is a prime, as well as extreme, example of this. Google employees could basically never leave the office and have everything they could ever need. They have gyms, cafeterias, relaxation rooms, company rental cars, and even washers and dryers. For me, this is definitely a double-edged sword. On one hand, it makes people really want to work for your company and encourages them to stay motivated, which ideally leads to success for the company. However, I think there should be a definite separation between work and home because when those two aspects of life start to collide, it tends to create issues both at home and at the workplace. “Everything in moderation” is a good fit here. I think companies should have offices that are comfortable and promote mental and physical health, but it should still be a workplace and not simply somewhere to go and hang out.

    • I’m glad this post caught your attention. You are quite right to identify the roots of the Apple and Google campuses in Soviet Workers Clubs. As you suggest, the aim of such clubs is indeed to blur the distinction between work and leisure. This is a subject Greenberg addressed in “The Plight of Culture”. There, he claims that from antiquity we have considered leisure to be the best part of life. If not “Adam’s curse” and an outright punishment, labor was seen at least as a necessary evil, the unavoidable precondition to labor. Production methods being what they were for most of human history, it has generally been the case that a majority of persons have had to labor so that a small minority could the enjoy products of their efforts.

      This state of affairs changed fairly drastically during the Reformation, when persons began to see labor as a good thing and leisure as an evil, and developed a corresponding ‘Protestant work ethic’. At this point, for the first time it became thinkable to work not for the sake of eventual leisure – my own or someone else’s – but for the sake of work itself. For the first time it became commendable to work with no end in sight. The Industrial Revolution intensified this brutality by dividing labor, in the interest of increased productivity, so that work became not just physically exhausting, but also mentally stupefying. Greenberg points out that the quality of leisure is generally linked to the quality of labor. The more brutalizing our work, the more our free time will be spent, of a necessity, in low-grade and unrewarding forms of escape. The dangerous conflation of work and leisure you describe is a result of these two causes: the Capitalist division and simplification of labor, and the Protestant felt moral obligation to work as much as possible.

      Greenberg’s thought is that work and rest would not seem inimical to one another if the quality of work was improved. Work should be easier and more satisfying, which would in turn allow leisure time to be more stimulating, productive, and satisfying. A lot will be said and done by certain modern American companies which might seem to accept and implement Greenberg’s recommendations. If must be observed however that their ‘lifestyle’ and ‘living center’ campuses are accessible only to a very small set of executive types working exclusively on computers. Meanwhile, the actual building of computers is outsourced to cheap laborers in Asia who have access to no such luxuries. Further, it also should be observed that Apple and Google execs, despite the modern work methods, continue to feel unrelenting pressure to work seventy- and eighty-hour weeks. That even their executive work is narrow, redundant, and stupefying is borne out by the low-grade forms of leisure they notoriously pursue. If there is today a great concern to keep workplace separate from living space, that is because of the reigning perception that we cannot afford to stop working. The advent of the internet and the laptop only compounds this problems, causing our entire society to go into 24/7 mode.

      However, none of the work mania described above bears much resemblance to Greenberg’s vision of socialized and collective labor. This discrepancy results from the fact that Apple and Google are capitalist corporations. Their production model is grounded in a system of universal competition. No one can afford to slow down or ease up, for fear of being overtaken and destroyed by rival corporations or rival officemates. Meanwhile, the Soviet production model – at least in the 1920s – was grounded on a system of universal cooperation. Workers did not simply labor in factories, but they collectively owned and managed the factories. They did not work against one another in a state of desperate fear of falling behind and perishing, but instead they worked in collaboration with one another, and in service of a common cause.

      At least that how it was in principle. Consequently, while there are superficial similarities to be observed between certain big American tech firms and Soviet Labor Collectives, the underlying differences are real and pronounced.

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